On Cupboards

Alex Deakin leaving Westminster Magistrates Court. Credit: London News Pictures

Back in November 2018, restrictions on reporting on five people convicted of belonging to the banned National Action, a violent radical right movement, were lifted. Among them were Mikko Vehvilainen, a Finnish-born veteran of Afghanistan still serving in the British Army at the time of his arrest, and Alexander Deakin, the unemployed Midlands organiser of National Action, who had been caught on CCTV pasting racist stickers on the campus of Aston University in Birmingham. Both were sentenced to eight years in prison, in March and April 2018, respectively.[1] The case against them is itself fascinating, revealing how psychologically fragile young people can easily be attracted to the ‘alternative lifestyle’ offered by belonging to a Nazi organisation. What caught my attention in this story, however, is the small detail that when he was arrested, Deakin, 24, living at his parents’ home, was hiding in an airing cupboard.

There is something strangely British about the image of a fascist soldier trying to evade arrest by hiding in his mum and dad’s cupboard. Like a scene in an Ealing comedy, or recalling the ‘priest holes’ so beloved of visitors to country estates, this kind of bungling amateurishness, however, belies the seriousness of National Action’s devotion to its ‘race war’ cause. More poignantly, for those acquainted with the history of the Holocaust, this attempt to evade the authorities has a more sinister resonance.

The most famous example of such hiding during the Holocaust is of course Anne Frank. Although the ‘secret annexe’ was not exactly a cupboard, for those crammed inside and enduring hours of silence each day, the difference is academic. The Franks and those they were sharing the hiding place with were betrayed, captured and deported to their deaths. Other individuals tried to evade the killing by hiding in makeshift compartments, underground bunkers, and beneath the floors of barns. Although the Polish government does not have entirely pure motives in supporting the rediscovery of such hiding places in Poland (I have written previously for CARR about the attempt to silence criticism of Polish collaboration or antisemitism), their promotion of museums of hiding reveals that for many Polish Jews under Nazi occupation, hiding places – with no knowing how long the war would last and fearing betrayal or discovery every day – were the sole means of survival.

Perhaps the most powerful such image of hiding in a cupboard is the little-known text by the French-American novelist Raymond Federman, The Voice in the Closet. This ‘experimental’ text, published in French in 1979, was published in 2001 in an impressive act of translation, impressive because the short text is written as an unbroken internal monologue without punctuation, mingling the thoughts of a young boy hiding alone in a cupboard with those of his older self reflecting on the experience. As it goes, ‘… where were you when the door closed on me shouting I ask you when I needed you the most letting me be erased in the dark … I wait in the dark now down the staircase with their bundles moaning yellow stars to the furnace the boots my father mother sisters too to their final solution when I needed him the most last image of my beginning to the trains to be unmade remade …’ and so the text continues, a polyphonic scramble of recollections, images and memories.[2] This ‘difficult’ text powerfully evokes the terror of a child in hiding, occasioned by Federman’s own survival when his family was deported from their apartment in Paris in 1942.

An echo of Federman’s childhood experience and its remarkable condensation into a breathless text is found in the film Sarah’s Key (dir. Gilles Paquet-Brenner, 2010).[3] The centrepiece of the story is the locking into a cupboard – their favourite hiding place – of a small boy by his older sister in order to hide from the round-ups in Paris in July 1942. She promises to return for him but is herself captured and deported. On surviving the camps, she returns to find the remains of her little brother in the cupboard.

These comparisons recall the adage that whilst men fear going out of night because they get mugged, women fear going out at night because they might get murdered. Fascists in Britain hide in cupboards to evade arrest; Jews during World War II hid from fascists to evade being murdered. Members of National Action might consider borrowing Anne Frank’s Diary from the prison library whilst they are wondering what to do with their spare time; I would also recommend watching Sarah’s Key, a moving and beautiful film. It might give them pause for thought that they are lucky to live in a society which gave them a fair trial, a society which does not execute people in cold blood because they belong to the wrong ‘race’; in other words, the society they have been fighting to destroy is the one that has saved their skins in a way unimaginable for the victims of fascism.

Professor Dan Stone is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Professor of Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London. See his profile here:

© Dan Stone. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

 [1] Haroon Siddique, ‘British soldier recruited for far-right group while in army’, online at The Guardian website: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/12/british-army-solider-recruited-far-right-group-national-action (viewed 6 December 2018).

[2] Raymond Federman, The Voice in the Closet (Buffalo, NY: Starcherone Books, 2001).

[3] Based on the novel of the same name by Tatiana de Rosnay.