What a moment

Last Wednesday was remarkable in the United States. Many were shocked but no one should claim to have been surprised. I have done my best to ignore the outgoing president lately but I saw enough of his speech to understand that he instigated the storming of the Capitol by his supporters; and I know enough of what has been going on to understand that he, his surrogates, and his boosters in the media prepared the ground for this moment. They all share responsibility and no one should be let off the hook. It appears to me that the outgoing president blundered into a coup attempt. Clearly, it was not well orchestrated or executed, but it was planned incoherently by his followers on social media as a genuine attempt to interfere in a constitutionally mandated process of transition by the duly elected government. I am neither a US citizen nor an expert in law, but it seems clear to me that the outgoing president, his supporters who ransacked the Capitol, and any aides that facilitated any of the action yesterday, should be prosecuted for federal crimes. But I am a US resident and global citizen deeply interested in the continued existence of the world’s most powerful and influential liberal democracy. The events of last week, from the sacking of the Capitol on Wednesday, to apologists who subsequently oozed forth to make cynical and self-serving maneuvers for influence or to avoid blame, caused me to reflect on the moment.

The society we enjoy today — the wealth, health, liberty, and comity for hundreds of millions of people living together — is not common in the world, nor has it been the norm throughout human history. While clearly imperfect, it is precious: it is a better basis from which to transform to a more equitable, sustainable, and happier world than balkanized red/blue pseudo-states or even violent anarchy would be. And while it is resilient, obviously given the strains of last 4 years, it may also be fragile. Recklessly hacking away its foundational institutions and norms without simultaneously repairing them is unconscionable. People who do this, like the outgoing president and his aides, but also senators Cruz, Hawley and Graham, are not constructive critics but pure vandals. They gain fame by appealing to some of the basest of human instincts, and take no responsibility for it. People such as these should be barred from holding public office or positions requiring public trust, such as sitting on boards of companies. But it is even more important to pillory them in public, to demonstrate across cultures, languages, and notions of values throughout our society, that people like these are not wanted in civilized society. Fortunately, this seems to be happening.

Many Americans hear words like “totalitarian” and “fascist” and fail to connect these to lived history. (This is why I think the video that Arnold Schwarzenegger put out over the weekend has enormous value.) Here the Austrian experience should find special resonance: after WW1, Austria had gone from the largest European land empire (the Austro-Hungarian Empire) to a small mountainous country stripped of its wealth and significance; and soon after that, the Habsburg monarchy, which had ruled Austria from the 13th century, collapsed. Communists swept to power in Hungary and gained enormous political influence over the next decade throughout Europe; and socialists came to prominence in Vienna. (Between 1918 and 1943, Vienna was known as Rotes Wien, “Red Vienna”. Many of the city’s most prized public spaces and free public culture were defined during this period. The Social Democrats remain influential in the city and in parts of Lower Austria to this day.) The new Austrian Republic endured the upheavals of interwar Europe, including the Palace of Justice Fire (1929). By 1933, conservatives with the support of the Roman Catholic Church got the upper hand, and their Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss suspended parliament. With the benefit of hindsight, many Austrians say that this moment is when they ought to have pushed back harder. Instead, with fascist movements established in Italy (under Mussolini) and growing in Germany (with the Nazis), and the spectre of communism from the Soviet Union (then under Stalin), there were uprisings in several major Austrian cities that are now, rather grandiosely termed the Austrian Revolution (1934). Dollfuss resisted what he correctly believed to be German Nazi ambitions to annex Austria, and was assassinated by Austrian Nazis as a result. The Austrian fascist dictatorship begun by Dollfuss lasted only 4 more years, with the Anschluss annexation of Austria by Hitler’s Germany in 1938.

The seismic changes in Vienna before and after WW1 give this period a fascinating history. (As a physicist, I’m particularly interested in the new ideas in math, physics, and philosophy appearing at this time. Vienna was very much the centre of this.) But one of the things that’s undeniably interesting to people is that Hitler spent some time in Vienna as a student. Before we left Vienna, Liyam and I took a walking tour called “Hitler’s Vienna”: a professionally guided tour of the city that focused not on the infamous war criminal, but on the this period in Viennese history. (Hitler is seen as a profound national embarrassment in Vienna, even for the Right. I strongly doubt that they named the walk in his honour; but simply to catch tourists who recognize a name.) For Liyam, whose relatives suffered pogroms in Russia and from the Holocaust in Hungary, and has a strong affection for Vienna, it was important to experience. (In Second District, where we lived, there are monuments to Jewish buildings, including a synagogue, destroyed during the interwar period.) Among the foreigners on the tour were American tourists. To Austrian eyes, they likely seemed no different than any other historically minded visitor; but from the questions they asked, the photos they took, their bearing and clothing (so-called “tactical”), it seemed to us that they were on a pilgrimage to follow Hitler specifically. It made me angry. Were they enthusiasts? Was this some kind of strange cosplay? It made us both worry about the character of the United States we would soon return to. It is also the memory that came instantly back into my mind when I saw the Capitol overrun Wednesday.

I have no time or respect for people who venerate monsters. But nor do I find them very threatening, because I see them as fools. Much more dangerous are intelligent and historically informed people, pretenders like Cruz and Hawley, who toy with the misplaced but genuinely held emotions of fools, and use pseudo-historical precedents to justify their claims to authority, and ultimately to power. They are playing with a fire that we should all be doing our utmost to douse.

This is a fantastic essay on a similar theme by Yale historian Timothy Snyder in the New York Times Magazine. I wish I was so eloquent.

Featured image: Wikimedia.

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