A Book Review

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Warnings: The Holocaust, Ukraine, and Endangered American Democracy — A Review

Two eminent scholars of the Holocaust have written a passionate and engaging book on the dangers our democracy faces and what we must do to save it. It is essential reading.

Joe Chuman — April 24

American democracy is standing on a precipice. With the unthinkable, namely a Trump victory looming, the last several years have spawned a glut of volumes sounding the alarm: The 2024 presidential election may mark the end of the American experiment.

Warnings, co-authored by Leonard Grob and John K Roth, is a most valued addition to this timely genre. Its approach, organizational structure, and voice reflect the distinctive backgrounds of the writers. Roth and Grob are both Holocaust scholars with decades of scholarship to their credit. John Roth has authored, co-authored, and edited over 35 volumes on the Holocaust. Grob had founded a Holocaust Center at Fairleigh Dickinson University where he had long taught, as well as a program bringing scholars from various religious traditions together for biennial conferences spanning decades, dedicated to applying Holocaust studies to contemporary political and social problems. Both writers, who have previously collaborated, are in their eighties and are retired professors of philosophy.

Despite the academic backgrounds of its authors, Warnings is highly accessible to the general public, written in a voice that is passionate, heartfelt, and personal. The reader cannot fail to be moved by the humanity of the writers, whose teaching and activism have reflected democracy in practice.

Our democracy is in grave danger, and the book resonates a sense of urgency while veering away from stridency and avoiding despair. As implied, the thesis funnels into the upcoming presidential election and how we have reached this point. As the books subtitle – The Holocaust, Ukraine, and Endangered American Democracy- implies, it mines the Holocaust and the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany to provide usable lessons for the roads we must avoid if democracy is to be rescued from the dark forces of authoritarianism. Its historical interest is focused more on the conditions that created the groundwork for the Holocaust than on the details of the genocide itself. The narrative also includes Russia’s assault on Ukraine as exemplary of an additional example of the encroachment of authoritarianism on freedom and democracy, and the emergence of fascistic tendencies resembling the rise of Nazism, while not drawing false equivalences. But the American situation remains the book’s primary concern. The rise of Donald Trump, his minions, and the MAGA culture are laid out in explicit detail while not mincing words.

The danger we confront is starkly presented to the reader at the beginning:

“…American democracy remains at risk. It could be trumped by conspiratorial, vengeance-driven, violence-prone, antidemocratic authoritarianism, as an American version of fascism.”

Most valuable is the authors’ rigorous explication of the substance of democracy on multiple levels and beyond the mere exercise of periodically casting votes. The book’s richness is vested not solely in the threat to democratic institutions but in the public and personal values that sustain those institutions. As they make clear, democracy is not a static framework of institutions. It is a living process. A prevailing theme is that democracy is not self-executing or self-sustaining. Also emphasized is the paradox that lies at the heart of democracy. In the authors’ words, “democracy’s existence invites its demise.” It is a product of the will, values, and virtues of the people below who will determine whether our democracy survives or will give way to authoritarianism. Referencing Elie Wiesel, arguably the foremost writer on the Holocaust, “the opposite of the epitome of evil is not hate, but indifference.” Democracy will die unless the people reverse the slide into indifference, unless they care sufficiently to sustain it. That reversal is the writers’ primary task.

The writers inform us in the opening chapters that dialogue is essential to democracy, and the format of the book structurally reflects that central dynamic. The book’s organization serves as a meta-example of the centrality of dialogue to democratic process. The volume’s eight chapters are subdivided into the reflections of one author and then a response by the other. The views of each are not challenged so much as augmented and enriched by the responses of the coauthor. Each chapter begins with a brief introduction and ends with a postscript that serves as a summation. Woven throughout the substantive content are autobiographical references that further humanize the ideas presented and evoke an engaged and caring response.

