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The new ruling class

If the polls are to be believed, the Conservative Party is heading for government in 2010, ending 13 years in the political wilderness. So who are the men, and women (yes, there are one or two), jostling for power around Prime Minister Cameron?

David Cameron, 43

Leader of the Conservative Party
Education Eton College. Oxford University
Wealth £3.2m*
Expected to inherit million-pound legacies from both sides of his family, David Cameron comes from a long line of stockbrokers. A direct descendant of King William IV, he is the fifth cousin twice removed of Queen Elizabeth II, and reportedly got his first job in the Conservative Research Department after one of the Queen's equerries intervened on his behalf. A former member of Oxford's notorious Bullingdon Club, Cameron - who said that the large expenses claimed on his constituency home were an "inadvertent mistake" - was described by Norman Lamont as a "brilliant Old Etonian with a taste for the good life".

* This and other wealth figures are estimates

George Osborne, 38
Shadow chancellor
Education St Paul's School, London. Oxford University
Wealth £4.3m
George Gideon Osborne stands to inherit the Osborne baronetcy of Ballentaylor in County Tipperary, Ireland, as well as a substantial share of Osborne & Little, his father's luxury wall­paper company. Not that he needs the money - he already benefits from a company trust fund, and as a backbencher commanded fees of up to £5,000 per article for the Spectator and Associated Newspapers. A former member of the Bullingdon Club, he is very much part of the old boy network, as shown by last year's scandal involving Osborne, his old friend Nat Rothschild, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and a yacht in Corfu.

Oliver Letwin, 53
Chairman of the Conservative Party's Policy Review/Research Department
Education Eton College. Cambridge University
Wealth £1.5m
Despite earning £145 an hour for consultancy work at N M Rothschild & Son, Oliver Letwin claimed £2,000 in parliamentary expenses to replace a leaking pipe in his tennis court. He once said he would rather "go out in the streets and beg" than send his children to a London comprehensive, and during the 2001 election argued that the Conservatives should cut future public spending by £20bn a year relative to Labour proposals. His suggestion was so unpopular that he was forced to stay out of the public eye for the duration of the campaign.

Andrew Lansley, 53
Shadow health secretary
Education Brentwood School, Essex. Exeter University
Wealth £700,000
Andrew Lansley, who earns an extra £29,000 a year for 12 days' work at a marketing agency, spent more than £4,000 of taxpayers' money renovating his country home months before he sold it and flipped his expenses claim to his London flat, where he spent thousands more. Last year, Lansley caused outrage with a blog entry on the Conservative Party website arguing that a recession could be "good for us", as people could "spend time at home with their families". The potential future health secretary also has some insight into obesity, saying that "people who see more fat people around them may themselves be more likely to gain weight".

David Willetts, 53
Shadow universities and skills manager
Education King Edward VI, Birmingham. Oxford University
Wealth £1.9m
David Willetts makes £80,000 a year from 40 days' work as adviser to Punter Southall, and is also paid as chairman of Universal Sensors Ltd, but he still tried to claim £750 for a shed base and £175 for a dog pen on expenses last year.

Francis Maude, 56
Shadow minister for the Cabinet Office/ chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Education Abingdon School, Oxfordshire. Cambridge University
Wealth £3m
Francis Maude, a former director of Morgan Stanley, juggles an array of non-executive financial positions. These bring him £68,600 a year, but luckily don't require too many hours - Barclays pays him £36,700 for six days' work. Maude, who has railed against the irresponsibility of mortgage lenders, banked £100,000-plus as director of a financial services group that profited from sub-prime mortgages. Despite owning four properties, he claimed almost £35,000 in two years for interest payments on a London flat just yards from his house.

Michael Gove, 42
Shadow schools secretary
Education Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen. Oxford University
Wealth £1m
A self-proclaimed neoconservative and former journalist, Michael Gove still writes a weekly column for the Times, which pays him £5,000 a month. Gove has boasted that it takes him an hour a week to write it. This makes his hourly wage more than £1,100 - 127 times higher than the average salary in his constituency, Surrey Heath. He tops this up through contributions to other titles, including Scotland on Sunday and Building Magazine. Gove is a signatory to the Henry Jackson Society, a "project for democratic geopolitics" that advocates a proactive approach to spreading democracy, by military intervention if necessary. Last year, he described the invasion of Iraq as "a proper British foreign policy success".

