As the darkness of fascism descended over Germany, professor Victor Klemperer set to work writing a diary chronicling the daily slide toward barbarism of his once-great country. In bemusement, he wrote of laws that stripped Jews of their right to work in universities; of laws that narrowed the criteria for German citizenship; of propaganda campaigns to denigrate Jews, socialists, trade unionists and so on. At the end of all of this, he noted, Germans became utterly inured to the daily horrors inflicted on Jews by the Nazis.
“I believe the pogroms of November ’38 [Kristallnacht] made less impression on the nation than cutting the bar of chocolate for Christmas,” he wrote in despair.
Everything that Klemperer, an immensely cultured, erudite, professor of Romance languages, thought he knew about the political state of Germany and the German culture that underpinned that state turned out to be wrong. He watched, stunned, as an extraordinary civilization – the civilization that had produced Beethoven and Goethe, Kant and Heine – slid into barbarism. Banished from the universities by Nazi race laws, he filled his time by obsessively chronicling the capturing of the great apparatus of the German state by murderers.
“Always the same seesaw. The fear that my scribbling could get me put into a concentration camp. The feeling that it is my duty to write, that it is my life’s task, my calling. The feeling of vanitas vanitatum, that my scribbling is worthless. In the end I go on writing anyway, the diary, the Curriculum.”
This past week, I have been taking my oldest child on college tours, getting her ready to choose the next chapters in her life, to fledge our nest that we have painstakingly built over the years, and set off into the world to make her mark. I am both ecstatic for her, for the opportunities that now await her, and also sad: sad that a childhood – with all of the wondrous memories that encompasses for me and my wife, as her parents; and the life-learning experiences for her as a child — is coming to a close, and that, inevitably, she will distance herself from us somewhat as she matures into adulthood.
But, it is a sadness overwhelmingly underpinned by joy. Both of my children will be spoiled for choice over the coming years – being able to choose which colleges to apply to, where to live, what to study, which sorts of jobs to pursue. They will, in all likelihood, earn decent wages and travel to interesting places. As middle-class Americans, they will find an extraordinary number of doors opened to them.
On the college tours, all looked right in the world: happy, well-fed, curious children, being taken to wondrous liberal arts colleges by proud, engaged, parents who couldn’t imagine a world in which their kids simply didn’t count.
Which made the morning reading of the newspapers, and the checking of twitter particularly devastating this week.
In our name, a government of rogues has taken to kidnapping and tormenting young children all along the barbed wire-stained southern border with Mexico. The same day I toured Harvard and saw an inspiring statue on Cambridge common urging that never again would a people starve in a time of plenty, I read about toddlers being denied diapers by their captives; about hundreds of children crammed into the sorts of filthy conditions most of us wouldn’t leave our pets to live in. I read about little children jammed into fetid holding pens, surrounded by barbed wire; about their being denied toothpaste, soap, bedding. About children forced to sleep on barren concrete floors.
Back when I was in my twenties and early thirties, I spent much of my time reporting on prisons around America. I went into many of the worst, most notorious correctional institutions in the country: Pelican Bay and Corcoran, in California; Angola, in Louisiana; maximum security prisons in Alabama, New York, Texas. Even in these ghastly places, inmates had bedding. Yet, in our rush to demonize immigrant children, we now hold kids in facilities that lack even prison-grade mattresses… And the Department of Justice has the extraordinary gall to send attorneys into courts to argue before judges that such conditions aren’t inhumane or unsafe.
Shame on us for tolerating this moral abomination. Shame on us for nurturing a rage culture that, as the incoming head of the Customs and Border Protection agency said in such starkly ugly terms, leads us to look into the eyes of small, desperate, scared immigrant children and see only a future MS-13 gang member. Shame on us for our seemingly endless ability to tune out the daily horrors unleashed on some of the world’s most vulnerable people by uniformed officers of the American state.
When a photo surfaced earlier this week of an El Salvadoran father and his young daughter, drowned on the banks of the Rio Grande, as they tried to make the perilous journey into the United States, politicians and “mainstream” pundits wrung their hands in horror. But it didn’t take much scratching below the surface to find entirely nastier, crueler reactions. On twitter, people posted that this was the consequence of “bad parenting,” of “poor parenting choices,” of what happens when people don’t obey the law, or when they try to invade a “sovereign land.”
This was a desperate family. They had come north seeking asylum – which, under international law, they had a perfect right to do. They had been bottled up south of the border for two months, desperate, hungry, scared, waiting for an immigration hearing that never came. They tried to cross the Rio Grande not as a lark but as a response of last resort. Their deaths came about not because the father was making “poor choices,” but because he was doing what you, me, and most every other parent in those situations would do: he was trying to give his daughter a future.
Even during World War Two, the interned Japanese-Americans were provided bedding, recreational activities, sufficient quantities of food. Parents weren’t separated from children. Eight-year-olds weren’t left to try to care for toddlers and infants whom the adult guards were abandoning to their fate.
What is happening now is simply unconscionable. The orders coming from on-high are unconscionable, and the carrying out of those orders by low-level functionaries is unconscionable. All involved are, at this point, assuming a huge personal moral liability for their actions.
During the Nazi period, as the terror intensified, the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer rose to prominence as one of the leading moral voices of resistance against Hitler and his rogue regime. He wrote that, “we are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheel of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
Bonhoeffer was executed in Flossenbürg concentration camp, a month before the end of the war. If he came back to life today, he would, I believe, be stunned at what is happening in the United States – a country in which he had sought, and been granted, asylum, before deciding that he had to return to the Third Reich to try to marshal opposition to the unfolding horrors. But once he got beyond his shock, he would have no difficulty taking the moral measure of the Trumpian moment. “The ultimate test of a moral society,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”