I have been teaching and writing about the Holocaust for 50 years. Like most who know that history deeply, I am more than wary of analogies. This piece and two that will follow are not about analogies. They are rather about the associations one makes when one knows something very well. It is about resonances and juxtapositions, putting different things side by side, which we inevitably do.
Part I: The Cliff
At Yad Vashem, there is a valley. On one side, at the top of a ledge, a railroad car and ten feet of track project into space. We know the car will go over and fall into the abyss. Because it did.
During 2016, I often thought about the train and those tracks. I could not shake the image of a train hurtling toward a cliff and being helpless to stop it. Indeed, I was sure that it would go over. On August 16—three months before the election–I published a letter in the New York Times that began: “Even assuming that Hillary Clinton is elected, the nation (and not only Republicans) will need to come to terms with the reality that millions of citizens fervently supported a candidate prepared to drive our constitutional democracy off a cliff.”
In fact, I did not think that Hillary Clinton would be elected. On the day before the 2016 election, November 7, I published a blog here entitled, “Why Nations Destroy Themselves.” That piece began: “There have been many analyses of ‘failed states,’ but almost nothing about why nations destroy themselves. Why would a country not in the throes of economic catastrophe, crushing political oppression, or irreparable ideological divides (for example, over slavery) knowingly self-destruct? Specifically, why are so many Americans prepared to take that step?”
I have no expertise in analyzing political and cultural trends. But I do seem to have intuition about group inclinations. I also wrote about violence when Trump left office. In a blog here called, “A Season of Mayhem” from August 2017, I reflected: “If and when Trump leaves, or is on the cusp of leaving, we should anticipate a season—perhaps a very long season—of mayhem. It will be organized and disorganized, perpetrated by lone wolves and packs of wolves, include the initiates and the inspired.” I looked back at the post in January 2021. I am sure I will look back at it many times again.
If foreseeing danger is a gift, it is not welcome one. I do not aspire to be Wiesel’s Madame Schacter, who saw flames and chimneys before that cattle car arrived at Auschwitz. What I sensed and what I’ve written has not kept anything from going over the cliff.
No doubt some of my Cassandra reflects growing up in a crazy family: one in which being able to recognize the actual, even when disguised and denied, did help me get through. Strangely or not, some of my childhood teachers and coaches nicknamed me, “Happy Hank.” That was also true, and it also helped me get through.
As for many of my colleagues—and beyond my colleagues– involvement in Holocaust study has confirmed what we already knew: that madness and evil are real and, at times, unbounded. At the same time, an otherwise unfounded hopefulness, even joy in life, usually keeps us going. It is not denial or, in the lingo of the day, “resilience.” On the contrary, those who cling most rigidly to “positive thinking” may be the most pessimistic. At core, they distrust their capacity to engage the realities of human life and lives.
In the 2016 blog post, on the eve of the election, I wrote:
When future historians look back on our time, I believe it is our shallow appreciation of the irrational, including the demonic, in culture and in politics that they are most likely to notice. Psychological generalizations about large groups should always be taken with skepticism. Obviously, different motives can yield the same result. But that does not mean that there are not cultural tendencies, prevailing moods, fantasies, and inclinations.
Even as I wrote this, I was reminded of Norman Cohn’s commentary about the Protocols in Warrant for Genocide:
There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics…There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths…And it occasionally happens that the underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.
I understand the dangers of confusing psychopathology with “garden variety” greed, cowardice, resentment and all the other personal and political reasons that people and principles become disposable. But the influence of crooks and sociopaths—when they find and create a constituency–need also be taken seriously.
Over the years, I have worked hard to help students think deeply about the extent to which public life and policy may evolve independent of reason and even rational self-interest narrowly understood. Racism and other shared fantasies of purity, cleansing, and tribal belonging are usually part of our discussion. It has sometimes been a challenge for students to engage these phenomena. It is no longer a challenge.