By Liane Carlson
When I was twenty-one I had a job as a night manager of a domestic violence shelter. I was too young for the job, of course, and badly trained to boot. Still, two or three times a week I would trundle over to the shelter for the evening, pick up the three-ring binder filled with forms and phone numbers laminated in pink paper, and settle into a night of taking despairing phone calls that I, a painfully earnest, frizzy-haired virgin, was wholly unqualified to answer. One night, as the outgoing staff handed the keys and book to me, she nodded to the playroom outside my office. A middle aged woman sat in a child’s chair, carefully coloring with crayons. “She’s been having some problems,” she said in an undertone, “but she’s calm at the moment. Call if you need to.”
I can’t say I remember the rest of the night in much detail. I remember sitting next to the woman on one of those comically low chairs, puzzling my way through my German homework—Schiller’s Maria Stuart, printed in that crabbed Gothic script I never could decipher—while she stared unblinkingly at the coloring book in front of her, and filled page after page with slow, deliberate strokes. I remember her reading a handwritten letter to me that went on for eight pages in green crayon. I remember the sentiment, if not the sentences. The voices in my head are telling me to get a knife from the kitchen to slit my wrists. The shelter worker left me alone. You shouldn’t leave a person in crisis alone. And then I remember standing in a doorway, waiting for the police to come while she wailed and wailed, rocking back and forth inches away from my forgotten pen that she might turn on herself or me, if she only noticed it.
Few moments in life rise to the status of a parable but that one long ago attained that significance for me. For years, I thought the meaning was clear. I had secretly longed for some crisis, some moment of truth that could show me with absolute certainty what sort of person I was. Then the crisis came, and I stood in a doorway, waiting to see what happened. I wasn’t a hero, I wasn’t a coward. I was just…someone who stood in the doorway, waiting to see. True self-knowledge finally arrived and it turned out to be just as equivocal and cloudy as everyday life.
I’ve been thinking about that night and the desire for moral clarity in the months since the election and I suspect, given the number of opinion pieces comparing the current moment to the Third Reich, that I am not the only one doing so. Arguments in favor of the comparison have taken the form of a wry meme, a very thinly veiled review of a new biography of Hitler, an article equating Steve Bannon and Joseph Goebbels, a detailed analysis of partisan conflicts leading up to the Third Reich, and the odd contrarian piece comparing Trump to Stalin. Even congressmen and protesters have gotten in the game. Reactions against the comparison have ranged from sympathetic but unconvinced, to slightly squeamish, to frankly alarmed by the rhetoric.
For my part, I am less interested in whether the analogy between the rise Trump and Hitler is a good one, since every historical parallel is imperfect, than why we find solace and clarity in making it. Is it a way of signaling a limit point, that the unthinkable has arrived and that democracy might give way to the state-sanctioned violence of a police state? If so, why do we need to look all the way to Germany and Hitler, when we have plenty of people arguing that America is already functionally a police state for our black communities? Do we fear the government will tacitly endorse random acts of vigilante violence against minority groups? If so, shouldn’t these vociferous debates be about the historical parallels to lynching and anti-LGBTQ violence? Are we afraid of the American government committing genocide against vulnerable populations? Why not look to our own past and talk about the historical conditions that made the Trail of Tears possible?
I understand the pragmatic response to my questions. Op-eds are persuasive by nature and nothing has quite the saturnine glamour in the American imagination as Nazis. Calling the Trump administration the Third Reich is shorthand for saying the catastrophe has arrived. But I think it matters that the catastrophe we invoke is a German one and not one of our own, grown out of the suffocatingly intimate history of violence we know all too well. The parallel sanitizes our current moment, even as it raises the stakes. After all, everyone knows the man punching the Nazi is the good guy in the movies but what are you supposed to do if the villain is Atticus Finch?
