It is a risky thing to compare anyone to Adolph Hitler and any moment in history to the endless moments of horror that unfolded in Europe between 1933 and 1945.
But, with thoughtfulness, and a deep awareness of history, it is possible to draw cautious parallels between the rise of Nazism in the 1930’s and the current political situation unfolding in the US. Nathan Stoltzfus, the Dorothy and Jonathan Rintels Professor of Holocaust Studies at Florida State University and the author of Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany, has the qualifications to draw the lessons we need to heed from the early years of the twentieth century.
I have posted the link to his important essay on my FaceBook page. But Stoltzfus’ words are important enough to copy a few excerpts here. The whole essay should be read at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/07/31/trump-versus-hitler-are-we-better-than-weimar-germany.html
Here, in my words, are nine parallels Stoltzfus observes followed by excerpts from his description:
- German leaders overestimated their ability to control Hitler:
Like those who helped Hitler to power, politicians and operatives have decided that they can harness Trump to their own purposes. Polls consistently show that two thirds or more of Americans have a negative impression of Trump. But he still could become our next president as Republican politicians and operatives help maneuver him into power.
- People consistently underestimated Hitler’s ability:
In September 1930, as the Nazis surged in the polls to become Germany’s second largest party, German president Paul von Hindenburg was confronted with how to handle Hitler, founder and leader of the Nazis. General Hindenburg initially scorned Hitler as a “Bohemian Corporal,” in reference to his Austrian origins and lowly rank in World War I.
- Hitler benefited from the fact that Germany was a polarized nation:
But Hitler benefited from Weimar’s polarized political atmosphere, fed by the national loss of prestige and power in World War I, now greatly exacerbated by the Great Depression, and illustrated acutely by the continuing popularity of the German Communist Party. With the election of July 1932, the Nazis formed Germany’s most popular party, and conservatives convinced Hindenburg to appoint Hitler chancellor, amusing themselves with the belief that they would soon push him into a corner so hard he would squeak.
- Hitler portrayed himself as a strong leader and appealed to peoples’ long for simple solutions to enormously complex problems:
Like Hitler, Trump likes to promote the image of a great leader that no one has to question. Many, eager to believe in an easy solution, appear eager to embrace it. Both encouraged a direct popular dependency on a man rather than a system or constitution.
- Hitler polarized the nation creating a vision of insiders and outsiders/good guys and bad guys:
Both have encouraged unity at the expense of outsiders. Both have issued a license for the crowds to unite in feeling like they can set their emotions free from social constraints.
- Hitler promised to make Germany great again:
Coming to power by promising to make Germany great again, Hitler convinced more and more Germans to yield to him as a spectacular Leader. Then he drew them further and further into collaboration with the crimes resulting from his racism, a process that continued to develop a sense of insider-belonging and a new sense of power for his followers.
- Too many people believed that the majority would soon see through Hitler’s violent rhetoric and he would be dismissed from the public stage:
The countless predictions that this or that impolitic comment would lead to Trump’s demise, followed by overconfidence that Trump will certainly lose the coming election, overlook the eagerness of voters to maintain the image of a leader they wish for.
- Germans, naively it turns out, assumed their institutions could withstand the siren call of tyranny:
As Weimar warns, constitutional protections can crumble in the face of majorities amassed by a demagogue. Sure Trump is a racist, but the fundamental threat in his use of racism to incite the crowds, illustrated in his case attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, is the possibility of gathering popular support sufficient to abrade the constitution and its balance of powers. Hitler had also aimed to remake law according to the will of his “racial” German people, once they followed him unquestioningly.
- For a time, Hitler was a “winner.” Everyone loves a “winner”:
The more Trump wins, the more people once reluctant to support him will want to attach themselves to him—like the established Trump enablers who hope to use him.
And so, Nathan Stoltzfus ends with a serious warning:
It is unlikely that [those who are currently enabling Mr. Trump] will be able to exercise any more control over him, should Trump continue to whip up his crowds with the help of the presidential bully pulpit.
As a distant observer of the US political scene, it seems reprehensible that there are US political leaders who refuse to call Mr. Trump to account for his dangerous rehetoric, his divisive words, and his deeply disrespectful attitude towards a large portion of the population. I believe Americans are better than this. They are kinder and more gentle than Mr. Trump. They will not be duped endlessly. The day will come as enough voices are raised against the attitudes he embodies that the Dump Trump movement will find a way to prevail and civility will return to public discourse. Shame on all those who do anything to forestall such a day.