Recently perusing the New York Times Sunday Book Review, I came across Can It Happen Here?, by Tom Reiss (October 8, 2006).
It is a review of “Five Germanys I Have Known,” a memoir by historian Fritz Stern, and while they’re no substitute for the original piece, here are brief excerpts:
In November 2005, Fritz Stern received an award for his life’s work on Germans, Jews and the roots of National Socialism, presented to him by Joschka Fischer, then the German foreign minister. With a frankness that startled some in the audience, Stern, an emeritus professor of European history at Columbia University, peppered his acceptance speech with the similarities he saw between the path taken by Germany in the years leading up to Hitler and the path being taken by the United States today …
… Stern was of course not suggesting an equivalence between President Bush and Hitler but rather making a more subtle critique, extending his idea that contemporary American politics exhibited “something like the strident militancy and political ineptitude of the Kaiser’s pre-1914 imperial Germany.”
… the value of Stern’s work is precisely that it has refused to keep Nazism safely on the other side of a historical and geographic chasm. His first book, “The Politics of Cultural Despair” (1961), is one of the durable masterpieces of 20th-century history because it seems to locate the roots of a peculiarly modern malaise. As he explained in a later edition of the work, “I attempted to show the importance of this new type of cultural malcontent, and to show how he facilitated the intrusion into politics of essentially unpolitical grievances.”
Rather than looking for obvious parallels among contemporary dictators who ape the style of the Nazis, Stern looks for the nihilistic undercurrents in our own educated, commercial societies. Hunger and poverty have little to do with the politics of cultural despair. It thrives especially well at moments of plenty and prosperity, when people have enough social advantages to dwell on their inner alienations and resentments.
I confess to not having read Stern’s original work on cultural despair, but I hope to do so soon. It meshes with something that has nagged me for years, namely, why is it that the well-heeled denizens of the exurb seem increasingly to turn toward right-wing political radicalism and the strident advocacy of an American evangelical theocracy that mirrors that of the Muslim variety they claim to abhor?
A point worth pondering, at least.
Here is a link and another excerpt, this time to an article written by Stern (October 10, 2005):
My hope is for a renewal on still firmer grounds of a trans-Atlantic community of liberal democracies. Every democracy needs a liberal fundament, a Bill of Rights enshrined in law and spirit, for this alone gives democracy the chance for self-correction and reform. Without it, the survival of democracy is at risk. Every genuine conservative knows this.
In turn, this brings me to Keith Olbermann’s recent chilling but masterful commentary, Beginning of the end of America:
For, on this first full day that the Military Commissions Act is in force, we now face what our ancestors faced, at other times of exaggerated crisis and melodramatic fear-mongering: A government more dangerous to our liberty, than is the enemy it claims to protect us from.
My congressman, Mike Sodrel, a rubber stamp for the regime, voted for this legislation.
That’s merely the most persuasive reason (of many) to vote against him on November 7.
What remains unclear is who to vote for. We’ll discuss that question on Monday.