At the entrance to Dachau, buried among the weeds and gravel, is an old railroad track. It’s uneven, hastily built, and ends abruptly at a small unmarked concrete platform.
Here, not even a century ago, thousands of people were herded out of train cars, across the platform, and through the wrought iron gate emblazoned with the words “ARBEIT MACHT FREI.”
These people were ushered through this gate with assurances that “everything will be fine,” that their belongings “will be returned,” and their families “will be safe.” Those who looked young and healthy were put to work for the Wehrmacht at tasks ranging from menial ditch digging to skilled manufacturing.
The rest – elderly, sick, children, or anyone who caused offense to the watchful SS – were marched down the long electrified barbed wire fence, across a narrow bridge, and into a low brick building. They were stripped naked, crammed into a “delousing shower room” with ceilings barely 6ft high, and suffocated with Cyclon B. Their bodies were then cremated in the room next door and their ashes discarded in massive pits on the edge of the camp. The pits, roughly 40ft wide and 20ft deep, became their own execution yard as ailing prisoners, formerly chosen to live, were thrown into the still-flaming embers to burn alive, choking on flurries of ash as their own skin melted away.
Standing at the gate of Dachau three years ago, I found myself wondering what life was like, not for the people who perished in the Holocaust, but for the bystanders who watched it happen. I wondered if Germans in 1932 had any idea that in a few short years, they would be accomplices to the largest mass murder in human history.
How much did they know? As they watched their government devolve from a parliamentary republic into a party-dominated dictatorship, did they have any idea it was happening? Did they care? Were the promises of nationalism so intoxicating that otherwise good, decent people turned their backs on the most fundamental principles of democracy?
After all, Hitler did not run for office on a platform of “kill all the Jews and takeover Europe.” Instead, his speeches and letters reveal a penchant for fiery rhetoric, laying the blame for Germany’s economic troubles at the feet of minorities, promising nebulous change if the National Socialists gained a majority in parliament – not unlike a man we all know.
And like many politicians we know, most of Hitler’s contemporaries believed rational governance would ultimately prevail. In 1932, Heinrich Bruning, one of the last chancellors of Weimar Germany, remarked: “I have been accused of remaining silent for too long. Careful work seems to me more important than speaking, and I have confidence that the German people prefer that which is factual, serious.”
Clearly, they didn’t.
Bruning’s words echo those of President Obama who has, repeatedly, expressed confidence that Americans will “make the right decision” in November.
I have my doubts.
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, too many Americans believe that Hillary Clinton is untrustworthy. Despite her honesty ratings in Politifact, the fact that every investigation has turned up no intentional wrongdoing, and the ringing endorsements of every respected journalism outlet in the country, Americans are reluctant to vote for her because they can’t (or won’t) do the self-work required to see past their own biases. It is easier to believe 25 years of propaganda and 10,000 years of patriarchy than come to terms with Clinton as a do-good politician in her own right.
I am told “they’re both bad politicians.” Because somehow, I am supposed to equate a Yale-educated law professor, First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State with a privileged businessman who has zero political experience and has, on multiple occasions, proven himself openly hostile to immigrants and women. Somewhere in my mind, I am supposed to rationalize that those two things are the same… that even on paper, their wildly different qualifications and worldviews put them in the same league.
I am told “she’s a horrible person… look at what she did in Libya and Central America.” Because somewhere along the line, this election turned into a referendum on American imperialism. Somehow, Hillary Clinton was supposed to unravel 60+ years of American foreign policy in an increasingly complex world and turn the United States into a neutered European state. Somehow, she’s supposed to be different from every other Secretary of State and single handedly undermine both the Bush and Obama doctrines of interventionism and the prioritization of natural resources as national security imperatives.
I am told “we need to send a message by voting third party and tearing down the system.” Because governments are like video games… just hit the reset button if things aren’t going the way you planned. Because Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are both decorated, experienced, respected politicians with a proven track record of pushing legislation through Congress. Because Ralph Nader apparently didn’t peel votes away from Al Gore in New Hampshire and Florida during the 2000 election, thereby throwing the election to George W. Bush. Because getting money out of politics is more important than the real harm that will be caused by a xenophobic president who has encouraged the alt-right to acts of violence.
