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Lessons From My German Grandmother

I was born in Germany. I belong to what is sometimes referred to as the “generation of the grandchildren” (“Enkelgeneration”). In other words: Germans that were born decades after the Nazis took power and pitched Germany and eventually half the world into chaos and despair.

Our parents weren’t even born, were babies, or small children when the Third Reich raised its ugly head. It was the generation of our grandparents and great-grandparents who cheered on Hitler, believed his lies, stood right arm raised with a Swastika armband as the Jewish members of their communities, the communists, socialists, gays, handicapped and many others were dragged off to concentration camps.

Year after year, starting in middle school we learned about Germany’s past: in History, German Language Arts, Religious Education, Social Studies, Ethics, probably even in Biology. The generation of our parents/teachers was not about to let us forget. Rightfully so.

As a young teenager I incessantly pestered my grandmother, a lifelong social democrat who whacked my dad over the head should he, as a little tyke, follow the lead of others and raise his right arm, “How could your generation let this happen?” “Why did you not see the dangers?” “Why did people not stand up and fight against this barbaric cult?”

I never got an answer that satisfied my teenage outrage.

There was talk of how difficult life was for people, especially after the war started. How it is hard to see what is going on while it is still unfolding and how easy it is to judge afterward. How people don’t see what is right in front of their eyes if their life or that of their families and friends depends on not seeing it. And how desperately hard it is to do something, anything of consequence in such a situation.

I did not buy this for many years, decades even. I knew my grandmother as a feisty, no-nonsense, won’t-let-anyone-get-away-with-shit kind of person. I felt that she should have known, she should have done better.

Now, after enduring more than a year of Trump and the cultish adoration of his followers, after a year of near constant attacks on the free press and our democratic institutions, after a steady diet of lies and propaganda, after daily crass examples of blaming people who are not part of the new “Master Race” of white, Christian and preferably male people for everything that is wrong, and after seeing a renewed appetite for war – I finally start to understand.

I don’t understand where the racists and anti-Semitic hate comes from, I don’t understand the ability to completely block out facts and blindly follow a human being so clearly flawed and dangerous as Donald Trump, nor why people want a strong man dictator rather than democracy. I don’t know why people, who never met me, see fit to call me retarded just because I am a liberal Democrat.

I never will.

But I understand what Grandma Dora tried to tell me: Democracy doesn’t die overnight. It dies the death of the thousand cuts inflicted in a thousand places, neither one alone enough to do the deed but together fatal. It dies because people don’t believe all these cuts to be fatal, because they want to be hopeful and optimistic, and because the life needs to go on, the mortgage doesn’t pay itself. Democracy dies because the full brunt of the changes instituted by the (wannabe) dictator don’t affect everybody equally and because the majority might only realize after the point of no return has been passed what has happened. Divide and conquer, them versus us, if you follow the rules you have nothing to fear – the old recipes of dictatorship still work amazingly well.

And more than I had ever expected (and hoped) I now understand what she meant by feeling powerless. I vote, I write postcards, I sign petitions, I march, I go to meetings, I donate money. But still, I feel powerless because there is no one thing I can do to make a quick and visible difference. Just like grandma couldn’t.

If you think the stern and serious words of warning we hear every day from leading critics of the Trump administration are shrill and overdone, if you think this is all a phase and it will blow over by itself, if you hope that people will come to their senses, please stop and think again.

Germany did not come to it senses for 12 long years, not until millions were killed in concentration camps and tens of millions died in World War II. Germany did not come to it senses until it’s cities lay in rubble and it was hated around the world.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183 N0827 318 KZ Auschwitz Ankunft ungarischer Juden

Jews on selection ramp at Auschwitz, May 1944. By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0827-318 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, WikiMedia Commons 

Is that what you want for America?

Democracy dies the slow death of a thousand cuts and its hope for survival lies in small acts of resistance, humanity and kindness by those who value the messy process of democracy over authoritarianism. Vote, march, write postcards, donate money, canvas, register voters, sign petitions, help those in your community who face daily discrimination!

Don’t stand by, don’t be complacent, so you never have to face a fierce 14-year-old granddaughter or -son accusing you of not having done enough to save America.


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