On March 12, 1938, German troops marched into Austria and took it over without firing a single shot. Known in history as anschluss, (or ‘union’), this strangest of conquests saw thousands of Austrians lining the streets and welcoming their Nazi conquerors with beer, bouquets and Swastika-bearing flags. For Hitler, it became more a homecoming than an annexation.
What is not so well known is that right before the anschluss, 1,700 Austrians took their own lives within the space of just one week. So damning were these deaths that the Nazi-dominated government in Austria made it a crime to report them as suicides. A few journalists still dared to write “sudden demise”, but swift reprisals quickly silenced them. The day after annexation, the Neue Freie Presse ran the following obituaries:
“On March 12, in the morning, Alma Biro, civil servant, age 40, slit her wrists with a razor and turned on the gas. At the same moment, the writer Karl Schlesinger, age 49, shot himself in the head. A housewife, Helene Kuhner, age 69, also committed suicide. That afternoon, Leopold Bien, civil servant, 36, leapt from a window. We are unaware of his motives for this act.”
That last line was a lie, of course, for everyone knew that the vast number of those who ended their lives were Jews who had seen what was coming and had despaired. For, right after the Nazis marched in, widespread antisemitic violence ravaged Austria. Leading politicians were arrested, and anyone opposing Hitler was imprisoned, tortured, or put to death. Jews were made to scrub streets on their hands and knees in the presence of jeering crowds. The Gestapo looted Jewish belongings, seized Jewish businesses, and arrested those who refused to surrender their property.
Of this tragedy, Eric Vuillard writes in his book, Order of the Day:
“Alma Biro…Karl Schlesinger…Leopold Bien… and Helene Kuhner…their deaths cannot be linked to their mysterious individual sorrows. They were not ravaged by private despair. Their pain was something collective. And their suicides a crime committed by someone else.”
Murderous regimes have a way of birthing a sort of deep, collective, existential despair, and not just in the hearts of the groups it is targeting. Other conscientious citizens also feel it (unlike their pro-government counterparts who are too busy cheering their leaders to feel anything but triumphalistic hatred for those being persecuted).
Keeping the hope alive
In a dark time, it is supremely important to keep hope alive. Interestingly, as a verse in the ancient Jewish Book of Proverbs says, “The spirit of a man will sustain him, but a wounded spirit who can bear?” (Proverbs 18:14) The constant news of a repressive government’s atrocities can truly wound the spirit. What does one do at times like these?
When asked once what gave her hope in a world racked by climate breakdown, ecological collapse and the marginalisation of billions, author Arundhati Roy replied: ”One of my books of essays is dedicated to “those who have learned to divorce hope from reason”. So being unreasonable is the only way that we can have hope.’
Roy makes an important point. It is imperative to ‘be unreasonable’ in a dark time! Not only does it keep hope alive in oneself, but it also inspires it in others, too. Despair may be contagious, but courage is much more so. The visuals of Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Tanha coming out of Tihar jail after a year of unjust incarceration, fists raised in victorious defiance, and the glow of courage visible even behind face masks, will remind us for all time to come that even in the darkest of times, there were those who, despite huge personal tragedy, simply refused to give up!
Then there are the thousands of farmers at Delhi’s borders, a steady reminder over the last seven months that there are still those in India who cannot be cowed down or bought out. These ‘unreasonable’ tillers of our ground and growers of our food have made it abundantly clear that even if they have to stay at Delhi’s borders till 2024 or beyond, they will not budge till the Center’s three draconian farm laws are repealed. Their resolve, too, is a ringing rebuke to despair.
William Peter Blatty, in his hugely successful 1971 book, The Exorcist, offers some profound insights into human psychology, whether or not one believes in the supernatural. When a junior priest asks Father Merrin, the main protagonist of the book, what the purpose and point of ‘demon possession’ is, Merrin replies:
“The demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us the observers. I think the point (of possession) is to make us despair… to reject our humanity: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial, vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy.”
His words resonate, especially at this point in our history when it is easy to despair at the ugliness around us, and at the hold the ‘demons’ seem to have on so many. It is important to remember that while there is a lot of hate and strife, there is also a lot of love and solidarity. All is not lost. All is never lost.
Those who believe in the idea of an inclusive and secular India have a responsibility, very simply, not to despair. Because once we refuse to despair, we start seeing ways of being a source of hope and support — both moral and practical — to those who are being discriminated against and persecuted. (One cannot help but think that if perhaps the Jews of Austria had had enough other Austrians standing by them and supporting them in their hour of need, so many of them might never have committed suicide.)
In the words of Father Merrin: “We mourn the blossoms of May because they are to whither; but we know that May is one day to have its revenge upon November, by the revolution of that solemn cycle which never stops — which teaches us in our height of hope, ever to be sober, and in our depth of desolation, never to despair.”
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.