A really interesting thing happened today in my senior level elective on the Holocaust. Over the summer students read Edward Larson’s book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, which tells the story of American ambassador, William Dodd, and his family during their stay in Germany between 1933 and 1934. Larson builds his narrative around the concept of Gleichschaltung, which roughly translates into “coordination” or “to bring into line.” Today students engaged in a seminar around the question of whether they believed that the Nazis had achieved Gleichschaltung among the German population. It was a fascinating discussion that took just about the entire class. I observed and took detailed notes that we will spend tomorrow unpacking.
With a few minutes left one of the students posed the question of why the United States did not intervene more aggressively in the 1930s to prevent the further harassment of and legal emasculation of the Jewish population. One student suggested that its easy to ask such a question in hindsight given that we know how all of this turned out, but a couple of students referenced passages in the book on the anti-semitism of members of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet and even Ambassador Dodd himself. Other students nodded in agreement. They had found their answer.
This was the only time that I interjected my own voice into the discussion since we were wrapping up the class and because I was utterly fascinated by what they ignored. I asked them to think about the reality of life for millions of African Americans in the United States at this time. Could we not make any number of connections between the challenges that both groups faced both in terms of their place within the legal system and the reality of physical harm? Were not both groups in some way second class citizens? Most of my students took AP history last year so they studied the history of Jim Crow and a few of them immediately made the connection and filled in some of the picture for the rest of the class. Finally, I asked them on what grounds could/would the United States possibly intervene because of the situation of German Jews.
I wonder why my students made the connection to anti-semitism and not the reality of Jim Crow in trying to answer the student’s question. No doubt, the reference to anti-semitism makes perfect sense given that I teach at a Jewish Day School, but I have to wonder if there is something more at work here. One of the tendencies that I see early on in this class is the move to think about Germany and Germans as an isolated event or to categorize the perpetrators (Nazi Party and beyond) as “the other.” The image of the important leaders and others as “moral monsters” serves to shield us from having to consider the important ways in which our histories overlap.
As students were packing up I left them with the following question: If the United States would have been justified to intervene on behalf of oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s would another nation have been justified to do the same thing here on behalf of the African-American population? Just a thought.