Bob Schwartz

Tag: history

A Comic Book about Presidents for Presidents Who Don’t Read

Once upon a time, children got a lot of important information about subjects like history and science from comic books. It was easier and more fun than actually reading.

Here is a comic book from 1957 called Life Stories of American Presidents. Each president up to that time (it ends with Eisenhower) gets at least a page, and some of the more significant presidents such as Lincoln get as many as eight pages.

Now you or anybody else who might need a quick education on American presidents, but who prefer pictures to words, can view this comic book online. It is found at Comic Book Plus, an amazing site that offers online viewing of vintage comic books and other related literature. Best of all, the comic books are in the public domain, so you can download this one and many others.

We don’t know whether Trump was a fan of comic books as a kid, though he is the right age. So maybe this is the way to school him on subjects such as the history of the presidency.

He might learn that Lincoln was a Republican:

He might learn that there used to be another most corrupt president:

He might learn that there used to be another worst president:

He might learn that other presidents may have accomplished more than him during their presidency:

So much to learn when you know so little. That’s why comic books might help.

 

Rhetoric and reality: Ideal America has always depended on us

It may come as news to the less historically minded, but democracy, the kind we embrace in America, is a relatively new and novel way of government. We are still in the process of learning how it works, how it lives and how it dies.

Rhetoric has always been the way of government, long before modern democracy. Leaders say stuff, citizens repeat that stuff or say different stuff, citizens believe some stuff and don’t believe other stuff, and leaders respond to what citizens say and do.

In its relatively brief democratic life, America has typically embraced rhetoric. Much of it, in simplest terms, concerns just how exceptional and durable—eternal—American democracy really is.

As usual with compelling rhetoric in any sector—government, business, religion, whatever—rhetoric can make us lazy and careless. We come to believe that rhetoric is reality, almost a form of magical thinking. What we say and believe becomes the way things are.

And so, looking at just one aspect, Americans don’t vote in nearly great enough numbers, and those who do vote don’t always study and think hard about the issues and personalities, both of which are complicated. Things will just naturally be alright, we think, because this is a democracy and this is America. Both will last uninterruptedly forever.

But in reality, talk is not just cheap, it can be useless and tragic. All of this, all this glorious American democracy, has always and solely depended on us.

Hitler’s Lawyer

“Frank was a typical example of the Nazi intellectual gangster. He had joined the party in 1927, soon after his graduation from law school, and quickly made a reputation as the legal light of the movement. Nimble-minded, energetic, well-read not only in the law but in general literature, devoted to the arts and especially to music, he became a power in the legal profession after the Nazis assumed office, serving first as Bavarian Minister of Justice, then Reichsminister without Portfolio and president of the Academy of Law and of the German Bar Association. A dark, dapper, bouncy fellow, father of five children, his intelligence and cultivation partly offset his primitive fanaticism and up to this time made him one of the least repulsive of the men around Hitler. But behind the civilized veneer of the man lay the cold killer. The forty-two-volume journal he kept of his life and works, which showed up at Nuremberg, was one of the most terrifying documents to come out of the dark Nazi world, portraying the author as an icy, efficient, ruthless, bloodthirsty man. Apparently it omitted none of his barbaric utterances.”
William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Hitler, like all successful tyrants, subverted the legal system to his own ends. Part of this was finding lawyers willing to switch their allegiance from law and morality to Der Fuehrer. Some switched out of fear, but many switched because they agreed with Hitler’s ideology and were passionate enablers of his plans.

Hans Frank is often called Hitler’s Lawyer. That is precisely how he began his Nazi career, going on to roles as Commissioner of Justice and Reich Law Leader and as Governor General of Poland.

Hans Frank was tried and convicted of war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials. Before his execution, he claimed contrition. Along with other Nazi war criminals, he was executed.

Following are excerpts about Hans Frank from William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.


