Magazine article In These Times

A Nazi History Lesson

Magazine article In These Times

A Nazi History Lesson

Article excerpt

Alienated whites in Obamas America

THIS IS NOT AN ARTICLE about how Bill O'Reilly is just like Adolf Hitler. Nevertheless, there are parallels between the multiethnic Habsburg Empire and the contemporary United States, in particular the racial alienation felt by some in the ethnic majority after previously marginalized minorities gained a measure of political power.

We know how Austria-Hungary's story ended. It never created a national consciousness with which the bulk of citizens, no matter their ethnicity, truly identified. After the Empire dissolved in 1918, the region's peoples- in particular ethnic Germans- increasingly turned to a racial understanding of national identity, with disastrous results.

The conclusion of our country's story on national identity remains to be written, but how we adapt to the "browning" of our population will undoubtedly be pivotal. I don't for a second believe that the United States will follow a path similar to that of postHabsburg Central Europe, but understanding what happened there can, I believe, offer insight into the reactions of some white Americans to demographic and political changes here.

The ethnic Germans in Habsburgruled Austria experienced two shocks to their national identity in rapid succession: First, Prussia defeated Austria in 1866 and expelled it from the German Confederation, an organization of German states of which Austria had been president since its creation in 1815. Then, in 1871, a new Germany was born, which excluded Austria. Nevertheless, German language and culture remained dominant in the Habsburg Empire - at least outside of its Hungarian lands, which received autonomy in 1867. The ethnic Germans of Habsburg Austria saw their state as a fundamentally German institution, despite its multiethnic population.

However, by the dawn of the 20th century, the Austro-Germans' privileged position was under assault, as some nationalist leaders from the other ethnic groups, in particular the Czechs, demanded political equality and parity for their languages. Austro-German anger about these changes reflected a good degree of national chauvinism, the belief that German culture - and, for the extremists, their race- was superior, more "civilized" than that of their neighbors.

Even more offensive, a Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jew could - by dint of German citizenship - claim membership in the German national community, while an ethnic German raised in Linz and living in Vienna, for example, remained outside the boundaries of the new Germany. In a time when nationalist feelings were growing more intense, when many believed that an all-out battle among the "races" of Europe was sure to come soon, such people needed to know they securely belonged in one of them. Some Austro-Germans unsurprisingly turned to a racial definition of Germanness that included them regardless of state borders, while excluding these "foreign" Jews. Adolf Hitler was one such Austro-German.

The shock of Barack

In our country, some whites experienced Barack Obama's presidential victories as a shock to their national identity. After November s election, Bill O'Reilly put it this way: "Traditional America as we knew it is gone. Ward, June, Wally and the Beav, outta here," he opined. "The white establishment is now the minority."

White cultural anxiety is as old as the republic. It does appear, however, to have sharpened recently, exacerbated by developments such as the Obamas' presence in the White House and the fact that, as of last year, fewer than half of all babies born in the U.S. are nonHispanic whites. I want to make an important distinction here between the broad category of culturally anxious whites and the much smaller, much more extreme sub-category of racially alienated whites, whom I'll discuss in more detail below. The broader category includes anyone who heard O'Reilly's statement and thought, at least to some degree, "He's right, and that's a problem for us and for America. …

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