What kind of German would you be?

In 1983, as a senior in high school, I took a class called 20th Century Europe, which I remember mostly as a blurry litany of battles interrupted by a grisly Christmas-break research project on medical experiments in Nazi concentration camps.

I do, however, clearly remember the day I learned about how Hitler rose to power through legal means, and how he used legal means to create an authoritarian state. I remember when discussion turned to the German people, and we collectively wondered how they had let the atrocities of the Third Reich happen. I listened to my classmates, one after another, condemn ordinary Germans for not resisting, for turning on their neighbors, for looking away from the columns of smoke rising from the concentration camps. They insisted they would never do such things. They would speak their minds. They would hide Jews. They would not be “good Germans.”

I listened in disbelief. Perhaps it was because I had memories of my great-grandmother who immigrated to this country from that one; although I didn’t know them, some of those ordinary Germans were my family, and I imagined myself in their place. Perhaps it was because I already knew my own fears and weaknesses and strong instinct for self-preservation. I doubted very much that I or most of the others in the room would risk torture and imprisonment and death to resist the Nazis, and I thought their belief that they would and their judgement of Germans who didn’t was just plain wrong.

Which is what I said aloud in class, probably too forcefully. I remember the uncomfortable silence that followed my words and the stunned look on the face of the girl who had last spoken before me. I didn’t know how to criticize the ideas without criticizing the people who voiced them, and I sure didn’t know how to repair the feelings I had hurt without saying I didn’t mean it, which wouldn’t have been true. I felt defensive and embarrassed and regretful long after our teacher moved us on.

I wish I could tell you that I feel differently about myself and my fellow Americans than I did in 1983, but I really don’t. I think that if writing blog posts such as this one might get me jailed, I’d likely stop writing them. If hiding a member of a targeted group would mean risking imprisonment for my family, I probably wouldn’t do that. We all want to be this man, but how many of us really are?

I have thought about that day in class many times since November 8th, wondering exactly what it is we all need to do and how–and when–we should do it.

Despite all the ways in which Trump seems to be following the playbook of other fascist rulers, we can’t know that he’s setting his sights on being an authoritarian despot. I know it’s inconceivable to many Americans that Trump could ever wreak the kind of havoc on the world that Hitler did, and any comparison to Hitler causes them to dismiss the one making the comparison. It’s important to remember, though, that in early 1933, Germans couldn’t know what Hitler would become, either. The signs were there, and many saw them, but I’m guessing people told themselves the same kinds of things I hear many of us saying today:

  • Congress will keep him from doing anything too terrible.
  • We’re never going to lose our rights to free speech and free elections.
  • C’mon, this is the United States of America. We’re still us.

I suppose that’s why so many Germans did nothing until the price of resistance was too high for most to pay.

Unlike us, those Germans didn’t have the advantage of such a recent example of how terrible things in a democracy can get. But we do, and that’s why I’m trying hard to be the kind of German I hope I would have been in early 1933, when Germans could still resist without risking everything.

We need to be strong enough to stand up to those who tell us that our speaking out is the problem. We need to remind ourselves and then tell them that true unity and peace does not come from keeping our mouths shut about what we feel and believe and know (verifiably) to be true.

We need to take back the word “patriot” and remind ourselves and tell them that patriots are not loyal to a person, but to our country. We need to remind ourselves and tell them that dissent and free speech are part of what has made our country strong –it’s never been what has made us weak.

We need to remind ourselves and tell them that name-calling (crybabies, libtards, snowflakes) and logical fallacies are the tactics of abusers who attempt to silence others through intimidation and shame.

I get why it might feel better, right now, to quietly wait and see. As alarmed as I am by the things I’ve already seen, even I can tell myself that it probably won’t ever be as bad as I fear it could be. I fear being dismissed as an alarmist or extremist. But I am reminding myself and telling others repeatedly that if we wait until things are truly alarming and extreme before we act, it may be too late.

