Donald Trump is proving Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn right
In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago he writes about the islands of brutal prisons and labor camps spread through-out the Soviet Union. What is still memorable to me after reading Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece almost fifty years ago is his warning to all who are not Russian, which he unabashedly was. Solzhenitsyn makes sure his readers know that the cruelty Soviet leaders showed their own citizens is not something uniquely Russian and human beings of all nationalities and races are inherently capable of behaving with equal cruelty. This may be difficulty for many readers, especially westerners, to accept but we need only read about current events to understand Solzhenitsyn’s admonition.
I recently started reading Georgia Hunter’s poignant and beautifully written We Were the Lucky One’s in which she tells the story of her family’s (pictured here) harrowing but ennobling experiences as Hitler’s Wehrmacht forces invaded their Polish homeland and in particular Radom, the city in which they lived.
Chapter ten, titled for Hunter’s grandmother, “Nechuma”, was particularly heart-wrenching for me because it made me realize that the cruelty of Hitler’s Third Reich was much more pervasive and insidious than most of us understood, when we think only of extermination camps like Auschwitz, Birkenau and Treblinka.
Hitler’s Concentration camps or more accurately, “death camps” that became visible to the world when pictures appeared after Allied forces discovered them as World War II came to an end inflicted physical pain. However, Hitler’s forces were equally cruel at inflicting psychological pain on people they considered less than they. Ms. Hunter writes eloquently about the pain her grandmother, aunts and uncles felt when:
“a pair of Wehrmacht soldiers rapped on their door early in the morning with the news, ‘you have until the end of the Day to collect your personal belongings and get out’, thrusting a slip of paper in her grandfather, Sol’s, direction with their new address stamped across the top…The furniture stays, they added.’’”
“nothing could truly prepare Nechuma for how it would feel to leave her home of over thirty years at 14 Warszawska.”
The terror Ms. Hunter’s family felt that October day in 1939, while not as horrible as the terror of the death camps, was terror none the less. In fact it was a terror that is too often used by demagogues to create supporters they would not otherwise have. It has been described by Jill Soloway as “othering” It is a terror Donald Trump uses to drum up supporters by blaming and denigrating groups who do not fit the imagination of a masculine, Christian, hard-working, and essentially white American ideal-type: Mexicans, Muslims, gay and transgender people, and disabled people, to name a few are his most obvious targets.
Professor of Modern History at the University of Nottingham, Maiken Umbach writes “What makes the comparison between Hitler and Trump so poignant is not just the rhetorical marginalization of groups, lifestyles or beliefs, but the fact that both men represent their personal character as the antidote to all social and political problems.
According to professor Umbach neither Hitler nor Trump campaign on specific policies, beyond a few slogans. Instead, both promise a new vision of leadership. They portray the existing political systems as fundamentally corrupt, incompetent, and, most importantly, unable to generate decisive action in the face of pressing problems and they both use easily identified ethnic groups to generate and focus the anger of their supporters.
It’s exactly this type of demagoguery that caused the terror Georgia Hunter’s grandparents experienced in the 1930’s. It’s the same kind of terror Trump creates when he authorizes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to separate children from their parents and lock them in concentration camp-like cages hundreds of miles apart from their parents. Pictures like the one above are not intended to show the humanitarian treatment detained children receive. They’re intended to terrorize parents to let them know this is what will happen to their children if they try to enter the United States, regardless of the words on the Statue of Liberty;
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was right, Americans appear to be more than capable of the same cruelty Soviet leaders showed their citizens. With a demagogue like Donald Trump in power Americans are indeed capable of behaving as cruelly as any other people.