Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 8.29.19
Just Outside Washington


Is the American Dream Dying?

Since On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder was published in 2017, Kathy and I became advocates and we have given many copies to family and friends. I think every American citizen should read it, and I will tell you why.

To begin, I live the American Dream. However, after 85 years, I am concerned that the American Dream is dying.

It is dying because of inequality -- that is, a small number of people and large organizations have appropriated most of the resources generated by all Americans. The richest 10 percent own over 70 percent of U.S. wealth. These people and organizations form what James Madison termed Factions[1]. This inequality enables these Factions to manipulate the democratic republic structure of our government and its processes, as Madison feared. Some of the many indications:

  • The increasing establishment of corporate personhood resulting from the Supreme Court's ruling: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores
  • The Supreme Court's ruling that money is speech (Citizens United)
  • Destruction of labor unions
    There are over 10,000 lobbyists in Washington
  • There is an active campaign against government: government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem
  • The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate group writes that legislation favorable to its members for states
  • More than half the Members of Congress are millionaires and in 2012 House members, on average, each raised $1,689,580, and each Senators raised $10,476,451 (MapLight), for their campaigns.
Further, the current administration is not working with Congress and is trying to run the federal government by Executive Order, emulating the dictators the President seems to admire. People see the inequality and the resulting manipulation, and they are losing trust in government, over 60 percent according to Gallop.

To digress, we fought WWII to stop dictatorships; in Europe 40 million people were killed, more than half were Russians. We were friends with the Russians until the fighting stopped and tensions grew steadily.

On June 18, 1948, the United States, Britain and France announced that on 21 June the Deutsche Mark would be introduced to replace the Reichsmark as German currency; the German Reichsmark had become worthless. The new currency was to be used in the western zones, i.e., American, British and French sectors of Germany including Berlin. This, combined with the Marshall Plan that had gone into effect that April, was to revitalize Europe, including Germany and West Berlin.

The Soviets, who had plans to take over all of Germany, considered the introduction of the Deutsche Mark a provocation by which they could force the Western Powers completely out of Berlin. To that end, on June 18, 1948, the Soviet Army halted all civilian traffic on the autobahns and railroads into Berlin; and on June 24th halted all Allied military ground and water transport into and out of Berlin including food shipments from the East into West Berlin. The U.S., Britain, and France responded by flying supplies into the city; and the Berlin Airlift began. It was a measured response to the Stalinist dictatorship.

Why do I care about this history? Because I lived it.

I arrived with my family in Germany as the Berlin Airlift began. Because my father was in the Air Force, we were stationed in Wiesbaden, Air Force Headquarters, Europe. The Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) was the military-established government created to run the American Zone of Germany. OMGUS set up everything needed to support the U.S military and the civilians that ran the Occupation and their dependents. This included commissaries, PXs, housing, and more. We, and the other American families of the Occupation, were supplied with houses, which had been appropriated from their German owners. A high school was established for dependent children, from which I graduated in 1951.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: My dad, too, was USAF and we arrived in Wiesbaden about the same time as the Berheisels. Frank and I, along with his brother David and my brother Earl attended Wiesbaden High School in 1948-51.]

I care because, in the summer of 1948, the impact of the war on German cities was startling for me. Many of the cities we visited, including Frankfurt, Darmstadt and Berlin, had large areas that had been reduced to piles of rubble; and streets were just paths between the mounds and smelled of death.

Hamburg, because it had been firebombed, had areas reduced to a sea of heat fractured brick with nothing higher than three stone porch steps that survived the heat. In addition, over 10 million people, called Displaced Persons (DPs), had been driven or chose to come west after WWII. Many were housed in the German camps because there was no other place for them to live. Some DPs were recruited to assist the U.S. military in policing the streets (they wore grey uniforms). Visits to France and Italy reinforced my impressions of damage and chaos.

I care because, my travels, experiences, and the people I met, caused a question to grow in me all through my time in Germany: how could the people who gave us Beethoven, Humboldt, Goethe, Hegel, Diesel, Einstein, Freud, and more, go off the deep end, follow Hitler, and cause the destruction that I saw? Looking for answers, I have read many books since, including some by George Orwell, Hitler, Hannah Arendt, William L. Shirer, and Timothy Snyder, that confirm questioning is the right approach.

Should you care? Not if you like perpetual war; not if you think laws to disenfranchise people of color 150 years after we abolished slavery are OK; not if you believe that corporations have a right to take your personal data, sell it and spy on you; not if you think being entertained is all-important; and not if you believe the U.S. Constitution is obsolete. If you do care, listen to Timothy Snyder.

Timothy Snider is a professor at Yale University specializing in the history of Central and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Based on his studies and interviews in Ukraine and elsewhere, he documents the Russian effort to undermine democracy in Ukraine, Europe and the U.S., which he presents in The Road to Unfreedom. This book provided American and European leaders a heads-up on this destructive activity long before the Mueller investigation. He documents the parallels with the Nazis and points out that while history does not repeat: "... it does offer us examples and patterns, and thereby enlarges our imaginations and creates more possibilities for anticipation and resistance."

His book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, is directed at individual citizen and outlines actions that we can take to thwart oligarchy. In the Prologue, Snyder points out that the American founders knew from Aristotle's warning that inequality brings instability and from Plato that demagogues exploit free speech to install themselves as tyrants. As he left the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government we have, he is said to have replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." Timothy Snyder fears we are in danger of losing it.

I agree with Snyder, we are in danger of losing our democratic republic, and we are moving toward dystopia, which could be Brave New World or 1984, or maybe both. I do not have a specific solution, but I think the outcome depends upon education and service. And, the citizenry, as Snyder says, must be active.

We currently lack widespread participation by citizens, due to working two jobs to stay survive, an overload of misinformation, Factions manipulating the system, distrust of institutions, etc. An example of this lack is: in Virginia, where I live, in the 2017 elections almost all elected officials were up for election: every sheriff, every Member of the House of Delegates, every Senator, every County Supervisor, and every Member of every School Board; the turn-out was 29 percent of the registered voters.

Snyder has given us a path out of our slide to autocracy. If we treat the 20 lessons in, On Tyranny, as a citizen handbook, and if we are active, we can recapture our democratic republic.

Footnote 1: James Madison, defined a faction, in The Federalist Papers No. 51, as a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and activated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.