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”in a mirror darkly” – The Mirror That Is Trump

Wikipedia offers that,  “…the first mirrors used by humans were most likely pools of dark, still water, or water collected in a vessel of some sort.” Mirrors fascinate as much as they serve useful purposes, to see oneself “as others see us”. A historian of mirrors cites Socrates who thought, “the mirror can aid moral meditation between man and himself.” The reflected image, in one way or another, both fascinates and serves utilitarian purposes. Whether an ancient human looking into a deep dark pool of still water recognizing himself or a modern man making sure he has shaved the last errant hair from his face,“There I am!” and now, here I go into the world, ready for the day, ready for what’s to come.

Another mirror is a nation’s reflection in its leaders. Societies have had their “finest hours” under the leadership of men like Winston Churchill and John F Kennedy to mention two. On the other hand, it oftentimes takes extraordinary courage to look into a dark mirror to learn what has become of one’s society or what has been there all along but we have avoided looking at it. We all age of course and in that outward reflected image we can see, like it or not, what we have become. Looking into the mirror that represents current events and the conduct of our societies presents another range of similar possibilities. For example, a crowd chanting full-throat, “Lock her up!” is one of those mirrors. View historical newsreels of Hitler and Mussolini working their crowds with similar tactics – identify an enemy, vilify them, follow the leader into a future where they will be dealt with, you can see the pattern. All of those events and consequences are mirrors of their societies. And so now we have come full circle in the land of the brave and the home of the free to a mirror held up by the current elected President. Take a look. Do you like what you see? Is that you? Are those your neighbors? Your fellow Americans?

“For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known.” Corinthians 13:12

On November 4th, 1944, when I was six years old, my mother and I took the short city bus ride from Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, to Springfield where we stood below the railroad station’s great stone arch. There was an enormous crowd  packed elbow to elbow stretching back for several blocks. On that day, Franklin D Roosevelt who had confronted the 1929-1939 “Great Depression” and created the “New Deal”, was greeted by working people who, like my parents, had suffered through the  “Great Depression”. At the rampart of the overpass the great man appeared, by then afflicted by polio, and was greeted with the most tumultuous expression of respect and affection I have ever experienced. There was no resentment, no anger, only respect and gratitude for the better future he had nurtured. This was the America that defined my basic understanding of our social contract, my social reality. This was the America I grew up in. This was the country I eventually joined the military to serve. It was a very different country, certainly not equal for all, certainly not without fault but very different from what we have become today. This memory is the mirror I look into when attempting to understand the complexity of these times. And what do we see?

Are we ready to go face to face with what our nation is becoming? Is that really us reflected or merely some minority of loud demonstrative fellow Americans riled up to some kind of fever pitch by an unscrupulous political cheer leader? And if immigrants are today’s targets who will be tomorrows? You perhaps? Your neighbors and people of color in the supermarket? My grandparents on both sides were immigrants and the stories they told reflected the rejection and ridicule they faced not unlike what we are witnessing now. Today, however, the Cheerleader-In-Chief is the President of the United States and his audience are the descendants of the same earlier immigrants. Surely this cannot not truly be what we have become, what we are as a people, as a nation. What is at stake is basic respect for your fellow Americans, our immigrant forebears, our fellow human beings, and ourselves. And, if for no other reason than that, we must live with each other or fail as a nation.

“Great”? What is that?

Democracy is a high maintenance political system for the people who live in it. Dictatorships are not as those in charge tell you what to do, how to do it, and when. They also tell you who your enemies are, who to like, and who to dislike. In a Democratic society the collective will informs politicians. In a dictatorship of any stripe – people are told what is good for them. The state is the authority not the will of the populace. People who buy into empty slogans such as “Make America Great Again” are desperately looking for an authority in a complex and confusing world. They are desperate for simple answers and decisive action. Populist personalities offer them just that just the Hitlers and Mussolinis of history. The multitudinous contradictions and competing social demands of modern society are frustrating and confusing and the volkish are desperate for to feed what one writer calls their “mobilizing passions”. They crave the simplicity of a demagogue. Many people are chanting MAGA without asking or knowing what it means – it sounds good.  Ask them:

  What do you mean by GREAT?

