We were in her boxy, run-down row house with oppressively low ceilings in a border outpost near the Brazilian-Paraguayan border. The rust had eaten the paint on the grills outside the window, a last defence against anyone who might come to get her. But all that didn't matter any more. She was three years short of a century, and life had already been long enough. Perhaps too long for living with the burden of reflection. She and her husband had been Belgian Blackshirts who had worked hard for Hitler in their native country before and during the war. Now she lived here, in a place where she and her husband had hoped they might not be judged. They had successfully fled from justice, but her husband was dead, and her life, which was all around us, felt anemic. Her only biological child had left for Europe to become a socialist and learn Russian. The part-time housekeeper and I seemed to be the last ones left. I knew I would have to judge, but where would my judgment fall?
She smiled warmly, as though pleased to be able to face the question at least once before she died. She had run from it all these years, but death makes many fears seem small.
"No one remembers the dangers that communism posed. It was infiltrating our civilization like vermin and we simply had to take measures to fight it off with all our might. There was no other way." She said it without affectation, and although I wished I could find some sign of insincerity in her face, I couldn't.
"What about the Jews and the Holocaust?" I asked.
"Well, they were a part of it, of course, and some sacrifices had to be made for our cause. Germany deserved to be made great again and we wanted Belgium to be a part of that."
Why couldn't I get angry at this former Blackshirt? It wasn't because she was old or frail or disadvantaged. It was because I heard the echoes of our own time coming through - our doubts, our fear and our folly. I began to imagine a future interview with any one of a number of well-meaning persons who thought any European country would be better off without the EU or that America would be safer with walls. It takes place decades after the devastation of the next war and runs something like this:
"Why did you do it?" a young interviewer asks.
"No one remembers the threat that globalization and its greedy elites posed. It was a vermin creeping into our lives that threatened to steal everything from our jobs to our way of life. There was no other way."
"But what of the migrants?" the young interviewer asks, trying to keep her calm.
"Well, they were a part of it, of course and some sacrifices had to be made for our cause. We wanted to make our country great again."
During my journey into history I have sometimes been told, even by some historians, that we should not draw too many comparisons between the present and the past. This is to neglect the all-important detail. I agree only in one perspective: The past has been misused in the least informed moments of contemporary debate, but that does not make it irrelevant to interpreting the developments we see in the world today. I share the story, above, to illustrate why. I felt moved to share it (before some of it becomes part of a book I am writing about my journey) by the dread I feel about the loss of Elie Wiesel who was a part of our collective conscience and a significant force for humanity. History can repeat itself because we are human. It need not repeat itself because we are human.