Last week the BBC presented the final part of its screening, in six episodes, of Laurence Rees’ film of the Rise and Reign of Hitler and the Nazis. First screened in 1997, it was included in the list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute, an accolade that was richly deserved. But that is not, I suggest, the reason why the BBC chose to show it again now.
Unless you are an avid devotee of BBC4, however, you may well have been unaware of its screening. Many of my friends certainly did not see it. For it was not promoted with any of the relentless plugging which the BBC devotes often to much less worthy programmes. And its showing at 11 p.m. on Thursday evenings was hardly a guarantee of “peak viewing”.
But the reason for this reticence on the part of the BBC (greatly though it is to be complimented on showing the film at all) was probably due to its fear of stirring the hornet’s nest of the Right Wing “populists” now rampant in this country, and the likelihood that the series would send the Daily Mail and the other EU quitters even further up their respective walls. For the limited billing of the series said “The Nazis – A Warning From History”, and you didn’t have to be a genius to realise what the warning was about, though you may speculate as to whom it was addressed.
The message conveyed by the film and spelled out strongly in the very first episode, is in its recounting of how Hitler and the Nazis came to power, not by some putsch, but by the democratic vote of the German people. Hitler’s ascendancy wasn’t achieved in some banana republic – it came by an election in a democratic and leading country every bit as modern and enlightened as Britain, though one much impoverished as a result of losing the First World War
If you ever need an example (and a warning) of how “the People have decided” can, on occasion, lead to a far-reaching and potentially world-shattering disaster, the election of Hitler to power by the people of Germany is it. And those today who are daring to question the wisdom of those who voted to quit the EU are fully entitled to argue that there are times when any democracy can make potentially catastrophic mistakes, and not to be regarded by EU quitters at best as villains, and at worst traitors. After all, it was David Davis who said “a democracy that cannot change its mind is not a democracy” – probably his last sensible remark.
There is no way I would wish to argue that the horrors perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis are in any way to be compared with the outcome of the EU referendum and its implications for the UK and the EU. But nobody who is aware of the spread of Right Wing populism in many European countries today, and even worse, what has been happening here, and with the election of the demagogue Trump in the US, can be other than greatly concerned for our future and that of many others. Nor should we fail to recognise that the means by which Hitler and the Nazis gained power are not far removed from what some of the populists are using today. The principal weapon that has been or is being used here and in the USA, France, Austria, Holland, Germany, Sweden and Norway, is “scapegoating” – putting most of the blame for many of the hardships being suffered (especially by the poorer sections of their communities) not with the Jews, as was the case with the Nazis in 1933, but with the immigrants, the Muslims and other minority groups singled out for the purpose. None of this scapegoating is to be compared with the horrific ends to which Hitler and the Nazis went in their drive eventually to exterminate the Jews, but the intention of the scapegoaters is invariably – and dishonestly - to suggest that there are simple solutions to the hardships which many of their fellow citizens are suffering and which are mainly to be resolved by the expulsion of the scapegoats.
Hitler’s hold on power was undoubtedly consolidated by the support of the financiers and industrialists who urged the President, Hindenburg, to give up the Presidency and transfer it to the Chancellor, Hitler. With his assumption of full state power, Hitler lost no time in carrying out the programme he had put to the electorate before they voted for him. He made plain his determination to assert the supremacy of the German race, to subjugate all other nations and exterminate the Jews (Trump’s putting “America First” looks almost genteel by comparison), to suppress the trade unions and other political parties, and to curb the press. The arrest and imprisonment of political and religious leaders and, in time, the construction of the concentration camps and gas chambers came later as direct results. The thuggery of the Nazi storm troopers which had begun well before the 1933 election was intensified, culminating in the murder of a hundred Jews on the notorious “Kristallnacht”.
Whatever misgivings those developments might have aroused in those who voted Hitler into power (and there is not much evidence that there were great misgivings), Hitler’s proclamation of his determination to assert the supremacy of the German people, his annexation of Austria and his generating of employment by the rearmament of Germany presumably served to make those voters believe they had made no mistake in 1933.
All those developments, and much more besides, are outlined in Rees’ film, which ends with a quotation from the German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, who said “It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute”. It is left to the viewer to decide how much danger that warning foreshadows for us in present day developments.
