From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
The Deplorable Within Us
by Jennifer Cody Epstein
I commit to action because I’ve spent the last five years in the head of a German Nazi — and I’m terrified.
My forthcoming novel Wunderland evolved from an impulse to explore a history that — at first — seemed comfortably removed from my own. I’d long been fascinated by Nazi Germany, not so much by the “those monsters” narratives but by those of everyday Germans: the ordinary, even decent people who, through action and inaction alike, helped propel their nation’s atrocious descent. To me, these decidedly human stories seemed at least as important to comprehending the Holocaust as those of its fully demonic leaders — a conviction fueled by an extraordinary memoir I happened upon in 2013.
In Account Rendered, Melita Maschmann — a lower-level Nazi interned and “de-Nazified” by the Allies — set out to examine the breadcrumb trail of decisions and moral lapses that led to her catastrophic downfall. An early disciple of the Hitler Youth, she’d scaled the ranks of its girls’ division, the Bund Deutscher Madel, eventually landing in the top echelons of its propaganda division. Maschmann ponders these fascistic writings, and her role in evicting doomed Poles from farms that the Reich then reassigned to German farmers. But the crime that haunts her most is her betrayal to the Gestapo of a Jewish best friend from her childhood. Account Rendered is shaped as a long and at times pleading letter to that friend — though Maschmann denies she is asking for forgiveness. What she is after is clarity about her past—and her nation’s. “Wrongs once committed,” she writes, “can never be undone by [mere] reflection. But perhaps it enables the individual to recognize a wrong more quickly and not to be seduced by one again.”
This proposition struck a chord of recognition, and thus was born Ilse von Fischer, one of Wunderland’s three central voices. Bookish, idealistic, and profoundly traumatized by the economic chaos that ravaged interwar Germany, she’s initially a sympathetic character, both intrigued by the BDM’s bright optimism and capable of breaking a Brownshirt boycott of a Jewish business (“Herr Schloss is a good baker,” she reasons). But as Wunderland unfolds she adopts the National Socialist agenda in its entirety, a slow slide into an ethical and ultimately deadly abyss from which she — like her country — will never fully escape.
It was intimidating material. But in 2013 it also could not have felt more removed. Donald Trump was a reality TV star with penchant for bad suits and half-dressed teenage beauty pageant contestants. America had just re-elected its first black president. We were legalizing gay marriage, having tough talks about race and privilege, embarking on a national health plan. My future seemed bright too: my second novel had launched to modest critical acclaim, and my filmmaker husband had just landed the project we thought would make his career.
Three years later, things looked very different. Trump had nailed the GOP presidential nomination, tapping into a toxic swell of voter partisanship, economic fear, and xenophobia. Then, surreally, came November 8th. In Wunderland I described flickering torchlight, fluttering flags, a buffoon-turned–brash leader promising Germany renewed ascent in the world while dismissing the independent media as Lügenpresse (“the lying press”). On CNN Trump stood before a red sea of MAGA hats, promising to renew the American dream while calling the media dishonest scum.
Like all my friends, I denounced both his victory and his voters, seeking solace in the dependable echo chambers of outrage on social media. Privately, though, my feelings were more fraught. My second novel hadn’t sold. My husband couldn’t find funding for his film. We’d scraped by selling our tiny Brooklyn apartment. But by 2016 those funds were running out, and formerly ordinary expenses — health insurance, a replacement iPhone — felt like progressive steps towards insolvency. At the supermarket I’d hold my breath as my debit card processed, terrified it would come back declined. And in those moments, I understood viscerally what I’d only explored fictively in my novel: how easily ideology might buckle beneath desperation, before the seductive appeal of a candidate promising he alone can fix it. As images of clashing demonstrators crowded the news, I also found myself pondering my reflexive disdain for the right. When Hitler took over the Nazi party, German democracy had splintered into thirty different political factions whose members brawled — often fatally — on Berlin’s streets. That violent partisanship, combined with the public fatigue it engendered, and a media prioritizing money-generating tabloid topics over serious political coverage, paved the way for Hitler’s ascent.
Of course, Trump’s no Hitler. He owes his elite education and business fortune to his wealthy father, while Hitler (born solidly middle-class) failed art school admittance and spent years impoverished. Trump secured five draft deferrals, Hitler two Iron Crosses. Pre-election, Trump displayed less interest in grasping for public office than in grabbing the genitals of non-consenting women, while Hitler’s political ambitions dated at least to his 1920s Beer Hall Putsch. And when it came to principles and patriotism, Hitler arguably had both, albeit in appallingly twisted form. Trump, meanwhile, seems entirely and indeed blithely unprincipled, with allegiances that still swing closer to his bank accounts and his golf greens than to the nation he’s been chosen to lead.
Still, the similarities between Wunderland and this strange new America only seem to be mounting. In the time I took to write this piece, Trump has supplemented his Lügenpresse drumbeat by threatening to strip credentials from press organizations he deems “untruthful.” He’s used terms like “infest” and “animals” to describe undocumented immigrants (both are terms Himmler used to describe Jews; Hitler preferred the more clinical “bacillus” and “parasites”), and his administration has ripped children from undocumented parents at the border and concentrated them in military warehouses.
It’s not lost on me that such parallels arguably helped me sell my book. (“The subject’s certainly timely,” my agent noted.) But they also keep me up at night. Not just because all these wrongs are, in Maschmann’s terms, so terrifyingly “recognizable,” but also because recognition alone won’t save us any more than it saved 1970s Cambodia, 1990s Bosnia and Rwanda, or 2018 Myanmar.
So what will?
The answer, I believe, lies in recognizing not just the wrongs repeating around us, but also the failings within ourselves. It means stripping away the harmful rhetoric and easy fictions that blind us to the factors behind Trump’s ascent, and opening ourselves to discussions addressing the very real desperation of many of his followers, even as we fight the lies with which he seeks to seduce them. It means holding the media to a journalistic standard beyond accrued clicks and ratings, and ourselves to political awareness beyond our social-media feeds, one that engages the often messy outside world.
And for myself, it means continuing to create art that challenges, and characters who, like Ilse, are perhaps “deplorable,” but still complex enough for us to recognize within them something of ourselves.
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Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of The Painter from Shanghai, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, and the forthcoming Wunderland.