On 12 March 1938, Nazi tanks rolled into Austria. The annexation of Germany’s tiny neighbour was known as the ‘Anschluss‘. For many of us today, it’s a moment we know best as a 30-second scene in Robert Wise’s 1965 film, The Sound of Music: smartly dressed Nazi officers spinning into Vienna in their shiny cars, and the Von Trapp family singing their way into the hills to wait out the war.
The reality was something different entirely: a tragicomedy of errors, egos, greed and appeasement. Austria was already a political mess by the time Hitler set his sights on the country of his birth, a quasi-dictatorship masquerading as a liberal state, only barely repressing its own ambitious house Nazis while struggling to maintain an outer semblance of dignity and national sovereignty to the rest of an increasingly troubled Europe.
Éric Vuillard‘s The Order of the Day covers this moment in Austrian history, and reveals it as more than just an Austrian moment. Buried in this event are all the elements which led to the spread of fascism in Europe: greed, ambition, obsequiousness. The elitism and greed of corporate capitalists, eager to hedge all their bets and finance any rising star, however odious; the servile deference of public figures who preferred to follow the rising (Nazi) political stars rather than confront them in the name of decency, integrity or democracy; the fawning and genteel ignorance of Western governments, who didn’t know how to respond to the brutish idiocy of Hitler and the opportunistic goons he surrounded himself with.
Vuillard’s work, which won the French 2017 Prix Goncourt, is sublime. It’s short, scathing, and the highly stylized literary narrative achieves near-poetic heights of form. Still, it’s well-researched and defiantly concrete as well. Vuillard’s work is an archive of everyday moments, stripping prominent world leaders and dramatic historical meetings down to their most prosaic. We think of history in epic terms, but Vuillard unravels our myths to show the everyday boorishness of these people who set the world aflame: the garish flower poking from a minister’s lapel; and awkward dinner conversation between Chamberlain and Ribbentrop; the petty ways in which officials struggled to maintain face, to win obscure constitutional points of debate, while around them events were already in motion that would lead to the slaughter of millions and burn down half the civilized world.
“It’s strange how the most dyed-in-the-wool tyrants still vaguely respect due process,” Vuillard writes, chronicling the gargantuan struggles of Austrian and German governments to sort out constitutional barriers to the country’s annexation, while massed tank divisions waited in boredom at the border, “as if they want to make it appear that they aren’t abusing procedure, even while riding roughshod over every convention. It’s as if power isn’t enough for them, and that they take special pleasure in forcing their enemies to perform, one last time and for their benefit, the same rituals that they are even then demolishing.”
Vuillard’s words describe events of 80 years ago, but his voice resonates with the present, with the rituals of tyrants and would-be tyrants. The constitutional amendments of Putin, allowing him to remain president indefinitely. The referendum of Erdogan, legally granting him the sweeping powers of repression that he’s already been enacting. Trump’s dance with American law: claiming he can do anything and pardon himself on the one hand; struggling to deter those investigating his actions on the other.
Vuillard strips historical epic down to the everyday, to remind us that these were (and are) nothing more than flawed people, swept up in their own inability to see past the proud artifices they constructed around themselves.
There are lessons here for us.
In the book’s opening scene, a mere five years before the dramatic political transformations that would usher in the Anschluss, 24 of Europe’s top industrialists and capitalists gather together to commit their financial support to the Nazis. Vuillard reminds us that behind each of these captains of capitalist industry was “a rather more imposing silhouette, a tutelary shadow, as cold and impervious as a stone statue”: the corporate enterprises they each represented (some of which are still known to us today: BASF, Bayer, Siemens, Allianz, IG Farben, and more). It’s important to remember the corporations they represented, because it was in the interests of their stakeholders’ profit imperative that they put their backing behind the Nazis. And what of these corporations, that gambled so enthusiastically on fascism?
“They are here beside us, among us,” reminds Vuillard. “They are our cars, our washing machines, our household appliances, our clock radios, our homeowner’s insurance, our watch batteries… They care for us, clothe us, light our way, carry us over the world’s highways, rock us to sleep…”
Vuillard brings to life as well the awkward stiffness of fascism’s enemies, who were too shocked at the brazen gall of their opponents to react with the speed and decisiveness required to put fascist bullies in their place. Especially when the fascists stayed a step ahead of what was considered reasonable behaviour. This is the great lesson of fascism: “everyone is susceptible to a bluff. Even the strictest, most serious, most old-world souls: they might not give in to the demands of justice, they might not yield to an insurgent populace, but they’ll always fold before a bluff.”
It may seem boorish to extract from a literary masterpiece an angle on contemporary politics, but in fact that’s what Vuillard’s book demands of us. How many bluffs do we see in today’s politics, with the good guys continually folding? Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine? Erdogan’s referendum? Trump’s wall? The continued subversion of American democracy by the electoral college? The hope of most decent people, when faced with crisis, is that the slow-moving inertia of history will mean that this moment will pass. But all too often, they don’t. These moments matter.
Vuillard’s history excavates the minutiae of these moments. The infamous Panzer tanks carrying out their infamous Blitzkrieg; only sitting all broken down on the road with mechanical problems after they crossed the border to neighbouring Austria. The menus and dessert recipes of the dinner parties at which British ministers and Nazi ambassadors joked and made pleasant smalltalk, while Nazi armies plowed across their European neighbours’ borders. It is these spaces and moments that are important, Vuillard reminds us. “We never see the grimy hem, the yellowed tablecloth, the check stub, the coffee ring. We only get to see events from their good side.”
The Order of the Day hints at what was really happening in people’s hearts are in those alternate spaces, contradicting and complementing what the newsreels tell us. The photo from the Munich agreement: Hitler and Mussolini, and Chamberlain and Daladier. The latter two look very displeased and uncomfortable—”Still, they signed.” When German tanks finally rolled into Austria and were greeted by cheering Austrians, it was true that the crowd was handpicked with Nazi supporters. “But still, those are Austrians there, not a throng of extras,” Vuillard reminds us. Guilt and innocence can be framed in so many ways, and take on different qualities before and after the fact.
Vuillard closes, aptly, with that impenitent old Krupp family, the corporate industrialists. The same industrialists who had opened their wallets freely to support the Nazis before the war, and who — like all those other corporations — profited off Jewish slave labour, and went on to fight Jews in court when they demanded compensation after the war. The company eventually, grudgingly gave them minor payments of $1,200 for their pain and loss, and then eventually stopped compensation payments entirely. They’d been far more generous with the Nazis.
The Order of the Day is a short read, but the strength and power of its narrative will linger—hopefully forever. It’s important that we strip away the epic trappings of historical myth, as Vuillard succeeds brilliantly in doing, and leave bare the everyday face of fascism. Because when we do, it looks eerily identical to so many of the faces we know so well today.