There are echoes of some of the means Hitler used to win and maintain power in some of the methods that are being used by today’s populists in addition to the “scapegoating” to which I have referred, especially in the USA and the UK. The attack on the unaccountable “Establishment elite” and “experts”, the claim that the populists are not “politicians” but simple non-political “patriots”, the alleged folly of giving aid to foreign countries that would be “better used at home”, the loss of jobs to “foreigners” at home and abroad, and the loss of “sovereignty” and control of a country’s own law-making. The reality that many of the claims are bogus, contrary to our true national interests, or the product of market economy excesses is never subject to serious and objective examination by most sections of the media, old or new. Indeed, they are nourished and spread by those who use social media to promulgate the bigotry and distortion which is typical of the populist Right. Clearly, they are influencing substantial sections of the electorate in most of the countries where the Right Wing “populists” are winning support.
And in our own country, at least, they are having a poisonous effect on the public debate of political issues. Bitter divisions are arising and there are reports of significant increases in race-hate crime and anti-Semitism. These divisions are now so widespread that the National Theatre is now producing a new play, “My Country”, to illuminate them. My own feeling is that this deplorable development became more serious with the approach and onset of the EU Referendum, with developments since its outcome, and with the way in which the relatively small majority for Leave has been presented as the “overwhelming will of the people”.
Before the Referendum I felt that the result was looking to be in favour of leaving, and that was because of the cumulative effect of decades of media negativity about “Brussels” and the nature of the way the “remain” and “leave” campaigns were conducted. And while I believe that there are signs that some of the “leave” supporters are beginning to appreciate at least the extent to which we need EU and non-EU workers to provide manual labour in many sectors and, in others, to supply the high skills we have lacked or neglected to develop in our own citizens, that realisation is not likely to lead to a further Referendum.
This is why I believe that the deep concern among those who voted to “remain” is creating the feeling that the departure of the UK from the EU will indeed be like the falling of an unstoppable bus over an unavoidable cliff, with disastrous results. The reason for their bitterness, and the growing despair, is that the effects of Brexit will be irreversible. Unlike the possibility that a mistake made by the electorate in one General Election can be reversed at the next one, the belief of the “remain” supporters is that there will be no way of reversing the effect of Brexit at some future election.
I understand their despair and share much of it, but I believe it will require a major effort, especially on the part of those of us who are members of the Labour Party, to undertake serious discussion with those former Labour voters who now feel so strongly that they have been let down, left behind, or ignored by the Party. “They’ve done nothing for me” is the cry – amplified by the media for its own purposes, but nonetheless truly felt in many cases. It means rejection of the conventions of politics, and the EU, wrongly in so many cases, is an easy focus for that alienation. I believe much of that sort of feeling is certainly unjustified, but if that is what those voters feel we have to understand why, and seek to regain their belief in Labour. And that is also why there has to be a major effort to get the main political debate on to the kind of country we must build. In many ways, Europe is a side issue, though Brexit could have disastrous effects, but, in the end, our main course of action and concern must remain primarily to secure the kind of society we want here in the UK, whether we are in or out of the EU.
Of course, much depends on the terms on which departure from the EU is secured. There might be a realisation on the part of the other 27 member states, that it is as much in their interests as those of the UK for the terms to provide for tariff-free trade between the EU and the UK – that is the deal we must hope for but, at present, one not likely to be negotiable. Therefore it is incumbent on all of us to do whatever we can do to secure an outcome that does not seriously undermine the future economic prospects of our own country. That much we owe to the rising generation that have had no opportunity to exert an influence on the whole EU question. Their future is indeed at stake.
To produce and sell the goods and services on which our future will depend, it is going to take a great deal more than the ludicrous spectacle of the Prime Minister shrieking “We’re Open for Business”, and even more absurd is the nincompoop Foreign Secretary boasting of our belief in Free Trade as if that was enough to produce ready made deals by countries who – like the UK – will be seeking to maximise their own benefits.
Since some of this may seem fanciful and not likely to be foreshadowed by what happened in Germany in the 1930s, when the German people “decided” as they did, let us all be reminded of what Sinclair Lewis wrote in 1935 in his book “It can’t happen here". And you should not be in the least bit surprised that that book is now enjoying record sales in the USA, and that it is not likely to figure on Donald Trump’s “favourite read” list.