Re: “Our View: Holocaust studies should be required in Maine schools” (Sept. 17):

I spent my first 20 years under the rule of two of the 20th century’s most infamous authoritarians, Hitler and Stalin. The first German sentence I ever learned to read as a 6-year-old in 1942 Budapest was “The Jews are our misfortune,” from the front page of the Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer.

My father, who secretly worked with Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg saving Budapest Jews from the Nazis, took me to see the Budapest ghetto, because, he said, if injustice being done to others didn’t upset me, I couldn’t grow up to be a decent human being.

Hitler exploited Germany’s post-World War I economic deprivations. He found scapegoats to blame in the Jews, exploiting the undercurrent of anti-Semitism already permeating European culture. He studied Jim Crow segregation in the Southern United States and used it as a model for his anti-Jewish laws and, ultimately, his “Final Solution.”

His rise to power followed the time-tested path of history’s authoritarians: Latch on to some unmet need of an easily set-apart population. Find a scapegoat to turn into an enemy, exploiting people’s natural tendency to fear the unknown – dark of night, people who are different. Manage your “truth” by incessant propaganda, lies and “alternative facts.” Silence critical voices. Oppress, vilify, ridicule, even eliminate scientists, investigative “fake news” journalists, anyone with actual facts that don’t fit your talking points. Finally, impose your will by force. Armed law enforcement aided by secrecy is a standard tool of authoritarian regimes.

Looking back from 2020, I see this sequence playing out around the globe, including in the U.S. Donald Trump’s aggrieved base are no-college workers who lost jobs to globalization, whites feeling threatened by other races and mourners of lost National Greatness. “America Great Again” echoes my childhood’s “Deutschland Über Alles.” Trump’s hated scapegoats are today’s refugees – Black, brown, Hispanic and Asian migrants of color. He even uses “enemy of the people,” Stalin’s exact words – “враг народа” – for anyone who questions his Dear Leader narrative.

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I believe the Nazis burned down the Reichstag, allowing Hitler to blame terrorists he then volunteered to control. (Law and order!) Donald Trump incites divisions, fear and racial hatred. He eggs on armed militias and flag-flying caravans of pickup trucks filled with white supremacists to confront peaceful demonstrators and menace cities – so he can “rescue” them using federal police forces. (Law and order!) Instead of promoting racial harmony and supporting popular movements struggling against it, Trump exploits systemic racism, fostering fear of dark-skinned “terrorists.” Divide and rule is an ancient trick of history’s Führers. Yet there are always those who fall for it.

What to do? We Americans have a unique advantage: a Bill of Rights guaranteed by a Constitution. But being empowered to speak up, assemble, march, question, criticize, disagree, educate, publish also means being obligated to exercise these rights. Use them or lose them! Failure to speak up is complicity. The witness of citizens, or its absence, is often critical to how things turn out.

Vote! For leaders, not power abusers. Encourage others to vote. Tyrants tend to be elected by a minority of eligible voters, with nonvoters from the majority delivering the ultimate victory.

Keep the focus on COVID-19. It is Trump’s Achilles heel. Cite the science and write, speak and lead by example. All other priorities are stymied until we conquer this virus. To minimize further damage, a mere 20 percent of the bloated defense budget could sustain the suspended parts of our economy – while we focus on prevailing over the pandemic.

Anticipate and mitigate future crises like climate change, unfolding both as a global disaster and a potential job creator. Call out injustice, incompetence, cruelty and lies. Question authority, demanding honest answers.

Jewish lives mattered. Black lives matter. If not, all other lives become disposable. Support nonviolent movements that advance system-wide racial equality. Guard against agents provocateurs! Labeling peaceful protesters as rioters, anarchists and criminals is an old trick in the playbook of authoritarians – think of the Reichstag’s burning.


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