Many people are expressing shock and dismay that a fascist government has taken over the USA, and at the rising tide of xenophobia in Broken Brexit Britain. However, if you are at all familiar with the rise of the Third Reich and the operation of oppressive systems such as the British Empire, the signs have been writ large for some time. If you need a crash course in recognising the oppressive atmosphere for what it is, then here’s a crash course. Why have I chosen mostly novels? Because novels try to describe how it feel to be in the situation, and to provoke empathy. And empathy for the persecuted is what we need more of right now.
The Diary of Anne Frank (non-fiction)
It is a very long time since I read this book, but I do remember it being very poignant. I recently found out that Anne Frank’s father applied for a visa for her to go to the USA, but the request was denied. The Frank family hid for two years in a sealed-off compartment in Amsterdam, but were discovered by the Nazis in August 1944. Anne died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr
Judith Kerr and her family initially fled to France when the Nazis came to power, and then to Britain. This book presents a child’s view of having to flee from an oppressive regime, and the fear and upheaval involved. (Suitable for children.) It is the first of a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels, Out of the Hitler Time.
The Silver Sword, by Ian Seraillier
This is a novel about two children who end up walking most of the way across Europe in search of their father, with only a silver paper-knife in the shape of a sword as a memento of their former life. They meet other refugee children hiding out in bombed cities, and encounter Nazis and bureaucrats along the way. (Suitable for children.)
The Seventh Cross, by Anna Seghers
This is a novel about a man who escapes from a concentration camp, and what he does while hiding out. The other escaped prisoners are caught and taken back to the camp, and they are tied to crosses in the yard. But the seventh cross, which was intended for Georg, remains empty. It was written by Anna Seghers in 1939 as she was fleeing Europe, and published in Mexico in 1943 (because she tried and failed to get in to the USA, and was actually stuck on Ellis Island for a while). The book was recommended by the author Sandy Schwab in this amazing Twitter thread about the Third Reich.
The Third Reich was not the only place where oppression happened. There were also attempts to assimilate indigenous people in Canada, Australia, and the USA; there were forced marches, and genocides, and enslavement, and residential schools.
Indian Residential Schools were created by the Canadian government in the late 19th century as a way to assimilate aboriginal children into the developing white Canadian society. Aboriginal children were removed, typically by force, from their families and home communities.They were taken to residential schools and forbidden to speak their own languages and were denied access to their culture. Many survivors of the residential school system report extreme cases of physical and sexual abuse, starvation and neglect at these institutions, which were co-run by the church and the state.
Babylon 5 is a TV sci-fi drama which lasted five seasons, and explores themes of racism (mostly racism against aliens, and between other alien species), colonialism, conquest, war, and the rise of fascism. Sound familiar? I am currently watching it for the fourth time, and finding many parallels with current events.
Heimat is a German-language TV drama about life in 20th century Germany. It starts in 1919 and the first series deals with the rise of the Nazis. The story follows the life of Maria Simon, who lives in a rural village. It is a very good drama, and helps to answer the perennial question, “how did this happen?”
Shoah is a documentary about the Holocaust. (Shoah is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.) It presents testimonies by survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators of the Holocaust. It is probably one of the most harrowing things you will ever watch, but it ought to be required viewing, especially for Holocaust deniers.
Rabbit Proof Fence is a drama about two Australian Aborigine children who escape from a residential school and walk 1500 miles – all the way across Australia – to find their mother, following the line of a rabbit proof fence that runs across the interior of the continent. There are some historical inaccuracies in the film, but it certainly conveys the story of the Stolen Generations very effectively. Based on the idea that the Aboriginal people were doomed to extinction, “mixed-race” children were removed from their Aboriginal mothers and placed in schools and camps like the one depicted in the film.
Selma is a biopic of Martin Luther King and the civil rights protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1964. The film opens with the bombing of a Black church in Birmingham, Alabama by the KKK, in which four young girls were killed. It shows how civil rights campaigners were shot, beaten, arrested, and denied access to the right to vote. It helps to illustrate the meaning and impact of systemic racism, and the dignity and courage of those who resisted it.
Gandhi is an epic film about Mahatma Gandhi, exploring his life and the development of the principle of non-violent resistance. It covers his early years in South Africa, the Amritsar Massacre, the Salt March, his visit to Britain, his hunger strike when India was partitioned, and his assassination. It rather airbrushes out some of his less pleasant characteristics, but it is an epic film about this period of Indian history, and doesn’t hide the oppressive behaviour of the British colonial administration and army.
These are just a few examples of things that have moved me and given me some empathy towards the oppressed in colonial and far-right societies. Some of them also include strategies for resistance.