Posts Tagged ‘Fascism’

Myth and betrayal in an asbestos town (part one)

September 10, 2020

About the documentary Lamentations of Judas, shot in Pomfret, South Africa.

 

The desolation of an abandoned mining camp that serves as the backdrop for a Passion Play with an all-African cast. The life stories of Angolan war veterans, who are the main actors in the Passion Play. The theme: betrayal. More precisely: the betrayal by one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, of Jesus Christ, about to be executed by the Romans who had colonised the Middle East, where the story takes place.

Alright, you have probably lost me there. Allow me to continue and it will all make sense towards the end.

Lamentations of Judas is the last documentary made by the Dutch filmmaker Boris Gerrets, who died in March this year. In a short interview in English the film’s producer, Eric Velthuis explains how he came across a snippet of information about the South African town of Pomfret, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, a stone’s throw away from the border with Botswana. And he was intrigued: had anyone ever heard of a group of soldiers from Angola who had fought for the Apartheid regime and had been left marooned in a dilapidated town next to an abandoned asbestos mine where Portuguese was the main spoken language?

Turns out, quite a few had. There had been stories in various South African newspapers, more about that later. But the idea that African soldiers would fight for a government that made Africans third class citizens in their own country was something that just did not compute in a rational mind.

So they went to Pomfret and were met with a wall of stony silence. Which, given the context, was entirely predictable.

Most of the men, especially the older men who will make their appearance in the film, later, were fighting for the liberation of their country, Angola, against the Portuguese colonial regime. The war had started in 1961 and most of these men were fighting for the Frente Nacional de Libertaçao de Angola (FNLA), led by the charismatic but notoriously intolerant Holden Roberto, traits he shared with all of Angola’s post-independence leaders.

The FNLA was mostly based in the north of the country and consisted for a large part of BaKongo, people who have lived there for centuries. Support came from many different sides but arrived through Zaïre, a country whose leader (Mobutu Sese Seko) was a Western asset in the ‘Cold’ War with the Soviet Union. This put the FNLA at loggerheads – and indeed in hot fighting battle – with another liberation movement, the MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertaçao de Angola), a nominally Marxist movement that was to form the first post-independence government in the capital, Luanda, led by the poet, president and ruthless killer Agostinho Neto. The MPLA received enthusiastic military support from Cuba and rather reluctant assistance from the Soviet Union. (Later, of course, another murderously charismatic individual by the name of Jonas Savimbi would break off his alliance with Holden Roberto, set up his own movement UNITA and become the prime asset of the United States in the deadliest proxy war between the two superpowers of the ‘Cold’ War, which would last until 2002, when Angolan troops killed Savimbi, thus ending 27 years of hostilities that may have killed one million Angolans.)

32 Battallion. Retrieved from za.pinterest.com

Still with me? This is real history, in which hundreds of Angolan men were caught up, ground down and spewed out into that old asbestos camp called Pomfret, and abandoned.

Here’s what happened next, back in those tumultuous 1970s.

The presidents of Zaïre and Angola made their peace, which resulted in Holden Roberto getting booted out of Mobutu’s country and his FNLA fighters left to their own devices (as you will see, this is a recurrent theme in the lives of these men). And in the meantime, two other things happened: a military coup in Portugal (Revolução dos Cravos) in 1974 put an end to one of the last fascist governments in Europe (the other was in next-door Spain) and the new soldier rulers immediately started to remedy the cause that had made them cease power in the first place: those idiotic colonial wars they were fighting on behalf of the government they had just overthrown, in East Timor, in Mozambique, in Guinea Bissau, in Cabo Verde and, indeed, in Angola.

And in the same year, the South African Army started arriving in Angola because the last thing they wanted was a majority black government in Luanda that was also – horror of horrors – avowedly Marxist in nature. And the South Africans came across some of those old FNLA fighters and adopted them. A Colonel by the name of Jan Breytenbach has been associated with forging them into what they would become: the most terrifying counter-insurgency force in the Southern African region, the 32 Battallion, nicknamed Os Terríveis, the Terrible Ones. “They never lost a single battle,” gushed one commenter under a short South African film about Pomfret that appeared on YouTube in January 2008.

