Mark Twain famously said, “History never repeats itself, but it sometimes rhymes”. He likely never said it. More fake news. However, many warn of a return of fascism. Comparisons between Trump and the Nazis are frequent and rarely confined to one side. Former Republican Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts equated Trump’s immigration plan with Kristallnacht, and Robert Kagan writing in the Washington Post warned “This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes … but with a television huckster, a phoney billionaire, … “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities”.
On the Left, Robert Reich (the former labour secretary), George Clooney, Democrat Hank Johnson and even Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto have all made comparisons between Trump and the Fuhrer. The world-famous academic Noam Chomsky described the wide-spread anger and proliferation of hate as reminiscent of the fall of the Weimer Republic. Nor is this phenomenon confined to the US, in 2016 an 89-year old Auschwitz survivor compared modern-day Austrian politics to Nazism.
Despite these stark warnings, knowledge of Nazism, fascism and the Holocaust is thin on the ground. Two-thirds of US millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is according to one survey, and a study of 8000 children aged 11–18 years old found whilst most students knew Jews were the primary victims of the Holocaust, little knew why such brutality occurred.
So, are we all living on a knife’s edge? Is Trump America’s first dictator? Or are we suffering from historical amnesia? With the death of the last generation who bore the brunt of the pain, are we simply forgetting the true horror of the era?
To understand what’s going on, we must look to the past, and ask two simple questions: What the hell happened? And why?
A Brave New World
Germany entered the first world war drunk on dreams of domination. Instead, the war bled them of men and money. The Americans, and to a lesser extent the British, sought no revenge. But France had seen a tremendous destruction of life and land. Germany must never again be a threat. Around 25,000 square miles and 7 million people were amputated from the Germans, the army was cut to 100,000, the Rhineland demilitarised, in addition to reparations. This was the Treaty of Versailles. France celebrated as General Jan Smuts asked British Prime Minister Lloyd-George “Are we in our sober sense or suffering shellshock?” In Germany, the news went down like a lead zeppelin.
The reparations were required in either gold or foreign currency. Lacking gold, the government printed vast amounts of German marks to buy currency. It quickly became worthless, and the price of goods rocketed. A loaf of bread went from 160 marks to 200 billion marks a year later in 1922. It was painful to watch. America eventually stepped in, enacting the Dawes Plan, loaning the money required to stabilise the currency and continue repayments. An already defeated Germany was utterly humiliated.
Perversely, amongst the upper classes, a golden age occurred. The Weimar Republic was an era of art and music. An era of scientific advancement, where the antique ideas surrounding sex or the cosmos were shed in the search of the novel and new. Even the kitchen sink was revamped by the Bauhaus movement.
As the airships warbled overhead, the world felt on the brink of change. Just not the change anyone was expecting.
By the Pricking of My Thumbs
Benito Mussolini, born 1883 to a poor socialist family, spent hours of his youth working in his father’s smithy. He longed to hear his father tell tales of nationalists like General Garibaldi, who unified Italy decades before, and anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin. It was a strange cocktail of nationalism and socialism which fermented in the boy’s mind. Young Benito was highly intelligent, but also notoriously violent. Reportedly he stabbed the hand of a classmate, and by 1922 he sported over a hundred scars from various battles.
As a young man, Mussolini quickly became a darling of the left. Well-versed in Marx and other socialist thinkers, he often led the charge in marches, — his violent streak on full display — and edited the newspaper ‘Avant!’ to overwhelming success.
But war loomed around the corner.
“It is blood which moves the wheels of history” Mussolini asserted, as it pulses through the minds of men. The First World War was amongst the bloodiest any had known, and the wheel span all the quicker. Italy like Germany entered in the hopes of expansion. It won the war but lost its dream. Hundreds of thousands died, bankruptcy loomed.
Mussolini returned changed, having shared in an experience beyond class.
