Tomorrow marks the 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War: at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the fighting ceased. Yesterday, November 9th, also provides commemorations of a different sort: Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany in 1938, and the breaching of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Like most of you, I of course was aware of tomorrow's anniversary, but until I read James Carroll's Marking beginnings and endings in history in this morning's Boston Globe I had forgotten about the latter two.
Below the fold I will explore part of the Carroll piece - I find myself in partial disagreement, but find it a useful starting point for a somewhat broader meditation I would like to share. I invite you to keep reading.
After introducing his frame, which includes the events of the two November 9ths and a kind of historic beginning and end of the real meaning of World War II (one area in which we disagree), Carroll begins his discussion with the November 9th events. He offers a solid summary of what Kristallnacht was, ending with a sentence that reads "A tidal wave of nihilism gathered force." He then offers the following analysis:
Two things were immediately clear as a result of this event. First, Nazi readiness to carry out assaults against Jews was evident to the world. Second, so was the readiness of a broad population, inside Germany and abroad, to stand by and do nothing. Hitler's purpose was not yet genocidal. He wanted a forced emigration of Jews - "Jews out!" But out to where? A New York Times headline on Nov. 15 read, "Chamberlain Plans to Ask Roosevelt to Join in Movement to Rescue Jews." But neither Britain nor the United States was prepared to increase Jewish immigration quotas for refugees. Talk of "rescue" ceased - and the pattern was set. On Nov. 20, the Times headline read, "President asks prayers for 'Unfortunates.' " The victims were no longer referred to as Jews. Their fate would draw little further notice from British or American leaders - or from The New York Times.
Remember, restrictions on Jews began well before 1938: the Nuremberg Laws were issued in 1938, and one might argue that the restrictions on marriage with Jews were modeled on US ant-miscegenation laws. While we might not be able to conclusively demonstrate that connection, there can be little doubt that the anti-semitic ravings of Henry Ford in his Dearborn Independent, later reproduced in a series of 4 booklet under the collective title of The International Jew were something of which Hitler ws aware. How dangerous ideas expressed in one context can have a tragic effect in another will be part of my personal meditation below.
For now, also note how the issue of Nazi Antisemitism is downplayed by relabeling - the victims are no longer Jews, but instead are "Unfortunates." And also note that Hitler was, even by 1938, not yet committed to genocide. Even later, in the midst of WWII, Adolph Eichmann was willing to trade the lives of some Jews for trucks. That offer was made too late to have helped my extended family, killed in the liquidation of the Ghetto in Bialystok after an uprising in 1943.
Let me return to Carroll. Ue uses nihilism as a means of framing WWII between Kristallnacht and the breaching of the Berlin Wall, ending his paragraph on the latter as follows:
Against the predictions of a generation of realpolitik theorists, the tidal wave of nihilism was pushed back by nonviolence.
He then asks the origins of that nihilism. His answer is that although the Great War was ostensibly fought to end wars, to make the world safe for democracies, it instead unleashed a period of nihilism. He writes:
Fought in the name of democracy, that war was in fact a triumph of militarism and imperialism - on all sides. It led to the punitive imposition of artificial borders in Europe, which were the immediate cause of World War II; in the Middle East, the remote cause of today's most dangerous conflicts; and in Africa, where consequent genocide has found its niche. Perhaps most damaging was the 1914 legitimizing of mass violence, with the trenches anticipating both gas chambers and the unleashed atom. Hitler and Stalin were empowered by the so-called Great War, which is why both World War II and the Cold War should always be considered in its context. To regard all three conflicts as a single War of the 20th Century obliterates any notion that categories of "just war" apply.
I think there is much with which i can agree in what I have just quoted. One can always justify greater use of violence as a means of in theory preventing ongoing violence from others. It is the mentality of fighting a war to end wars, part of the justification of the Great War. It is of a piece with the end justifying the means, heard in a different formulation during Vietnam as "in oder to save the village we had to destroy it." We here it used as rationalization of torture in ticking bomb scenarios, and we were certainly prepared for it in at least one Dirty Harry movie (and yes, popular culture, particularly in movies, can shape our political and moral responses).
But then Carroll makes a statement with which I find myself in strong disagreement, as much as I admire him. He writes
we should also acknowledge that the Great War was a mistake. America should never have joined.
