Ways of Escape: a Short Guide for Americans Seeking Political Asylum

Nazi Party Rally Grounds, Nuremberg, 2012. Photo: Paul Jascot.

A Dream about Hitler

When I was I child, I used to dream of killing Hitler:

I’m standing on a street in the middle of a big crowd. Everyone is waving the Swastika and shouting “Sieg Heil” at a passing motorcade.

Suddenly, it stops, and Hitler steps out of a big, black car to accept flowers from a little girl with blond braids, wearing a dirndle. Now’s my chance. I drop to the ground and crawl between the legs of the crowd until I’m next to Hitler. Then I stand up, aim my pistol – I have to point upward — and fire. As the crowd gathers around their fallen fuhrer, I again fall to my knees and crawl back through the crowd the same way I came. Hitler is dead and the Jews are saved.

Children often have dreams of omnipotance, psychoanalysts tell us; they are expressions of a primitive narcissism that has to be overcome if the child is to develop a healthy ego. My dream of killing Hitler ended at about the time I moved away to college in 1973, though it left a pleasant afterglow of confidence. Eight years ago, I visted the Zeppelinfeld in Nurenberg where six huge Nazi party rallies were held between 1933 and 1938. There I rehearsed my fantasy by walking stealthily up to the tribune where Hitler spoke, extending my right hand with thumb up, index finger out and middle finger cocked, and pulled the trigger: BAM!

The last four years of Trump have revived these and connected recollections:

I grew up surrounded by Hitler. There were movies and television programs and illustrated books in the public library, at school, and in our apartment in Forest Hills. And there were lots of Holocaust survivors. I remember the elegant Hungarian lady downstairs, Mrs. Bloch with the toy poodle and the numbers on her arm. And Mrs. Schlesinger with a Schnauzer named Socrates. There was also the Polish doorman, but he was a Gentile and therefore viewed with suspicion. Nobody mentioned that the Nazis killed almost 2 million Polish civilians during World War II.

My parents were not Holocaust survivors. They were born in New York City to Russian, Polish and Romanian parents who emigrated before the turn of the 20th century. Typical for that generation, my father was a “tough Jew,” though he was gentle with me. He kept a tire iron under the front seat of his car in case anybody threatened him, and walked the city, cigar between his teeth, with the speed and confidence of a man not to be messed with. During WWII he saw limited action, but earned a Purple Heart from being wounded by a V2 rocket in the London Blitz. He had nothing but scorn for the unresisting Jews who died in the camps. “If they came to get me, I’d fight back.” My mother didn’t share those uncharitable – to say the least — sentiments. She felt only pity for Holocaust victims, (“poor things!”), but she was certain she’d have found a way to escape in time from Germany or Eastern Europe.


Trump’s neo-fascism made me think seriously about my own possible ways of escape. If he had won re-election, we’d have had to decide if it was prudent to remain in the country. Trump would have accelerated his program of emptying federal agencies of career professionals and re-filling them with political appointees. His assault on the courts and Department of Justice would have increased: In retrospect, William Barr would have seemed a statesman compared to Stephen Miller. The FBI would have become the president’s domestic spy agency and Homeland Security his storm troopers – both are easy fits. Election rolls would have been scoured, based upon spurious claims of fraud, and Black, Latinx, Native American and other reliably Democratic voting groups disenfranchised. Neo-fascism, illiberal democracy, authoritarianism – whatever name you choose – would have fallen into place.

In Nazi Germany, this general policy of crushing dissent was called “Gleichshaltung” (“coordination,” or “bringing into conformity”) and by 1935 it succeeded in fusing state with party and depriving Jews, dissidents and other minorities their rights and property. In the U.S., we avoided that fate by electing Biden, but we might only have been buying time. To fend off a return of neo-fascism in 2024, Biden has both to win over voters on the right and maintain his support from the left. The risks of failure are many: If unemployment stays high and wages low, if the young are still hobbled by education loans, if communities of color remain over policed and under-invested, if the midwest farming and industrial sectors continue to atrophy, and if little progress is made on climate change, Trump voters will remain angry and energized while progressive voters will stay home — and that will be that.

Top Five Asylum Destinations

Assuming there is no autogolpe between now and January 20, 2021, Biden will take command and there’s a chance – admittedly small – that he can indefinitely hold back the forces of darkness. That also means we have four full years to plot our ways of escape in case he can’t. Below are my top five asylum choices in reverse order. The selections are personal and may not be right for you. So, please consider making your own list, and in the spirit of the holiday season, checking it twice.

5. Romania – This is perhaps an eccentric selection. The nation is notoriously corrupt – it has a score of just 44 (out of 100) in the Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International, above Morocco but below Senegal. Its transportation, education and medical infrastructure is poor, and except for Moldovans, nobody in the world speaks Romanian.

But for me, it has two advantages over most other countries: 1) It would accept us. Because one of my grandmothers was Romanian – or anyway, a Jew who spoke Yiddish and lived in Romania – I’d be permitted to emigrate there. And 2) it’s a member of the EU, so once we’re citizens, we could head off to Italy, France or Switzerland. The only wrinkle is that you have to be able to recite the oath of allegiance to Romania exactly right or your citizenship will be denied. You can start practicing now: Jur să fiu devotat Patriei și poporului român, Să apăr drepturile și interesele naționale,Să respect Constituția și legile României. And here’s a helpful pronunciation guide:

Ă ă — a with breve – for the sound /ə/

 ⠗ a with circumflex – for the sound /ɨ/

Î î — i with circumflex – for the sound /ɨ/

Ș ș — s with comma – for the sound /ʃ/

Ț ț — t with comma – for the sound /t͡s/

4. United Kingdom – The process of seeking political asylum in the UK is complicated and difficult, and about half of all applicants are quickly refused. Of the half that are accepted, most are only welcome for a period of five years, making it hard to establish a new life. Beyond that, there is in Ukania, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Brexit and a failed Labor party, so leaving the U.S. for the U.K. is like jumping out of the fire into the frying pan. On the other hand, there is the convenience of the English language, and the pleasures of beer, chips, and mushy peas. Plus, I have an ace in the hole: My wife is British so they would have to take us.

