On a cool overcast October morning in 2009, following a nonstop overnight flight from Denver, I drove my rental car north from Frankfurt toward the tiny town of Horn-Bad Meinberg, located in north-central Germany.
Traveling through lush rolling meadows, bordered by pine forests, and dotted with idyllic ancient villages (populated by half-timber houses and always at least one church steeple), I found the dream-like beauty of this tranquil countryside to be wondrous, but also strangely disconcerting. With Germany’s brutal Nazi past in the forefront of my mind, I couldn’t help but wonder about the Nazis, their collaborators, those who resisted, Jews, and other Third Reich victims who might have once lived in those charming homes. What must it be like living there now, aware of the violence which surely took place in the town’s square and along its cobbled lanes? I could not imagine. With phantom images of swastika-stamped flags, marching boots, and broken glass tattooing an otherwise peaceful landscape, I drove on into the mist.
I spent several weeks in Germany during that year and the next in a series of trips devoted to researching, shooting, and screening Return, a documentary depicting German-born American Jew, Professor Fred Sondermann’s return to Horn, his childhood home. It was a fascinating experience to be working in this out-of-the-way area of Germany where Americans rarely visit. My camera crew and I were often mistaken for Brits, presumably because American visitors are uncommon. And while a professional video camera attracts a lot of attention anywhere, the exotic occasion of English speaking foreigners shooting a project was too much for many locals (most of whom did not speak English) to ignore. We were always stared at and often asked if we were BBC. Most of the curious Germans were friendly and seemed to enjoy our presence, though on occasion, we would receive a suspicious scowl or dismissive grunt from someone walking past.
Even more interesting than the strangers we encountered, were the individuals with whom we became well-acquainted over the course of the trips. The Sondermann family, who had made a recent visit to Horn, introduced me to Reverend Maik Fleck, a Calvinist pastor and head of the area’s Christian/Jewish Reconciliation group. Reverend Fleck, acting as my guide, led me to persons and places important to the documentary and helped me to find archival photographs and documents. He also connected me with Dr. Andreas Ruppert, a Holocaust scholar and historian.
I spent much time with Maik and Andreas, discussing German National Socialism, the Third Reich, the Holocaust, and contemporary German attitudes toward Jews. Reverend Fleck, the gentle cleric, expressed hope regarding a future for Jews in Germany. His work with the Christian/Jewish Reconciliation group focused on helping Jews and Christians to find common ground and encouraged Jewish immigration to the area. Reverend Fleck proudly introduced me to a few of the rare Jews living in and around Horn, some of whom had recently emigrated from Russia. Though the German Jewish population remained low, at less than .2%, Reverend Fleck expressed hopeful enthusiasm that Jewish life would once again flourish in his country.
Dr. Ruppert the academic, on the other hand, was more skeptical about his countrymen’s acceptance of Jews in their midst. During our visits he would often point out instances of continued prejudice, though mostly tamped down, he told me, by political pressure exerted out of national shame following WWII. He believed that despite a calm exterior, latent anti-semitism and nationalism still simmered somewhere barely below the surface in Germany. Dr. Ruppert believed that if conditions were ripe (as they were in the 1930’s) for a racist, rightist uprising, it could happen again.
Eight years later, it is now 2017 in the United States of America, where a surprising surge of nationalism and xenophobia has erupted, seemingly overnight. Just last year, a vast majority of Americans would be loath to publicly utter a racist or sexist slur, but something has changed. Since Donald Trump, with his hard right nationalist agenda, has appeared on the scene, America’s ugly underbelly has been exposed, it appears, by that campaign’s sexist, racist, and nationalist rhetoric. Trump and his supporters’ words and behaviors have ostensibly given license to some of America’s most despicable citizens, including members of white supremacy groups and the so-called “Alt Right,” to confidently and publicly spew hate and intolerance about women, minorities and immigrants (legal and otherwise). Appallingly, some Americans who do not necessarily associate themselves with these groups, have followed suit.
I have long understood that America is no stranger to racist, sexist and nationalist sentiments. The legacy of slavery, with its continuing negative impact on African Americans and race relations, is a defining blot on a country whose Declaration of Independence pronounces that all men are created equal. Women remain underrepresented in positions of power and influence, most conspicuously, in the good ole’ boys’ club of politics. And as difficult as it is to understand and accept, some Americans believe that white people compose an innately superior race.
We are not a perfect nation. But a national consensus that American values of inclusion, liberty, and equality are a worthy pursuit, has gradually moved us toward a more just society, relegating affirmed racists and other radicals to the political fringe. That seems no longer to be the case.
