Joyce McMillan: The rise of the far-right in Europe is no Cabaret, old chum

A stark warning from history, delivered by Will Young and Louise Rednapp, in the musical Cabaret
A stark warning from history, delivered by Will Young and Louise Rednapp, in the musical Cabaret
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It seemed like a pretty ordinary reviewing job, when I headed for the Edinburgh Playhouse on Tuesday to see the current production of Cabaret. The show won a nomination at the 2013 Olivier Awards for Pop Idol star Will Young, who plays the key role of Emcee at the iconic 1930s Berlin dive, the Kit Kat Club; and this week in Edinburgh, he’s joined by Louise Redknapp playing the English cabaret singer Sally Bowles, and Susan Penhaligon as their Berlin landlady, Fraulein Schneider. It’s a thrilling piece of musical theatre, driven by those legendary Kander & Ebb songs.

The truth is, though, that at this point in European history, the show is becoming harder and harder to watch; and not only because of director Rufus Norris’s intensely political conclusion. Ever since I first encountered Cabaret, in Bob Fosse’s great 1972 film version starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Gray, I’ve been aware of the warning against the rise of Nazism that lies behind its gorgeous, sleazy showbiz glitter.

Set in 1931, shortly before the Nazis became Germany’s governing party, it’s based on Christopher Isherwood’s thoughtful 1930s Berlin Stories, and shows a social scene gradually darkening and narrowing as Nazi thugs roam the streets in uniform, beating up Jews, homosexuals and foreigners. And back in 1972 – when Britain was about to join the European Union – the film seemed like a celebration of the defeat of the Nazism, as well as a warning against it; vital, brilliant, and unanswerable.

So it is hard, 45 years on, to watch this show now, in the week when an army of 60,000 far-right activists from across Europe and beyond, some of them proudly proclaiming their Nazi credentials and chanting “Sieg Heil”, celebrated Polish National Day by marching through Warsaw carrying banners with messages that read “White Europe” and “Clean Blood”. The right-wing Law & Justice Party, the government in Poland, refused to condemn this obscene parade of racism, prejudice, and extreme Islamophobia, with one minister reportedly calling the march “a beautiful sight”.

A few hundred miles to the south, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, once a human rights activist, routinely shores up his popularity by engaging in fear-mongering and hate-speech on the subject of Islam and refugees. Asked by the EU to accept a tiny total of 1,200 Syrian refugees for resettlement, Hungary flatly refused. Meanwhile, independent newspapers have been closed down under debatable circumstances, arts funding has been withdrawn from writers who “lack the genetic feeling of nationalism”, and Orban’s government is conducting a bizarre vendetta against everything associated with the Hungarian-born American financier and philanthropist George Soros, whose supposedly evil, immigration-friendly face has become a main subject of its campaign posters. All of this, of course, would be distressing enough in any country that once, so recently, seemed set on a path towards liberal democracy and freedom; but what is truly frightening is the absolute failure of the EU to take any effective steps at all to counter these plainly illiberal and authoritarian measures taken by member governments. It has taken the Catalan crisis, perhaps, to make more of us in western Europe aware of how little the present group of EU governments care for the principles of international law on which their association is supposed to be founded.

In truth, though, the weakness of the EU in confronting flagrant abuses of rights by member governments, combined in some cases with open official racism and hate-mongering, is beginning to cause concern bordering on panic among those who have seen the EU, until now, as a bureaucratic but broadly reliable bulwark of peace and democracy on our continent; not least because its indecisive behaviour increasingly conjures the ghost of the old League of Nations, the precursor to the UN, which crumbled and failed so spectacularly under the pressures of the 1930s.

The word “democracy” is part of the problem, of course. Our postwar institutions were founded on an assumption that democracy is a complex process, involving minority rights and freedoms, as well as respect for majority opinion; people were well aware that Hitler’s due election to power, in 1933, did not, and could not, legitimise his subsequent actions.

Today, though, it seems that crude majoritarianism rules, not only in Hungary and Poland, but in Trump’s America and here in the UK, where the 48 per cent who voted against Brexit are apparently to be completely ignored, if not denounced as “mutineers” on the front pages of leading newspapers. The Europe of 1945 knew that democracy was not the same thing as crude populism based on rank disinformation, just as it knew that plebiscites were one of the tools of dangerous demagogy; and it was to provide a safeguard against that kind of politics that the UN Charter and the European Convention on Human Rights were written, as bulwarks against authoritarianism, oppression, thuggery and exclusion, whatever government is in office.

Now, though, those bulwarks are beginning to crack, under the pressure of 20 years of neoliberal economics and the consequent financial crash, compounded by the shock of a massive refugee crisis. And of course you do not have to go to the Playhouse this week, and watch Cabaret, to be reminded of what happens next, if this process continues unchecked.

If you do, though, you will see, in all its vivid theatrical truth, the licensed thuggery on the streets, the gradual closing-down of thought and dissent, state-approved social conservatism eroding the rights of women and gay people, the breaking of once amiable community relations, and the sudden vanishing of ‘unpopular’ minorities. Back in 1966, when Cabaret first appeared on Broadway, people remembered all this from their own experience, and knew how to celebrate the victory of liberal democracy that made it all seem like a long-gone nightmare. In 2017, the very future of peace in Europe may depend on whether we still remember it now; and have the presence of mind to fight vicious right-wing populism through the political institutions we built for the task, instead of waiting until we have to fight them on the beaches.