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Echoes of Fascism

In January I was teaching speculative and science fiction from the modernist period to show my students how fascism emerges, and how to recognise the ways that literary strategies can instil alienation, fear of the Other, and anti-Semitism and racism. My students were German, and our seminars were held in the north-west German university town of Paderborn, a little east of the Ruhr, where a British Army base has been located since the end of the Second World War. A year ago a British tabloid newspaper attempted to spin a terror story of migrants to Germany attacking “women living on the Army barracks” in Paderborn, but my students had heard nothing of this, and shrugged it off. The “attacks” seem not to have ever happened. Most people in Paderborn understand perfectly well that their migrant population has escaped from terror, leaving everything they had behind, and are not in exile to make trouble. The trouble comes from the propaganda of those who want to put the fascists back in power. My Paderborn colleague Christoph Ehland is watching the present state of European politics, as well as the Great Calamity that is Trump, with increasing alarm, since these times remind him powerfully of 1932, when the National Socialists gained a majority in the German parliament. He's now rereading the novels of Leon Feuchtwanger who predicted the rise of Hitler in his early 1930s fiction, written while in exile in the USA.

Every time I teach in Germany as a British citizen, Basil Fawlty’s desperate plea of “Don’t mention the war!” ricochets around my head. It feels a little like treading on ice, discussing British and American wartime antipathy to anything German, and I am careful to distinguish forensically between “German” and “Nazi” actions. When our class discussed the literary iteration of the human desire to reach space, and the propulsion power of the V2 rocket terror-weapon (as the tabloids would call it), the Blitz (during which my Willesden grandmother miscarried) was at the back of my mind. If the Nazis had directed the V2 upwards, instead of westwards towards London, it would have been the first man-made object to achieve an Earth orbit. Germany lost its chance to initiate the space race, and redirect the development of science fiction, due to fascism.

I gave a paper last weekend at the London Modernism Seminar, on Vita Sackville-West's 1942 novel Grand Canyon. It is one of many anti-Nazi, “what if?” speculative fictions written beginning in the mid-1930s, and is set in Arizona on the north rim of the Canyon. Nazi Germany has overrun Europe, and has just broken its pact of non-aggression with the USA. Japanese and German planes are about to start bombing the American South, and the novel spins off into fantastical and cataclysmic events, including the destruction of Manhattan by an earthquake running down Fifth Avenue. This kind of apocalyptic detail is familiar from Hollywood disaster films, which make New York’s destruction a synecdoche for the end of civilization as we know it. Yet this trope comes straight from late-nineteenth century speculative fiction and Edwardian “Great War with Germany” fictions that cluttered up the mass media for twenty years until the outbreak of the real war in 1914. In 1942 Sackville-West was responding to war in her own times, and wrote her novel as a warning.

Her protagonist notes that the US

will now have to learn to endure the things that Czechoslovakia, Poland, Greece, Belgium, France, Holland, Russia, Britain endured. She will see not only New York, Washington, Boston and ‘Frisco destroyed, but also Shenandoah in Virginia, Pigeonroost in Kentucky, Rome, Athens and Vienna in Georgia. Small homesteads in Texas and Nebraska will be attacked, even as Ipswich, Canterbury and Sutton Valence were attacked and taken in the last war, and little farmsteads seized in Essex and Devon—all over England in that surprising way. We in England began to understand war when the war-communiqués began to record familiar, humble names. (11)

The choice of place-names is significant.  The four principal cities in the USA are cited to represent the whole of the nation. Shenandoah is a tiny town, but important for US Civil War history. Rome, Athens and Vienna stand for their European counterparts. Vita’s British readers of 1942 would have known all this, but would have thrilled unpleasantly at the thought of Ipswich, Canterbury and Sutton Valence having already been conquered and destroyed, in the recently concluded sub-war of this fantasy conflict. These are warnings, and exhortations to not let this catastrophe happen.

Science fiction and speculative fiction respond to moments of pressure in society, and explore alternative social, political, and cultural iterations as speculations on how the immanent future might arrive. Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Nights (1937) is a peculiarly fantastical Future War novel, since it is written in the far future, looking back at the moment of Hitler’s victory and its results. Storm Jameson’s In The Second Year (1936) and Frank Tilsley’s Little Tin God (1939) also imagined a Fascist future, while Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts (1937) satirised it. I would like to read the science fiction that emerges from the present troubled and unstable times, if only because that would mean that we had survived them. One of the principal successes of the European Union, since its first beginnings as the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, is that Europe has not had a war since 1945. Twenty-first-century war has a very different modus operandi than tanks in Czech streets and Heinkel bombers above the English Channel. Starting a war against migrants, refugees and displaced people is cruel and alienating. We have to recognise it for what it is: political aggression with nationalist intent to cause fear of the Other. We have to push back against the propaganda, speak truth to power, and believe the evidence of our eyes, like my Paderborn students. They know their town is safe, and have no desire for disruption or mindless bullying.

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