Lately, I find myself being continuously unnerved by things I read in books written decades ago. Until I read “Parable of the Sower” earlier this year, I had no clue that back in 1993, author Octavia Butler envisioned a climate change dystopia in which the US elects a right-wing authoritarian president who campaigns on the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” More recently, I’ve been reading William L. Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” with the distinctly queasy feeling that I’m looking at a textbook on contemporary American politics.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Nazi analogies are the third rail of political discourse, Godwin’s Law, etc., etc. All that stuff. Fine. But let me humbly suggest that, should you have doubts, please find yourself a copy of “Rise and Fall” and read through all 1,000-plus pages.
Yeah, it’s too easy to make Nazi analogies .. but it’s also scary.
Published in 1960, Shirer’s book has a few passages that will make modern readers cringe, like the references to “homosexual perverts” in the early Nazi organization. But mostly, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” serves as a reminder that, as the saying goes, history doesn’t exactly repeat itself but it sure as hell rhymes.
Just like Trump and his MAGA adherents, the Nazis were never a majority in Germany before taking power. Indeed, they never even came close to winning a majority in a national election — the best they ever did was just 37 percent of the vote. And yet take power they did, quickly wiping out their internal opponents (often literally, not metaphorically) and rolling over the international community’s feeble efforts to rein them in.
As we watch the January 6 conspiracy case unfold, it’s interesting to look back at Hitler’s early attempt at a violent overthrow of the German state. The 1923 “Beer Hall Putsch,” as it became known, failed spectacularly, and Hitler was tried for treason.
But Germany’s lenient court procedures allowed him to dominate the proceedings, essentially letting the future dictator put the feeble Weimar Republic on trial and turn the proceedings that should have ended his political career into a propaganda triumph. He was given a brief prison sentence (during which he wrote “Mein Kampf”) and emerged from the process stronger than ever.
US trial rules should curb Trump’s behavior in the courtroom. But he’s already shown he’s both willing and able to turn his social media megaphone into a platform that seems every bit as effective at amplifying his message—attacking prosecutors and judges, rousing his rabid supporters and at least implicitly threatening witnesses. He’s cleverly leveraging his unique position as a former president and current candidate in an effort to turn a case about a criminal conspiracy into one about the First Amendment and free speech. It seems unwise to assume that a conviction and short prison term would end Trump’s political career.
Hitler, of course, had the S.A.—the notorious “brownshirts”— who busted up meetings of anti-Nazi groups and beat up opponents. The MAGA movement has nothing quite that large and organized (though groups like the Proud Boys certainly have potential), but Hitler didn’t have social media. Trump and assorted alt-right types have effectively used social media to send mobs after a variety of victims, including medical facilities providing care to transgender patients, Georgia election workers who did absolutely nothing wrong, and honest election workers all over the country. One estimate last year indicated that one third of poll workers and election officials had left their jobs due to fear and threats. There’s no longer any doubt that these social media posts inspire political violence.
What jumps out again and again from Shirer’s account is how consistently the non-Nazi factions, from the Communists and Social Democrats to traditional conservatives, underestimated Hitler. They underestimated his ruthlessness. They underestimated his willingness to lie about everything. They underestimated his eagerness to make agreements and break them the instant it was convenient. They underestimated his skill at driving the national narrative and controlling the conversation. They continually behaved like they were dealing with a normal politician, one who would keep a reasonable number of his promises and, while perhaps pushing the boundaries of normal politics, would mostly stay within them.
By the time they realized they were dealing with nothing of the sort, a great many of them were in concentration camps or dead.
The parallels between Nazi Germany and the contemporary USA don’t end with Trump. I hadn’t realized how quickly and ruthlessly the Nazis took over German education and rewrote the curriculum, from grade school to the university level. Once-proud institutions of learning became factories for indoctrinating young people with the Nazis’ crackpot racial theories. Today, all across the country, right-wing school boards and state officials are rewriting curricula and clamping down on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, restricting the rights of LGBTQ students, yanking books from library shelves and shutting down everything they consider “woke.” They’re pursuing anti-trans policies increasingly and accurately described as genocidal.
The distance between “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit” and “Arbeit Macht Frei” may be less than we like to think.
I won’t bore you with a list of all the recent Republican/MAGA assaults on democracy and personal freedom – The Philadelphia Inquirer’s great Will Bunch recently provided a good summary. But I will point out Bunch’s closing paragraph, which needs to be screamed from the rooftops:
Once upon a time, “Bleeding Kansas” was a warning to America — harbinger of a civil war to come. It doesn’t have to be that way this time around. But we won’t succeed until we’re clear-eyed that nearly half of Americans hate who we’ve become, hate democracy when they no longer can win, and will embrace violence to get the results they can’t get at the ballot box.
And that’s where Shirer offers a lesson we might do well to heed. The Nazis were a minority in Germany, but the anti-Nazi majority was splintered, with each faction pursuing its own goals and failing to grasp the need to join together against Hitler. As Shirer puts it, “The cardinal error of the Germans who opposed Nazism was their failure to unite against it.” After Hitler took power, the same phenomenon repeated, as he successfully played western European nations off each other, and they missed multiple chances to strangle Nazi Germany before if built up a military capable of fighting – and nearly winning – World War II.
We don’t have the parliamentary system Germany did, with support split among roughly half a dozen parties, but we do have budding third party efforts from the supposedly centrist No Labels and the theoretically leftist Cornel West. Well-meaning voters tempted to support one or the other might want to ponder why No Labels seems to have so many far-right donors and why West seems to spend a lot of time flirting with ultra-right-wingers, including Ron DeSantis. Early polling suggests that these third party candidates, though they have zero chance of winning, could siphon off enough votes to determine the who wins the presidency.
It’s easy — and necessary — to complain about the Democratic Party’s myriad failures and inadequacies; I did it myself recently about the Democrats’ refusal to reform the Supreme Court when they had the chance But in a system that’s stacked against third parties, the 2024 election will conclude with one of two parties in control of the White House and Congress: the Fascism and Genocide Party or the Let’s Not Have Fascism and Genocide Party. Those of us who see fascism and genocide as generally poor ideas might remember the things that the opponents of fascism got wrong 80-plus years ago.