Election Reflections from Berlin
Note to the reader: I’ve lived in Berlin since 2016. Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, I wrote the following piece to share on my personal social media account and an old blog. It expressed fears I had for the future of the US, informed not just by my own sense of right and decency, but also by my more-than-passing familiarity with German history. In the intervening 4 years, my fears have sadly not diminished; they have compounded. So I will share it here, lightly edited, for a larger audience before the 2020 election.
Voted today at the Embassy. I filled out my ballot at a tiny table at a Deutsche Post office on Behrenstraße, but the Embassy is where I submitted it. Our embassy is in a very prime location in Berlin: it sits to one side of the Brandenburg Gate, arguably Germany’s quintessential landmark. On the other side of the building is this entrance. The one with a Statue of Liberty-inspired Berlin bear and a gigantic star. And this entrance is next to a different landmark; just across the street from it, there stand the 2,711 columns of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe *(see end note). The Holocaust targeted many different groups, and Berlin has memorials to various of them. A sad patrimony.
I’m not an expert on this chapter of history, but I’ve studied it more than the average person, and you know one thing that really strikes me? How little Americans in the US generally know about it. Specifically, the scope of what the Nazis’ policies entailed, who all was targeted, or how it began. This latter point is especially important: how it began. What the (in)humanitarian shitshow that was Europe in the 1930s and 1940s looked like when it was starting.
Doubtless, you’ve heard people parroting “Never again” — and that’s great. Let’s make sure of that. It’s a very noble goal.
But how does one prevent a thing from happening again, if one doesn’t truly know how it actually starts? Isn’t familiar with the warning signs?
I’m no expert, but one of the things I find most fascinating, to begin with, is that the Nazi faction didn’t start off particularly powerful. In fact, to my understanding, most Germans kind of thought the Nazis were kooks. A sort of pariah party. Never expected them to have a shot at being elected to any truly influential seats of power, and didn’t even approve of a lot of the Nazis’ antics. The Nazis didn’t even win landslide victories, by any means, in any major election.
But just enough of that platform really resonated with contemporary Germans.
It wasn’t that any particular politician stood up on a dais and won on a platform of genocide (at least, not as far as I know) — because who would vote for something that extreme? And because history is never that simplistic. Because HUMANS aren’t simplistic.
But the country had just suffered an economic depression after losing tons of money to wars and to a crash on Wall Street. People were, justifiably, frustrated that they were struggling to scrape by. They were also disillusioned that their nation’s former might was on such unstable ground. So they were angry, and wanted to figure out what “the problem” was so they could fix it. Such an admirable intention: wanting to “fix” things so that younger generations might inherit a more prosperous life.
Alas, they went about this in a deeply regrettable and misguided way. Because when searching for a means to turn everything around and “fix” it all, they were willing to conclude that:
People of X religions, or of Y ethnic groups — “the problem.” Gay men, sex workers, transients, addicts, welfare recipients, liberals, academics, intellectuals — “the problem.” Anyone who saw the inherent unsustainability of an unregulated capitalist system — “the problem.” Interethnic relationships, foreign media outlets, a free press, anyone and everyone daring to practice tolerance and compassion over suspicion, isolationism, and bigotry — unpatriotic and dangerous “problems.”
And so things careened down a very slippery slope of sentiments like, “We can’t trust any of them,” “They’re a drain,” “They’re trying to take control of our country and get rid of our way of life,” “Kick them out,” “Shun their businesses,” “They are incapable of being ‘one of us’ because of their background,” “They are not welcome in our neighborhoods,” “They don’t belong in our schools,” “Get them onto a registry because of their faith,” “We must beef up our military!” “We DESERVE to be the world’s pre-eminent power!” and “We must take our country back!”
That’s how it began. And once such attitudes were legitimized, things only got worse.
The people of Germany were normal people back then, just as they are normal people now. Most of them weren’t fundamentally different from you or me — or from their victims — at their core; they were just as capable as you are of reason and logic and kindness and good.
The problem was, they chose fear as a framework for restoring their sense of security and improving their nation’s quality of life. Granted, Germans in the 1930s might not have conceived of their driving motivation as “fear” because I bet they felt powerful and optimistic and justified and righteous in aligning themselves against “the problem,” particularly behind such an overconfident, unyielding, vociferous leader. But the very fact that they felt a need to remove so many people from their society — and how unwilling they were to believe that the people they were targeting meant them truly no harm — just goes to prove how scared and irrational they were.
Wasn’t peaceful coexistence an option?
Of course it was.
But they chose something different. And that was how it began.
*Please note: these columns in Berlin — ubiquitously popular as a cover image for articles and personal essays on Medium, about everything from personal growth to relationships — are in fact a memorial to the Jewish victims of Nazi terror. Now that you’re aware of what these concrete slabs are really about, please choose your stock photos with sensitivity.