As they were taken to Nambia to fight against the liberation movement there, Angola descended into civil war. Savimbi turned UNITA into the anti-MPLA fighting force that the FNLA never was and president Neto’s government in Luanda ordered a purge (it was literally called A Limpeza, The Cleanup) of the more radical elements in the MPLA. The May 1977 mass killing may have cost up to 30 thousand people their lives. It followed a supposed failed coup and is, up to this day, not discussed inside Angola. It is also the subject of a book I reviewed four years ago.

That’s enough history for today. I will take you back to Pomfret and the film by way of Namibia and South Africa in the second part of this review, comning in a few days.

Nine days in July, 1938

July 18, 2020

Part 1 – Evian

This is not “another book about migration”, as it has been rather dismissively called. This is, in fact, a book about the European anti-migration machine and how it has been fully operational for eighty-eight years. The copy I am reviewing here is the Dutch original, written (full disclosure) by my great colleague and friend Linda Polman. Title (my translation): Not Wanted Anywhere. Literally it reads: Nobody Wants Them (Niemand wil ze hebben, in Dutch).

To explain that title we must go the French resort of Evian, on Lake Geneva. Polman has put her research and investigation skills to use to take us to the origins of Europe’s hostility to the idea of receiving refugees. This alone makes it an extremely welcome addition to the Europe-wide clamour about migrants and refugees, which is almost entirely dominated by emotion, rarely informed by facts and completely devoid of any historical perspective. This book offers facts and history, in spades. And in fact, to my not inconsiderable shame, I will admit that I had never heard of this conference until I picked up this book.

For nine days in July 1938 a global mix of 32 delegations took some time off their leisure activities, abundantly available at this French lakeside luxury paradise, to discuss the question what to do with the growing problem of Jewish refugees from Germany, already in the asphyxiating grip of Nazism. To put it more precisely: the delegates discussed the question how to avoid doing anything about the growing Jewish refugee problem, by using phrases that will sound very familiar in 2020. The excuses ranged from “We’re full,” through to “We should not take in too many of them, as this will create tensions” all the way to declaring the vast majority of those desperately trying to get away from the repressive Nazi steamroller “unwanted elements”.

Aerial picture of Evian, retrieved from evian-tourisme.com

None of the nations present, including Canada, Australia, the United States or indeed a smattering of Latin American ones offered any sanctuary. But we should not lose sight of the fact that this was first and foremost Europe’s problem. And the response of Europe’s nations? Keeping all borders closed.

For the Jewish delegates, Evian was not the soothing pleasure trip from massage parlour to leisure boat. It was a horror show, as 32 delegations casually condemned countless Jews to a prolonged stay in Germany, which for many of them would end in a death camp. “Sorry. We’re full.”

The Nazis watched the spectacle with cruel irony. As the conference dragged on, their propaganda paper Völkische Beobachter would write a sneering comment along the lines of “We told you so” and continue, referring to the Jews, desperate to get out, with this deadly accurate assessment: “Nobody wants them.” Four months after the conference ended, an all-out attack on Jewish persons, houses of worship and businesses took place during the infamous night that would go into history under the name Kristallnacht. In the wake of this massacre that killed hundreds, the Netherlands reinforced its border controls.

Having set the scene, the book then takes us through the ‘Cold’ War (there were many parts of the world where that war was not cold at all) and into the era following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the many ways in which the Evian Paradigm, if you like, has continued to shape the policies of Europe, the European Union and its member states regarding migrants and refugees. More on that in the next installment.

Oh and what’s the Evian Paradigm? You can glean that from the many excuses the delegates used to keep their borders shut during those nine days in July 1938. Put bluntly, you can summarise it inone single phrase: Keep ‘Em Out And Keep ‘Em Over There. Without presenting a blow-by-blow account of the book, I will give examples of what that means in practice and in so doing also – and hopefully – provide enough ammunition for the argument that this book does indeed deserve an English translation.

