Nationalist Lessons from Europe, in History and Today

Heidelberg’s “Thingstätte” amphitheater, where Joseph Goebbels spoke in 1935

A brief recent trip to visit family in Europe provided glimpses of nationalist excesses, in current and historical context. Books like Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny and Volker Ullrich’s on Hitler’s “ascent” have attracted attention for ways that history illuminates contemporary threats. A personal perspective can be valuable, too.

My mother was born in Germany, where cousins continue to live in cities including Heidelberg. There, a remnant of Nazi rule — the “Thingstätte” amphitheater — stands deep in the woods on a hill above the city (one of the few to escape Allied bombing in World War II, in part so the Allies could enjoy the city as post-war occupiers).

Infamous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who studied history and philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, spoke at the Thingstätte in 1935.

Heidelberg’s Hidden History

As when I first came upon the Thingstätte on my prior trip to Heidelberg in 1990, the structure — high in a clearing above the Neckar River across from the city center — is haunting. It evokes a period when thousands flocked to such spaces to cheer and participate in the hateful, genocidal Nazi system. Now, the stone steps are overgrown with grass. History is hidden amid the trees, away from where most tourists go or many locals venture.

With my son, sobered by the history of a site where thousands heard Goebbels speak in 1935

My mother’s cousin — a self-described “hippie” in the 1960s who helped organize protests at the University of Heidelberg and later (beginning in the 1990s) a volunteer in resettling refugees from places like the wartorn former Yugoslavia — recalls that his peers sought to appropriate and radically alter the Thingstätte decades after its 1935 opening. Yet he remains so disturbed by what it represents that he declined an opportunity to participate in the recent visit there or to talk much about it. His daughter (my second cousin) and her Heidelberg generation, in the last two decades, extended this re-purposing of the Thingstätte as a space for occasional youthful parties, and it is used more formally for periodic festivals such as Walpurgis Night (May Day eve). Still, even if the site is more commonly visited than it was when I first came upon it in 1990, some Heidelbergers wince at a mention of it: a reminder of ancestral guilt and pain.

Family Reflections; Multiple Nations, Religions, Ethnic Traditions

Like many others in the U.S., I am of hybrid ancestry, in my case European American. We have Jewish and Christian members of the family, though most are secular. In addition, my wife is from India and of Muslim background. My sister-in-law is Hindu.

As argued in a prior piece that addressed “Smart Power”:

“Globally, moral authority is real; ‘soft power’ can combine with coercion to make ‘smart power.’ Despite the mixed record of the U.S. toward immigrants — including those fleeing Hitler, more of whom should have been saved, and the exclusionary tendencies [e.g., in 1882, 1917, and 1924 immigration restrictions]— in many respects Americans can be proud. We continue greatly to benefit from immigration (including of refugees). Some 14 percent of Americans are foreign born; a quarter, myself included, are either immigrants or their children.

It bears repeating: I respect but don’t fear Muslims; I married a woman of Muslim descent. To know people ostensibly different from us is to appreciate their humanity.

To become a naturalized U.S. citizen, my wife — an immigrant from India — had to submit years of U.S. tax returns as well as pass a civics test that emphasizes the Constitution as the highest law of the land.”

Such thoughts occurred to me as we traveled to France and Germany last month.

A Refugee in Austria

En route by train (on the efficient TGV that smoothly reached some 320 kilometers per hour, about two hundred mph, putting U.S. trains to shame) from Paris to Germany via Strasbourg, I met an engaging, multilingual young man originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. A decade ago, his family left that country for Austria. Now an electrical engineering student in Vienna, he also plays basketball — which prompted our conversation as he watched NBA highlights on his laptop.

He expressed gratitude that a right-wing candidate (Norbert Hofer) had, if only by a narrow margin, not been elected president of Austria, where Hitler himself was from. While the young man described some racist hostility that he has endured from Austrians, for the most part he feels welcomed; he’s pursuing Austrian citizenship. In the Olympic spirit, we agreed that sports, and basketball in particular, can be useful for bringing people of various backgrounds together. Remarkably, this Congolese Austrian was familiar not only with NBA stars and teams but also with UConn basketball (names like Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier). We exchanged addresses as the train ride ended, and subsequently connected via e-mail.

A Terrorist Incident in Paris

With three days in Germany in between, my family flew in and out of Paris, as the first round of the presidential elections approached. We happened to be in Paris the night of April 20, when a terrorist gunman killed a policeman and wounded two others (including a tourist) on the Champs-Elysées.

From Place de la Concorde, an April 20 image of the Champs-Elysées, open only to police vehicles after a terrorist shooting that night

Blocks away, we heard numerous sirens and saw police vehicles racing to the scene. At least one helicopter patrolled from above.

Place de la Concorde (with Eiffel Tower in distance to its right), the night of April 20, after dozens of police vehicles had driven with sirens blaring to the Champs-Elysées (further to the right) less than a mile away

Two days later, we flew home to the U.S. and then learned that centrist Emmanuel Macron and right-wing National Front candidate Marine Le Pen had emerged as rival front-runners from the first round of voting.

Marine Le Pen poster, defaced on the streets of Paris, days before the April 23 first round of elections

Le Pen has the support of, among others, racist nationalists in the U.S. (the so-called “alt-right”). Will she defy predictions and prevail in the run-off on May 7?

An Election Year in France and Germany

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel faces challengers including Social Democrat Martin Schulz as Germany contends with tensions over immigration and cultural integration, as well as the economy and terrorism. While the right-wing Alternative for Germany party remains relatively marginal, neo-Nazis are a faction in the German military.

Anticipating their own country’s election later this year, my German relatives expressed baffled dismay at the rise of (German American) Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency.

Le Pen’s election in France would advance the interests of hyper-nationalists like Trump and Vladimir Putin (whose government has worked to undermine Macron in France), and perhaps destroy a European Union weakened by the U.K.’s “Brexit” plans. Other nationalist leaders already ruling their countries, and suppressing opposition seemingly with the support of Trump, include Duterte of the Philippines and Erdogan of Turkey.

Paul Krugman, in the New York Times, observes: “We should be terrified at the possibility of a Le Pen victory. But we should also be worried that a Macron victory will be taken by Brussels and Berlin to mean that Brexit was an aberration, that European voters can always be intimidated into going along with what their betters say is necessary. So let’s be clear: Even if the worst is avoided this Sunday, all the European elite will get is a time-limited chance to mend its ways.”

Let us hope that a center-left coalition can prevail over the far right in France (where Barack Obama has endorsed Macron). Le Pen’s defeat, if decisive, would deliver a message across Europe and beyond. Amid the real economic and security problems demanding serious solutions, at least some of the dangerous lessons of extreme nationalism will have been learned — at least for now.

Josiah H. Brown’s earlier articles addressed topics ranging from Indian Americans, immigration, refugees and the Trump administration’s attempted “Muslim ban” in historical context to new voters, citizenship, men’s role in defending reproductive choice, men and the campus climate for women, college sports, history and public lands, Gandhi’s legacy, marching in peaceful protest, U.S. politics of the last two decades, and the Obama generation. Twitter: @JosiahBrownCT