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“those who do not remember history. . . .” Part One

August 2, 2016

You know how the rest of this familiar quotation goes: “Those who do not remember history will be condemned to repeat it.”

But there is more. What about those who are unaware of history? Here in 21st century America, where instant gratification through the internet and is the norm, “history” seems to be that happened, oh, sometime before 1980. Not that anyone should be faulted for thinking that today’s tweets reflect breaking news of great importance, that literature comes from the pens—no, keyboards—of bestselling authors telling us about ourselves, with maybe better sex and more money, that “luxury” is the most compelling selling point of almost any artifact of consumer demand.

So, there is no shame to be associated with being unaware of how this world came to be, and how the freedom to self-indulge in America and the west has arisen from the triumph of “democracy” over the creeping totalitarianism of the 1930s. That was, after all, such a long time ago. And it could never happen here.

So it’s not particularly relevant to the modern world that Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin came to power through the ordinary democratic process of their respective nations. Each were confirmed in their first ascent to power through by election. They consolidated that power through by appealing through their public personae to the basic fears of the electorate: fear of outsiders taking over what was rightfully theirs, fear of an outside world over which they had no control, fear of an overwhelming chaos overtaking the ordered society that seemed to exist only within their national borders.

But notice this, if you will. Each of these men, once in power, acted quickly to consolidate that power, by extending it where it had no right, to see if anyone seriously objected. And when no one did, they extended it still further, using the military to overtake objectives to which they had no right. And when no one seriously objected, they reached further.

No one objected. Not even in the homeland. And as these dictators’ greed for power grew to monstrous proportions, the world in the end was enveloped in total war.

“It can’t happen here.” Oh, yes it can.

The American political process unfolding today is ample proof that fear and ignorance apparently can overrule common sense. The supreme court has shown itself quite willing to cede power to those who most stridently claim it. The Constitution—to some the most holy of modern documents, to others merely a bunch of articles and amendments—can be overridden more easily than you would think, in the context of a war.

In the context of a war woven out of fear. Fear of outsiders, and admiration for despots.

For those who think it can’t happen here, may I recommend two books:

“In the Garden of Beasts” is an inside view of Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, before the war started, but after Hitler’s consolidation of power, by that most gifted of modern historians Erik Larsen.

“Last Train from Berlin” by the journalist Howard K. Smith, is a devastating inside look at the collapse of a once-vibrant and democratic society, after the rise of a demagogue has driven his country to destruction.

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