If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be [routinely] practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (“the secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible of circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to an insane asylum.
—Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
As I watch the rising tide of fascism from my front-row seats here in early 21st-century America, I’ve started to re-read some of the 20th-century classics which chronicled the rise of fascism in central Europe both before and during the second world war. Since the beginning of Lent, I’ve spent time with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Viktor Frankl, Hannah Arendt, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and most recently, Anne Frank.
After re-reading Anne’s diary alongside Arendt’s, The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem, I’ve come to a few conclusions. Namely, most of us (hopeful, western religious types) are taking Anne’s famous quote, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart,” out of context. We see what we want to see and hope for the future, something beyond anti-Semitism, death camps, and gas chambers. I’m no longer sure that’s what she meant. Instead, I think she’s asking us to look beyond the superficialities of the moment, something we desperately need to do at a time when democracy itself is under a once-in-a-generation existential threat and religious practice is reduced to a zero-sum game-of one fundamentalism fighting another to the death.
As one must do in good Biblical textual criticism, you must look at the next verse. Context matters. She followed that hopeful line with an almost apocalyptic sentence that referred to the “ever approaching thunder” and “the suffering of millions.” Hardly the pollyannish revelations of a young woman who thought goodness lay at the center of every human heart. Anne knew the full horror of fascism’s once-unleashed terror and how it enabled ordinary people to commit unspeakable crimes. Hence, she saw what Arendt would later describe during Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem.
Whether they were Dutch collaborators (in Anne’s case) or Nazi soldiers, ordinary recruits from German homes-regular people did the job of exterminating their fellow human beings. Middle class German husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons committed crimes against humanity; day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year until they came for her. Horror, as Arendt would observe, is contradictory. It is banal, evil, brutal, inane, and insane all at the same time. Anne sees and senses this. It is evident in her diary. She considers the randomness of her situation when she writes, “I keep asking myself, whether one would have trouble in the long run, whoever one shared a house with. Or did we strike it extra unlucky?”
Like Anne Frank, we are also burdened with the inane and insane banality of civilizational ending violence. Instead of killing thousands of people in organized camps, Americans opt to do it in groups of 5-20 at a time using a weapon called the AR-15. We can be so unlucky as to walk into school or a bank one morning and pay with our lives. We can only hide for so long from the weapons which may kill us or our neighbors (husbands, wives, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers) who’ve lost touch with reality and have lost the ability to see humanity as human. As with Arendt, Frankl, Frank, and Bonhoeffer, this type of evil is not only becoming normalized; it’s also adapting to the 21st century, like artificial intelligence, into something so banal that we can’t see our reality for the fascism it is becoming. Unless there is a series we can binge, we’re prepared to go to vigil after vigil for the dead we know and those we do not know. We mouth the words of memory, say “never again,” and return home to watch the final season of Succession. At this point, some of us will become victims while others will become perpetrators. Who assumes what role may depend on, as Anne said, “striking it extra unlucky.”
I fear this: it will be too late to realize what’s happened when, to paraphrase futurist Ray Kurzweil, the armed singularity occurs. We will be hiding in attics, writing in our diaries. The most dangerous place to live will be a country with more guns than people, and everyone is convinced that everyone else’s religion is wrong. News flash: we’re halfway there.
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