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It Can’t Happen Here
On the morning of April 9th 1940 mum’s cousin, Bjørg, got out of bed to celebrate her eleventh birthday. That wasn’t the only event to make the day so memorable. Later that morning the Germans invaded.
There are times it becomes difficult to separate fiction from reality. In Sinclair Lewis’s semi-satirical novel It Can’t Happen Here, published in 1935, Senator Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip campaigns for the U.S. presidency on a populist ticket, promising to restore the country to its former prosperity and greatness. But behind all the glitz he harbours a more sinister agenda. He plans to seize complete control of the government and impose a dictatorship supported by a paramilitary force trained to crush dissent with extreme violence.
My Norwegian mother told me that German officers ordered the immediate evacuation of Oslo on the day of the invasion, saying Luftwaffe planes were on their way to bomb the city and everyone in it. Mass panic ensued as the entire population grabbed all they could carry only to clog the roads leading out. Though the Germans may indeed have carried out their threat, it served as a handy ruse for troops to make themselves at home without facing any real opposition. As mum had a tendency to exaggerate, I don’t know whether all the details are true. Then again, her stories have proved far more accurate than much of today’s mass media.
In the past, critics have pointed out the parallels between Sinclair Lewis’s amazingly prescient novel, and the rise of the Third Reich in Germany. And there are striking similarities.
That said, I don’t think I’m the first to spot the resemblance between the book’s fictional campaign and the terrifyingly real presidential campaign being fought in the United States today. The only clear difference I can see is that voters were presented with a proper choice of candidates in Lewis’s novel. In today’s BigMac versus Whopper race there is no real choice. Both contenders are promising to restore the country to its former prosperity and greatness, while privately plotting to further cement their hold on government power in the interests of tax-evading big banks and the military/industrial complex to the detriment of workers and their rights.
To my mind, the real satirical bit in It Can’t Happen Here is that Lewis chose a journalist as his main protagonist. Doremus Jessup is not only a journalist but a journalist virulently opposed to Windrup’s fascist/corporatist regime. What’s more he’s journalist prepared to do something about it. Jessup’s struggle against Windrup leads to him joining the New Underground, an organisation dedicated to bringing the dictator down. These days, a plot as unlikely as an honest journalist standing up against a corrupted political establishment could give decent satire a bad name.
Judging by today’s crop of leading hacks effective media opposition to repressive government policies is all but dead. The lickspittles currently kowtowing before their political leaders and global banksters spend most of their time sterilising the ‘news’ for the re-education of their dwindling numbers of consumers.
It did happen there
Talk in the schoolyard often turned to WWII during the 1950s and 60s. Not even a decade had passed since hostilities ceased when most of us first started school. The war was a constant theme on the radio, TV and film. Too often glamourised, there can be little wonder at why we played war games during breaks. Whether on the battlefield or factory floor all our families had been involved in the war effort one way or another, and everyone knew someone close who had been killed or maimed as a consequence. As we grew older, some of us began thinking more seriously about the causes of war. The general consensus was that whatever had brought fascism to Germany “could never happen here”. Children of the British Empire, we were exceptional. But I harboured my doubts.
Norway was just over a month away from celebrating thirty-five years of independence from Sweden when the Nazi occupation began. While dire poverty was rare, it was far from being the prosperous nation it became in the late 1960s with the discovery of off-shore oil. Like much of the rest of Europe, the austerity that came in the wake of the First World War had created a breeding ground for political extremism on both left and right. Things were made even worse by the Wall Street crash of 1929, which sent a tsunami of financial ruin round the globe. Just like today, the huge rewards of a successful economy always headed one way, and that was up. Whereas the huge costs of failure were continually being dumped on the masses that created the wealth. Throughout the West the middle and working classes had grown extremely angry with the small elite bleeding their countries dry. Many ordinary people sought radical change through membership of either the communist party or the fascists. With no change coming, anger began to spill over into acts of violence. There were times the violence was deliberately provoked by the very forces charged with containing it, in order to justify even more state control. In Germany, where hyperinflation was rampant, massive discontent had led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party, and the fascist state taking over control of everything.