When did America stop being great? 

What would it take to make America “Great” again?.

How will we know when it is “Great” again? 

The simplistic MAGA meme is nothing if not a sinister manipulation playing to ignorance, resentment, and anger, it has repeated itself under many names and many times in history – Communism, Fascism,  Oligarchy, Neoliberalism, Populism, and “Whateverism”. These seem never to go out of style, and they are on a roll again. All it takes to start this ball rolling is someone willing to play to the lowest common denominator with simple assurances of better times, what one writer calls the “mobilizing passions”, a better economy, and the necessary De Rigueur enemy. And, consider for just for a moment the juicy contradiction of a billionaire playing populist.Oh, and don’t forget the ball caps and t-shirts being sold to the true believers who never question who is making a profit on the sales.

 Cooperation and community are dangerous to demagogues because they unite people and consolidate them around their collective power. The idea of winner take all competition has been so inculcated and baked into the American psyche and thus into public education from kindergarten onwards that it makes social collectivity difficult. Competition keeps people at each others’ throats, It is the antithesis of cooperation. One of the most destructive practices in public education is competition and I am not speaking of sports activities here. Why is this destructive? Because social competition in formative years ultimately undermines a sense of community, sharing, and cooperation. In competitive educational systems kids learn how to be “good” losers, to accept not being first or best exactly as the economic system categorizes their parents. If a society is to succeed as a community, however, cooperation must be a fundamental tenet of how children are socialized. “Everyone’s a winner!”

When I was teaching I used to take my classes once a semester to the University gym for the following exercise. I called it the Participatory Democracy Exercise, a very simple dynamic demonstration of how competition thwarts a cooperative social contract. It was very easy and here is how it worked: We played a basketball game and the only rule aside from the normal ones was, if you get a basket the other side gets the points. The participants were immobilized and frustrated. Talk about cognitive dissonance! After everyone had a turn at this we spent the rest of class time talking about the affect and effect of being winners and losers not because of skill or effort but because of rules they did not themselves make. Today, if I were again doing this exercise I would point the discussion towards the MAGA meme and ask how that relates to questions of community and cooperation within a fully functioning society. 

By definition, public education is a function of the Commons in which children are prepared for life in society as it is lived or. perhaps ideally, for a better society. Democracy is, at bottom, a collective political concept, an all for one and one for all social contract. Never forget, “With Liberty and Justice for all.”? We have all made that pledge not once but many times over the course of our lives from childhood onwards, our pledge to social, political, economic, and educational justice. 

Public education, just like the right and duty to vote, is a vital and fundamental responsibility for members of a democratic society. Solid and responsible primary and secondary education isn’t about job training – it’s about teaching children to become responsible citizens who readily and competently participate in a Democratic society. It is about teaching, not what to think, but how to think and, most importantly, how to learn. Those qualities are anathema to demagogues and that is why the appointment of someone like Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education is profoundly insulting. The destruction of public education will be the inevitable destruction of our democratic society.