In the spring of 1930 three young lieutenants, Ludin, Scheringer and Wendt, of the garrison at Ulm were arrested for spreading Nazi doctrines in the Army and for trying to induce their fellow officers to agree that in the case of an armed Nazi revolt they would not fire on the rebels….A week after the Nazi successes in the September elections of 1930, the three subalterns were arraigned before the Supreme Court at Leipzig on charges of high treason. Among their defenders were two rising Nazi lawyers, Hans Frank and Dr. Carl Sack.

But it was neither the lawyers nor the accused who occupied the limelight at the trial, but Adolf Hitler. He was called by Frank as a witness. His appearance represented a calculated risk. It would be embarrassing to disown the three lieutenants, whose activities were proof of the growth of Nazi sentiment in the Army, which he did not want to discourage. It was embarrassing that Nazi efforts to subvert the Army had been uncovered. And it was not helpful to his present tactics that the prosecution had charged the Nazi Party with being a revolutionary organization intent on overthrowing the government by force. To deny that last charge, Hitler arranged with Frank to testify for the defense. But in reality the Fuehrer had a much more important objective. That was, as leader of a movement which had just scored a stunning popular triumph at the polls, to assure the Army and especially its leading officers that National Socialism, far from posing a threat to the Reichswehr, as the case of the Nazi subalterns implied, was really its salvation and the salvation of Germany….

The Civil Service law of April 7, 1933, was made applicable to all magistrates and quickly rid the judiciary not only of Jews but of those whose Nazism was deemed questionable, or, as the law stipulated, “who indicated that he was no longer prepared to intercede at all times for the National Socialist State.” To be sure, not many judges were eliminated by this law, but they were warned where their duty lay. Just to make sure that they understood, Dr. Hans Frank, Commissioner of Justice and Reich Law Leader, told the jurists in 1936, “The National Socialist ideology is the foundation of all basic laws, especially as explained in the party program and in the speeches of the Fuehrer.” Dr. Frank went on to explain what he meant:

There is no independence of law against National Socialism. Say to yourselves at every decision which you make: “How would the Fuehrer decide in my place?” In every decision ask yourselves: “Is this decision compatible with the National Socialist conscience of the German people?” Then you will have a firm iron foundation which, allied with the unity of the National Socialist People’s State and with your recognition of the eternal nature of the will of Adolf Hitler, will endow your own sphere of decision with the authority of the Third Reich, and this for all time.

That seemed plain enough, as did a new Civil Service law of the following year (January 26, 1937), which called for the dismissal of all officials, including judges, for “political unreliability.” Furthermore, all jurists were forced to join the League of National Socialist German Jurists, in which they were often lectured on the lines of Frank’s talk….

Such was the government of the Third Reich, administered from top to bottom on the so-called leadership principle by a vast and sprawling bureaucracy, having little of the efficiency usually credited to the Germans, poisoned by graft, beset by constant confusion and cutthroat rivalries augmented by the muddling interference of party potentates and often rendered impotent by the terror of the S.S.-Gestapo.

At the top of the swarming heap stood the onetime Austrian vagabond, now become, with the exception of Stalin, the most powerful dictator on earth. As Dr. Hans Frank reminded a convention of lawyers in the spring of 1936, “There is in Germany today only one authority, and that is the authority of the Fuehrer.”….

What was left of Poland after Russia seized her share in the east and Germany formally annexed her former provinces and some additional territory in the west was designated by a decree of the Fuehrer of October 12 as the General Government of Poland and Hans Frank appointed as its Governor General, with Seyss-Inquart, the Viennese quisling, as his deputy. Frank was a typical example of the Nazi intellectual gangster. He had joined the party in 1927, soon after his graduation from law school, and quickly made a reputation as the legal light of the movement. Nimble-minded, energetic, well-read not only in the law but in general literature, devoted to the arts and especially to music, he became a power in the legal profession after the Nazis assumed office, serving first as Bavarian Minister of Justice, then Reichsminister without Portfolio and president of the Academy of Law and of the German Bar Association. A dark, dapper, bouncy fellow, father of five children, his intelligence and cultivation partly offset his primitive fanaticism and up to this time made him one of the least repulsive of the men around Hitler. But behind the civilized veneer of the man lay the cold killer. The forty-two-volume journal he kept of his life and works, which showed up at Nuremberg,* was one of the most terrifying documents to come out of the dark Nazi world, portraying the author as an icy, efficient, ruthless, bloodthirsty man. Apparently it omitted none of his barbaric utterances.