The invocation of fascism fulfills a fantasy, even if the parallels between now and the Third Reich are true. Not a fantasy of finally knowing what to do, but a fantasy of finally knowing who to be. It’s a fantasy of a moral universe where our characters are no longer judged by the thousand tiny ways we fall short of the common good—driving a car, sending our children to private schools, guiltily choosing which charity with bloated overhead to contribute not-quite-enough money to—but by where we stand on the most important issue of our time. If we can just sign the right petition, attend the right march, we will no longer be the moral mediocrities we have always feared we are; we will be counted among the righteous. In the final analysis, it’s a fantasy of being on the right side of history.
In thinking about why it is a fantasy, it’s worth returning to a point made the philosopher Bernard Williams in his essay, “Moral Luck.” In that piece, Williams takes the story of Paul Gauguin, who famously abandoned his wife and children, along with his life as a prosperous bourgeois businessman, to pursue his dream of painting in Tahiti. Most people who care much about art, Williams argues, feel uneasily that Gauguin was justified in his decision, however unethical, because he turned out to be a great painter. The success of that decision, however, was dependent on luck in all sorts of ways he never could have foreseen. Gauguin’s ship could have crashed before he ever reached Tahiti. He might have abandoned everything, only to discover he produced bad, derivative paintings. He might have lacked the conviction in his own talent to try. He was lucky none of those events came to pass, and, most importantly for our present moment, he was lucky that his self-assessment was accurate. He could have possessed the same artistic vision, the same drive, the same conviction in his talent, and been deluded.
This is the problem I have thought – until now – that that night in the domestic violence shelter posed to me. Consciously or not, every night that I went to work at a place where an abuser might have broken in or a despairing woman might have attempted suicide, I was gambling on being the sort of person who could handle a crisis. My mistake then—and I believe our mistake now—was in thinking of success as a binary: either I was that sort of person or I wasn’t. I hadn’t understood the range of ways I could fail to find moral clarity in the clear situation of crisis. I hadn’t realized it’s a matter of luck whether or not I understood my limits at all.Recently, though, I came across a passage by the Holocaust survivor Jean Améry that made me rethink that interpretation of my parable. In his memoirs Améry, who had been born an Austrian Jew named Hans Mayer, recounts his arrest and torture by the Gestapo as a member of the Belgian resistance. Reflecting back on his torture, Améry paused to make a remarkable admission:
To come right out with it: I had nothing but luck, because especially in regard to extorting information, our group was rather well organized. What they wanted to hear from me in Breendonk, I simply did not know myself. If instead of aliases I had been able to name real names, perhaps, or probably, a calamity would have occurred, and I would be standing here now as the weakling I most likely am, and as the traitor I potentially always was.
I call this passage remarkable because this is a Jewish man who joined the Resistance, was tortured by the Gestapo, and then sent to Auschwitz, and yet he still could not say whether he was a coward. If even he was left thinking that if one thing had gone differently, he would finally be revealed as a coward, maybe my mistake all those years ago was not in thinking there are only two resolutions to a moral crisis—success or failure—but rather in thinking crisis could bring any clarity all. Maybe moral clarity is always one contingency away, even in the Third Reich.
I want to end with a caveat. It may well be that the fantasy of being on the right side of history is a necessary one in times like this. It might be the dream of redemption in a moment of historical crisis is what gives weight and motivation and meaning and beauty to resistance. But if I am right and comparisons to Hitler’s Germany do promise a sort of redemption, then let’s be clear on what that redemption is from—a reading of systemic violence that makes everyone complicit. If Trump’s America really is the new Third Reich, violence is finally localized and manifest in a malevolent government that a heroic individual can stand clearly against. It’s a dream of moral absolutes that academic analysis has spent thirty years trying to problematize. And if that’s the case, the Women’s March on January 21st was a warning shot to Trump but also, I think, to us. The idea that violence is systemic, societal and structural might well be a casualty of a fight between the Trump administration and a newly mobilized populace that needs the dream of clear moral battle lines for the movement to survive.
Liane F. Carlson is Stewart Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Religion at Princeton University. She received her PhD in philosophy of religion from Columbia University in 2015. Her research interests include continental philosophy, with emphasis on theories of religion, embodiment, evil, and the intersection of religion and literature.
Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.