Liam Fox, 48
Shadow defence secretary
Education St Bride's High School, East Kilbride. Glasgow University
Wealth £1m
Fox, a former GP, may lambast the public sector for its inefficiencies and "bloated administration", but he is not so thrifty himself. Despite earning £25,000 a year by lecturing for the medical educational firm Arrest Ltd (14 days' work), he claimed almost £19,000 of taxpayers' money for his mobile phone bill. A staunch Eurosceptic and strong believer in the "special relationship" with America, Fox said recently a Conservative government would be "sympathetic" to a request for thousands more troops in Afghanistan.

Andrew Mitchell, 53
Shadow international development secretary
Education Rugby School. Cambridge University
Wealth £2m
Mitchell, an ex-merchant banker racks up £43,500 every year for financial advisory and consultancy roles that involve a few hours' work each week, as well as owning shares worth up to £180,000. But it's obviously not enough - last year he claimed more than £21,000 for cleaning and redecorating his constituency home. In 2004 he asked the Commons Fees Office to pay him £2,000 a month from his MPs' additional cost allowance "until it is exhausted". Mitchell said last year that the recession was an "incredibly good moment" for the party.

Caroline Spelman, 51
Shadow communities and local government secretary
Education Herts and Essex Grammar School, Bishop's Stortford, Essex. University of London
Wealth £1.5m
Caroline Spelman co-owns Spelman, Cormack & Associates, a food and biotechnology business, with her husband. They also own three properties, including a four-storey Georgian townhouse in London, with an estimated combined value of £5m. In 1997-98, she misused the parliamentary staffing allowance to pay her nanny. The expenses revelations this year showed that she received £40,000 for bills and cleaning for her constituency home, despite her husband claiming it was their main home. In 2005, she attacked proposals on revaluing council tax. Ironically enough, for the 2007-2008 financial year she overclaimed hundreds of pounds on her own council tax.

Lord Strathclyde, 49
Leader of the opposition in the Lords
Education Wellington College. University of East Anglia
Wealth £10m
The majority shareholder in the family estate management company Auchendrane Estates, worth roughly £6m, Lord Strathclyde holds down a plethora of paid directorships for hedge funds and investment companies. One of them is Galena, the investment management arm of Trafigura, a controversial oil trader recently found to be dumping toxic waste in Africa. He said that Trafigura's other activities fell "well outside the terms of my remit".

William Hague, 48
Shadow foreign secretary
Education Wath-on-Dearne Comprehensive School, Rotherham. Oxford University
Wealth £2.2m
Earning up to £10,000 for an appearance, Hague is a stalwart of the Conservative after-dinner speaking circuit. As a non-executive director of JCB, he was paid £50,000 a year and went on to a directorship at AES Engineering, receiving £25,000 a year. He has been paid up to £1,041 an hour for his consultancy work, a wage rate 113 times higher than the average among his constituents in Richmond, Yorkshire. Hague reportedly threatened to walk out when Cameron suggested forcing the shadow cabinet to give up second jobs.

Chris Grayling, 47
Shadow home secretary
Education Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Cambridge University
Wealth £500,000
Chris Grayling, worth only half a million, is a real man of the people. The proprietor of four London homes, he still billed a £40,000 second-home refurbishment to the state. So in touch is the former BBC producer with the reality of life in Britain, that he compared the country's streets to those of Baltimore on the US television drama The Wire, and came up with the idea of deterring young criminals by taking away their mobile phones.

Lord Ashcroft, 62
Conservative Party deputy chairman
Education Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Mid-Essex Technical College
Wealth £1.1bn
Lord Ashcroft, the Tories' fairy godmother, has donated millions to the Conservative Party since the 1980s, personally guaranteeing its overdraft when it was reportedly £3m in the red. He makes a habit of political donation, and has been accused of wielding undue political influence in Belize, where he has extensive business interests. He does not say whether he pays tax in the UK, and the Electoral Commission is investigating whether his company fits strict rules on overseas donations.