“The Poles,” he declared the day after he took his new job, “shall be the slaves of the German Reich.” When once he heard that Neurath, the “Protector” of Bohemia, had put up posters announcing the execution of seven Czech university students, Frank exclaimed to a Nazi journalist, “If I wished to order that one should hang up posters about every seven Poles shot, there would not be enough forests in Poland with which to make the paper for these posters.”

Himmler and Heydrich were assigned by Hitler to liquidate the Jews. Frank’s job, besides squeezing food and supplies and forced labor out of Poland, was to liquidate the intelligentsia. The Nazis had a beautiful code name for this operation: “Extraordinary Pacification Action” (Ausserordentliche Befriedigungsaktion, or “AB Action,” as it came to be known). It took some time for Frank to get it going. It was not until the following late spring, when the big German offensive in the West took the attention of the world from Poland, that he began to achieve results. By May 30, as his own journal shows, he could boast in a pep talk to his police aides of good progress—the lives of “some thousands” of Polish intellectuals taken, or about to be taken.

“I pray you, gentlemen,” he asked, “to take the most rigorous measures possible to help us in this task.” Confidentially he added that these were “the Fuehrer’s orders.” Hitler, he said, had expressed it this way:

“The men capable of leadership in Poland must be liquidated. Those following them… must be eliminated in their turn. There is no need to burden the Reich with this… no need to send these elements to Reich concentration camps.”

They would be put out of the way, he said, right there in Poland.

At the meeting, as Frank noted in his journal, the chief of the Security Police gave a progress report. About two thousand men and several hundred women, he said, had been apprehended “at the beginning of the Extraordinary Pacification Action.” Most of them already had been “summarily sentenced”—a Nazi euphemism for liquidation. A second batch of intellectuals was now being rounded up “for summary sentence.” Altogether “about 3,500 persons,” the most dangerous of the Polish intelligentsia, would thus be taken care of.

Frank did not neglect the Jews, even if the Gestapo had filched the direct task of extermination away from him. His journal is full of his thoughts and accomplishments on the subject. On October 7, 1940, it records a speech he made that day to a Nazi assembly in Poland summing up his first year of effort.

My dear Comrades! …I could not eliminate all lice and Jews in only one year. [“Public amused,” he notes down at this point.] But in the course of time, and if you help me, this end will be attained.

A fortnight before Christmas of the following year, Frank closed a cabinet session at Cracow, his headquarters, by saying:

As far as the Jews are concerned, I want to tell you quite frankly that they must be done away with in one way or another… Gentlemen, I must ask you to rid yourself of all feeling of pity. We must annihilate the Jews.

It was difficult, he admitted, to “shoot or poison the three and a half million Jews in the General Government, but we shall be able to take measures which will lead, somehow, to their annihilation.” This was an accurate prediction….

Everything possible was squeezed out of Poland by the greedy Nazi conquerors. “I shall endeavor,” said Dr. Frank, the Governor General, “to squeeze out of this province everything that is still possible to squeeze out.” This was at the end of 1942, and in the three years since the occupation he had already squeezed out, as he continually boasted, a great deal, especially in foodstuffs for hungry Germans in the Reich. He warned, however, that “if the new food scheme is carried out in 1943 a half-million people in Warsaw and its suburbs alone will be deprived of food.”

The nature of the New Order in Poland had been laid down as soon as the country was conquered. On October 3, 1939, Frank informed the Army of Hitler’s orders.

