Hitting the same notes

Many Americans have become increasingly alarmed by Donald Trump’s white supremacy, his contempt for democratic institutions of courts and Congress, efforts to redefine and disconnect human rights from international norms, and his administration’s recent participation in a conference on [white] nationalism. While few would go so far as to say that history is repeating itself, the Trump administration sure seems to be hitting a lot of Nazi notes, if not some Lieder. Understanding how and how rapidly things devolved in Germany in 1933 is an important exercise — especially if we want to make sure that “Never Again” means precisely that.

Ethnonationalism had a dark and dismal history in Germany long before precursors of the Hitlerjugend and the SS arose — long before Hitler. As a political movement Nazism had slow and steady growth after the First World War, but it wasn’t until 1932 when the Nazi party won 37.4% of the vote that Hitler came to power. A year later, in 1933, Hitler became Kanzler. That same year Dachau was constructed and was used mainly for political prisoners. Germans of the day might have felt a bit uneasy about concentration camps, but for the moment they were mainly being used on Communists.

Richard E. Frankel, Associate Professor of Modern German History at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, notes that, just as Trump did recently, Hitler pardoned war criminals. “In August of 1932, in the town of Potempa, nine Nazi Stormtroopers murdered a supporter of the German Communist Party, kicking him to death in his own apartment as his family watched in horror. Six were convicted with five receiving the death penalty. After the verdict, Hitler sent them a telegram in which he declared to them his ‘boundless loyalty.’ Shortly after he came to power in 1933, he pardoned the killers.” This was just the beginning of many such pardons. Hitler’s telegram should have been a signal to Germans of Hitler’s contempt of democratic norms, just as pardoning Joe Arpaio should have warned Americans about what Trump would do later.

1933 was a particularly ominous year in Germany. As Kanzler, Hitler declared that German foreign policy demanded the expansion of its territory. Germany First. The staged Reichstag fire and the Ermächtigungsgesetz (“Enabling Act”) consolidated Hitler’s power and Congress — I’m sorry, I meant the Reichstag — soon ceased to have any real political power. The Kanzler was now a Führer and his party had transformed into a cult of personality in which the leader’s wishes superseded any law. Political parties other than the Nazi party were soon illegal, trade unions were banned, and the first book burnings took place that year. Echoing themes we see today, Nazi Germany withdrew from the League of Nations. Germany was above international norms. To make Germany great again, it literally had to be über Alles.

Within short order there were more mass-pardons, and the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (“Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service”) purged the civil service of Jews. It was called a “restoration” for reasons MAGA America would love — the Civil Service had to be made great, and completely Christian, again. The military was also strengthened, universal conscription ordered, and by 1935 the first Race Laws were enacted. The Trump administration’s threats to override the Fourteenth Amendment — by decree — would confer citizenship by race and not birthplace.

In 1938 mobs organized by the Nazis carried out Kristallnacht — a night of terrorization of German Jews — and the victims were actually charged with the offense. The pretext for Kristallnacht was the assassination of Nazi diplomat Ernst vom Rath by a 17-year-old German Jew in Paris who had been expelled from the country. German Jews were then collectively punished with a Judenvermögensabgabe, a fine of one billion Reichsmarks for vom Rath’s killing. In today’s dollars this was $5.5 billion, to be satisfied by the expropriation of 20% of all Jewish property in Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland. The Nazis were just getting warmed up.

Despite the human rights abuses that had been occurring for over a decade (1929-1939), it was only when Germany invaded Poland that Britain and France declared war. In 1940 Denmark and Norway were occupied by Nazi Germany, followed by the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. Germany developed plans for blitz-bombing Britain. In 1941 Yugoslavia and Greece were occupied. Germany advanced on Stalingrad. In 1941 Nazi Einsatzgruppen were already coordinating the wholesale slaughter of Jews in European towns and cities where no concentration camps existed. Finally, after Pearl Harbor, in 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States. In 1942 the Wannsee Conference approved plans for the mass extermination of Jews, but the slaughter had been going on for years.

Germany was regarded by many Americans as a model of power and technological superiority. And a number of American industrialists supported Nazism. Fred Koch, the grandfather of today’s Koch Brothers, and his company, Winkler-Koch Engineering, provided the Nazis with oil refining technology. George Bush’s grandfather Prescott Bush did business with the Third Reich until 1942, when some of his assets were seized under the 1942 Trading with the Enemy Act. Ford, Coca-Cola, Kodak, GE, IBM, Standard Oil, and even Random House all did business with Hitler. In 1939 there was a massive pro-Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden which demonstrated that many Americans regarded Nazi values as American values.

