The really dim ones – the sort of person who crows about “taking back control” or who whines about the “humiliation” of having a passport which is not blue – will conclude that I am saying that Theresa May is like Hitler. Do get someone to read this slowly to you before attacking me on that ground.
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, said incautiously in an interview that she did not read much history. Where have we heard that before? Ah yes, Tony Blair wishing rather belatedly that he had read more history before becoming prime minister.
Theresa May read geography at Oxford. In my day, geography usually meant 6’4″ blokes more skilled with oar or rugby ball than with brain. No one is suggesting that Mrs May is unintelligent – far from it – but her geography should have encouraged her to appreciate the value of actual trading relationships with your immediate neighbours rather than speculative ones with countries much further away. You might also have expected her to be able to place Gibraltar on a map, even if the minutiae of the Treaty of Utrecht might justifiably have passed her by.
I am reading Berlin: The Downfall 1945 by Anthony Beevor. Its central narrative is about the invasion of Germany by a Russian army which murdered, raped and destroyed on its way to Berlin, with everyone from Stalin down to the lowest soldier driven by a thirst for revenge inspired by German conduct in Russia. If Tony Blair had read any history, he might have considered the possibility of a similar reaction before casually setting fire to the Middle East.
Nothing can excuse Russian actions as they drove westwards, first reclaiming German-occupied Russia and then Germany itself, particularly their brutality against non-combatants and especially against women. Even Stalin was embarrassed by it. Once you know something of the way the Germans had behaved in the east, however, it is not hard to understand why the Russian foot soldier felt justified in his brutality. The man who drove a hired car down the pavement of Westminster Bridge perhaps felt much the same incoherently vengeful rage.
Blair might also have considered the benefits of having some kind of plan. There are precedents, for example, for launching attacks on foreign countries without thinking beyond the moment when the first shots were fired and the first boots touch the ground. Hitler might have read up a bit about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia before launching his own. Blair in turn might have read a bit about Hitler.
If Napoleon, Hitler and Blair offer cautionary tales from history about invasions, there is an odd paradox in watching Mrs May cocking up up a reverse invasion – trying to get out of the EU without a plan or, apparently, any idea of what this involves. History offers few precedents, it is true, for a nation engaging in economic and cultural suicide at the behest of 25% of its population but that principle of thinking first and acting afterwards applies just as much.
One could give some more specific examples of things from Hitler’s story which might have given Theresa May pause for thought before plunging into a kind of reverse lebensraum. Where Hitler drove out or killed thinkers, scientists and cultural leaders, Mrs May’s version of “Ein volk, ein Reich” means losing people critical to healthcare, catering and agriculture, plus a host of taxpaying workers from senior academics to cleaners, along with Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar.
The Brexiteers crow about “taking back control”. Hitler began with taking back the Rhineland. Mrs May’s dimmer acolytes have their sights on newts, passports, bananas and light bulbs. The point is not to compare May with Hitler (the reoccupation of the Rhineland was a remarkably successful first step, vital for industrial, strategic and morale reasons) but to invite an analysis of what “taking back control” actually means and what it costs. Is this a hill worth dying on?
Although my theme here is what Therea May could learn from Hitler rather than whether she is is like him, they have two characteristics in common – pig-headedness in the fact of the facts, and an optimism entirely divorced from the circumstances. Hitler’s army died in the snow at Stalingrad, refused permission to retreat in the face of overwhelming force; Mrs May’s emissaries to Brussels will feel much the same. Hitler was still talking of future conquests even as the Russians fought their way down the Tiergarten laying waste to everything around them; Mrs May faces every rebuff, every blast of realism, every exposure or retraction of the pre-referendum lies told by those whose commander she has now become, but still ploughs on.
There are two last tips which Hitler might give Mrs May (not ones I approve of, I should add, but this is about lessons not approval). One is to control the press, rather than letting the press control you; I don’t suppose Mrs May is actually taking instructions from the editors of the Mail, Sun and Express but she seems keen to the point of servility to do what they want.
The other is to stamp hard on your own extremists. Ernst Roehm and the SA were giving the Nazis a bad name with the voters, the wealthy, the army and others whose support Hitler wanted and, on 30 June 1934, he eliminated them in the so-called Night of the Long Knives. Theresa May’s party includes some people whose comments – war with Spain, the “humiliation” of having a passport which is not blue, and so on – all help to promote the idea that the party of government is not merely nasty and incompetent but dim with it. That Mrs May cannot, or chooses not to, control this implies either that she approves of it or is too weak to stop it.
I could have written about all that and more, but decided it was not worth having to field the reactions of those who half-read the result before screaming “Godwin’s Law” at me. Best spell it out, perhaps, for the dimmer ones: I am not saying that Theresa May is like Hitler but offering examples where some knowledge of history might have given May pause for thought. You can’t consider the reoccupation of the Rhineland an unqualified success when you look at the pictures of a devastated Berlin in May 1945.
So instead of any of that, here’s another parallel from history, a video from Comedy Central, the best commentary of the week: