On Sunday 10thJanuary 2021, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator action hero turned former governor of California, posted a short video on Twitter that went viral. Staring straight into the camera against a backdrop of stars and stripes, the man once known for his body-built body flexed his moral muscles by comparing the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol with the Nazis.
“Wednesday was the Night of Broken Glass right here in the United States,” he said, referring to the horrors of Kristallnacht, the night of 9th/10th November 1938 when Nazis in Germany and Austria smashed the windows of Jewish homes, schools and stores and set fire to the synagogues. “The broken glass was in the windows of the United States Capitol,” he continued. “But the mob did not just shatter the windows of the Capitol. They shattered the ideas we took for granted. They did not just break down the doors of the building that housed American democracy. They trampled the very principles on which our country was founded.”
Witnessing, in real time, Trump-incited protestors scale white walls and balconies and swarm into the home of the U.S. Congress was truly shocking. Individually most looked pretty ‘normal’ with their caps, hoodies, beards – or horns – in place of masks. But as a mass emboldened by a collective mission, they felt sinister. A mob stitched together by the blatant, you’d think unbelievable, lies of their leader. Trump’s temper tantrum had turned a corner and stamped on the accelerator to become a genuine threat to life.
But, though I admire Schwarzenegger for speaking out unequivocally, can you really equate what happened on 6th January with Kristallnacht? Are Trump’s ‘mobsters’ a valid equivalent to the rioting members of the SA (Sturmabteilung) and Hitler Youth? Is Trump an accurate counterpart to Goebbels? And finally, has democracy been shattered in the way Nazis shattered Jewish lives and livelihoods that night? I don’t think so, but I ask genuinely because making such serious comparisons to such a vast audience, albeit diluted by a schmalzy soundtrack and other comforting dollops of Hollywood, carries responsibilities and consequences. If it was America’s Kristallnacht, what should we and the rest of the world be doing about it?
Accurate or exaggerated, Schwarzenegger is certainly more qualified than most to draw such parallels. Born in Austria in 1947, he grew up with and among people who had lived through the Third Reich and Second World War: active cogs in the Nazi killing machine; passive bystanders, looking away but “going along… step-by-step… down the road;” or any of the other shades of innocence or culpability in between.
What is indisputable in both scenarios – and recent ones here – is the role lies play in leading to things spinning out of control. But it’s intolerance that ultimately fuels these lies. Of course, there’s a healthy form of intolerance, which makes us speak out in the face of ‘wrongness’. But on either side of that, lie two unhealthy extremes: intolerance of anything or anyone that is different to us, ‘other’; and over-tolerance of that which may be familiar, desirable or comfortable to us, but that harms others.
For me, a comparison to Nazi times is more helpful when applied to us… the ordinary people who, back in the 30s and 40s, inadvertently enabled their leaders to carry out murderous plans by doing nothing. Resisting was hard, for it could cost you, or your family, their lives. My mother’s best friend’s family vanished that way. Today, however, we can express a healthy intolerance of what we consider wrong, by resisting the temptation to see the mob as a collective ‘other’ made up of misguided cretins, uneducated loons, neo-fascists, Satan worshippers, conspiracy theorists… Some of them may well be any or all of those things, but they will also all be individuals – fathers, sons, mothers, neighbours – united in believing they are right and on the side of truth and goodness.
Maybe, to prevent re-enactments of Nazi times, we could (or should?) invest the time we spend judging, cursing and dismissing those we see as ‘other’, ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ more wisely; by trying to listen to and understand them instead. That, after all, was what was neglected in the first instance. And people who feel unheard also feel they have to shout the loudest. And by having to shout, they become distorted versions of themselves. That is what we witnessed on Wednesday. It may sound fluffy or impossible and I am not in any way condoning or defending what happened in Washington. I am just trying to avoid becoming inadvertently complicit in deepening the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’. For we all know where that can lead.