I recently finished Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” which tells the interwoven stories of the author’s own family origins in Lviv with the lives of the two central legal scholars behind the theories of genocide and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials. Besides being an excellent read and reminder of the horrors in the not so distant past of European and Western culture, this story made me reflect on how MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) relates to America’s past and present, and how I now as a father relate to the Holocaust.
How Great Were We?
When we think about America at its greatest (what Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation”), we think about Americans (including my grandmother’s two brothers, who were the children of immigrants) putting their lives and resources at risk to save Europe and its minority populations from the Nazi Germany. Any time a European criticizes the U.S. or our policies, we Americans proudly remind them of the beaches of Normandy and our conviction that they owe us eternally for having acted as their savior. Furthermore, our self-image has always been fortified by the contrast between our young men fighting to save the world and the demonic, goose-stepping Nazis.
I certainly won’t deny the bravery of my ancestors and fellow countrymen and women both fighting abroad and working for the war effort at home to make the world a better place. But when we talk about the superiority of American values over say those of the Nazis – now rightly synonymous with evil – I am often reminded of what Jesse Owens had said when asked about Hitler refusing to shake his hand at the 1935 Olympics: that the U.S. president wouldn’t invite him to the White House either. Or that black soldiers returning home from the war in Europe, instead of being treated as heroes were once again assaulted by the Jim Crow South and a G.I. Bill that that discriminated against them.
What I hadn’t realized (and it shouldn’t be a surprise) was that the U.S. team at the Nuremberg trials was staunchly opposed to prosecuting the Nazi defendants for the crime of genocide for fear that it could open the door to Americans, especially in the South, being tried for their abuse of black and Native Americans. In other words, as heroic as Americans may have been in “saving” other minority groups from tyranny abroad, our government wanted to protect its ability, under International Law, to mistreat and abuse its own citizens and minorities with impunity.
Our greatness was still tainted by our greatest shortcomings.
MAGA and Repeating History
The Nazis did not suddenly come into power one day and on the next day put all of the Jews in concentration camps where they were murdered in mass two days later. No, it was a long, slow process of instilling racist and nativist fear, followed by a series of laws that restricted movement (including entry), employment and association, attire, segregation, all leading to the ghettos, concentration camps and murder. While today in America there has been an increase in open association with white supremacist groups and an increase in open anti-Islamic discourse in private and political life, I don’t believe that the U.S. is on the path to becoming a Nazi state. Yet the similarity with the early days of the anti-Semitic propaganda is uncanny. Ultimately, a large enough chunk of German society bought into the narrative that Jews were dangerous, destructive and incompatible with German values to accept the anti-Semitic laws and then actively participate in or turn a blind eye to one of the most the disturbing massacres in modern human history.
So how easily are we today convinced that Muslims and/or Islam is the problem? How many times have we heard that we should “bomb” or “carpet bomb” an entire region or country? How many times have we heard that their culture is incompatible with our culture? And how many times have politicians and political pundits whether on TV, in print or on the internet advocated for travel bans, bans on immigrants, their attire, language, or religious practices, regardless of the fact that all of these measures violate what we celebrate as our Western values? Glenn Greenwald here gives the perfect example of how everyone was all Je Suis Charlie when Charlie was anti-Muslim but not so much when they were making fun of Texans.
So to make a long story short, the Nazis were not built in a day. Their movement started out with the same type of narrative that we are hearing today from the MAGA folks, one that popular culture has arguably already bought into. And as much as we hail the superiority of the West, the 20th Century’s greatest crimes were perpetrated in the West by a Christian people under the veil of protecting Western values.
As a Father
I have always been very conscious of the Holocaust, not in terms of a mere historical fact that you read in a text book or watch countless movies about, but as a real, concrete horror story that had an ongoing effect on the lives of people around me. As a child visiting my grandparents in the Bronx, I remember being introduced to a woman on the elevator and my grandmother asking her to show me the concentration camp tattoo on her arm. My grandmother wanted me to know what people had gone through. Then a large percentage of the kids that I grew up with had parents who were first generation Jewish Americans whose families had fled from Europe. While no one ever discussed what had happened to their family members who did not make it to America as refugees, the Holocaust was a living, breathing and evident part of their personal experience.
But now as an adult, as a husband and father of three small children, when I read East West Street or think about anything related to the horrors and desperation of trying to protect one’s family (be it from the Holocaust, Slavery, Jim Crow, or a flood in Houston or Bangladesh), I am left speechless, with nothing else to say . . .