‘Decency’ is a word (and concept) at the centre of the outstanding novel, ‘Alone in Berlin’, which I finished last night. Based on real events, it is about an ordinary couple living in Nazi Germany who, upon discovering that their son has been killed in the war, embark on their own tiny campaign of defiance against the Third Reich. The campaign is almost comical in its insignificance – they write postcards denouncing Hitler and the Nazis and drop them in stairwells to be found by passers-by. Yet it is a campaign which costs them their lives. We are left in no doubt that their actions were almost entirely ineffectual as propaganda. Instead, however, we are invited to see the campaign as a metaphysical victory. The couple are, like the sower in Matthew’s parable, sowing good seeds amongst the weeds. Once they refuse to acquiesce to the cruelty around them they reclaim their humanity and stand as testament to the enormous power of integrity and, yes, decency. Despite the small scale of their actions we are left in no doubt that they are giants amongst the petty, cowardly cruelty of the Nazis around them.
Much is made in the novel of how apolitical the couple were prior to being notified of their son’s death. ‘Politics’ is seen as something separate to their lives and they ‘keep their heads down’. I found myself thinking about this throughout. We all know the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ but Nazi Germany is such a ubiquitous signifier for it that I think we still believe it was a ‘special case’. Yet the stark truth is that the mass mania of Nazism took hold amongst human beings not much different to ourselves and the significance of the tacit acquiescence of many who ‘kept their heads down’ is enormous. As proud as Britain can rightly be for standing against Nazi Germany, it’s impossible to believe that as a society we are immune from ‘the banality of evil’. You need only look at how swiftly we as a population have unquestioningly accepted the inevitability of ‘austerity’ to see how easily we can be manipulated. In the pursuit of this austerity we are encouraged to dehumanise and denounce those around us who, we are told, are getting more than their fair share and (more often than not) by duplicitous means. At every turn we are encouraged to place our own material needs before all else – why should we who struggle pay for benefits of people who don’t work, pay for the university education of kids who’ll only mess about, pay for the pensions of workers when we’ll live our old age in penury? Whether we think it is inevitable, justified and/or morally right, we allow our society to be cruel.
This dehumanisation goes further and deeper, of course. Since 9/11 we are repeatedly reminded of our ‘enemies’, reduced to one-note caricatures of brutal barbarians. As a society we have a mass indifference to torture taking place in our name. We are encouraged to believe (and it seems largely accept) that it is an abomination for our ‘enemies’ to have human rights…even to be viewed as humans (instead they are ‘terrorists’, non-people). Those who speak out against our cruelty are troublemakers, a fey elite concerned only with their own voices.
On a macro-level, then, our decency is at least questionable. Yet how is our decency as a society dictated? As we see with the couple in ‘Alone in Berlin’, once we reduce this question to a personal level our own role becomes clearer. If we try to live decent, compassionate lives then we are contributing, in however tiny a way, to the decency of our society. Now, when talk turns to personal morality and personal responsibility, two things tend to happen – firstly, it is pointed out that humans are flawed and hypocritical and a perfect life is impossible; secondly, attention is drawn to the flaws of whomever raised the issue and they are seen as smug hypocrites. As night follows day, this happens. Yet no-one, surely, would ever argue that we can live morally perfect lives? This does not mean that the question of personal morality and responsibility is to be completely dismissed. We can always find excuses for our behaviour and narratives which allow us to feel comfortable with our choices but I think we also ultimately know, deep down, if we are being ‘decent’ or not. Keeping our heads down and tacitly acquiescing to everything around us isn’t a dramatic thing, it’s something we do every day in the choices we make at work, with our friends, with the strangers we come into contact with. And we fail – we fail again and again and will keep doing so until the day we die. Yet we must try, we must reach for that basic decency and integrity which is inside of all of us but is compromised and hidden by our frailty, cowardice, ignorance and greed. Accepting that we are hypocrites and that we can never get remotely close to perfection, we must hold onto the sense that we as individuals are responsible for the world around us and try to live as we would like the world to be.