Paul Johnson

Why not stop abusing Prince Harry and start thinking?

Why not stop abusing Prince Harry and start thinking?

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‘We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.’ Macaulay’s famous castigation of humbug, apropos of Moore’s Life of Lord Byron, applies perfectly to the sententious huffing and phoney indignation heaped upon the silly head of Prince Harry for wearing Nazi uniform at a fancy-dress party. Ye gods! Are we never going to be allowed to consign Hitler and the Nazis to history, where they belong? In April it will be 60 years since Hitler’s final defeat and death. How long do we have to wait before those dreadful times can be seen in a cool perspective unclouded by emotions, especially false ones whipped up by newspapers like the Sun, a media pachyderm with the brains of a shrivelled pea? It is said that Harry’s offence was even more rank and smelling to heaven because of the approaching anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. But there is some kind of anniversary of Auschwitz every year and there is no possibility of the public ever being in danger of forgetting it. Moreover, when are we going to have any anniversary of the Gulag, a horror-system which actually killed four times as many people? Elements of the Gulag were still operating as recently as the 1980s, with people dying of starvation there. The wounds are still fresh.

Anyone can go to Auschwitz — I have been there myself — and it is Polish policy to ensure that every Polish child sees it during his or her schooldays. But it is not so easy to visit former gulags or the site of the famous Arctic canal where so many of Stalin’s political prisoners froze to death. Indeed it may be that some bits of the Gulag are being kept in reserve or even being reactivated. Putin seems to be bent on restoring every other item in Stalin’s life-work; why not that too? But our ministers hobnob with him cheerfully and, no doubt, if he was invited here, the Queen would be obliged by New Labour to put him up in Buckingham Palace. Moreover, there is the little matter — or rather the enormous matter — of the system of political prisoners in communist China, a totalitarian state of unimaginable cruelty to which we shamefully handed over the free people of Hong Kong not so long ago.

China operates the largest system of slave labour in history and virtually everything we buy from there — which we, and still more the United States, do in vast quantities — has some connection with it. Yet we do not hear a squeak from Labour MPs, so raucous in their condemnation of the wretched prince. Of course nobody knows how many prisoners there are in the Chinese gulags — a figure of 20 million has been put forward — and certainly nobody is allowed to visit or go in search of them. But that does not stop great numbers of people from going on holiday to China, enjoying themselves in places perhaps only a few carefully controlled miles from infernos where prisoners are being worked to death. While we are constantly reminded of Hitler’s atrocities, the mass murders of Mao Tse-tung, more recent and on a much larger scale, are never mentioned by the media. The authoritative work by French historians totting up the victims of communism puts the China death-toll at 60 million. But Jung Chang, who has now completed her life of Mao, says this is an underestimate, and that the figure is more like 70 million. There is a little shop not far from where I live which sells ceramic mementoes of Mao, showing him driving in his state limo or making speeches while rapturous peasants wave copies of the Little Red Book. No one protests, and I don’t think they should — Mao, though a monster much closer to our times, is part of history, like Hitler. But supposing the same shop were to specialise in votive figures of Hitler? What a hullabaloo there would be.

Behind all the fuss about Prince Harry no one has thought of asking the only interesting question about his escapade. Why did he dress up as a Nazi? I am quite certain he has no pro-Nazi views or indeed any political views at all. He is not interested in politics or history or ideology. He is an absolutely normal young man of his age and class, anxious to have a good time and let off steam, and find outlets for his abundant energy — a complete contrast to his guilt-ridden, anguished elder brother, who seems to have much in common with his great-grandfather, George VI, one of the most persistent worriers who ever occupied the throne. Diana told me that, whereas William caused her great concern, she never fussed about Harry as he was so tremendously happy-go-lucky and fun-loving, sure to settle down and make a sound, useful contribution in time. ‘He will always be popular,’ she said, ‘and have plenty of friends.’

We can be sure that, in treating Nazi insignia as a party joke, Harry reflects the instincts of his generation, no more nor less. As a visual and exciting phenomenon, with no more contemporary and political relevance than Alexander the Great or Bonaparte, the Nazis do have an undoubted fascination for many young people, brought up in the boredom of politically correct sentimental do-gooding. There is, to them, something shockingly romantic about that weird phenomenon. It is no accident that television, in its endless search for ratings among the young, is always going on about Hitler and the Nazis. The number of times old newsreels are shown of him suggests that he still exerts some of the dread appeal he exercised in his lifetime. It is worth remembering that he was voted into office, quite lawfully and constitutionally, by what was then the best-educated people in the world, and that he and his Nazis always scored higher ratings among the educated young, and among university students and graduates — and professors — than among the population as a whole.

A lot of his appeal, I suspect, was visual. Hitler was a kind of artist, just as Mao Tse-tung was a poet and calligrapher. And Hitler put his artistic and inventive instincts to work. The uniforms in which he dressed his thugs were superb, one reason they appealed so strongly at the time to young Germans and still appeal today, in a furtive way, to collectors — Nazi SS jackets and caps fetch enormous prices — and to youths who dress up to shock. His uniforms were much more dashing than the old Prussian gear, let alone the drab, scruffy stuff in which Stalin dressed his secret police and mass-murderers. Hitler, too, invented son et lumière (for which the French later took the credit) which made his Nuremberg rallies so overwhelming. As Hitler is still demonised rather than allowed to emerge as a historical character to be studied, we hear little of his gifts, his drive in pushing forward such ideas as the motorway and the ‘people’s car’ (Volkswagen) and his sense of humour, which served him so well when he was getting started in the beerhalls of Munich. Nor do we hear of the garden-cities he and Speer were planning to build in the conquered Slav east. Hitler’s close relationship with Speer the architect was perhaps the most interesting thing about him. It was precisely Hitler’s gifts which made him so dangerous and so uniquely evil.

It is so much easier to avoid the difficult, the painful, the historical realities and instead to shout old slogans and scream with rage at Harry, who is too young to share ancient shibboleths and revere the fly-blown phylacteries of the past. My advice to him is to take no notice, cheer up, and follow his instincts.