“The nation,” he said “has not disappeared. …Class cannot destroy the nation. Class reveals itself as a collection of interests — but the nation is a history of sentiments, traditions, language, culture, and race. Class can become an integral part of the nation, but the one cannot eclipse the other.”
Hammering out the ideas first heard his father’s smithy, Mussolini set out to forge a new ideology. Plato’s Republic, Nietzsche’s will to power, and radical futurism swirled inside the fire. Fascism was an alloy straddling the left and right, an attractive prospect to returning soldiers. Mussolini dreamt of a militant empire, an heir to Rome, and so the Blackshirts were formed (structured on the Roman army) as the foot soldiers of the revolution. “A revolutionist is born, not made,” he said. Perhaps that is true, or perhaps the Great War was the womb of a generation.
By 1922 Mussolini had amassed 200,000 men, and the backing of both industry and the church. He marched upon Rome and was granted leadership by a King terrified of civil war. Many business leaders thought they could manipulate the man and the movement, but like the fasces (bundle of sticks) from which the movement drew its name, it would be neither bent nor broken.
Nor would it be the last.
Back in 1908, Adolf Hitler lived in Vienna after a rejection from the Academy of Fine Arts. His mother, his last remaining family, died the year before. Hitler was alone, earning a meagre living from painting postcards for tourists. His only solace was the opera. One-night Wagner’s Rienzi was playing, Hitler took his seat. It told the tale of a young man, who unites the common people with the dream a glorious past. Rienzi crushes mutinous factions and leads the revolution to victory. After basking in the sun, Rienzi is betrayed, public opinion sours, and the people he loves cast him down. Hitler was enraptured.
After fighting in the War, Hitler returns home bitter with the nation’s leaders, the anti-Semitism he heard in Vienna flows freely from his lips. The dead German soldiers were “stabbed-in-the-back” by Jews, Marxists and liberal enablers. If Hitler deemed surrender unnecessary, the Treaty of Versailles was treason. Writing in 1919, he states, the aim of the government “must unshakably be the removal of the Jews altogether”.
Hitler follows the rise of Mussolini fanatically. Upon hearing of the ‘March on Rome’ visions of Rienzi flooded back. Riding the coattails Hitler (leader of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP)) launches a coup against the regional Bavarian government. Entering a Munich Beer Hall, Hitler fires his pistol and declares “The national revolution has broken out!”.
Taking the leaders hostage, he orders them to abdicate. He is met with a flat refusal. In Wagnerian fashion, Hitler looks to the crowd. Launching into a furious tirade, he whips them into a frenzy. Alexander Von Mueller, a government supporter, watched in amazement as “[he] turned them inside out… with a few sentences. It had almost something of hocus-pocus or magic about it”.
Hitler’s fantasy plays out the following day. Two-thousand Brownshirts (inspired by the blackshirts) faced one-hundred-and-thirty soldiers. The groups exchanged fire, killing four officers and sixteen Nazis. Hitler claimed he led the march, in reality, he was protected by a guard who got shot. The Beer Hall Putsch was over.
Throughout Hitler’s trial he declared his love of nation, his selfless devotion, and claimed full responsibility for the putsch — he was the leader, the Fuhrer. The trial was a sensation, as the public and reporters queued outside to hear him speak. One professor remarked, “Hitler’s secret was that he wasn’t afraid to shout out loud what most Germans were afraid of admitting to themselves, namely that we deserved to rule the world”.
Hitler received a short and comfortable sentence in a small cell in the German countryside where he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle). Mussolini described the book as little more than “commonplace clichés”, but it became a central text of fascism. Mussolini later penned the “Doctrine of Fascism” as his own foundational text.
The nature of fascism is slippery. If Mussolini and Hitler struggled to agree, then generations of academics and thinkers have fared little better. Careers have been fought and reputations destroyed in pursuit of an answer.
What even is Fascism?
Here we fall prey to two problems.
