The unfolding catastrophe of the 1930s is illuminated in new ways in a disconcerting new book by the French novelist and film-maker Éric Vuillard, writes Brian Parkin.
Éric Vuillard, The Order of the Day, translated by Mark Polizzotti (London: Picador, 2019). 129 pp. £12.99
This is a strange, fascinating and unnerving little book. Awarded the first prize for 2017 by the Prix Goncourt, an award usually given for an outstanding work of fiction, The Order of the Day in an almost fictionalised form, describes some of the most chilling- as well as farcical- moments of the 1930s that set Europe onto the road to barbarism.
The first chapter, entitled ‘A Secret Meeting’, is set on a foggy Monday morning on 20 February 1933. The place is the Palace of the President of Assembly in Berlin and the cast comprises the 24 biggest names of German industrial and banking capitalism. The play, ‘is about to begin, but the curtain will not rise’. It will not rise until part 2 (‘Masks’), when a lead character in the form of the President of the Reichstag, Hermann Göring, welcomes them into his gold- and cherub-encrusted salon.
But this is no fictional fantasy. The meeting does- and did take place. Before the be-medalled head buffoon of the Nazi party will greet his plutocrat guests with an amiable smile:
The guests remain quietly seated, training their crab-like eyes on the door ……Suddenly the floorboards groaned….The twenty four lizards rose to their hind legs and stood stiffly….He mumbled a few words of greeting, then immediately launched into to upcoming elections on 5th March. The twenty four sphinxes listened closely….It was time to get rid of this wishy-washy regime (Weimar) for good….economic activity demanded calm and stability. The twenty-four gentlemen nodded solemnly.
‘And if the Nazi party won the majority,’ added Goring, ‘these would be the last elections for ten years- even,’ he added with a laugh, ‘for a hundred years.
the new chancellor finally entered the room….Hitler was smiling….for everyone present, he had words of thanks, a dynamic handshake….They listened. The basic idea was this: they had to put an end to this weak regime, ward off the Communist menace, eliminate the trade unions, and allow every entrepreneur to flourish in his own shop’………..’This was a unique opportunity to break out of the impasse they were in. But to mount a successful campaign they needed money: the Nazi party didn’t have a blessed penny and Election Day was fast approaching……Hjalmar Schact rose to his feet, ‘And now gentlemen, time to pay up!’
Context and Interpretation
The Faustian pact between the Nazi party and German big business is well understood. But for some time it has obscured the undeniable fact that the Nazi movement in the decade between 1923-33 did become a mass popular movement with what, in some senses constituted a revolutionary force; albeit as a preemptive counter-revolutionary movement, but regarding its dynamic as a mass social movement directed at the seizure of state power, a revolutionary one none the less.
So in this regard, the conventional left’s explanation of Nazism as just the ‘sledge-hammer of big business’, will not do. Yet the events above of 20 February 1933 do indelibly record the moment when German capital does a deal with Hitler, but a deal whose horrors they were incapable of comprehending.
It is within the context of this pact that a fuller explanation lies. The pact occurred under 15 years after the Bolshevik revolution and only 10 years after the premature German workers rising of 1923. Amid the wreckage of two global financial crashes and in a Germany with the world’s two biggest workers’ organisations – the Social Democrats and the Communists – German capitalists perceived that extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures. In the meantime, Nazi support seemed to be waning between elections, and Weimar remained an unresolved mess. So funding for a bout of Brown-shirt propaganda through mass terror may have seemed to them a sound expedient.
Antonio Gramsci’s formulation aptly sums up what was happening, with an old world dying and its moguls and tyrants plotting the necessary violence to stop the new one being born. This was all the easier with the only possible agency for change- the working class- cowed, divided, confused and weakened.
In this unravelling tale of awfulness, Vuillard does not absolve key individuals of the British ruling class. A major culprit was Lord Halifax, son of:
the Honourable First Viscount Halifax who, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, firmly opposed any special aid to Ireland in his term of office? The potato famine (that) left a million dead?
……When it came to ideas, Halifax didn’t mince his words. About his conversation with Hitler…he would write the (PM) Baldwin ’Nationalism and Racialism is a powerful force….but I can’t feel it’s unnatural or immoral……I cannot myself doubt that these fellows are natural haters of Communism, etc! And I daresay if we were in their position we might feel the same.
In a later chapter, ‘Farewell luncheon in Downing Street’, the cream of the upper echelon of the British ruling class are shown feeding Ambassador von Ribbentrop in congratulation for his promotion to Nazi foreign Minister. Halifax, Chamberlain and Churchill flatter, ‘the little mediocrity and anti-Semite’, as a gesture of goodwill to the Third Reich.
