Might You Have Been a “Good German”? Have You Been a Good American?

by Jaime O’Neill | April 8, 2021


I surely am not only one who has devoted some idle moments thinking about how I might have behaved had I been a German in Germany during the rise of Hitler, wondering if I would have had the courage to speak out as the oppression settled ever more heavily on that nation. I’ve read quite a few narratives about people who tried to resist, about the young people in the White Rose resistance movement, for instance, and about solitary subversives who made small but very dangerous attempts to gum up the works.

What would I–and what would you–have done if you saw Jews being loaded on trucks while being spat upon by your fellow citizens? What would you have done if you lived down wind of one of the gas chambers and listened to the rumors neighbors were sharing about the not-so-secret activities being carried on so close to where you lived?

When I was younger, I liked to think there was little I wouldn’t have done to stand against the Nazi horrors. Now, I’m not so sure. I remind myself that I engaged in resistance against the war in Vietnam, and that I was already a husband and a father when I was doing that. I tell myself, and I told myself, that protesting against my government was a duty I had to the future, and to my kids.

But, as bad as that war was, and as paranoid as many of us felt about FBI operatives working undercover, and agents taking our pictures at demonstrations, most of us were idealists not at all ready to believe our country was actually going to come after us, then drag us off to be tortured. Still, there were episodes and anecdotes of violence against those who bucked the system. Civil rights workers were terrorized and some were killed. Anti-war activists were constantly being warned that we were putting our futures at risk. Skulls were cracked, limbs broken. The Alameda Sheriff’s Department (aka “The Blue Meanies”) were known to shoot buckshot at the heels of demonstrators fleeing gas attacks knowing that the pellets would ricochet off the sidewalk and into the legs and buttocks of the peaceniks.

At a demonstration in Berkeley one bright day in the mid-60s, my wife and I joined a few thousand other marchers for a walk through largely friendly turf on our way to a rally-against-the-war. People lined the streets, mostly applauding as we passed. Among them I saw a former English teacher who waved me over. Though she said that she, herself, opposed the war, she felt it unwise for me, a young man with a family, to be jeopardizing my future by making my dissent public. “People are collecting information on people who oppose the war,” she said, “and you might find it hard to get a teaching job in the future.”

I told her I wasn’t worried, and that she should join us. She didn’t, though she assured me that she was with us in spirit. But I was worried. I had a responsibility to my conscience, of course, but that hadn’t turned out to be an uncomplicated matter. I had a responsibility to my family, too, also a matter of conscience. Was I being irresponsible by opposing the war, or would I be irresponsible, even to my children, if I didn’t?

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