During the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Adolf Hitler, made many appearances as the archetype of the leader we would get with a President Donald Trump. It’s not the first time this comparison has been made with a politician. We saw various Obama-Hitler media, posters and signs with the 44th American president’s head photoshopped on to a Nazi solidier’s body in Heil Salute. Shepard Fairey’s red and blue Hope stencil was altered, adding Hitler's signature mustache and straight hair, parted and com to the pensive Obama image. Comparative memes with rallying cries telling us that Hitler also was a great orator are all over the internet.
The Third Reich image is meant to taunt but also to promote terror. The great fear of the Holocaust, one of the darkest times in modern history, is that it could easily happen again given the right circumstances. Americans love to pull Hitler out of their propaganda arsenal, unaware or unconcerned with the United State’s involvement with Nazi Germany, because they believe that it provides enough distance to extend their finger pointing digits far away from our own comparative atrocities. It helps to maintain the illusion of American exceptionalism.
As does the belief that the first Black presidency, with its ensuing racial tensions, murders, and blatant disrespect for the highest office--whether those conflicts were covert operations similar to COINTEL to create racial division and fear, as some believe, or a more primal reaction of white people really afraid of losing power-- is a sign of some apocalyptic threat to the current empire. The fabricated threat is used to justify all behaviors and attitudes with the veil of patriotism.
The idea that one group of people could once again dehumanize, enslave and exterminate another group, while others quietly capitulate to save themselves is more, than just possible, it has been demonstrated to be a human default behavior throughout history. But it usually is the population who claims to be afraid of the powerless who perpetrates these acts of aggression.
Being a student of human behavior, I was naturally curious about all the actions, point of views, and messages that were being aired before and after the election. The persuasive power that our speech and conduct have on others is fascinating, if not frustrating, to watch. Something kicked off my hunger to learn more about Hitler and the Holocaust, probably a documentary of some kind that played on Netflix while I cleaned house. Details about ranking officers and life in the concentration camps made me think about the inner life of the perpetrators, prime examples of Dunning-Kruger, and the victims, who once had a privileged place in society, probably at the delight of the captors, had become people who had to steal shoes off corpses before throwing the rank and gnarled bodies into swelling ditches of death.
This curiosity led me to read Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search For Meaning (I’m on page 85) as the first in many recommended and discovered, literature. I bought the book sometime ago but had yet to have time to read anything that didn’t pertain in some way to my writing project. Usually I read everything but memoir, so I’ve felt a bit removed from myself.
Frankl’s non-fiction, a mix psychiatry and philosophy, was the right kind of thought provoking writing that I love. The kind that makes you stop and think about your own life and the world that surrounds you.
What struck me most, something that also is related to the writing of my family memoir, has to do with suffering. I think my first happenstance with suffering as a spiritual component written in a book was probably sixteen years ago when I first became interested in Buddhism. I’m sure I read about suffering from a philosophical stance in my intro to Philosophy as an undergrad but Buddhism really brought it home, perhaps because at first, it was difficult for me to consider the middle way or doing nothing in the face of some perceived injustice. I ended up putting the book on the shelf and picking it up again maybe seven years later when I was sick, grief-stricken, and in the profound situation where I was left alone to be swallowed by the darkness that surrounded me. The book validated all my choices, and what I believed my life’s journey was about. I didn’t agree with everything that Buddhism buttressed, but those parts that spoke to me helped me to see and do the type of emotional, spiritual, and physical work I needed to heal from what ulcerative colitis and the prescribed medication had done to my body and what years of being around disordered people had done to my soul.
It was an arduous trek of self confrontation, boundary building, truth seeking, acceptance and letting go. The transformation, a shedding of old skin, old lives, old teachings, old acquaintances, for something more enlightened, more connected to the truth of who I am.
Frankl quotes Dostoevski, "There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings." That made me think of the Buddhist teaching that says that life is suffering. It also made me think of the times when I suffered for some unknown lesson that I knew was hidden in the difficulty of my circumstances.
My involvement with Thomas Sayers Ellis is an example of a purposeful sacrifice, of comfort and peace, for some greater understanding. I knew that there was something to learn in that space about myself and about extremely damaged people, people that I had trouble seeing clearly because they were the ones who had raised me, loved me, fed the parts of me that were wounded but not ready to heal. Something deep inside nagged at me constantly. It felt like a spiritual haunting and the only way to free myself from this dark energy was to let it guide to me to the other side. The proximity I kept to Thomas allowed the universe to reveal his truth, quite slowly, as is typical of this kind of instruction, while I was forced to study both of our complexities and by relation those of my parents (he reminded me of each in many ways). For me it was a lesson, a path back into the light. For him, it is a life.
Such recollections were fresh in my mind when I read the Dostoevski quote, My thought after was an assured declaration: Yes, I am worthy of my suffering.
And I felt and sense of pride in every tear I had shed over a frightening but also special childhood, over every undeserving lover I that gave my heart to too easily, every tragedy that seemed unfair, because I understood what suffering was, I understood because I watched my parents, mostly my mother, suffer greatly and for many years. And she, who would hit great depths of despair, homelessness, alcoholism, poverty, abuse, always pulled herself into the light pulling my brother and me along with her. It’s an important phenomena to witness.
Her words to me when I was 18 are still with me today. “I stopped drinking for you Andrea. I remember that day in Curwin Circle, I remember your face,” she said. “The pain that was in it. I remember you yelling about me and crying, saying that you were going to leave and never come back and I realize what I was doing to you. She said it again, “I stopped drinking for you.”
It was a heavy admission, years later and while I don’t remember what precipitated it, it was most likely part of a deep conversation or some important event we were in the midst of as a family.
There were many moments like that with my mother, moments when she would give that part of herself that helped me to understand what it meant to be a human being.
She suffered more than anyone that I have ever known and she still had the heart to love, to give, to laugh. My father is similar but my mother was my teacher until I found another classroom, in the world, at university, in myself.
Those first teachings never leave you though and it was with my mother, my childhood, and the experiences of becoming a woman, that I became a student in Vicktor Frankl’s schoolroom. In the pages of his pocket-sized book he explains the why abnormal circumstances produce abnormal reactions and why those reactions are normal. He tell us, with some obvious regret, why the Darwinesque nature of survival turns the “best of us” into ancestors and the most ruthless into leaders. His testimony that very few people are capable of reaching moral heights and grow spiritually beyond himself in difficult external circumstances is one that my life lends support. And I’d add that I don’t think that ascension of morality and growth is equally paced, nor should it be.
Studying the history of the Holocaust and the United States, over the years, studying the people around me, studying, learning, expanding my mind is who I am, it’s what I love, and it keeps me equally optimistic and concerned about the direction of the world. Perhaps we are witnessing the molting of modern civilization, the shedding of skin, the beginning of a new dawn.
For me, I’ll continue on my path, head towards my denouement with gathered fruits of peace and freedom.. I’ll keeping walking through flames of darkness to find the imminent light.
Andrea Roach is a writer of memoir, essays, and creative non-fiction. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University.