To obtain citizenship in Britain, you have to pass a Life in the U.K. test, and answer questions like the following:

Who was reigning in England when Wales became formally united with England by the Act for the Government of Wales?

+ Henry VIII

+ Henry VII

+ Elizabeth I

+ James I

Which British sportsman won five consecutive gold medals at the Olympic Games in the rowing category?

+  Sir Chris Hoy

+  Christopher Dean

+ Bradley Wiggins

+ Sir Steve Redgrave

You may now want to go back and practice your Romanian. (The correct answers are Henry VII and Sir Steve Redgrave.)

3. Spain – To seek asylum in Spain, you have to present your case either at the Spanish border or from within the country. That’s not a problem if you are an American: Fly to Barjas Airport in Madrid on your U.S. passport, take a couple of days to see the Velazquez and Goyas at the Prado, eat some Croquetas, and then present yourself at the Oficina de Extranjeros. It’s unlikely the Spanish state is currently accepting asylum claims from Americans, but in four or five years that could change.

If you happen to be a retired socialist with a nest egg, you can obtain long term residency (but not citizenship) by depositing 25,000 Euros in a local bank. Or if you are still better off, you can get a Golden Visa if you buy a property costing at least 500,000 euros. Which reminds me: If you are rich, getting asylum almost anywhere in the world is easy, even New Zealand, the preferred global destination since Lord of the Rings.

2. Cuba – The glory days of American dissidents (or fugitives) receiving asylum in Cuba are long over. In the 1960s and ‘70s, dozens of plane hijackers claiming to be revolutionaries found sanctuary in Cuba. Eldridge Cleaver fled to Havana in 1968 after being charged with the attempted murder of several Oakland policemen. Fellow Panther Huey P. Newton also fled there in 1974, following a murder charge. And Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur (formerly JoAnne Chesimard) made her way to Cuba in 1980 after escaping from prison in New Jersey where she was serving a life sentence for the killing of a State Trooper. (She lives there to this day.) I wouldn’t recommend any of these strategies for obtaining Cuban asylum.

Without committing any felonies, there are two ways an American can find refuge in Cuba. The first is to marry a Cuban citizen; that gives you rights to work and own property. The second is to retire to the island on a “Snowbird Visa.” The name suggests checkered trousers, sun hats and Early Bird Specials, but the scheme permits you to live in a country that has heroically protected its revolution from the depredations of the Gran Satanás for 60 years. The only catch is that the permission has to be renewed every six months for as long as you remain in the country. So, while you stand in line to get your visa stamped, contemplate the food, music, healthcare, and heroic countenance of Camarada Che.

1. Germany – We’ve come full circle. The country that modeled Gleichshaltung for American neo-fascists, turns out to have the most generous asylum policy of any major economic and political power. As with Spain, you can’t make an application from abroad – you have to do that in country and in person. So, after your arrival at Berlin Brandenburg Airport, take a day or two to see some sights, for example the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Musuem, and Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial near the Brandenburg Gate. Then eat some Apfelstrudel and go to the Welcome Center on Potsdamer Plaza to fill out your asylum application.

It’s a complicated process, but the important thing to know is that there is a tacit assumption that if you are politically persecuted, you have a right to asylum – the opposite of U.S. policy. And once it’s been granted, you have the right to work and to be reunited with family members living outside the country. After five years, you can obtain citizenship, though you first have to pass the Einbürgerungstest. The difference between it and the British test is the difference between Tory nationalism and German social democracy. Here is a typical German question:

In Germany, children from the age of three until their first day of school, are entitled to:

+ monthly pocket money

+ a place in a sports club

+ a holiday pass

+ a kindergarten place

(The correct answer is “a kindergarten place.”)

A Kafkaesque Dream

I no longer dream about killing Hitler. I’m in my late middle age, so I dream instead about getting lost:

I’m alone in winter in a big city that might be New York, London, Chicago or Los Angeles – all cities I know well. There are distinguishing landmarks from all of them in view, but I’m focused on finding my way to a specific address — a dull, grey office block on a hill. But when I get there, I no longer remember why I have come. I have no wallet, no keys, no money and no coat. The doors of the building are locked and nobody appears to be inside. So I head off to another, similar building and make the same discovery, and so on.

The dream signifies no exit. It’s a bit like Kafka’s Amerika, which he initially titled The Man who Disappeared. That early novel concerns a young immigrant named Karl Rossmann who wanders aimlessly in New York City until he is accosted by rogues and drifters who take advantage of him. He eventually finds a job as a “technical worker” in the “Theatre of Oklahama” (sic) and changes his name to “Negro.”

Our next four years in America may feel a bit like Kafka’s novel: there will be a lot of political meandering and casting about in the hope of finding something that works. There will be tacks left and tacks right and attempts to hew a course down the non-existent middle. There will also be lots of hucksters trying to hijack (but not to Cuba) any possible progressive agenda. Kafka’s novel was left unfinished, so it’s impossible to know if his ending is happy or tragic.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. His next book with the artist Sue Coe The Young Person’s Illustrated Guide to American Fascism‘will be published late this summer by OR Books. He can be reached at: s-eisenman@northwestern.edu