Walkin’ ’round Sweden, thinkin’ ’bout Hitler


This is Linköping, Sweden.


My family lived here from 1985 to 1986.

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See? That’s me. That’s then.


I was 3, my brother was 5, neither of us really remember it.


This weekend, 30 years later, I visited.


I don’t really know why.


All I remember about it are the things I learned later, stories my parents told me.


Our blindingly homogenous daycare.


The moose steaks we bought in bulk and kept in the freezer.


The months we couldn’t drink milk because Chernobyl happened three countries away.


They might as well have happened to someone else.


But, possessed by the mixture of curiosity and narcissism typical of aging Millennials, I asked my mom for our old address, their favorite bakery, the name of that daycare. Then spent Sunday walking around taking pictures, waiting for bells to ring.


The last few weeks I’ve been reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and there’s this episode I can’t get out of my head.


The event that brought Hitler to national prominence was something called the ‘Beer Hall’ coup.


At the time, 1923, Bavaria was controlled by three men: The state commissioner, the chief of police and the regional army commander. The way to overthrow the government, Hitler decided, was to convert them to Nazis and use their power to take control of Bavaria.


So he waited until a political event all three of them were scheduled to attend. A rally in a ‘beer hall’, a pub the size of a concert venue.


Before they could address the 2,000 or so crowd, Hitler pulled out a pistol, fired it into the air, stormed the stage.


He pointed it at the crowd and ordered these three men, the most powerful in the state, up onto the platform and, then, into a tiny room in the back.


He told the audience, we’ve got this place surrounded by armed guards, which was true. And that the rest of Munich had already fallen, which wasn’t. Now he was going into the other room to negotiate with these three politicians about how they would join him to march on Berlin, which was nuts.


When he entered the room offstage, pistol in hand, all three officials refused to speak. Whether they agreed with him that the Weimar Republic needed overthrowing (and they sort of did), you don’t get political power by waving a gun in someone’s face. They sat, stonefaced, as Hitler unfolded his plan for Nazi revolution.


Hitler, a man who was good at nothing his whole life other than creating political theater, could see that this wasn’t working. As the audience outside grew restless, he went back to the podium and announced that all three officials had agreed to his plans, and that they would lead the march through Munich. The crowd roared.


Weirdly, this broke the stalemate. When the three officials heard the crowd’s thundering approval, they agreed to help. They would join Hitler’s movement to take over Bavaria. They would lead the charge to Berlin.


In the end, of course, it all fell apart. Hitler left them in the beerhall to go deal with stormtrooper admin, giving them enough time to, first, rethink what they had agreed to and, second, go home and get a good night’s sleep.


By the next day, they had all announced that Hitler was full of shit and that they had only agreed to his plan because of the pistol, not the crowd. Hitler was arrested for treason, imprisoned, released, empowered, et cetera, we all know what happened next and next and next.


The only thing I remembered walking around Linköping was a story my dad told me, the reason we were there. He’s a periodontist, he got a grant to study whether smoking cigarettes reduces blood flow to the gums.


In Linköping he found volunteers, gave them cigarettes, put little probes into their mouths to test the effects. He finished the study, published, packed up, moved us back to the U.S.


Back home, he tried to continue the study with dogs. He gave them gum disease, he mapped their veins and their blood.  


With humans, the results were clear. With dogs, they were muddled, inconclusive, no effect. He never published, he moved on to other subjects, other methods.


But first, he had to kill the dogs. He had gotten them from the pound, they were going to be euthanized anyway. But that didn’t make it any easier. One by one, he had to inject them with a poison to stop their hearts. He said he never forgot that, never stopped feeling bad about it, never worked with dogs again. He waited to tell us until we were teenagers.


Margaret MacMillan has this great book called The Uses and Abuses of History. The past, she says, is never as simple as ‘if this then that’. Hitler was an asshole and a dictator and we should have stood up to him sooner, differently. That does not mean every asshole and every dictator needs up-standing to. Something that worked yesterday might not work tomorrow.


All we can expect from the past, MacMillan says, is a warning sign. Bridge Slippery When Wet.


It is raining outside and you are driving and you are approaching this bridge. You see the sign and you know the danger now. You slow down. You take more notice of your surroundings. That’s all history can really offer, she says, Not guidance or rules or certitude. Just warning signs.


It’s not much, she says, but it starts with remembering.

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