It has been a while since I shared a discussion from book club. We met two whole weeks ago, but there are pieces of that book that keep coming to mind. And I think some specific things fit in with other concerns I’ve been collecting.
So, first, the book from this month’s discussion was yet another youth novel, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (soon to be a movie, I believe). It’s about a young girl in Nazi Germany—mostly from 1941 to 1943. This place and period can be hard to read about, because there’s so much inhumanity. One thing I liked about this book was that most of the characters were both believable and not evil, even though their surroundings were pretty tyrannical.
The girl, Liesel, is brought into a home as a foster child, shortly after the death of her little brother (and the probable imminent death of her mother, although we never learn that detail for certain). While the people she comes to call Mama and Papa are in ways difficult, they are loving and well-meaning throughout, and sometimes downright heroic. So glad I didn’t come across another story of parental failure.
The story is told from the observant point of view of personified Death. Death, in this story, is kind of tired and overworked—particularly during the war years—and sympathetic. Also poetic at times. The parts that I am now finding most memorable relate to the taking of fathers from the homes.
Liesel’s Papa is standing with her as a group of Dachau prisoners are marched through town. One is fainting, nearly dead. Papa fails to resist the urge to reach out with a hunk of bread for the man. Both the prisoner and Papa are whipped, immediately, for the crime. And then Papa realizes his stupidity, realizing he has put the entire household in danger. The young Jewish man living in their shallow basement has to leave. And there is the sense that at any moment the gestapo could show up and punish Papa further. A few weeks later, the Nazi Party arrives. They “honor” him by accepting his request to be a party member and then drafting the 50-something man into service—clean-up work following bombings, including a lot of clearing out dead bodies, in addition to building repair. There is always the risk that bombers will return and wipe out those cleaning up; it’s a high-risk dirty job.
Parallel to this is the story of Liesel’s best friend Rudy’s family. Rudy is smart in school and gets the attention of the party by performing extremely well at a local track meet. He also happens to look blond and physically perfect. So the party comes to the parents and lets them know they have honored them by giving Rudy the opportunity to go to a special school where the party intends to raise the perfect race of Germans. But his parents look at these strangers (whose ideas don’t agree with the family, although they would never be so unsafe as to say so) taking away their 13-year-old son. And they say no thank you, as they are told they have a right to do. A short time later Rudy’s father is “honored” by being drafted into military service (he’s got nearly grown children as well as young ones, so I’m guessing 40-something).
So both families are punished for their disagreement with the tyranny by being “honored” to serve the tyranny.
Whenever you talk about Nazi Germany and then talk about conditions in our country today, you get the whole “You compared Obama to Hitler” thing, from people who forget that they actually called Bush Hitler just a few years ago. While I am comparing, literally, two situations, in order to measure and compare levels of tyranny, I do not equate the two leaders. (For one thing, Obama is ineffectual and can’t even find moving words to say to a crowd without a teleprompter, so I don’t see the ability to accomplish that much evil. See my post Long Game Players.)
I’m not concerned about the leaders so much as I’m concerned about the people. How does a free, civilized people become subject, in a rather short time-frame, to undeniable tyranny? And how many in the population are willing to submit before even the unwilling are also subjected?
In The Book Thief, the idea was that these were mostly simple working people trying to get on with their lives, with varying degrees of disinterest in the state, but a sharp awareness of the danger of lack of compliance. It’s fiction, so I don’t know if it accurately portrays the actual 1940s German people in the outskirts of Berlin. But it’s conceivable to me that they sort of got tyranny thrust upon them before they noticed. I don’t want that to happen here—or anywhere ever again.
So I’ve put together a little collection here is of things that are concerning—which we’ll cover in the next post.