There were those in the US at the time who would have agreed with that statement. And certainly the actions of the Wilson administration during and in the aftermath of our participation represent a real nadir in civil liberties, whether it is the restrictions of freedom of speech most strongly represented in Schenck v U. S. and other cases, or the Palmer Red Raids. Jeannette Rankin of Montana cast a vote against the Declaration of War, thus causing her to serve only one term - until she returned to the House in time to be the only vote against World War II.
Although I am a Quaker, I think one can make a strong argument that given the disorder of the War in 1917, it was important that the US enter to tilt the balance and thus bring the slaughter to an end. Absent our entry, it is quite conceivable that slaughters of the dimension of Verdun could have continued for several more years.
Carroll makes his statement in the context of three lessons learned from the historical events of which he writes. That was the first. Of Hitler's open antisemitism, he warns of the complicity of the larger culture and asks "What crimes make us bystanders today? " Again, although I am a Quaker, I do not believe that the US can stand aside silently when atrocities are being committed: to refuse to act is to be complicit in the death and destruction, because our silence and non-action represents a willingness to accept. Finally Carroll writes of the Wall that it was non-violent, power to the people, using that power for peace. And of all three events he concludes
Three anniversaries, with emphasis given to hope.
hope - that's a word very much in circulation. It was a key part of what drew people to the Obama candidacy, the aspiration for something difference, better. And without hope there is little reason to struggle - against oppression, economic inequity, social injustice, despair. That is important.
But I find it necessary to step back for a moment, before allowing myself to hope, to confront those things which can undercut the possibility of achieving the aspirations, or at least force us into armed conflict to prevent the dominance of tyranny, genocide and oppression.
Earlier in this campaign we heard Obama criticized for his words, and heard his response that words matter. They do. Words matter not only because they can inspire us to good, but because they can be used by some as justification for evil and for too many as rationalization for accepting what should be challenged. Perhaps it is my Jewish roots that makes me sensitive to how words have led to societies that tolerated discrimination and pogroms and genocides, that actions of the Hitler and his minions were not events in isolation, but rather the culmination of almost two millenia of language attacking, demeaning and demonizing Jews. Perhaps that is one reason I have a certain visceral reaction against the escalation of rhetoric, because I have seen too often, in too many settings, how rhetorical excesses on the part of one are used as rationalization for abusive actions by others.
There is much in the Carroll piece I found useful. I focus on it because I think it provides us with an opportunity to reflect - about ourselves, our politics, and our own words and actions. Without hope of a better world I would not be teaching, nor would I arise early each morning to have time to read and to write about what I have read. I have noted my disagreements with this piece, so that you would know in recommending that you read it you not interpret that as endorsement of all Carroll wrote. But those disagreement are of lesser importance than are the brod lessons we can learn from the events about which he writes.
All should be able to dream of better days for themselves and their progeny. Intervention to prevent slaughter is like preventive medicine: it is far less expensive and ultimately much more successful to attack problems in their early stages. Even better is to address the possible causes of probems, medical, societal or international: poverty, disease, economic and social inequity.
We can no longer hope to ameliorate the suffering in our nation in isolation from what occurs around the world. And we can never say that it is far away, in another country, and thus not our problem. For better or worse, we are a part of every problem, and thus are a necessary component of every solution.
I usually end my diaries in a similar fashion, with one word. But peace is far more than the absence of open armed conflict. A truce is not the end of the war, merely an agreement to cease the current fighting. Thus it is incorrect to say we are involved in only two wars, because the Korean War has never officially ended.
And while Carroll implies that the fall of the Wall in Berlin marks an end to the rarely overtly violent conflict we call the Cold War, we have recently seen a renewing of tension, an escalation, with Russia, one that potentially can lead at a minimum to more situations where we confront and even fight one another through proxies in other nations.
Our language matters. Our willingness to engaqe, to confront wrong early on, is critical. And we must begin by putting in order our own house, addressing our own abuses of our people, by governmental action in suspending civil liberties and through neglect of those who are "Unfortunates" such as the people in Appalachia about whom I wrote yesterday.
I cannot confront every problem. Nor can you. But collectively we can, and we must. We are required to call out to our government and to one another, and it is incumbent that we never stand by silently even if it is just a bad joke, but one whose intent is destructive or demeaning. Such silence is the first step in a greater complicity.
Let there be no more Kristallnachts. Let us never have to again claim that we have gone to war to end or prevent war. Let us be vigilant, but also not so quick to action.
And let us hope for more than the absence of conflict. Let us hope, pray, and work for it: