The attempted insurrection last January 6 was a traumatic event for many Americans. We have all had the good fortune to live in a country that has known only political stability for many generations. Few of us appreciate that we are in the world’s minority—in much of the world, political repression and instability are the norm. It’s part of the reason the U.S. is such a desirable destination for foreign migrants.
For those Americans whose families settled here within a generation or two, January 6 was especially traumatic, raising the prospect that the U.S. might somehow become something like the country they fled. It has certainly been that way for me. My family fled Germany in the 1930s, barely escaping to the U.S. by the skin of their teeth, while some relatives and friends who didn’t make it out were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Even though we were safe, the trauma of that event has hung heavy over my family—as recently as four years ago, a cousin of mine committed suicide after becoming addicted to drugs, following in the path of her mother, my aunt, who escaped the Holocaust by hiding out in France, and similarly killed herself in the 1980s. For us and many others who bear the scars of authoritarian regimes, January 6 was a trigger for a larger trauma.
All that may explain why I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by political upheaval, coups d’ tat in particular. I studied political science in college, and have studied modern German political history in much detail over the subsequent years to co-author a remembrance of those years by my aunt.
The more research I’ve done most recently, the more amazed I was at the parallels between the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the American capitol and Hitler’s November 9, 1923, “Beer Hall Putsch” in Munich. As just one example, Hitler celebrated November 9 for years afterwards with speeches and important events; I suddenly understood why Kristallnacht, the burning of synagogues and looting of Jewish businesses in Germany, occurred on November 9 (1938). I also understood why one of Trump’s concluding Tweets to his insurrectionist followers last January 6 sounded so hauntingly familiar: “Remember this day forever.” Of course, he wanted to follow in Hitler’s steps and celebrate the glory of his insurrection each January 6. (He had announced his intention to give a speech tomorrow, but then cancelled it yesterday without explanation; he is known to have studied Hitler’s speeches and propaganda techniques during the 1980s.)
So I wrote an article comparing the American insurrection attempt last January 6 with Hitler’s 1923 insurrection attempt and aftermath, for The Nation magazine. The similarities are amazing, except for one important difference, which I explore.
Unfortunately, the trauma of January 6, 2021, didn’t end that day. There will be ongoing political upheaval, possibly for years, just as there was in Germany following November 9, 1923. That’s because there are pols and their supporters who are ready to replace our democratic system with an autocratic system. If they succeed, it won’t be pretty—after it’s lost, democracy is very difficult to get back….just look around the world, at places like Turkey, Egypt, Venezuela, and many others. Perhaps unfortunately, too many Americans seem to have taken for granted sacred rights that could disappear for a long time.