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Reading the Signs of the Times

What was unimaginable only a few years ago – a US president insulting democratic allies and praising dictators, or calling the free press “enemies of the people,” or locking up refugees and taking away their children – has become almost normal now. When will it be too late to sound the alarm?

PARIS – Comparing today’s demagogues with Adolf Hitler is almost always unwise. Such alarmism tends to trivialize the actual horrors of the Nazi regime, and distracts attention from our own political problems. But if alarmism is counterproductive, the question remains: At what point are democracies truly in danger? What was unimaginable only a few years ago – a US president insulting democratic allies and praising dictators, or calling the free press “enemies of the people,” or locking up refugees and taking away their children – has become almost normal now. When will it be too late to sound the alarm?

Great books have been written about this very question. Giorgio Bassani’s masterpiece, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, describes the lives of bourgeois Italian Jews under fascism. Slowly, step by step, a legal and social noose tightens around these cultivated Italians, who took their lives of comfort and influence for granted. And yet, in different ways, they are in denial. The narrator’s father even joins the Fascist Party, while the wealthier Finzi-Continis withdraw into their ever more isolated family circle. Pride and a lack of imagination blind them to the danger they are in, until it is too late and they are deported to the death camps.

The human incapacity to see what is coming also animates Sebastian Haffner’s memoir Defying Hitler, written in 1939, a year after he left his native Germany. Haffner, later a journalist and author, was a law student who witnessed how the Nazi dictatorship became lethal, again incrementally, like the persecution of Jews in Italy. He saw how his fellow law students, none of whom were Nazis, came to accept each step – racial laws, abrogation of the constitution, and so on – precisely because they were couched in legal terms. There never seemed to be a point at which they recognized that an intolerable line had been crossed and only resistance or exile would do. Haffner, who was not Jewish, did recognize it; he left in the year that synagogues were torched and Jews driven from their homes.

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