Today, while we are not necessarily on the same path to Nazism as Germany was in 1933, there are many lessons we should learn from the history.

Owing to Germany’s massive militarization, it presented an almost unstoppable threat to the rest of the world. By making adulation of the Führer an explicit operating principle, democracy was easily subverted by spineless politicians who prized power over democracy. By explicitly demonizing a minority, and through the codification of racist laws, democracy was further poisoned. A nation that relied on propaganda, repression and brutality was overwhelmed in every other aspect of civilization except for industrial production — which, like ours, included slave labor. Under Nazism Germany had a Constitution and ostensibly operated under rule of law. But the entire system was cruel and immoral. Today Germans admire dissidents like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The current Kanzler just celebrated the 75th anniversary of an attempt to assassinate Hitler. It is said that history is written by the victors. Apparently so is morality.

Finally, one cannot underestimate the psychology and manipulations of a leader on a receptive public, especially when properly conditioned by state propaganda. Hitler was a man who admired other dictators, notably Benito Mussolini who preceded him in authoritarian rule by more than a decade. Besides Hitler’s popular rallies, one of which was immortalized by Leni Riefenstahl in Triumph of the Will, Hitler had enthusiastic help from a xenophobic mass media. Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer was the FOX News and Sinclair Media of the day.

Though there had been warning signs for years, in an eight year period from 1933 to 1941 one of the most “civilized” nations on earth completely lost its collective mind, becoming a nation of war criminals and mass murderers. Today, in MAGA America, the haters are not singing precisely the same Nazi Lieder — but they sure are hitting a lot of the same notes.

The accounting of history

For White America, the accounting of history is all assets and no liabilities. Iowa’s Steve King never stops saying that the profits on America’s balance sheet all belong to white people because, over hundreds of years, it was white people who tamed a brown continent and brought “civilization” to it. Ask White America about Confederate history and you will hear that the Lost Cause is a crucial part of American history and American identity. To take down rebel monuments is to strike assets off White America’s ledgers.

The Western Canon, still taught in some universities, is a sort of Western/white supremacist version of world history and culture. It originally consisted of almost exclusively Greek, Roman, and Christian sources. Ask a white Evangelical Christian, who now only grudgingly acknowledges the “Judeo” part of our newly-reformulated “Judeo-Christian” culture, and you’ll hear that the biblical kingdoms of “Samaria” and “Judea” should be reserved for overwhelmingly European settlers under Israel’s Law of Return, and that Palestinians should remain under perpetual occupation. There’s a thick thread of racism running through all of Western history and culture.

But when it comes to reparations for slavery, White America has a completely different accounting scheme — a scheme in which all debts are automatically cancelled. In this scheme, since all contributions by non-whites are negligible, and their presence so unwanted, their claims on American history are nothing but petty annoyances. If someone wronged you, your parents, your grandparents — even every generation of your ancestors — well, too bad, it’s not our fault. Get over it. No debts were incurred. And no debts need be paid after such a long time.

For a people who don’t believe in a free lunch — not even for poor children — it is curious that White Americans so resolutely refuse to pay their debts. And as a nation we have some pretty big ones — colonialism, genocide, territorial expropriation, slavery, and centuries of racism. In the history of American Capitalism, it was slavery that set the Confederate economy in motion. And it was slavery that underpinned the cotton trade upon which the Northern textile industries were based. Thus, even New England cities — under Northern Capitalism — became rich from slavery. Today White America, South and North, wring their hands over the complexity of the accounting. But regardless of the unwillingness of the debtor to pay the debt, the interest on our Original Sin just keeps accruing.

In the orthodox [White] re-telling of American history, Our good fortune simply fell off a truck. We were lucky enough, and smart enough, to simply scoop it up for ourselves. The triumphalist says: I got mine; the hell with the rest of you. Yet, whether by lying to ourselves about our history or by the sociopathic glorification of it, White America knows full well what it has stolen. And for those who recognize the stolen merchandise as theirs, they know what crimes were committed and that payment is due. That payment must consist of not only a monetary value but a moral accounting.

As much as Republicans and Centrist Democrats would like race to simply go away, a national discussion about reparations — like racism itself — is long overdue. It is not surprising that we are hearing about reparations in the 2020 presidential campaign from both candidates of color and several white Democrats. Ta-Nihisi Coates recently penned a long “Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic, and in it he makes the case, mentioning H.R.40, a bill sponsored in the last legislative session by Michigan Democrat John Conyers, Jr., “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.”

