Are We the New "Good Germans"?

For some time the thought has been growing on me that the darkness looming over the America I used to know, a darkness manufactured by the Bush/Cheney Administration’s lawlessness and greed for power, must be similar to the darkness that gathered over Nazi Germany in the 30’s. In some ways, the similarities are striking – a leader who maneuvered his way into power using deceit and political trickery, the subsequent rise of an authoritarianism that had been simmering beneath the surface for decades if not longer, a war begun for specious reasons and justified by lies, and – most significantly for the focus of this post – the quiescence and acquiescence of the German population, a phenomenon that has puzzled scholars for the last 50 years.

A comment on this post of Matt’s left by PeBoVision goosed me to try to finally put some of what I’ve been feeling into words.

7 years of this blatantly corrupt administration does not afford the American people the right to feign disbelief. As a non-American, I just don?t buy it anymore.

Short of mass hypnosis (FOX news?), there?s no way an entire populace can be so totally oblivious!

It?s time to ACT?.before your complacency suggests complicity!

S/he’s right. In fact, I’ll go further. It doesn’t “suggest” complicity, it is complicity.

The Germans are not a vicious, arrogant people – at least, no more so than many other nationalities, including us. From the beginning right through to the very depths of the World War, there was opposition in Germany to Hitler and clarity on the part of some about what he was really doing. Most of the time, that dissent was suppressed but even when it managed to make itself heard, it was ignored by the majority of the German population, a majority that chose, in the face of unutterable evil, to blind itself and go about its business.

The explanations offered for this odd behavior by students of the period are eerily familiar.

“The Germans are an orderly nation, a nation that believes in rules. It was against the rules to disobey the government.”

Well, so are we. Travel writer Bill Bryson was born in Iowa but spent the first 20 years of his adult life in England. When he returned to the States to live after his long exile, one of the first things he noticed was the almost Germanic American addiction to following rules. He noted, partly in shock and partly with amusement, that the hotel in which he and his family stayed the first few days of their return had an indoor swimming pool and on the walls in several prominent places were placed rules for the use of the pool – 23 of them – and they were vigorously enforced by the lifeguards. He couldn’t imagine such a thing happening in Britain.

In his book about his return, Notes From a Small Island, he recounts two other episodes of his first brushes with the US bureaucracy which brought home to him the differences between the more flexible British use of rules as guidelines and the rigid American letter-of-the-law approach, endorsed and demanded by conservatives, that often created a Kafka-esque maze, inexplicable and contradictory. For example, he needed to get a document for his English wife. When he called the appropriate govt dept to request a copy, he was told by the functionary at the other end that they couldn’t give out that information except to his wife and told him she would have to call them. “But how would you know it was my wife?” he asked. “She’d have a female voice.”

On another occasion, he was flying back to England and when he went to pick up his ticket the airline clerk wanted two forms of picture ID. He had his passport but had forgotten his driver’s licence and had nothing else on him. So he pulled out a copy of his latest book with a picture of him on the back and offered that as proof, something the English would have accepted immediately. The US clerk wouldn’t let him on the plane. It wasn’t, she said, “an approved form” of ID. And this was a year before 9/11.

“We didn’t know what was happening.”

The claim of ignorance is the saddest of all. In interviews after the war of Germans living close to the death camps, they repeatedly insisted that they knew nothing about what was going on behind the barbed-wire walls. I remember reading the account of a German-speaking American who helped liberate the camps. One day he asked a woman working outside her home why they had never done anything about what was going on less than a mile from her house. She said she hadn’t known anything about what went on there until the Americans came. When she said this, she was cleaning a residue of the ash from the crematoriums off her windows.

We, too, are clearly in deep denial, and the relatively small audience “hypnotized” by FoxNews can’t explain our collective blindness. Even among people horrified by the occupation of Iraq and by Bush himself, it’s a long slog trying to get them to listen to a litany of the Bush Admin’s consistent 6-yr record of lawlessness and Constitution-shredding. In many cases, they don’t know what habeus corpus is or why they should care about it. If I explain it, they shrug – it isn’t important to them.

Ignorance is an excuse for inaction. Keep yourself ignorant and no one can blame you for doing nothing. Are we getting our excuses ready? There are too many communication channels these days, channels not controlled by the MSM or the govt, for ignorance to hold water as an excuse. If we don’t know now, it’s because we don’t want to know.

“We were afraid.”

Granted they had reason to be. The SS was brutal and arbitrary. The slightest off-center remark could be enough to get you thrown in jail, tortured and perhaps killed as “an enemy of the state”. There would be no trial, and no one would ever know. You would simply disappear.

Except that people did know. They knew what had happened to their vanished friends, neighbors, family. They couldn’t prove it but they knew. It would not have worked as a terror and dissent-suppression tactic if they didn’t know. They knew but they turned a blind eye, telling themselves the disappeared “must have done something wrong”, that they “deserved it”, that it would never happen to them.

Thus Pastor Niemoller’s famous explanation.

First they came for the Communists,
  and I didn?t speak up,
    because I wasn?t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
  and I didn?t speak up,
    because I wasn?t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
  and I didn?t speak up,
    because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
  and by that time there was no one
    left to speak up for me.

What are we doing if not that? They have come for the Muslims but most of us aren’t Muslim so we keep our mouths shut. They have thrown innocent men and women into torture camps in Cuba and elsewhere, but most of them are foreigners and we’re not, so we keep our mouths shut. They have arrested protesters wearing anti-war t-shirts and thrown them in jail, but we don’t wear such shirts so we keep our mouths shut.

The right-wing has been selling fear for 25 years, intensively for 7. We now accept “fear” as an excuse for the Democrats’ cowardice, for trashing our civil liberties, and for our knuckling under to fundamentalists when they demand we violate science and teach their dogmatic version of religion instead. Fear justifies doing nothing. As long as the Bad Stuff happens to someone else, it doesn’t involve me and I’m not required to act.

“What could we do?”

This is probably the only half-way legitimate excuse. What could they have done, really? The power of the whole state was arrayed against them, and half the male population was employed in the army or the secret police.

We don’t have that excuse, not yet. The police state is still being built. We have the time and the opportunity to turn this around. But will we do it? If not, then as PeBo hints, the world may never forgive us, just as it has never really forgiven the Good Germans who stood by and did nothing while a madman took the world to war for the sake of his damaged ego.

We still have a choice. In 10 years – less if we allow Bush to attack Iran – we may not.

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