By Masha Gessen
The New Yorker (7/21/19)
This past week I found myself in Stuttgart, an industrial city in southwest Germany. As I usually do in a European city I haven’t visited before, I went to the local history museum to see how the story of the Second World War is presented. Stuttgart’s museum opened just last year, and its handling of the Nazi era is more circumspect than that of older German memorials. The period from 1933 to 1945 comprises a small set of displays, perhaps ten per cent of the entire exhibition. The tone is neutral.
By turning unspoken assumptions into hateful rally chants, Trump is not merely destroying the norms of political speech but weaponizing them. He is cashing in on the easy trick of saying out loud what others barely dare to think.
“After 1933, National Socialism pursued Hitler’s anti-Semitic, racist, and imperialistic ends in Shtuttgart, too,” a caption explains in English. “Despite their Social Democratic past, many citizens endorsed and profited from the new policies.” Only a third of Stuttgart’s residents voted for the Nationalist Socialists, but this was enough to make the party dominant in the city. “In 1933 began the marginalization, persecution, and murder of Jews, political opponents (social democrats and communists), and other groups,” another caption states, using an impersonal construction that makes marginalization, persecution, and murder sound like forces of nature rather than acts of man. Members of Hitler’s party defaced the entrances to Jewish shops and then rallied in the town square.
A familiar chronology
Other captions rehearse a familiar chronology, but I found myself noticing things I hadn’t paid attention to before. The Nuremberg Laws, passed in the name of “protecting German blood and honor,” prohibited sexual relations and marriage between Jews and Aryans and stripped Jews of an array of rights, including the right of Jewish women under the age of forty-five to be employed in a German home. The “marginalization, persecution, and murders” began in 1933, but the laws were passed two years later—by this time, many Germans had been convinced that they were necessary. But what jumped out at me was the age clause in the ban on Jewish domestic workers. It’s the kind of bureaucratic phrase that lends legitimacy to something abhorrent. After all, Jewish women past reproductive age were still allowed to be employed in German homes. In the same way, Russian authorities are forever pointing out that Russian law bans not all “homosexual propaganda” but only “homosexual propaganda to minors.” The Trump Administration presents its war on immigrants as a war on certain groups of immigrants only—only the asylum seekers who cross between points of entry, for example, or those who lied on their citizenship application. It’s the legalistic veneer of fascism. …