Were Italian novelist Umberto Eco writing in England today, he would hear and see much that confirmed him in the view of the world revealed in his novels. He would find that the divisive Brexit referendum had given license to the expression of bitter prejudice. He might have stood in a high street and heard sufficient to inspire the creation of some of the dark characters who people the pages of his novels.
In his novel The Prague Cemetery, the targets of prejudice are Jews and Freemasons, the latter being less easily identified, it is the former who suffered persecution that culminated in the hideous events of the Twentieth Century. Anti-Semitism had been fostered by church teaching in the Middle Ages and had led to the expulsion of Jews from a series of European countries. In 19th Century France, even a century after the Revolution, the hatred continued; in some people it was a matter of visceral prejudice, for others it was a more calculating piece of scapegoating. In Eco’s novel, Rachovsky, an agent of the Russian secret service, declares:
‘For the enemy to be recognised and feared, he has to be in your home, or on your doorstep. Hence the Jews. Divine Providence has given them to us and so, by God, let us use them and pray there’s always some Jew to fear and hate. We need an enemy to give people hope. Someone said that patriotism is the last refuge of cowards: those without moral principles usually wrap a flag around themselves, and the bastards always talk about the purity of the race. National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal. That is why Christ was killed: he spoke against nature. You don’t love someone for your whole life – that impossible hope is the source of adultery, matricide, betrayal of friends . . . But you can hate someone for your whole life – provided he’s there to keep your hatred alive. Hatred warms the heart”. The Prague Cemetery, pp 333-4
Anti-Semitism persists, along with xenophobia and racism fostered by those who use it for cynical political purposes. To speak for love and tolerance, for inclusion and reconciliation, for peace and internationalism, seems now to be speaking against nature. The tabloid headlines seem a confirmation of Rachovsky’s words, “hatred warms the heart.”