A Novel By an Avant-Garde Genius Of The 1930s Offers Clarity
It’s easy to laugh at the old cliché that literature teaches us about ourselves. We’ve gotten more original aphorisms from fortune cookies. Those who utter this type of banality tend not to be particularly well-read, or to have any original ideas about the role of literature nowadays. Theirs is the language of Cliffs Notes. Often overlooked is the more interesting truth that fiction, and certain kinds of dystopian literature in particular, have things to impart about who and what we are not.
When we read George Orwell’s 1984, we can measure our distance from a socialist authoritarian state where the government watches everyone all the time and puts dissidents in jail. We may see some disturbing parallels between the world Orwell depicts and the politically-correct present. In our day, the movement to expunge statues and place names associated with a less egalitarian past, to consign them to the memory hole, is Orwellian to the core. But America is not a repressive socialist state, and is light years from being a fascist one.
If the brilliant Austro-Hungarian novelist and playwright Ödön von Horváth (1901-1938) were alive today, he might find it amusing that some pundits and public figures like to compare the election of Trump to the rise of fascist strongmen in decades past. Some, like the noxious Michael Moore, go so far as to suggest that Trump spells doom for democracy, that we’ve already crossed the line into full-blown fascism.
Unlike Michael Moore, Horváth lived in the 1920s and 1930s, and he knew something about what fascism really meant. But before delving into Horváth’s vision, let’s consider some of the more overblown rhetoric coming from the left. The idea that Trump’s 2016 campaign hearkened back to the rise of fascism in Europe and that Trump is a dictator with fascist tendencies is, of course, not new. Michael Moore is only the most recent and most vocal exponent of this slur. Moore’s new documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9, descends to levels of crudity and savagery that not even those of us who’ve followed the career of this shameless propagandist over the last three decades can be fully prepared for. Throwing all standards of fairness and objectivity out the window, abandoning all perspective, Moore explicitly likens to Trump to Hitler, superimposing the audio of a Trump speech over a newsreel of Hitler speaking at a Nazi rally.
But Moore is not a historian, as is painfully apparent when watching Fahrenheit 11/9. The basis for the Hitler comparison in the movie boils down to a few general and superficial observations: that Hitler had zero political experience before running for high office, and neither did Trump; that Hitler had a boisterous, brash personality and enjoyed telling stories, as does Trump; that Hitler promised to bring back jobs, as has Trump; and that in the early days of Hitler’s reign, the mainstream press tried to minimize the awfulness of the new regime by reporting on the continuing influence of moderate and liberal politicians, who, in this film’s vernacular, were akin to the liberal Democratic opposition to Trump today. Appalled at the Führer’s rise, they theoretically exercise a check on his powers, but are unable really to do so.
It should be clear to even the most uncritical viewer of Fahrenheit 11/9 that Moore has done little real analysis of Hitler, and that the traits and tendencies Moore imputes to Hitler (and to Trump) are, in reality, of the most general and superficial nature—ones that politicians of just about all political persuasions share.
As a filmmaker, Moore has a scattershot approach and a tendency to make a point, then to forget what he just said and contradict himself. He notes that Trump did not hold elective office before running in 2016. But does Moore truly believe that only Washington insiders should run for office? In the latter half of his film, Moore goes out of his way to praise and promote left-liberal outsiders and insurgents, such as Queens congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have jumped into politics in recent weeks without ever having held elective office. These unknowns have gotten into the game not because they are fascists, or embryonic fascists, but because they believe things need fixing and they are the ones to do it. Moore loves them. But according to Moore’s own logic, these insurgent Democrats are like Hitler, who leapt into the fray without political experience.
Hitler promised job growth, a key talking point of the Trump campaign? Well, given Moore’s role as a self-appointed advocate and champion of the working class, one wonders what kind of treatment a politician who did not make jobs a priority would get in one of Moore’s documentaries. For a candidate promising more jobs, it’s Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Hitler liked to tell stories? Since when do fascists have a monopoly there? One wonders whether Moore sees Hitlerian tendencies in Franklin Delano Roosevelt because the latter liked to tell tales and lull audiences with his “fireside chats” over the radio in the 1930s.
It doesn’t take much reflection to see Moore’s Hitler comparison for what it is: a weak, desperate, below-the-belt attempt to smear a President by invoking the worst nightmares of the last century. Moore’s Hitler comparison reminds us of what Christopher Hitchens wrote in his essay “The Cunning of History,” in the context of the Balkans conflict: “Comparisons to Belsen and Auschwitz show not that people learn from history but that they resolutely decline to do so, and instead plunder it for facile images.”