Certainty and the Death of Democracy

Certainty and the Death of DemocracyJohn Dewey’s 1929 classic, “The Quest for Certainty”, foretells sorrow unto today. As Dewey put it, “the quest for certainty has always been an effort to transcend belief.” An underlying hunger exists for certainty in an uncertain world, for security in insecure times. Politicians play on fear and promise security to their insecure audiences, it’s the “chicken in every pot” meme in one form or another. Little argument can be made against the proposition that in our times as in the past the greatest sources of insecurity are economic uncertainty followed by fear of invading foreigners. In a wobbling economy that promises more than it delivers, racial tensions, and economic insecurity are the go-to populist motivators. 
The news is contradictory – people are out of work, jobs have been shipped overseas but, hey, we are also told the economy is thriving and corporate profit has never been greater. Uncertainty and its handmaiden confusion, define the moment. The hollow promises made by politicians of better times just ahead are appealing. And when such promises are publicly asserted in rousing speeches the quest for certainty can and often does overcome common sense. This is how the pernicious effects of cognitive dissonance are exploited. In an economy built on credit, on personal debt for homes, automobiles, recreational vehicles, and motor boats, secured by jobs in manufacturing that are being shipped abroad, angst reigns. You could be next.
Certainty is the mother’s milk promised by nearly all politicians. What else do they have to offer and what more do people crave? Does the message resonate with the audience? If it does the message will be calculated, refined, and repeated. This is how politicians calculate their “pitch”. If people are out of work or afraid of losing their jobs the pitch must, if you want their votes, be employment certainty and include demonizing immigrants who are taking their jobs for less pay. No blame will be assigned to the employers who hire the immigrants nor to those moving their factories to low-wage countries. 
When political rhetoric centers on instilling or exploiting feelings of victimhood and loss of self-worth, we are on a well-worn path that has in the past led to fascism. This is how it went down in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and many other countries.  When democracy has failed politically and economically the path ahead has been trod before. Those who march and chant and scapegoat minorities and immigrants distract themselves. 
When an economic system is conflated with democracy we are plying dangerous waters. Uncertainty and fear have always been the nucleus of political implosion. Think about this: The Economist recently reported on a 2016 survey that showed more than half of young Americans no longer support capitalism, the country’s foundational economic and political belief system. It confirms Juan J Linz’s observation in “The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes” that, “Legitimacy is granted or withdrawn by each member of the society day in and day out.”
And when this divisive current administration finally concludes, and it will, we, like Dante, will say, “Thence we came forth to behold the stars.

Democracy and Public Education

 Democracy is a high-maintenance political system for the people who live in it. Dictatorships are not. Those in charge tell you what to do, how to do it, and when. They also tell you who your enemies are, who to like, and who to dislike. In a Democratic society the collective will informs politicians. In a dictatorship of any stripe, people are told what is good for them—the state, not the will of the populace, is the authority. People who buy into empty slogans such as “Make America Great Again” are desperate for an authority in a complex and confusing world, desperate for simple answers and decisive action. Populist personalities, the Hitlers and Mussolinis of history, offer them just that. The multitudinous contradictions and competing social demands of modern society are frustrating and confusing and the volkish are desperate for the simplicity of a demagogue.

Many people are chanting MAGA without asking or knowing what it means – it sounds good.  Ask them:

  What do you mean by GREAT?

When did America stop being great? 

What would it take to make America “Great” again?.

How will we know when it is “Great” again? 

The simplistic MAGA meme is nothing if not a sinister manipulation playing to ignorance, resentment, and anger. It has repeated itself under many names and many times in history – Communism, Fascism, Oligarchy, Neoliberalism, Populism, and “Whateverism”. These seem never to go out of style, and they are on a roll again. All it takes to start this ball rolling is someone willing to play to the lowest common denominator with simple assurances of better times, what one writer calls the “mobilizing passions”, a better economy, and the necessary De Rigueur enemy. And, consider for just for a moment the juicy contradiction of a billionaire playing populist.Oh, and don’t forget the ball caps and t-shirts being sold to the true believers who never question who is making a profit on the sales.

 Cooperation and community are dangerous to demagogues because they unite people and consolidate them around their collective power. Winner-take-all competition has been so inculcated and baked into the American psyche and thus into public education from kindergarten onwards that it makes social collectivity difficult. Competition—the antithesis of cooperation—keeps people at each other’s throats and is one of the most destructive practices in public education. Why? Because social competition in formative years ultimately undermines a sense of community, sharing, and cooperation. In competitive educational systems kids learn how to be “good” losers, to accept not being first or best, mirroring the economic system that similarly categorizes their parents. If a society is to succeed as a community, cooperation must be a fundamental tenet of how children are socialized. “Everyone’s a winner!”