The initial chapter on the role of philosophy in preserving democracy clearly emerges out of the life-long professional vocations of both Roth and Grob as academic philosophers. At first glance, the presumption that philosophy can play a role in significantly influencing political life appears counter-intuitive. As Grob notes, “The relative silence of academic philosophers in the face of the Holocaust is deafening.” As one who has taught in the academy this fails to surprise. Philosophy is an arcane discipline, and with the exception of a small number of public intellectuals, is notably removed from the practical realities which thickly comprise everyday political realities. This is probably more the case in contemporary America than it was in Europe in the 1930s.

Yet this is not philosophy, despite their academic pedigree, as Lenny and John and understand it. They return us to philosophy’s Socratic roots. Philosophy so applied is arguably the possession of any and all thoughtful persons whether academically trained or not. The foundational premise that ties the volume together is that of values, values which all people in a democratic polity can possess and realize. In the current moment more so than ever. The heart of philosophy is openness to varying and opposing viewpoints, which is realized through discussion and dialogue. It is the disposition of curious people who are actively engaged in their world. The essence of Hitlerian thought was one of closed absolutes. Jews were responsible for all of Germany’s problems; Aryans comprised the superior race. No questions asked. We witness a similar approach in Trump’s Big Lie, conspiracy theories, and gratuitously proffered misinformation. To question such assertions is to be treated as the enemy. The tone for fascism is set.

With decades of teaching behind them, it is not surprising that education and the relation of education to democracy should be of central concern. That relation has been a major dynamic of progressive thought for decades. It has long been asserted by social theorists that improving education is the primary driver for the improvement of society overall. Since the 1960s, major critiques have been written and innumerable reports commissioned on ways to improve American schools.

Yet Germany of the Nazi era throws into contention a positive relationship between education and the flourishing of a civilized and humane society. Mid-twentieth century Germany produced the most highly educated society on the planet. Here was the land of Goethe and Beethoven in which the Enlightenment flourished. Yet, it was Germany, the pinnacle of rationality, science, and technology, that applied those superior capabilities in constructing killing factories that enabled the murder of millions of human beings with the greatest efficiency in the quickest period of time at the cheapest cost. Education did not save the victims of the Holocaust. It was perversely employed to perpetrate history’s greatest evil. That ostensible contradiction was starkly illustrated by a fact that Lenny tersely recounts:

“On January 20, 1942, fifteen members of the Nazi Party and the German government met at a villa a Wannsee near Berlin. The agenda: to coordinate the destruction of the European Jews, the ‘Final Solution’ of ‘the Jewish question,’ Eight of them held doctoral degrees from German universities. Their academic accomplishments did nothing to keep them from committing genocide. So, Americans need to be warned that if education is crucial for democracy, its quality and its commitments are a matter of life and death.” The final clause is the determining clarifier. Clearly having an educated public per se is no guarantee that authoritarianism will not emerge. It is rather the quality, method, and content of education that are determinative.

Nazi education provided the counter-example. As Lenny notes,

“Nazi education glorified functional means-ends reasoning. It lacked concern for the ethical dimension of the end toward which such reasoning was employed. The classrooms of the Weimar period embraced voraussetzunslos Wissenschaft, science lacking moral concerns. The result during the years of the Holocaust itself: the loud silence of the German railroad worker who never inquired, let alone protested, where the cattle cars were going: the silence of the Zyklon B factory worker who never inquired about, let alone protested, the lethal use of the product to gas Jews to death.”

The lack of ethically based teaching has long been absent in American schools. Questions arise: which ethical values? Whose ethics? Morality is broadly understood to be grounded in religion. Consequently, the separation of church and state would make the explicit teaching of ethics difficult as it is contentious in public schools.

The problems that concern us at this strident moment are not so much the absence of moral issues, but the imposition of policies that reflect a morality that is politically driven and increasingly extremist. The authors cite the initiatives fueled by the MAGA cohort, including rampant book banning, attacks on teaching about racial and gender justice, and the whitewashing of American history that speaks to its dark underside. In its stead, a balanced view is replaced by an uncritical interpretation of the history that aligns with the views of Donald Trump’s base, namely that America is an exceptionally great and just nation. It’s a view that invokes romanticized versions of 1950s society when white, male dominance went significantly unchallenged. Also cited are the long-lasting issues of the undervaluing of the teaching profession, overcrowded classrooms, and a nod to the inequities that are created when schools are sustained by property-tax revenues.

