As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air – however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
— Justice William O. Douglas
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I was born the very day World War II ended. My fellow postwar “Baby Boomers” grew up on old black and white documentaries of that war and the events leading up to it. But those films never really answered the most important question, a question that has nagged me, and I suspect most of my generation
How did Germany and the German people become the Mrs. O’Leary’s cow of an entire continent? How could a culture, re-formed during the Renaissance, create a horror like Auschwitz?
How does something that extraordinary happen? It’s a question that has not only burdened American Baby Boomers, but three generations of postwar Germans as well. But for them it’s much more than just a historical curiosity. For postwar Germans it’s also been a nagging sense of collective guilt – guilt about events they had nothing to do with, but guilt nonetheless. It’s a guilt built on the realization that their parents and grand parents either participated in, supported and/or enabled what happened over half a century ago — or, at the very least, did nothing to prevent or stop it.
Of course the fascist rulers of the Third Reich ruled with a heavy hand. So it’s not hard to understand why so many Germans simply laid low rather than oppose the regime.
“Nazi terror from above and the demise of the rule of law started just a few days after Hitler’s assumption of power in January 1933. The penalties of opposition became higher and higher. In the first nine months alone, at least 100,000 people, most of them leftist Germans, were thrown into hastily erected concentration camps. Others ended up in ordinary prisons and many died. Countless more were roughed up by rampaging brownshirts in broad daylight or taken into police custody on trumped-up political charges. By 1936, a brutal police state had penetrated virtually all spheres of life.” ( New York Times books.)
While the rules have tightened here since 9/11, we’ve not experienced anything near that scale. Speaking out is remains a survivable exercise.
Which begs the question; what will be our excuse? How will we explain the things we’ve allowed this administration to get away with — the torture, the “renditions,” the secret prisons, the warrant-less wiretapping, the lies we and our media allowed to stand? What are we going to tell our grand children when they ask us what the hell we were thinking, feeling and doing while all that was afoot?
I understand it’s against the rules of polite society to recklessly throw the “f” word around by comparing anything that’s happening today to the kind of atrocities that occurred under Hitler. It”s even worse to compare any contemporary American political/religious/social leader to Hitler.
So I won’t. I won’t go that far, because it hasn’t gone that far – yet.
What I have been doing though is cracking history books and trying to suss out an answer to that original question – the one that wonders how well-educated, forward-looking modern pre-war Germans could so quickly devolve into the most evil nation on the planet.
I don’t ask you to accept that there are any genuine corollaries between the events that led to Germany’s decent into fascism and what’s been going on in America over the last few years. I only ask that you consider the events back then and the events we are living through now. I think you will agree that, at the very least there are spooky similarities – and , at the very worst, there are striking similarities.
Either way, there are valuable lessons to be learned, mistakes to be avoided and, maybe, just maybe, warnings worth heeding.
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