The news of the attacks on Paris is on my mind, as it is likely on yours. I’m sure the French people, still sensitive after the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year, are feeling a lot like we did in America after 9/11. Shock and fear will turn inevitably into anger and outrage. The freedoms and liberties our countries both hold dear will be tested and chipped away as people exchange bits of them for the illusion of safety. And the lines between caution and paranoia, between rational steps toward security and the threat of bigotry and racial profiling will have to be navigated. How do we protect ourselves from radicals without becoming, in some way, like them?
It’s an intellectual and practical struggle we need to have, within our own minds and as nations. What do we tolerate in the name of liberty? What wounds do we allow to fester in the name of political correctness? In America today it seems we are far more outraged by people voicing opinions that are different from ours than we are about real atrocities. And when it becomes too uncomfortable to think about, we turn to entertainment to take our minds off it. We have that luxury.
For most of 2015, I have been researching German and French history in the 19th and 20th centuries, paying special attention to the cultural and political forces that led up to both World Wars. I’ve been studying anarchists and socialists and fascists, capitalism and communism, the forces that unite people and the ones that divide. And the sobering reality one must face when reading about history is that it is in no appreciable way any different today than it was then. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
As we are learning about history in school, we use timelines in order to visualize when events happened. And I think this gives us (or it gave me, anyway) the sense that we are progressing, we are moving forward, and that is a positive thing. But just because time is passing does not mean we are improving. Progress is a myth we want to believe so we’ll feel better about ourselves in comparison to those who preceded us. It’s chronological snobbery at its most dangerous, because when we believe we are morally superior to the generations that came before us, we fail to guard against falling into the same sins and mistakes.
This is a strong theme in The Bone Garden and it’s an even more powerful force in another novel I’m beginning to develop, one that will take place in Europe in the time leading up to World War I (which may actually just be the first of a trilogy I’m envisioning that will go all the way through World War II). And as I’m reading about the political and social climate of Europe at that time, I have uncovered a fact that I missed in all of my history classes — perhaps because we spent far more time on what happened than why it happened.
And that’s this: Hitler was not an anomaly. He didn’t appear out of nowhere. He didn’t spring forth from his mother’s womb as a monster. He was created. He was the personification of his times. He did not invent antisemitism. He did not invent pan-German nationalism. He did not invent the idea of a vast Jewish conspiracy orchestrating conflicts and wars from behind the scenes. All of those ideas and beliefs were already out there, in books, pamphlets, newspapers, speeches. He merely took them seriously enough to work them out to their inevitable end. And he couldn’t have done it without followers. To treat him as a crazed lunatic who somehow hypnotized an entire nation is to forget the very important and very scary fact that millions of people were ready to follow him. Yes, he lied to them — often. But they wanted to believe him.
People must believe in something. Leaders of Muslim extremist groups like ISIS have given disenfranchised young men and women something to believe in — and they act on it by attacking and murdering innocent civilians, just as the SS did in Nazi Germany.
What have we to offer them that is better? Freedom of thought? Freedom of the press? Freedom of religion? Freedom of speech? Yes, all of those things. But how will we inspire belief in those ideals when we don’t appear to believe them anymore ourselves?
Can we say, with any conviction, “Give me liberty or give me death?”