07.16.18 | Could It Happen Here? Pt. 1

1930s Germany. The visual that comes to mind is one of murmuration i.e. the dramatic pattern changes sometimes exhibited by a mass of otherwise autonomous animals, such as a flock of starlings or a school of fish, as if they were responding to some unseen co-ordinating consciousness. Citizens of any democracy might benefit from a better understanding of the unseen forces that shape-shifted Germany from a functioning (though weak) democracy into a fascist regime.

Our Member Monday (7/16) topic is a look at probably the most dramatic transformation of the twentieth century from the perspective of the people who experienced it. Our focus article (It Can Happen Here) is a tight synopsis of three highly credible works that depict Germany's rise into an authoritarian state through the lens of its citizens. A follow-on Member Monday (7/23) session will apply the lessons learned from that earlier era to pose the question: Could it happen here? The spirit of that question is that its very asking might help us to maintain our own guard.

The article triangulates on three sources: Milton Mayer's recently republished 1955 book, They Thought They Were Free, which focuses on the (then recent) recollection of ten members of the party about life in the late 1930s; the unfinished memoirs, later published as Defying Hitler, of a one-time journalist which provides a moment-to-moment account of the first turns to tyranny in 1933; and a pan-twentieth century look at German history, published as Broken Lives, pulled from seventy memoirs. It's easy to be cynical but the circumstances surrounding the interviews, the evident impartiality of the journalist, and the broad perspective of the historian add great credibility to an account which leaves the reader with a sense of that period from the ground up.

(Some of you may also recall several years ago our previous book club was pleased to host Irmgard Hunt, author of On Hitler's Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood -- her personal account of being raised in Berchtesgaden, in the literal shadows of the infamous Eagle's Nest (fun fact: there is a picture of three-year-old Irmgard sitting on Hitler's knee which was taken as a spontaneous photo-op when he happened into town))

The article focus is on the views of wir kleine Leute, we little people, as they were seduced, bullied, or otherwise willing participants on the way to that authoritarian regime. The time period of interest is roughly November 6, 1932, the last general election of the doomed democratic Weimar Republic, until September 1, 1939, the date when Germany invaded Poland and the illusion among the masses began to shatter. 

The point of our discussion is to apply (any) lessons learned to the here and now. The author expresses the hope that, with our checks and balances, full-blown authoritarianism is unlikely to happen but adds it would be foolish to ignore the risks now threatening established norms and institutions. And consider some of these observations from that past era: the "luegenpresse" (fake news); convenient scapegoats; politicization of science; self-suppression of opinion; endless distractions; a leader's presumptive "feel" for the masses; and the habituation of the people. 

The picture painted of the 1930s is vivid enough for us perhaps to imagine how we ourselves would have responded to that environment. To be sure there were some back then who had detected the stink from the very outset but many more merely appreciated the improvement in their own lives (as distinguished from, say, overcoming the national humiliation over the Treaty of Versailles many history books cite) and simply went along or stood by quietly, underscoring complacency's enabling role in the transformation.

We will then have the opportunity on member Monday (7/23) to further discuss the responsibility of the individual in a democracy that is under authoritarian pressure. We are now "the little people" and the democracy under pressure is the United States. No one knows how this movie will turn out. But neither did many German citizens in the 1930s. The ensuing parade-of-horribles took place largely after the Nazi hook had already been set.

The focus piece for that discussion (Talking Point, Pdf below) will undoubtedly offend many on either side of the big Trump divide. The real point, however, is that it has little to do with Trump and everything to do with the environment that sustains him.  Regard it as a think-piece. It was written by a one-time foreign correspondent who covered the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. 

Now imagine you are being interviewed twenty years hence, post-murmuration, about what you thought and what you did (or didn't do) and why so in this year 2018. 

- Steve Smith.

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