Journalist Micheal Herr once wrote, “It took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.”
This quote first appeared in Herr’s book “Dispatches” published in 1977, where he described his experiences in Vietnam as a correspondent for Esquire Magazine. I am not writing about the Vietnam war, not even about a book about the war. I am writing about this quote and how it came back to me years later while I was living in Germany.
I was born in Chile but spent the majority of my life living in several cities across the United States. I believe that my yearning to find a place to call home has propelled me to explore other parts of the world. I have no connections to Europe, but I spent the last five years of my life learning French and German. So, like many 20-year-olds who are privileged enough to lack serious adult responsibilities do, I jumped at the idea of traveling abroad.
During my third year of my college, on a half-baked plan, a depleted bank account and two semesters of German, I found myself committing to studying abroad for seven months in Berlin and Munich.
From the beginning of my German career, I was told by my eclectic professor that, as a student of the German language, I was responsible not only for learning all four cases of the German language, but the history of Germany as well. This history would be centered on the rise of fascism in Europe and, in particular, the role of Nazi Germany in the 20th century.
As soon as I touched down in Germany, the war was inescapable. I couldn’t walk down the street without seeing some memorial dedicated to the war. Even Frau Dette, my landlord in Berlin, who lived the precarities of post-World War II Germany, carried the war in her soul. But this living memory of the war, in the people and on the streets, wasn’t always part of German culture. It took a generation of Germans, those whose parents were alive during the war — demanding to know the truth of their families and their country — to make this collective consciousness possible.
Those who fall more towards the left on the political spectrum argue that, regardless of the history classes, it isn’t enough. They argue that the recent backlash against refugees in Germany is in part due to the heritage of the war. As someone who has always had a certain fascination for history — in particular family histories — I wanted to hear the stories that missed my textbooks. So, I asked.
I first met Noah in a literature seminar titled “Literature and Exile.” We were partnered up for a presentation, and I made sure to introduce myself. After class, we walked off campus towards a patch of green to get to know each other. With the wind blowing through the trees and the sun shining, no one could have suspected the heaviness of conversation we had on that bench.
Noah was born and raised in Germany. I remember we started talking about his family and the war and, somehow, over the course of our conversation the personal turned political. Given all the tension in Germany regarding refugees and other world events, I asked if people had felt they overcame the war. He looked at me and without blinking he replied, “A country can never overcome its history.”
Of the five classes I took at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, only one was about the Nazi regime and included a day trip to a concentration camp in the syllabus.
I visited Dachau at the end of June, during the height of the coverage of the Mexican-American border crisis. I remember walking around the eerie grounds, seeing the dust in the air and listening to the guide talk about the rise of fascism in Germany. Despite being so far away from my friends and family, both physically and culturally, I couldn’t help but think about the state of the United States. My mind started to draw connections between images of children in cages and the German concentration camps.
This year alone, I have had three different phone numbers belonging to three different countries. Sometimes the feeling of disorientation seems to be the only consistent thing in my life.
This lack of consistency seems to be mirrored in the politics of today. I know that the United States, an America under President Donald Trump may seem to many like a joke made in bad taste. But I don’t think this administration is a mockery of politics. I believe it is the overt and violent exhaustion of liberal democracy in crisis. The past three years have been, for many, an emotionally exhausting and politically confusing time. Americans have been whipped back and forth between policies that continue to polarize the political landscape.
While illegal immigration has been a hot topic for several presidencies, the current situation at the Southern border is attracting more attention than ever. The images of children in cages, masses of immigrants lined up behind barbed wire and the drowned bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez and his 23-month-old daughter Angie Valeria have been circulating since April of last year. I am now struggling to grasp the contemporary landscape of America as it unfolds before my very eyes.
The detention centers are being compared to concentration camps, and these statements have been met with enormous backlash from both sides of the political spectrum. People are afraid that drawing a connection between detention centers and concentration camps diminishes the atrocities that occurred under Nazi Germany. Others argue that the gravity of the situation at the Southern border demands an examination of this severity.
In the wake of this debate, I see the aperture for a new discussion regarding democracy and extremism.
Society would like to use a simple checklist to determine if what is happening counts as facism. Some political scientists would likely argue that because Trump is not actively promoting the dismantling of the American democracy, his administration therefore cannot be considered fascist. But I think that if we hide behind this rigid definition of fascism, then we will never confront the brutality of what is happening.
I think these detention centers, in a very visceral way, are injecting the framework of war into daily life. They are promoting fascist rhetoric by creating hierarchies of affirmation and conformity. We look at each other wondering first what it is that differentiates us, and if we pass this test then we seek to find what unites us. Detention centers manifest an “us versus them” narrative reinforcing our fear of the other. Those placed inside the detention center are outside the community and, therefore, are not afforded the same rights of citizens.
To me, detention centers, like concentration camps before them, become a void where any type of violation of rights becomes the rule. Placed outside a larger community those held in detention centers are labeled as outsiders, stripped of rights and vulnerable to all kinds of abuse.
We can get lost in a debate of definition. However, if we spend all our time and energy discussing if fascism is back or if we need a new term, then the atrocities on the border will continue happening. If people resign themselves to fear of the other, as fostered by a fascist-like rhetoric, all acts of violence and hate will be excused.
What will come, when those children who spent months in cages grow up and tell their stories?
We may not be at the border, but we have all seen the images. We are responsible. We may not be keeping children in cages, but we are watching silently. Just like Herr said, we are responsible for everything we see just as much as everything we did (or did not do).
Whether or not there is a consensus regarding fascism in the United States, everyone is responsible for what is happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. This crisis will become another chapter in an already complicated history of the United States, and, like Noah said on that park bench, a country doesn’t forget its history — history doesn’t disappear like bodies that drown in the Rio Grande.