Stay tuned.

 

A plea for accuracy – 5 and end

December 16, 2018

Here it is, then: the last instalment of my brief end-of-year reflection…

Yes, I can hear the objections, as in: what we are seeing today are all baby steps towards fascist rule. Let’s be clear about this: in the context of the ruin that was 1920s and 30s Europe, the rise of fascism was swift and ruthless. The defences were down and thus the disease could spread rapidly. While there are definitely signs of the disease present in today’s society, there are institutional and even personal defences in place to prevent it from taking over the body politic.

None of this means we should let down our democratic guard. But vigilance is helped enormously by proper analysis and this is in extremely short supply. Analysis is often replaced by emotion-charged muddled thinking, resulting in rants where institutional organisation (the separation of powers), civil society (media and trade unions) and the political process are mixed up and/or misrepresented; locate the opinion section in pretty much any edition of The Guardian for a sample. From this whirling maelstrom of confusion we are supposed to gain a sense of impending doom without being handed the tools to prevent it – but we get to acknowledge that we readers, like the author, are all on the (politically) correct side of history. Because Orange Man Bad. Or something.

These rants are symptomatic of Western society’s therapeutic tendencies. The comments under such articles frequently reinforce the belief that we’re seconds from Fascist End Times and Eternal Darkness is about to descend upon is, the next Hitler has arrived… Hyperbole has replaced clear-headed thinking. But this is not the 1930s and we are not in Germany or Italy. It is deeply depressing to have to point out this simple fact.

Fascism is not “a policy I disagree with”, neither is it “an elected leader who does not represent my preferences”. As long as those elected leaders can be removed – and there is zero evidence that this has become impossible – you may have elected leaders with unsavoury ideas and bad manners but you do not have a fascist in the house.  The idea that parliamentary democracy can be abolished overnight, Europe 1930s fashion, betrays a shocking lack of faith in well-established institutions: checks and balances, parliamentary control, an independent judiciary, separation of powers, strength of civil society, the lot.

Intellectual rigour is vital, especially when the open sewer known as social media leaks its effluvium every minute of the day and newspapers (supposedly of record) are all too frequently caught serving a false narrative. The Fourth Estate is most certainly in great need of some re-appraisal and must re-assess its position and especially its role as the broadcasting arm of some political party – or tendency. This has been a creeping and pernicious tendency. Remember Bush and Blair’s WMDs? A piece of utterly cynical fakery that ended the life of a British weapons expert with impeccable credentials, Dr David Kelly, by his own hand. Everyone went along for the dishonourable ride that ended up giving the world ISIS. And does anyone still think that removing Ghadaffi from power in Libya was the brilliant and necessary idea everyone told us it was? None of the main players in these pieces of disgusting geopolitical theatre has ever apologised, let alone been brought to justice. None of those players now crying “fascism” at every turn – and peddling the latest tale, this time tinged with bouts of hysterical Russophobia – have any lessons to teach us about morality or political integrity. Oh and just to be sure: neither does the other side. I am an equal opportunity curmudgeon.

It is useful to know who and what you are dealing with. To describe the enemy accurately makes tackling the problem easier. Resurgent groups that are recycling fascistic themes most decidedly are the enemy. They lie, they solve nothing and invariably end up making life miserable for everyone. But an attack with terminology that no longer has any meaning renders that struggle more difficult. ‘You keep using that word…’ If we stop mindlessly throwing it around, then I think this piece has served its purpose. An early and excellent 2019 to you all.

A plea for accuracy – 3

December 10, 2018

Next installment of my brief end-of-year reflection…I have hesitated about this theme, writing and then re-writing bits of the entry that follows but I do feel it needs to be put out there. I had cut it up in smaller parts…four when I started – but for reasons of legibility (and because I keep re-working stuff) there are now five parts. I promise that’s where it will stay.

