Next week, I begin my World War II unit in class. It has never felt as immediate and as necessary as it does in this moment. I’ve always taught World War II as a cautionary tale – the dangers of nationalism; the frustration of a privileged people who decided they no longer felt privileged; the depths response to that fear can reach. I teach the military history, sure, but that interests me (and, I’ve found, most of my students) a lot less than this simple question: how could regular people allow these things to happen?
It’s the most pointed question of Holocaust and genocide scholarship because, of course, it’s not about then. When we ask that question, we ask it about our time, and ourselves. If they could let it happen, could we?
And of course the answer is yes. We could. We have. We still justify our worst moments today: slavery, the genocides of the Native American west, Jim Crow lynching, Japanese internment, our paltry response to the HIV/AIDS crisis… we paper over these for a story of American history where we are the heroes, the shining city on the hill. And when we’ve convinced ourselves of it anew, we fall down.
It’s coming again. Today, Hitler is the face of evil in our world; we are both quick and slow to compare modern times to his. Donald Trump has been compared to Hitler many times, and just as often people have been castigated for making that comparison. And Trump isn’t Hitler. Of course he isn’t.
But here’s the thing: Hitler wasn’t Hitler either. The German people didn’t elect Hitler. They elected the avatar of their own fears – a small man who pushed the blame for his own failures – and his nation’s – onto a shadowy cabal. The people in power allowed it because they thought him a useful if dull tool with which to beat their own enemies into submission. Those that followed him didn’t much care about his economic policy or his thoughts on diplomacy. He yelled what they wanted him to: it’s not your fault. It’s their fault. Guard the cave. Clear them out. Belittle them, break their windows, round them up, take their things, take the land we share, take the land you want. Shut them out. Don’t listen to their cries. Say they lie, put them in camps, kill them, do anything you can to not. listen. to them.
I used to worry about being alarmist. I don’t anymore. We are on a desperate path in this country. Our national politics is vengeful today, too busy yelling about why we hurt to notice that we are dealing so much more pain to others. It makes it easier to hurt others, because if we tell ourselves they’re to blame it lifts our own culpability. So we bar refugees. And we cheer on the deaths of unarmed citizens at the hands of law. And we arm ourselves to the teeth to ward off our ghostly enemies. We tell each other horror stories about the enemy, whoever they are, and we circle together, tightly. And eventually, we break. We act. We see our enemy on the faces of human beings, and we break. Because our enemy isn’t human, we don’t treat it as such. We legislate its existence. We round it up, put it in camps, and tell ourselves that makes us safe. We don’t listen to its stories; after all, the enemy lies. We stop caring what happens to it – it brought this on itself. And all the while we sit, eyes darting, hyperventilating, because deep down we know the enemy is us. Our fear. Our hate. Our tribalism.
So next week I teach. I teach about the 1920s, when people who used to see themselves as kings faced a frightening, technological, multi-cultural world and howled. I teach about angry young men with clubs and fists who formed movements from their fear. I teach about nations that closed their borders, hoping their caves would protect them. I’ll teach about nations that tried to sweep away entire cultures so that they didn’t have to be reminded of their elemental humanity. I’ll teach Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, Fat Man and Little Boy, Katyn, Manzanar, Bataan, and the St. Louis. I’ll teach America First and Nuremberg and Fascism and Molotov-Ribbentropp and the Manhattan Project and Chamberlain and Nanjing and Executive Order 9066 and all the ways nations sought to isolate themselves from humanity. I’ll teach them, too, about Oskar Schindler and Marion Konichi and Anne Frank and Raoul Wallenberg and Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein, and all those who shined a light into the dark places, finding people to help. I’ll teach it to kids who are trying to find their place in humanity, many of whom see fences, walls and guns as the only way we can go forward. And maybe they’ll remember some of those terms, and maybe they won’t.
But I hope they’ll remember this:
Walls and guns never worked. No one emerged feeling safe, no one emerged feeling human. You don’t feel human by hiding, by corralling, by killing, by removing. You don’t feel it from fear or hatred. You don’t feel it by staring at the door of your cave, waiting for movement. You feel it by reaching out. By leading people out of the cave and into the light. By meeting others in a clearing and shaking hands. You only feel human around the whole of humanity.
I sit here right now in a rare peaceful Saturday morning moment. My son has a bit of a fever so he’s sleeping on the couch, with my wife right beside him. The birds chirping outside are the only noise I hear. And it would be easy to lose myself in that. To be content in this moment. I have that privilege. So do many of you reading this. And you have to hold on to those moments, because they make you human. But so too do you need to remember that every single person on this planet is also striving for those moments. Their family, asleep and safe in a warm place. Birds chirping outside. Light streaming into the cave. We all want it. But we can’t get it by shutting each other out. Your categories won’t save you. Your walls and fences and borders won’t save you. Your guns and bombs won’t save you. Because the enemy isn’t out there. It’s in here. Here’s your war.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.