When I came to America a quarter of a century ago, I was leaving behind history’s No. 1 villain. True, Germany had grappled with its crimes, belatedly, in the 1980s, by teaching the horrors of the Third Reich in high schools. But the burden of the past lingered on, and I was glad to escape from it.
At least that’s what I thought I was doing, until a string of events that began with right-wing vigilantes waving Nazi flags in Charlottesville, Virginia, and ended with an attack on the Capitol, all encouraged by a (German American) president at war with democracy.
How do President Donald Trump’s four years look from a German American perspective? The answer depends on which moment in German history we are reliving.
Are we in the first decade of the 20th century, which gave rise to conspiracy theories, such as the alleged killing of babies by Jews, similar to those that are now being promoted by QAnon? Are we reliving the 1920s, when a deeply divided Germany saw the erosion of democratic institutions, a police force sympathetic to the right and the rise of a politician who used a new media technology, the radio, to reach a growing audience? Are we in the early 1930s, when a delegitimized election process, feeding off years of economic depression, and an assault on parliament, led to the suspension of democracy? Or are we living in Germany in the 1980s because we’re grappling, belatedly, with the legacy of slavery by renaming buildings and tearing down statues?
When seen through a German lens, history isn’t repeating itself so much as darting back and forth, a messy jumble in which America seems to be reliving German 20th century history all at once.
But I find myself focusing on 1930, a time when the Nazis were on the rise and democracy was hanging by a thread that would tear a few years later. It’s the best date for thinking about complicity, about what motivated ordinary Germans to make common cause with the Nazis, pushing the country over the edge.
I have been grappling with this question while researching the history of my grandfather. I remember him as a good-natured man sitting in his armchair, which he rarely left because of a wound sustained in the war. These benign memories left me completely unprepared for what I discovered by chance as a student, in 1995, in the basement of Harvard’s Widener Library. I was procrastinating when I decided to look up my grandfather on a fluke, to test whether the library was as good as it claimed to be. What I found was a terrible anti-Semitic tract he had written in the 1930s. The discovery prompted me to reconstruct his life from memories, interviews and documents.
The son of a low-level business clerk, my grandfather trained as a historian and aimed for a career as an archivist. He joined the Nazis in 1930, just when the party was gaining followers by blaming economic hardship on socialists, cosmopolitans and Jews (the three usually indistinguishable). After the Nazis were voted into power a few years later, in the midst of a series of chaotic elections, my grandfather joined the storm troopers, the paramilitary organization identified by their brown shirts.
As far as I can tell, he never participated in street fights. Instead, he fought by other means. He had specialized in the history of names, a seemingly arcane topic that he found newly relevant because it allowed him to distinguish Jews from Germans, or so he claimed. Eagerly, he put his historical expertise in the service of the Nazi regime.
For all my research, I have not been able to tell whether he was a committed anti-Semite all along, perhaps taken in by right-wing conspiracy theories, or was captivated by Hitler’s voice on the radio. Or was he an opportunist who hoped that the Nazis would help his career? Perhaps it doesn’t matter what he thought, deep down in his heart — maybe he didn’t know himself. He reacted to historical forces based on his prejudices and weaknesses, and without the benefit of hindsight.
Looking back at this history, I realize that it was foolish of me to think that I could leave behind German history simply by moving to America; my grandfather’s story caught up with me in Widener Library. Archives have long memories, as my grandfather knew as well as anyone.
The real surprise is how long it took for his story to catch up with him. Throughout the postwar era, he managed to continue with his career, his deeds safely hidden away in archives. I only discovered his past 50 years after his Nazi career had ended and 15 years after his death.
I think of my grandfather when I contemplate the people who have been willing to serve in the Trump administration. What made them do what they did? Their motivation often seemed to combine personal ambition with the claim that they could rein in this president, against all evidence that such a thing was even possible.
My grandfather’s story made me realize that motivation, whether honorable or dishonorable, doesn’t matter. What matters is what people do, not with the benefit of hindsight but with the benefit of history, including German history.
My grandfather’s story makes me doubt, in the immediate post-Trump era, that Trump’s collaborators will pay a price — including the eight Republican senators and dozens of House representatives who voted to object to certified election results, making common cause with a mob that attacked the Capitol the same day. But ultimately, they will be judged, as my grandfather was. At some point, a grandson of Michael Flynn, William Barr or Ted Cruz will ask questions about where their grandfathers had stood, and what they had done, and start digging around in an archive, whether in America or in some remote country halfway around the globe. Eventually, the reckoning comes.
Martin Puchner is a professor of English and comparative literature at Harvard University. He is the author of “The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obsession With a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate.”