I was at the Hasty Pudding in Harvard Square on an evening in the early nineties, there was a party going on when, suddenly, a young woman began to sing a hauntingly beautiful, lyrical ballads. One after another, the guests stood and began to sing with her as the party turned into the most compelling explanations of fascism that I have ever seen.
The song was Tomorrow Belongs to Me, and I was, of course, watching a touring company perform Kander and Ebb’s 1966 musical, Cabaret. In those years the Hasty Pudding rented out its theater when the college boys weren’t using it to play dress-up. Perhaps they still do. The heart-stopping fascist anthem came at a moment in the play when the young characters gather in the parlor of a cheap rooming house in Berlin. On stage Cabaret is less stylized than the movie, less stagy. The characters are familiar in their youthful uncertainty and promise. Which is what makes the moment when they become swept up in Nazism so peculiarly, horrifyingly memorable.
Something like that experience is coming to the Roundabout Theatre Company this spring with yet another revival of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, this one a revival of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s Tony-winning 1998 revival. And since I have never seen this version, I can’t say whether the scene will be presented as it was that night at the hasty Pudding. I assume that the song will be as Kander and Ebb wrote it.
They understood, as George Orwell did, that people do not long merely for comfort and ease, they want challenge and meaning. German youth responded when Hitler offered them “struggle, danger and death.” He also told them that they were racially superior and therefore entitled to conquer and rule.
Tomorrow Belongs to Me has enjoyed a strange afterlife within the neo-fascist movements; online versions have been posted in Italian, many in German, and one taped at meeting of the British racial supremacists, Blood & Honor. You can even find posters on neo-fascist websites who believe that the song actually was a Nazi anthem. The most popular version was recorded by Screwdriver, a skinhead band whose leader, Ian Stuart Donaldson, segued into Neo-Nazism. But even if you follow punk rock, you’ve probably never heard of Screwdriver, or of Blood & Honor. Neo-fascism is so insignificant that it can seem almost quaint.
Hitler’s idea of rallying young people by telling them that that they are members of a wronged but inherently superior group, that they are entitled to conquer and rule, that he will demand struggle, danger and death but lead them to glory is compelling. Orwell knew that.
What is surprising is that two American Jewish writers, Fred Ebb and John Kander were able to put together a song that captures something Orwell did not know, although Hitler did and the Muslim Brotherhood does, which is that people want more than struggle, danger and glory. Living as we all do in a confusing, changing and risky world, it is compelling to imagine a past that was stable, safe and golden. When a leader promises to everyone who follows him to a future that will be as golden as the imagined past, a future that he and those who follow can create in danger and struggle by stepping on the dead bodies of those who stand in their way, young people step forward to volunteer.