The Lessons of History

“Once, at the dawn of a very dark time, an American father and daughter found themselves suddenly transported from their snug home in Chicago to the heartland of Hitler’s Berlin. They remained there for four and a half years, but it is their first year that is the subject of the story to follow, for it coincided with Hitler’s ascent from chancellor to absolute tyrant, when everything hung in the balance and nothing was certain. That first year formed a kind of prologue in which all the themes of the greater epic of the war and murder soon to come were laid down. 

I have always wondered what it would have been like for an outside to have witnessed firsthand the gather dark of Hitler’s rule. How did the city look, what did one hear, see and smell and how did diplomats and other visitors interpret the events occurring around them? Hindsight tells us that during that fragile time the course of history could so easily have been changed. Why, then, did no one change it? Why did it take so long to recognize the real danger posed by Hitler and his regime?

Like most people, I acquired my initial sense of the era from books and photographs that left me with the impression that the world of then had no color, only gradients of gray and black. My two main protagonists, however, encountered the flesh and blood reality while also managing the routine obligations of daily life.  Every morning they moved through a city hung with immense banners of red, white and black; they sat at the same outdoor cafes as did the lean, black-suited members of Hitler’s SS, and now and then they caught sight of Hitler himself, a smallish man in a large, open Mercedes. But they also walked each day past homes with balconies lush with red geraniums; they shopped in the city’s vast department stores, held tea parties, and breathed deep the spring fragrances of the Tiergarten, Berlin’s main park. They knew Goebbels and Göring as social acquaintances with whom they dined, danced, and joked – until, as their first year reached its end, an event occurred that proved to be one of the most significant in revealing the true character of Hitler and that laid the keystone for the decade to come. For both father and daughter it changed everything.” from Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts


The prelude to Hitler’s Germany and the horrors of the Third Reich emerged from within a society busy with shopping, socializing, sport and life. The rise of the evil that history knows as Hitler and his henchmen arose in a climate that tolerated racism; that looked the other way when others were called names in the media and in speeches; were marginalized in public and eventually as these others began to be publicly humiliated and even beaten on the streets of Berlin, people continued to look the other way – hoping that the loud mouthed and crude politicians would lose their bluster and life around the Tiergarten would return to a peaceful normal.

History tells the story of what happened to those politicians and the people who ignored their hatred and inciteful speech. The question for us today as Americans is if we are smart enough to read the pages of history and learn from them. If we are the last world superpower, we should be able to see the folly in hatred speech; to see the danger in allowing the worst within us to become a circus sideshow that is played over and over in the press so that even the most genteel among us become desensitized to videos showing angry white men pushing a Muslim woman protester, or beating a black male protester or shoving a young woman out of a Trump rally.

It’s frightening to me (and I suspect other thinkers who are readers of history) to see the swarms of people emerging to support a hateful candidate; filled with hate, ready to push, shove and harm anyone with whom they disagree, or see as “other”. In pre-Nazi Germany, the Sturmabteilung or SA played “a significant role in Hitler’s rise to power“. The primary purpose of these brown shirts, as they became known,  was to “provide protection for Nazi rallies and assemblies, disrupting the meetings of opposing parties, fighting against the paramilitary units of the opposing parties, especially the Red Front Fighters League of the German Communist Party (KPD), and intimidating Slavic and Romani citizens, unionists, and Jews – for instance, during the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses.

Now I realize that there may be some people who read this and think that they’d like to see some people terrorized; they’d relish the ability to kick people they saw on the street that they didn’t like and have the protection of the political machine and that these same people have dangerous fantasies about what this country “should” look like. In the unlikely event that you’re reading this and this is you, I have nothing to say to you. In many ways, you’re too far gone. I’m writing to the rest of the country; to people who cringe when they see people kicked in rallies, and who are uncomfortable when they see young, angry white men screaming and shoving a young Black woman, or angry, middle aged white men screaming at a Muslim woman or a so-called leader making fun of a disabled person.

This country we are so proud of is very young in the history of the world, and this democratic experiment is not certain. If we want to remain as the land of the free and the home of the brave, we cannot look the other way. We cannot turn the channel away from the idiocy and hope that it goes away. If we dislike the alternate party candidate or are disappointed in the coverage that their opponent got in the primary season; if we are a traditional Republican and can’t understand what happened we cannot stay home and refuse to vote unless we are willing to allow the brownshirts to take over. Every day Germans; middle-class, nice white folks who went to church most Sundays, looked the other way in 1920s and 1930s Germany and history has recorded the results.

Essayist George Santayana, in his work The Life of Reason (1905) wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So my question for us; for you and I my fellow Americans, is this: will we remember the past or are we condemned to repeat it?

I wish I had the confidence to say that as a society, a culture, a people – as Americans – we are smarter than that. As I write this, I’m not so sure. I pray that I am wrong.

Hitler's SA

Sturmabteilung SA


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