When the Past isn’t Past
As regular readers may know, this blog is in part an accompaniment to my current research project: a study of the legacy of the Classical world in the art, literature, and politics of the 1920s and 1930s. At the heart of this research will, as a matter of necessity, be a study of the (mis)uses of the Greek and Roman past in the culture of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. I say ‘necessity’ because for the years in question the people who, for their own ends, made the most of the Classical past were the respective dictators of those countries, for whom ancient grandeur was another way of framing their own ambitions. To study this topic is, as awkward as it proves to be, to learn more about both regimes that one might readily wish to know.
Yesterday I was in the British Library, setting aside a day to check up some 1930s literature on events in Germany, as seen by British visitors and travel writers in the country. Books like these are very much products of their time (and thankfully the BL’s collections enable the curious reader to track these largely unavailable works down) and should, of course, be treated as such. All the same, it’s hard not to be embarrassed when the copy of Michael Fry’s ‘Hitler’s Wonderland’ (1934) that you’d ordered proves to have a swastika on the cover. Suffice to say that when the book wasn’t open I placed it at the bottom of the pile so that the offending (and offensive) cover wasn’t visible to any passer-by who might perhaps have wondered about the political inclinations of the man transcribing large chunks of it and other such texts into a moleskin notebook.
Sadly the contents of the book weren’t much better. The title, in case you’re wondering, makes some bizarre links between Nazi Germany and the Wonderland of Lewis Carroll’s imagination, with each chapter prefixed with a quote from the story. Reading on, we are told that pre-1933 Germany was in moral and political chaos and that Nazism should be seen as a good thing, and a force for the redress of the excesses of post-WW1 ‘modernism’ in all its pernicious forms.
The views are by no means unique, and I’ve found plenty of works of reportage on both Germany and Italy from this period that either offer qualified support for the regimes’ actions (of the “they may be a little excessive, but let’s see how it turns out” variety) or indeed unqualified support that finds little to worry about in the Fascist state other than some over-enthusiastic street violence. Depressingly, even anti-Semitism is rationalised by some authors.
Of course, there were plenty of people at the same time who wrote to highlight the dangers of these regimes, to warn of their potential and to urge resistance to the clearly odious policies being applied. There were, in the interests of fairness, plenty of people who, in doing so, fell into exactly the same trap by holding up Stalin’s USSR as a positive defence against Fascism, either unaware of or untroubled by the thought that the Soviet state was also busy losing tens of thousands of its citizens in the Gulags of Siberia.
It’s easy to be wise after the event, of course, but seeing such ideas set down so plainly in the years before World War Two leaves a nasty taste. Of course I don’t want to be seen reading a book with a symbol on the cover that stands for such an evil ideology and regime, but perhaps the unease also comes from the fact that the issues raised are sadly not ones of historical interest only. If Fry’s book and other like it were dreary period pieces then it would simply be a matter of scholarly interest in the unpleasant past, but they embarrass not only in their naivete but in their capacity to remind the reader that such ideas were considered acceptable not only in the countries involved but in others that perhaps should have known better, and eventually learned better through some bruising lessons. That ‘Hitler’s Wonderland’ exists is a sad fact; that I read it in the interests of research is a precondition of my project; that I felt very awkward at being seen with it reflects, I would hope, that whilst I know its ‘ideas’ (if such they are) have been discredited, they are sadly not extinct. Being generous, Fry and his contemporaries may be culpable of not knowing the full measure of their subject matter: that’s not an excuse that anyone today will be able to call upon.