Anne Frank’s Legacy and the Politics of Fear and Intolerance

            I read recently of the efforts of the accomplished Swiss actor Buddy Elias, the last surviving member of Anne Frank’s family. Elias, now 88, is the cousin of the famous diarist and concentration camp victim. The two knew one another well as children as Anne and her family visited Elias’s family in Switzerland—the country to which his parents had emigrated in 1931—every holiday until Nazi occupation and war prevented their travel. Elias, deeply and widely respected in his adopted nation, has led the Anne Frank Fonds in Basel since 1980, when Anne’s father, Otto Frank, died. Elias travels nearly continuously around the world speaking about peace and religious and racial tolerance on behalf of that foundation, concerns that Anne Frank addressed so profoundly and poignantly in her reflections.

            Elias realizes that his cousin—who died at 15 at the Nazi Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, likely of typhus—has become a worldwide symbol of a human aspiration for decency, dignity, mutual respect and hope in a time in which too many people are willing to exploit human fear and to employ appeals to pettiness and smallness to accrue or maintain power. As Edward Giradet, a personal friend of Elias and managing editor of Le News in Geneva, recently wrote:

The fact is: Anne Frank belongs to no one. Neither the Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists nor Hindus. Nor the Swiss, Israelis, Dutch or anyone else. She is borderless and no different than any other inspiring young people with hopes and dreams, such as Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, the teenage girl who was shot by the Taliban, but survived and now talks all over the world about the importance of education and tolerance. The Anne Frank diary is today being narrated in countless different forms, even by those who have never heard of her. This is the incredible power of story telling, and why, I keep telling my son, everyone has something to say that can help make a positive difference in the world. In Japan, according to Buddy, people almost worship Anne Frank as a saint with churches and schools named after her.[1]

            Elias has proved a tireless international campaigner for justice and equal treatment for all people, and especially for those most vulnerable to the cruelty born of their fellow human beings’ penchant for enmity and intolerance of difference rooted in fear. He often observes that his cousin’s life and her clarion call for tolerance are not simply or only applicable to the unspeakably cruel Nazi era, but also to today. Indeed, her story in many ways continues to unfold, whether in persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, of the gypsies and immigrants across Europe, or of countless other groups here in the U.S. and around the world. Wherever individuals are maligned and persecuted and deprived of their dignity, one may well recall Frank’s empathy and hope, and call to mind how high the costs of discriminatory behavior will always be for human freedom.

            Meanwhile, here in the United States following the November election, columnist David Brooks argued in the New York Times that the “grown-ups” had once again gained control of the Republican Party and that citizens could now look forward to a period of serious and sustained efforts by GOP leaders to seek to govern and to address the nation’s pressing problems.[2] But it is already clear in the brief period since the mid-term election that Brooks was engaged in wishful thinking. Major Republican party leaders have lately continued to declare that any attempt to curtail pollution and emissions is unnecessary and assertions to the contrary are the result of a “liberal hoax” and constitute a continued “war on jobs,” while those officials also vow to do all in their power to prevent action on immigration. These leaders have meanwhile paid no attention to the ongoing degradation of the nation’s infrastructure. This rhetoric is hardly indicative of individuals willing to use their newfound political power to address the nation’s problems, but instead suggests partisans continuing to posture and engage in tactical claims to placate specific supporters and to whip the faithful into continued frenzy, as those concerns go unaddressed.

            On the evidence so far presented since his column at least, Brooks might as well have been writing a fantasy novel when he claimed the Republican Party “was different now.” If anything, the nation’s politics appear more empty and polarized than ever, with GOP leaders demonstrating new levels of name-calling and cynicism. At one level, one cannot blame them, as that tack surely succeeded in controlling the recent campaign conversation and yielding a Republican victory in a low-turnout election. If parties are about the quest for power, one might argue, why mess with success? And yet, until the advent of the “new” GOP in the late 1970s and 1980s and its accompanying relentless and ongoing campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the nation’s federal government, both of America’s major parties had also always sought to address the nation’s (and world’s) pressing challenges. This responsibility, however, the GOP now appears unprepared and unwilling to shoulder.

            It is clear that this disposition to demonize government and specific (and most often, vulnerable and “different”) demographic groups will continue in our politics so long as those practicing it believe that it works, which is to say that it mobilizes the faithful to the polls and results in electoral victories in the short-term, irrespective of its long-term consequences for the polity. It is a politics of daily, dueling and often small tit-for-tat press briefings, and of fantastical claims that enervate popular belief in governance and create an atmosphere of suspicion and dispiritedness, whatever the facts may be. This new form of a politics of no-nothingism is ultimately built on fear and fearfulness, aimed at those citizens who are willing to believe the utterly nonsensical concerning their governance, and to “other” with impunity on the basis of perceived differences. Sadly, in this turn the United States is hardly alone. Much of Europe is now aflame with similar citizen dispositions.

            So, as our own democratic politics descends ever more deeply into a state of desuetude, Buddy Elias daily reminds those who will listen of the human capacity for good as well as evil, and of the need to remain vigilant and conscious of the omnipresent possibility of all forms of tyranny. He uses his famous cousin’s life and legacy to call forth the best in humanity and thereby a politics of hope and possibility rather than one of fear mongering. Anne Frank’s life and death represent both a timeless warning and unfolding opportunity. The world is in debt to her cousin for keeping her narrative alive and present in our collective consciousness. Current events provide a powerful reminder that while the scale of the Nazi holocaust may not be occurring presently, the behaviors that permitted and for too long sustained it remain an integral part of the human condition. Freedom demands their disciplining. To the extent that such efforts fail, liberty, too, will be lost. One can only hope America’s leaders will heed Elias’s clarion call. Much hangs in the balance, as Anne Frank’s life and death, and those of countless other people who have been persecuted and “othered,” have demonstrated.

[1] http://www.internationalpeaceandconflict.org/profiles/blog/show?id=780588%3 ABlogPost%3A983856&xgs=1&xg_source=msg_share_post#.VHXmi76oX0f

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/07/opinion/david-brooks-the-governing-party.html?_r=0