“Poland can only be administered by utilizing the country through means of ruthless exploitation, deportation of all supplies, raw materials, machines, factory installations, etc., which are important for the German war economy, availability of all workers for work within Germany, reduction of the entire Polish economy to absolute minimum necessary for bare existence of the population, closing of all educational institutions, especially technical schools and colleges in order to prevent the growth of the new Polish intelligentsia. Poland shall be treated as a colony. The Poles shall be the slaves of the Greater German Reich.

 

Chaim Rumkowski, Hannah Arendt and the Banality of Evil

Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, Jewish council chairman in Lodz ghetto, seen here speaking amongst Jewish ghetto policemen. Lodz, Poland, ca. 1942.

 

It [evil] possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface.
Hannah Arendt

Citizens and respected leaders alike, in disgust and frustration, are heard comparing Trump policies and enablers to fascism and Nazis. This is treated by many, even those sympathetic to this disgust and frustration, as understandable but unhelpful and far too extreme.

In some ways, though, this is not entirely unhelpful. Theorize and moralize all we want, at some point we must look to concrete lessons from history for context and insight. Just because those examples seem so far outside an American context doesn’t mean that something can’t be learned.

Chaim Rumkowski:

During World War II, the Germans established Jewish councils, usually called Judenraete. These Jewish municipal administrations were required to ensure that Nazi orders and regulations were implemented. Jewish council members also sought to provide basic community services for ghettoized Jewish populations.

Forced to implement Nazi policy, the Jewish councils remain a controversial and delicate subject. Jewish council chairmen had to decide whether to comply or refuse to comply with German demands to, for example, list names of Jews for deportation. In Lvov, Joseph Parnes refused to hand over Jews for deportation to the Janowska forced-labor camp and was killed by the Nazis for his refusal. In Warsaw, rather than aid in the roundup of Jews, Jewish council chairman Adam Czerniakow committed suicide on July 22, 1942, the day deportations began.

Other Jewish council officials advocated compliance, believing that cooperation would ensure the survival of at least a portion of the population. In Lodz, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, who tried in vain to persuade the Nazis to reduce the number of Jewish deportees, urged ghetto residents to report for deportation as ordered. Rumkowski also adopted a policy of “rescue through labor,” believing that if the Germans could exploit Jewish labor, deportation might be averted….

On German orders Rumkowski delivered a speech on September 4, 1942 pleading with the Jews in the ghetto to give up children 10 years of age and younger, as well as the elderly over 65, so that others might survive. “Horrible, terrifying wailing among the assembled crowd” could be heard, reads the transcriber’s note to his parlance often referred to as: “Give Me Your Children”. Some commentators see this speech as exemplifying aspects of the Holocaust:

“A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They [the Germans] are asking us to give up the best we possess – the children and the elderly. I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I’ve lived and breathed with children. I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters! Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!”

— Chaim Rumkowski, September 4, 1942 [27]

Hannah Arendt:

Born in Germany in 1906, philosopher Hannah Arendt gained much attention for her writings on totalitarianism and Jewish affairs after World War II. Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) addressed the rise of the totalitarian state out of the collapse of traditional nation-states. Following the war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann, she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). She died in New York City in 1975….

Arendt completed her Ph.D. at the University of Heidelberg in 1928, after writing her doctoral thesis on Saint Augustine under the direction of Karl Jaspers. The following year, she married Gunther Stern. With the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, Arendt soon found herself in trouble for gathering evidence of the regime’s anti-Semitism.

In 1933, Arendt fled her native Germany for the relative safety of Paris, France. There, she worked for Youth Aliyah, an organization that helped rescue Jewish children from Eastern Europe. In 1940, Arendt married her second husband, Heinrich Blücher. Their wedded bliss was short-lived, however: The pair was soon interned at a concentration camp in Gurs, France. After managing to escape, the couple made their way to the United States in 1941….