Incidents like the one in my high school history class caused me, over time, to silence myself. I wanted to avoid those moments of discomfort and embarrassment, especially with those I care about. If I didn’t feel sure that I could say something in the best way, I often said nothing at all. But the time has come for us to value other things more than comfort, for both ourselves and others.  The time has come to be like the Germans we wish there had been more of in 1933–because I never want to have to know what kind of German I might have been in 1939 or 1942. And I will neither apologize for nor own the discomfort of others when I do, even if I do it clumsily.

This is what democracy looks like.

Just in case you think I am being too alarmist, take a gander here or here.

Photo of August Landmesser via http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/august-landmesser-1936/

14 thoughts on “What kind of German would you be?

  1. Kate says:

    I think that’s why I’m being so vocal right now. I’ll resist while resistance is still “safe”. Yes, I’ll have some friends roll their eyes. I’ll have some family members ask if I need a safe space or call me a snowflake but I’m not threatened with bodily harm or even death. I *do* like to think that I would continue to risk those things even when the consequences become more dire, but I also know that while I may have before motherhood since children my preservation instinct for THEM is simply too strong. I’d love to think that I couldn’t look another mother in the eye and say mine before yours…but I’m not sure. I’m really not. So I’ll speak now. And I applaud you saying those things when you were young Rita, because I was one of those people who thought I’d be a good German and it wasn’t until someone like you confronted me that I could see that even those who turned a blind eye were in their own hell too.

    • Rita says:

      I hear you on the issue of being a mother. I was fairly cavalier about my life until I had children. I have a vivid memory of riding home from the hospital without them (they were in the NICU) and driving down a stretch of highway that was notorious for its fatal accidents. (It was known as Blood Alley back then.) I was struck suddenly with the understanding that my life mattered in a way it hadn’t only days before. I knew no one would or could ever care for my children the way I would. I cared about living like I never had before that moment.

      It’s not quite the same for me now that they are mostly grown. I feel a shifting already, and I know it’s why I’ve been speaking and sharing as I have. It’s not just about having more free time. It’s about not needing to be so vigilant about some things. Those who are still doing the heavy lifting of mothering–you’re in a different place. And that’s OK. I think maybe the important thing is for all of us to be clear about where we are and why.

      As for the younger me, I don’t think she deserves much applause. There wasn’t any real risk in saying that. I think I was trying to figure something out more than take any kind of stand. I think it was more about knowing that if I’d been one of those Germans, I probably wouldn’t have been brave.

      I think that when we’re in hell, it’s hot for all of us. I’m afraid we’re just beginning to see that.

    • Patti says:

      I’ve been doing a lot of internet surfing because I compulsively must do an hourly “Trump” check, as in, “Oh Lordy, what’s he done now?!” In between the Trump checks, I look for DIY info – I found your This Sorta Old Life blog yesterday while looking for examples of multi-colored kitchen tiles. I was disappointed to see that the blog’s last entry was in January 2015, and saddened, because it seemed to end on a very sad note. I always need to know how a story ends, so much so that I sometimes read a tale back to front – and if a movie looks like it’s full of sad stuff, I’ll go to Wikipedia to read the synopsis to make sure it doesn’t have a tragic ending. So, of COURSE today I Googled Cane and Rita to see if I could find you – I just wanted to make sure you were okay. The times are troubling and I know you must feel like a small voice in the wilderness, but keep doing what you’re doing, even if it’s just a couple of thoughtful lines on a blog. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone – that there are still people who believe in simple things like truth, inclusiveness, kindness. Thank you.

      • Rita says:

        Thank you for taking the time to share these words with me. I do feel like a small voice in the wilderness. I appreciate knowing that it mattered to someone to hear it.

  2. Marian says:

    Like Kate, I applaud your youthful hutzpa, Rita — it’s not easy to call out bullshit, especially at a young age.

