May 31, 2021

Memorial Day 2021

Allied landing on D-Day, June 6, 1944
Today is Memorial Day. This morning I saw an online posting of a photo of an Allied amphibious landing vehicle, filled with young soldiers. Some appeared to be under 18 years old. The caption said that most died in the first wave of attacks, a sad fact indeed. Then a little editorial note: "They gave their lives fighting Hitler and the Nazis, so today's kids can call everyone they don't like Hitler and Nazis."

That got me to thinking about a speech I heard when I was young. Our college president, Leon Botstein, warned us not to throw around the words "Nazi" and"fascist" too loosely. These are serious accusations; those are powerful and dangerous words and ideas. He warned us not to demean our own intellect by using those terms just to say we disagree with someone. He was right, I felt then and I still do now. But you know college kids with fresh new ideas, they like to throw their newly learned words around. They're passionate, quick to anger, and have lots of energy. Cynically, that's also what makes young people such good soldiers.

But he also said that to use that word too easily about trivial matters waters down the real meaning of the word. Then, if/when something more ominous appears, the words will have less impact. No one will listen. I can't help but think of the well-known fable known as "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."

That is an apt association in one way, considering we naturally associate German aggression with Nazi fascism. In both world wars, the Germans themselves called their U-Boats Wolf Packs

So here we have a recurring theme in history. All around the world, tensions are rising again, with Liberals and Conservatives calling each other names. Certainly here in America. But there is a rising trend of authoritarian leaders around the world, certainly in Europe and Brazil, for example. I'd agree that Conservatives wanting to lower taxes (prefereably for the rich of course) is not fascism unto itself. But we've moved way past monetary distribution. Yet to see Nazi flags flying along with Confederate battle flags flying in America, surely there is reason for alarm. Is it such a stretch to call a man carrying a Nazi flag a Nazi?

As you may recall, this happened in Charlottesville, SC a few years back. Those demonstrators were carrying Nazi, Dixie, and Trump flags all together. Defenders of then-President Trump said that was an unfair association, yet he chiose to "condemn" the symbolism -- and the the murder that occured on that day -- using politically slippery, ambiguous language. Instead he said there were "very fine people on both sides" equating the highly visible Nazi protestors with the counter-protestors. The former president had also expressed an admiration for several authoritarians. He has often expressed disdain for Congress, not just as political opposition with differing views, but as an instution of government in general. And we know he's not a big fan of anoyone but his followers voting.

Attack on U.S. Capitol Building, Januuary 6, 2021
Of course the Charlottesville incident was not an isolated event, but part of a growing trend. So you may understand the alarm when people saw the mob attack the capitol on January 6, 2020. Again, we saw the usual confederate flag buddied up with Trump flags, and then even more frightening far-right symobolism

This was immediately after the lame duck president had a rally decrying a stolen election. Consistent with his leadership style, he neither condemned the attack of the federal building nor claimed responsibility for it.

To those who bother to learn history, the image of the capitol under attack was reminiscent of the Burning of the Reichstag. Others saw a better parallel in The Beer Hall Putsch, ending with several deaths and Hitler going to prison for treason. That would be a nice ending, but in prison he wrote Mein Kampf. So that was hardly the end of the story; the problem festered. I sure as hell hope you know the rest of the story. Likewise, the leader of that movement is out of the White House, but the movement continues. Many fear we'll repeat history if we don't learn from it.

But let's go back to those words "very fine people on both sides". Even in World War II, not all Germans were Nazis. Some would say most were not. Yet the Nazi party in power started the war, and law-abiding Germans signed up or were drafted for the war effort. They saw themselves as good patriots for the Fatherland. Many soldiers, saillors, and airmen were "just following orders". (That phrase is another can of worms opened at Nuremurg, but I'm choosing to give the enlisted men with little power or influence the benefit of the doubt for the sake of simplicity.) When a pilot joined the Luftwaffe, he may well have been asked if he supported "The Party." (I learned about this in a very moving book called A Higher Call.) Most of them hated the Nazi Party for getting them into the war; they were honorable people who didn't want to kill their neighbors. They fought nonetheless, enduring abuse from Hermann Goering and other indignities, out of a sense of duty.

Armchair historians like myself can question whether they should have even served. Most of us have more freedom of choice. I'm sure we consider ourselves and our friends "very fine people." If you're not in the military -- or even if you are -- you have a choice. There is a continuum between general disagreement and outright treason. Where do you draw the line? 

Sure, people will always call each other Nazis when upset. It's a powerful insult, because THEY WERE HORRIBLE. Nazis are bad. But just because some people use the word wrongly doesn't mean that the conspicuous, highly visible Nazis in our midst are not a real danger.