Twitter, Bletchley Park and the meaning of Fascism

Twitter is a funny business, isn’t it?

On September 4th I posted a picture (taken from The Times) of a group of elderly men and women who’d worked as code-breakers at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, and wrote above the picture, ‘This is what British anti-fascists look like’.

The tweet was ‘liked’ more than 9000 times and retweeted almost 4200 times.  It also provoked a large number of replies: some were interested in how many of them were women; others reminded me of other ‘British anti-fascists’, from the men and women who fought Mosley’s Black Shirts on Cable Street or volunteered to fight in Spain against Franco, right through to front line soldiers in the war against Hitler.  I agreed with these comments and certainly wasn’t implying that this was what all British anti-fascists look like.

I recognise that in some ways my comment was badly phrased, mischievously badly phrased perhaps.  I should perhaps have written ‘this is what some British anti-fascists look like’, or just expressed my gratitude for their contribution to the war effort.  But my comment was deliberately open to misinterpretation, and I will admit that I did have in my mind the row about American ‘anti-fa’ protests at Charlottesville, Virginia, and Donald Trump’s insistence on moral equivalence.  ‘If you want to see what people who opposed Fascism look like’, I was trying to say, ‘look at these highly respectful and immaculately dressed old people’ before you condemn the category of ‘anti-fascism’.  

Nothing, however, prepared me for the flood of likes and comments from UKIP and Trump supporters who seemed to think that my intention was to criticise and condemn the young people who protested against the neo Nazis, White Supremacists and Ku Klux Klanners who are making such a terrifying resurgence in modern America, or the forces of nationalism unleashed in Britain by the EU referendum in 2016.

What was striking about so many of these responses is how contested and misused the word ‘fascism’ is in modern parlance.   These old people were praised because they seemed respectable, white and intensely ‘British’.  My tweet, I realised to my horror, was being liked and retweeted by Ukippers and Trumpeteers because they thought I was making a distinction between them and the young ‘riff-raff’ who opposed torchlight processions, anti-semitic chants and swastikas and confederate flags being paraded through the streets or opposed the whites-only racism unleashed by some of the followers of Nigel Farage and English nationalism.

And I suddenly remembered another tweet of mine, when I took my two children (aged 8 and 20, but profoundly disabled) on one of the protests against triggering Article 50, and tweeted a picture of all us, saying that this was what ‘national saboteurs’ looked like.   Not only was I trolled by people saying that I was indoctrinating my children, they claimed that I was behaving like a ‘fascist’ in denying the will of the people.  It seemed to escape their notice that freedom of assembly and speech was one of the first things the European fascists banned.

And it’s struck me again and again over the last dreadful year that the word ‘fascist’ is being dangerously misused, is being turned inside out and used to describe anyone you disagree with, in brief that this towering political evil is being relativised, trivialised and exploited in a way that should worry us all.

Because what is Fascism really?

Well, there are lot of things that it isn’t.  It’s nothing to do with the vile brutality and mass murder of the terrible days of Soviet Communism, despite all the Tweets I’ve seen quoting George Orwell’s argument that ‘fascism’ will come from the left and reminding me that the Nazis called themselves ‘national socialism’.  Nor is it anything to do with the attempt to bring the warring nations of Europe into a political and economic union, which has led to the longest period of peace and prosperity in European history.  

Nor, frankly, has Fascism much to do with the vile kleptocracy and economic nationalism of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and the rest; or the hubris of Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the desperately misguided champions of Brexit, even if in their hatred of the press, expertise and an articulate opposition they raise the spectres of the past.  ‘History’, Karl Marx said, ‘repeats itself, first time as tragedy, second time as farce’ and as the lies, vanity and absurdity of 2016 become clear, when the bullshit has finally hit the fan, I’m sure that these two great democracies will find their way back to some version of sanity.

No, Fascism is something much, much worse.

It’s the ideology and thinking that places all authority in the hands of one leader and systematically destroys all opposition; it’s the strutting arrogance and bullying of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco and their uniformed thugs arresting, torturing and murdering socialists, anarchists or anyone who disagreed with them; it’s the screaming hordes at the rallies and parades, tears streaming down their faces as they salute their leader; it’s the brownshirts burning ‘decadent’ books in the main square of respectable German cities and forcing old Jewish men to scrub the pavements with a tooth brush; it’s the bombing of Guernica and the invasion of Poland; it’s the starvation, persecution and murder of whole sections of the population in the vast killing fields of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe and the Ukraine; and it’s those piles of skeletal bodies left to die of typhus and starvation at Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau, and the thousands of other camps and killing centres that to this day deface the very name of humanity.

We can debate whether the torture centres of Saddam Hussain and General Pinochet, the vile racism of the Confederate South or the Belgian Congo, and the grotesque violence of the Islamic State and Al Quaeda are a bastardised version of mid-century European fascism.  We can even ask what Nigel Farage and Steve Bannon have learnt from the experience of the fascist movements of the 1930s and 1940s.   But what we mustn’t do is use the word carelessly, as a one-size-fits-all term of abuse: lazy, provocative and counterproductive.

What we should do instead is recognise that the fight against fascism involved an entire generation: the German communists were the first to oppose the Nazis on the streets of Berlin and Hamburg; the International Brigades thought by fighting Franco they could stop Hitler;  during the war social conservatives like Winston Churchill worked alongside socialists like Clement Attlee; intelligent young men and women were code breakers at Bletchley Park while working class Tommies stormed the beaches of Normandy.   And lest we forget (a fact often forgotten in the United States), Hitler’s Germany was defeated above all by the Soviet Union, whose front line troops were hardly champions of the niceties of European civilisation: but then they’d seen in the devastated towns and villages of the Ukraine where that civilisation could lead.   It took all sorts to defeat Fascism, and we should hope that faced with the same challenge, we too would be anti-Fascists.

European Fascism can claim to be the most vile manifestation of mankind’s capacity for violence, cruelty and murder.  We should treat the word with more respect if we are to avoid the unbearable possibility of repeating it.