I’ve had a hard few weeks, for reasons shared by many, but also because of a glimpse of this moment I had four months ago, and felt unable to discuss then. I worried that I was being alarmist, paranoid, overly negative; I worried about the power of magical speech—that releasing my fear into the world might somehow transform it into a wolf at the door. Given the overt racism and misogyny, the sieg heils, the “are Jews people,” anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in the media, and most recently, the trumpet for flag-burning protestors to be stripped of their rights, I can’t keep my mind away from July 19.
Four months ago, on the day Trump was nominated at the RNC, I was in Munich on my way from Vienna to Paris after a conference. Still smarting from the abuse and divisiveness I’d met while campaigning for Bernie Sanders, I was steeping myself in cups of tea, in art, and books and music, in the view out the windows of streetcars and trains—and deliberately avoiding news about the conventions. Four months prior, in March, the Arizona primary had faltered to a shrug from the Democratic National Committee. That had set off several months of increasingly ugly politicking amongst people who should have been allies. So, my thoughts about being in Munich were mostly about the history of the city—of putsches and White Roses—while trying to tune out the bread and circus of the conventions, and the tangerine monster slouching towards nationalism in the US. Avoiding the steady drumbeat of worrying events in Europe—Brexit, the overturning of the Austrian election, the refugee crisis, Nice, the coup in Turkey—was more difficult.
On July 19, I had been at Dachau. Seeing it felt necessary after I had taught Weimar film and history this past spring, and for other reasons. While not an historian, I’ve studied Weimar and its aftermath, in part because I grew up among people who escaped or survived the Nazis, their children, and their grandchildren; and in part because of resonances that I feel with the era’s democratic aims, cosmopolitanism, and avant-garde culture. I still don’t have words for confronting an institution, an instrument, whose only function was the systematic elimination of all aspects of a cultural world that would certainly have been mine. Entire constellations of communities murdered or exiled for the sake of someone else’s “unity.” In many ways, that world is mine, through the voids and traces left in the histories of my friends’ and neighbors’ families, socialist politics, theory, art, music, film, literature, design, architecture…
In the intake room where prisoners were forced to shed their clothing, hair, dignity, identity, a teen-aged boy and girl from a German school group stood on either side of a glass panel set into a doorway, flirting and making faces. The boy, reedy and blond, jutted out his chin, folded his arms behind his back and barked at the girl—shorter, dark-haired and -eyed: “I see we have a new guest!” Their teacher dashed over and seized him by the forearm, hissing: “Josef, this is not a joke!” That afternoon, the memorial to Catholics who had died in the camp was full to bursting with a prayer and song service; the memorial to Jewish prisoners was empty except for me and a trio of Instagrammers posing in the shaft of sunlight that sliced into the apex of the dark vault. On the bus back to the train station, a group sat opposite in black-metal gear, shirts bearing logos that pushed the posted rules of what’s banned on the memorial grounds, and whose hushed conversation about their visit seemed more celebratory than grave.
After I left, I wandered around the city for a few hours trying to find any sense in that place and time, or this one, and to shed the traces of the day, the all-too-literal dust that clung to my shoes. I stopped for dinner, and watched the waitresses in dirndls lavish attention on a table of men in similarly völkisch clothes, while largely ignoring both me and the girls seated next to me, who spoke fluent German, but Turkish to each other. I fought, but mostly failed, the blurring of past and present.
Still unsettled, I headed back to the hotel to try to focus on some freelance work. I keyed into my room and turned on the flatscreen; it snapped on to the BBC broadcasting the immediate aftermath of Trump’s nomination. The celebration was being rapturously covered by a blonde Brexiter, her face plastic-surgeried into a rictus of cheer that couldn’t hide her genuine thrill at being present. I tried switching channels but found only a roundtable discussion debating the possible expulsion, in France, of people with secret-service files labeled “Fichier S,” and channel after channel of reporting about the refugee crisis intercut with exposés about “radical Islam.” It had only been five days since the Bastille Day attack in Nice, but the top story on every channel was about a 17-year-old Afghan refugee who had entered Germany alone the previous summer, and had that afternoon attacked five people on a train north of Munich with an axe.
I turned off the TV.
