A timely, cautionary tale

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, here presents us with a review of Volker Ullrich's book Hitler: The Ascent. It examines the qualities of Hitler's personality and the condition of the German soul which facilitated the rise of the Third Reich and made its horrors possible.

Populism and xenophobic paranoia make a powerful and volatile  combination. While again, I do not foresee Donald Trump sending illegal aliens or Muslims to death camps, the parallels with the rise of Donald Trump do not escape Williams.

Nor, of course, is America the only place where demagogic figures have arisen to exploit the resentment and fears of the citizens of a Western democracy. France has been plagued by the Le Pens for decades. While the trauma of having lived the nightmare serves to insulate Germany somewhat, every so often we read once again of a revival of the same toxic mentality, especially in view of the Merkel government's inability to deal with the refugee crisis in a way which ensures the safety of everyday German citizens. In fact, the resentment against immigrants- legal or not- is a largely universal phenomenon in Western societies these days, and to various degrees, most of the Western democracies have been affected by the same forces which gave rise to Hitler in the '30's and Trump in contemporary America.

The story of Hitler's rise is a salutary warning, and it comes at an opportune time. Now America is experiencing the rise of a movement of angry people fearful of outsiders and interested less in ideas, finally, than action. Now it is we who seem ripe for a demagogic leader to exploit those impulses for his own dubious ends.

When I was in seminary one of my professors, Durwood "Bud" Buchheim- the man, in fact, who ordained me- had us read a book by William Sheridan Allen called The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922-1945. It took a single North German town, called by the pseudonym "Nordheim," and examined how a village of decent Lutheran townsfolk was seduced by the appeal of the very forces Ullrich describes. It was chilling not mainly because of the evil of the Nazis recounted in the story, but rather because of the susceptibility of the normal people very much like you and me to seduction by a monster.

Both Ullrich's book and Allen's warn us that yes, it can happen here. A hopefully less virulent strain of that same virus has infected the entire Western world, and most recently the United States itself. I am confident that Donald Trump's rise to power in a Republican party willing to sell out its most sacred principles for the sake of an opportunity to vent the fear and rage of its rank and file will be stopped cold by a broader electorate which, even when presented with an extremely unattractive alternative, will recognize the danger in time. But somehow, I can't help but think of the pungent but haunting final words of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a satirical allegory retelling the story of Hitler's rise to power as that of a Chicago mobster of the same era:

If we could learn to look instead of gawking,
We'd see the horror in the heart of farce.
If we could only act instead of talking,
We wouldn't always end up on our arse.
This was the thing that nearly had us mastered.
Don't rejoice in his defeat, you men!
Although the world rose up and stopped the bastard,
The bitch that bore him is in heat again.

HT: Real Clear World


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