Condemned to repeat
There are two great crossing shadows that have darkened the lives of those of us born near the end of the Second World War.
The first was cast by the mushroom cloud. I was one of those elementary-school boys who was herded down to the basement of my school to lean against the wall over the poor crouching girls huddled underneath to protect them from a potential nuclear blast. We had a siren in our town that went off to alert volunteer firemen they were needed, but the siren was also supposed to let us know that an air raid was immanent. Every time the siren went off, kids my age all feared it would be “the big one.”
And I remember watching film on TV of Nevada atomic bomb tests where we would see houses blown away by the shock waves or crumble in flames. It seemed very real and very soon. We all had dreams with mushroom clouds in them and talked about “the A-bomb.”
And there were maps in newspapers and magazines showing circles of destruction if a nuclear bomb hit New York and I looked anxiously to see whether our town was inside the circumference. And it usually was.
It was a background anxiety for most of my childhood and is still there, somewhere at the margins of my psyche.
But the other shadow was the Holocaust. I recently watched all six-and-a-half hours of the Ken Burns documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, and I felt the cheeriness drain from my cheeks. And that second shadow all came back. It was something I knew about way too young to be able to process. Now I am 74 and still can’t adequately grasp it.
I remember, from the age of six or seven, when early television was still struggling to find content, and often filled out Saturday mornings with industrial films or films made by the Army or State Department. Particularly a show called The Big Picture, and on it — at that tender age — I remember seeing film footage of the liberation of the death camps and the piles of skeletonized bodies piled up and the hollow-eyes survivors shaking with cold and hunger, and it is a kind of measuring stick I have, morally, on the depth of human evil. Because of how that footage burned its way into me from childhood, I was sensitized to the horror and outrage. It trips a button in me — this is what humans do to humans.
Such scenes are permanently playing somewhere in the back of my head, never too far submerged, and seeing the Burns documentary brought it all back into the front of my awareness.
It is not merely because of the grim nature of the documentary, but because of its historical ripples, forward and back in time. The series tells two different but parallel stories. The first is about Hitler and Nazism and the results of rabid anti-Semitism; the second is about America’s response to all that.
The first is unsettling because of the many resonant parallels between the National Socialist political plan and the current Republican plan — not merely Trump (or “Moose-a-loony” as I call him) (Or as Stephen Colbert called him, “the Count of Mostly Crisco”) — but the whole of the Republican party, which seems to have cynically chosen transparent lies, xenophobia and racism, not as a belief, so much, but as a strategy. There may be a few true believers, but most of them know what they are doing.
The second, perhaps even more disturbing, is the American public’s willingness to absorb these lies, xenophobia and racism. Before World War II, the isolationist mood of the electorate was quite clear, and the rhetoric used is the same as that used today. “America First” is not a new slogan.
The old news photos of Madison Square Garden “America First” rallies are hard to distinguish from Trump rallies. The same flags, the same slogans. There were Nazi supporters in both crowds. The prefix “Neo-“ doesn’t help. Hitler’s National Socialist party didn’t have more than a third of the vote before he became chancellor — it was a minority party when it took power — and now Republicans (Trump with less than a third of the vote) are figuring out how they can get and keep power without majority support.
I grew up in New Jersey, in a place that has half Protestant, half Catholic and half Jewish, and no distinctions were made, anymore than if someone were Irish, or German, or blond or redheaded — just an interesting bit of fact about your friends. And so, the idea that you would murder a few million people because they were Jewish was not simply horrifying, but made absolutely no sense at all. It was crazy, and perhaps the craziness of it was the scariest part: People don’t act through thoughtfulness or rationality, but are easily led to adopt absolutely insane ideas.
And, of course, we’re seeing it all over again with Trump supporters. And seeing it quite literally, not just a faint echo. Word for word.
So, when I speak of “ripples” both back and forward in time, I remember not just the Holocaust, but also the Holodomor, Babi Yar, Katyn, the Armenian Genocide, the massacres of Native Americans, 250 years of race slavery, the Sichuan Massacres in China in 1645, the 100,000 killed by the Spanish Inquisition, Cambodian genocide, Rwandan genocide, not to mention the pyramids of skulls created by Tamerlane or the biblical command to murder all “the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites,” and to “save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction.” God could sound almost human in his viciousness, as in 1 Samuel 15: “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
One of the most important books I have read in the past 10 years is Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, about Poland, Ukraine and Belarus and the death and devastation under first Stalin and then Hitler. It seems the book has not ended and we see its sequel in Ukraine right now.
History is an endless tale of woe.
And so, at the end of Burns’ documentary, when he tells, again, the story of Anne Frank, and quotes her famous line, “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart,” the irony is absolutely unbearable.
I think of the lines by Yeats, written in a much lighter context, but still relevant here:
The thought comes over one that perhaps the planet would be better off without the scab of humans on its surface, that perhaps we should just let it run its course, let Putin set off the back-and-forth of our missiles passing his on the way across the oceans to mutually assured destruction. The earth could get on with being the earth — a new start.
But I have a son and a daughter, and two granddaughters, whose lives are cantilevered into the dark chasm of the future, and I cannot wish that on them. Like every generation before, we have failed them again.
So absolutely captures my feeling of foreboding at this time.
Having only watched half of the Burns series so far, I said to my wife, “Well, at least episode three will have a happy ending.” One of your photos put that notion to rest.
Great piece, as always (my neighborhood was half Catholic, half Protestant—we didn’t have the third half).