Sarah Gainham’s remarkable novel Night Falls on the City begins in Vienna on the day that the Anschluss, the unification of Germany and Austria under the Nazi regime, is announced. It centres on Julia Homburg, a beautiful, famous, actress, and her husband Franz. Franz is a writer, philosopher, a socialist politician and Jewish. Gainham traces the fate of the couple through the dark days and years that were to follow. But what she captures with such skill is the uncomprehending disbelief of Julia that day and the days that follow that their pleasant, successful, contented life is now irrevocably changed. When the novel begins, Franz is in Prague. Fatefully, he returns. An American journalist tries to persuade Julia to leave the city. A sagacious lawyer advises Julia to transfer all their property into her name, with all the paperwork backdated. But it is only when, a few weeks later, a couple of Nazi thugs kill two elderly Jews without fear of any consequence that Julia understands what has happened to her city.
Julia’s reaction is testimony to the fact that we all assume what we are used to is perpetual. Of course, she knew that the Nazis had come to power some years before in Germany, but here? In Austria? In a city as cultured and beautiful as Vienna? Over us? The prospect is unthinkable. But soon it did become thinkable and, tragically, liveable. And this in a city where, just two decades before, another epoch-making change had taken place: the dethronement of the last Emperor of Austria, the demise of the last vestige of the Holy Roman Empire and the end of that most ancient lineage, the House of Hapsburg. Gainham captures that historical change occurs in the way Ernest Hemmingway described going bankrupt, gradually at first and then all at once.
Gainham’s novel has been on my mind all through the lockdown that still rumbles on. We were told that it would be temporary, to flatten the curve, until the vaccine arrives, or whatever. But, nine months later, lockdown still tightens rather than loosens. Will our ability to gather with friends at a restaurant, to celebrate with family at a wedding, to sing the praises of our God, ever return? Or will we, like Julia Homburg, look back and recognise that at some point our life changed forever? That what once was will never be again. Some of our evangelical leaders wish to reassure us, this is a proportionate response to a deadly virus. The government is treating us Christians well. We can say what we want online, and anyone can log-in to hear it. Peace, peace, they say. But is there peace?
Even if these restrictions are proportionate to the threat of the virus, once the government has discovered the ability to apply them once, could they not be applied again for different, less benign, reasons? Do we want a government to be able to close churches, ban funerals and prevent protests, whenever it feels that the situation demands it? Is it wise to place such power in the hands of so few? We heard last week from Neil Ferguson, the guru of lockdowns, that at the beginning of the crisis his team looked enviously on the ability of the Communist Part of China’s ability to control its population unconstrained by the fetters of constitutional democracy. Those fetters have proved to be much less constraining than he thought.
Even if the Coronavirus, and every other virus, is finally brought ‘under control’ what new crises will emerge that demand further action and deeper restrictions? It has not been deemed safe for a son to hug his mother at their father’s funeral, what else might future research reveal to be too dangerous to allow? Freedom of speech is already under significant pressure, might we one day regret moving most, if not all, of our church activities onto platforms owned and operated by a handful of large technology firms? There are ideas abroad whose logical conclusion is the prohibition of Christian, and much other, teaching. Is it really socially responsible to allow something as antiquated and restrictive as the Bible to have an influence on young minds? Such ideas are not tame, they are not toothless. They await their time. Peace, peace, we are told. But for how long?
For many of us, the existence of the United Kingdom as a place of liberty and the rule of law, free from the exercise of arbitrary power, seemed eternal. Tyranny, arbitrary arrest and government censorship is the domain of foreign correspondents, not domestic realities. But Gainham’s novel, and the real history upon which it is based, show that what is taken from granted can easily be lost and all that is solid can melt into air. The freedom that innumerable generations on these islands have enjoyed is no less contingent, no less fragile than any other nation’s freedom. What has been bequeathed to us, we have a duty to protect and maintain. We should be wary lest, one sunny spring morning, we find that the last brick has been placed in a wall that now surrounds us, and that night has fallen on our city and that dawn is still many, many hours away.