My task that night was to edit an article that touched on the diaspora of the Bauhaus after the Nazis took over. The Bauhaus was its own sort of instrument—a factory for the production of modernism, a trade school as intellectual and artistic hub. Its concepts—the streamlining and unity of all the arts, that form followed function—also had an overtly industrial logic. But the Bauhaus ethos was constructive: many skills, intellectual ideals, and worldviews into one simple and open structure. Its members were some of the most influential of the Modern period—Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, van der Rohe, Kandinsky, Klee, Schlemmer, Albers, Mondrian, Breuer. As Germany’s political climate lurched right between 1925 and 1933, first one, then another, and then a third Bauhaus campus was shuttered due to political repression. The artist-instructors who fled, some immediately after the 1932 elections, others after trying to remain for a few years, then drifted through different European capitals and cities in the US. This meant that both Bauhaus people and ideas survived, re-finding each other multiple times in different combinations and places. And both its ideas and people went on to shape later generations of designers, architects, thinkers, and artists. Moholy-Nagy, van der Rohe and some others eventually landed in Chicago, where my intellectual training later took place in a built and cultural environment they had helped to craft.
I’ve struggled against the dread I’ve felt since that day, lodged somewhere between a bad dream and a warning, and tried to divine possibilities for hope. Some days have been more successful than others. I haven’t been able to shake the evidence I saw of a complacent or deliberate forgetting, even amid the physical traces of fascism and genocide. I haven’t been able to shake the knowledge of just how swiftly all pretense of the rule of law—or equal treatment under that law—can erode, as it has in the past. Dachau opened as a prison camp in March of 1933, just four months after the German Federal Election that led to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. Dachau’s opening was widely reported in the German press in neutral if not celebratory terms, including photo essays in Time– and Life-style pictorial magazines. The initial 5,000 prisoners were communists, leftists, and other political opponents and dissenters sent for “re-education” and the preservation of national “peace.” This was the template and training ground for the commandants of all the subsequent camps and the architects of the systematized horror that followed. This was one of the very first steps in the manufacturing of consent for mass extermination of Jews, Roma, queer people, Slavs, the disabled—and it happened much earlier than students in the US are almost ever taught.
It has been four months since Trump was nominated, and who knows what’s four months ahead of us. As many of us are forced to envision possible futures in which our rights are curtailed if not repealed, hyperbolic chatter about “moving to Canada” has segued into tense, earnest conversations about the merits of staying versus going. Some of my friends, those with other passports, are considering or planning their exits. The traces and voids of generational trauma press upon those of us who know their outlines, prompting us to ask, quite literally, fight? Or flight? There’s a feeling that perhaps the bags ought to be already packed, if only we had anywhere else to go. Certainly, the paths of the members of the Bauhaus and others of the Weimar avant-garde make a compelling case for flight. Because they left—were able to leave, we have their art, ideas, theories, and most importantly their eye-witness accounts of how things could go so quickly and horribly wrong. They did fight, for almost a decade and across three cities, against the background of a democratic constitution drafted in the 20th century. At the end the only choice that remained was exile.
Perhaps, though, the oft-cited maxim about the lessons of history s intervening. We have mediums of mass-communication that, for better or worse, put us in direct contact with each other and those in power, and which are being used to filter the events of 2016 against the history of the Weimar era and so many others. This is not Nazi Germany, despite what the National Policy Institute thinks and claims not to. We are the descendants of not only those who survived European authoritarianism and the pogroms and purges that were its foreshocks, but colonialism, slavery, Indian Removal and genocide, the old Jim Crow and the new, Japanese internment, exclusion acts, anti-miscegenation laws, and a seeming infinity of global histories of repression and violence. Perhaps this confluence of survivors and their heritors can change something, this time. Knowledge, beliefs, and politics threatened with extermination live on in our families and communities through multiple lineages. What happens when the silences in our histories are filled with conversation, and when that conversation builds to a shout? Does it change anything that we have this space of a few months—not empty but filled with friends and allies able to strategize and solidify networks in advance of the worst of what might happen?
The world of November 2016 is more frightening and unsteady than I could have imagined, but also far from shocking. To say that we didn’t know this could happen is itself a denial, a forgetting. I do know that the risks of silence, complacency, and obedience are plain. I know that we’re not free of the histories that shape our lives and which are still active in ways that are barely suppressed. I also know that telling our collective stories, staying connected, and supporting each other creatively are among the best means for our short- and long-term survival, wherever in the world we find ourselves.