Reflections

Writing about time and historical periodization in his 2012 book, Foundational Pasts: The Holocaust as Historical Understanding, Alon Confino contended that “Linking the events to what came before and after is crucial to the interpretation of what actually happened.” What Confino meant by this is that “foundational pasts,” or events that are “brief, radical, violent, and self-avowedly transformative,” must be understood within larger understandings of historical beginnings and ends. In other words, major historical ruptures, such as the French Revolution and the Holocaust (the foundational pasts on which Confino focuses), are shaped by the events that come before and after them.

A photo of a Holodomor monument in Kyiv taken by the author.

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The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s present but another case where casualty numbers are highly politicized— manipulated and employed by various actors to serve their interests. Twenty years after the wars in the former Yugoslavia ended, debates continue about their naming, framing, and death tolls. These debates are so polarized that the various ethnic groups involved do not even agree on who committed genocide to whom. 

Michael Büker’s Photograph of Gravestones at the Potočari Genocide Memorial Near Srebenica.

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The election of Donald Trump in November 2016 coincided with the 78th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s state-sponsored anti-Jewish riots known as Kristallnacht. On that occasion, we titled our newsletter: Infamous Past, Disturbing Present. The shocking ascendancy in a post-Holocaust world of a movement rooted in the United States, mainly powered by toxic rhetorical brawling and sheltering authoritarian and anti-democratic impulses, was destined to be a ruinous affair. The ransacking and rioting at the nation’s capital by those courted and enthralled by this cult of personality is deeply despairing.  

In 2016 we looked carefully at the facts and summarized our concerns about the potential direction of unrestrained incendiary speech and actions. Five years later, despite Trump not being elected President, or maybe precisely because of that, we have now reached the precipice. 

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No, I am not talking about the Vatican or the next Coen Brothers movie. I am talking about old men saving countries.

The man that comes to my mind can be described as follows: practicing Catholic with a pragmatic mindset that enables him to reach across the aisle; lawyer by training and politician by vocation who experiences personal tragedy — the loss of his wife — early in his career. That would be Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor after WWII, and those are not the only attributes he shares with Joe Biden.

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On the night of November 9, 1938, the Nazis coordinated an attack on the homes, businesses, and cultural institutions of German and Austrian Jews. It had been, according to the Sturmabteilung (the SA or brownshirts), a retaliation for the killing of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jewish refugee living there. In reality, the attacks were the culmination of increasingly antagonist policies towards the Jewish population occurring since 1933. While perhaps not actively involved in the wanton destruction that became known as Kristallnacht, non-Jewish citizens watched in stunned silence, allowing thousands of businesses, synagogues, and homes to be burned and looted. Reports of the violence spread in newspapers around the world in the days that followed.

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This piece was originally published in the Community Voices section of the MinnPost.

The dangers are real. Timothy Snyder spelled them out in his short book, “About Tyranny.”

Germany at the dawn of Nazism, the USA today. Similarities? Differences? Many today ask such questions, for valid reasons.

The German Führer then sought to delegitimize core democratic institutions. The American president today does the same when institutions do not serve his political goals: the courts, the electoral process, democratic opposition, even branches of the administration that do not fall in line. He calls the mainstream news media, decried as “Lügenpresse” (press of lies) in 1930s Germany, “fake news.” He scapegoats minorities and stirs up of hostile emotions against adversaries, another parallel. Further, while Hitler affiliated SA- and SS-militias with his Nazi Party, President Trump encourages self-recruiting militias (“stand by!”). Hostilities toward democratic countries supplement these parallels.

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Don’t get me wrong, I have been a huge fan of both America and Americans since watching the Apollo space program as a kid on a black and white TV in my parent’s house in Germany. But it’s not the ’60s anymore; it feels more like the 1600s. And no, I am not talking about the year 1620 or its woke neighbor 1619. The high-speed time machine that the entire US sits in right now has its dial pointing to 1618 Europe — Prague to be exact.

The defenestration of Prague in 1618 was followed by 30 years of religious wars in Europe that left half the population dead and the other half ready for the age of reason.    

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“Students don’t live in dormitories and the university exerts no control over a student’s private life.”
Hermann Weyl (German mathematician and philosopher, 1885-1955)

Hermann Weyl left Germany in 1933 to join his friend and colleague Albert Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. During his time at Princeton he not only taught theoretical physics; he also lectured on European history and civilization. Here is what else he had to say about student life in Germany before the Nazis took over:

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As a PhD candidate in the Sociology department, I have spent several years studying post-genocide reconstruction. I am constantly working to better understand how countries with legacies of large-scale political violence reconcile and rebuild. But when I am not in the library or my office grappling with these concepts, I am on the mats of Minnesota Top Team (MTT) grappling with my teammates. For the last two years, I have spent my free time learning the martial art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). 

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“This is a God-given signal! If this fire, as I believe, turns out to be the handiwork of Communists, then there is nothing that shall stop us now crushing out the murder pest with an iron fist.” So allegedly expressed Adolf Hitler to Sefton Delmer, British journalist and Berlin correspondent for the Daily Express, one day after arsonists razed the Reichstag, Germany’s federal parliament building, on 27 February 1933.

Though he had yet to complete his first full month as chancellor in the still functioning Weimar Republic, Hitler seized upon the crisis for his own political gain. The Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi Party’s official newspaper, propagated the false allegation that communists were planning to overthrow the legally-appointed government.

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