Like a Truth and Reconciliation process, a reparations commission would require White America to come to grips with our real history. The questions are complex, the solutions even more so. How do we make amends for crimes committed by past generations that are repeated and still resonate today? Who would all the recipients of reparations be, and what forms would reparations consist of? Following the implementation of reparations, how could we determine if they were lifting up those who needed them the most?

But Coates sums up a reparations commission’s greatest good: “No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”

Our fragile democracy cannot survive the shameful present reality of the two Americas the Kerner Commission predicted over fifty years ago. Apologies are due, and debts must be acknowledged and paid. Those who have suffered the most must be lifted up and made whole.

This nation must be made whole.

Bring the fire

Last week’s debates featured a pack of twenty Democratic candidates for president. All these men and women deeply care about the United States and all would be an improvement over the incumbent. Regardless of the number of warts and blemishes I have already counted, I am almost certain that I will be canvassing door-to-door for whichever of these people ends up the Democratic nominee in 2020.

The debates were chaotic, with contenders interrupting and constantly talking over each other. Nevertheless, it was a valuable opportunity to see wits and bits of policy on display. To my thinking, only Julian Castro, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren survived the first night’s debate. And of the second night’s participants, only Kamala Harris and Pete Buttegieg came out relatively unscathed.

Neither of the two leaders in the polls — Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — seemed up to the job. Biden is a gratuitous gift to Republican voters, has more baggage than an airport, and he deserved the thrashing he got from Kamala Harris. Twice Biden, outmatched or unprepared, saved himself by stammering “my time is up” — ironically defining his own fitness for the job.

And it breaks my heart to say this, but Bernie is who he has always been, with a message that never changes with the wind or polls. His policy prescriptions are wise and bold. But as the oldest presidential candidate ever, and without the ability to connect with a diverse electorate, Bernie is probably un-electable in 2020. Like Moses, Bernie has brought millions of progressives to Canaan, but he himself will never step foot in the Promised Land.

I am left with the mental image of Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg or Julian Castro running circles around Trump in a debate. I can also picture Kamala Harris cleaning off the ice pick she just shoved into Biden’s neck — the same one she used on Barr — and plunging it into Trump. I’m not alone in believing that the defense of what’s left of our democracy will have to be accomplished with some degree of ruthlessness.

I have already said what I think of Bernie Sanders’ chances of being elected, but for many white Americans electability is almost the only criterion for selecting a president. Both parties have forever preferred tall white males who say all the right things about Capitalism and the military.  But when all is said and done, it’s race that really matters to White America. Michael Harriot, writing in The Root, notes that working-class, soccer moms, rural voters, NASCAR dads, the religious right, moderate and suburban voters all “may sound phonetically different, [but] those categories all refer to white people.” With no one to represent them, it is little wonder that so many people of color sat out the last election. The next election had better address this failure.

Now is also not the time for the faint-hearted to abandon principles. Democrats can’t give in to the delusion that the so-called “never-Trump” Republican or the mythological swing voter will be swayed by sacrificing Main Street to Wall Street or by once again failing to address immigration and racial injustices. If these unlikely voters are truly worried about Trump — as they should be — then they’re just going to have to suck it up and vote for the lesser evil. Isn’t that what Democrats always tell the progressive wing of their own party? Universal health care won’t be half as painful as concentration camps and whatever follows that. Eugene Robinson, in his July 1st column in the Washington Post, nailed it when he wrote:

“Anyone who watched last week’s two-night candidates’ debate should be confident that the eventual Democratic nominee is virtually certain to support universal health care, comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform, reasonable gun control, measures to address climate change and bold steps to address income inequality. No, this is not a Republican agenda. Outcasts from the GOP will have to decide whether to accept it, in the interest of ending our long national nightmare, or reject it and stick with a president who kowtows to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un.”

This week a progressive Democratic Congressional delegation faced a snarling MAGA mob and aggressive Border Patrol agents in Texas when they went to visit a camp where there was no tap water and prisoners were being told to drink out of toilets. In the midst of hostility that concerned even their security details, these mostly young progressive lawmakers stood up and denounced the abuses they had just seen. The visit closely coincided with the anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ famous oration, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?,” in which Douglass intoned:

For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

Newly-elected Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who many Democrats initially thought was politically indistinguishable from the [white] man she replaced, showed voters on Monday just what the difference was when she directly addressed the MAGA mob, almost appearing to channel Douglass’ words:

“I learned a long time ago that when change happens it’s either because people see the light or they feel the fire. We’re lifting up these stories in the hopes that you will see the light. And if you don’t, we will bring the fire.”

It’s going to take a lot of Democratic soul-searching, courage and fidelity to principle, and a heaping scoop of ruthlessness to win the next election. Everything depends on it.

Bring the fire.