Ken Livingstone is now seventy and should be living in peaceful retirement, surrounded by his scores of children, newts and ex wives. But sadly he remains compelled to see himself on the front page of newspapers. He recently managed to gain ample amounts of this dysfunctional satisfaction by simply using the metonym, ‘Hitler’. I think it is a word used as a powerful substitute for many other things rather than just a name. He lobbed it like a grenade into an argument in which he had no real involvement.
‘Hitler was a Zionist,’ he said and six days later, on Thursday April 28th was suspended from the Labour Party. More than twenty MPs, including Sadiq Khan, Labour’s Muslim London mayoral candidate, joined the hue and cry, screaming for him to be expelled.
He chose the ‘H’ word while purporting to defend the Bradford MP Naz Shah. She being rather foolishly up front about these things, had written a Facebook post suggesting that all Israelis should be moved out of the Middle East to America. Unfortunately Shah is currently a member of the House of Commons home affairs select committee conducting an inquiry into the rise of anti-semitism. She made the usual forced apology and was suspended.
After his comment about Zionism, Livingstone was roundly lambasted on TV by Labour MP John Mann who accused him of being a ‘Nazi apologist’. The former mayor, talking on his mobile the whole time took refuge in a public convenience where he stayed for fifteen minutes while Mann and the gentlemen of the press shouted questions at him about Hitler. Later Mann was reprimanded by Labour Chief Whip, Rosie Winterton. An increasingly harassed Jeremy Corbyn began chunnering wildly about anti-Semitism being unacceptable in the Labour Party, although he and everyone else knows it has been seen by some as an essential component for gaining Muslim votes.
A terrible mess all round. The secret is just say no to saying the H word because strange as it is, the name of a vulgar little man from Austria, is still perhaps the most dangerous word we have, equal in taboo levels these days to the ‘N’ word and the ‘C’ word. I would never say it in front of a German unless they were writing a PhD about the war. It often sounds more horrible now than in the previous generation among people who actually fought against him.
Its force is amazingly primitive; nearly a hundred years ago, Hitler’s tribe once attacked our tribe and although we are all now speaking again and forming alliances, nothing has been forgotten. Things too terrible to forget which terrify us about who we are as human beings, remain embedded in the blood soaked European earth stretching between us.
The scrapping of serious history teaching and the propensity for interest groups snatching bits of history which they don’t understand, which Livingstone did in his remark, doesn’t help anyone in Europe to come to terms with the past. We are now in a situation when Hitler’s most decisive work, the Holocaust, is constantly invoked to make political points and further left wing causes such as increased migration.
I first discovered the power of the name and ruthlessly tested it out when I was in my early 20s, looking for a job after university. Floundering about, like a lot of my contemporaries with arts degrees I decided to look for work in a Rudolf Steiner School. These were outside the state system so you didn’t need to seriously train as a teacher. They are based on the ideas of Steiner, an Austrian idealist, clairvoyant and crack-pot. He believed in reincarnation, Atlantis and the possibility of a synthesis between science and spirituality.
The schools for disabled children, were lavishly adorned with wavy patterns in pastel colours and mainly focussed on art. They proliferated in the 1970s when Steiner’s idea of ethical individualism suited the zeitgeist, as did his benign dottiness. A surprising number of my friends at the time were willing to put on the short pink tunic grab a lyre and take part in the required, ‘Eurythmy’ dancing. Well, it was that or the dole queue.
I went down to Hampshire for an interview to become some kind of teaching assistant. I was impressed by the beautiful grounds and the spiritual chapel with its stained glass in its wavy pinks and greens. In the interview I faced a room full of elderly women dressed in long, dark clothes and bits of old amber and garnet jewellery. They were all Mittle-Europeans with a melancholy, wistful lilt in their voices.
They looked at me in a kindly way. The large grey haired woman who seemed to be their leader, although they reject any kind of hierarchy, I took to be Austrian. She seemed quite enthusiastic about me. Then for reasons I don’t fully understand, sheer devilment partly, I said: ‘The rise of Adolf Hitler must have been very important in your life.’
There was a movement like a slow ripple across all the dark bosoms and skirts as they all looked at me in a moment of frozen horror. Saying that name was the equivalent of hitting them. I saw their eyes glaze over, some looked away, murmuring. With that name all friendly tranquillity had been destroyed.
I would like to have known their individual stories but you could generally guess them; bewildered disappointment, disruption, increasing poverty, then terror and flight. Their faces spoke of school friends and family left behind, all murdered. It was a world I knew about from books and there it was again, alive in their faces.
I did not get the job. I am sorry now that I spoke to them in that way. I was, am, genuinely interested, but you get people to talk most easily when they trust you, not when you hit them over the head with a club. Livingstone’s wild destructiveness reminded me of myself at twenty two. I’m glad I’m not like that anymore.