KLEIN: Nationalist rhetoric can cause misbeliefs

Opinions Column: Politically InKLEINed

I’ve always felt a sort of kinsmanship with Germany. Strange, considering my Jewish ancestry and the fact that most of my family came from either Austria or Italy. Nonetheless, after taking German for a semester at Rutgers I was surprised, but delighted, to find I was able to keep up with most of the basic conversation. My brother, Spencer, is already fluent in the language, and he quickly became my walking, talking German dictionary. My language skills have improved over the two weeks I spent taking trains from Frankfurt to Munich all the way to Hamburg and Berlin. While I do wish to become fluent in German, my language enhancement was not the most important product of the trip. The most important product came in the form of perspective. It was not something that I gained in Germany but was more so something I lacked in the United States.

Now before I begin to sound like every student does after visiting anywhere outside of the U.S. — no, I do not feel as though my perspective on life has changed or that through my new cultural understanding I am somehow superior to everyone else. I will avoid sounding like the pretentious child above to the best of my ability.

With that out of the way, the perspective I did gain was the undeniable truth that our world is dynamic — so much so that the same area of the world 60 years ago would bear no resemblance to a blind man. Languages change, ideologies change and, finally, people change. From the moment we're born to the moment we die we’re dynamic creatures.

Germany is the easiest example to give when referring to nations that made mistakes on a proportion thought impossible and they have been trying to make up for it ever since. Every single city we went to in Germany, we tripped over otherwise hard to notice raised tiles while walking down the sidewalks, each of them with a family or individual's name in front of the buildings that they were taken from. That is one example of the countless memorials, museums and even entire art installations dedicated to one idea: “Never Forget.” While speaking to Germans my age and others much older, I learned that Holocaust education is taught at every point in the German educational system. 

With all of that in mind, it may come as a surprise that right-wing white nationalist organizations still exist in Germany. They are monitored heavily, and, often, members are arrested for crimes outside of the organization itself, similar to the Neo-Nazi organizations that exist in the U.S. But, Germany does not share our freedom of expression. If today you walked down a street in Berlin and stuck your hand in the air and exclaimed “Heil Hitler,” you would not be exercising your freedom of speech. Instead, you'd be exercising in a prison for the foreseeable future. While prison would be a more extreme circumstance, at a minimum, a hefty fine is going to be thrown your way, and good — you deserve it. You are a college-educated or soon to be college-educated adult, so I ask you: Is this practice a good one?

Most people like me would be quick to say “Absolutely! Nazis are bad, and I hate Nazis, so we should throw ‘em all in jail!”

Well, in a perfect world, it’d be as easy as that. Unfortunately, our world is far from perfect, and the actual result is certainly an unintended one, however, it bears historical precedence as well as modern relevance. When a hate group is incarcerated or otherwise inhibited, it begins a dialogue that was incredibly successful in the early 1930s in Germany. The same dialogue was also used during this election cycle by President-elect Donald Trump — simply put, it is playing the role of the victim. Today in Germany, every time a member of a fascist Right-wing group is arrested, it is a call to arms for otherwise uninterested people. By playing the role of the victim, these hate groups can create a warped sense of reality that somehow they're the oppressed ones and that they need the support. This may sound far-fetched, but the evidence is there. It’s done by creating an enemy that is inferior and subhuman while simultaneously referring to them as dangerous and a grave threat to the country. This nationalist garbage rhetoric is a paradox that is effective in influencing those that feel their country has left them behind, or that feel as though they haven’t gotten their fair share and so some invisible entity is to blame. In Nazi Germany, it was the Zionist conspiracy as well as the danger and inferiority of the Jewish people.

Today, our president scapegoats Muslims and undocumented people the same way. While I have faith in our country, we cannot and must not ignore this grave sign. History is the only way we improve ourselves: We cannot afford a step backward.

Evan Klein is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in philosophy. His column, "Politically InKLEINed," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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