How Will We Recognize a Despot?
In the past few months, many people have commented on what might happen if Donald Trump were to be elected President of the United States. German relatives and friends, hearing some of his rhetoric, have asked us whether we Americans are crazy and whether we’ve forgotten what chaos and tragedy a despot can cause.
As we think about these issues and where our democracy is going, we can’t help but think about Gerhard Schmidt, the young German in our novel Stumbling Stone whose fate reporter Sarah Stern sets out to learn.
A young German rebels
This excerpt sets the stage for Gerhard’s rebellion. He is walking home one day, a skinny teen-ager, when he happens upon a Nazi parade in his hometown of Leipzig, Germany.
“The music ended, while the jackboots cracked exactly three more times onto the pavement. Then the marching column stood still; the stormtroopers remained at attention with eyes straight ahead. The street was suddenly filled with eerie silence. Schleicher (a ruthless, Nazi leader) executed a smart right turn and marched directly towards Gerhard. His eyes were fixed on the eyes of the boy like a snake will look at a bird just before striking.
Gerhard wanted to run but decided not to. Schleicher stopped within arm’s length.
“Come to attention, damn it.” Schleicher screamed and pointed at Gerhard. “I’m speaking to you. What is your problem? Why will you not salute the flag of Germany’s future like everyone else?”
Suddenly Gerhard became aware of his own posture, leaning against a lamppost, both hands in his pants pockets. He looked around. Everyone else in the street had raised their outstretched right arms in the salute of the Nazis, toward the flags of the marchers.
Schleicher struck out with his flat hand, hitting Gerhard in the face. His teeth cut into his lip, his nose instantly trickled blood, his eyes filled with tears. “Greet the flag, damn it!” Schleicher commanded.
Gerhard tasted blood. His face stung and for a second he did not know what to do. He had been so surprised by the sudden attack that he had not moved. He still had both hands in his pockets; he was still was leaning against the lamppost. “Nun gerade nicht.” (Now, certainly, never!). Gerhard said walking away, slowly at first and then at a trot.
As he gathered speed, he began to smirk. He liked saying “Nun gerade nicht” because it so clearly captured his anger and protest. He felt that it was a succinct way of saying, “Now that I know what your conditions are, I will deliberately disobey your orders.” And it also conveyed his utter contempt for authority.”
Former U.S. Secretary of Labor and now University of California professor Robert Reich says, “Since the 1930s, fascist dictators have used 7 techniques to amass power. I’m not suggesting Donald Trump is a fascist or wanna-be dictator, but he does seem to be following the script.”
So if we do recognize a disturbing pattern emerging, what is our responsibility individually and collectively? We have five months as a nation to answer that question and hope we find better answers than young Gerhard (whose character is based on Rudi’s Uncle Gerhard) did.