Many across the United States and across the world watched with horror as the events and aftermath of Charlottesville unfolded this past week. It was absolutely surreal, however, to watch these events unfold from Berlin, where I was visiting.
There, I understood with greater nuance how a charismatic leader, the repression of unfavorable journalism, and a large working class looking for someone to blame for their struggles created the perfect storm for Nazi ideology to take hold. Further, it was impossible not to recognize the extent to which Germany instilled a culture of remorse and remembrance in a way that the U.S. never did for its own crimes. I toured the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where the sickening words “arbeit macht frei” (“work will set you free”) are wrought into the iron entrance gates. It chilled me to imagine how many people were led through those gates believing that if they simply worked hard and trusted in Hitler’s agenda, they might eventually prevail in the face of adversity.
A quote from the Topography of Terror museum’s chronology stuck with me: “Many contemporaries had failed to foresee the extent of violence that would lead to the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship, while others shared Hitler’s political aims or expected his success to be short-lived.” We know how that story ends, and as Mark Twain appropriately noted, “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
To be clear, Trump may not independently hold the desire to become a Nazi mastermind, but who around him would gladly play into his narcissism and create a foothold for their own nefarious agendas? For starters, despite the recent announcement of Steve Bannon’s removal, perhaps we ought to take seriously that a man who uttered the following words in an interview last November was kept in Trump’s closest circle for nearly a year: “Darkness is good … Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
Over a century before the infamous 1933 Nazi book burning of “un-German” books in Berlin, the Jewish German poet Heinrich Heine wrote, “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” I don’t need to ask what happens when neo-Nazis feel emboldened enough to burn torches through the streets of America, “land of the free,” for I grew up seeing pictures of strange fruit hanging from trees.