Now the radical right, with the consent of the people, has seized the American presidency, and installed hard line extremists in many positions of executive power. Trump has appointed as his special adviser, the former Breitbart News executive, Stephen K. Bannon. Bannon, an ideological nationalist, considered by some to be the most powerful voice in the White House, has pronounced a dedication to the destruction of the institutions of liberal democracy. Scott Pruitt, former Attorney General, climate change denier, and lead counsel in multiple lawsuits against the EPA, has been named by Donald Trump to lead that organization he wants to decimate. Trump has also selected Betsy Devos, long-time critic and opponent of public schools, for Secretary of Education.
The United States of America, a country built by immigrants, now has a president inciting irrational fear of people coming from other places. Donald Trump has alienated traditional neighbors and allies (Mexico, Germany, Great Britain, and Australia). He has contemptuously thumbed his nose at the people’s concerns about apparent ethics violations (refusing to release his tax returns, separate from his business interests, and adhere to the nepotism laws). He has declared the media, whose freedom was guaranteed in 1791 in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, “the enemy of the American people.” And that barely scratches the surface of what is looking more and more to be an opaque, ethics challenged, nationalist agenda.
This is not 1930’s Germany and Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler. Nevertheless, the concerns expressed eight years ago by my German historian friend, Andreas Ruppert, take on new meaning in light of the political situation here in the United States. It now seems that the dark possibility of resurgent nationalism, has manifest itself in a more global way, challenging not only Germany, but the United States and a large swath of Europe, also moving to the right. As though in confirmation, the following letter arrived from Dr. Ruppert in mid-January:
I wish you a Happy New Year, and I hope it will be more happy than 2016. We are shocked that 50 percent of the Americans decided for Trump, but we must keep in mind, too, that 50 percent voted against him. Part of his followers will be disappointed very soon, but they will not make him responsible; they will blame all the others whom they don’t like, or even hate. We Germans have experience with this.
From 1945 on there has been a strong right-wing movement in Germany with political parties of their own. The first real national-socialist party, in the old sense of Hitler’s organization, was forbidden by our Supreme Court, but more as an equivalent for forbidding the Communist Party than because of its beliefs or actions. Later, rightist parties had their followers, but offered so much internal fighting for the leading role that they never were successfully elected to the Federal parliament.
The right-wing movement always had a mass-media of its own. Rightist newspapers sold their copies in incredible high editions. But we did not care because we ignored this “alternative” way of thinking. We could, as there was no danger in a political sense, as their ideas were nearly a taboo in the mainstream of German society after the war.
This was different in other European countries where there always has been an open substrate of about 20 to 30 percent right-wing voters. In all European countries there was a tendency of tolerating people who were not openly against democracy and parliamentary systems, but who dreamed of a more totalitarian state. They always were ready to react, waiting for a provocation. And this was the special case for the Eastern states of our Federal Republic, the former GDR-regions (East Germany).
They felt themselves to be underdogs, and arranged themselves very well to be treated like underdogs. They were always ready to attack – and our Chancellor’s (Angela Merkel’s) declaration that Germany is great and strong enough to accept the refugees from the near-east regions was the provocation they were waiting for. They did not argue and they cannot argue: Germany is a rich country, and other countries like Spain, Italy, Greece or Turkey have many more refugees to care for. But it was a signal for their uprising, and they saw the chance to get some political power.
Many people are also in fear of the European Union. You can argue against the European central institutions, about their often idiotic centralism, but many fear losing their identity, in the same way they are still crying for the German Mark!
We never had an economy as we have it now; you cannot imagine how many SUVs are on our streets. We live in a way that we have more than three times what we need to survive. But people are crying, moaning, lamenting about the hard times, and look for those who are responsible: the European Union and the refugees.
The extreme right movement now has followers in all parts of society, and suddenly the fragility of our country as a free and liberal society, a non-nationalist society is clear. Now we have the incredible situation that a left-wing supporter as me – without any adherence to a party– has to defend our Chancellor (Angela Merkel, right/center) and even to have sympathies for her.
More and more I come to the conclusion that man is not made for liberty. Our citizens think in terms of family, of in-groups, of defining themselves in a very narrow way of the nation – an error, a misunderstanding, but this doesn’t help. My American friend Miklos, a Hungarian Jew whose family emigrated to the US after the war and after the experience of anti-Semitism, even in socialist Hungary, calls it “tribalism.” A reasonable idea.
We do not know the future, but I tried to find the right words for the ideas I wanted to communicate to you, and I hope that you will see what I mean.
P.S. I have just seen in my newspaper: a right-wing manifestation with a poster: “Make Germany great again.” Interesting, after two world-wars …