The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard

Image result for the order of the day eric vuillardI wasn't quite sure whether to review Eric Vuillard's The Order of the Day, as I generally only review fiction and this book isn't a novel as such. It's a narrative account of the political events that led to the outbreak of the Second World War, beginning with a group of industrialists donating large sums of money to the Nazi Party in 1933, and building up to the Anschluss, when Hitler annexed Austria, in 1938. There's no story, as such; the book takes the form of a series of vignettes.

And yet I found it every bit as gripping, and chilling, as a thriller. There's a strong sense of the reader being a fly on the wall, listening in on key meetings that will ultimately enable the deaths of millions of innocent people, while powerless to intervene. 'Great catastrophes,' Vuillard says, 'often creep up in tiny steps.'

Vuillard is a great understander of the banality of evil. The book begins with what is, essentially, a business meeting - and a business meeting, at that, between the owners of numerous firms who funded the Nazis and and are still household names today. The decisions that lead up to the start of the war and the murder of six million Jews are made by dull, mediocre, weak-willed men - and Vuillard's contempt for them is almost palpable, even when expressed in the most economical of ways. Lord Halifax, one of the British politicians behind appeasement, apparently joked in his memoir that when he met Hitler, he mistook him for an aide. ''Lord Halifax is trying to make us laugh,' says Vuillard. But I don’t think it’s funny.'

As the book continues, with the Nazis moving into Austria and being greeted with joy by a substantial portion of the population, the narrative becomes darker and darker and more and more ominous. Vuillard's language (translated here by Mark Polizzotti) is clear, simple and matter of fact in its eloquence, and as such, it's often devastating. In the rare moments when the narrative strays into something more speculative, such as the notion that a businessman might be haunted years later by visions of the concentration camp victims supplied to him as factory slaves, it's terrifying.

The Order of the Day is a short book, but a powerful one. It serves as a stark warning: 'We never fall twice into the same abyss. But we always fall the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread.'