What do I mean by “it” in this post’s title? I don’t mean Hitler, of course. I mean the phenomenon described vividly and frighteningly by journalist and author Nagorski in his book (which I am reading) entitled “Hitlerland.” It’s a detailed account of Americans living in Germany during Hitler’s riser to power. Most of them were journalists or diplomats; a few tourists are included. The sources are their journals, articles, books and diaries. What’s frightening about the (true) story is how many of them refused to see what was right before their eyes. Some of them saw with their own eyes either events or proof of events and still shut their eyes or minds to what was happening. And some who did see what was happening and tried to sound the alarm were considered hysterical by others–including some in our own State Department. (I previously read the book In the Garden of the Beasts which is similar to Hitlerland only it focused on one particular diplomant–America’s ambassador to Germany during part of the 1930s. He tried to sound the alarm to the State Department but was considered an alarmist and mostly ignored.)
The stories in Hitlerland are shocking. I’ve read many of them before, but the book sheds new light on the events: vicious beatings of Jews on the streets in full view of the public, a little boy thrown out of a third story window by Brown Shirts (SA) during the so-called Kristallnacht. Then the deportations of Jews and others to concentration camps. The rise of the concentration camps. The absolute power Hitler demanded and received from President Hindenberg, the public reviling of Jews and others by Nazi leaders, the propaganda used to manipulate the German public into going along with Hitler’s invasions of neighboring countries that were no threat to Germany, etc., etc.
But what is so shocking is how average, “good” German people bought into Nazi propaganda and enthusiastically supported virtually whatever Hitler and the Nazis did.
Novelist Sinclair Lewis’ wife was an American journalist living and working in Berlin in the 1930s. She was one of those who saw and tried to sound the alarm–to fellow Americans and the world–about Hitler’s and the Nazi’s nefarious schemes and the horrible events that were beginning to unfold. Lewis wrote a book entitled “It Can’t Happen Here” about a mythical but (to him) possible Fascist America–if Americans were not vigilant in defending their rights and freedoms against the natural tendencies of powerful men (and perhaps a few women) to grab more and more power.
I think most Americans like to think what happened in Germany in the 1930s was somehow unique and that we, America, are immune to such abuses of power. And yet, it seems to me recent events raise some questions about that mentality. How many people objected when our government invaded Iraq under false pretenses? (Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and was never a real threat to “our freedoms.”) How many spoke out forcefully against the loss of freedoms with the passage of the “Patriot Act” and how many are now alarmed and voicing alarm at the revelations of the extent of surveillance of American citizens’ private communications?
Remember that Hitler grabbed dictatorial power on the premise that Germany was under terrorist attack after the burning of the Reichstag. Germans were willing to allow him to suspend their freedoms and rights to protect their safety–even though their safety was probably not at all threatened.
I am NOT suggesting that our government is becoming what Hitler’s was. What I am suggesting is that it’s possible and perhaps inevitable that such could happen IF we are not vigilant and vocal with regard to protecting our constitutional freedoms and rights including freedom from unreasonable search and seizure–including from mass surveillance of private communication.
I am also reading a very prophetic (in the sense of challenging) book entitled Saving Christianity from Empire by University of St. Thomas professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer entitled Saving Christianity from Empire. It’s a hard-hitting, fact-filled warning about American nationalism and its dangers. If the author is correct we Americans have allowed our fear of terrorism change our way of life in extremely dangerous ways. And it has also resulted in aggressive militarism and unjust imperialism with hardly a protest from frightened Americans.
I would like to require all American students to study the history of German political and social life between the two world wars. Doing that over thirty years (including during a year of living in Munich where much of it began) has dramatically changed my perspective on the dangers of nationalism and over reactions to terrorism and xenophobia.