After the recent van attack outside the Finsbury Park mosque in London, I overheard someone ask if it's ever going to end. The violence and tragedy. The terrorism. The disasters filling newspaper front pages. And I wanted to say, no, it won’t ever end. This is our world. These are the times in which we live. We can work to make them better, but we can't just wish the bad things away. But it wasn't my conversation, so I said nothing. No one waiting for a train in the UK wants to be told depressing things by a strange, perspiring, eavesdropping American. Still, I was having what you might call a “London moment.”
I was sitting in Marylebone station, too early for my train back to Oxford, suffering from the heat and trying to make use of my time by finishing a review of the movie Anthropoid. It came out last year from LD Entertainment, but only recently became available on Netflix, which is where I saw it. Sam Ellis directed the film. It stars Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy as two Czech resistance commandos, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, who assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, the “Butcher of Prague,” and the foremost architect of the Final Solution. The film is closely based on actual events as they unfolded on May 24, 1942 when Kubiš threw a converted anti-tank mine at the back of the Heydrich's staff car, inflicting fatal injuries.
Maybe I felt drawn to review the film because, in the grand confluence of events and realizations that make up a characteristic “London moment,” I suddenly understood something new about a former friend of mine who had, to borrow a phrase from Dorothy Thompson, “gone Nazi.” That a gifted and intelligent writer would suddenly subscribe to national socialism and start loudly admiring Richard Spencer, David Duke, and 1930s Germany, has been inconceivable to me. Sure, he was very outspoken about voting for Trump, which might be prima facie evidence of lunacy. But there's still a leap from Trump (or, in the UK, from Theresa May) to the likes of Adolf Hitler. Maybe it's a shorter leap today than we might have once thought, but a leap nonetheless.
My question was not, “Will it ever end?” because it's obvious that, to a certain extent, things have always been horrible somewhere. There's always someone being gassed and murdered. There's always a bloodthirsty regime attempting some form of genocide. Unfortunately, such atrocities are endemic to every age—which doesn't make them right, but a little more understandable.
Instead, my question was whether my former friend had been a Nazi all along or whether, in the various humiliations of his life, in the frustrations and the paranoia that led him from being a witty gonzo malcontent to an advocate of fascism, he'd become what Thompson calls, “the Nazi whom democracy itself has created.” And in my quietly improbable yet completely idiosyncratic London moment, I saw that the answer came as much from Anthropoid as it did from something I saw take place not five feet in front of me in the train station.
A southwest flow from the Azores had dialed the heat up to 35°C and London was delirious. I was waiting for the Chiltern “STD Advance” back to Oxford and felt I was close to a heat stroke. I sipped from the bottle of Evian that had gone from refrigerated to lukewarm in the time it took me to walk across the station. And though I was trying to write, it was hard to think. I found myself drifting away from Anthropoid, lost in unfocused thoughts and random memories as the heat felt like it was peeling my scalp millimeter-by-millimeter off the surface of my skull.
I recalled the day someone stole my car while I was seeing a movie at the Wilma in Missoula, Montana. There were two officers sitting in a cruiser a block away from the theater. I ran up to them and said, “Somebody just stole my car.” One of the cops looked up at me, took a sip of coffee, and answered, “So go kick his ass.” When I tell people from the UK that story, they never believe it. When I tell it to people from Montana, they often nod and say, “Yep.”
So I was feeling ill, sipping my water, thinking about Anthropoid; about who goes Nazi; about my old stolen Volvo; about eight hospitalized from a van in Finsbury Park by a madman screaming that he wanted to kill all Muslims; about people told to go back inside Grenfell Tower by firefighters and then burning to death as a result; about Theresa May not wanting to speak to the survivors for fear that they would exact retribution for ineffective safety measures in the government-owned building; and about the “So go kick his ass” solution. And right then I saw a Transport Police officer gently pick up an empty pint glass that someone had placed on the ground outside the station pub. He reached through the open window and placed it on one of the tables inside. I thought: there it is, a reminder that some people here are still taking care, still committed to the idea that those in authority actually do have an imperative to uphold the common good, even in a matter as small as preventing a piece of broken glass from going into someone's foot. So who goes Nazi? Not that Transport officer, for one.
Like any country, the UK isn't perfect. Sometimes, it isn't at all tolerant or remotely good. But now that I'd had that strange London moment, watching the Transport cop take the smallest amount of care with all those thoughts swimming through my heat-sick brain, I had cause to speculate about a quality the UK still has and that maybe we've lost in the States. Is it kindness? A sense of tolerance? Fundamental human decency? May explained that she was unwilling to talk with the Grenfell survivors due to security concerns. If pressed, she might’ve gone on to say that such concerns are based on the legitimate perception that London has, in fact, become significantly less tolerant in recent months. Case in point: the Finsbury Park van attack. But that sort of justification, coming from her, would be painfully, Trumpishly ironic. Police are still protecting people here. There's still a sense that people have a right to a dignified life.
In Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, wrote that Nazi Germany took a highly utilitarian view of human beings. Nazi “euthanasia” meant “killing of all those who have lost their social usefulness, be it because of old age, incurable illness, mental deterioration, or whatever handicap they might suffer." This sort of thinking is anathema in the democratic West. But maybe, as Thompson puts it, “Nazism has nothing to do with race and nationality. It appeals to a certain type of mind.”
Europe—and I include the UK in this, Brexit notwithstanding—still bears the psychic and physical scars of the world wars. It has a long memory. And who can forget Nazi Germany? The English, in particular, look back at what the continent endured in WWII. You can feel the precipitous weight of history just about everywhere you go in London. There's even a new thriller coming out about Churchill in the 96 hours preceding D-Day. The posters for it are currently all over the Underground with “The Icon You Know, The Man You Don't” printed across the bottom.
So the brutality depicted in Anthropoid is not a shocking revelation here. But I think I wanted to write about the film because I couldn't stop thinking about my friend losing his mind. I couldn't stop wondering whether he would have “gone Nazi” if he'd been living here instead of in Florida. Seeing that Transport officer pick up the pint glass unlocked an insight both about the film and about my friend. Thompson writes: “Sometimes I think there are direct biological factors at work—a type of education, feeding, and physical training which has produced a new kind of human being with an imbalance in his nature. He has been fed vitamins and filled with energies that are beyond the capacity of his intellect to discipline. He has been treated to forms of education which have released him from inhibitions. His body is vigorous. His mind is childish. His soul has been almost completely neglected.”
Vigorous body, childish mind, desolate soul. Check. When the half-cocked Third Positionists, the alt-right Nazi fetishists, the Tea Partiers, and the Islamophobe crackpots rant that white Europe is going to rise up, I wonder what planet they're talking about. Does that come from the “childish mind” or the atrophied soul? The part of Europe that remembers WWII is not going Nazi in response to the flood of immigrants entering the West. And that part is much larger, much more developed, than the part that has forgotten.
I think of the tolerance and care I've seen firsthand in the UK. I think of the quiet decency that gets far less media coverage than the shrieks of the ethno-nationalists calling for a Fourth Reich. It goes without saying that tolerance gathers less attention than hate. I also think about cultural memory and about the sacrifices Western Europe made to save itself from Nazi Germany—a fascism far more motivated, methodical, remorseless, and accomplished than anything that could be cooked up by the likes of David Duke, Richard Spencer, Jean-Marie Le Pen, or Frank Franz.
Thankfully, I didn't get sick from heat stroke in Marylebone Station. But I did have occasion to sit there considering my friend's tragic loss of perspective and how that related to Anthropoid. My final sense of the film was that it’s spare and, for that reason, brutally honest in its depiction of the assassination and the tragic aftermath, which ironically caused Hitler to accelerate preparations to implement Heydrich's Final Solution. Thinking of the soppy melodrama of Schindler's List or the cartoon violence of Inglorious Basterds, I wrote that the major studios would never tell a harsh unflinching war story like Anthropoid. LD Entertainment is an independent film studio. Mainstream audiences, looking for the next Wonder Woman or The Mummy, would never fall in love with Anthropoid the way they had with, say, Saving Private Ryan.
It's become a cliché to point out that Hollywood always needs a cowboy, a two-fisted action hero to “go kick his ass” and make the world safe again. Instead, Anthropoid puts forth a simple thesis: real heroes get killed along with everybody else, especially when facing a military-administrative machine as efficient as Heydrich's SS occupation force. In a situation like that, anyone can die at any time. Maybe everyone dies. And history is then left to speculate about the value of all the assassinations, reprisals, unfathomable atrocities, and ancillary cultural destruction. Those who've died, however, stay dead.
How could my friend believe he wouldn't be liquidated like the six million European Jews, Romani, Aktion T4 patients, Soviet POWs, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Slavs, Poles, blacks, political prisoners, and others deemed socially useless to the Nazi state? If we were still on speaking terms, I’d ask him this. I’d pose the same question to any of the breathless advocates of a Fourth Reich currently vying for attention in the media. What makes you think the Nazis would have any use for you? What's wrong with your head? What happened to your soul?
Then I'd say: go watch Anthropoid. Take a moment to think about the highly realistic portrayal of Reinhard Heydrich and his occupation force. Think about how the “heroes” of the film shot themselves in a flooded basement rather than be captured, tortured, and executed. Then tell me how you think your fate would’ve been any different or better back then or how your future would be if your fantasies about a resurgence of European fascism actually came true. Tell me how you would escape being a very sad, unremarkable, and uninteresting casualty of the Fourth Reich.