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Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2014.

I like it when my musings on Twitter are acknowledged. The sense that you’re just part of a vast crowd baying at each other subsides and you glimpse the original purpose: to find new ways to connect. Many of my favourite tweeters and I have linked through debate and the recognition that their voice is worth listening to.

I also – I have to be honest – like the micro-massage of my ego that a ‘like’ or a retweet gives. ‘Oh, I might be making some sense is the thought that goes through my mind, though I appreciate that using cyberspace as an arbiter of sense is not a strategy without drawbacks.

But I was nonetheless pleased that a comment I made regarding the Trump presidency and fascism seemed to be picked up, albeit in a small way. To use the rather concerning metaphor of infection that tells us so much about the internet, I was barely communicable, much less viral.img_2470

My opinion, by the way is based on the work of Roger Griffin and Roger Eatwell, as well as twenty years of trying to understand the Nazi regime and its murderous policies. I was pleased that the comment was acknowledged and therefore curious when I received a fairly bald refutation in response.

img_2471I stopped for a while and considered what he had said. Was I becoming obsessed? One of those people who relies on third-hand summaries of second-hand accounts of made-up comments? Or could something else be going on? I retorted and await a response.

I was struck, though, that already the ‘reasonable’ voice is starting to be heard. We should be practical, it says. We should be realistic. We should be sensible. This isn’t fascism because it doesn’t threaten concentration camps or wear a uniform other than cheap baseball caps with a vacuous slogan.img_2473

In the Observer this morning, John Daniel Davidson attempts to argue that this is the hysterical reaction (his misogyny, not mine) of a liberal elite whose grip on power has been shaken by “millions of voters [who] have felt left behind by an economic recovery that largely excluded them, a culture that scoffed at their beliefs and a government that promised change but failed to deliver.” Perhaps if the Republican Congress had passed a better and easier ‘Obamacare’ things would be different. Instead, they shouted ‘Socialism’ very loudly until the cries from the emergency rooms they underfunded were drowned by shots from the guns they wouldn’t control.

In the Sunday Express, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey warns of “hysterical overreaction that poses a danger to the kind of constructive relationship we should have with the President.” The newspaper resorts to its favourite bromide in its headline: ‘Keep calm and Carey on’. For myself, the idea of the world’s only remaining superpower abandoning basic standards of truth and decency makes it impossible to keep calm and hard to carry on.

Meanwhile, a US court has upheld the suspension of the immigration ban introduced into law on Holocaust Memorial Day is unconstitutional. A wave of consumers protesting against strike-breaking by Uber seems to have led to its CEO resigning from an economic council advising President Trump. You could be forgiven for thinking that things are settling down, that perhaps the forces of reason are on the move, marching to their inevitable victory.

As a teacher currently dealing with the Nazi era and the early English Reformation, I’m struck by the way my students struggle with the idea of belief. Looking at the persecution of the Observant Friars by Henry VIII, one of my students looked up and, with the dismissive confidence that only teenagers can summon, asked: “What’s the big deal? Why couldn’t they just change their minds?” The idea that people might have believed in these ideas so passionately that they were prepared to suffer or even die for them was utterly alien, to be greeted with rolled eyes and a complacent assertion of modern (or rather, post-modern) superiority. It is this sense of ideology as a joke and the importance of the subjective over the empirical that has paved the way for ‘fake news’ and the peddling of ‘alternative facts’ by senior members of the Trump administration.

Looking at the Third Reich and its maintenance of a peacetime regime, students’ initial responses have (predictably) focused on the terror state. After absorbing the fact that the Third Reich could not have enforced security without the consent and collaboration of large numbers of its population, I have struggled against the notion of brainwashing, as though pervasive propaganda removes the need for moral choice.

Only as we have started to look in more detail at the crimes committed against Jews, Sinti and Roma, the disabled, homosexuals and people of colour have students really considered whether passive acceptance of propaganda is sufficient to explain silence in these things, let alone the cooperation that was required. Lists do not make themselves; doors do not unlock themselves; cars and trucks and trains do not drive themselves. A bullet can only be fired after a finger pulls the trigger. Claudia Koonz wrote in The Nazi Conscience that “what is frightening about the racist public culture within which the Final Solution was conceived is not its extremism but its ordinariness”.

The widespread lack of awareness (see the result below from a nationwide survey of secondary schools) that there is no recorded instance of any perpetrator being punished following a refusal to kill is an important social fact with implications for educators across and beyond disciplinary boundaries. People have choices: the consequences of the perpetrators’ actions and choices were neither remote nor hard to discern.


Stuart Foster et al., What do students know and understand about the Holocaust? Evidence from English secondary schools, UCL Centre for Holocaust Education, London 2015, p. 163.

In February 1933, the Austrian-Jewish journalist Joseph Roth wrote to Stefan Zweig about the Nazi regime:

“You will have realized by now that we are drifting towards great catastrophes. Apart from the private — our literary and financial existence is destroyed — it all leads to a new war. I won’t bet a penny on our lives. They have succeeded in establishing a reign of barbarity. Do not fool yourself. Hell reigns.”

Roth died in Paris in 1939, an alcoholic émigré unable to find work. As I watch the way the media and others are circling to tell us what to think, how to be sensible, I’m reminded of the shattering end to Primo Levi’s essay ‘The Grey Zone’:

“…we too are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility: willingly or not we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death and that close by the trains are waiting.”

Yesterday, a friend of mine, the granddaughter on both sides of people who survived the Nazi era despite being marked for death as Jews, described how she was depressed by the constant flow of negativity, writing vividly of jogging through a Berlin forest to escape, finally stopping, hyperventilating into the icy fog of the morning. She concluded, though, by reminding us that “This may be bigger than us, but it is not stronger, nor smarter than our energies combined.” We keep shouting, keep focused on the truths that we can see are self-evident: that there were fewer people at the inauguration of 2017 than that of 2009; that there was no Bowling Green Massacre: this is not normal. We are not in the ghetto: though the lords of death may seek to reign they can only do so if we let them.

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