So you wanna talk about Hitler…

Written by Sven Eberlein

We’ve seen the new meme as of late by Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and the corporate anti health care enablers to call President Obama a racist and compare him to Adolf Hitler. Thankfully, there’s a lot of push back to this disturbing trend, ranging from the last wails of a dying breed to fascism on the rise.

As a German, I’m not only part of my people’s long collective struggle to come to grips with our past, but I have personally grappled with my own family history and how to approach a subject so fraught with emotion and almost mythical proportions. I am so reluctant and utterly shocked to even write in response to such a patently absurd comparison that borders on the mental fringes between frightfully deluded and clinically insane. However, as painful as it is, there are times when we are asked to fearlessly descend into the darkest corners of our consciousness in order to evolve and transcend, and this is one of those times.

This is what a family stroll in the spring of 1940 looked like for my family:

That’s my grandmother with my Dad, his brothers, accompanied by a nazi-uniformed family friend. I’m assuming the photo was taken by my grandfather.

My father passed away last year, so when my brother and I cleaned out his apartment we came across a lot of old family history, somberly resting in dusty old albums and folders. See, on the one hand you just want it to go away and toss that whole rotten pile in the fire, never to be seen or thought about again. On the other hand, we cannot evolve toward being more kind and compassionate humans without facing our shadows. We must not be afraid lest we forget the lessons of the past.

My grandfather was a devout Nazi until his death in 1989. He never talked about killing anyone nor did he have any leading role during the Third Reich (he was an engineering teacher), but there was always that hostility toward all things foreign, toward liberal ideas, toward socialists (and in post-war Germany, Social Democrats). Sound familiar? The incredible destruction and collapse of his beloved country and the extreme suffering and poverty it caused his family was always blamed on outsiders, the enemy who was lurking from all corners just to mess with his pure Germany.

Thing is, my grandfather was a loving family man, with the sweetest wife you could imagine (grandma passed in 1984), raising four sons in the middle of death and destruction. I knew him to be a strong-willed man with a good sense of humor. A little intimidating for a child like myself, but also full of stories. I always enjoyed visiting my grandparents as a kid — we would go sailing, hiking and camping — and if it weren’t for all the iron cross, eagle and swastika stickers on his bookshelf, I would consider my grandparents’ house and family vibe completely normal. In other words, my grandfather was a HUMAN BEING. My dad, who went on to become a state judge in the Federal Republic of Germany, always told me that the one thing he just never understood about his father was his infatuation with “that Nazi stuff.” It never made any sense to him, considering how caring his father was.

Here they are together in 1941…

I came of age in the late 1980s, during the height of anti-nuclear protests and acid rain in Germany. I learned extensively about the horrible crimes my country had committed against humanity in school. But when you’re 17 or 18 you think “what the hell does that have to do with me?” There were plenty of problems going on right then and there, including a bunch of stupid skinheads and neo-Nazis that needed to be shouted down and opposed. Like many Germans regardless of their disposition, talking about our Nazi past felt like a dead end street that was inevitably bound for guilt and self-loathing.

It took me a few more years and a long trip to India to understand that there was so much more to it than the old guilty vs not-guilty paradigm. During that time I allowed myself to go deeper into it which began with an acceptance of the Nazi seeds within me. You see, if my grandfather was a Nazi and I am his descendant, then surely I must have a Nazi seed within me as well. That thought was a bit salty at first, but the more I meditated on it, the more I understood its meaning. A tear ran down my cheek when my heart opened up to the possibility of little me in that uniform. By accepting it I was able to transcend it. The bigger realization that was personal and yet universal was that if I had this potential in me then we all do. And if I had love in me then everyone did. It is our choice, but we cannot choose until we’re fully conscious of it.

In the past few years I think my people have collectively arrived at a new junction where we are realizing that there are infinitely more profound ways to deal with our past beyond denial, ignorance, or paralysis. Movies like Downfall that personalize Hitler would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. To link yourself with a man and a time that you have learned to associate with such inhuman monstrosity is almost impossible to process. See, if we accept Hitler as an archetype of pure evil it puts him outside of our human capacity to process, learn and evolve. But if we let in the truly scary thought that Hitler was a human being we suddenly allow ourselves the chance for healing the part within us that is capable of such profound hatred.

