A year and a half ago, when travel was still a thing, I had the opportunity to visit the great city of Berlin. While there, I spent an afternoon at the Topography of Terrors Museum. Built on the rubble of the former headquarters of the Secret State Police, the Museum commemorates the horrors perpetrated by Nazi Germany.
In Topography of Terrors, I viewed for the first time the Kennzeichen für Schutzhäftlinge in den Konzentrationslagern (shown on the right), which categorized concentration camp prisoner badges on the basis of their “crimes against the state.”
My German grandfather, had he been deported, would have worn the upside down brown triangle of the zigeuner (gypsy) male.1 My great uncle, had he been deported for protecting Jews in the underground railway, would have worn the upside down red triangle for political dissenters.
The upside down red triangle received some attention this week because the President of the United States incorporated the symbol in a political ad for his re-election.
As an American of German descent, I knew from a very early age the life of a white person should be one of constant reckoning and reparation. Though I will say up front, I have never achieved a full understanding of what that means. Even today – even now – I am still learning and listening.
Having had family members on every side of the greatest and perhaps darkest conflict of the 20th century, I carried a different burden from other Americans I grew up with. Clearly, I could not indulge in the luxurious myth that my white ancestors had always been ‘right.’ This, of course, was a good thing. Understanding that Germans should never forget led me to realize how adept white Americans are at always forgetting.
We have little stomach for confronting our history of slavery, apartheid, and structural racism. We have wiped the pages of history clean when it comes to the genocide of Native Americans, who are both our forefathers and our companions today as we occupy land that was stolen from them. We refuse to atone for our own sins even as we greedily point the sins of others.
Case in point: Unethical human experimentation came to a screeching halt in Europe with the end of World War II and the Nuremberg Trials. Nonetheless, in the United States, the Tuskegee Experiment, which allowed Black men to suffer and die from syphilis, continued from 1932 until 1972 – ending some thirty years after a cure had been discovered for the disease. Ending twenty-three years after the Nuremberg Code established modern ethical standards for human participation and informed consent in medical studies. Most horrifically, the experiment was stopped only because a whistle blower made it public. A nation that allows such things to happen suffers from very deep rot. I wish I could say that rot has since healed, but history would make me a liar.
The disease we struggle with could go by many names. I call it the myth of white supremacy. More than an ideology of right-wing extremists, white supremacy is a basic assumption built into the foundations of this country. Embedded in our deep (and for the most part denied) history of genocide and slavery, white supremacy intertwines with the myth of American exceptionalism. It underscores implicit bias, oppression, police brutality, and institutional racism. White supremacy feeds on blind patriotism – which, as the Nazi era taught us, should never be confused with true love of one’s country.
As part of my journey in coming to terms with my personal family history, I’ve read a lot about the rise of the Nazi state. One of the most informative volumes I’ve come across was Ian Kershaw’s Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris. A very thick and heavy book, Hubris gave me a comprehensive picture of the political landscape of Germany in the 1920s and 30s. Several interesting arguments rose to the surface.
One: Hitler wasn’t impressive. He came from an obscure background and spent most of his life as a vagrant until one day, somebody discovered he could speak. Much like our current president, he hadn’t actually done much by the time he assumed political power. (He did serve in the military during WWI – no bone spurs, I suppose. Oh, and he wrote a book, a sort of 1920s extended tweet, if you will, in prison.) Few took this man seriously. Indeed, many called him a clown – until things stopped being funny.
So how does an unremarkable person, the target of public jokes, become absolute dictator of a dynamic, diverse nation with a rich, complex history?
Kershaw, like many historians, looked to the conditions of post-World War I Germany for an explanation. He noted that Hitler and his party had support from powerful members of the German elite. Kershaw also argued that Germany never had a democracy before the 1920s, and couldn’t quite “get it together” under the Weimar Republic. (I accepted this at the time I read the book. Lately, I’ve been thinking, “Seriously? Germans couldn’t get it together?”) Finally, Kershaw referenced the devastating economic impact of the Treaty of Versailles – often cited as where WWII began.
In short, 1920s Germany was pictured as a country in a chaotic state with a vacuum of leadership, much like today’s third world nations that succumb to dictatorship.
As I’ve watched events unfurl in my own country over the past few years – in particular the police and White House response to recent protests asserting that Black Lives Matter – it’s occurred to me Kershaw may have missed an important element in the rise of fascism. Other historians may have considered this, though I haven’t come across it in my reading. I suspect fascism is the instinctive response of a white supremacist state when “too many” citizens begin to push for broad reform.
In other words, if a threshold proportion of the population demands significant dismantling of structures that maintain white power, the ultimate backlash, from a behavioral perspective, would be fascism: Violent obliteration of all dissent and aggressive reassertion of the dominant mythology. Making this happen under the iron fist of an unremarkable white man is especially effective, because putting an inept person in a position of absolute power sends a crystal clear message: The worst of us is still infinitely better than all of you.
Consider again the Weimar Republic: Sure, democracy was new to German society, but that shouldn’t necessarily lead us to conclude Germans couldn’t “figure it out.” The more astute question is this: What was the perceived danger of democracy for the powerful German elites who threw their support behind Nazi authoritarianism? The idea that all citizens should have an equal voice in governance. From their perspective, rising demand for a broadly inclusive society had to be stopped, at any cost.
We know where Germany’s struggle, which involved much resistance and vigorous dissent, took them in the 1930s and 40s. I maintain the hope that our current struggle in the United States will lead us down a better path.
But I understand from my family history how high the stakes are, and how far defenders of white supremacy will go to maintain the status quo. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried. I am worried. I have been worried for a very long time. How could I not be, knowing my nation’s heart and soul as well as I do?
Resist, my friends. Rise up and resist. The future depends on us.
1According to official family history, my grandfather was not deported but finished the war confined as a military prisoner in then-Czechoslovakia. During that same period, however, German Sinti and Roma were rounded up and sent to concentration and labor camps across central Europe as part of the Final Solution. While the true numbers may never be known, it’s estimated at least 250,000 – a quarter of the Roma population at the time – were killed by the Nazi war machine.