For all that 2020 was a patently terrible year, 2016 was no joy either, with the Brexit referendum on one side of the Atlantic and Trump’s election on the other.
One of the only redeeming features (for me, anyway) of that particular annus horribilis was that I spent much of it translating Munich 1919: Diary of a Revolution by Victor Klemperer. I’ve already written about the book at length, so I don’t need to recount all of that again here. The relevant point is that, as Britain rejected European unity in favor of isolationism and nationalism, and America rejected reason and decency in favor of much the same, I found it hard to be immersed in the turbulence of Klemperer’s Weimar Germany without superimposing those events onto contemporary ones. On June 24, 2016, I wrote:
EU referendum yesterday, woke up today to find that Britain has turned its back on the EU. Pound plummets, Prime Minister resigns, Scotland wants out, no one knows what’s going to happen, everything feels like it’s falling apart. And in post-WWI Munich everything is falling apart too: the Munich communists murdered innocent hostages, the “Prussian” troops have stormed in and are fighting it out in the city with the remains of the Council Republic, there are explosions, machine-gun fire, confusion. All of the political turmoil that was blithely indulged has come to a head, and now no one can laugh it off anymore because everything has truly gone to hell. Feels frighteningly on the money.
Victor Klemperer didn’t take the upheaval of 1919 especially seriously, at least not initially. Even as demonstrations, skirmishes and, eventually, full-fledged battle raged around him, his preferred way of referring to the chaos was as a “carnival” (the following quotes are taken from my translation of Munich 1919):
The people seemed merely innocuously excited and amused; it was a bit of fun, a political carnival. (p. 14)
No, I did not take this whole affair seriously, it was a springtime carnival commotion, it was a masquerade, it was a scuffle at most. (p. 89)
He maintained a sense of detached bemusement because the whole situation seemed ridiculous to him—and perhaps because he didn’t yet have the benefit of history to show him where even the most seemingly ridiculous of situations can lead:
Ridiculousness was one of the main characteristics I associated with the Council Republic, such abject and utter ridiculousness that for the longest time I thought it was highly unlikely the pathetic affair would come to a truly bloody end. There would probably be a few victims, because scuffles were part of the fun, after all – but actual streams of blood flowing as in a proper battle? Nonsense! It was all just a farce. (p. 85)
His casual dismissal of the “political carnival” was misguided:
“If it actually turns serious,” I wrote, “the workers will fight and the soldiers will run.” But during the large afternoon demonstration, I was more convinced than ever that it would not turn serious! What a carnival. In the morning a few thousand had marched past, but now a huge mass filed down Ludwigstrasse with countless fluttering red flags, armed and unarmed, men and women and girls and boys, all of them chatting blithely and shouting with all their might […] They threw their arms in the air, and the boldest waved their rifles above their heads. And then they sang and then they chatted some more – – no, it wouldn’t turn serious, it was just a game. And perhaps this was the farewell performance of the fanciful government, because a rumor was now circulating that Reich troops were advancing in large numbers. Surely the government would give in and capitulate in good time. – And then it turned serious indeed. (p.99)
What followed was a clash between left-wing and right-wing forces that led to hundreds being killed in street fighting and many more executed later.
One of the members of the paramilitary troops that helped topple the Bavarian government in 1919 was Rudolf Hess. Hess joined the Nazi Party a year later and soon took part in yet another attempt to overthrow the government in Munich, this one unsuccessful: the Nazis’ Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. Klemperer wasn’t in Munich during the Beer Hall Putsch; he had moved to Dresden to take up a professorship. He was still in Dresden ten years later, when the Nazis came to power by entirely legal means, and two years after that, when he was forced to retire under the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service”, which banned “non-Aryans” and the Nazis’ political opponents from holding civil service jobs. And Klemperer was in Dresden 20 years on, in 1943, where at the age of 62 he was working as a forced laborer in various factories, living with his wife in a crowded communal “Judenhaus” with other Jewish couples, facing constant harassment and the threat of deportation and death—and writing the diaries that would eventually make him famous.