I’ve often thought about why I get so annoyed when people here in the US sling around the Hitler label. And just to be fair, I never liked seeing signs with Hitler mustaches painted on George W. Bush’s face either. I would usually just kind of shrug it off as kind of a juvenile expression of people’s frustration with a truly horrible warmongering president. But these recent deliberate and preposterous insertions of Hitlerisms into the mainstream of American society are going way too far and need to be exposed as the dangerous and ignorant appeals to our lowest sense they are.

What the people who draw these comparisons are doing is invoke the archetype of Hitler that we have collectively formed in our head, the archetype of something so evil and inhuman that it is beyond our capacity to shake off or transcend. By linking President Obama to the archetype of Hitler they are not trying to make any points about health care or energy or any other policy, but they are attempting to put him into a box out of which nobody could ever escape and from which any kind of soul growth or evolution is impossible. In short, they are trying to make a man who is about as human and compassionate as any man who has ever graced the American political landscape, inhuman. Just like Hitler did with those he didn’t like…

I’ll leave you with this song I wrote while reflecting on my country’s past in an Indian hotel.

Tracks of Eternity

Boom, I saw the flames again, the heat of today,
How can it be, I’m miles away?
Not a sudden roar, just a trace of certainty, little sparks that say you’ve been there before.

Can’t quite remember what it means to me, no word, no message to confirm.
And then I see a face I’ve known so long — a smile, a nod, a uniform.

Please just wait a while, I’d like to contact you.
Is it true you’re still alive?
Riding down the tracks of eternity, silence as your main device.

I checked your file, you’re clear by now, the years are passing by in haze.
But I will drown if I much longer refuse to shed some light on that face.

Hello! Hello! Is there something I should say?
Hello! Hello! Does it hurt to be that way?
Hello! Hello! Is there something I should say?
Hello! Hello! Is there something I could possibly have said?

So here I am, just watched the smoke blow away, a solemn cloak of pink and gray.
And when inferno’s stench must dissipate, it turns to beauty so they say.

What am I chasing, does it have a name? All the faces laugh at me.
Setting terms of justice helps us to condemn while producing more of the same.

Then the cameras sway and I am zooming in, a wave of shock and disbelief.
Standing next to me, the kin of my own, with barricades around their home.

The woods are burned, oh boy, we’ve cleared the way to see the distance we all dread.
Collective silence seals the last attempt to affect what they could possibly have said.

Hello! Hello! Is there something I should say?
Hello! Hello! Does it hurt to be that way?
Hello! Hello! Is there something I should say?
Hello! Hello! Is there something I could possibly have said?

About the author

Sven Eberlein

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  • Hi, Sven. I’m reposting your blog (with full credit to you and a link to here) on another forum I participate in. i’d like some other folks to read this, it was lovely.

  • I have posted comments and a link to this timely and very meaningful post of yours in my own blog

    I especially liked the photos. I found your post on Daily Kos and thank you for taking the time to post it in your own blog.

    When I was less than a year old my mother hustled me and my two older siblings out of Barcelona to “escape” the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. Then I May and June 1940 my birth family “escaped” from Nazi occupation of France. I feel touched by the Hitler thing in a small way, but it feel the echoes in my faulty memory. Thanks for your relevant thoughts!

  • Came here via Dana aka Carnival of Elitist Bastards. I noted there that you can’t be both a socialist and Hitler at the same time. One is to the left and the other is the far right.

    On a personal note: my maternal grandfather emigrated from Bremen in 1930. Why? He belonged, if not in a leadership position, to the Socialist Reichsbanner Party in Saxony and Bremen. As a steam fitter and clerk he was certainly in the middle of the election violence. As far as I know, he never wrote about or talked about his experiences.

  • While I find your post enlightening, I have to say I have a few issues with it.