Too often definitions are vague, too broad and biased in their dragnet. George Orwell noted the problem as early as 1944:
“…the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. … I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, … astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else … Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathisers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.”
Conversely, we face constrictive definitions, like a checklist for a syndrome. But how many ticked boxes make a fascist? “Sorry sir, you’re severely totalitarian, anti-Capitalist and violent.” The doctor says. “I’m afraid you’re a fascist.” But aren’t you also a communist, or a radical Islamist?
Fascism rejects all other answers. It is defined by negation, by its opposition.
Liberalism writes Mussolini, “denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual.” “The Fascist conception of the State is all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist…” By rejecting Liberalism, it enforces totalitarianism. Democracy is a “sham”, “a kingless regime infested by many kings” hiding behind an illusion of solidarity. Roosevelt and Churchill are the elite, Hitler and Mussolini men of the people.
The capricious whims of the voting masses are to be dominated by the brute force of personality. As Hitler declared “every party comrade has to do what the Führer commands, for he embodies the idea and he alone knows its ultimate goal.” To fascism, life is a heroic struggle: the iron will of the powerful, who by force or racial superiority will be in dominion over all.
Fascists oppose socialism and Marxism. “When the war ended in 1919 Socialism, as a doctrine, was already dead…” explains Mussolini. The state remained a vital economic agent, but internationalism was shed like a snake from its skin. In its place, the humiliation of war bred a form of Ultra-Nationalism, which shunned global capitalism.
The identity of each nation is idiosyncratic, a menagerie of historical quirks and traditions. Therefore, fascism was moulded as much by the old as the new. Iconographic references to Rome adorned Italian life, from the she-wolf to the fasces. In Germany, folklore and mysticism draped a mythic backdrop to the raw autocratic nature of daily life.
However, fascism is not conservative. It is not a call to the past, but a story of rebirth. A once great nation has fallen to a decadent and liberal elite, a hero rises to lead his people into a brave new world. Or so the story goes. Comparisons with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” are frequent. However, historian Roger Griffith’s notes “There has to be a longing for a new order, a new nation, not just a reformed old nation”.
Fascism goes even further.
“The Fascist State expresses the will to exercise power and to command. Here the Roman tradition is embodied in a conception of strength. Imperial power, as understood by the Fascist doctrine, is not only territorial, or military, or commercial; it is also spiritual and ethical.”
Democracy resides in the decisions of the masses, socialism in the vitality of its institutions, but fascism finds it in the leader, the Fuhrer, Il Duce, who is the personification of a nation’s hopes and dreams wrought into flesh — a messianic figure. Only they can deliver the promised lands by conquest and force. “Fascism sees in the imperialistic spirit — i.e. in the tendency of nations to expand — a manifestation of their vitality.”
Fascism is a way of life. A nationalist religion, with the requisite symbols and holy texts. With its ceremonies and speeches. With its traditionalist morality. The chosen people and the racially impure. The Good and The Bad. From the venerated martyrs to the warrior-priests of the black and brownshirts, fascism spoke to a greater life. Beyond hedonistic whim or laborious drudgery, there was hope of collective redemption. Sadly, they found only damnation.
Nietzsche’s proclaimed “God Is Dead, and we have killed him.” The horrors of WWI laid bare the nihilism at the heart of European life. Fascism answered — God may be gone, but we are still children of the state. And the state shall have dominion over the earth. It presented order in a time of chaos. Conceived by the Great War, fascism came of age under the Great Depression. The Jazz which had swooned throughout the twenties ended, and the marching bands began to play.
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
In 1929 Wall Street crashed, over the following three years worldwide GDP fell by 15%, it fell only 1% in 2008’s Great Recession. Crop prices plunged, factory workers lost their jobs. America instituted a raft of tariffs which were matched by their European counterparts, global trade declined
The infection spread to Germany. American loans stopped, and post-war repayments were untenable. By 1932 a moratorium on payments was established, but the damage was done. Unwilling to increase spending for fear of further hyperinflation, the Republican government was paralysed by inaction, the economy collapsed under the inertia. Unemployment rising to 30% in 1932.