A young adult in Oslo during the German occupation, my mother learned the deprivation fascism brings the hard way, having suffered five years under Nazi rule. Fear and hunger stalked the streets hand in hand. She met my father after the liberation of May 10th 1945. A flight sergeant in the RAF, he had been instrumental in the relief. They married in England following his demobilisation. Mum told me about day to day life during the occupation as I grew up. Though horrified at times, I never tired of listening.
She almost spat the name Vidkun Quisling when telling me of the betrayal that preceded the German invasion. In the months before, the leader of the right wing Nasjonal Samling (National Unity Party) had conspired with Hitler to hand over Norway in exchange for being appointed leader of the government of occupation. Its vital strategic position and long Atlantic coastline made the Scandinavian nation a target that couldn’t be permitted to fall into British hands. Instead of going down in history as a hero, as he wanted, Quisling made his mark by selling his compatriots out to the Nazis. It might do some good for some journalists to reappraise themselves of the term quisling. In most thesauruses it appears as a synonym for ‘sell-out’.
On a trip to Oslo, not long before she died, Mum told me of the screams that could be heard coming from a nondescript building she pointed out in the centre of the city. It had served as Gestapo HQ during the occupation. Those suspected of fighting in the resistance, or aiding the struggle, were taken there for interrogation. There is no question that the vast majority of Norwegians hated the Nazis even before the invasion. A strong resistance movement kept up the fight right up to the day of liberation.
Yet, despite what most Norwegians would prefer to believe, Quisling was far from alone in betraying his countrymen. More than 5000 Norwegians volunteered for the Waffen SS following the invasion, and many Norwegian industrialists saw the occupation as a business opportunity to be exploited. Able to cut costs by using slave labour they were handsomely rewarded for their valuable contribution to the Third Reich’s war effort. Norwegian social anthropologist Sindre Bangstad has written a roundup of various authors’ works on the subject under the title The Dark Sides of Norwegian History.
In his latest book, Fangene som forsvant (The disappeared prisoners), author Bjørn Westlie revealed that tens of thousands of Russian and Yugoslav prisoners of war were used by NSB (Norwegian Railways) as slave labour to construct a railway line in the freezing temperatures of north Norway. Thousands are said to have died as a result of deprivation and the extreme conditions, right under the eyes of NSB workers. Those who didn’t collude realised it would best to ignore what was going on. It’s easy to say we would behave differently, but I’d rather not put it to the test.
But it is the role the Norwegian press played leading up to and throughout the German invasion that should send shivers down our spines, considering the fog of propaganda, disinformation and lies being dished up by the Western media today.
By selecting passages garnered from other writers for his essay, Bangstand illustrates how the persecution of Jews in Norway during the Nazi occupation could not have occurred to the extent it did without the help of numerous collaborators. They included the state police and national press. Confessing his father volunteered for the SS, Bjørn Westlie writes: “The paper Aftenposten employed Norwegian Waffen SS volunteers on the killing fields of Eastern Europe, such as Ulf Breien and Egil Hartmann, as foreign correspondents”. He also documents how the country’s most influential daily newspaper, collaborated with the Nazis. Far from being a reluctant partner, Aftenposten never offered any opposition to the occupiers but “…willingly submitted to the new Nazi rulers”.
Aftenposten’s Berlin correspondent, Theo Findal, was an “enthusiastic partner” for Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine. The vilification of Norway’s small Jewish community was nothing new to the paper’s pages. Aftenposten had a history of anti-Semitism with anti-Jewish editorials dating back to the 1920s. Most of Norway’s Jews belonged to poor immigrant families from Lithuania, living in the rundown district across the Akers River in the East of Oslo long before it became the fashionable area it is today. Politically, they tended to lean towards the social democratic left and communism, making them even more of a target for the Nazis and their Norwegian collaborators. Westlie recounts how the Nazified Norwegian state police played an important role by “…acting as willing accomplices in the rounding up of Norwegian Jews across the country”. We can presume they were aided by narks embedded in their communities.