    First, you are not responsible for your family’s past history. Many of us have family histories that we many not be proud of, all in the name of patriotism, allegiance to a country or allegiance to a person. We, in this modern day, sometimes hundreds of years afterwards, are free to acknowledge their happening however, we are not responsible for their actions, and we should not bear the guilt of their trangressions.

    You neither have any control over your family’s past nor can you change you faimily’s past. You however are not your family’s past. You are your family’s future. You are your own person. You as a human have the ability to make your own free-will choices.

    Move on past your family’s history. Stop accepting responsibility for your grandfather’s political choices. You are only a prisoner of your family’s past, if you allow yourself to be.

    Second in regard to people comparing Bush with Hitler. Although you state you didn’t like it, and though of it as only juvenile then, you were not compelled to take a stance then on the use of Nazi comparisons. When Al Gore used the term “brownshirts”, you were not disturbed then? When Dem Congressman Keith Ellison compared the Bush administration to a Hitler regime, you were not disturbed then?

    Now however, that Obama is being compared with Hitler/Nazi, you seem to be unsettled with it, now comparing it to a moral crime to do such an act. More recently Brian Baird (D-WA) has compared the actions of anti-ObamaCare protestors to “brownshirt” activities yet ignoring the fact that the violence that has been comitted at these events were by SEIU members, that have “pledged” their allegiance to ObamaCare.

    And what you fail to mention in your post, is that not only are a few protestors comparing Obama to Hitler, with many assuming they are conservatives/Republicans, is that there are Democratic Congressmen/Women comparing people’s actions to brown shirts and Nazis, and using the terms associated with Nazism to these protestors, even when there are no signs of Nazism, swastikas, or Hitler. People are choosing to associate one person’s choices to all at these events. When in reality, the use of these terms and symbols are being used on BOTH sides and have been used like this for years.

    If it is morally wrong with Obama, and only juvenilely wrong with Bush, this makes you a hypocrite. Sorry however, this is my opinion, and you do not have to agree with it, and it is not a guilt trip trick. You do however, need to realize what is a bad comparison and use with one, is a bad comparison and use for all.

    • I appreciate the points you’re making. As for the first one about responsibility, the process I went through wasn’t so much about being guilty or not. There’s nothing I can do about what my grandfather thought or did, but I feel like I can learn from my family’s and country’s history, which is helpful in living a more compassionate and conscious life.

      As for my lack of equal attention to Nazi invocations on both sides, I do believe that in this current political climate there are more of these kinds of comparisons on the right than on the left. Starting with some of the things said during the presidential campaign all the way to smears around President Obama’s birth certificate, very shocking things have been said about about a man who was democratically elected to lead this country. Now I don’t like the comparisons on either side, but I also can’t completely equivocate a president who invades an autonomous country on a false premise with a president who is trying to provide health care for all citizens. I’m only human, after all.

  • Dear Sven,

    I just wanted to thank you for this amazing piece, and I wanted to let you know that I have sent the link to the Huffington Post and requested that they post this. You hopefully will be hearing from them.

    To many Americans, mostly those under 50, Hitler is a boogie man, an ethereal and unreal monster who lived what may as well have been hundreds of years ago. He has become little more than a monster story to scare children with when they don’t do what you want. What many Americans need to realize is that he was REAL, a human being, a man who loved dogs and painted and was a vegetarian. A regular guy, just like any other regular guy, who tapped into the darkest part of the human spirit and expolited it for all he could. People need to understand that if HE could do that, any regular person can do it.

    And that’s the true horror.

    Again, thank you. With your permisssion, I would like to post some excerpt of this on my blog. I usually just write political humor and snark, but the last few days have inspired to change direction a little bit, and focus on the darkness.

    I can be reached at You are also very welcome to check out my website,

    Thank you.

    With Warmest Regards,

    J. Boyd

  • Sven,
    Great post. I read it from the cafemom website that was mentioned earlier & re-posted it in another group. 🙂

    • Thanks Ashley, so glad you enjoyed it. And thanks for passing it on. It seems to have sparked a very intelligent, heartfelt and constructive conversation, exactly what I had hoped for.