January 16, 2019

What an Obscure German Novel Taught Me About Dictators

“I was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1949, so I grew up playing cowboys and Indians with my cousins in the rubble fields of my native city. Family lore had it that my mother, who had survived the Hamburg firestorm of 1943, made me baby shirts from the sugar bags that came in American care packages. Her father had been sent to a concentration camp during the early days of the Nazi dictatorship because he collected dues for an illegal union; fortunately, he survived. Because of the housing shortage caused by the bombings, my parents and I, for the first 11 years of my life, lived in a one-room apartment. Suffice it to say my childhood was a daily reminder of the catastrophic consequences of the destruction of the Weimar democracy and the rise of Adolf Hitler.

The other constant of my early life was a presence of things American that went beyond the baby shirts with “SUGAR” stamped on them. Even though we lived in the British occupation zone, American movies played at the local movie theater where my mother worked, and Bill Haley & His Comets were my father’s favorite rock ’n’ roll band. My father had been a prisoner of war of the Americans, and while he almost never talked about the war itself, he talked frequently about those years from 1945 to 1947 in camps in Germany, Holland and France. The Americans, he said, treated and fed him well and taught him to drive a 2.5-ton truck. When my parents traveled to the U.S. for the first time for my wedding to a wonderful American woman—six years after I had visited the U.S. for the first time and three years after I had spent a year at Indiana University as an exchange student—he brought his decades-old POW driver’s license in hopes that my father-in-law would let him drive his car. By that time, my German education had been supplemented and improved upon by my American education and my respect for Americans’ generosity and openness had grown. Even more, I admired the principles of the American Constitution and the strength of its democratic institutions. My wife and I had two sons (one of whom is a senior writer at POLITICO Magazine) while I was earning my Ph.D. at UCLA, which launched a long and productive career teaching German language and literature. In 1999, I became an American citizen.

Then came the election of 2016. Suddenly, I was forced to question my long-held belief that American society was constitutionally immune to the threat of dictatorship. I know I wasn’t the only person who wondered whether we had crossed some threshold; it wasn’t an accident, after all, that George Orwell’s classic 1984 was suddenly at the top of the Amazon charts. Still, something told me that reacquainting myself with Big Brother and his Ministry of Truth wouldn’t be sufficient to explain the moment we were living through. I decided to follow my academic instincts. I expanded the field of inquiry. I made a list of every novel about authoritarianism and totalitarianism I could think of, spanning more than a century of work. My reading list came to 12 novels in all. I read them chronologically: Jack London’s The Iron Heel, published in 1908, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which he wrote in 1914/15, and Sinclair Lewis’ semi-satirical 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. I reread staples of college syllabuses such as Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and, of course, 1984. I dived into more obscure works such as Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone and Philip K. Dick’s The Penultimate Truth. And I read the most modern works—Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Philip Roth’s alternative history, The Plot Against America, and Dave Eggers’ 2013 dystopian vision of internet technology run amok, The Circle.”

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