Thursday, August 24, 2017

Eclipses Then and Now

Apparently, the solar eclipse truly was awesome for those lucky enough to be exactly in what I now know to call “the path of totality.” For the rest of us, not so much.  But even without experiencing the awesomeness that was fully visible in Jackson Hole or Nashville, there was still something remarkable—and unexpectedly humbling—about the whole experience. Like so many others, I’m sure, I read all about it in the days leading up to the big event. But of all the articles I came across, the one that had the biggest effect on me was one written, not in the last weeks or days, but a cool eighty-five years ago.

The article, published without a by-line in the New York Times on Sunday, August 14, 1932, pointed out that Americans who wished to experience a full solar eclipse had basically two choices: to clear their calendars for August 31 of that year and look up (ideally after having learned how to look at the sun in eclipse without harming their eyes), or to do whatever it was going to take to guarantee a very long life since the next chance for most Americans to see a total eclipse was going to be…in 2017, towards the end of August. (There was, admittedly, a third possibility too: readers not reasonably expecting to live until 2017 but who thought they might well make it to 1970 were offered the possibility of moving to Florida, the only state from which the eclipse of that year was going to be visible. And there also the possibility of seeing a full solar eclipse in the northernmost regions of the country in 1979, but this was dismissed as at best a long shot in that seeing it was going to require observers “to brave the possibilities of a blizzard and 40 degrees below zero weather.”  So that, plus the iffy March weather in Florida, basically left readers with two viable options: preparing either for an event two weeks off or for another more than three-quarters of a century in the future.)

It was a long time ago, admittedly. But since I was already there, I spent some time perusing the rest of that newspaper from so long ago in which the article appeared. (You can too: click here.)  And what I found was America trying to come to terms with Nazism…and only marginally succeeding.

The German elections of the previous month had ended in legislative chaos—the Nazis won 230 out of 608 seats in the Reichstag, making them the largest party represented but not one possessed of the majority necessary to govern. This led to Hermann Göring becoming president of Germany and to the onset of negotiations regarding Hitler’s place in the government, but the lead article on page one of the paper (“Hitler Demands Office as Dictator; Hindenburg Bars It”) is almost achingly naïve in its sense of things. This is 1932. For those who might be unfamiliar with his background, Hitler is helpfully described as an “Austrian house painter.” And the article itself, by Frederick T. Birchall (regarding whom, see below), explains the chaos that was reigning in Germany in the wake of the recent election in terms that readers today will find, to say the very least, remarkable: “Tonight,” Birchall writes, “whether law and order shall prevail in this republic or whether it will be plunged again into the turbulence that marked its beginning depends very much on the whim of this same Hitler and the strange aggregation of semi-fanatics who surround him and are trying, as there is good reason to believe, to goad him to extremes to which he alone probably would never proceed.”

Towards the end of the article, a lone paragraph addresses Nazi anti-Semitism: “The Association of Germany Jewish citizens,” Birchall reports, “placed before President von Hindenburg today an exhaustive record of what they said were anti-Semitic threats and insults by the National Socialists from the platform and press, together with acts of terrorism committed on Jews. The President replied that he deeply regretted and strongly disapproved of infractions on constitutional and religious rights of German citizens and sent the documents to the Ministry of Interior for examination.”  Can you imagine that? A president who can find the words to condemn Nazi anti-Semitism but without feeling any sort of concomitant need to distance himself totally and absolutely from the Nazis themselves! It all seems so heartfelt, so sincere…and, of course, so tragically futile.

What would Frederick T. Birchall have made of Charlottesville? That is actually more interesting a question than it sounds at first. Birchall was a well-positioned observer—a Brit by origin and American by choice, he began working as an editor at the Times in 1912 and ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Europe in the 1930s. Seeing the Nazis, who just a few years earlier were dismissively derided by most Germans as thugs and extremists, rising step by step to positions of power must have seemed amazing.  Being present as Germany embraced a political philosophy based on the absolute repudiation of the very liberal values and norms Germany itself had in large part brought to the world, even more so. But watching on as Germans showed themselves again and again willing to ignore the Nazis’ fiercely violent anti-Semitism and racially-motivated fanaticism—or rather to look on their radical racism as something akin to the political equivalent of the bitter aftertaste sick people with their own best interests at heart will gladly endure for the sake of swallowing medicine that promises to restore them to good health—that must truly have seemed unbelievable. Something of this was captured a few years ago in Erik Larson’s In the Garden of the Beasts, a very interesting book that I recommend highly about the first American ambassador to Nazi Germany, William E. Dodd, and his life in Berlin from 1933 to 1937. But Birchall filed hundreds upon hundreds of stories from Germany in the 1930s, all available at the New York Times online archive, and they tell their own story of a nation descending into an abyss of its own making precisely by refusing to repudiate Nazism when it still might have been possible to act decisively and definitively in the nation’s best interests, of a nation weirdly willing to take the danger that inheres in the mindless embrace of extremism and violence seriously and not seriously at the same time.

Did Birchall know about the total eclipse of the sun on the last day of August in 1932? I’m sure he read his own newspaper daily, so how could he not have? He died in 1955, but if he were alive today to comment, would he find it uncanny to see America again grappling with the forces of intolerance, supremacism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and racial hatred as the skies dim overhead? My guess is that he would have! And although I understand that Shakespeare was entirely right when he wrote that “the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” I imagine Birchall would join me in finding it more unnerving than amusing to see our nation again combining a deep sense of awe at the majesty of the universe with a sense of befuddled amazement at the sight of actual American citizens hoisting aloft actual Nazi flags and shamelessly chanting anti-Semitic slogans as they marched through what just a few days earlier would have been described by anyone as one of America’s most delightful college towns.

Elsewhere in the Times of August 14, 1932, we read about a meeting in Geneva of one hundred delegates representing, between them, twelve million Jews in twenty-five countries to discuss “the situation” affecting Jews throughout the world. I’m sure this was a sincere, hopeful effort. How could they have known what was coming? Should we mock these delegates now for not being able to imagine Treblinka then? Or should we respect them for doing what they could with the information they had? They surely understood the potential for Nazi anti-Semitism to turn even more violent than it already had…but how could they possibly have imagined genocide on the scale about to be unleashed upon the Jewish world? Certainly, they meant to do good. Possibly even they did do good. But, as we all know, whatever good they did manage to accomplish was unable to stem the tide of unimaginable viciousness about to be unleashed against their co-religionists in Europe? Did the Americans among them return home in time to see the sun vanish briefly from the midday sky and find in that experience an ominous portent? Was there anyone among them among them conversant enough with talmudic lore to connect the events under discussion in Geneva with the passage in Tractate Sukkah that declares a solar eclipse to be a siman ra— “a bad omen”— for the whole world…and thus to feel even less hopeful about the future of European Jewry? I suppose there may have been some talmudists among the delegates, but that only prompts me to look eighty-five years into our future and wonder if someone writing in 2102 will look back and wonder how people back in 2017 cannot have found troublingly deep ominousness in an eclipse that made the day dark just ten days or so after Charlottesville?