Thursday, December 8, 2016

Why President Elect Trump Does Not Represent Politics as Usual (Part II)

Why are people upset about Trump, you ask? How could one possibly see any resemblance to Nazi Germany (or any Fascist regime)?

Image is Hitler at a 1932 political rally, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

Is this not an over the top expression of paranoia? After all, this is a free country! There are no stazi troops marching in the street, bursting into homes, burning books, right?  "What's there to be alarmed about," you ask? 

Well, don't forget that, in 1925, most ordinary, freedom loving Germans never would have imagined that this could happen to them, either. This was a country steeped in Christian values, governed by decent people.  But there is no inoculation that protects us from human nature. No one wants to own the label "fascist," but , human societies are all at risk of sliding into rule by authoritarian regimes. This has happened many times in history.  Nazi Germany is merely one of recent ones. 

One thing notable about Nazi Germany, however, was the shock to the Western European consciousness. How could this have happened, here, to us?!  In the aftermath of World War II, numerous scholars, ethicists, philosophers studied the issue. I've read some of these.  I've felt very uncomfortable about what felt like a slide toward these tendencies I could feel, but the 2015 - 2016 presidential election had a different, more ominous feel.  How might it have felt to an ordinary German, living in the 1920's and 1930's?  After all, one doesn't jump from being an ordinary, moral person one day and exterminating a race of people the next.  How did that happen?  Could it be happening today, of course in a different context and  expressed in a different way, but a similar kind of event?

Check out this first hand account of how one person  experienced the slide from decency and tolerance into a different world, piece by piece, bit by bit:

Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don't want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don't want to 'go out of your way to make trouble.' Why not? - Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, everyone is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there will be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this. In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, 'It's not so bad' or 'You're seeing things' or 'You're an alarmist.'

And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can't prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don't know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. ...

But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That's the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and the smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked - if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in '43 had come immediately after the 'German Firm' stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in '33. But of course this isn't the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying 'Jew swine,' collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in - your nation, your people - is not the world you were in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God.

Exerpt above is from They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945,  (University of Chicago Press. Reissued in paperback, April, 1981), in which Milton Mayer interviewed people who had lived through the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. 

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