When I was teaching I used to take my classes once a semester to the University gym for what I called the Participatory Democracy Exercise. In a very simple dynamic demonstration of how competition thwarts a cooperative social contract, we played a basketball game and the only rule aside from the normal ones was, if you get a basket the other side gets the points. The participants were immobilized and frustrated. Talk about cognitive dissonance! After everyone had a turn at this we spent the rest of the class time talking about the affect and effect of being winners and losers not because of skill or effort but because of rules they did not themselves make. If I were doing this exercise today, I would point the discussion towards the MAGA meme and ask how that relates to questions of community and cooperation within a fully functioning society. 

By definition, public education is a function of the Commons in which children are prepared for life in society as it is lived or, perhaps ideally, for a better society. Democracy is, at bottom, a collective political concept, an all-for-one and one-for-all social contract. Never forget “With Liberty and Justice for all.” We have all made that pledge not once but many times over the course of our lives, our pledge to social, political, economic, and educational justice. 

Public education, just like the right and duty to vote, is a vital and fundamental responsibility for members of a democratic society. Solid and responsible primary and secondary education isn’t about job training – it’s about teaching children to become responsible citizens who readily and competently participate in a Democratic society. It is about teaching, not what to think, but how to think and, most importantly, how to learn. Those qualities are anathema to demagogues and that is why the appointment of someone like Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education is profoundly insulting. The destruction of public education will be the inevitable destruction of our democratic society.

Book Review – DARK BEYOND DARKNESS

Book Review

Dark Beyond Darkness

James G. Blight and Janet M.Lang

Rowman & Littlefield (2018)

Having been directly and personally involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis as a SAC Combat Crew officer I was immediately interested in reading this new offering on the topic. The Cuban Missile Crisis seems to be a matter of continuing interest in spite of having happened 56 years ago this month. If you are, like me, concerned that we have in the White House today someone who says things like, “We have all these beautiful nuclear weapons – why don’t we use them?”, this book is an important read and one you will want to recommend to those you know who don’t take the matter seriously.

Blight and Lang take the matter seriously and in an interesting literary style rendering the matter immediate  and personal. There is no such thing as a nuclear war in which there will be a winner. The entire planet will lose putting all forms of life in jeopardy. This not a matter of speculation and the word “Doomsday” was invented to describe the outcome of such stupidity. The book describes itself as being a History, a Warning, and a Catalyst. In my reading it is all of these things. It is what I call a “Pass It On” warning and an effective one at that.

Take my word for it. There will be no winners in a nuclear war. Not you, not me, and not the planet. The Blight/Langs are teachers, this book is both a warning and a teaching.

It Can and IS Happening Here!

Review of a Book Review

A friend sent this and I believe it is of great importance for all those who, feeling “Fat, Dumb, and Happy”, are certain this cannot happen here need to read and heed. I have, myself, written about this on a few occasions and this piece is much more authoritative than my own.

It Can Happen Here

Cass R. Sunstein

JUNE 28, 2018 ISSUE

They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933–45

by Milton Mayer, with a new afterword by Richard J. Evans

University of Chicago Press, 378 pp., $20.00 (paper)

Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century

by Konrad H. Jarausch

Princeton University Press, 446 pp., $35.00

‘National Socialist,’ circa 1935; photograph by August Sander from his People of the Twentieth Century. A new collection of his portraits, August Sander: Persecuted/Persecutors, will be published by Steidl this fall.

Liberal democracy has enjoyed much better days. Vladimir Putin has entrenched authoritarian rule and is firmly in charge of a resurgent Russia. In global influence, China may have surpassed the United States, and Chinese president Xi Jinping is now empowered to remain in office indefinitely. In light of recent turns toward authoritarianism in Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the Philippines, there is widespread talk of a “democratic recession.” In the United States, President Donald Trump may not be sufficiently committed to constitutional principles of democratic government.

