Exhausted by the 2016 election, and knowing that undecided voters are few and are unlikely to be persuaded by anything I might say, I nevertheless decided to speak up one last time here. There’s a knot in my stomach. Silence only makes it worse. Silence – even for a day – would contribute to evils I’ve long deplored.
From the time I became conscious of the world, I have asked how Hitler could rise to power.
Now I know.
A child of World War II, I have learned that the questions are more important than the answers, and that sometimes the answers don’t come. Yet, as I look back on my life story, the question was not about Hitler. It was about the German people who elected him.
It still is. But this year, it’s not about the Germans. It’s about us, the Americans.
I’ve spent a lifetime living in the shadow of Adolf Hitler and the societal madness that elected him, determined from very early in life to oppose the darkness, the terror, the long shadow of Dachau, Buchenwald, and Auschwitz. Of nationalism, militarism, Arian racial superiority, global imperialism, and the startling echoes that still ring out from the gas chambers and gallows of the same society that bequeathed the world with the high culture of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schopenhauer, Hegel, and Thomas Mann. How, I have asked myself forever, could this have happened? I’ve looked inside myself and wondered what I might have felt and done during the rise of the German Third Reich.
Now I know.
The question is no longer hypothetical. No longer abstract. No longer just philosophical, psychological, or sociological. It’s immediate and practical. It’s staring me in the face every day as I watch the crowds clapping for a presidential candidate whose name is on everything he’s ever touched as a businessman and who has made it his business to put his hands where they have not been welcome.
The crowds that support Donald Trump are drawn by an irresistible force to make America great again. In Germany it was the same. It’s a page out of Hitler’s playbook, but the differences between the United States in 2016 and Germany in 1930s are strikingly different. Germany had been defeated in World War I. America was victorious. Its economy was in shambles. Ours is the envy of the world. Germany’s post-war sovereignty was limited.Ours is not. The German people perceived the Weimar Republic as weak, powerless, and ineffective, a refrain echoed in the American far right’s cacophonous contradictions that charge the Obama Administration with too much power in domestic policies, on the one hand, and weakness against international terrorism.
During the 1920s and early ‘30s, the people of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Hegel felt humiliated, their national pride had been assaulted. But. . . assaulted by whom?
Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals became the scapegoats against which the pure Germans could define themselves and make Germany great again. Today in America Muslims, Mexicans, and LGBTQ have become the equivalent scapegoats of the Donald Trump campaign, and a copy of Hitler’s speeches is in the Trump master bedroom.
If the German people were drawn like iron to a magnet by a charismatic personality who gave singular voice to their grief and anger, it was not the last time a nation would go down that road to fascist madness. It begins as a kind of love affair. Looking into the human psyche, Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) wrote:
The ultimate aim of all love affairs … is more important than all other aims in man’s life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it. What is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation …. (The World as Will and Representation, Supplements to the Fourth Book).
The next generation and generations to come are at stake in the U.S.A. on November 8, 2016.
As every American president has said, “May God bless the United States of America.” I add, and may God save us all from the worst in ourselves.
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 5, 2016