As a historian, what fascinated me most was reading many of the writers who lived through the rise of totalitarian political religions after the First World War. Part of the attraction was to see what initial conceptual frameworks they imposed on the subjects that I viewed through a kind of authorised canon of subsequent academic literature, much of which was parochial and sterile. It did not matter whether they were sometimes wrong; the liquid fluidity was what mattered as they grappled with events which to me were just history.
The most impressive of them were the Great War veteran turned Manchester Guardian foreign correspondent, Frederick Augustus Voigt (Unto Caesar, 1938); the great UCL French Revolution historian, Alfred Cobban (Dictatorship: Its History and Theory, 1939) and the renegade Marxist turned Cold War warrior, Franz Borkenau (The Totalitarian Enemy, 1940). Their astute insights mitigated the fact that they could not know how the story of Hitler and Stalin ended – in this case with hecatombs of dead that made Tamerlane look like an amateur.
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Since the election of Donald Trump, in November 2016, and the successes of European populist movements in the polls (70% of which are the existing but cross-dressed far right), similar anxieties are abroad among people whose major intellects deserve respect. There are three in particular.
Timothy Snyder became justifiably famous for his 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, not least because it is based on prodigious research in 11 languages and because it highlights Stalin’s mass murder of humble people in Ukraine. Last year, Snyder published On Tyranny, a short manual for how to arm ourselves against its insidious onset in our present.
Its target is clear from the sentence: “The President is a nationalist, which is not a patriot. A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us we are the best.”
A slightly less alarmist, but equally disconcerting, book has recently been published by the Cambridge political scientist, David Runciman. It is called How Democracy Ends. Like Snyder, Runciman views the “disrupters” as akin to destructive children, absorbing our attentions at the expense of the collateral damage they are causing to democratic institutions.
While they do, politics atrophies and necessary change is put off by the overriding imperative of avoiding systemic collapse. The understandable desire to keep the tanks off the streets and the cashpoints open gets in the way of tackling the long-term threats we face. Fake disruption followed by institutional paralysis, and all the while the real dangers continue to mount. Ultimately, that is how democracy ends.
My final example comes from the leading literary scholar, Stephen Greenblatt, arguably the world’s greatest authority on William Shakespeare. In some quarters, it is de rigueur to dismiss literary criticism, which admittedly has become a hermetic parlour game in many university English departments. But this would be to ignore the likes of Lionel Trilling, Ian Watt, Joseph Frank or for that matter Stephen Greenblatt, whose capacity to explain authors is remarkable, especially when the use of language is much richer than our own.
Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power is probably not his best book, but to my mind its oblique indirection makes it a very important one. Though the book does not mention Donald Trump once, his domineering presence haunts virtually every sentence.
According to Greenblatt, that was how Shakespeare and his writer contemporaries were obliged to proceed, because the penalty for not doing so was to have one’s nose slit or hand chopped off thanks to government agents lurking among theatre audiences. Even intimating that the current monarch was a tyrant was punishable by death under a statute introduced under Henry VIII.
Shakespeare never set a play within a hundred years of his own time, preferring ancient Rome, foreign cities or in Learthe indeterminate mists of prehistoric Britain, and for very advisable reasons.
On the single occasion in which he referenced a contemporary event – in Henry V where he alludes to the Earl of Essex’s (doomed )1599 expedition to Ireland – he got the outcome wrong. Worse, a number of those involved in Essex’s coup against Elizabeth I a year later had crossed the Thames for a ‘command performance’ of Richard IIwhich they specially requested. A play about one of only two English kings to warrant the ‘final solution’ (the other being Edward II) was a very pointed choice of drama in this febrile context.
In the wake of the failed coup, Elizabeth’s assiduous servants began to connect the dots, from the audience that afternoon at the Globe to the playwright himself. While Shakespeare could plead that he and the company just needed the extra £10 fee, the organiser of the boat trip to the Globe, one Gelly Meyrick, was hanged, drawn and quartered.
Shakespeare’s most astute thoughts about tyranny are in the Henry VItrilogy and Richard III though the theme also figures in Corialanus,LearandMacbeth. As factions fight, with antique legal quarrels suddenly reduced to the colours of roses worn by incipient factions, the aristocratic grandee Richard Plantagent, Duke of York, cynically uses lower class insurgents led by Jack Cade, whose Pol Pot-like cry “The first thing we’ll do, kill all the lawyers”, usually gets loud laughs in modern theatres, which otherwise do not react to his equally preposterous political ‘programme’:
There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny, the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it felony to drink small beer. All the realm shall be in common….[T]here shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score’ (4.2.61-68)
Cade ends up a fugitive and is killed scavenging salad in a garden, while York makes the bid for the throne, though he does not live to see his son Edward (IV) crowned king, even as the new King’s sinister S-shaped younger brother Richard, duke of Gloucester professes: “I have no brother, I am myself alone”.
We quickly realise where are we are with Richard, his bones recently unearthed from beneath a car-park in Leicester, with a massive blow from a halberd at the base of his neck and lacerating ‘humiliation’ stab wounds on his backside. As Greenblatt describes him in Tyranny:
…the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders, and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.
The public good is something only losers like to talk about. What he likes to talk about is winning. He has always had wealth; he was born into it and makes ample use of it. But though he enjoys having what money can get him, it is not what most excites him. What excites him is the joy of domination. He is a bully. Easily enraged, he strikes out at anyone who stands in his way. He enjoys seeing others cringe, tremble, or wince with pain. He is gifted at detecting weakness and deft at mockery and insult. These skills attract followers who are drawn to the same cruel delights, even if they cannot have it to his unmatched degree. Though they know that he is dangerous, the followers help him advance to his goal, which is the possession of supreme power.
But this is not just a book about the perverse psychology of megalomanics, it also describes the social ambience in which they move like sharks in a sea brimming with smaller fish – the enablers.
Richard III and the rest are assisted not just by blank-eyed knifemen and stranglers, but those for whom “it is hard work to remember just how awful he is….[who] then normalise what is not normal”, and others who think that, despite Richard, the adults in the room will ensure normality prevails.
As David Runciman also shows, the latter rely on structures which prove “unexpectedly fragile” and which don’t always click in as they should. One watches Richard III with a horrified fascination right up to when he vainly cries for a fresh horse at Bosworth Field.
For the ends of tyrants reveal their essential emptiness, that complete absence of good, which is one serviceable definition of Evil. Take the death of another of Shakespeare’s tyrants, written when the playwright had a more advanced and sinuous understanding of the inner workings of the human mind:
Out, out brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (1.
This is not some prefigurement of a modern absurdist, existential play, but the precise fate of any tyrant, whose lies, plots and murders are ultimately meaningless.
Regardless of how our decade plays out, none of us can claim we weren’t warned. If we were not so numbed by Tweets we might have opened the occasional book, by people who deserve a great deal more respect than most of those who opine inanely on the happenings of each grim day. Not least any of the 54 million followers of @realDonaldTrump who should reflect what they are enabling.