Not surprisingly, the authors see necessary value in educating about the Holocaust and its contextual antecedents. Yet when one witnesses the extraordinary outbreak of antisemitism, including on college campuses, in light of the Israeli assault on Gaza in response to the Hamas massacre of October 7th (which is often cited as the largest killing of Jews since the Holocaust), I asked myself how aware are today’s students of the evil of the Holocaust? And if they are aware, what difference does it make? For today’s college students born after 2000, the Holocaust may feel like a very distant event, no longer relevant to the contemporary political world. More captivating, one learns, are contemporary ideologies of post-colonialism,which for some student activists exclusively maligns Israel, the Jewish state, as a perpetrator. Ideological reductionism, not nuance, details, or complexity is arguably a product of contemporary college education. Education plays a formative role, but not the kind that one who sees the dangers of anti-democracy lurking would not want to encourage.

As educators, Lenny and John are, nevertheless, realists who affirm the limitation of education in sustaining the values and practices we need at this moment. They end their chapter on education with the sober conclusion that “…the cliché ‘education is the solution’ is naive and banal in the current American context. Education-for-democracy is under siege in the United States.” Yet, without providing evidence, they remain hopeful that the majority of Americans stand with them in affirming democratic values.

Political theorists have long had difficulty with religion. Progressive mid-twentieth century thinkers conventionally assumed that religion would fade as education expanded, the prestige of science would grow stronger as the populace ascended the economic ladder. Religion was not construed as a significant political actor.

Ensuing events on the international stage and domestically have shown that these prophesies were ominously mistaken. In the Muslim world, the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1970 was a game changer. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has moved that secular democracy toward becoming officially a Hindu state. The American analog was marked by the movement of evangelical Christians back into the political arena. With the emergence of The Moral Majority, the reentry into the public square, in the late 1970s, of tens of millions of evangelicals has moved the entire political landscape far to the right. The breeding ground for current extremism was then set in place.

The effects of this tectonic change are discussed in Warnings‘ chapter on religion. John Roth notes,

“…no threat to democracy in the United States is greater than White Christian nationalism. It is the American ‘cousin’ of both the German Christian nationalism that supported Hitler and his genocide against European Jews and the Russian Orthodox Christian nationalism that has backed Vladimir Putin and his grisly war in Ukraine. In the United States White Christian nationalism, whose allies include some Roman Catholics, ‘mainstream’ Protestants, and even secular fellow travelers, is not synonymous with White evangelical Christianity. But the overlap with the American evangelical tradition is significant, striking, and sinister. The difference and the overlap pivot on the degree to which White Christian nationalism and White evangelical Christianity privilege White power to define and control American identity and the future of the United States – legitimating violence, if necessary, to do so. If Christians abandon Christianity at its best and fail to resist White Christian nationalism, then God help us.”

It needs to be noted that Donald Trump would not have become president without the support of White evangelicals. They comprise the centerpiece of his electoral base. He received upward of eighty percent of the evangelical vote and he is poised to do so again.

For John, the powerful role that religion is currently playing is personal. He is the son of a Presbyterian minister and remains a church-going Christian. His identity is rooted in the best of the Christian tradition. His reflections include the work of the German resistance theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who forfeited his life in the struggle against Hitler. As a scholar of the Holocaust, John notes that had it not been for the churches’ support for Hitler’s antisemitic Nazism, Jews would not have been murdered during the Holocaust.

Despite articulated hope, the authors concede that the mainline traditions have not done enough to oppose the onslaught of White Christian nationalism and its authoritarian initiatives. In this reviewer’s opinion, such realism is warranted. Mainline Protestant churches are greatly diminished, with some very greatly hemorrhaging members. Younger generations, especially, see no value in traditional religion and have greatly remained unaffiliated. Whatever commitment to the prophetic voice of Jesus evangelicalism once espoused is now gone. Evangelical Christianity has primarily become an extremist political movement, which perversely sees Donald Trump as sent by God. It has lost its soul.