    I would like to think I would have the courage to be a “good” German, but I dunno … if push came to shove and it was literally a matter of life or death I think my self-preservation would kick in and I would cave. I sometimes think about the concept of being “dead right” — as in, what if you place yourself in a situation in which you are absolutely 100% right … but which causes you to die? While it may have the effect of spurring others on to action (and while that may be the ONLY way change is possible!), that’s damn cold comfort for your loved ones. The piece on August Landmesser brought tears to my eyes … not just for August and his wife, but for their two daughters who were orphaned.

    I don’t think you’re being alarmist AT ALL, but that being said, I do think there are some differences between the situation now and the situation in Nazi Germany. I think people now are raised less authoritatively and are thus more sceptical and do more questioning than they did back then (I would have to dig to find the reference for this, but I believe studies have shown that when kids are brought up in a deeply religious and/or authoritarian way they are less likely to step in to defend their peers from bullying; if I recall correctly, this was shown (after the fact) in Nazi Germany — the ones who DID resist were the ones who were raised less authoritatively). (The whole fake news issue raises huge problems with this, though, and I wonder if it would nullify the fact that we live in a less authoritarian society.) Another difference between now and then is technology — here, I’m thinking of police brutality/abuse being caught on cell phone cameras; I think that as we go forward wrongdoers may be hindered by the real possibility of their actions being caught on camera.

    I do think scapegoating is a huge problem, and that this is probably not much different from the 1930s, when Hitler scapegoated the Jews as being the cause of all of Germany’s problems. Trump’s message that Mexicans and Asians stole American jobs can be seen in the same light, and it’s easy to see why people elected him if they bought into this way of thinking. I’m no economist, but I wonder if those jobs disappeared because all the OTHER Americans demanded cheap goods, and thus factories moved to locations where labour was cheap. If that’s the case, then it seems that Americans kinda did it to themselves. (Or American CEOs did it to their employees.) I guess it remains to be seen whether or not Trump can make inroads into bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US; one analyst I listened to said those jobs are now all automated and there is actually nothing to be brought back…

    “Alternative facts” … we heard that on the news yesterday. It’s like you’ve/we’ve entered an Orwellian 1984, and that was just DAY ONE!!!

    (BTW — LOVE your pussyhats! Our small city didn’t have a march, but my 18-year-old son ended up in Toronto’s!)
    Marian recently posted…—ingMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      As always, I appreciate your thoughtful responses. Like you, the story about August gut-punched me. I wondered why he was willing to stand there like, arm down. And then I read his story and realized why–he’d already lost so much. I think that when we still have much to lose, it’s probably nearly impossible to take that kind of stand. I just really hope I never have to find out where my lines are. I hope none of us do.

      I hope you are right, and the things we have that Germans didn’t have 80 years ago will keep us from a similar fate. I read pieces like this one (http://billmoyers.com/story/the-trump-resistance-plan-step-one/, though and it chills me. I hope you are right–that our technology and our connections to each other will keep us able to talk to each other and tell each other what we know is true.

      I kinda love my silly hat, too. I started to knit one and realized I wouldn’t have enough time to finish it. I sewed both of these in less than an hour, start to finish. I’m going to keep working on the knit one, though. I was really liking it. I’ll share it when I get done. 🙂

  3. Stephenie says:

    Rita, this is so brave, for the simple reason that we all want to believe things could not possibly be as bad as we imagine, AND because none of us want to be labelled as hysterical or doomsayers or unpatriotic or whatever else gets thrown at people who speak out. I think everyone likes to believe that what happens in “other countries” could never happen in our own countries. But everyone forgets that Germany was a “civilised” country of regular people just like us, who were whipped into a frenzy of hatred and cruelty by a charismatic liar and his team of propaganda-builders. We are none of us immune, none of us “above” what is happening. I think our grandparents would never believe we could be so stupid in the world as to allow the rise of this kind of person to power, not even a century after the world supposedly learned their lesson and vowed “never again.”
    In Canada we actually have politicians on the conservative side who are doing their best to emulate your new president’s style and tactics, and I can only hope voters don’t underestimate the ability of bullies and big-talkers to fight their way into power.
    Stephenie recently posted…I resolve never to make resolutionsMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      We love to love your Trudeau and think that all of you are somehow immune from this ugliness, but I’ve heard from Canadian writers I follow that you’re facing the same kinds of challenges. I’m with you–I’ve been saying to whoever will listen since last spring that no country is immune. I think that we in the US have such faith in our institutions we think it can’t happen here. When our Republicans refused to fill our vacant Supreme Court last spring, though, I realized that things were no longer stable.