In 1961, Arendt covered the trial of infamous Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, held in Jerusalem, for The New Yorker magazine. Her writings on the trial were later published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), and she was criticized for some of the views she expressed in the work. Among these views, Arendt posited that Eichmann was more of an ambitious bureaucrat than a figure of extreme evil.

The Banality of Evil

Arendt’s coining of the term “banality of evil” and what some perceived to be her blaming the Jews for their own victimhood remain hotly controversial. Some think that seemingly characterizing the sort of evil perpetrated by Eichmann and other bureaucrats as banal and ordinary is dangerous and mistaken; if anything, they say, it should be forever described as radical and extraordinary.

Arendt on Eichmann:

What he [Eichmann] said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

Arendt on the banality of evil:

It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.

Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day

Birkenau – Gerhard Richter

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a memorial day for those who died in the Holocaust, a Greek word meaning “sacrifice by fire.” Established by Israel in 1951, the day is now commemorated around the world. In the U.S., Congress has made it part of the week-long Days of Remembrance.

A new study released today “finds significant lack of Holocaust knowledge in the United States.” Without repeating the painful findings, it is enough to say that if trends continue, in a couple of generations a large majority of Americans will have very vague and erroneous views of what took place, if they know anything about the Holocaust at all. Painful but not surprising, given that Americans’ knowledge of their own history is pretty vague and often erroneous.

In 2018, and at any point in history, the phenomenon of the Holocaust matters for a lot reasons. Here at just a few.

The depths of human depravity exceed our imagination. The heights of human heroism, which the Holocaust also demonstrated, exceed our imagination too.

Whatever identity group you belong to, you can never be confident that you will not be the next despised “other” who must be totally eliminated. Which means that hatred of the other is to be avoided and acceptance of the other is to be applauded.

Science and technology can be very evil. It is true that Hitler couldn’t rely only on sophisticated chemical gas to kill Jews, supplementing that with old-fashioned mass shootings and body pits. But if he had had the opportunity to complete his work on rockets and atomic bombs, for example, who knows what the number of eliminated non-Aryans might have been?

As important as remembrance is, it is not as important as living, acting and speaking in ways to relieve current suffering. Dead and displaced at the hands of an evil leader is not history. It is now. “Never again” cannot be just for what happens to Jews. “Never again” is for everybody, or it is for nobody.

Calling All Magicians or Time Travel Technologists: Help Bring Back the Original American Revolutionaries

Practical magic is a very popular subject for fictional speculation. So is time travel. If either of those turn out to be real, the one thing I would do with those practices is to bring back the venerated founders of America—our original revolutionaries and constitutional architects.

Their inspired vision of an enlightened democracy was a gift to us and to all civilization. Since at this moment there seems to be major misunderstanding, misrepresentation or ignorance of the essential principles, these political heroes would be the best people to explain themselves.

I see them making the rounds of the news networks. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, the whole lot, appearing on CNN, MSNBC and especially Fox News. They would be subject to vicious criticism and character assassination, of course, but those who stood up to and defeated King George III would have little trouble dealing with the 2018 Republican Party and Sean Hannity.

Ben Franklin would have a particularly good time. Besides his scathing wit, Franklin would focus on Trump’s frequent reference to attending the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin was founder of the University of Pennsylvania, and would suggest that if he knew Trump would someday be bragging about it, he would never have founded the university in the first place.

So, if you are a magician or time travel technologist, here is an opportunity to do immense good with your skills. Bring back the Founders. Now.

Shabbat and International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Shabbat. Today is also International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Sabbath is a celebration, compared to a wedding day. The Holocaust is not. A paradox, perhaps.

From The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The Sabbath is a bride, and its celebration is like a wedding.