In such a time, we might be tempted to try to learn something from earlier turns toward authoritarianism, particularly the triumphant rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s. The problem is that Nazism was so horrifying and so barbaric that for many people in nations where authoritarianism is now achieving a foothold, it is hard to see parallels between Hitler’s regime and their own governments. Many accounts of the Nazi period depict a barely imaginable series of events, a nation gone mad. That makes it easy to take comfort in the thought that it can’t happen again.

But some depictions of Hitler’s rise are more intimate and personal. They focus less on well-known leaders, significant events, state propaganda, murders, and war, and more on the details of individual lives. They help explain how people can not only participate in dreadful things but also stand by quietly and live fairly ordinary days in the midst of them. They offer lessons for people who now live with genuine horrors, and also for those to whom horrors may never come but who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.

Milton Mayer’s 1955 classic They Thought They Were Free, recently republished with an afterword by the Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans, was one of the first accounts of ordinary life under Nazism. Dotted with humor and written with an improbably light touch, it provides a jarring contrast with Sebastian Haffner’s devastating, unfinished 1939 memoir, Defying Hitler, which gives a moment-by-moment, you-are-there feeling to Hitler’s rise. (The manuscript was discovered by Haffner’s son after the author’s death and published in 2000 in Germany, where it became an immediate sensation.)* A much broader perspective comes from Konrad Jarausch’s Broken Lives, an effort to reconstruct the experience of Germans across the entire twentieth century. What distinguishes the three books is their sense of intimacy. They do not focus on historic figures making transformative decisions. They explore how ordinary people attempted to navigate their lives under terrible conditions.

Haffner’s real name was Raimund Pretzel. (He used a pseudonym so as not to endanger his family while in exile in England.) He was a journalist, not a historian or political theorist, but he interrupts his riveting narrative to tackle a broad question: “What is history, and where does it take place?” He objects that most works of history give “the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be ‘at the helm of the ship of state’ and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history.” In his view, that’s wrong. What matters are “we anonymous others” who are not just “pawns in the chess game,” because the “most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large.” Haffner insists on the importance of investigating “some very peculiar, very revealing, mental processes and experiences,” involving “the private lives, emotions and thoughts of individual Germans.”

Mayer had the same aim. An American journalist of German descent, he tried to meet with Hitler in 1935. He failed, but he did travel widely in Nazi Germany. Stunned to discover a mass movement rather than a tyranny of a diabolical few, he concluded that his real interest was not in Hitler but in people like himself, to whom “something had happened that had not (or at least not yet) happened to me and my fellow-countrymen.” In 1951, he returned to Germany to find out what had made Nazism possible.

In They Thought They Were Free, Mayer decided to focus on ten people, different in many respects but with one characteristic in common: they had all been members of the Nazi Party. Eventually they agreed to talk, accepting his explanation that he hoped to enable the people of his nation to have a better understanding of Germany. Mayer was truthful about that and about nearly everything else. But he did not tell them that he was a Jew.

In the late 1930s—the period that most interested Mayer—his subjects were working as a janitor, a soldier, a cabinetmaker, an office manager, a baker, a bill collector, an inspector, a high school teacher, and a police officer. One had been a high school student. All were male. None of them occupied positions of leadership or influence. All of them referred to themselves as “wir kleine Leute, we little people.” They lived in Marburg, a university town on the river Lahn, not far from Frankfurt.

Mayer talked with them over the course of a year, under informal conditions—coffee, meals, and long, relaxed evenings. He became friends with each (and throughout he refers to them as such). As he put it, with evident surprise, “I liked them. I couldn’t help it.” They could be ironic, funny, and self-deprecating. Most of them enjoyed a joke that originated in Nazi Germany: “What is an Aryan? An Aryan is a man who is tall like Hitler, blond like Goebbels, and lithe like Göring.” They also could be wise. Speaking of the views of ordinary people under Hitler, one of them asked:

Opposition? How would anybody know? How would anybody know what somebody else opposes or doesn’t oppose? That a man says he opposes or doesn’t oppose depends upon the circumstances, where, and when, and to whom, and just how he says it. And then you must still guess why he says what he says.