      I’m not sure what the solutions are going to be, but I was heartened by the worldwide turnout on Saturday. It helps us know that we aren’t alone. We just need to figure out how to stay unified to stop this threat.

  4. Laura Millsaps says:

    It’s an interesting question because my mother’s ancestors were German immigrants from Russia (longer story) to this country. During WWI, they were very quiet about the country from which they’d immigrated (Russia), spoke English instead of their native language (German), and for all the reasons you might imagine– the tides of politics had turned, and they were for the time being an unwelcome immigrant community. Fast forward a generation to WWII, and my great uncle, highly German surname and all, served as a corporal in the 173nd Field Artillery Group, U.S. Army, of the European theater of battle. His unit was at Dachau shortly after the camp’s liberation by the 42nd Infantry, almost seventy-two years ago. I don’t know if he ever felt the conflict of his heritage with his citizenship, because he never spoke of it. But I think about him and that generation a lot, both their unity of purpose and their susceptibility to conformity. But that was against an exterior enemy. But now the enemy seems to be from within (and without, actually, if you consider the Russian angle, and I absolutely do). I never lived in a time where I thought our much vaunted liberties would need to be wrested from our own government, one that no longer represents the majority or best interests of its populace.
    Laura Millsaps recently posted…A Note to the Republic, for which I Stand.My Profile

    • Rita says:

      I’m still struggling to accept what kind of time we seem to be living in. I grew up fearing nuclear war and a Russian take-over. This was not the kind of threat I ever imagined for us. And the irony–that the right has been howling about a pretend take-over for the last eight years, and now we seem to have a real one, is a little mind-boggling. It feels calculated; like they spent 8 years crying wolf, and so now most don’t believe it when he’s actually at the door.

      My German grandpa didn’t talk much about his experience during the war. He worked in the Naval shipyards in Bremerton and didn’t serve overseas. He isn’t the one who told me that he hated Hitler for destroying his pride in being German; my grandma told me that one. He did tell me once that others stopped talking to his mother during the war; she was from Germany. What I can’t help thinking about now is how different that experience would have been if they were Japanese–and how race always plays a role in everything in our history. It’s playing such a huge role now. I think we’re living through a time that is both something I never thought I’d see, and something we’ve seen over and over again.

  5. Hillary says:

    Love love love this. Thanks for writing it and sharing it with us. I know and you know we are of dimilar ilk. Thank God for good company!

  6. Joanna says:

    Having been born in post-communist Poland, I completely share your attitude.

    I came to the USA as a kid over 20 years ago in search of freedom and opportunity. My family left Poland after the collapse of communist controlled government and the chaos that followed. This was the 1990s, 50 years after the German invasion of World War II. Whether under Hitler, Stalin, or Lenin, Poland stood strong, always fighting though bleeding hard. These days, my heart is bleeding for America, and for our children. This is scary times but I’m convinced that we’ll resist and come out stronger in the end.

    • Rita says:

      Hi Joanna,
      Thanks for taking the time to share your perspective. I think all of this freaks out Americans like me because we’ve never lived through a time of real instability. Certainly not the kind of hardship that Poland has seen in the last 70+ years. I think you are right–that we will come out stronger in the end. I think many of us did not realize how much we cherish our rights and our way of life until now, when we see it threatened. I guess it is just our turn. Going to do my part, whatever that turns out to be.

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