 

As the previous section suggests, Fascism is above all: organisation. There is no comprehensive fascist ideology but there are themes. Taken together, these themes produce a poisonous cocktail. In the 1920s and 30s, fascist leaders capitalised on the twin themes of national humiliation/demoralisation and national resurrection to capture their audiences. The Italian Benito Mussolini personally made the Odyssey from editor-in-chief of Avanti, the socialist party’s paper, to the leadership of the fascist party. An Austria-born amateur painter and World War One front soldier came back to a destroyed German Empire and wrote an overlong book about his struggle.

Both argued that The Nation must be made strong again. The way to do this is through organised coercive violence. The Party and its (visionary) Leader are there to bring this about for a deserving demoralised populace. And this is the third theme.

Filling the void

In both countries, the idea of The Nation got bound up with the demographic that historically was supposed to have owned that nation, hence the reference to that supposed organic unity of Ancient Rome, Blood and Soil in the German version. Indeed, this is about The People: that mythical, constructed, artificial – and above all pure – in-group. It is hardly surprising that fascism (certainly in the German variety) places great emphasis on the wholesome life outside the cities, in the natural idyll of the unspoilt natural countryside.

Once Nation, People, Party, Leader and State are declared to be the same, everybody else falls outside that frame. First the dissenters: the socialists, the communists, the anarchists, the writers, musicians – jazz was infamously declared to be “degenerate art” -, playwrights and other artists, the clergy who questioned the New Faith. They were the first inmates of the concentration camps. Then came everyone else considered “Not Like Us.” The Jews, but also the Roma, Asians, Africans, gays and lesbians…all were brutally attacked by party militias and physically destroyed by the repressive machinery of the Party-controlled State.

It should be clear, then, that the nature and organisation (and to a lesser extent the thematic underpinnings) of this self-perpetuating death machine made territorial expansion unavoidable. The machine needs constant feeding. The lands outside The Nation are full of people “Not Like Us,” therefore they can be subjugated and humiliated in our holy quest for more resources and Living Space.

Flight/Conquest

In Central Europe, the war began on September 1, 1939 with a classic piece of fake news. Hitler claimed that the Poles had attacked, and then he inserted this infamous little phrase: ‘Since 5h45, fire is being returned.’ In their conquests, the Germans could fall back on the “expertise” they had gathered during their colonial reign; some of the worst criminals who had participated in the destruction of the Herero and Nama peoples in Namibia effortlessly found their way to the German fascist party. The Italians crossed the Mediterranean and set foot on Libyan soil…after all, the Romans had been lord and master on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea – and most of Western Europe. In their attempt to imitate the ancient empire, Italian colonisers got their hands on Eritrea and Ethiopia. In 1937 they carried out an appalling atrocity, killing thousands of people in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, an infamy that is described in this book. 

***

To sum up then, we have three simple, self-centred navel-gazing themes to seduce a pauperised population and gain power, we have violence and terror-based dictatorship to consolidate that power once obtained and we have wars of conquest to gain more power and fresh resources. Never the question arises whether or not this “model” is sustainable. History teaches us that it isn’t. It eats itself.

Banning says, and I agree with him, that at heart there is no coherent ideology. Fascism fills a void and it fills it with raw, naked, undiluted, violent, cynical power, exercised by people who are often unable to excel anywhere else. The Italian and German fascist parties attracted criminals, misfits and failures who jumped on the fast train to power until it inevitably hit the buffers, leaving the two Great Leaders exposed as the charlatans they were. Both men and their short-lived projects came to violent ends.

Now fast-forward…

A plea for accuracy – 2

December 6, 2018

Here’s part Two, then…

 

In this ruinous context, two ideologies vied for supremacy, both initially against the capitalism that had been the main cause of this violent catastrophe. But while one – Socialism – preached the wholesale smashing of the system through solidarity of the working classes, the other veered in the opposite direction and became Fascism, a reference not to solidarity but the exact opposite: circumscribed unity and power, intended to exclude. Its symbol became the tightly-knit bundle, fascis, in Latin, the language of Ancient Rome.

