I surely am not only one who has devoted some idle moments thinking about how I might have behaved had I been a German in Germany during the rise of Hitler, wondering if I would have had the courage to speak out as the oppression settled ever more heavily on that nation. I’ve read quite a few narratives about people who tried to resist, about the young people in the White Rose resistance movement, for instance, and about solitary subversives who made small but very dangerous attempts to gum up the works.
What would I–and what would you–have done if you saw Jews being loaded on trucks while being spat upon by your fellow citizens? What would you have done if you lived down wind of one of the gas chambers and listened to the rumors neighbors were sharing about the not-so-secret activities being carried on so close to where you lived?
When I was younger, I liked to think there was little I wouldn’t have done to stand against the Nazi horrors. Now, I’m not so sure. I remind myself that I engaged in resistance against the war in Vietnam, and that I was already a husband and a father when I was doing that. I tell myself, and I told myself, that protesting against my government was a duty I had to the future, and to my kids.
But, as bad as that war was, and as paranoid as many of us felt about FBI operatives working undercover, and agents taking our pictures at demonstrations, most of us were idealists not at all ready to believe our country was actually going to come after us, then drag us off to be tortured. Still, there were episodes and anecdotes of violence against those who bucked the system. Civil rights workers were terrorized and some were killed. Anti-war activists were constantly being warned that we were putting our futures at risk. Skulls were cracked, limbs broken. The Alameda Sheriff’s Department (aka “The Blue Meanies”) were known to shoot buckshot at the heels of demonstrators fleeing gas attacks knowing that the pellets would ricochet off the sidewalk and into the legs and buttocks of the peaceniks.
At a demonstration in Berkeley one bright day in the mid-60s, my wife and I joined a few thousand other marchers for a walk through largely friendly turf on our way to a rally-against-the-war. People lined the streets, mostly applauding as we passed. Among them I saw a former English teacher who waved me over. Though she said that she, herself, opposed the war, she felt it unwise for me, a young man with a family, to be jeopardizing my future by making my dissent public. “People are collecting information on people who oppose the war,” she said, “and you might find it hard to get a teaching job in the future.”
I told her I wasn’t worried, and that she should join us. She didn’t, though she assured me that she was with us in spirit. But I was worried. I had a responsibility to my conscience, of course, but that hadn’t turned out to be an uncomplicated matter. I had a responsibility to my family, too, also a matter of conscience. Was I being irresponsible by opposing the war, or would I be irresponsible, even to my children, if I didn’t?
When I was a kid, moral choices hadn’t seemed so thorny. What I saw in the Saturday movie matinees made doing the right thing seem simple. If widows and orphans were being bullied by bad guys, who wouldn’t choose to behave as the Lone Ranger and Tonto behaved? Who would side with those thuggish men in black hats who were so plainly up to no good, week in and week out? In the books I read, too, there was never any doubt about which side was the right side, which path the right path.
But being a grown up didn’t turn out to be quite that easy. I couldn’t just round up a faithful Indian (aka Native American) companion, get myself a cool outfit replete with silver bullets, buy myself a beautiful horse and a fancy saddle, kiss the wife and kids goodbye, then hollering “Hi yo, Silver, away” as I rode off to do battle with the nasties and deplorables, determined to make the world a better place.
If you grew up with the same influences, or similar ones common to your age group, doesn’t it seem to you as if we had been trained to do that very thing? How could you live with yourself if you knew that people near and far were being bullied or abused and you were doing nothing at all about it, just another good German minding his or her own business, trying to put the schnitzel on the table and keep those chubby-cheeked little Aryans well-fed for future use by the Reich?
In reading those narratives of morally-impelled Germans skulking around in the shadows dropping anti-Hitler messages while waiting for a midnight knock at the door portending a visit from the Gestapo, I constantly asked myself if I could go as far as they had, if I could put my family and myself at such risk, in such mortal jeopardy.
Through the years, the answer has remained unclear. But for those who also may have engaged in this ongoing personal moral inventory, one thing is unavoidable. If you remained silent and did nothing in the face of Trump and his appeals to racism, voter suppression, xenophobia, misrule, hate, and division, it’s pretty clear you would have been a good and silent German back in the 1930s and ’40s, too.
One of the most politically-grounded stories I know was written by John Updike, considered a radical by precisely no one. The story is entitled “A&P,” and in my mind it presents a brilliant portrait of a young man whose ideals and whose character are put to the test by a minor incident at work. The story presents one of those self-defining moments in which we make a choice likely to determine lots of other choices we may be faced with in our futures.
Here’s a link to that story, if you haven’t read it before.
The first time we betray a principle sets the template for who we will become. As a half-assed existentialist, I’ve long believed that we are constantly defining our individual characters, determining the meaning, if any, in our lives by how we confront the challenges we’re bound to face, the choices we’re required to make.
And that is political to the core, even for people who say they just aren’t interested in politics at all. You may not bother informing yourself, and you may even decide not to vote. You can run, but you really can’t hide, and we all have to face ourselves in the mirror each day.
I’ll never know how I would have behaved in Nazi Germany. I’m fairly certain that when push came to shove, I would have backed down, using my duties to my family as an alibi for not acting, for allowing myself to be intimidated by fear. But, we only have these times we’re living in, as the song below says. And it is these times that we must take our stand. The danger in the here and now has not passed. The fascists rise and rise again, like a virus that waxes and wanes, surging then resisted, quelled and driven underground, only to come again when the soul of a nation gets sick.
And ours still is. Of that there can be no doubt.
(Like most songs ever written, today’s musical comment is about love, but there’s another message in it, too, as there often is in love songs. In any event, it’s a lovely song by a lovely singer who died entirely too young. She is accompanied here by a guitarist who’s still working, with an extraordinary mastery of the instruments she plays. We only have these times we’re livin’ in and, even knowing that, it can be a challenge to know just how best to use them.)
Anyway, here’s Kate and Nina.