Guest Opinion | Remembrances from 1930s Germany

— from Irmgard Conley —

As the daily news becomes ever more ominous, the tone so eerily familiar to my old ears, mental pictures from my childhood in Germany are re-surfacing, literally making me shake.

In times of economic uncertainty and disempowerment, people are looking for miracles and miracle workers, and Trump, like Hitler, promises to deliver. The 1930s had brought to power another “charismatic” leader, and by the time I started to be aware of what was going on in the adult world, he and his storm troopers were in absolute control. A creature who spews lies and racial hatred, and encourages his followers to beat the sh*t out of protesters is close kin to the organizers of the Brown Shirts of those days.

Trump’s Cabinet choices are truly scary, with the Department of Education Secretary being just one outrage. His choice for Senior Advisor, Steve Bannon, is a worthy soulmate to Dr. Goebbels. As early as 1938, rationing was introduced: “Cannons instead of butter” was the slogan, and the buildup for war had started. The “new” army certainly created jobs right away, as will Trump’s military plans.

Already, saber-rattling is getting louder in Washington, DC. Will rational citizens stay awake to the insidious drift toward enemy lists and one-man rule, and the grave danger of history repeating itself? Will they fight against it, or ignore it until it is too late?

I was very young when the worst crimes began to be set in stone, and these are a few of my haunting experiences:

Sometime in the 1930s, I was walking with my Dad when he stopped to speak with a man with whom he had shared the hideous trenches of WWI. It was the first time I saw a yellow decal with the word JUDE on someone’s clothing. The conversation was brief, because the stranger urged my father to keep going, as it would not be safe for him to be seen talking to a Jew. To this day I could pinpoint where that encounter took place.

Not long after this, as I was walking home from school on one dark November evening, I could smell and see that there was a fire ahead. It was November 1938, and it quickly became obvious that this was no accidental fire: things were being thrown into the hottest part, not rescued, and the fire engines protected only surrounding buildings. The local synagogue burned to the ground. These days, it would also be mosques.

On the way to school the next morning the sidewalks were littered with glass shards: Jewish-owned shop windows were smashed, and some classmates had vanished. Soon informers were everywhere, and parents were scared to talk freely, even in front of their own children.

Alas, surveillance is so much easier today, as the majority of us have given away any shred of privacy to the latest handy electronic gadgets. The bromide “I have nothing to hide” may come back to haunt many in the not-too-distant future.

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Guest Opinion | Remembrances from 1930s Germany — 10 Comments

  1. Thank you my friend Irmgard. A much needed essay of truth! I’ve got chills reading this truth that many have forgotten or choose not to believe it could happen in America!

  2. Thank you for writing about this Irmgard. I’ve never really had a chance to talk to someone who was there. As far as here it’s like all of a sudden our whole country is falling apart. I keep hoping and praying that common sense will prevail and that people will realize we need to stick together for a common goal. The hate has to end and be replaced by kindness and understanding of our fellow man. Again, thank you!

  3. I would love to hear more of Irmgard’s memories from that time and place! A great subject for a History Museum talk!

  4. The fires of bigotry are unquenchable.
    We can always find a person
    who is stranger than we would like,
    “a threat”
    to exclude,
    and from exclusion the well crafted excuse,
    and from that excuse grows a fire we dare not quench
    lest it burn us too! though it burns us all

    Soon to cry
    for our wounded heart
    becomes wrong
    death becomes a matter of degrees
    The choice: Now or..

    every day hence

    they once openly called some “faggot”
    to feed their own flame
    what are the
    acceptable words
    we use now?

    I know them.

  5. Irmgard, many, many thanks! We may quiet our fears by thinking (as is true) that this country ISN’T at the moment facing the kind of economic disaster that traumatized a lot of Germans after WWI, but more to the point is that some parts our population ARE capable of being driven by fear – that things are “falling apart” – and by their reactions terrifying others. So we need to hold steady, take back the political process from fear-mongers and liars, not underestimate this threat (as you so well describe it) – think historically, act locally AND nationally. We all need your historical wisdom now and always.

  6. For all who would like hear more on this subject, I invite you to attend a presentation by Professor Emeritus of German, Jens Kruse to be held at the Orcas Center on Monday, March 27th at 5:30 pm. The title is “Does the late stage of the Weimar republic in Germany hold lessons for the current moment of the American Republic?” This talk is sponsored by the Orcas Island Library. Look for more publicity in this column soon.

  7. Thank you, Irmgard, for bearing witness to those terrible times, which must never occur again, especially not in a democratic society like ours. In reply — and hopefully to lend some hope — let me quote from the poem “September 1, 1939” written by W. H. Auden from the relative safety of New York:

    Defenseless under the night
    Our world in stupor lies;
    Yet, dotted everywhere,
    Ironic points of light
    Flash out wherever the Just
    Exchange their messages;
    May I, composed like them
    Of Eros and of dust,
    Beleaguered by the same
    Negation and despair,
    Show an affirming flame.

  8. Have any of YOU ever experienced discrimination, bigotry, ethnic or religious hatred? I have not !! I am white, male, a senior, middle income, middle class, educated, of English and German descent.
    I can’t imagine how those who have experienced such hatred are able to participate in our society without feelings of worry and concern that ICE may scoop them up and deport them for whatever reason.
    Google ethnic slang words. The list is scandalous. Most everyone has used many such words like Spic, Kike, Wop, Chink and on and on.
    I believe that most of our suspicions of folks who seem to be different is that we don’t know them. Perhaps the best way to overcome such feelings is to meet someone new every day. All relationships are essentially “one-on-one”.
    Reach out !! Instead of looking on someone you don’t know with suspicion, say instead, “Good morning, my name is Ed. Are you visiting the Island?”
    I will make a commitment to myself to do exactly that. Will you??

  9. Thank you, Irmgard, for sharing these memories. I too am deeply concerned about the current administration and the echoes of fascism. It’s incumbent on all of us to know the insidious history of its rise if we wish to defeat it.

  10. Thank you, Irmgard. I’m so sorry you have to experience this fear twice in your lifetime. Your story needs to be told, and heard.

    This, what you wrote, is especially powerful and this question needs to be answered within us all. “Will rational citizens stay awake to the insidious drift toward enemy lists and one-man rule, and the grave danger of history repeating itself? Will they fight against it, or ignore it until it is too late?”

    This indisidious drift has been happening for a long time and took a turn when the Kennedys and MLK were assassinated. the end of the insidious drift happens very, very fast. There is little time. I will stand, expose them, as they would turn US all in, and fight.

    In response to Ed Sutton’s comment: Yes, to meeting someone new and welcoming them as, unless we’re Native American, we all come from “immigrant” stock. And – don’t think it can’t happen here. What was said to me one night is proof that there are haters and bigots here, and I fear for our immigrant community here – and will do all I can not only to welcome them but also protect them.