Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King Day

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the U.S., a kind of middling holiday…not everyone has the day off. (Of course, I now have every day off except Thursdays and Fridays when I watch the grandkids.) And of course this MLK day is special because tomorrow is inauguration day for America’s first mixed race (white/black), which in the common parlance translates to black, president. notes its significance in a nation “founded by slave owners.” Well, not quite all were slave owners, but we won’t quibble.

I won’t be glued to my TV set today or tomorrow, but for those who are triumphant over Barack Obama’s victory in November’s election, I wish them the enjoyment of the event. I do love pomp and circumstance and will catch some of it on the news. I also wish our incoming president well because he will be our president, but I am uneasy because he is both an enigma and liberal. These are the same reasons I had for not voting for him.

Obama arrived in D.C. aboard an armed Amtrak train from Philadelphia over the weekend. This was to underline his self- and media-comparison to Abraham Lincoln, who also arrived in Washington via train. I see that comparison going as far as physique—tall and slender, although Obama appears in better physical condition than Lincoln did—and state of residence: Illinois. But there are differences. For instance, Obama told the crowd after a rock star-studded “musical extravaganza” that he is “as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure—that the dream of our founders will live on in our time…" I think that when Abe Lincoln went to Washington, he was more than “hopeful”; he was determined to hold a union together that was in full crumble.

And then there’s the armed train bit that is necessary in these times but still a sour note. Over the weekend Dale popped in a DVD from the BBC on the Eastern Front campaigns of WWII. Like a lot of men, he is a history buff and enjoys studying the war. I didn’t think I’d want to watch much of this, but ended up finding it very interesting. At one point an armed train sat on the tracks at Moscow all night waiting for Stalin to abandon the city. He decided not to take it but rather to remain and lead the resistance to the Germans. How would history have changed had Stalin boarded that train?

This DVD featured interviews with veterans on both sides of the fighting. After covering the German advance on Moscow, it switched to the story of the Ukraine. There Hitler blew it. Initially, the people of the Ukraine welcomed the Germans—who wouldn’t have after Stalin’s policy of mass starvation caused the deaths of more than 20 million Ukrainians in 1932-1933? But the Germans quickly followed in Stalin’s footsteps and stole Ukraine’s food, starving and brutally persecuting the population. The result was a nasty guerrilla war with no holds barred by either side and many innocents caught in the middle. Graphic film of the atrocities is disturbing, and Dale elected to stop watching.

I admit to some fascination—particularly with the interviews with former German officers. The backdrops, presumably of their homes, looked substantial. One of those interviewed seemed appropriately creepy, but the others appeared quite normal. One Panzer officer in particular seemed humane, and his memories of the war were technical, those of an engineer on honing into targets. When asked about atrocities he blamed “the Nazis,” not the typical German soldier. Yet he was left stuttering and speechless as the interviewer pressed questions about how these could have been ignored.

I wonder about “What were the Germans Thinking?”—which is the precise subtitle of an article by Steven Ozment in the January 5/12 issue of The Weekly Standard—in part because both my maternal grandparents were German. They emigrated in 1898, and so were quite innocent of Nazi complicity, but I often have wondered…what if?

Ozment’s article reviews Hitler, The Germans, and the Final Solution by Ian Kershaw (Yale, 400 pp, $35). Kershaw found, according to Ozment, that “for the larger population, the persecution of Jews was a rarely entertained part of daily life in the prewar years.” Germans were “self-preoccupied” and “indifferent.” Most didn’t need Nazi propaganda to instill animosity toward Jews because, in Kershaw’s words, “latent anti-Smuts and apathy” pre-existed.

Kershaw writes, “Pessimistically, I alluded [in earlier writing] to the questionable liberal assumptions that human beings under threat will be defended in an open society. In this, my last attempt to wrestle with the intractable sources on popular opinion and the fate of the Jews, I tried to distinguish between what people then could and did not know (quite a lot), what they made of the information (an awareness that genocide…was taking place, though ignorance of scale and detail led to only partial comprehension), and reactions (a spectrum running from overt approval to blank condemnation, the most widespread of which being an apathetic turning away from unpalatable knowledge and events which could not be averted).

There’s no definitive answer here. But it’s disturbing and frightening to consider, especially in light of the latent anti-Semitism that has erupted in Europe and in the United States in response to Israel’s invasion of Gaza. I won’t go into all the manifestations, but here’s one report from on January 8: “Assaults against Jews, attacks on synagogues and sporadic violence have been reported in France, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark and the UK since the outbreak of hostilities.’ And what was it anti-Israeli protesters in Florida were yelling…something like “go back to your ovens????”

Martin Luther King Day should remind us all, whatever our race or religion or other differences, of our common humanity. But more often the stress seems to be on celebrating diversity. Diversity is fine and dandy, but it is what unites us, what we share that matters, not differences. No person’s life should be denigrated or taken because of ancient or current prejudice. Martin Luther King preached being blind to a person’s skin tone. Diversity advocates preach taking notice of hue. The hope in the country today is that Barack Obama will nullify race consciousness. He may be able to do this if guilty whites and resentful blacks and innumerable other niche groups decide to join the common stream. And as we remember Martin Luther King’s dream; let us not exclude the most ancient hated and persecuted minority, the Jew.

1 comment:

  1. There is, I am quite sad to note, a significant problem with anti-Semitism in Europe today. I don't think I will ever cease to be less than bewildered by it. How can any one people suffer so much through history as if caught on an everlasting loop of that DVD?

    Today my wife and I went to Westminster Abbey for her first visit. It is located directly across from Parliament and the park in the centre has become a permanent place of protest. Today, new tents appeared to have sprouted like mushrooms; in addition to the familiar count of Iraqi war deaths was a peace vigil and hunger strike for Gaza.

    While a woman shouted chants about Zionists through a megaphone I had to think that while Israel's attempt to strike back at Hamas was largely ill-executed in the sense that the clearly terrorist organisation will gain sympathy and legitimacy, where are the tents, megaphones and belligerent women hollering about the rockets raining down on Sderot and other Israeli cities?

    It will be a colder day in hell than January in London when protesters amass to cry out against the atrocities that affect the Jews in Israel.