This was a difficult column to write, but it’s a true reflection of my past two weeks of travel in Europe. Many people at my stage of life have a bucket list of places to go before they’re incapable of traveling anymore. I chose Austria and Germany, out of curiosity about whether their political trauma is anything like what we’re experiencing in America today, and the answer is a resounding yes.
President Trump’s scapegoat is immigrants. He demonizes them and labels them the lowest form of life. His script is identical to that of the newly chosen chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, and the leaders of the German opposition party. There isn’t a person alive in the United States who isn’t the descendant of immigrants, but the Trump stereotype is skillfully applied to the people fleeing violence in Central and South America and the members of any other ethnic group seeking to live in this country.
Austria is a beautiful country, and visitors are welcomed in all of its cities. Its countrymen are open to discussing almost any issue except World War II and the Holocaust. Somehow, in the minds of the Austrians I met, neither of those events ever happened. Their views are parallel to many Americans I know who are oblivious to the subtle changes taking place in American society that are eroding democracy.
Germany is another story. First, I have to say that Berlin could be mistaken for Manhattan’s SoHo. People are friendly, engaging and enjoying their lives. There are dozens of happy places to go to where the hospitality is outstanding. Mass transit is efficient and easily accessible. Just like in any big city, bicycles compete with cars. Germany hosts thousands of major businesses, and you can sense that the country is an efficient enterprise loaded with talent and blessed with an abundance of high-tech opportunities.
But despite its economic achievements and its many historic sites, Berlin makes no effort to turn its back on the bitter chapter of the past. The Holocaust Memorial that covers three or four city blocks is a major attraction for locals as well as visitors. It is a living history lesson. The Jewish Museum, with its brilliant design by Daniel Liebeskind, is crowded with tourists and local citizens of all ages.
But what struck me the most were the similarities between the U.S. today and how Germany was destroyed by its political leaders in the 1930s. I do not in any way equate our president to Adolf Hitler. But step by step and action by action, their government was torn apart, and became an easy target for the world’s best-known demagogue. Postings at historical sites described attacks on the free press. They didn’t use the words “fake news,” but the undermining of the media was one of the Nazis’ first planned actions.
The next target for the teardown of the system was an attack on the courts. Judges were replaced by thousands of like-minded thinkers to assure that only one brand of philosophy would prevail. The people placed in government positions were ideologues whose thinking was mean-spirited and primitive (see: Steven Miller). In so many ways, our current government is stocked with people who have no feelings for the plight of the common man or woman.
The creation of concentration camps was a blight on the world landscape. I don’t equate death camps to the detention centers being built to house the immigrants now making their way into the U.S., but they are a stain on our democratic system. The separation of families and the resettlement of children is a horrible act that reflects mindless leadership in Washington. And the German exhibits showing how elected state officials turned the government over to a despot and followed his every wish, mostly out of political fear, reminded me of how so many members of Congress have become pawns for Trump.
I don’t believe we are heading in the direction that Nazi Germany went, but its history of the teardown of democratic institutions is chilling and has modern-day parallels. Balancing the good with the bad, my visit taught me that Germany is an enlightened nation, conscious of its ugly history and very much determined not to repeat its sins.
When you consider present-day America and the trauma of pre-World War II Germany, there are lessons to be learned about how not to fall into any of the traps that are being set for us on today’s political landscape.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.