It’s been quite a week on the impeachment front — a 9-hour-plus, bitterly contentious hearing before the House Judiciary Committee that focused (or attempted to, anyway) on evidence of President Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors, followed just 14 hours later with the high-stakes rollout of two articles of impeachment. The case against Trump could get a committee vote by Thursday, with the full House voting before Christmas.
With all this momentous news, naturally I’ve been thinking about a not-well-enough-known German-language novel from 1947, written by an author who was days away from succumbing to morphine addiction and the craziness of having barely survived Nazi rule. Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone is a fictionalized account of a real story — an obscure Berlin factory worker and his wife who, after a family member is killed in combat in the early months of World War II, turns against Adolf Hitler with a zeal both foolhardy and brave beyond modern comprehension.
In 1940, Otto Hampel began writing postcards that attacked both the Fuhrer and his totalitarian regime, scrawling the words “worker murderer” across Hitler’s face or asking fellow citizens to “Wake up!” to the evil of their government. Over two years, Hampel covertly dropped more than 200 of these postcards in busy stairwells or other public places, in the hopes that everyday people would read them and rise up against the Third Reich. The reality, though, was that most of the cards were immediately turned over to the Gestapo by terrified citizens. After confounding authorities for two years, the Hampels were arrested and executed by the guillotine.
It’s hard to imagine deeper existential questions than the ones posed by Every Man Dies Alone. Did writing the truth about Hitler doom Otto, or did it set him free? Were he and his wife, who helped deliver the messages, heroes or reckless fools? (Consider the fact that few people — possibly no one — responded positively to the postcards.) In real life, Otto Hampel told his Nazi captors that — even as he awaited the guillotine — he was “happy” with what he did.
Flash forward nearly eight long decades to Donald Trump’s America, and it’s impossible not to hear the echoing footsteps of Otto Hampel. Postcards of truth are dropping everywhere. You could find them in a House hearing room where dedicated public servants like former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman said Trump’s abuses of power, in threatening to extort Ukraine for political gain, offended the very values that caused their immigrant families to come to America. Or in Monday’s report from the Department of Justice’s inspector general on the origins of the Trump-Russia prove which screamed the obvious, that of course the FBI was right to probe why Vladimir Putin was meddling in our election and what Team Trump knew.
It’s tough but fair to say that the president’s volume-cranked-to-11 allies on Capitol Hill, his authoritarian Roy-Cohn-but-worse pit bull attorney general, and of course Trump himself have been frantically scooping up the postcards before anyone with half a brain can see them. For weeks, the Republican Party and its quasi-official house organ, the Fox News Channel, have been talking the reams of truth and feeding it into a shredder — spinning an alternate reality for their 62 million in which the president’s extortionate call with Ukraine and his hold on vital military aid were “perfect” and the IG report says the 180-degree opposite.
It’s hard to overstate what a dangerous place the United States finds itself in right now. There has, of course, been a civil war in our 243-plus year history as well as countless constitutional crises and difficult decisions about war and peace and basic human rights. Those battles have covered the powers of the presidency or the courts, or what is or isn’t a fundamental right within a democratic republic. This time feels different. We’re fighting over the one thing that’s even more basic than our ideals — what is truth, and does it matter? If the answer to that second question is “no,” then America is already way too deep into the black hole of authoritarianism.
Since September, more than a half-dozen brave public servants have come forward with the details that confirm what any citizen can read in the released call report of what Trump told Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky on June 25 — that president solicited a foreign country to interfere in the 2020 presidential election (a crime) and used his official powers, including control of Congressionally-approved security aid, to demand what he wanted (an arguably worse crime). In addition to those specific crimes, it was a stunning abuse of power to use the resources of the U.S. government in an effort to get something for his ow personal benefit — a dramatic example of a presidential pattern hiding in plain sight for the last 35 months.
The response from Congressional Republicans to these facts has not been to dispute or debate them, but to ignore them. It’s almost certain that not a single GOP member of the House will vote next week on the overwhelming evidence to impeach Trump, and — while the Senate can be a different kettle of fish — it’s impossible at this point to imagine that the 20 or more Republican senators will provide the necessary votes to remove him.
About a million trees have been felled to print articles about the evidence against Trump and what it all means for 2020 politics, but surprisingly little about how this national ordeal is making people feel. That depends, obviously, on your politics, but I think for the half of Americans who want a real investigation, it’s been a mixed bag. Seeing that there are still public servants in the State Department, the Pentagon, even within the White House with a sense not just of duty but right and wrong can be exhilarating. But listening to the Republicans with effective control of the final outcome spout baseless conspiracy theories without showing even the slightest curiosity about the truth has been infuriating, exhausting ... and thoroughly demoralizing.
In the middle of this, the best piece I’ve read came from Slate’s legal expert Dahlia Lithwick, who noted that (amid the largely underexplored parallels between the Trump resistance and the #MeToo movement) the vast majority of truth-tellers up on Capitol Hill have been women. And while many scribes are quick to describe the testimony of Yovanovitch or Fiona Hill or constitutional scholar Pamela Karlen as “speaking truth to power,” Lithwick makes clear that — at a moment of bat-guano crazy talk that the FBI was “spying” on Trump’s campaign or that Ukraine and not Russia was the real election meddler — these women are “speaking truth to nonsense.”
Lithwick writes: “These women all know they’re being catapulted into the epistemological wood chipper, and that, if they’re lucky, the death threats and the violence directed at them and their families will eventually subside. But this is about much more than speaking truth to power — in its own way, speaking truth to nonsense is even more important. Power is immune to truth-tellers these days, but history may not be. And women have had centuries of experience in what happens when you let the gaslighters win.”
This is exactly right. It’s easy to play the political odds and avoid taking action on Trump’s lawlessness because doing so won’t add to the 53 percent who’ve known the president is unfit from Day One but will rile up Trump voters in Michigan and Wisconsin, by reminding them to hate the law professors and the journalists and the liberals. Such thinking is easy ... but wrong. Do we want to be a people liberated by the truth or imprisoned by fear of telling it?
The fix is in regarding Trump’s political verdict in the Senate, but the verdict of the history books — if history books and science and colleges can survive the coming (bleep) storm — is still undetermined. Did we acquiesce to the slaughter of the truth that’s currently taking place in Washington, or did we fight back? Only the courageous will be remembered by our great-grandchildren.
It’s true that few people saw the Hampels’ postcards, and that — like everybody — they died alone. But their spirit has only grown stronger in the 77 years since they were executed, celebrated in literature and movies that have inspired even more people than the postcards could ever have reached. Just last year, on the 125th birthday of the novelist Fallada, a monument to Otto and Elise Hampel was erected in the Berlin neighborhood where they’d lived. Its inscription reads: “Wake up!”