Tag Archives: Fascism

How broken will our lives be?

21 Jul

brokenlives_book

As part of my “regimen” of reading to acquire some historical context for my “Three German Women” project, I am now reading Jarausch’s Broken Lives:  How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century.  While Jarausch focusses on the generation born in the 1920s and only one of my women (Maria) was born in 1920, the stories told by a cross-section of ordinary Germans who grew up in this era do provide some illuminating insights into a time that many of us have too quickly dumped into some “that was then and we know how it turned out for those Nazis” bin, giving little thought to what it was like to grow up in such a tumultuous atmosphere.  He depends on many memoirs and diaries, both published and unpublished, as well as interviews with those still living (their memories, of course, colored by time and hindsight). While I am still focussing on the Weimar years and through World War II, Jarausch is particularly interested in documenting how Germany and the German people, both East and West, overcame the total destruction of their cities and their society and rebuilt so successfully after the war. This fact is another aspect that we as “victors” sometimes gloss over: despite all of the help given by the Allies for reconstruction, it was not necessarily a given that Germany and Austria would become so prosperous, so functional that they are now major players in the global economy and culture.

For my purposes, the book’s greatest strength is in emphasizing what I want to highlight:  that while larger political upheavals were taking place, most ordinary people, and especially young people, were simply living their lives–falling in love, getting jobs, finding enough to eat, going to concerts–without much thought about–or participation in–the conquest of their culture by fascism or, later, by Soviet ideologies.  As one informant writes of being an adolescent in the 1930s,  “The years of my apprenticeship in Leipzig were on the whole quite happy. I hardly paid any attention to politics.” (p. 89)  Sound familiar?

As for the commonly-heard statement, “why didn’t everyone protest against Hitler?” Jarausch presents some harrowing first-hand accounts, and concludes : “The memoirs show that it took exceptional insight and courage to remain aloof, refuse to comply, or actively resist the twisted universe of the Third Reich, since the sanctions were lethal.” (p. 96) Even in those families that were politically aware, Jewish, and/or Communist, peer pressure, for example, to be part of Hitler Youth triumphed over any objections parents might have. The author also finds ample evidence in these memoirs of how EXCITING all of these new actions could be, especially for German youth from rural areas, who for the first time met–through country-wide sporting events and Nazi-organized activities–other young people, all sharing this idea of “making Germany great again” after the shame of losing the Great War and the humiliation of the punitive Versailles Treaty.

And in the beginning, Hitler’s policies DID greatly improve the lives of ordinary Germans: autobahns, free health care, sponsored outings in the fresh air, recognition for healthy living, and guaranteed employment for those who followed the rules.  But when sanctions grew against Jews, when trade unionists were arrested, when militaristic propaganda took over the schools’ curriculum, not having paid attention led to the realization that they were heading toward a war that very few had anticipated.

Much has been written about the fact that after the debacle of the Second World War, the deprivations of the post-War years, the efforts at “de-Nazification”, few Germans have been willing to, as Jarausch writes, “confront their personal responsibility and commit themselves to doing active penance.”  This fact, too, I see as a normal human reaction: one remembers the good stuff, and has a hard time owning up to one’s complicity in evil.  In the sections of the book on the post-War years, both in the GDR (East Germany) and the FRD (West Germany), the memoirists focus primarily on how hard they worked to gain economic stability and eventually, material prosperity. Ideology seldom plays a major role in everyday life, or at least not in an obvious way.

Given that I have been reading this during weeks when the news in the U.S., as well as in other countries around the world, is incomprehensibly terrifying, as we endure a mentally unhinged, probably traitorous, American president, and we watch in helplessness at the rise of autocratic leaders in previously democratic nations,  all of these stories give me pause.  I will not make the simplistic comparison of Hitler and Trump–too many differences, despite some alarming similarities.  But I am struck by reading of the consequences of not paying attention to what is happening on a grander scale as we live our daily, usually banal, lives, and certainly the consequences of not learning from the (very recent!) past.

As Jarausch writes at the end of his worthy book, “[h]eeding the lessons of experience and memory has transformed many Germans into sincere democrats and pacifists who want to prevent a recurrence of earlier horrors.” Will we–our children and grandchildren–be able to prevent more broken lives by learning from the past? So I conclude by once again posting the signs of fascism. The American trajectory may follow different paths determined by different banalities, but the end results may be the same.

fascism_signs_2004

 

 

Where have you been?

