It Cannot Be Said They Went Down Fighting
In the time since the election, I have seen far more relevant and terrifying parallels to Hitler’s Nazi Germany than in all the run-up to November put together. Not because of anything Trump has said or done, but because of how other powerful entities have cozied up to him, hoping to use his power for their own benefit. This, unfortunately, has deep parallels with Hitler’s rise.
On February 20, 1933, about two dozen German business leaders met with Hitler. As William L. Shirer wrote in the definitive The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (nearly all the information here is from his book), “The big businessmen, pleased with the new government that was going to put the organized workers in their place and leave management to run the businesses as it wished…reacted with enthusiasm at the price of the end of democracy, elections, disarmament.” They coughed up three million marks to the Nazi party. By the end of the year, many of their industries and businesses had been nationalized.
The political parties voted for their own dissolution without much cajoling. The socialists tried their best to appease Hitler until the final seconds. Despite their newspapers, buildings, and property being seized, they voted unanimously for Hitler’s foreign policy, denounced their foreign comrades who said bad things about Hitler, and elected a new party leader they hoped would assure their survival. Three days later, the party was dissolved, and the recently elected leader, Paul Lobe, was arrested and spent the rest of the year in jail (after the 1944 assassination plot, he was sent to a concentration camp, but survived). The Catholic parties dissolved of their own volition and the Vatican signed a concordat with Hitler’s government. The People’s Party and the Democrats dissolved not long after, in the summer of 1933.
This left only Hitler’s partner government which had allowed him to rise to power in the first place: the German National Party. They must have thought they were sitting pretty. Hitler owed them so much, and they thought they could control him to achieve their own ends. “And though he brought what the conservatives had lacked, a mass following, the Right was sure that he would remain in its pocket,” Shirer wrote. “Was he not outnumbered eight to three in the Reich cabinet? Such a commanding position also would allow the conservatives, or so they thought, to achieve their ends without the barbarism of unadulterated Nazism. Admittedly they were decent, God-fearing men, according to their lights.”
Instead, they also dissolved that year.
Meanwhile, Hitler lulled the trade unions into a false sense of security before crushing them. The Nazis declared May Day a national worker’s appreciation day of sorts, which thrilled the unions. Hitler invited union leaders to Berlin for a massive party and spoke in front of 100,000 workers. “You will see how untrue and unjust is the statement that the revolution is directed against the German workers,” Hitler told the union heads. “On the contrary.”
The very next day, trade union headquarters around the country were raided, funds confiscated, unions dissolved, leaders arrested. “Theodor Leipart and Peter Grassman, the chairmen of the Trade Union Confederation, had openly pledged themselves to cooperate with the Nazi regime,” Shirer wrote. “No matter, they were arrested.”
Even after their unions were broken and leaders arrested, Hitler and the Nazi party still assured workers their rights would be protected. “I know the exploitation of anonymous capitalism,” said Robert Ley, the head of the German Labor Front. “Workers! I swear to you, we will not only keep everything that exists, we will build up the protection and the rights of the workers still further.”
Less than a month later, Nazi law decreed an end to collective bargaining and effectively outlawed strikes. Workers were now servants of the state.
Shirer observed that the political parties, elites, businessmen, and unions all had a collective interest: defeating Hitler. He was bad for nearly all of them, even without the specter of World War II’s total destruction. Yet, they all rolled over, because they believed themselves cleverer than Hitler. They thought they could survive and prosper in his Germany, regardless what happened to everyone else. They were all wrong.
“It cannot be said,” Shirer wrote, “they went down fighting.”
This narrative arc is not unique to Hitler, who is hardly history’s only demagogue to be underestimated by his contemporaries. Hopefully it will not apply to Trump. But I’m discouraged.
So far, business leaders of various industries have met with Trump, also in secret closed-door meetings, as have members of the press. Trump is telling all of them what they want to hear, while his administrative actions cause grave concern and in some cases directly contradict those promises.
Most worryingly of all, union leaders seem to be falling in line. Today they met with Trump, thinking he will help them, particularly on construction projects. They and their workers will benefit, they think. Trump can be used to their advantage, they believe, despite the fact that nothing in Donald Trump’s long business history suggests he has anything but contempt for the working class as a roadblock for his own success.
The list of entities that think Trump will work for them is long and paradoxical. Aside from the unions, business leaders, tech leaders, traditional Republicans, and Evangelicals, there’s Russia, Egypt, Israel, pro-Lifers, India, it goes on. Not all of them can win. Most of them won’t.
I’ve never liked the saying “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” History doesn’t repeat. It iterates, shifts, and meanders. It’s also not one straightforward narrative. It branches, gets reinterpreted (and reinvented), played back at different speeds and cadences. History is a collection of songs, always getting covered by new bands. Of course, if you listen to the original, you can pretty much get the gist of it.
Do try and read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. All the information for this post comes in the first 200 pages. If you’re interested in how it all ends, there’s another thousand pages after that.