For the second time in a decade, the German people saw their economy in tatters. The Nazi Party a novelty in 1928 (2.6% of the vote) earned over 37% in the 1932 elections. Extreme times breed extreme solutions, as a desperate populace searches for any return to normalcy. The Communists also saw a strengthening of support, their leader was Ernst Thälmann, a former Hamburg dockworker.
By 1930 the German Communist Party (KPD) was a Stalinist bloc, taking orders directly from Moscow. The social democrats (SPD) were seen as the real threat to socialism, Thälmann dubbed them “social fascists”. Tactically, he thought the Nazis would surely fail, driving voters towards the KPD. It was a fatal error.
Despite street fights occurring between the communists and Nazis, Thälmann offered no unified front. In 1931 the KPD would even unite with Nazis (“working people’s comrades”) attempting to topple the Prussian state government, run by the SPD.
Jutta Ruediger supported Hitler, “I myself had the feeling that here was a man who did not think about himself and his own advantage, but solely about the good of the German people.” Fears of Bolshevism boosted support amongst the middle and business classes. Hitler was offered the job a Vice-Chancellor in July 1932. He refused. Elections in November saw the Nazis lose 35 seats but still maintain control. The KPD once again refused to form a political alliance with the SPD. Thälmann was not the last to underestimate the dark charisma of Hitler.
President Paul von Hindenburg was a military legend, popular with the public. At the behest of exiting Chancellor von Papen, he decides to break through the electoral gridlock. In January 1933 Hitler becomes Chancellor, he reassures Hindenburg by asking for only two ministerial positions. Renowned strong-man von Papen becomes Vice-Chancellor, having struck a backroom deal with Hitler. Naively, the conservatives imagine Hitler is on their leash, Papen even calling Hitler “our man”.
Joseph Goebbels (the Nazi propagandist) organises a series of marches across Germany, which will become known as the “Seizure of Power”. Passing below Hindenburg’s window, he remarks “our men are parading well”, though they were not his men anymore. Finally, Thälmann sees his error and proposes an alliance with the SPD — under his own guidance — but it is too late. The following month he is arrested. He was executed in 1944, having spent the prior 11 years in solitary confinement.
The Reichstag is set on fire in February, supposedly by a communist. Hitler seizes upon the event, at his request Hindenburg signs the ‘Reichstag Fire Decree’, eliminating many civil liberties, including habeas corpus, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, and the secrecy of the post and telephone.
Seeking more control, the Enabling Act 1934 gives Hitler “temporary” power to act without parliamentary consent or constitutional limitations, without infringement upon the President. Hitler gains full power in 1934 when Hindenburg died. The offices of Chancellor and President are fused. Soldiers now take the ‘Hitler Oath’ declaring allegiance directly to the Fuhrer.
Democracy was dead.
Millions ignore such actions, numb to the chaos of the time. Prosperity is sought at any cost. The Nazi Party sets to work fixing the Great Depression. By 1938 unemployment in Germany was practically non-existent, in the US it spiked at 19%. The German economy grew continually, the US was flatlining.
Hitler begins a vast rearmament, desiring the expansion of the German territory to the Ural Mountains of Russia (forming the ‘Lebensraum’ — living space). In contravention of the Treaty of Versailles, the navy is rapidly expanded, conscription increases by hundreds of thousands, and an air force was reconstructed.
National pride was soaring.
In contrast to their American counterparts, Germans were having a blast. ‘Strength through joy’ (KdF) was a state-run leisure company which offered activities from cruises to skiing holidays in Bavaria. By 1939 KdF had sold more than 45 million package tours and excursions. “Despite near-constant warfare, never once during his 12 years in power did Hitler raise taxes for working class people. He also — in great contrast to World War I — particularly pampered soldiers and their families, offering them more than double the salaries and benefits that American and British families received.” Historian Goetz Aly calls Hitler a “feel-good dictator”.
