When current events became too depressing, I turned to history for possible reassurance. It came from what might seem an unlikely source, Volker Ullrich’s excellent 2016 biography, “Hitler Ascent 1889-1939” published in translation by Alfred A. Knopf.
There are sound reasons to hope that what happened there won’t happen here, as even though it threatens to.
There are of course many similarities between the Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump phenomena, starting with the basic facts that neither new ruler had any prior experience in public service, did not win a majority vote in a fair election, and would sooner lie than speak a truth. Hitler’s megalomania, craving for adulation and contempt for criticism were rooted, as Trump’s seem to be, in a deeply rooted personal insecurity. Hitler had no respect for independent courts or a free press.
Neither does Trump.
Both campaigned as demagogues, owed their success largely to bigotry, promised to make their countries great again, claimed they alone could “fix it,” and gave clear warning that they would attack civil rights. Both harbored worldviews that could — and in Hitler’s case did — lead their countries into massive cruelty and war. With Hitler, it was his determination to rid Germany and then Europe of all Jews and to wage a “decisive” battle against Bolshevism. With Trump it’s the demonization of Mexican immigrants and a craving to do battle with Islam, as whetted by his personal Darth Vader, Steven Bannon.
Trump doesn’t have an organized army of brownshirt thugs, as Hitler did. But he does have followers who don’t need orders to harass Jews, Muslims and foreigners, desecrate cemeteries and commit occasional murders. The list goes on.
But it’s in the dissimilarities that I found strong basis for hope that America won’t go the way the Third Reich did.
Organized dissent virtually disappeared in Germany as soon as President Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor in the mistaken belief that he could harmonize a Reichstag paralyzed by multiple parties. People who should have known better thought they could control Hitler better, and use him, if he were in the government rather than screaming at it from outside. And to an extent, a similar self-serving folly characterizes the Republicans in our Congress.
The German population, long inured to authoritarian rule under the Wilhelmine royalty and infested with anti-Semitism, welcomed Hitler.
“It was astonishing not just how quickly, but how easily Germany was turned on its head,” Ulrich writes. He quotes Victor Klemperer, a professor and Jewish diarist who survived against odds: “All counterweights to his power were quickly swallowed up and disappeared.”
Public opinion flipped so quickly that even Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, was contemptuous of it.
“Now, everyone is a Nazi. It makes me sick,” he said.
But in our United States, there have been massive protests nearly everywhere you look and the anti-Trump, anti-Republican demonstrations vastly overshadow those in support of our potential führer. The Congress reports unprecedented traffic in phone calls, emails and letters. The newspapers Trump hates the most are gaining subscribers handily. The polls show his approval under water; he’s the most unpopular new president since records have been kept.
Let’s keep it up, people.
The Weimar Republic, which was only 14 years old when Hitler accomplished his design to destroy it, had no resilient traditions such as ours of free speech, free press and freedom of petition. It was still possible to censor newspapers and the radio, ban the activity of opposition parties and prohibit their leaders from speaking. Under Hitler, that was expanded to jail and even to kill them on his whim.
Hitler exploited the burning of the Reichstag building — which was blamed on the Communists but which the Nazis welcomed and are still suspected of having caused — to pass emergency measures that extinguished what was left of liberty in Germany. We need to take care here that the next act of terrorism — the question is not whether but when — doesn’t incite Trump to unconstitutional repression. The wholesale deportations and the attempted banning of immigrants and refugees from selected Muslim nations give fair warning that he knows no bounds. Here, at least, we have courts that can stop him. Protecting the independence of those courts is the paramount present responsibility of the Senate Democrats.
Here we still have free elections, but nearly every Republican state legislature has passed or is considering voter suppression laws that clearly target Democrats, and our new attorney general, a lifelong opponent of civil rights, is withdrawing the federal government from the battle. Both parties are guilty of rampant undemocratic gerrymandering, which at the moment heavily favors the Republicans. Here again, the courts will be crucial as to which path America follows.
Hitler used creative accounting to finance his massive arms buildup and extravagant public works projects. Debt and inflation would have destroyed Germany had the war not done so first. Here, Trump is similarly inventive in claiming that Mexico would pay for his great wall and that economic growth will finance his excessive military budget. There should be enough genuine conservatives in Congress to put the lie to that. Thank God for the filibuster.
The most astounding difference between Germany then and the United States Nov. 8 is painfully ironic.
Germans knew almost nothing about Hitler’s personal life before or after he became chancellor. He had been in no business, except for selling his artwork, and so there had been no bankruptcies, no cheated workmen and contractors. There was no Hitler University. There had been the seeds of scandal in the suicide of his niece, Geli Raubal, who lived with him, but he wasn’t present and wasn’t blamed. He was deeply misogynistic in private, once saying that intelligent men should “make sure they get a primitive, stupid woman.” However, he took pains to hide his mistress, Eva Braun, from the public, “to maintain the myth,” as Ulrich puts it, “of the Führer sacrificing himself day and night for his people.” He had never been accused of rape or boasted of groping women in ways that could have gotten him arrested. Nor had there been any massive tax evasion, although he would exempt himself entirely later.
Contrast that to the mountain of Trumpian sleaze, much of it from Trump’s own mouth, that was known to the American public before the election. It helps to explain why nearly 10 million more people voted for candidates not named Trump than voted for him. But for the intervention of a foreign enemy and FBI director James Comey’s October surprise, he likely would have lost the electoral college too. Fixing that anachronism, which has now crowned the trailing candidate five times, ought to be an urgent national priority. Democracies don’t deserve losers.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.