The Weaponization of National Belonging, from Nazi Germany to Trump

The Weaponization of National Belonging, from Nazi Germany to Trump 1

This past week I found myself in Stuttgart, an industrial city in southwest Germany. As I usually do in a European city I haven’t visited before, I went to the local history museum to see how the story of the Second World War is presented. Stuttgart’s museum opened just last year, and its handling of the Nazi era is more circumspect than that of older German memorials. The period from 1933 to 1945 comprises a small set of displays, perhaps ten per cent of the entire exhibition. The tone is neutral.

“After 1933, National Socialism pursued Hitler’s anti-Semitic, racist, and imperialistic ends in Shtuttgart, too,” a caption explains in English. “Despite their Social Democratic past, many citizens endorsed and profited from the new policies.” Only a third of Stuttgart’s residents voted for the Nationalist Socialists, but this was enough to make the party dominant in the city. “In 1933 began the marginalization, persecution, and murder of Jews, political opponents (social democrats and communists), and other groups,” another caption states, using an impersonal construction that makes marginalization, persecution, and murder sound like forces of nature rather than acts of man. Members of Hitler’s party defaced the entrances to Jewish shops and then rallied in the town square.

Other captions rehearse a familiar chronology, but I found myself noticing things I hadn’t paid attention to before. The Nuremberg Laws, passed in the name of “protecting German blood and honor,” prohibited sexual relations and marriage between Jews and Aryans and stripped Jews of an array of rights, including the right to employ German women under the age of forty-five in Jewish homes. The “marginalization, persecution, and murders” began in 1933, but the laws were passed two years later—by this time, many Germans had been convinced that they were necessary. But what jumped out at me was the age clause in the ban on Jewish domestic workers. It’s the kind of bureaucratic phrase that lends legitimacy to something abhorrent. After all, Jewish women past reproductive age were still allowed to be employed in German homes. In the same way, Russian authorities are forever pointing out that Russian law bans not all “homosexual propaganda” but only “homosexual propaganda to minors.” The Trump Administration presents its war on immigrants as a war on certain groups of immigrants only—only the asylum seekers who cross between points of entry, for example, or those who lied on their citizenship application. It’s the legalistic veneer of fascism.

There was a small display with three cut-crystal goblets. “Pogrom of November 9, 1938,” the caption said, using the Russian word in place of the more familiar Kristallnacht. “Victor Rosenfeld (1884-1966) was in Dachau after the pogrom but released a month later. In 1939, he emigrated. He gave his glassware to a neighbor.” This is the kind of story we never think about. Why was Rosenfeld released after a month in Dachau? How was he able to emigrate at that late date? How many people looked at him after his release and breathed a sigh of relief: Perhaps things weren’t so bad?

Another display informed me that the Second World War began in 1939 and that “Stuttgart underwent 52 air raids. About 4,600 residents lost their lives; 14,000 soldiers from Stuttgart died in the field.” I assume that neither figure includes Stuttgart Jews, who, according to one museum display, numbered forty-six hundred in 1933. I know from other sources that, while some of them managed to emigrate, a majority died at the hands of the Nazis. But they didn’t die here: they were transported to the ghetto and then the killing field in Riga or to concentration and then death camps elsewhere. By the time the war began, they had already been either physically removed or legally defined out of the city—so that, eighty years later, in de-Nazified Germany, Jews are not included in the death tally of the city where they lived. Once an absence has been created, a record is almost impossible to forge.

Like anyone who grew up as an outsider—in my case, a Jew in the Soviet Union—I have always been aware of the shifting definitions of belonging. In the nineteen-nineties, when I returned to live in Russia after ten years in exile, the country had liberalized laws on documents, granting citizens the right to define their own ethnicity. When I applied for my new internal passport (the Soviet Union had stripped my family of citizenship in 1981 and restored it in 1992), I decided to test that rule. The internal passport still contained “ethnicity” as one of the essential characteristics, along with name, surname, date and place of birth, and gender. I asked that my ethnicity be indicated as “citizen of Russia.” I still remember the heavy middle-aged woman bureaucrat who looked at my documents, back at me, and back at my documents in confusion, and finally said, “But it says here that your father is Jewish and your mother was Jewish—what kind of citizen of Russia are you?”

I have often told this anecdote, because it’s a perfect—and amusing—illustration of a disconnect between abstract definitions and visceral understanding. To the bureaucrat, the operative word in the phrase “Russian citizen” was “Russian,” and that, to her, referred exclusively to ethnic Russians. She was a kindly woman and she was even aware of the new law allowing people to self-define, but she couldn’t conceive of any definition of me that did not conform to her understanding of how ethnicity and belonging work.

The Russian bureaucrat’s barely articulated understanding is not that different from the understanding Donald Trump has been expressing with his tweets, his statements at the White House, and the rally chant he incited about Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and especially Ilhan Omar. He tweeted that the congresswomen should “go back” to “the places from which they came,” and his crowd chanted, of Omar, “Send her back,” because it is inconceivable to them that women of color, Muslim women, and especially a Muslim woman born outside this country could be citizens, and elected officials, of the United States.

This understanding is shared by Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway, who asked a reporter, “What’s your ethnicity?” A lot of things happened then. Conway identified herself as ethnically Italian and Irish. Media reports identified the reporter, Andrew Feinberg of Breakfast Media, as Jewish. Feinberg himself wrote an op-ed in which he identified his family as coming from a “mix of Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian stock.” I am pretty sure none of those countries would claim Feinberg’s relatives, who, to them, were Jews and therefore outsiders—like I was to that bureaucrat. On another level, Feinberg was trying to defend his right to be viewed as an American irrespective of his ethnic background (and in part because he is a journalist) while Conway was positioning herself as an American because of her background—because Italian and Irish are, at present, white-American categories (while journalists are the enemies of the people and Jews are, well, always suspect).

The categories of citizenship, ethnicity, and belonging are always in flux, hazy around the edges. If we have to have them at all—and I wish we didn’t, or at least consciously wanted to rid ourselves of them—then they should indeed be in flux. But this means that whoever screams the loudest can force and direct a drastic renegotiation.

Bizarrely, the Trump Administration is forcing a renegotiation of who is Jewish. In a recent piece, the Times columnist Michelle Goldberg documents a pattern of non-Jews accusing Jews of anti-Semitism for, basically, failing to support Trump. The logic is perfectly circular: Trump and congressional Republicans are using the smear of anti-Semitism to attack Omar and Tlaib, which makes Trump’s opponents the enemies of the enemies of anti-Semitism, which makes them anti-Semites. (I know how this one goes. As a secular Jew and opponent of the Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories, I have been accused of anti-Semitism. I also regularly get messages telling me to go back to Russia—a country I had to leave in part because, like many other opponents of Vladimir Putin, I was accused of being unpatriotic and “Russophobic.”)

By turning unspoken assumptions into hateful rally chants, Trump is not merely destroying the norms of political speech but weaponizing them. He is cashing in on the easy trick of saying out loud what others barely dare to think. But his supporters are also enforcing the prohibition on his opponents’ taking part in the conversation—as when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reprimanded for calling Trump’s speech “racist” on the House floor. Trump has initiated a radical renegotiation of belonging in this country and then monopolized it. This is what happens first: a political force seizes the power to define its members as insiders and certain others as intruders. This is done in the name of protection of the motherland, which the newly marginalized are said to hate. Everything else follows.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated, based on the display at the Stuttgart museum, that the Nuremberg Laws prohibited Jewish women under the age of forty-five from being employed in a German home; in fact, German women under the age of forty-five were prohibited from being employed in Jewish homes.