Mark Twain, in an unpublished manuscript, once wrote: “It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.”
“Man’s character” indeed. Check out what’s happening right now in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hear the eerie echoes of what happened in Germany in 1924.
In Charlottesville, some vile right-wing hatemongers are currently on trial in federal court, charged with conspiring to commit racist violence at the deadly 2017 rally. Three cheers for the justice system, yes?. That’s the good news.
But, according to press reports, here’s the bad news:
“(I)n this courtroom, they’ve found a new platform to amplify their racist views, put on performances they boast about on podcasts, radio shows and in live during-the-trial chats, and to attack their opponents…the defendants repeat the greatest hits of right-wing extremist beliefs in the courtroom and double down on the racist personas they have crafted for their followers, many of whom are paying attention…Neo-Nazi fans troll the court – saying the n-word multiple times, declaring ‘Make America Great Again’…”
Well, that sounded familiar.
In 1924 Bavaria, some ragtag rabble-rousers led by a minor crackpot were put on trial for fomenting political violence in what became known as the Beer Hall Putsch. The defendants were delighted — they recognized that the open proceedings would allow them to tout their views to the widest possible audience. The ragtag leader, some nut named Hitler, spoke in court for four hours, described himself as “an absolute anti-Semite,” and told the attentive newspaper scribblers that “either this racial poison, this mass tuberculosis, prospers in our nation and Germany dies of a sick lung, or we cut (it) out and Germany can thrive.”
That too sounds familiar. A press report from the Charlottesville trial:
“When Michael Hill, another defendant, was questioned by attorneys on Friday about his beliefs and planning ahead of the rally, he proudly repeated a pledge in which he called himself ‘a white supremacist, a racist, an anti-Semite’….On any given day, this trial sounds like an open spigot of hate. Defendants have dropped the n-word, admired Adolf Hitler, joked about the Holocaust and trafficked in racist pseudoscience. A court reporter types their slurs into official transcripts, news media report on what’s said in the courtroom…Hill (later) called in to a far-right radio show and said, “I’m very honored…to have gotten to face off with this New York Jew attorney.”
Flash back again to 1924. In the words of historian Ernst Deuerlein, “For Hitler, the trial was the continuation of political propaganda by judicial means.” Now flash forward to 2021. Another defendant, proud neo-Nazi Christopher Cantwell, called into a far-right radio show recounted his open statement at trial. He called it “a spoken word performance…I saw this (trial) as a tremendous opportunity, both because of the cause at hand and because I knew the world was listening.”
You see the problem here.
In 1924, the chief judge grew so exasperated with the defendants that he blurted, “This is not a theater!” (Oh yes it was.) And in 2021, the press is quoting Melissa Ryan, an anti-extremist activist, who laments that our courtrooms “just weren’t designed for this kind of stress and behavior.”
But what else can we do? Let the extremists skate free, for fear that putting them on trial will put them on stage? The only choice we have is to hold them accountable in courts of law and trust that most Americans will not respond favorably to their amplified hatred. After all, we’re not crazy the way Germany was.
Oh dear, what do we have here:
“The Spotsylvania County School Board (in Virginia) has directed staff to begin removing books that contain ‘sexually explicit’ material from library shelves and report on the number of books that have been removed…Two board members, Rabih Abuismail and Kirk Twigg, said they would like to see the removed books burned. ‘I think we should throw those books in a fire,’ Abuismail said, and Twigg said he wants to ‘see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.’”
Mark Twain supposedly also intoned that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” There’s no actual proof Twain ever said that, but sometimes it seems to ring true.