“We learn in the Midrash that the Sabbath is like unto a bride. Just as a bride when she comes to her groom is lovely, bedecked and perfumed, so the Sabbath comes to Israel lovely and perfumed, as it is written: And on the Seventh Day He ceased from work and He rested (Exodus 31:17), and immediately afterwards we read: And He gave unto Moses kekalloto [the word kekalloto means when he finished, but it may also mean] as his bride, to teach us that just as a bride is lovely and bedecked, so is the Sabbath lovely and bedecked; just as a groom is dressed in his finest garments, so is a man on the Sabbath day dressed in his finest garments; just as a man rejoices all the days of the wedding feast, so does man rejoice on the Sabbath; just as the groom does no work on his wedding day, so does a man abstain from work on the Sabbath day; and therefore the Sages and ancient Saints called the Sabbath a bride.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day:

The United Nations General Assembly designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this annual day of commemoration, the UN urges every member state to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.

Nowhere in all of our obligations are we asked to make sense of things. Celebrate? Yes. Remember? Yes. Make sense of things? That would be a miracle.

And speaking of miracles, from Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach:

A Kvitl on the Frankfurter’s Grave

RABBI ISRAEL PERLOW (1869–1922), KNOWN AS THE BABE OF KARLIN-Stolin, was one of the most famous Hasidic rabbis of Lithuanian Hasidism. He became a Hasidic leader at the age of four when his father, Rabbi Ascher of Karlin, passed away. Rabbi Israel was a scholar, a fine composer, and had a commanding knowledge of the sciences. He died in Frankfurt an Main during one of his many travels and was buried there. After his death he was sometimes referred to as the Frankfurter. Despite the desecration of many Jewish cemeteries in Nazi Germany, the rabbi’s grave was never vandalized.

After liberation, Germany became the center for displaced persons. Most of them were people who had been liberated from the concentration camps; the others were those who came to seek possible survivors of their families and ways to emigrate to Palestine and America. Among the many refugees were a handful of Hasidim from Karlin-Stolin. For them, the Frankfurter’s grave was a source of strength and solace.

One day a Hasid of Karlin-Stolin who, along with his son, had been fortunate enough to survive the horrors of the war, came to pray at the rabbi’s grave. He placed a pebble on the gravestone as is customary, and said a few chapters of Psalms. Then he poured out his heart before the holy grave, begging the Frankfurter that his holiness would intercede with the Almighty so that his son would find a proper mate, befitting a pious young man. As is also customary, he wrote his son’s name and his request on a piece of paper, folded the kvitl neatly, and placed it in one of the crevices of the tombstone. The Hasid left the Frankfurter’s grave in high spirits, sure that his prayers and request would be answered.

A few days later another Hasidic Jew, also a Karlin-Stolin Hasid, made his way to Frankfurt to the Babe of Stolin’s grave. Like the thousands before him, he told his bitter tale and asked the rabbi’s blessing. He too was fortunate, more than many others. Though he had lost almost his entire family, one daughter of marriageable age survived. He prayed now on his daughter’s behalf, that she should meet a Jewish boy who would find favor in the eyes of God and men, and if possible, also be a Hasid of Karlin-Stolin. As he was about to write his request, he realized that he did not have anything to write on. Just then a gentle wind blew and a piece of paper fluttered to his feet. He picked up the paper and wrote his request in the customary manner. As he was about to fold the kvitl, he noticed that the other side also had writing on it. It was the kvitl of none other than the first Hasid of Karlin-Stolin who had appeared earlier.

A few days later, a wedding took place in a D.P. camp in Germany. The two young people whose fathers had prayed on the zaddik’s grave were united in matrimony. And so you see that the miracles of the Frankfurter Rebbe do not cease unto this very day.

American Nazi Rally, Madison Square Garden

This post was drafted a month ago, but I decided that maybe I had been mentioning Nazi Germany too frequently. If you’ve read some of those earlier posts (here and here, for example), you see that I have never made an explicit connection between the current situation and that one.

Now President Obama has been bold enough to speak of this expressly:

“We have to tend to this garden of democracy or else things could fall apart quickly.…That’s what happened in Germany in the 1930s, which despite the democracy of the Weimar Republic and centuries of high-level cultural and scientific achievements, Adolph Hitler rose to dominate. Sixty million people died. . . .So, you’ve got to pay attention. And vote.”

