I have a new appreciation for the sickening helplessness many Germans in the 1930s felt as they watched government-backed brown-shirted hooligans attack Jews and other disfavored groups.
I always begin my history survey course, geared to first-year students, by asking about their "front-burner" issues — the issues that most concern them as they begin their college careers. These include personal issues, such as managing their demanding new schedules, but also issues with larger implications, such as global warming, health care access and the state of the economy. The point of the exercise is to get students thinking of themselves as historical actors; that while we all see the world through the lens of our own experiences, we are also products of this particular moment in history, and their concerns reflect that. I always hope that it will be empowering for my students to see themselves living and making history.
Helping students to see themselves as historical actors feels more important than ever these days. This fall, I will be teaching a course on Hitler's Germany. In the past, students in this class have always arrived at the critical questions with a sense of wonder: How did the citizens of a democratic country allow the slide to dictatorship to take place? Why did Germans let a charismatic madman come to power legally, if not with a majority of the country's votes? Why did they tolerate increasingly vicious attacks on fellow citizens and external aggression that led to the deadliest war in history? Surely, in a democracy, politically-engaged individuals should be able to recognize and stop the worst before it happens. We should be able to defend our institutions against those who seek to undermine them and send would-be authoritarian rulers packing before they entrench themselves in power.
The Republican National Committee unanimously approved a resolution condemning Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, a move that comes just two weeks after President Donald Trump was widely criticized for going easy on white supremacist groups involved in the Charlottesville, Virginia, protests. (Aug. 25, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)
I have no doubt my students this fall will ask those same questions, especially after the recent shocking events in Charlottesville. And meanwhile, every day our president goes further in ignoring the norms that have governed the behavior of previous presidents. Giving tacit support to the actions of white supremacists demonstrates that a commitment to democracy is, at best, transactional and paper thin. In addition, he issues executive orders of questionable legality and fires those who threaten him, while a Republican-controlled Congress has failed to push back in any substantive way. The courts have so far acted as a restraint on some presidential overreach, but the president and an eager Senate will soon fill the courts with judges sympathetic to Mr. Trump's agenda and who may no longer bring the force of the law to bear against even the most egregious actions of the executive branch.
In a democratic republic, we say people can change the outcome through elections, a message that until recently has synced nicely with the "living and making history" lesson from my first day of class. But the safeguards the founding fathers put in place to protect minority views today protect minority rule, and many of our institutions have become profoundly anti-democratic. The Electoral College, the Senate and gerrymandered electoral districts have enshrined a government that collectively represents a minority of voters.
Against this backdrop, it becomes difficult to effect the political outcomes that many of us (a majority according to the popular vote in 2016) would like to see and to push back against policies and rhetoric that threaten immigrants, women, LBGT individuals and people of color. Hence, I have a new appreciation for the sickening helplessness many Germans in the 1930s felt as they watched government-backed brown-shirted hooligans attack Jews and other disfavored groups and as new laws removed the civil rights that they had previously enjoyed — and as they realized it was too late to stop it. When we, as citizens, no longer have confidence that our collective votes will determine the outcome of elections or the enactment of laws we favor, we are reduced to individual action or to political protest in the streets. At least we still have that right, although with a president who suggests a false equivalence between armed neo-fascists and counter-demonstrators, it is reasonable to wonder how long that will last — and whether those of us who fear violence will be willing to keep showing up.
So my efforts to encourage my students to think about themselves as historical actors take on a new valence this semester as we look to the past. Given my own sense of bewilderment in this chaotic political environment, I will be more hesitant to judge ordinary Germans caught up in the seemingly inexorable movement toward dictatorship.
Still, we can learn from their mistakes. As Timothy Snyder writes in "On Tyranny": "History does not repeat, but it does instruct." One thing that we can learn from the past: Tyranny does not arrive in one fell swoop, but slowly, imperceptibly moves in as the guardrails we hope will protect our democracy give way. I hope that our study of the past will move my students to think about both the immediate and structural problems that we face and how we might act collectively to shore up our institutions that seem most vulnerable. I hope that protecting democracy will become a "front-burner" issue for us all.