Yes, I have my doubts and I wonder.
I wonder what life will be like if enough liberals fracture the vote and Trump is elected. He won’t have dictatorial powers, but with the help of a Republican congress, a few Supreme Court appointments, and galvanized legions of conservatives, he will achieve at least part of his agenda and the alt-right will evolve from a fragmented group of racists to a legitimized socio-political force in the United States.
I wonder what my role will be in Trump’s new “great” America. Will I start to view my immigrant friends with contempt? Will my Indian and Russian and Korean coworkers have their work visas revoked? Will they slowly disappear, one by one, as they are deported to make way for “real Americans” to take their jobs?
Will I be asked, in a year, in five years, to turn on my neighbors? Will I tip off INS to investigate the Vietnamese family living behind me? Will I start to view them with suspicion and anxiety? If I don’t openly express my disdain, will I be belittled by angry conservatives and laissez faire liberals too frightened to do the right thing? Exactly how outcast will I be?
In a decade, will I be the one to help herd undocumented Mexicans and Salvadorans into busses? Trucks? Train cars? Do I keep my comfortable office job or, by virtue of my own beliefs and sexuality, am I downgraded to “half-citizen” and put to work touching the new classes of untouchables? Will I usher people back across the border and into a holocaust of drug wars, gang violence, and poverty? Will I forge an iron sign that says “LAW AND ORDER“ to remind these people how deeply their desperation for a better life has offended us?
And when the alt-right comes for me (and they *will* come), what do I say? That I’m sorry for being gay? That I’m sorry for chasing after the shreds of happiness that crossed my path? That I don’t know my boyfriend? How much of myself is worth destroying to preserve some semblance of life in a country that does not want me? How many bullets from legally purchased assault weapons will it take to kill me, sacrificed like an animal for these man-children to worship their own petulant rage?
These things I wonder.
I am told to “get over myself.”
That I should “go whine somewhere else.”
That “everything will be fine” and “the polls are misleading” and “things can’t possibly get that bad.”
That “Trump will never get elected” and I “shouldn’t worry.”
That we’d be better off with “four years of Trump than more of the same politics as usual.”
I wonder how many people said the same things in 1932, blinded by the false promise that Hindenburg would never appoint Hitler to be chancellor, unaware that in a decade or less, they’d be dead.
I wonder how many Germans in 1945, surrounded by the rubble of their cities and forced by occupying armies to view the horrors they helped create, wished they had voted differently 13 years prior. Wished they had said something instead of remaining silent. Wished they had worked harder to open their minds instead of scapegoating their neighbors.
Shame is a powerful emotion and humans go to great lengths to avoid it. Now, in these final golden days before the self-inflicted storm, we can meet it head on and acknowledge our foolishness at thinking a racist billionaire has any business in the White House.
Or we can let the storm come and, in a decade or two, confront our shame over the burning ash heap of the millions who will suffer and die under this unforgivable change in American politics.
Donald Trump and the alt-right are not just a 2016 election ploy: they are a movement embodying the ignorance, desperation, and suspicions of millions of Americans who refuse to admit their own complicity in their life’s failures. A changing global economy coupled with a recession and twisted media narratives designed to drive ratings at the expense of truth has bankrupted the morality of otherwise good people in this country.
Despite all the circumstantial differences, this election is our 1932. Weimar America, believing itself to be in crisis, has reached a moral crossroads. A demagouge has risen to prominence with divisive rhetoric, buoyed by a fringe party of radical nationalists, and now seeks the highest elected office in this country. And the electorate, unwilling to bear the shame of admitting thier own biases and mistakes, can hand him the presidency in less than six weeks.
Decades from now, people will stand at the ruins of Trump’s Great Wall, staring at a rusted sign that reads “LAW AND ORDER” and ask themselves: how did it happen?
This is the end of the line. The train is waiting, the platform is empty, the gates are open.
We’re here – and the fact that we’ve come this far is appalling, alarming, and devastating.