Past and present imperfect

Past and present imperfect

Woody Allen’s new film, Midnight in Paris, is diverting enough. A Hollywood screenwriter travels in time back to the Paris of the 1920s, where he falls in with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and other legendary artists and writers of the “Lost Generation.”

It’s easy to enjoy the “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be” message and the chance to compare the actors playing Picasso, Dali, Toklas, et al, with their real-life counterparts. At the screening I went to, you could hear a pedantic English major loudly pointing out the historical figures to his put-upon wife (okay, that was me).

My problem is not with Woody Allen, but with time travel movies in general. Whether I’m watching Back to the Future or Terminator, I keep fighting the impulse to yell, “Warn the Jews!” Sure, I want Marty McFly’s parents to find and marry each other, but I really want Marty and Doc Brown to fly to Poland in the 1920s and tell the Jews to get out, or land in Austria in 1889 and kill the baby Hitler.

All Jews process the Holocaust in their own ways. Some ignore it, some wish they could, some carry it with them at all times. In my case, the Holocaust shapes my historical consciousness. I divide history into Before and After. Whether I’m watching an old movie or reading a serious book of nonfiction, I am simultaneously aware of the specific subjects of the work itself — the Civil War, say, or Teddy Roosevelt’s Twilight Years — and of a nagging voice that asks, “And the Jews? Where are they now? And do they know what’s coming?”

It’s a blinkered view of history or an incredibly revealing one, depending how you look at it. It can be reductionary, treating all of human achievement as a mere footnote to the Jewish story. Or it can be a useful lens, allowing me to judge a society by its treatment of the Other. Besides, we all need a way to make sense of the palette of information and possibilities that colors our view of the past. I don’t always read or think about the Jews, but reading and thinking about the Jews gives me a frame of reference for reading and thinking about the Middle Ages, Romantic literature, the colonial era, and modern art.

And something else happens when you can’t stop thinking “What about the Jews?” It forces you to think about the here and now and wonder, who are today’s Jews? What threats are they facing, and what can one person do to avert them? Let’s be honest: It is always 1938 for someone. Do any of us have the ability — and more importantly, the will — to do for them what the world failed to do for the Jews?

I’ve been time-travelling myself, thanks to Erik Larson and his best-seller about the rise of Nazism, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, & an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. Its real-life protagonist is William E. Dodd, appointed U.S. ambassador to Germany in 1933. Like many American intellectuals of his era, Dodd is a lover of all things German and a reflexive, if mild, anti-Semite. His tenure in Germany is disillusioning, to put it mildly. Having put their faith in the German people, he and his fun-loving daughter Martha slowly have their eyes opened to the true intent of Hitler and his instruments of state terror.

Dodd and his family manage to embody all the impulses warring among Americans at the time: a faith in Western values and the powers of diplomatic persuasion, a fear of foreign entanglements, a principled willingness to allow sovereign nations to solve their own problems — even if that means condoning their brutality to minorities. As Martha tells a reporter friend who witnesses a vicious anti-Jewish attack, “It was an isolated case…. It was not really important.” Reporting the incident “would create a bad impression, would not reveal actually what was going on in Germany” and would overshadow “the constructive work they are doing.”

You can’t blame the Dodds. All those themes seem to be in play today, from North Korea to Syria to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. We know people are being brutalized, that populations are being displaced. We also know our government maintains relationships with dictators and tyrants, out of our own national — and personal — self-interest. Even as China disappears its dissidents, we enjoy robust and even cheerful relations with its leaders.

One of the cliches of time travel stories is that you shouldn’t change the past — that by helping avert a future disaster you can create one that is much worse. Larson’s book, a work of nonfiction, suggests something else: It’s not that we can’t avert a disaster. It’s that we often don’t want to.

Good people insist that isn’t so, and supposedly quote Dante to the effect that “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”

But I am more inclined to agree with that great symbol of the Lost Generation, Jay Gatsby, when told that one can’t repeat the past.

“‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’”

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