Forest-raking fascists

And the people who love them

Good morning and welcome to this Saturday’s edition of Talking Europe. Thank you so much for being a subscriber!

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A few news items for Saturday, starting with Brexit

Donald Tusk, the Polish politician who is president of the European Council, traded barbs with UK prime minister Boris Johnson, with each insisting the other could be remembered as “Mr. No Deal” if the UK and EU fail to solve the Irish backstop problem before the UK is scheduled to leave the EU on October 31. More on that from the BBC here.

Finland on Brazil fires

The most important story in the world is undoubtedly the fires in the Amazon rainforest. Finland has suggested that Europe ban beef imports from Brazil, says Reuters.

What Finland says about this is important because Finland currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, which is actually not the same thing as the European Council presided over by Donald Tusk. (I know, I know…it seems ridiculous. Welcome to the joys of learning about the European Union!)

Finland’s move fits in with the broader focus in Europe right now on stronger policies to deal with the climate emergency and its causes, such as the overconsumption of beef. For example, in Germany and France there is a debate about whether to get rid of short-haul flights.

By the way, it is still unclear whether Finland has any plans to offer its well-known forest-raking skills to help Brazil.

Back to Italy

If you want to read more about Italy, The Atlantic has a new overview here.

Not a news item, but a classic that deals with Italy (and much else) is Umberto Eco’s 1995 essay laying out what he calls the fourteen characteristics of “Ur-Fascism.” Eco explores why fascism can always come back and why we might not notice until it’s too late. “It would be so much easier for us,” he writes, “if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz….’”

If you choose just one thing to read, I would make it this essay. Plus, at the end of it you’ll be rewarded with a poem, although I’m not sure “rewarded” is the right word given how grim the poem is.

The problem of the “rich plebeians”

The 1937 novel Youth without God by Ödön von Horvath is a staple of school curricula in Germany and Austria.

The story is narrated by a thirty-four-year-old history teacher who is single, drinks a little too much, and mainly just wants to hold on to his job and get a pension.

His unnamed country is being prepared by a dictator for war, but the teacher’s not much of a resister. He’s the kind of guy who’s given to dreamy thoughts, like “The sky is gentle, the earth pale. The world is a watercolor with the title ‘April,’” as he says on a walk in the countryside.

At one point, he daydreams about going back to his parents’ house:

“I’d like to be little again.

“To look out the window when there’s a storm.

“When the clouds hang low, when there’s thunder, when there’s hail.

“When the day gets dark.”

But he finds himself unable to look away as fascism takes over the minds of his pupils. Like Berenger in Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros, this narrator is the beta male who ends up in a resistance role almost in spite of himself. (Or maybe we need to revise our views about what kinds of people would resist.)

When one of the teacher’s pupils turns in a report that includes the statement: “All blacks are shifty, cowardly, and lazy,” the narrator takes out his red pen. But then he hesitates.


“What’s hiding behind the mask?” A campaign poster for Wilhelm Marx, who narrowly lost the 1925 German presidential election to Paul von Hindenburg. Marx argued that behind a facade of national unity Hindenburg would empower militarists, industrialists, and Nazis. In all the history of electoral politics, it’s hard to think of a more horribly prescient piece of campaign advertising than this poster. Marx lost to Hindenburg by three percentage points; the Communists got six percent of the vote. (Credit: Haus der Weimarer Republik, Weimar, Germany; author photo.)

“Watch out,” he says to himself. “Haven’t I already heard that sentence somewhere? But where? That’s right! It was coming from the radio in the restaurant and almost spoiled my appetite.”

He puts the red pen away, “for no teacher can strike out of a report something that the radio said!”

The teacher opts instead to tell the students, as he’s handing back the reports, that “blacks are also people.”

The students report him, and he ends up before the headmaster, who reminds him that it’s pointless to struggle against the nature of the times one happens to be living in.

“We’re living in a plebeian world,” says the headmaster sadly.

The teacher objects that the country isn’t being ruled by “the poor plebeians, but by nothing other than money.”

“Ah! But you forget,” says the headmaster, “that there were also rich plebeians.”

This problem of the “rich plebeians” — of commoners who make a lot of money and join up with the decadent aristocrats to run things at the expense of everyone else — is one theme in Youth without God (and unfortunately not the only theme) that seems relevant now.

Are people like Boris Johnson, or Nigel Farage, or Steve Bannon “rich plebeians?” Donald Trump would certainly qualify. As would so many of his voters.

If you want to read more about Youth without God, the New York Times wrote about it here a few months ago.


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