Naturally, the reaction has been swift from Trump apologists—who already hate Obama—claiming that it is heinous to compare Trump to Hitler, and no such death of democracy is in the offing. On the contrary, they say, we are finally on our way to reviving our past glory.

The message in a democracy is inarguable: know your history, pay attention, and vote. Part of not knowing and not paying attention is the delusion that “it can’t happen here.”

Above is a picture of the American Nazi Rally at Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939. It was a full house of 22,000 “patriots”, with a giant god-like image of George Washington on stage, thought of as the father of their White Christian America.

Those who tried to disrupt the Madison Square Garden rally were arrested. Which is worse: being silent knowing that something is horribly wrong, or not being believed—actually being arrested—when you speak up?

 

Sophie Scholl: “Somebody, after all, had to make a start.”

Readers of Brigitte, the largest women’s magazine in Germany, voted Sophie
Scholl the most important woman of the 20th century.

You probably do not know Sophie Scholl. She was a founder of the White Rose movement, a tiny group of German students who distributed leaflets opposing the Nazi regime. In 1943 she and two others were arrested, tried and immediately executed for treason. At the trial she simply said, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start.”


From A Noble Treason: The Story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Revolt Against Hitler:

A young Munich barrister named Leo Samberger opened his mail one morning in February of 1943, and, as he said afterward, he couldn’t believe his eyes. That was a time when every new day seemed to bring some new event to unsettle the nerves or stun the senses. The war, in its fourth year, had made the unexpected routine and the startling commonplace.

Even so, Leo Samberger was shaken when he opened what he thought was a letter but turned out to be a leaflet. It was neatly typed, singlespaced, with no illustration or typographical flourish of any kind. It was a solid block of type that made no more concession to the reader than a page from a textbook. But Leo Samberger caught his breath as he ran his eye down the page. “The day of reckoning has come, the reckoning of German youth with the most detestable tyranny that our people has ever endured. . .”…

With an intensity that broke through every phrase, the leaflet denounced the “corporal of World War I” whose amateur strategy had just cost the German people three hundred thousand of their sons in the bloodbath at Stalingrad. Here the leaflet, in its bitterness, used sardonically the saying that the Ministry of Propaganda had popularized to hail the achievements of Adolf Hitler: “Führer, wir danken Dir!” (Leader, we thank you!).

Then, at the end, came an impassioned call for revolt: “The name of Germany will be disgraced forever unless the German youth rises up, in both atonement and vengeance, to crush its tormentors and to build a new and nobler Europe.”…

The story circulated that some students had been caught scattering leaflets along corridors on the stairway between floors, and in the central hall under its high, domed skylight. The leaflets had been swiftly gathered up and spirited away by custodians before they could spread their corruption among the students. Copies were being closely examined in the rector’s office, to which, again, the Gestapo had been summoned. The names of the perpetrators were not immediately made known, nor was their fate….

Now it became clear why the chief judge of the People’s Court had been hastily flown from Berlin to preside at this trial and why the courtroom was so liberally seeded with representatives of the armed power of the state. The charges that Freisler had read from the indictments were among the gravest that could be brought against a German by his government in wartime.

It appeared from the evidence that the infamous deeds cited by the prosecution had been perpetrated over a period of many months by an organization with the curiously incongruous name of “the White Rose”. Page after page told of the activities of this group that had secretly and subversively produced thousands of leaflets attacking the government and the war effort and circulated them in many different cities, thereby threatening the very survival of the Reich.

Freisler made no pretense of being judicial. He ranted. He bellowed. He encouraged the prosecution and ignored the defense. At his post in the doorway Leo Samberger turned his eyes from the flaming figure on the bench to the defendants. There were three of them. Though he didn’t know them, he recognized their faces from seeing them many times in the concert halls of Munich that he himself frequented. They were college students, young, educated, clean-cut—his own sort. It seemed hardly credible that they were sitting in the dock with a death penalty over their heads as a consequence of what had happened at the university only three days before….