2021 isn’t 1919 (or 1923), Trump’s America isn’t Weimar Germany, and the selfie-seeking would-be insurrectionists who overran the Capitol building last week were not an organized paramilitary force. But the bloody fingerprints of the past are all over the events of the present.
The huge mass with fluttering flags that thronged not Munich but Washington included members of the extremist Proud Boys, who have been “standing by” waiting for this moment just as Trump advised them to, various other white nationalists and neo-Nazis, and many supporters of QAnon, the conspiracy movement amplified by the outgoing president and built on a foundation of centuries-old antisemitic tropes. The most conspicuous QAnon supporter was the “QAnon shaman,” who sports the pseudo-Nordic tattoos that have become a signature of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Even more unsubtly, there was the man wearing the “Camp Auschwitz — Work Brings Freedom” shirt, which apparently read “Staff” on the back. And alongside them were all the “regular folk,” the ones who probably wouldn’t claim to be adherents of any particular dark ideology, and who maybe had no intention of taking part in a deadly insurrection when they woke up that morning, but who, when the time came, threw themselves into the chaos nonetheless, or stood by and let it happen, or went home and told themselves it had nothing to do with them.
Jeremy and I sometimes debate whether the arc of history (or of the “moral universe”) really does bend toward justice. Jeremy tends to be an optimist and is well-versed in the literature showing that humanity is, on the whole, better off now that it has ever been. He generally favors a fairly promising view of the arc of history, while acknowledging that this “arc” is not a straight line and will sometimes curve back on itself before moving forward again. I tend to be a pessimist and am perhaps too immersed in Holocaust literature to ever be able to fully embrace the idea that, taken as a whole, humans are fundamentally decent in some way, and that human society trends toward improvement rather than entropy or decline, and that we are, however slowly and stutteringly, moving toward a more peaceful and equitable world instead of just going around in circles.
The day after the would-be putsch, I angrily ranted that we never learn anything from history. But when the words “Hitler was right” can come out of the mouth of a newly elected Congresswoman, I have to think the problem isn’t so much that we’re not learning from history, but that we’re learning all the wrong lessons. Some people (and I regretfully count myself among them to a certain extent) seem to assume that, just because we know the trajectory of bad things that happened in the past, they couldn’t possibly happen again now because we’re somehow immune to repeating the same mistakes—when the truth is that we have to be vigilant and work to avoid those mistakes. And others seem to be looking to the worst parts of our past as a kind of blueprint for action, not to ensure that those terrible things don’t happen again, but to ensure that they do.
Like Victor Klemperer, we run the risk of dismissing something that seems improbable or ridiculous until it is far too late. A guy wearing horns and furs in the Capitol building is inherently ridiculous. A guy performatively lounging with his feet on the desk of the Speaker of the House is also faintly ridiculous. But an armed man threatening to shoot the Speaker of the House in the head is not ridiculous. A mob threatening to hang the Vice President is not ridiculous. And a President who repeatedly encourages such behavior, and who stokes baseless and deeply corrosive conspiracy theories, is very much not ridiculous, nor are the government officials who go along with him. These things have historical precedents, and they are deadly serious, and to laugh them off or condone them or allow them to pass without consequence is to court calamity.
Victor Klemperer never wanted to believe that the country to which he was so fiercely devoted, the country he had volunteered to fight for in World War I—a country of great art and literature, of the Enlightenment, of Jewish emancipation and women’s suffrage—would turn on him. How could he imagine that the compatriots he had fought alongside would subsequently swallow the poisonous lie that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by internal enemies, and that he would be considered one of those enemies? How could he imagine that the “political carnival” of 1919, with its quirky characters and colorful flags, would eventually lead to a bloodbath, and that the bloodbath would be just the start of something infinitely worse?
We don’t have to imagine such unimaginable things. We know how the past 100 years played out. Unlike Victor Klemperer, we have the grim benefit of 20th-century history lying behind us. And we have to pay attention to it, we have to learn the right lessons from it, we have to act on it, or we will find ourselves playing out those same disastrous stories over and over and over again.