Friday, February 6, 2009

The Back Of My Mind

I have been perusing my friend Amos Elon’s great book about the Jews of Germany, The Pity of It All, whose narrative culminated in a sorrowful look at Weimar. I confess that re-reading those later pages is not a good idea just now. Avigdor Lierberman's Yisrael Beiteinu Party is surging; the centrist parties are all finding ways to say they will work with him. 

Here is what Amos has to teach us about Weimar in the late 1920s, or at least what we derive from his vivid narrative:
  • There was a national consensus, left over from a generation of war, that the people has suffered deadly, degrading blows which must never be suffered again; a people encircled by mortal enemies and nervous about internal traitors infected with a naïve liberalism; a people grieving for the dead, bonded by blood and sorrow and an ancient myth of transcendence.
  • Even leaders in the “center” of German politics appealed to this consensus, believing that the demagogues who appealed to it most stridently, violently, tearfully, would remain marginal and controllable nuisances. But rightist activists were up and coming, disproportionately youthful, hardened by combat, exhibiting discipline but scoffing at laws, creating chaos and then clamoring for order.
  • Given Weimar's sad consensus, disunity seemed the main danger, while order seemed the charge of prestigious military leaders, who were accustomed to command in a state of siege.  Some had mentored the law-breakers and praised their sincerity. They certainly were willing to go along with those who argued about the need to find a solution to the threat of internal enemies.
  • Politicians of the left, in contrast, were considered mere opportunists, too distant, petulant and cosmopolitan to do any ordinary worker much good—especially when the common good was being sacrificed to a freer market economy, booming intermittently because of foreign loans and shifting markets, but allowing manifest disparities of wealth.  And the disparities were between, on the one hand, unemployed (or near-unemployed) workers, half-educated, half-pious, prudish, feeling deprived at the family table, and, on the other, an élite, over-educated, over-sexed, well-connected, too-conspicuously enjoying luxurious stuff and decadent, worldly art.
THE MERE SUGGESTION that there might be any parallels here to Israel’s “situation,” or to the fate of its center, is a serious violation of the consensus here.  Could any Israeli extremist ever seriously be compared to any Nazi?  

Elon makes clear in his book that the triumph of fascism in Germany was not at all inevitable; that, as he later told me, it might well have been preempted in various European countries by a timely show of force—in fact, by a coalition of centrist generals and social democratic leaders buttressed by outside powers.  

Still, it would be less disquieting to witness this election without the patterns projected from Elon’s book in the back of my mind.