All three maintained their self-possession in a way that won a grudging admiration even in that room, but Sophie made a particular impression. Not only did she stand out as the lone female caught up in these proceedings, but she had an indefinable quality of her own. She was twenty-two years old, dark, and with a curious aura of mingled girlishness and gravity. Now and then during the trial, her brow would crease into a quick, musing frown, which those who knew her would have recognized as characteristic. Even here, in the courtroom with her life at stake, the frown did not signify anxiety or dismay. It meant that she was turning over in her mind a point, an implication, or a shading and weighing it to get it right.

She was wearing a rumpled and rather mannish sort of coat that contributed little to her appearance. She had endured three days of nearly unbroken interrogation in a Gestapo prison, and she looked worn and tired. But her quiet appeal, hovering always between girl and woman, was unimpaired. It was overlaid, now, with a kind of subdued defiance apparent in the cast of her features and the set of her head. Once Roland Freisler, squirming with fury inside his scarlet robe, demanded to know how any German could possibly do what the indictment charged against the trio in the dock. It was Sophie who responded, clearly and coolly:

“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare to express themselves as we did.”

As the proceedings wore on, it became obvious that no defense worth the name would be offered. The court-appointed defense attorneys scarcely troubled to conceal their aversion to their task or to disguise their approval of the charges. The verdict itself was never in doubt. Berlin had not sent Roland Freisler winging down to Munich to preside over an acquittal.

Yet there was, as Leo Samberger noted, a pronounced tension in the courtroom as the words were about to be spoken that would, quite literally, cost three young people their heads. Such a thing had never happened before even in a Nazi courtroom. And the words came from the bench as expected: “. . . for the protection of the German people, and of the Reich, in this time of mortal struggle, the Court has only one just verdict open to it on the basis of the evidence: the death penalty. With this sentence the People’s Court demonstrates its solidarity with the fighting troops!”

Even before the auditorium was drained of its gray, black, and brown uniforms, the condemned trio was hurriedly surrounded by a cordon of police, put in manacles, and led away.

The three of them were taken directly from the court to the place of execution, to Stadelheim, on the outskirts of the city. There, that same afternoon, all three were beheaded, the girl, Sophie, going under the guillotine first. It was all done with a speed and brutality that signaled something like panic in high places.

Letting Off Steam: Jokes About Hitler in Nazi Germany

Did German citizens tell jokes about Hitler during the Third Reich? Actual jokes like this:

Hitler and Göring are standing on top of the Berlin radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on the Berliners’ faces. Göring says, “Why don’t you jump?”

Were these people punished? Did the jokes have any effect?

These are some of the questions addressed in Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany by Rudolph Herzog. Herzog explains:

Contrary to a common myth, targeting Hitler using quips and jokes didn’t undermine the regime. Political jokes were not a form of resistance. They were a release valve for pent-up popular anger. People told jokes in their neighborhood bars or on the street because they coveted a moment of liberation in which they could let off a bit of steam. That was ultimately in the interests of the Nazi leadership. Consequently, the Führer and his henchmen rarely cracked down on joke-tellers and if they did, the punishments were mild – mostly resulting in a small fine. In the last phase of the war when the regime felt threatened by “dissenters,” though, this changed. A handful of death sentences were handed down to joke-tellers, though the true reason for this was rarely their actual “crime.” The jokes were taken as a pretext to remove blacklisted individuals – people the Nazis feared or detested because of who they were rather than because of what they had done. Among others, these included Jews, left-wing artists, and Catholic priests. As I show in my book, a staunch party member could walk free after telling a joke, whereas a known “dissenter” was executed for exactly the same quip.

We can’t deny the significance of laughing and humor during the hardest times, personal and social. Jokes, like other subversive art, have a way of digging deep and even encouraging change. There is the example of the king’s fool, who was allowed to say things that others feared to say. But make no mistake, when the king was unhappy, not even the fool was protected from retribution and punishment.