When Mayer returned home, he was afraid for his own country. He felt “that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man,” and that under the right conditions, he could well have turned out as his German friends did. He learned that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.”

Mayer’s most stunning conclusion is that with one partial exception (the teacher), none of his subjects “saw Nazism as we—you and I—saw it in any respect.” Where most of us understand Nazism as a form of tyranny, Mayer’s subjects “did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now.” Seven years after the war, they looked back on the period from 1933 to 1939 as the best time of their lives.

Mayer suggests that even when tyrannical governments do horrific things, outsiders tend to exaggerate their effects on the actual experiences of most citizens, who focus on their own lives and “the sights which meet them in their daily rounds.” Nazism made things better for the people Mayer interviewed, not (as many think) because it restored some lost national pride but because it improved daily life. Germans had jobs and better housing. They were able to vacation in Norway or Spain through the “Strength Through Joy” program. Fewer people were hungry or cold, and the sick were more likely to receive treatment. The blessings of the New Order, as it was called, seemed to be enjoyed by “everybody.”

Even in retrospect Mayer’s subjects liked and admired Hitler. They saw him as someone who had “a feeling for masses of people” and spoke directly in opposition to the Versailles Treaty, to unemployment—to all aspects of the existing order. They applauded Hitler for his rejection of “the whole pack”—“all the parliamentary politicians and all the parliamentary parties”—and for his “cleanup of moral degenerates.” The bank clerk described Hitler as “a spellbinder, a natural orator. I think he was carried away from truth, even from truth, by his passion. Even so, he always believed what he said.”

Mayer did not bring up the topic of anti-Semitism with any of his subjects, but after a few meetings, each of them did so on his own, and they returned to it constantly. When the local synagogue was burned in 1938, most of the community was under only one obligation: “not to interfere.” Eventually Mayer showed his subjects the local newspaper from November 11, 1938, which contained a report: “In the interest of their own security, a number of male Jews were taken into custody yesterday. This morning they were sent away from the city.” None of them remembered seeing it, or indeed anything like it.

The killing of six million Jews? Fake news. Four of Mayer’s subjects insisted that the only Jews taken to concentration camps were traitors to Germany, and that the rest were permitted to leave with their property or its fair market value. The bill collector agreed that the killing of the Jews “was wrong, unless they committed treason in wartime. And of course they did.” He added that “some say it happened and some say it didn’t,” and that you “can show me pictures of skulls…but that doesn’t prove it.” In any case, “Hitler had nothing to do with it.” The tailor spoke similarly: “If it happened, it was wrong. But I don’t believe it happened.”

With evident fatigue, the baker reported, “One had no time to think. There was so much going on.” His account was similar to that of one of Mayer’s colleagues, a German philologist in the country at the time, who emphasized the devastatingly incremental nature of the descent into tyranny and said that “we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.” The philologist pointed to a regime bent on diverting its people through endless dramas (often involving real or imagined enemies), and “the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise.” In his account, “each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’” that people could no more see it “developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”

Focusing largely on 1933, in Defying Hitler Haffner offers a radically different picture, in which the true nature of Nazism was evident to many Germans from the start. Just twenty-five years old that year and studying law with the goal of becoming a judge or administrator, he describes the mounting effects of Nazism on the lives of his high-spirited friends and fellow students, who were preoccupied with fun, job prospects, and love affairs. Haffner says that as soon as the Nazis took power, he was saved by his capacity to smell the rot:

As for the Nazis, my nose left me with no doubts. It was just tiresome to talk about which of their alleged goals and intentions were still acceptable or even “historically justified” when all of it stank. How it stank! That the Nazis were enemies, my enemies and the enemies of all I held dear, was crystal clear to me from the outset.

As Haffner describes it, a form of terror began quickly, as members of the SS made their presence felt, intimidating people in public places. At the same time, citizens were distracted by an endless stream of festivities and celebrations. The intimidation, accompanied by the fervent, orchestrated pro-Nazi activity, produced an increase in fear, which led many skeptics to become Nazis. Nonetheless, people flirted, enjoyed romances, “went to the cinema, had a meal in a small wine bar, drank Chianti, and went dancing together.” Sounding here like Mayer’s subjects, Haffner writes that it was the “automatic continuation of ordinary life” that “hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror.”

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

A protest against the election of Trump outside the US embassy, London, November 2016

In Haffner’s telling, the collapse of freedom and the rule of law occurred in increments, some of which seemed to be relatively small and insignificant. In 1933, when Nazi officers stood menacingly outside Jewish shops, Jews were merely “offended. Not worried or anxious. Just offended.” But Haffner insists that Hitler’s brutality and the ongoing politicization of everyday life were clear from the outset. In the early days of the regime, a self-styled republican advised him to avoid skeptical comments, which would be of no use: “I think I know the fascists better than you. We republicans must howl with the wolves.”

Haffner catalogs the howling. Books started to disappear from bookshops and libraries. Journals and newspapers disappeared as well, and those that remained kept to the party line. Even in 1933, Germans who refused to become Nazis found themselves “in a fiendish situation: it was one of complete and unalleviated hopelessness; you were daily subjected to insults and humiliations.” Haffner sought refuge in the private domain, including with a small group of young people studying law, who had formed something like an intimate debating club. They were very good friends. One of the members, named Holz, held nationalistic views. Others disagreed, but it was all civil, the kind of energetic discussion young people often have about politics.

The group fell apart when Holz accused Haffner of “ignoring the monumental developments in the resurgence of the German people” and of being “a latent danger to the state”—and ominously threatened to denounce him to the Gestapo. Not far from its end, Haffner’s narrative provides a delicate and almost unbearably moving account of several idyllic weeks with the love of his life, who was engaged to an Englishman and who was about to leave Germany for good. (Seeing his distress after informing him of her engagement, she responded with infinite gentleness: “For now I’m still here.”) Summarizing those weeks, and something about human resilience, Haffner’s unfinished manuscript offers some words from the poet Friedrich Hölderlin: “Let us not look forward/Nor back. Be cradled, as in/A swaying boat on the sea.”

While Haffner concentrates largely on a single year, Jarausch’s topic is a century. In Broken Lives he draws on more than seventy personal memoirs produced by Germans who were mostly born in the 1920s. His aim is to produce a “vivid and personal picture of what it meant to live through the twentieth century,” rooted in the perspectives of people who were born after the carnage of World War I, and who generally enjoyed happy and even carefree childhoods in the Weimar Republic. It’s a wide-ranging, panoramic, revealing treatment, and for the most part, it’s very dark.

Jarausch offers a fact-filled account of the lives of “Nazi adolescents” a few years younger than Haffner, and of the immense social pressures that led to the rapid growth of the Nazi movement among young people. One of the Nazis’ clever strategies, which they adopted immediately after assuming power, was to increase those pressures by enforcing “an appearance of unanimous support for the Third Reich.” Many Germans were not so much pro-Hitler as anti-anti-Hitler—and their opposition to Hitler’s adversaries aided his rise. Decades afterward, memoirists referred to their “happy times” in the Hitler Youth, focusing not on ideology but on hiking trips, camaraderie, and summer camps.

In Jarausch’s account, things got much worse for Germans starting on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. A few days later, England and France declared war on Germany. One memoirist noted that with the Great War looming in the background, “no flags were flying, there was no approval, no enthusiasm.” Jarausch painstakingly describes the ensuing developments, starting with the initial triumphs of the Wehrmacht and the rapid conquest of Poland, and ending with the Normandy invasion, the relentless advance of the Red Army, and Hitler’s suicide.

After the war, defeat meant a new beginning for many, a kind of opportunity, and Jarausch shows how Germans—grim, shell-shocked, determined—returned to ordinary life and bet on a better future. Avoiding nationalism or even national pride, they succeeded in rebuilding their economy and their morale. Jarausch’s main focus is on West Germany, but he devotes considerable attention to the collapse of communism in the German Democratic Republic, suggesting that it foundered because it disappointed and disillusioned its citizens. Though his unifying theme is that the lives of countless Germans were broken in multiple ways, his conclusion is upbeat: many Germans have been transformed “into sincere democrats and pacifists who want to prevent a recurrence of earlier horrors.”

