Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past

Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past

In the opinion pages of this morning’s Guardian there’s an article by Timothy Garton-Ash on the worsening situation for free speech and human rights in Turkey as Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian regime tightens the screw. ‘To travel to Turkey today is to journey into darkness,’ writes Garton-Ash; ‘tens of thousands of state employees and thousands of academics dismissed, more journalists locked up than in any other country, and a chilly mist of fear.’

Erdoğan crops up in Jan-Werner Müller’s concise guide, What Is Populism? which I read recently. For the epigraph to his book Muller chose the words of Bertolt Brecht: ‘All power comes from the people. But where does it go?’  It’s a good question, and Muller provides a readable analysis of populism, a term that’s been bandied about a great deal post-Trump, post-Brexit, and in the context of fears of what might happen in Europe in 2017. Even more timely and urgent is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, a brand-new, slim volume by Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder. Continue reading “Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past”

Denial: an opportunity missed to tell a story that needs to be told

<em>Denial</em>: an opportunity missed to tell a story that needs to be told

In 1996, the historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books, her publisher, were sued in the UK courts by the notorious Holocaust denier David Irving for calling him a falsifier of history in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. In Denial, David Hare has written a version of those events for a film directed by Mick Jackson and starring Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt and Timothy Spall as Irving.

Could any film be more well-timed? Unfortunately, despite having good moments, Denial proved to be something of a disappointment. I was left feeling that there was a really interesting documentary struggling to free itself from this dramatisation.

Continue reading Denial: an opportunity missed to tell a story that needs to be told”

The Last Letter: ‘this whole world will disappear for ever under the earth’

The Last Letter: ‘this whole world will disappear for ever under the earth’

The Last Letter is a film made by Frederick Wiseman in 2002. It was his first non-fiction film after four decades of making celebrated documentaries examining American institutions, and is a record of a sixty-minute performance by French actress Catherine Samie which Wiseman had previously directed at the Comédie-Française in Paris. It is one of the most compelling representations on film of the experience of the Holocaust that I have ever seen.

Stripped to bare essentials, the film presents a bravura monologue taken from from Vasily Grossman’s novel Life And Fate. Featuring only the performer on a bare stage, there are no props, and there is no score. The monologue represents the last letter to her son from a Russian-Jewish doctor who has been forcibly removed by the Nazis from her home to a Ukrainian ghetto. Continue reading “The Last Letter: ‘this whole world will disappear for ever under the earth’”

‘Drifting towards great catastrophes’: premonitions from the 1930s

‘Drifting towards great catastrophes’: premonitions from the 1930s

In the years of optimism we would read books and puzzle over why, in the heart of civilized Europe, people had happily abandoned democracy, believed fantastical lies, and stood by or enthusiastically joined in as those deemed to blame for the nation’s ills were murdered in their millions. In these dark days, and on this Holocaust Memorial Day, understanding is beginning to gnaw at our bones like an ague.

In times like these, the message of certain books I have read recently seems to illuminate a simple truth: that authoritarianism insinuates itself into peoples lives without drama, but with a kind of quotidinian ordinariness that slowly dispenses with facts. Continue reading “‘Drifting towards great catastrophes’: premonitions from the 1930s”

Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant: missing, a young girl, the sort who left few traces

Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant: missing, a young girl, the sort who left few traces

They are the sort of people who leave few traces. Virtually anonymous. Inseparable from those Paris streets, those suburban landscapes …

Hearing the news that Bob Dylan had been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, I thought it was about time that I investigated last year’s winner, Patrick Modiano. Like many on this side of the Channel, the French novelist’s name was unknown to me. Now my literary friend Dave reckoned I should read his 1997 novella Dora Bruder, published here as The Search Warrant. It proved to be an excellent recommendation: Modiano’s spare and finely-written excavation of memory is a haunting addition to the literature of the Holocaust and one that is unique, being neither Holocaust memoir nor historical fiction but a skilful reconstruction of a life and a moving reflection on his country’s amnesia surrounding collaboration and the fate of French Jews during the Occupation. Continue reading “Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant: missing, a young girl, the sort who left few traces”

‘In us all is a feeling of sickness, of alarm, of disaster, of disruption.’

‘In us all is a feeling of sickness, of alarm, of disaster, of disruption.’

 

I’ll admit: I felt deeply depressed after reading yesterday’s Guardian Long Read which portrayed how right-wing populist parties are advancing in all parts of Europe by appealing to the widespread and growing resentment of political and financial elites, co-opting the policies and rhetoric of the left, and polishing their public image by publicly breaking with the symbols of the fascist past.

Coming as the latest Hillary Clinton email revelations seem to have handed Donald Trump a last-minute advantage in the American presidential election, and after the spectacle of the clearance of the Calais refugee camp and the British government’s reluctance to do more than the bare minimum to protect vulnerable young residents of the camp, the current mood reminds me of Alexander Blok writing in 1908 of his sense an impending catastrophe: ‘In us all is a feeling of sickness, of alarm, of disaster, of disruption.’

The moment seems perilous indeed. Further warnings of dangers that might easily force their way from the past into the present were contained in a piece written by the Labour MP Richard Burden following his recent visit to Srebrenica, and in news of the death of one of the last survivors of the Nazi death camps who became one of the most active UK-based witnesses to the Holocaust. Continue reading “‘In us all is a feeling of sickness, of alarm, of disaster, of disruption.’”

An extraordinary performance of Different Trains in the world’s first railway station

An extraordinary performance of <em>Different Trains</em> in the world’s first railway station

An amazing event took place in Liverpool last night. On a railway station platform a mile from my home the American composer Steve Reich appeared on an outdoor stage to present a world exclusive presentation of his iconic 1988 composition Different Trains, performed for the first time with a film accompaniment created by documentarist Bill Morrison. Continue reading “An extraordinary performance of Different Trains in the world’s first railway station”