“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” — Georg Hegel
After watching Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, my father told me that the speech reminded him of speeches of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, which he had heard growing up in Vienna in the 1930s.
Buchanan had excoriated “environmental extremists,” labeled a gay and AIDS activist who had spoken at the Democratic National Convention as “militant,” called Hilary Clinton’s positions “radical feminism” and denounced support of lesbian and gay rights, the right to choose and women in the military as “not the kind of change we can abide in a nation we still call ‘God’s country.’” Goebbels had railed against “the slavering force of International Jewry,” the American “Jewish press” and the “Jewish danger” to the country,” pitting Jews against the “volk,” the German people.
I was surprised by my father’s remark. It broke a largely unspoken taboo — talking about the circumstances leading to the Holocaust or comparing any contemporary circumstances to those events. My parents, aunt and grandmothers rarely mentioned their experiences living in or fleeing from Vienna. What I learned was that speaking about those events or likening them to any current events could only diminish their unique horror — in effect, denigrate the fate of six million — rather than highlight the utter danger of a current event. My father’s remark illustrated the power of the taboo — he was drawing parallels between a politician who, although still influential, had lost his party’s nomination and a man who used the machinery of government to orchestrate genocide.
Silence about the Holocaust was also born of pain and a fear of inflicting that pain on the next generation. But, at the same time, the lesson was also, “Never forget, lest we suffer the same fate again.” So, we needed to be vigilant but not exaggerate the peril of current circumstances or political or social actors. These lessons left me with an underlying question: How do we calibrate the application of a devastating historical event to our present so that it maintains its awful power but not delay its application so long that its impact comes too late?
My father’s comment remains a stark memory because it was so different from any prior discussions we had had about politics. In our prior conversations, I had not sensed the elements of fear, danger and incredulity.
He and my mother were mainstream liberal Democrats. Although not politically active, they supported Democratic policies, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare and other measures. They opposed the Vietnam War but did not engage in protests or demonstrations, and they were baffled by some of the strategies of the civil rights movement.
My father was not kind when I first disclosed I was gay. He asked me something along the lines of, “Why are you doing this?” When I replied, “I just want to be happy,” he responded, “So, be unhappy.” The first several years thereafter, he did exhibit moments of genuine warmth and openness. At my 40th birthday party, attended by a largely lesbian and gay, racially mixed crowd, his affability with the guests astounded me. But at other times, he acted deliberately obtuse about my relationship with my partner and was unfriendly to him. His love, acceptance and support grew slowly as time passed and as my partner and I had a son.
His initial attitude undoubtedly arose out of disapproval of what he must have viewed as a choice I had made. And I think it also largely stemmed from fear of threats to my wellbeing and safety arising from my lack of conformity to social conventions. That fear perhaps arose out of his own experiences growing up as an outcast, a Jew in 1920s and 1930s Vienna. I believe he sensed the danger I could face if the likes of Buchanan gained power because it reminded him of the danger he faced when Hitler amassed his.
I think we both saw Buchanan and his comments as an aberration in the American political discourse — or we hoped he was. But I certainly thought “what if . . . ” — and I have to think my father did as well. Because in his youth, “what if” became “what do we do now?”
In his youth, “what if” became “what do we do now?”
This could not have been the first homophobic comment or law my father had heard or read about. Bowers v. Hardwick, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of the anti-sodomy law in Georgia, was decided in 1986. But Buchanan’s speech and delivery hit close to home. He threw lesbian and gay rights in the same pot of anti-Christian evil as environmental protection, women’s rights and abortion rights.
In the early morning of September 11, 2001, I was doing my morning stretches and listening to NPR when I heard about a jet headed for the World Trade Center Towers in New York. I turned on the TV to see the first plane colliding with one of the towers, and then the second one, and then the towers collapsing in an explosion of dust and debris. I stared horrified at the screen. After the second tower fell, I heard my one-and-a-half-year-old son crying from his room. I went into his room, picked him up out of his crib and placed him on the changing table. As I changed his diaper and looked at his beaming face, I thought, “What kind of world have I brought you into?” I wanted to protect him and feared the limits of a parent’s power to do so.
During his life, my father worked to make sure my mother and his sons and grandchildren were protected, comfortable and well provided for. One or two days before he died in 2007, while I was visiting him in his hospital room, he asked me about my then seven-year-old son, a grandson I am sure he never expected to have and that he welcomed with love and joy. He asked me, “Kevin, how is he, is he happy?” He wanted assurance that, if he were no longer here, Kevin would be okay. And maybe, in the question, he was seeking assurance about his son’s well-being as well. I assured him that his grandson was happy and thriving.
I have thought often recently about my father’s alarm at Buchanan’s rhetoric as former President Trump, welcoming the support of QAnon and right-wing groups invoking Nazi and Confederate ideology, led them in questioning, against all the evidence, the legitimacy of the November election. I remembered his alarm as I read that candidates who were either followers of, or strongly supported by, the same groups were elected to Congress on the Republican ticket. My father’s alarm was prescient.
There may be a rational basis for the taboo in my parents’ generation about making historical comparisons between current political circumstances and the Nazi regime. Because how can we really know what is the same and what is just different, when we see the full historical results of the Nazi regimes but can only guess at the results of the history we are living and making?
Ultimately, we forget history or avoid historical comparisons at our peril. Is the United States of 2021 the Germany and Austria of the 1930s? I would not venture to say, and I think it is the wrong question. Many people, including Jews in the 1930s, believed that the horror to which the events were leading could not happen. Then it did. Dismissiveness is not a viable political or social strategy. Political engagement is.
We forget history or avoid historical comparisons at our peril.
Political engagement must include calling out the rhetoric and actions of those who place political power over the democratic process and demonize the opposition as contrary to the principles of the country that God supposedly wants. Many of the issues we must address are fraught with strong differences that are difficult to bridge. But while tamping down divisiveness could be beneficial to progress on those issues, we cannot afford to lower our voices about those who seek to dehumanize their opponents and delegitimize our democratic process, whether or not the result would be the same now as it was in the 1930s.
We cannot afford to find out how close the comparison hews.
Now that I am a father, I understand my father’s fears. His fears for my wellbeing, heightened by his own experiences in Vienna and hearing the increasingly harsh rhetoric of some U.S. leaders, may also have moved him from disapproval to acceptance and support. And they may have moved him to break through the taboo of comparing situations to the Nazis.
Although my father never directly taught me about the imperative to speak out against injustice, his private comments instilled that lesson in me. I only hope that the lessons I leave with my son bear the same strength as those my father taught me.
William Weinberger is an attorney with a business and employment litigation practice in Los Angeles and serves on the Board of Trustees of Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood’s Reform Synagogue.