It Can Happen Here

Don’t underestimate the depths to which Donald Trump and his enablers will go to punish their political enemies.

Donald J. Trump isn’t a Nazi, although his father came close. It’s true that historical analogies between Trump’s policies and Hitler’s are often facile, and sometimes dangerously misleading. But here’s one that I’m not inclined to shrug off.

During a long stay in Berlin in 2009, I went often to the Grunewald railway station to have my coffee. It’s a picturesque little station, built in the 1899, fronted by a cobblestone square and surrounded by splendid, well-preserved villas of that period.

It’s also the point from which more than 50,000 Berlin Jews were shipped to concentration camps, a few hundred a week, from 1942 to 1945. At the station’s Track 17, a steel strip along the platform edge records, in raised letters, each week’s shipment of several hundred “Juden” to Theresienstadt, Minsk, Riga, Kaunas, Łódź and, later, directly to Auschwitz and other death camps.

It’s hard for most Americans, especially those of us whose parents fought in World War II, to imagine that people who boarded the trains had no idea of what lay ahead. Yet, although Jews had been vilified and some attacked on the streets since 1938, some things remained unthinkable to Berlin Jews, most of whom had been middle-class, law-abiding citizens since birth. They showed up at station on the appointed dates, children and luggage in tow, for what they’d been told would be deportation to resettlement and work centers. At worst, they expected something like what Japanese-Americans experienced in internment camps on our own West Coast during the same war.

Under the watchful eyes of German police, they took their seats in ordinary passenger coaches for many of these departures. Only later, far beyond Berlin, were they transferred to box cars. Some time after that, postcards they hadn’t written were sent to relatives or acquaintances whom they’d listed with the authorities, assuring them that all was well in their new locations.

One day in April of 2009, as I sipped my coffee at the Grunewald station alongside retirees in their 70s and near a beer-garden where younger Germans also overlooked the square, three police cars swept in and officers leapt out, commanding us, “Don’t Move.” Then approximately 45 young military officers in formal parade dress descended from a tourist bus. Their uniforms were attractive, but alien—clearly not German. As they milled about, one of the men seated near me asked a police officer, “Was is das?”

“Israelischen,” he answered. They were Israeli army officers.

A silence descended upon the square like nothing I’d ever felt, so thick you could have cut it with a knife. Not another word was spoken, but I thought that I sensed three dimensions in the quiet all around me. The first was straight out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind: “They’re here. They’ve come.” The second was of admiration, or at least respect, for these vibrant young officers, stunning negations of the image of “Juden” that some of these older men must have remembered from their infancy. The third dimension, I sensed from the tightened body language around me, carried a flicker of resentment at having to be reminded, instead of being left to sip one’s coffee in peace.

A black car with tinted windows ascended a ramp toward Track 17. The Israeli officers fell into formation and followed. They’d come to lay a wreath on Track 17 on Yom Ha’Shoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day. Ironically, I hadn’t remembered the day myself.

I recount this now because some Americans remind me of Berlin Jews who didn’t think the unthinkable when they should have. After watching the Trump administration tear apart weeping parents and children—on the initiative of its senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, who’s Jewish—I’m thinking that although Trump has now found it politically expedient to halt the practice, more than a few of my fellow Americans were thinking, “Well, they deserve it, unlike me, a law-abiding citizen, and a veteran.”

Those Berlin Jews had been law-abiding citizens, too, at least until 1935, and more than a few were military veterans: Some 12,000 of the Jews who had served in the German military had fallen in World War I. In an irony beyond ironies, it was a Jewish lieutenant, Hugo Gutmann, who secured an Iron Cross, First Class, for a 29-year-old corporal under his command, Adolph Hitler.

We now know that German veterans of that war, Jews and non-Jews alike, were lied to and sent into harm’s way for no good reason. So were soldiers in the Nazi Wehrmacht 25 years later, whom my father, a corporal in the U.S. Army Combat Engineers, was ordered to supervise as prisoners as his 277th battalion clanked across northern Germany, because he spoke Yiddish, which is closely related to German.

He did it with mix of grief and revulsion. One day, when his battalion commandeered a Nazi-friendly baron’s estate in the town of Hohne, my father and others scouted a cottage behind the mansion and found a white-haired, well-spoken man who said he was a caretaker but whom the G.I.’s suspected was closer to the missing baron. As some of them prodded him down the hill toward the mansion, jabbing him roughly with their rifle barrels, my father said, suddenly, almost instinctively, “Cut that out.”

“Why? You should enjoy this Sleeper, you’re a Jew.”

“Cut it out, I said.” He had no illusions about Nazism. But he was a young American, emancipated from his ancestors’ European hell, and he thought he was fighting for a world better than one in which the tables of unjust power are merely turned, a world where justice—dare one say, “due process”?—is stronger than revenge.

Watching the fires that Trump is stoking week in, week out, I wonder when his supporters and enablers will see that the unthinkable could happen to them. I’m not inclined to alarmism, but what if, a couple of years from now, veterans who say they fought for an America where people are free to speak their minds decide to speak their own minds in ways Trump doesn’t like? How far might this admirer of Vladimir Putin go against Americans he thinks are his enemies? He’s already said that he wants to tighten libel laws; his ICE agents have developed arrest-and-detention tactics that a craven Congress would let him expand with the stroke of a pen; municipal police forces are more militarized than ever before.

Yes, historical analogies are risky. But, sipping coffee overlooking the Grunewald station’s charming cobblestone square, you’d never imagine what happened there if you hadn’t been told.

Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.