For those who seek to understand the German experience in the twentieth century, Jarausch has done a tremendous service. He paints on a much broader canvas than Mayer and Haffner, even when he explores Hitler’s rise. But precisely because of the fine-grained, intimate nature of their accounts, Mayer and Haffner speak more directly to those concerned about what makes authoritarianism possible. Of course we can’t be sure whether to believe Mayer’s subjects when they claim ignorance of what Hitler actually did. (Mayer isn’t sure either.) But they are convincing when they say that at the time they were mostly focused on their families, their friends, and their everyday lives. Haffner’s depiction of the “automatic continuation of ordinary life,” possible for so many amid their government’s step-by-step assault on freedom and dignity, is in the same vein.

All three authors are keenly aware that their narratives offer important lessons, and these should not be lost on contemporary readers. Turkey, for example, has been sliding toward authoritarianism through tactics not unlike those of the Nazis: jailing political dissidents, attacking freedom of speech, treating critics as enemies of the state, and obliterating checks and balances. Thus far, President Trump has been more bark than bite. But some of the barks have a history that is at once ugly and revealing. The Nazis applied the term Lügenpresse (lying press) to the mainstream press; President Trump refers to the “FAKE NEWS media,” which, he says, “is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” In significant domains (including climate change), his administration denigrates science; he has even failed to fill the position of White House science adviser. The Nazis also dismissed or politicized science (especially Einstein’s “Jewish Science”) in favor of what they claimed to be the spirit of the Volk.

If the president of the United States is constantly lying, complaining that the independent press is responsible for fake news, calling for the withdrawal of licenses from television networks, publicly demanding jail sentences for political opponents, undermining the authority of the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, magnifying social divisions, delegitimizing critics as “crooked” or “failing,” and even refusing, in violation of the law, to protect young children against the risks associated with lead paint—well, it’s not fascism, but the United States has not seen anything like it before.

With our system of checks and balances, full-blown authoritarianism is unlikely to happen here, but it would be foolish to ignore the risks that Trump and his administration pose to established norms and institutions, which help preserve both order and liberty. Those risks will grow if opposition to violations of long-standing norms is limited to Democrats, and if Republicans laugh, applaud, agree with, or make excuses for Trump—if they howl with the wolf.

In their different ways, Mayer, Haffner, and Jarausch show how habituation, confusion, distraction, self-interest, fear, rationalization, and a sense of personal powerlessness make terrible things possible. They call attention to the importance of individual actions of conscience both small and large, by people who never make it into the history books. Nearly two centuries ago, James Madison warned: “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of government can render us secure.” Haffner offered something like a corollary, which is that the ultimate safeguard against aspiring authoritarians, and wolves of all kinds, lies in individual conscience: in “decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large.”

  • *
    Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler: A Memoir, translated by Oliv

Book Review: How Democracies Die

I haven’t posted a book review in a long time as I have been waiting for a book that I believed to be a significant contribution to public discourse. I have now found such a book and I recommend strongly that people read it closely and carefully. The book provides the most lucid description of what is happening to this country as a result of Trump gaining office. You need only to consider the following conditions which presage the descent into fascism:

1. The toleration or encouragement of violence.

2. Denying the legitimacy of opponents.

3. Questioning the legitimacy of the democratic election process.

4. Curtail civil liberties of rivals and critics.

At this moment we are only one step away from number 4. Reasonable people in Congress must forego party line loyalties and organize themselves around those loyalties that are essential to preserving our democracy. We, as citizens, must urge elected officials to live up their oaths of office to defend and preserve our democracy!

Please read this book: How Democracies Die  Steven Levtsky & Daniel Ziblatt Crown Books

This is also available as an ebook (ISBN 9078-1-5247-6295-7)


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