Above all, there was fear: fear of today, fear of tomorrow … fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves … Only when you understand that, can you understand what Hitler meant to us: “Lift your heads. Be proud to be German. There are devils among us: Communists, liberals, Jews, Gypsies. Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.”
Those words are from the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg. They address an eternal question: Why do good people do terrible things?
The speaker, Ernest Janning, played by Burt Lancaster, is a former German judge on trial before an Allied tribunal for crimes he committed in service to the Third Reich.
He had been a decent man, widely respected for his legal acumen and his integrity.
Now, over the objection of his defense attorney, he insists on testifying for the prosecution.
He is explaining why he conducted a show trial of an elderly Jewish man falsely accused of sexual relations with a Gentile woman, and why he determined to convict him and sentence him to death even before hearing any testimony …
It was because the future of Germany was at stake. And if a few minorities had to suffer, so be it.
The screenplay was closely modeled on actual events, including a Nazi show trial, and on the excuses that “good” Germans gave for their participation.
Turner Classic Movies showed the film the other night (Aug. 11). Whether the scheduling had to do with the current election campaign I don’t know. But the timing couldn’t have been better.
Comparisons with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany should be made rarely lest they trivialize those monstrosities.
But there is much — too much — about Donald Trump and his campaign that resembles them.
Only the targets of Trump’s demagoguery are different. The methods are the same.
He cannot tell a truth if there’s a lie to be told. He peddles fear and capitalizes on hate. He whips his crowds into froths of rage against Hillary Clinton and against reporters whose lives, too, he puts in danger by targeting them at his rallies. The Secret Service had to see to the safety of one of them.
All across our country — in schools, on streets, at public meetings, and even from pulpits — Trump’s venom is being echoed in denunciations and harassment of Americans because of their religious faith. In New York City Saturday, an imam and his assistant were murdered execution-style on a city street. The motive remains unknown, but it would surprise no one if it turns out to be a hate crime.
The message of Judgment at Nuremberg is not that such things happen. It is, rather, in the question that Ernest Janning asks during his confession:
“What of those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies, and worse than lies. Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country …
“And then, one day, we looked around … and found that we were in an even more terrible danger.”
We should take that scene as a parable for what’s happening in the United States of America right now.
We are in terrible danger — though it appears to be diminishing — of debasing our country and endangering the world with the most unprepared, unsuited and unworthy person who has ever sought the presidency.
“I think he’s mentally unstable., I think he’s dangerously unqualified,” says former Sen. Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire, the latest prominent Republican to put country above party.
That’s what John McCain should be doing too.
But McCain still pretends that Trump is fit for the presidency.
If Trump’s death threat against Clinton didn’t shock McCain’s conscience, what could?
Surely McCain knows better. Surely, so do Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and other Republicans who have mortgaged their reputations to the delusion that Trump would be better than Clinton.
Or is it just because they crave to share in the power of a Trump presidency? Do they miscalculate, as so many Germans once did, that they could control the monster they are making?
If the polls are correct, Trump will lose. But the dangerous hatreds he deliberately inflames will continue to fester.
We will all be the losers for that.
And those who know better but who continue to support him, with endorsements or money or even with just their silence, will have lost more than an election.
They will have forfeited the respect of people who once admired them.
Martin Dyckman is a retired columnist and editorial writer for the newspaper now known as the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in suburban Asheville, North Carolina.