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New York Times
25 Mar 2023

NextImg:What I’m Reading: The Rise of Fascism Edition

This week, in the same spirit that led me to rewatch all of “Babylon Berlin” last month, I read “Wigs on the Green,” Nancy Mitford’s 1935 comic novel spoofing her sisters Diana and Unity, who were deeply involved with the fascist movements in Britain and Germany. (Diana’s wedding to Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists (B.U.F.), was held in Joseph Goebbels’ living room with Adolf Hitler in attendance. Unity moved to Germany, where she became close friends with Hitler.)

The book is a remarkable snapshot of a historical window in which fascism was popular enough to lampoon but was still seen by many in Britain as a silly hobby rather than a consequential political movement. In the novel, the “Union Jackshirts” — a barely veiled reference to Mosley’s B.U.F. supporters, whose uniforms earned them the nickname “Blackshirts” — are a confused gang of naïve rich people who join up because they’re bored and/or trying to sleep with each other. The point of the novel is not that the movement is dangerous, but that it takes itself too seriously.

Nancy Mitford appears to have initially had that attitude toward fascism herself. In “The Mitford Girls,” a biography of the family, Mary S. Lovell writes that Nancy had actually been a member of the B.U.F. for a time, apparently because she saw it as a way to be supportive of Diana. After the party’s rallies grew more violent and militaristic, Nancy began to distance herself. By the time war broke out several years later, she had become so concerned that she urged the British government to imprison Diana and her husband as threats to national security.

It’s a running theme in both “Wigs on the Green” and “Babylon Berlin”: In the early years, fascism seemed silly and vulgar, a movement obsessed with uniforms and public pomp. But it was so removed from “real” politics that no one considered it more than a distraction, an inconvenience or perhaps a tool to be wielded.

That dismissive attitude reminds me, oddly enough, of the maxim from the world of start-ups that disruptive innovations often look silly. “The reason big new things sneak by incumbents is that the next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a ‘toy,’” Chris Dixon, a prominent venture capitalist, wrote in an influential essay in 2010, drawing on insights from “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” by Clayton Christensen. Dixon argued that larger companies don’t bother to defend against innovations from smaller rivals, because they consider “toys” beneath their notice. And then, suddenly, they discover that the upstarts have cannibalized their markets.

Business and politics are both just extensions of human nature. So perhaps it’s not surprising that similar patterns might show up in both arenas — and in present-day politics as well.

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