The book’s chapter on death and the dead is the most poignant. Here recalling the Holocaust plays a specific and powerful role. For Lenny such appreciation is deeply personal in that close family members were killed in the Holocaust. The dead convey an essential message to us, or “through us” as the authors remind us. Lenny Grob’s reflections are especially moving. Seldom has the continuity between past lives and our present obligations been so compellingly stated:

“If respecting the dead includes the possibility of hearing their call, what might the dead be saying? In particular, what are they saying to, or through me? As the grandson of grandparents murdered in Eastern Poland (today western Ukraine) and as a scholar of the Holocaust, I have heard a summons. I feel commanded by the murdered ones to remember – literally to help ‘remember’ – a world dismembered eighty years ago. The Holocaust was an attempt to destroy the realm of human solidarity. I hear the silent screams of Holocaust victims telling me to insist that it is unacceptable to engage in acts that murder the victim a second time. The Holocaust’s dead implore me not to see them merely as victims, but as living persons who had names, took part in family events, and energized the communities they inhabited. I am asked to see their deaths not as objective facts but as subjective blows that strike me. I am summoned to my best to gather together pieces of the dismembered world of the Holocaust. For me, that means working toward healing our democracy’s torn egalitarian fabric.”

In short, our active work now to save our democracy not only safeguards the present and sets the stage for future generations, but retrospectively honors the lives of those who perished before us. Saving our democracy does not, therefore, solely consist in preserving needed institutions. It is a spiritual engagement that speaks to the living connection of human lives across generations.

A chapter devoted to pandemics is well-named in that it goes beyond the extent of death caused by the Covid-19 virus and the divisive politics it spawned. As the authors note, “Accompanying its virulence, lethal plagues of moral, and spiritual infection are at pandemic levels in our body politic.”

What follows are analyses of ethnocentric racism that accompanied the plague, including the proliferation of lies and lying that emanate from Donald Trump and poison the political and social environment. As the writers assert, pervasive lying rots out the foundational ground from which democracy grows and endures. There is discussion of judicial tyranny and cruelty, focusing primarily on the Supreme Court; the attack on women with rescission of Roe, the diminution of voting rights, and an upsurge in rule by minorities. Gun violence, environmental degradation, and other entrenched ills are manifestations of contemporary plagues tearing away at our democracy.

A concluding chapter highlights means of resistance and grows out of the analyses of the threats to democracy the text previously documents and describes. There is a listing of concrete political initiatives, among them supporting, through action and financial donations, candidates who promote democracy, support of progressive NGOs, and funding for Ukraine’s defense, which is a battle line in a war to save freedom and democracy from Putin’s onslaught. They include standing for progressive immigration reform, supporting science, and aligning with the Justice Department in its prosecution of Donald Trump for the January 6th insurrection and other crimes.

Warnings employs the past, specifically the Holocaust, to better understand the dangers of the present with a view toward sustaining democracy now and into the future. It oscillates between immediate concrete measures and abstract and long-lasting values. Most appealing was the authors’ emphasis on the cultivation of ethics and personal virtues in the public at large to ensure democracy’s survival and flourishing. They begin and end their treatise with the assertion that democracy is not self-executing, but ultimately rests on the will and commitment of an informed citizenry.

When it comes to the cultivation of virtues and ethics that form the character of individuals, perhaps a chapter on family and the socialization of children would be a relevant addition to the comprehensive analyses presented by two knowledgeable scholars and activists.

Warnings is an important book, written, as noted, with urgency and passion. Its purpose could not be more relevant to the greatest issue of our time. Many books have been written about the looming threat to democracy and the consequent rise of authoritarianism. What makes Warnings different – and eminently compelling – is the deep personalism conveyed by John Roth and Leonard Grob. It is an enriching element that underscores the humanism and sincerity of these two wise thinkers.

Democracy, as stated several times throughout, is a process. Warnings is part of that process, and as such, is an exemplification of the very ideals it describes and promotes. It is a book that merits a wide readership.

Joe Chuman founded our Northern NJ Sanctuary Coalition.