Far from being ‘free and open’ providers of news, history shows our mass media outlets have developed a habit of cosying up to government. They have also developed a habit of conveniently ‘forgetting’ or covering up their role in supporting illegal wars. Even worse, over the last couple of decades, leading journalists have taken to promoting the criminal overthrow of democratically-elected governments by brute force. They openly endorse ambiguously labelled no-fly zones, which are used as a cover to bomb incovenient governments into submission. They support the funding and arming of terrorists in the name of humanity, only to wash their hands of responsibility for the terrorism and chaos that follows.
Hurrah for the Blackshirts!
Norway was not alone in possessing a fascist minority stirring up hatred against Jewish minorities in the run-up to WWII. Just like today, the right wing was on the rise all over pre-war Europe. Across the Atlantic, American fascists were crawling out of the woodwork.
Britain had its Vidkun Quisling in Oswald Mosely and his Blackshirts. And it also had its own Aftenposten. In the 1930s, along with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, British high society fell in love with Nazism. But few grew more infatuated with brutal fascist dictators than Lord Rothermere. The influential newspaper proprietor, who numbered Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler among his personal friends, used his popular title The Daily Mail to win support for Mosely’s British Union of Fascists, and to vilify British Jews. As Viscount Rothermere he wrote an article in 1934 headlined Hurrah for the Blackshirts! in which he praised Mosely for his “sound, common sense, Conservative doctrine”. There can be little doubt had Rothermere got his way Oswald Mosely would have been installed as Hitler’s puppet in Downing Street.
Today the targets of European racism and xenophobia are increasingly the families of Muslim immigrants and refugees fleeing Western-backed military intervention in their homelands. But xenophobia in Britain has started targeting migrant workers from EU member Poland. The corporate media has been playing its customary role of egging things on from the side lines, while pretending the growing violence directed against foreigners has nothing to do with them. The chorus of journalists whining as they throw their hands up in exasperated despair at the slightest suggestion of incitement to hatred is enough to bring an entire orchestra of violins out. At the same time, stirring up hatred against Russians and all things Russian is being actively encouraged by significant minorities of politicians from all sides. With the eager help of leading British media outlets, no less than British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson gave the green light for “Two million, three million, four million…”racists and xenophobes to express hatred for an entire nation in front of the Russian Embassy. The whole episode puts me in mind of Mao Zedong urging millions of Red Guards to rise up and purge anybody they didn’t like during China’s Cultural Revolution. If Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on thousands of Russians to protest outside the British Embassy in Moscow, well, you don’t need me to tell you how the British media would react. One thing is pretty certain, had the public risen up to support the cause in the millions Chairman Boris called for, it’s doubtful there would’ve been any Metropolitan Police ‘kettling’. As it happens, only one patriotic citizen responded to the call and the Commissioner of Police took the decision not to kettle him. The scale of government and media hypocrisy is breathtaking.
One of the lowest, yet almost surrealistically comedic, points came during last June’s European Cup in France, when at least one media outlet stopped short of accusing Russian hooligans of foul play because they didn’t get drunk before attacking ‘extremely drunk’ English fandals outside a bar in Marseilles. As Boris Johnson might say – and for once he’d be right – “It’s just not cricket”.
In the same way dissenters against the Nazi narrative were attacked by the German press, today’s dissenters against western aggression are mocked and branded Putinbots, sympathisers, or stooges on the Kremlin payroll by the corporate media. While allowing comments loaded with sneering insinuations that fit their underlying agenda, The Guardian has taken to removing many comments that dare question the mainstream narrative before suspending, or even banishing, their posters. Make no mistake, however innocuous some may seem, attacks like these are intended to intimidate us into submission.
History has clearly demonstrated that when the Fourth Estate starts to self-censor in blind obeisance to a foreign government with an out of control economy, increasingly based on funding a completely unviable, yet ever-expanding military/industrial complex, wagering on waging war to save its own skin, it might already be too late to start watching our backs. As for Europe, too many of us may be looking in the direction the real enemy is pointing us.
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