By Herbert Braun
I’m tired. I live in our town, this partly bucolic mid-sized college town. I ride my bicycle to work, three miles down Rugby Road, on lovely tree-lined streets, courteous drivers sharing the road with me. And on many days I can just stay home and work. I read books and articles, do some writing about other countries, and on two days or so a week I engage in classroom teaching, mainly about understanding those in the past and the present whom we might not want to understand. Easy work. Hard work.
Since 2008 I have rarely watched a television news show. I hear the radio on short trips to the gym and the super market. I barely hear voices of people I do not know personally. When his comes on, I turn him off. I read nothing extreme, just the Daily Progress, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Politico, Slate. Daily. Well, sometimes all day long. Every moment is suddenly unprecedented. I read editorials. I have friends. I am well liked. Most of my students look up to me. My wife is a wonder. Our children are well. I have written a family memoir of difficult times, times gone by.
I’m tired. It’s the paper. It used to be the paper, arriving early in the morning. Now they just keep coming, all day long. At times all alone I am close to tears. I can’t remember whether I have ever before read about children wrenched from the arms of their mothers by people in uniforms. In Rwanda, maybe. Argentina. Cambodia. Not sure. Germany. From my mailbox I reach for the hard copy of the New Yorker, children peeking out from the icy folds of the Statue of Liberty before I can arrive at my door. I close it behind me. I show her the cover. We look at each other, silently.
Halfway through an article I sense that I have read it already. I read about the things that have been happening, the things he says, the things he does. But I forget. Things are no longer quite in my mind. I don’t write my journal any more. I don’t have the time.
I read of other moments. Some of my friends look for similarities. See. See. They say. He is a fascist, they say. I hope for differences. It can’t be as bad as then. Berlin. A large urban center in the summer of 1933 seems almost like a relief, for it is far away, even though what is happening there is frightening, so much more frightening. Incomparable. Democracy is dying. We know of the human abyss that those days were heading toward. Reading of other places is an escape, even when it isn’t.
In Defying Hitler: A Memoir, a young German under the pseudonym of Sebastian Haffner writes in 1939, once he has escaped to England, about his adolescent experiences, mainly in that March and April of 1933 in his capital city, as men in uniforms, flags, songs, and marches are suddenly everywhere all around.
On the grass in the Grunewald, the woods just to the west of Berlin, he is sitting with his girlfriend Charlie. As one group of high schoolers after another walk by, they “…shouted “‘Jude verrecke!’ [Jews get out!] to us in their bright young voices, as though it were a sort of hiker’s greeting. It may not have been aimed at us in particular. I do not look at all Jewish, and Charlie (who was Jewish) did not look very Jewish either. Perhaps it was just a friendly greeting. Perhaps, though, it was intended for us and was a challenge.” It’s the bright young voices that get to me. A hiker’s greeting. The daily normality of it.
Haffner feels he needs to justify to us that he is writing about himself. “…I do not think I am wasting a serious reader’s time by telling my private story. It is all true: I took no direct part in events, and I was not a particularly well-placed witness…Nevertheless, I am convinced that by telling my private, unimportant story I am adding an important, unrecognized facet to contemporary German and European history…” Behind my closed door I read Haffner’s words, and then again. It’s like I tell my students: “Write it down!” What I don’t add, because they are not likely to believe me, is that they could be writing history. Daily life. Read. Listen. Watch.
What I also know, now, what I can tell them this coming fall semester, is that writing may help you stay awake. It may help you be part of us all. A sentence. An image. A worry. An insight. Write it down. Our lives. Berlin, 1933. Charlottesville, 2017.
Herbert Braun is the author of Our Guerrillas, Our Sidewalks: A Journey into the Violence of Colombia. He teaches at UVA in the Department of History.