Amerika?

In what respect, if at all or perhaps thoroughly, is America today becoming Amerika? My understanding of that word is my own, although Franz Kafka’s now famous use of it is in the back of my mind. In college, I once was required to read a Kafka short story, Die Verwandlung, in which the chief character, Gregor, wakes up one morning as – a beetle, indeed as a beetle on its back, unable to turn over to use its legs. The absurdity of it all! Is Amerika a word, perhaps the word, for our times?

Reportedly, Donald Trump has recently read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Is Trump nearing the point where he is to become our Leader, our Fuehrer? He has lately started talking about three presidential terms – and why would he stop with three? I am not the first, by any means, to be troubled by such apparently haphazard utterances. They sound historically ominous, indeed frightening, to me.

I did my undergraduate honors thesis on the German resistance to Hitler. And to that end, I had to immerse myself deeply in German history and in the history of the Weimar Republic, in particular. How easy it had been for one of the great nations of the world, the country of Bach and Beethoven, Luther and Hegel, to have been swept up by the demonic frenzy of National Socialism, once the Weimar Republic had begun to disintegrate in the nineteen-twenties. Then, in 1933, the Reichstag burned down and the Nazis and their collaborators were on their way toward total political dominance.

The novel I’ve just finished reading, The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger, was first published in 1934. The background narrative of the book, sometimes barely perceptible, like cannon shots in the distance, is all about the rise of “the Nationalists,” as the novel calls them. The rise of the Gestapo and the grassroots beginnings of the Holocaust appear as a kind of widely unfolding and all-but-inevitable law of nature playing itself out wherever you look. More vividly, stories of the Jewish community, in particular the upper middle class Oppermann family, also are playing themselves out, often with little spoken awareness of larger social and political trends.

At one point, after trying to hold on to his chain of furniture stores, Gustav Oppermann, the novel’s central protagonist, seeks relief from all the traumas of his ordinary life by fleeing to the placid and beautiful countryside of France. Before too long, however, he returns to Germany, for reasons that are never clearly stated. Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, he ends up in a concentration camp. This is the author’s description of a day’s work in that setting (p. 385):

Gustav’s job was to wheel gravel. The wheelbarrow was heavy, the soil soft and slipper. The barrow continually sank into the mud, in some places there were bottomless swamps on either side…. It took about eight minutes to push the full barrow from the gravel-dump to the place where the work was going on…. Gustav inspected his companions…. Their hair was shaved off or cropped very short. They had, for the most part, a disorderly growth of whiskers on their cheeks or even regular beards. Two of them had tufts of hair cut in the form of a swastika. Some of them wore glasses…. They all looked emaciated, exhausted, and broken. Many seemed on the edge of idiocy; they nearly all had blue and black bruises on their faces…  Gustav, however, had no time for such observations except when he was pushing the empty barrow… 

They marched back to camp…. They said grace:

   Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.

   By Thee Thy gifts to us be blest.

   Guard Thou our Nation, a deserving one,

   Bless Chancellor Hitler, her illustrious son.

Black and white photo of a white man in wire-rimmed glasses. He looks very serious, he is not smailing. Text overlays the image, "SILENCE IN THE FACE OF EVIL IS ITSELF EVIL: GOD WILL NOT HOLD US GUILTLESS. NOT TO SPEAK IS TO SPEAK. NOT TO ACT IS TO ACT. - DEITRICH BONHOEFFER"Could such stories unfold during the time of a second and then a third Trump presidency? He has already spoken about establishing camps for refugees near the southern border. He has already spoken of refugees, employing language that was used of the Jews by Hitler, as – vermin. More generally, he has already spoken about finding ways to take vengeance on his political enemies.

Is Amerika our future, then, emerging now right before our very eyes? And, if so, has the time arrived for American Christians to find ways to be a Confessing Church, the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many other believers did in the Germany of the nineteen-thirties-and-forties of the last century?