What, if anything, can we say about Fascism, looking at its behaviour while it straddled the political landscape of two European countries? Banning explains.

First, Fascism rejects parliamentary democracy. Even though it may come to power in a more or less democratic context, the minute it arrives, democracy gets tossed in the bin. Which brings us to the second key feature.

Fascism is not merely dictatorial, it is profoundly totalitarian. The locus of power is The Party. The Party dominates life and has a symbol of its power: The Leader. Loyalty and obedience to both are non-negotiable. Fascist parties in Italy and Germany maintained their own militias to suppress dissent, used secret police to terrorise the population. They had no hesitation to bring swift and extreme violence to bear on anyone perceived a threat. All of these were highly visible early on, while the parties aspired to grab power for themselves.

A gathering storm

Third, and as an extension of that violent totalitarian practice, Fascism has one way and only one way to resolve the problems it is supposed to address. The twin problems in Europe at the time were mass unemployment and widespread pauperisation in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929. The solution was, inevitably, War. Italy and Germany created industries that gobbled up the jobless and spewed out war machines that were subsequently used in the areas considered ripe for conquest. And of course, you could get rid of your excess youth (young men, essentially) by sending them away in huge numbers and hoping – or making sure – most of them never came back. The machine was unstoppable until the rest of the world assembled an even greater force and took them on.

Central to fascist organisation is the State, which in this model serves the Party. Only the State can enforce discipline on an entire population, unleash terror on a massive scale, assemble an army and organise the nation’s economy around the war effort. And only the State is large enough to roll out the totalitarian program across all spheres of life, as demanded. The State made workers, soldiers, politicians, educators, media workers, trade unionists, lawyers and judges, even scientists and the clergy bow to the will of the Party. Those who refused found themselves locked up in a police cell, a torture centre, a concentration camp or simply disappeared, never to be seen again.

But where should they bow? What the hell is the idea?

That’s for the next installment.

A plea for accuracy – 1

December 4, 2018

For an end-of-year reflection I am taking a short break from matters West African although it is not unrelated… I have hesitated about this theme, writing and then re-writing bits of the entry that follows but I do feel it needs to be put out there. It’s long, so I have cut it up in four smaller parts. Whenever you’re ready…

 

Here’s a word that is being bandied about with wild abandon. It reminds me of that film quote:

‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’ It’s my deepening irritation about the over-use of this word, misinformed by a complete lack of historical context. The word is: Fascism.

I have in my luggage a classic from my political science classes. The book is entitled “Contemporary Social Movements” (or Hedendaagse sociale bewegingen, to quote the original title) by the Dutch religious sociologist and pacifist Willem Banning. His descriptions of these social movements, both religious and secular, are succinct and to the point.

The first print run appeared as Europe was sliding towards what would become World War Two. An adapted version was published after 1945, and that is the one I have access to. Banning describes and evaluates the destructive movement, Fascism, as it rose and fell in Italy and Germany.

It’s instructive to go back to this, because we are bombarded with phrases that suggest the 1930s are back, World War Three is around the corner and the entire Western world is in the grip of an extreme right-wing wave that will lead straight to the resurrection of the gas chambers and the concentration camps. Well, are we? Let’s examine the Beast.

Fascism appeared as a political force after World War One (1914-1918), which was a giant European fight for global turf. European nations’ collective heads had crashed into various walls. Limits, more accurately. Limits to economic growth, limits to colonial expansion and limits to its rampant capitalism. As a result, Europeans lunged at each other’s throats for four years and at the end of it some 11 million people lie dead. Also dead: three empires: Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. Another one, Russia, had a bloody revolution and two others (France and Great Britain) had fatally injured themselves and many of their subjects in Asia and Africa. The European void was both physical and spiritual. World War One buried the 19thCentury and its notions of societies moving inexorably forwards. The space left open was taken up by a new, confident and optimistic kid on the block – America (which, one century on, is in the process of being overtaken by China).

 

Part Two shortly.