Alan Jacobs has frequently praised Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon; I have been reading it this summer, and I can only agree that it is a stunning work. I keep highlighting passages, and I’ll probably share more as I keep going.
At one point, West describes riding the train into Yugoslavia in a 1st-class compartment full of Germans who are complaining about the government of the Nazis. One of them…
…owned an apartment in Berlin, and had for six months been struggling with a wholly unforeseen and inexplicable demand for extra taxes on it. He did not allege that the tax was unjust. He seemed to think that the demand was legal enough, but that the relevant law was so complicated, and was so capriciously interpreted by the Nazi courts, that he had been unable to foresee how much he would be asked for, and was still at quite a loss to calculate what might be exacted in the future.”
Other passengers describe their difficulties in the face of a government that installs party officers in their factories, or requires hairdressers to know Goebbels’s birthday.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was published in 1941, based on several trips to Yugoslavia in the late ’30s, so her assessment of the Nazis is not shaded by a post-war perspective. West pities these Germans:
They were all of them falling to pieces under the emotional and intellectual strain laid on them by their Government, poor Laocoöns strangled by red tape. It was obvious that by getting the population into this state the Nazis had guaranteed the continuance of their system; for none of these people could have given any effective support to any rival party that wanted to seize power, and indeed their affairs, which were thoroughly typical, were in such an inextricable state of confusion that no sane party would now wish to take over the government, since it would certainly see nothing but failure ahead. Their misery seemed to have abolished every possible future for them. I reflected that if a train were filled with the citizens of the Western Roman Empire in the fourth century they would have made much the same complaints. The reforms of Diocletian and Constantine created a condition of exorbitant and unforeseeable taxes, of privileged officials, of a complicated civil administration that made endless demands on its subjects and gave them very little security in return.
Here’s my little bit of commentary: There is a lot of talk right now, even if mostly of the idle chatter variety, about “how we get Hitler.” It might be worth remembering that regulation and red tape are part of the foundation for such an order just as much as nationalist prejudices.