I’ve long been fascinated by the question of what the descent into fascism feels like for those living through such a transition, how daily life changes (or fails to do so) as the fabric of the old order begins to unweave. There’s an insightful essay in the LA Review of Books which addresses precisely this question as it takes issue with a prevalent misunderstanding of Nazism:
POPULAR CULTURE IS REPLETE with cartoonish depictions of Nazism. Hitler seems to emerge suddenly, as if he had been waiting in the wings as a fait accompli. One moment it’s Weimar decadence, really good art, and Stormtroopers and communists fighting in the streets. The next, Hindenburg is handing Adolf the keys to the kingdom and it’s all torchlight parades, Triumph of the Will, and plaintive Itzhak Perlman violins. Hitler rises above a reborn Reich as a kind of totalitarian god. All aspects of life come under his control through the Nazi party’s complete domination of German life. Of course, this is not really how it worked.
Before Hitler achieved his genocidal powers, there were years of what we would now call “intense partisan bickering,” decreasing prosperity, and violence in the streets. In the end, Hitler cobbled together a rickety coalition of business-minded technocrats, traditional conservatives, military interests, and his own radical ethno-nationalists into a plausible government. As the new government consolidated its power, thousands of communists and trade unionists were subjected to harsh suppression and were among the first to be shipped away to what would eventually become the concentration camps. And yet for a time, life for the overwhelming majority of Germans — even briefly for German Jews — went on largely as it had in the Weimar era. There was clearly a new regime in town, but most Germans got up in the mornings in the mid-to-late 1930s and went to work, just as they had in the 1920s. January through March of 1933 was not 1776, 1789, 1791, 1917, or even 1979. Far from the world turning upside down, things were strangely continuous for many Germans as though nothing much had happened at all. For a few Germans, things were astoundingly better.
A similar liminal reality can be seen in the Norwegian drama Occupied. A green-left government’s declaration that the ‘era of oil is over’ leads to a surreptitious occupation of Norway by Russian forces. For many reasons, not least of all the narratological demands of being a ten issue drama series, dramatic changes eventually come to Norway. But what fascinates me is what comes prior to this, as the everyday life of those in Oslo is strikingly unchanged despite the mammoth geopolitical upheavals underneath the surface.
These depictions interest me because they point to an aporia in how we see social change. Our experience of ‘social change’ is by definition retrospective. We may experience social changes in the present but what we grasp as ‘social change’ is something we look back upon from the reality born through such transformation. We tell stories and sing songs about the most dramatic of these transformations, as collective recognition imbues that-which-has-unfolded with the appearance of inevitability. As Graham Crow puts it:
2.8 Proposition 7: Accounts of change after the event are vulnerable to post-hoc rationalizations in which the confusion and indeterminacy of events as they unfolded is played down and inevitability emphasised. Aron’s remark about how the language of ‘apparent necessity… creates an illusion of fatality’ (1961:178) is pertinent here. Burgoyne and Clarke’s respondents’ accounts of why their previous marriages ended contain a number of such rationalisations that reflected the ‘careful scripting’ (1984: 76) that had gone into their construction. It is instructive that Game and Metcalfe also use the process of becoming divorced to illustrate their point that the beginning of a story ‘can only be seen in retrospect; when it was beginning people were unaware of its full significance… Beginnings are always written from hindsight’ (1996: 70). The sense of predictability that such narratives convey often stands in stark contrast to the lack of certainty that people have while changes are unfolding about the direction in which they are heading.
2.9 Proposition 8: The popular metaphors through which ideas about endings are expressed have a bearing on how people respond to them.The ideas of reaching ‘the end of the line’, ‘the bitter end’, or a ‘point of no return’, ‘flogging a dead horse’, ‘giving something up as a bad job’, being on a ‘sinking ship’, ‘fighting a losing battle’, ‘throwing good money after bad’, ‘cutting one’s losses’, ‘writing something off’, and the proverbial ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ have different implications from the ideas of a ‘turning of the tide’, ‘calling it a day’, ‘the darkest hour coming before the dawn’, or ‘one door closing and another opening’ which also mark end points but are less linear and more rhythmic in their understanding of time (Young 1988). Modernity’s linear conceptions of time produce more final understandings of endings than the conceptions of ‘cycles of renewal and regeneration’ (Adam 2004: 14) that characterise ancient perspectives on temporal processes.
The individual and collective stock of experiences of change which we draw upon when we imagine our future leave us systematically ill-equipped to elucidate the many potentialities latent with out present circumstances. The tendency of fiction, particularly when it considers the macro-social, to explore the social change itself rather than the process through which the change unfolded aggravates this. I want to read stories and watch dramas about liminal transitions because this can sensitise us to the not-so-determined realities latently subsumed into what we call ‘present times’.