After Charentais melon, Pommery Champagne, tarte aux shions and turbot, coffee is served and the best Cuban Montecristo cigars are passed around before von Ribbentrop makes his exit in a swastika-adorned embassy Mercedes. All exquisitely timed for the arrival of a Foreign Office note announcing the invasion of Austria. Toodle pip!
Austrian Requiem as Farce
Elsewhere, Vuillard replays the process of diplomatic bullying, humiliation and manic temper-tantrums leading up to and defining the almost pantomime grotesquery of the Anschluss – the armed annexation of Austria into the Third Reich.
Prior to what is supposed to be a display of Panzer Blitzkrieg, Hitler summonses Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg to the Berghoff for what turns out to be a sustained tirade of humiliation. Austria has never given Germany anything. Little, if anything to German culture, has Austria contributed.
‘Beethoven?’, Schuschnigg suggests. ‘Beethoven!’, Hitler screams, ‘was a German!’ And so the bullying and threatening with intent goes on. And on; that is until the Austrian chancellor in fear for his life, concedes to his country’s annexation to the Third Reich.
But that concession must be seen to be both consensual and popular; at this early stage in building a greater Reich, coercion must never be suspected. So the appearance of constitutional niceties and the rule of law are paramount.
Blitzkrieg as Farce……..
But for Hitler such legalities are mere decoration. What is required is an epic of Wagnerian proportions to demonstrate the military prowess of the new Reich. And what he gets is a pantomime. The German army massed at the Austrian border breaks down. Tanks and troop carriers grind to a halt or fail to start. Nazis expecting a military tattoo ahead of their Führer’s triumphal entry into Vienna are disappointed:
the road to Linz was arduous. Vehicles tipped over, motor-cycles sputtered like lawn-mowers. Those Germans (visiting Austria for the spectacle) would have been better off gardening, making a little tour of Austria and then heading quietly back to Berlin; turning all this junk into tractors and planting cabbages in the Tiergarten.
But on 12 March Hitler does enter Austria although bereft of the planned military pomp and forced to take detours to avoid columns of broken-down military hardware. Waiting crowds along the roads in the cold evaporate as news of the failed military walk-over spreads.
But in Vienna, an installed ‘reformed’ government makes every effort to hail Hitler’s ‘return’ to his Germanic country of birth. This is followed by a referendum to consummate the Anschluss, where even the supine Social Democrats urge a ‘yes’ vote. And then come the suicides- some 1,700 within the first week of annexation. Suicides on a scale that their reporting becomes a matter of state censorship. Vuillard attributes these deaths as acts of despair by ordinary people from seeing:
Jews being dragged along streets…heads being shaved…..the man on whose head a Tau (crusader) cross had been painted….Jews forced on all fours to scrub pavements….and vile scenes of them being forced to eat grass.
The villainy and complicity of the British ruling class in all this is starkly explained. Prior to his initial visit to Hitler, Lord Halifax has been made well aware that:
Goebbels had inaugurated a huge art exhibition in Munich on the theme of ‘The Eternal Jew’…..the Reichstag fire….the opening up of Buchenwald and Dachau…..the sterilisation of the mentally ill….the laws of blood purity and German honour…the Night of the Long Knives……and later the inventory of racial characteristics. No one could have been unaware of the Nazis brutal designs……it was hard to miss.
But they were: ‘natural haters of Communism’. So that was alright then.
Finally, returning to Gramsci. The ‘time of monsters’, he later tells us, is also a time of fools. It is an ‘exceptional’ time when neither the daily business of civil society, nor an established constitutional polity can restore order nor the conditions conducive to the continued accumulation of capital and the extraction of profit. When an unresolved organic crisis of the state coincides with deep and potentially lethal crisis of capitalism, the ‘lizards’ may feel inclined to look elsewhere for help: even, if necessary, to the vain, vulgar, power-crazed and psychotic.
As Vuillard tells us:
As such, these twenty-four men…..are not as their identity papers would have us believe. They are called BASF, Bayer, BMW, Agfa, Opel, IG Farben, Siemens, Allianz, Krupp, Telefunken, Varta. By these names we shall know them. In fact, we know the very well. They are here, right beside us, among us. They are our cars, our washing machines, our household appliances, our clock radios, our home-owners insurance, our watch batteries. They are here…..in all sorts of guises. Our daily life is their life. They care for us, clothe us, light our way, carry us over the world’s highways, rock us to sleep.
And the twenty-four gentlemen present at the Palace of the President of the Reichstag that 20th February are none other than their proxies, the clergy of heavy industry; they are the high priests of Ptah.
And there they stand, affectless, like twenty-four calculating machines at the gates of Hell.
Perhaps words to note as we now enter the 21st century’s age of monster-fools.