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Divided loyalties, racism and a split house in HBO's The Plot Against America

  1. I had the chance to attend the 500th anniversary during my visit to Venice in 2016 - it took place at the beautiful Teatro La Fenice - of the first Jewish ghetto. One of the speakers was historian Simon Schama. During his lecture, I was given a brief history of Jewish suffering in Italy. According to Paul IV's papal bull of 1555, Jews must "Repent forever for their crime against God." Looking at the current world situation, this seems pretty accurate. Schama's talk again made me wonder- the same thing happened to me at the sight of the heavily armed synagogue in Berlin- why there is so much hatred towards the Jews. Is it because of the Bible, history or is it simply present? Rooted in the (cultural) DNA of certain people.

These thoughts overwhelmed me again while watching HBO's The Plot Against America. The miniseries, based on Philip Roth's novel of the same name, depicts an alternative American history through the eyes of a Jewish family from New Jersey. In it, the xenophobic and populist aviator hero Charles Lindbergh makes a successful bid for the presidency and transforms the US into a fascist nation.

The Plot Against America shows not only a terrifying history that could have taken place, but also a realistic picture of a future that, with the right circumstances, can happen, and does so convincingly through the use of parallels that are current in the US today.

A divided house

"A house divided against itself, cannot stand." So claimed President Abraham Lincoln at the time of the US Civil War. The parallels with Donald Trump's US are easy to draw. The series is set in the 1940s; Hitler is rampaging through Europe and the United States is neutral and maintains an isolationist position. Republican presidential candidate Lindbergh makes good use of the prevailing fear of war and the other: "Lindbergh or war" and "America first." Hitler and the struggle in Europe provide an ideal excuse to blacken the Jews; according to Lindbergh, they want the US involved in the war.

The media can make or break someone. The ideal PR tool when you do it cleverly. On Twitter, you see families break up because members are pro or anti-Trump. In The Plot Against America Hitler and Lindbergh-as in real history-reached the masses through the social media of the 20th century: newspaper, radio and film (images). It gave them cult status. A hero to some, a villain to others. In the Levin family, too, political affiliation creates a divided house. It splits a family: father and son, two sisters. Blood is not always 'thicker than water'.

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When is the right to speak seen as resistance

Apart from the obvious similarities to the current Trumpt era, discusses The Plot Against America some interesting points about freedom of speech, protest and standing up for your rights. Herman, married to Elizabeth and father of Sandy and Alvin, is anti-Lindbergh from the start. Throughout the series, he watches sadly as Lindbergh portrays Jews as the other; a separate group within American society. Son Sandy is used as a PR tool to integrate Jews more into American society. Father and son are diametrically opposed: " You are ghetto Jews, you are worse than Hitler."

Lindbergh and his politics becomes a growing obsession for Herman that increasingly alienates him from his family. Although aware of the growing anti-Jewish rhetoric and the looming danger, Herman does not allow himself to be silenced. By no one. During these scenes, I wondered why Herman did not keep quiet and why he felt the urge to provoke with all its consequences. Was he blind to the danger or was his sense of self-worth and justice more important? On the other hand, who speaks for Jewish society if everyone is too afraid to speak up and stand up for their rights? The Plot Against America highlights this dilemma in a realistic way.

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One man's death is another's bread

World War II was a subject that, according to my mother, was not talked about at home. It was an incomprehensible and indescribable trauma. Her father was in a labour camp in Germany and her uncle Jacob Dijk was part of the resistance, sentenced to death, but eventually ended up in the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. My mother's great uncle, Frans Dalstra, also became a victim of the Nazis. He was an active member of the communist party and refused to work for the Germans. He went into hiding, but was betrayed by the family's neighbour; an NSB member. Via Camp Amersfoort, he was deported to Buchenwald concentration camp, eventually dying in the quarries of Groβ-Rosen. These and other atrocities should not be forgotten.

Life is not always black and white, especially in a time of war, but you can still hope that a combination of common sense, love for your fellow man and courage, wins out over money and power.

The betrayal of people and family. With opportunism as motive. The Plot Against America approaches this central issue in an interesting way. Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, uses or abuses his position of influence within the Jewish community, to get his people to vote for Lindbergh. When the rabbi meets Lindbergh, he indicates, in reference to Hitler's destruction in Europe, that "Jews have no loyalty to those old world countries, because we were never welcome." Was Bengelsdorf blinded by Lindbergh's hero status and the promise of power or did he imagine himself secure by his position within (Jewish) American society? He too ends up being deceived; to those in power, he is simply just another Jew. A puppet.

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History as foreshadowing

The Plot Against America is well worth seeing. Some scenes are hard to watch, knowing what follows. Besides, it is good to be confronted with the reality of World War II, the destruction of home, hearth and people(s), because, according to philosopher George Santayana, "Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it." Especially now, in the year of 75 years of freedom, we should certainly not forget this.

The Plot Against America can be seen at Ziggo Movies & Series from 17 March

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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