23 Jun

A woman dresses a girl while staying at a shelter with fellow members of a caravan of migrants from Central America, prior to preparations for an asylum request in the U.S., in Tijuana

Several friends have written to me, wondering why I haven’t been writing on my blog for several months.  I had no idea that I had such ardent followers!  So let me just say that the last few months have been an arduous mix of surgical “procedures” (all of them relatively minor in execution, but requiring lots of recovery time), some work on the book I am purportedly writing (mostly now a translation of Irmgard Kern’s “Autobiografie einer jungen Frau”–Autobiography of a Young Woman– from 1934), and hours of utterly terrified despair at the political situation in this country.  The photo above encapsulates this mood:  the complete inhumanity of removing helpless, innocent children from their families in the name of a hateful, entirely unnecessary  “policy” and “crackdown” against illegal immigration at the U.S. southern border.

As a born and bred California Girl, I have grown up in a multicultural society from the very beginning. Our neighbors always included Mexicans, whether “legal” or not; it was never a question for children. I went every day to Nellie’s house to eat stacks of her flour tortillas, either hot from the griddle with butter dripping off the sides, or with a dollop of refritos. I have never found that taste again, in all the years of trying–except for a brief time in San Antonio, when the secretary of one of the university departments where I worked shared her lunch with me, including HER home-made flour tortillas.  Mexican food was like mother’s milk to me, as it is for so many Californians and other Southwesterners.

My father was the foreman and chief grower in a flower nursery. Almost all of his workers were Mexican–initially, those who came to California through the bracero program, which allowed them to stay for 6 months a year, then they went home to Mexico, and would come back the next year.  I remember getting post cards addressed to “Estimado Rudy” from some of these workers, who would want to return the next year. They ate at our house, and taught us Spanish words, and told us how much they missed their own children back home.  Later on, when the bracero program ended (in 1964), my father’s workers were either Latinos born in California, or illegals. When I worked in the greenhouses when I was in high school, we sang Mexican songs–I was learning Spanish in school by then–while we debudded chrysanthemums to get them ready for market.  These women were absolute whizzes at doing this job, and could complete a row of plants before I was halfway through.  When the Immigration people showed up unannounced, my father would whistle some signal, and the illegals would jump out the back door, while we played games of interference.

ee&1stgradeclass_crenshawelem1_1956

My first-grade class in Torrance, California, 1955.

Mexicans weren’t the only group of “others” that I grew up with. My father’s boss was Japanese, one of the many Japanese-American flower growers who had established the floral industry in California.  One of my dad’s assistants in the greenhouses was Takako, an issei woman who we loved to visit at her house in Gardena, because she gave us rice-paper-wrapped candies, and laughed when we told her our Norwegian grandmother served us rice with cinnamon and sugar on it, which she thought was the weirdest foodway she had ever heard of.  I took piano lessons with Irene Shinoda, my dad’s boss’s daughter, and I was good friends with Lynn and Linda Nakamura, twins in my 5th-grade class.  These families, all of whom had been in America longer than my family had been, had been sent to detention camps during World War II, and were housed for a time in the horse stables at Santa Anita racetrack.  I knew about this example of America’s treatment of “others” from a very early age.

Perhaps this early exposure to lots of different people is why so much of California (although not all)  is so resistant to these current atrocities.  I am constantly charmed today when going to any “ethnic” restaurant in LA that the clientele will almost always be a mix of all these cultures–Armenians eating Mexican food, Mexican-Americans eating Vietnamese, Afro-Americans eating Chinese.  America at its best is a happy melting pot, ethnically diverse and so mixed that racial categories become relatively irrelevant and hard to pin down.  The warm glow I feel when experiencing tolerance and acceptance just makes the hateful headlines we now read every day heart-wrenching and incomprehensible.  Why would anyone want to support such cruel and UNNECESSARY political actions?

So, my friends, that’s where I’ve been:  sitting on my butt recovering from minor surgeries and stewing in helplessness about the fate of this country because of an aberrant electoral technicality that is now leading us away from our “better angels” toward a surreal fascism that has no happy ending for anyone.  On that happy note, and in lieu of my usual cat photo, I submit this list of the signs of fascism:

fascism_signs_2004