History As Tragic Farce

“Do you think they laughed at Hitler, Barnaby?”

Cecil and I, at our regular huddle over swish porridge, more risotto in Cecil’s case, discussing current events. A couple days after the former president’s indictment and charges under the Espionage Act over all the classified and Top Secret documents stashed away throughout his gilded empire including, tongues have wagged, buried with his ex-wife on his New Jersey golf club. Or maybe that was just about the tax breaks.

It’s difficult to keep up with such a tsunami of grift.

From his tablet, Cecil had read out about a congressman from Florida, I think it was, defending the former president’s filing system, telling viewers that, even if there were boxes of national security documents in a bathroom in Mar-A-Lago-Ding-Dong-Day, it wasn’t like anyone could just randomly walk in and start reading them. There’s 33 bathrooms in the place, for heaven’s sakes. Where would prying eyes even know where to begin?

“I mean, we’re laughing at him all the time,” Cecil continues. “At all his people. Everything he says, they say, do, it is laughable. But… You know. It feels like there’s a storm brewing. Did Germans laugh at the Nazis during the 1920s, you think?”

I am no Nazi scholar. Much of that history I might’ve once known now overgrown with the flowers of a more recent bloom. I do recall that throughout that decade Hitler was a marginal political figure. His prison time for the Beerhall Putsch, an attempt to overthrow the German government in 1923 resulting in the deaths of a handful of people, was light, less than a year, I believe. A sign that he wasn’t taken very seriously or that serious people didn’t entirely disapprove of his participation in the attempt coup?

I don’t know.

“I want to say, Cecil, that people might not have laughed at Hitler because he was just one of many figures vying for control of post-Kaiser Germany during tumultuous times in a democracy’s infancy. Our little German, descendant of the 17th-century Drumpf burgermeisters, came to politics a fully-formed celebrity name. We mock his antics not his insignificance.”

“Sure. But you know, Barnaby,” Cecil says, spoon poised above his bowl as he thinks his thought through. “I know we like to think we’re beyond all that. You know, dictatorships, military rule, extrajudicial killings based on factionalism or whatever.”

“It Can’t Happen Here,” I offer.

“Yeah, exactly. But…”

Cecil pauses for another spoonful of breakfast.

Yeah, exactly. But… Democracy’s hard. It isn’t natural to us if you mark time over centuries instead of decades. It is still very much a work in process.

“What’s hard for me to believe,” Cecil continues with a mouth full of more food than I’m comfortable with, a condition that comes with growing old alone, I fear, the talking with food in your mouth not the aversion to it, “is that we could allow it to come all crashing down because of this guy, you know? This clown. This cartoon villain who’s not even a very good villain. He’s a terrible villain. All cartoon, you know? So, I’m just curious if Hitler was the same. A clown until he wasn’t.”

Like I said, I’m no historian. 20th-century fascism not my jam. But it does seem to me that Hitler was a serious politician with serious political intentions. His rise to power, the culmination of a series of European and Western conflicts between the empires, nation-states and opposing ideologies that stood in place a century plus after the last of Napoleon. All subject, of course, to historical contingency, cause and affect never easy to untangle from the rubble heap and rotting corpses.

More or less. In a nutshell.

“Maybe, Cecil,” I say, pushing my bowl aside and taking up my coffee cup, “it’s not so much about being a clown or whatnot. Maybe it’s more that the venue’s changed.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, maybe back then we’re talking about the high-minded drama of a Wagnerian opera, and these days it’s all about sitting through a 3-ring circus. So, of course, we have clowns.”

Cecil takes a moment to mull that over. More time than it’s worth, if I’m being honest. Substantive answers are hard to come by these days. The absolute lunacy so pervasive. Disorienting. As intended, perhaps. Fill the zone with shit.

“The trouble is,” Cecil decides, “the opera had its dead bodies at the end, didn’t it. Great tragedies and such. The circus, though. Nobody’s supposed to die, are they. There are a lot of dead bodies already, Barnaby.”

True. Now might not be the time for glibness. It’s hard to deny that there is a wolf at the door. No, no. We’ve invited the wolf inside, telling ourselves it’s not really a wolf. It’s just something dressed in a wolf suit, wanting us to believe it’s a wolf. Isn’t that cute? Just play along. They’ll grow out of it. We’ll domesticate it. That whole peeing on the rug thing is simply a phase.

“And to tell you the truth,” Cecil says, finishing his coffee before he finishes his thought. “I always found the circus creepy, Barnaby. You just go, expecting something bad to happen.”

“But it never does, Cecil.”

“Until it does, right? That once, and all our fears confirmed.”


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