Dominic Grieve, 53
Shadow justice secretary and shadow attorney general
Education Westminster School, London. Oxford University
Wealth £3.1m
A barrister and QC, Dominic Grieve supplements his income with shareholdings in 13 firms, most notably with £240,000 worth of shares in companies operating in Zimbabwe. Apparently £3.1m doesn't go very far towards keeping a second home - Grieve was forced to bill the government £18,668 in maintenance costs last year. A traditionalist who has voted against bills promoting gay rights, he has praised the Victorian era for its "sense of moral values".

Philip Hammond, 53
Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury
Education Shenfield School, Brentwood, Essex. Oxford University
Wealth £9m
Hammond enjoys a lucrative directorship at Castlemead Property, in which he has shares worth £4.9m, but that didn't stop him claiming £23,075 - £8 short of the maximum - for his second home in London. He now promises to oversee swingeing cuts in public spending in an emergency post-election budget. He has said it is "absolutely not the case" that public-sector workers are dreading cuts, feeling instead a "sense of liberation".

Owen Paterson, 54
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary
Education Radley College. Cambridge University
Wealth £1.5m
Paterson, married to the 4th Viscount Ridley's daughter, owns a large country estate in his North Shropshire constituency (he voted strongly against the hunting ban). He is a member of the Cornerstone Group, which published a report describing the NHS as "Stalinist" and calling for it to be replaced.

Jeremy Hunt, 42
Shadow culture, media and sport secretary
Education Charterhouse School. Oxford University
Wealth £4.1m
Hunt is paid £1,000 a month for two hours of business advice to Hotcourses Ltd, an educational guide publisher, and enjoyed a £245,181 dividend payment from the company in 2006. He still felt hard-pressed enough to submit an invoice for 1p for a 12- second mobile phone call.

Gregory Barker, 43
Shadow minister for energy and
climate change
Education Steyning Grammar School, West Sussex. Royal Holloway, University of London
Wealth £3.9m
Gregory Barker, a former adviser to the Russian billionaire and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, reportedly made millions when he sold his stake in a recruitment advertising firm, and continues to rake in cash as director of Flare View, a property investment company, and as an adviser for Pegasus Capital Advisors. He made a £320,000 profit in just over two years by using the second-home allowance
to buy and sell a house in the exclusive borough of Chelsea, in central London.

Philip Dunne, 51
Conservative whip/deputy chairman
Education Eton College. Oxford University
Wealth £5m
Dunne, a super-rich backbencher has had a 20-year career spanning investment banks in London, New York and Hong Kong, as well as Ottakar's bookshop, which he co-founded. The son of Sir Thomas Dunne, the Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, he has done all this while looking after the family farming estate.

Brooks Newmark, 51
Conservative whip
Education Bedford School, Bedfordshire. Harvard University. Oxford University
Wealth £3.2m
Yet another Conservative MP with a high-flying background in the world of finance, Brooks Newmark held a senior role at Lehman Brothers, and spent eight years at a British merchant bank. He now owns the investment firm Telesis Management and has shares in two other investment firms, from which he gets undisclosed payments.

Zac Goldsmith, 34
Conservative parliamentary candidate
Education Eton College (expelled). Cambridge Centre for Sixth-Form Studies
Wealth £300m
Son of Sir James Goldsmith and his third wife, Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Frank Zacharias Robin Goldsmith is an environmentalist and socialite. An odd combination, perhaps, but both grandfathers were Conservative MPs, so he is walking a well-trodden path.

Michael Spencer, 53
Conservative Party treasurer
Education Worth Abbey, West Sussex. Oxford University
Wealth £250m
A close friend of Cameron's, Spencer owns a 21 per cent stake worth £474m in the money broker Icap, which he set up in 1986. He was caught up in controversy last year when it emerged he had pledged his stake in the investment bank Numis as security for a loan, a legal grey area. When he did sell his shares, he made only £16m - a third of what he would have gained in 2006 when shares were at their peak. It's a hard life.

Research by Samira Shackle, Stephanie Hegarty and George Eaton

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism