This week, as we celebrate the life and legacy of an American hero, I am reading about heroes of the past. First there are my 1500 letters from family members who served in WWII, both at home and in Europe. I have about 60 letters left to excerpt then I can get down to the real business of weaving their stories and writing around them. They would not consider themselves heroes; but in my rule book, anyone who interrupts their life to serve a larger purpose is a hero.
I’m also reading what others have written about that war, including The Arsenal of Democracy (A.J. Baime), about America’s frantic struggle to set down isolationism—in the face of great opposition from voters—and build a woefully unprepared defense. I’m coming to the end of a historical novel about Germany in the decade that led up to her invasion of Russia—after taking Poland without protest—to begin the war.
Resistance Women, by Jennifer Chiaverini, is a story is based on real events and real life heroes: Mildred (an American living in Germany) and Arvid Harnack and Greta and Adam Kuckoff. It sounds much too much like current events much closer to home to read as fiction.
It has provided insight on how it happens that so many people—desperate for a change in their condition—can be swayed by the words and actions of an arguably-charismatic madman; to believe his lies and and to follow him like lemmings into hell. It has provided insight into how nearly impossible it is to work from within to move a nation gone mad back to sanity because the insiders don’t believe what the resistance is saying. It has provided insight into how we can become complacent with atrocity to the point of no longer seeing it. The likeness to the Nazi round-up of anyone not of the right parentage—regardless of birthplace or citizenship—and pushing them into ghettos, or worse, to what is happening to immigrants in America is difficult to ignore.
Four years ago, I might have read this book as something that happened far away a long time ago. Four years ago, I might have read it to help me understand the dictatorships in today’s world. Four years ago I would not have believed such a story would help me understand my own country in my own times.
I’ve listened to some of the impeachment trial—though, I confess, not to much of the defense. I can’t bear to. The cult-like blind allegiance. The lies. The refusal to hear witnesses or evidence of the charges against the president. The bravado of intelligent Republican senators saying outright they have no intention of being the impartial jurors they swore an oath to be. I’m baffled by it all. And frightened.
On the first day the defense didn’t seem to use as much of their speaking time as the prosecution. I muted the computer as I worked, and when I looked up it was already back to the House managers. Because they don’t have to convince anyone since they know all votes will be 53-47 regardless? Or because deep down they know they have no defense? Both.
In response, Tuesday night, to Rachel Maddow’s question if she noticed any of the Republican senators listening, maybe even absorbing, Senator Klobuchar said she sometimes noticed a few looking down at their feet. Shame? she wondered. Embarrassment? Maybe they are discovering their shoes don’t match. But still all votes were straight party line. Do these people sleep at night? Do at least a few of them lie awake? Minority Leader Schumer, told Rachel Wednesday night, he observed senators riveted during Lead House Manager Schiff’s concluding speech for the day’s session as he referred to witnesses from the impeachment hearings. I hope they were at least listening.
“Some courageous people came forward. Courageous people that risked their entire careers,” Schiff said. “And yes I know what you’re asked to decide may risk yours, too. But if they could show the courage, so could we.”
The Harnacks and Kuckoffs showed sacrificial courage, along with the many other members of the WWII resistance movement. The Harnacks paid with their lives, even knowing it was likely; even though Mildred, an American, could have fled Germany. No one is asking that here today.
I’ve also been watching HBO’s Band of Brothers, but I don’t think I will finish the series. It’s hard to watch grown men hiding behind trees shooting at each other, as if that German or that American that just died didn’t have a wife and children and a future too. I read my aunt’s and my father’s vitriol toward the Jerries, the Italians, and the Japs, and wonder if at some time in their future they realized we were all just people. I read my father’s and uncle’s accounts after the war of traveling through bombed cities and villages and think of the middle east whose people live their whole lives in rubble and fear. And I don’t understand why we do this to each other.
Is history repeating? And is America becoming the bad guy?