By Sheldon Greaves
When the forces of Germany surrendered to the Allies in May of 1945, the fighting stopped but the war, technically, did not end right away. There were additional edicts and order, the Potsdam Agreement the following August which began dismembering the ability of the German state to make war in the future, especially (to my mind) beginning the process of “denazification”; re-educating and deprogramming an entire population that acquired, in varying degrees, a portion of his madness and evil.
The cessation of hostilities and the dismantling of the German military and economic machine may have stopped the fighting, but in truth they did not stop the war any more than the harsh terms of the Armistice of 1918 and the Versailles Treaty had ended the last one. It’s now well understood that the terms that ended World War I made round II inevitable.
What stopped the war, truly stopped the war, was something called the Marshall Plan. Conceived by the U.S. Secretary of State, General George C. Marshall, it was a plan to underwrite the reconstruction of Germany and Japan. President Truman signed it into law as part of the Economic Recovery Act of 1948. The plan was audacious, bold, counterintuitive, and brilliantly successful. I say “counterintuitive” because the standard operating procedure for victors is to strip bare the vanquished and engage in the kind of posturing that points to the biological roots of warfare generally. Marshall, however, did not see things that way. In addition to his understanding of the failures of Versaille, he was a devout Episcopalian who truly believed that as a Christian he was obligated to love one’s enemies, to do good to them (Matt. 5: 43-48).
It is my belief that this act of generosity, more even than the destruction of the forces of Nazism and Japanese Imperialism, cemented the reputation of the United States as a force for good in the world. It was, quite likely, our finest hour as a nation.
It had a practical side, of course. With Europe in shambles, there was always the danger of a new demagogue emerging from the wreckage, and the fear that Stalin may try to expand his holdings beyond the countries overrun by the Red Army in their dash toward Berlin. The best way to forestall that, the thinking went, was to demonstrate that western capitalism could provide the kind of prosperity and freedom that Stalinist Marxism could not. Just as FDR had used socialism to rescue capitalism, so the Mother of All Handouts to Europe and Japan rebuilt those nations in the image of western Capitalism. And, it worked. When times are good, one’s thoughts do not stray towards the politics of retribution.
So I read with some interest a post from last May at the Center for American Progress, titled “Toward a Marshall Plan for America.” They draw the obvious comparison between the bombed out hellscape of post-war Europe and Japan and the hollowed-out middle class in America’s heartland and industrial centers where declining economic fortunes directly resulting from misbegotten policies and practices drove many people to vote for Trump. I know that it is a common cannard to claim that racism was the deciding factor, but this does not square with what we know; racism comes in many flavors, but the kind that causes people to vote against their own interests is the result of deliberate and persistent scapegoating in an effort to distract the disadvantaged from the true cause of their woes. More on this later. The article states:
There is acute economic pain for those who have not gone to college, regardless of race. Amongst white voters in the U.S. election, college attainment was the central variant in vote change from the 2012 to the 2016 election. These underlying economic and social grievances, and the political forces feeding these sentiments, work against progressive policy options by reducing support for collective action that improves the well-being of all people while encouraging divisions that serve more individualistic and conservative ends.
Yes, the article is ultimately about winning elections, but it is also clear that those elections will be won by offering a better alternative to a community informed by Trumpism and the growing menace of White Supremacists and NeoNazis.
What makes the parallel with the Marshall Plan even stronger is the need to eradicate the above-mentioned ideologies from our public thinking. I do not make this assertion lightly; the First Amendment is the soul of our Republic, but it is also clear that there must be limits. Germany is considered one of the more enlightened democracies in Europe, if not the world. How to they deal with their Nazi past?
Nazism, and nazi symbols are banned. Just doing the old Nazi salute in public can get you up to three years in jail. Every German schoolchild visits a concentration camp at least once during their education. There are monuments to the victims of the Holocaust, and plaques on streets and buildings marking the former residence of victims. Zero tolerance is the order of the day:
The murky interstitial terrain–the Trump Zone, you might call it–between the conservative mainstream and categorically far-right movements like PEGIDA, an anti-Islam group, and the extremist NPD party is broadly off-limits. Relativisation, endorsement by hint or omission, far-right symbols as “irony”, dog-whistle prevarications and creeping extenuation are rarely tolerated.
This is what it takes. Consider the following findings from polls taken among Germans in 1946:
In October 1946, when the Nuremberg Trial ended, only 6 percent of Germans were willing to admit that they thought it had been ‘unfair’, but four years later one in three took this view. That they felt this way should come as no surprise, since throughout the years 1945-49 a consistent majority of Germans believed that ‘Nazism was a good idea, badly applied’. In November 1946, 37 per cent of Germans questioned in a survey of the American zone took the view that ‘the extermination of the Jews and Poles and other non-Aryans was necessary for the security of Germans’. (italics added)
Even after seeing their ideology fail the ultimate test on every level, watching it publically burned to cinders and scattered, the belief remained. And, lest we blithely claim that “more critical thinking in school” is the answer to our home-grown nazis, consider that pre-war Germany was a paragon of scientific and rational thought. This was the land of Kant and Nietzsche and Schiller and Leibnitz and so many others. Rational thought was in abundance, and it could not displace Nazism before or after the war.
Eventually denazification took hold, but mainly with the younger generations. It wasn’t until the western programs had clearly brought Germany to prosperity that the comparison with ruinous Fascism became clear.
Can America rebuild itself? Not under the auspices of the current administration. That much is clear. I also remain skeptical that establishment Democrats are ready to abandon the toxic economic policies that helped to enable Trumpism by not offering Americans a real alternative to casino Capitalism. Our best hope–admittedly a slim one–lies in the quietly growing number of worker coops, publically-owned businesses, and innovative business models that are designed to strengthen local communities and regions. That is most likely to emerge under the banner of progressive populism.
As for American Fascism, I see a growing wave of pushback that heartens me. I see individuals calling out racist speech on the streets. I see our mainstream religious bodies putting themselves on the line to hide immigrants, and finding the prophetic voice on behalf of the vulnerable. I see protesters boldly affirming what is good in the face of evil ideologies, even risking life and limb to do so. I also believe that at some point, perhaps soon, the Trump administration will collapse in spectacular fashion that should discredit him and his enablers completely, except that it won’t.
And that’s when the real work will begin.