I recently had a dream of the future.
I was dreaming about election night 2020.
In the dream, Trump was defeated, yet because of dream logic the person who bested him was shrouded in mystery.
I couldn’t see their face but I did hear the beginning of the winner’s acceptance speech. They spoke phrases that were both flippant and reassuring:
“We’re turning a new page on the history of America.”
“You’re awake. The nightmare is over.”
“You did all you could. You should be proud.”
“We are, once again, the UNITED States of America.”
In the dream, the words were consoling, a balm soothing me into forgetfulness. Indeed, there’s much I’d like to forget— countless abuses of the Executive Branch that resemble the symptoms of authoritarianism.
History is riddled with instances where abuses of power occurred and survivors are faced with the struggle of remembering the trauma and constructing something new in the aftermath.
Take Germany after World War II.
In 1949, in his first official address to the German parliament, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer essentially advocated forgetting the Nazi legend: “The government of the Federal Republic, in the belief that many have subjectively atoned for a guilt that was not heavy, is determined where it appears acceptable to do so to put the past behind us.”
As historian Tony Judt’s notes in his book Postwar: “There is no doubt that many Germans heartily endorsed this assertion. If denazification aborted, it was because for political purposes Germans had spontaneously ‘denazified’ themselves on May 8th 1945.”
Judt continues: “This distrust of short-term memory, the search for serviceable myths of anti-Fascism—for a Germany of anti-Nazis, a France of Resisters or a Poland of victims—was the most important invisible legacy of World War Two in Europe.”
Judt conjectures, and much of Postwar is spent arguing, that: “Without such collective amnesia, Europe’s astonishing post-war recovery would not have been possible. To be sure, much was put out of mind that would subsequently return in discomforting ways. But only much later would it become clear just how much post-war Europe rested on foundation myths that would fracture and shift with the passage of years. In the circumstances of 1945, in a continent covered with rubble, there was much to be gained by behaving as though the past was indeed dead and buried and a new age about to begin.”
In the aftermath of the WWII, survivors of the Holocaust began to tell their story, to remember. Memory has always been central to Judaism; there are six things the Torah commands Jewish people to remember daily.
Nobel Peace Prize-winning Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel—who spent his life imploring the world to “never forget”—wrote in his memoir Night: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night….Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.”
The dream candidate’s cliches advocating forgetting again echo in my ears, but this time hollowly, because I know these cliches aren’t true—you’d have to be asleep to believe them.