Victoria Coren Mitchell Oh, do let’s be beastly to the Nazis

No­body thinks inks Paul Hol­ly­wood wood is an ac­tual l Nazi; we should let him dress how he likes

The Observer - - COMMENT -

ANazi goes into a pub. Hang on… that’s not a Nazi! It’s the well-known baker and TV per­son­al­ity Paul Hol­ly­wood! In case you missed last Sun­day’s shock tabloid story and the sub­se­quent furore, ab­ject apol­ogy, etc: Paul Hol­ly­wood has been seen in a pub dressed as a Nazi. Is this OK?

I’ll broaden the con­text a lit­tle. Paul Hol­ly­wood was not on the way to a rally – he was on the way to a fancy dress party. Is that OK?

Turns out these are old photos. The fancy dress party ac­tu­ally hap­pened in 2003, 14 years ago. Is that OK?

The party had a theme of fa­mous TV sit­coms. Paul Hol­ly­wood, his wife and friends were go­ing as the cast of ’Allo ’Allo. Is that OK?

The vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple seem to think not. There was a proper out­cry, not just a bunch of trolls whin­ing on Twit­ter be­cause they’ve mis­un­der­stood some­thing again. This was all over the pa­pers. Proper ink-and­pa­per stuff. Politicians cen­sured him. A spokesper­son for the Cam­paign Against An­ti­semitism said: “Wear­ing these cos­tumes for fun is an in­sult to the Bri­tish sol­diers and civil­ians who died re­pelling Hitler’s on­slaught.”

The editor of the Jewish Chron­i­cle said: “[Paul Hol­ly­wood] showed a com­plete ig­no­rance of the hor­rors of the Se­cond World War… There are cer­tain things that are sim­ply wrong, who­ever you are.”

If you ask me (which no­body has), it’s OK to go to a cos­tume party dressed as a Nazi. I think it’s OK to think it’s funny to dress as a Nazi. It’s OK to make jokes about Nazis and OK to laugh at jokes about Nazis. It’s OK to be turned on by dress­ing as a Nazi. It’s OK to be turned on by look­ing at some­one else dressed as a Nazi. What’s not OK is to be a Nazi. I sup­pose I’ll say up front that many in my fam­ily were mur­dered by Nazis. I wasn’t a child who needed to learn about the Holo­caust from books and films. I sat with rel­a­tives who had num­bers on their arms. I met cousins who had been chil­dren in the camps where their sib­lings died. The pits, the cham­bers, the mas­sacres, the tor­ture, the un­bear­able mon­stros­ity vis­ited on us by the civilised peo­ple of Europe… It’s still in liv­ing mem­ory now, but it was in easy liv­ing mem­ory when I was lit­tle. It was our bed­time horror story, ex­cept the ogre re­ally was un­der the bed. You don’t need to write in and let me know what isn’t funny about Nazis.

Nev­er­the­less, I like the idea of treat­ing them, oc­ca­sion­ally, as a stupid joke. I like it be­cause the Nazis would con­sider it the ul­ti­mate des­e­cra­tion, to be ridiculed by the de­scen­dants of the peo­ple who de­feated them. Their pre­pos­ter­ous, goose-step­ping ral­lies were in­tended to cow and to awe; for that rea­son, it feels sat­is­fy­ing to be­lit­tle them. Mock­ery is a knife to the bal­loon of their foul pomp.

I like it be­cause I think it’s harder to re­vive Nazi sym­bol­ism se­ri­ously if it’s also be­ing done com­i­cally. I like the idea of an an­ti­semite frown­ing at his swastika arm­band in the mir­ror and wor­ry­ing that it would sim­ply re­mind peo­ple of a celebrity baker bum­bling into a Kent pub on New Year’s Eve. The far right is on the rise again, in Char­lottesville and na­tions closer to home. That sort of nas­ti­ness has al­ways been slower to take hold in Bri­tain, a coun­try that used to be quick and fear­less in tak­ing the piss out of ex­trem­ism as well as stand­ing up against it. The photo from 2003 might be a healthy lit­tle time trav­eller. I sus­pect ne­o­fas­cists have no fear of look­ing evil, but they re­ally don’t want to look silly.

I like it be­cause laugh­ter can be a pow­er­ful weapon. It’s a com­pli­cated thing, laugh­ter. My two-year-old daugh­ter gets very up­set when peo­ple laugh in “the wrong way”; she’s just start­ing to be sen­si­tive to the way a laugh can be fright­en­ing if you don’t un­der­stand it or feel ex­cluded from it. It can be an at­tack.

I dis­cussed the Paul Hol­ly­wood story with Joshua Levine, au­thor of The Se­cret His­tory of the Blitz and Op­er­a­tion For­ti­tude (and the cur­rent, best­selling Dunkirk). He said: “Of course, the Bri­tish were laugh­ing at Hitler from a very early stage. The song Hitler Has Only Got One Ball was writ­ten in 1939! It was prac­ti­cally part of the war ef­fort. We can talk about whether the Bri­tish would ever have gone for fas­cism, but there’s no doubt they’d never have gone for Hitler. Too tacky, too camp, too lu­di­crously over the top. The idea that ‘we mustn’t make light’ is far too sim­ple.”

Is it ac­tu­ally funny when a per­son puts a Nazi cos­tume on “for a laugh”? Not usu­ally, no. I don’t re­mem­ber ’Allo ’Allo be­ing that funny ei­ther. I just think it’s OK to try. I truly think it does more good than harm. Most of all, I like it be­cause it keeps the mem­ory alive.

I’d love to be­lieve that all chil­dren will be told about the evil of the Nazis, se­ri­ously and care­fully, for cen­turies to come. I fear that as the sur­vivors and their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren move off into his­tory, the ar­chi­tects of the “Fi­nal So­lu­tion” will slither away to be lost among the other vil­lains of the past.

Al­low­ing them to be pan­tomime bo­gey­men, go-to Hal­loween cos­tumes or the stuff of sit­com is just an­other way, I think, of keep­ing the bas­tards on the agenda. It gives chil­dren the chance to ask: “Why them? Why are we still harp­ing on about/ laugh­ing at/ dress­ing as those guys from 70 or 100 or 200 years ago?”

And af­ter that, you can only hope that some­one will tell them the an­swer.

I sus­pect ne­o­fas­cists don’t fear look­ing evil, but re­ally don’t want to look silly

’Allo ’Allo: laugh­ing at pre­pos­ter­ous Nazis.

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