“Why should we learn history?” When that question was posed to me by a high school junior, I did not appreciate the fundamental importance of the answer. I was, after all, a substitute teacher then all of 22 years old. Instead of giving the students the day off, I decided to give them an answer. Which was “if you don’t know what happened before, then you have no way to assess the present. Whether it is good, bad, better, worse, or unremarkable.” Looking back, this answer strikes me as a surprisingly good one. Considering the source.
It is rooted in a deep and enduing interest in “his story.” Which is better understood as “our story.” All of ours. Because history describes the human experience. It speaks to what we have done and why. And reveals how little we have changed.
James Clyburn, who will soon to step down as the House Majority Whip for the Democratic Party, was once a history teacher. Recently, he noted “what I see here are parallels to what the history was in this world back in the 1930s in Germany, in Italy. The country is on track to repeat what happened in Germany when it was the greatest democracy going, when it elected a chancellor that then co-opted the media.”
Clyburn is referring to the Weimar Republic that governed Germany in between the two world wars, and Adolf Hitler, who used his position of leadership in that government to destroy it. The year of its destruction was 1934. By May 1945, some 50 million people (most of whom were noncombatants) had died in a conflagration fought on every continent of our planet but Antarctica.
Are there parallels between 1934 and now? Well, yes.
Hitler ran on grievances – then, the financial penalty and war guilt imposed by the victorious allies on Germany after WW I, along with the loss of portions of German territory. He ran on the promise to return Germany to greatness. He also ran on the culture war – that is, the perceived embrace of sensuality, race-mixing, and a more overt homosexuality by Berlin and other cities.
There is more.
Hitler also railed against, and delegitimized, the press. Before coming to power, he plainly stated what he would do with it, but that revealed agenda was widely disregarded by German voters. Just prior to declaring a dictatorship, Hitler was surrounded by a group of establishment conservatives who wrongly believed they could control him. After failing to do so, they were replaced with profound mediocrities whose primary qualification was personal loyalty to one man.
And Hitler lived at a time of great social upheaval and unrest. The switch from agriculture to manufacturing was reaching its full maturity, changing how and whether ordinary people could make a living. While people’s belief in capitalism and democracy waned under the weight of the hyper-inflation, the Great Depression and a paralyzed government.
But there were also differences. One of them is so obvious that I mention it only because of what Nazism actually was. That is, a movement built on industrial murder. Nothing in the modern era compares to the obscenity that was Adolf Hitler. There is no element of this in MAGA, and I am quite certain James Clyburn was not suggesting otherwise.
Another, less obvious difference, merits more reflection. Many words have been uttered by our politicians about democracy, freedom, and liberty on both sides of the aisle. By those who actually believe in those ideals, as well as by the far too many who apparently don’t. But at the end of the day, these important concepts are just that – concepts – unless we translate them into something real.
The citizens of Weimar Germany, as individual people, were not very different from us. But their expectations were. Germans had been told what to do for centuries by Kings, Princes and Kaisers, until democracy was imposed upon them under the Versailles Treaty that ended WW I.
We chose democracy because we don’t like people who don’t know us telling us how to live. In a country joined together by shared ideas, rather than a shared ethnicity, that desire is at the core of who we are. Intuitively, the American people understand that would be leaders who lie about what we have actually seen and will only acknowledge elections they win stand in the way of us being able to make our own decisions by ourselves, for ourselves.
This very important – and sometimes over intellectualized – part of our story, is at the heart of the American Story. And of American Exceptionalism. Which – unlike so much of what we have recently experienced from the Right and the Left – has authentic, enduring value. It was on exhibit in the recent mid-terms. Let us celebrate it.