Moore’s slur also recalls one of George Orwell’s observations in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” Reflecting on the dilution of meaning of certain terms in popular use, Orwell wrote, “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’”
Moore, who was born in 1954, has no personal experience of the fascist period of modern history. For insight into what fascism really does, and does not, mean, it is useful to turn to sources who had direct experience, chief among them Ödön von Horváth. The young Austro-Hungarian genius lived in Berlin in the months before Hitler’s election in 1933 and then moved to Vienna, where he remained until Germany’s Anschluss with Austria in 1938, at which point he relocated to Paris. One evening in June 1938, a freak accident, the falling of a branch during a thunderstorm, cut Horváth’s life short. In his relatively short time on this earth, Horváth saw real fascism both in an embryonic form and in all its full-blown hideousness.
In his novels and plays, and in particular his 1938 masterpiece Jugend ohne Gott, published in the English-speaking world as The Age of the Fish, Horváth described a world where a rampant ideology poisoned minds, upended social relations, and locked communities into a course toward war, genocide, and oppression.
There is no explicit reference to the Nazi Party or to any real-life fascist figure in The Age of the Fish. But the novel’s narrator, a teacher in a small unnamed town in an unnamed country, increasingly finds his liberties constrained as the powers-that-be spread a creed of imperialism and white supremacy and ensure that schoolkids will imbibe only one point of view. The state’s goal is to prime youths to be good fascists who can help the regime carry out its expansionist aims.
At the start of The Age of the Fish, the teacher gets in trouble for an altercation with one of his pupils. Assigned to write an essay on the “colonial question,” the pupil makes nasty racist comments about the inhabitants of the faraway lands in Africa that the regime has marked for subjugation and exploitation. In the pupil’s view, a white western nation is justified in doing whatever it likes in order to subjugate and exploit a black colony and in treating black lives as worthless. Appalled at this attitude, the teacher tells the pupil in plain terms that it is evil and wrong to look down on blacks and to be indifferent to whether they live or die. For his ethical objection, the teacher gets in hot water with his pupil’s father, who complains to the administration.
Shortly after this incident, the teacher has to accompany the school’s students on a trip to a state-run camp in the country, where they will receive martial training and further indoctrination. But upon their arrival, the pupil with whom the teacher has argued dies in a grisly fashion, causing suspicions to fly in many different directions.
The youth of Horváth’s dystopia are, almost without exception, in the grip of a racist and imperialist ideology that freely condones violence as a means to advancing the interests of the master race. If Michael Moore ever picked up a copy of The Age of the Fish and managed to read more than a few pages, he might say that the novel is prescient, that it warns readers about creeping fascism. But, in reality, the novel shows us just how opposed Trump’s America is to fascist ideas.
Reading The Age of the Fish, it’s hard not to notice how much the people who turned out in large numbers to vote for Trump have in common, not with the fascists in the novel, but with the anti-fascist narrator. Faced with the egregious racism of his pupil, who denies the humanity of blacks and approves of genocide, the teacher invokes the Bible to make a case that all human life has value and God strongly disapproves of the taking of innocent life.
Exodus and Proverbs, and other parts of the Bible embraced by the Evangelicals who form a large part of Trump’s base, posit the sanctity of all human life and explicitly contradict the genocidal mindset instilled in the fascist society of The Age of the Fish. In the present-day U.S., churches that organize food donations for Liberia and other poor places in Africa are following a creed clearly incompatible with the racist mentality Horváth depicts.
The imperialist mentality of the dystopia in Horváth’s novel stands in direct opposition to the views and doctrines of the Trump administration. Trump is widely known and sometimes derided in the liberal media as an isolationist. In his debates with Hillary Clinton, Trump insisted that Americans should never have gone into Iraq. He has resisted the urge to go to war with North Korea even in the face of countless provocations. And he has aggressively moved to withdraw the U.S. from one United Nations committee after another in pursuit of a more limited and more considered engagement with the world.
American conservatives, among the most skeptical (if not contemptuous) critics of the boondoggle of U.S. public education, tend to champion homeschooling. They would soundly reject the type of state-run indoctrination camp depicted in The Age of the Fish. This kind of institution represents the worst kind of state intrusion into private life. It takes kids out of the hands of their parents and brainwashes them in the most high-handed and dictatorial manner. One would be hard-put to find any basis for it in the U.S. Constitution, and conservatives would be the fiercest and most eager enemies of any such fascist scheme.
At the end of The Age of the Fish, the teacher packs up and leaves for black Africa, seeking at last to live among the peoples whom the virulent ideology of the dystopian state has demonized and belittled. The narrator of Horvath’s novel could have done just as well to move to America in 2018, where the authoritarian ideology he has come to despise would find little welcome indeed, except perhaps among some liberals and progressives who favor a much greater role for the state in citizens’ lives.