This is not the picture of Nazi Germany to which we are accustomed. Strange, it seems to imagine people were happy, that life went on as normal. The brutality was pushed to the periphery. As the saying goes “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”.
The diary of a young girl who lived throughout the period demonstrates the disconnect:
“Three soldiers started talking to us. Gitti is so silly, she went all silent when they spoke to her. The least one can do is answer, even though we weren’t going to go anywhere with them. Jews all over town are being taken away, including the tailor across the road.”
Written in 1943, the girl worked in Berlin’s Jewish district, “young and busy with my own life”. “There were some Jewish girls in my first ever class photograph, taken in 1933, but by the time the next was taken, they were all gone. When I asked my mother about them, she said they had moved to Palestine.” Despite her naivety the young girl exemplifies a wilful ignorance of the maltreatment occurring just beyond view.
The Nuremberg laws stripped naturalised Jews of citizenship, enabling deportation. Jewish businesses were denied access to markets, deprived of government contracts, and forbidden to advertise. All non-Aryan were automatically taxed in the worst tax class and were not entitled to child allowances or benefits. Men caught having sex with ‘Aryan’ women were charged with racial defilement. Gradually, Jews and non-Jews stopped associating, ‘Aryans’ who did were branded traitors.
Children were taught Jews were lazy and greedy, who smelt and were unclean. “The God of the Jews is money,” said one book. At a youth rally, Hitler proclaimed “’You, my youth …are our nation’s most precious guarantee for a great future’”, Alfons Heck stood in the crowd: “We erupted into a frenzy of nationalistic pride that bordered on hysteria. For minutes on end, we shouted at the top of our lungs with tears streaming down our face: ‘Seig Heil, Seig Heil, Seig Heil’ From that moment on, I belong to Adolf Hitler body and soul.”
Attendance of the Hitler Youth was compulsory and required for apprenticeships and universities. The children and young people brought up under this era had no frame of reference. No understanding of the morality that existed before the Nazis. To them this was normal. Many older Germans had no such excuse.
What went wrong?
How Good Men go Bad
The most interesting analysis involves Reserve Police Battalion 101 (RPB 101) who helped conduct the Final Solution (the mass extermination of the European Jewry) in Poland during the latter stages of the war. Historian Christopher Browning collates a series of interviews conducted in the 1960s in “Ordinary Men”, and ordinary they were. The average age was thirty-nine, many too old for military conscription. Only around 25% were party members before 1942. Most were lower-class, and few were economically independent; many seeking a career in the police. Generally, they came from Hamburg, one of the least Nazified cities in Germany. The most violent had joined the military or Gestapo. The dregs were left.
If one were to pick a group for mass murder, RPB 101 wouldn’t make the short-list. Yet, they murdered tens of thousands.
One July Morning the men were awoken, told to get ready, and were driven to the outskirts of the Polish town Józefów. Major Trapp, a deeply unimpressive man, explained he had received orders demanding the rounding up and executing of the towns 1,800 Jews. It was a sorry task Trapp said, any older man who did not want to participate could refuse. Some did, most stayed.
The Jews were rounded up in the square, those too frail or infirm were shot. Disconcertedly the Jews held their composure. Women led children by the hand, and men proceeded into the woods hearing the death of their families behind. Their last moments were serene and dignified. In the woods, the Jews were laid face down and shot through the neck. Inexperienced and nervous, the officers butchered their job. Alcohol was provided but offered no relief.
Many men lingered around town, dragging out their duties to avoid the bloody task. Lieutenant Heinz Buchmann refused, a businessman and reservist, he had no desire for a police career, so was not bound by ambition or necessity. Many stopped midway, nauseated and repulsed physically (but not morally) by their actions. But it was better to try and fail; refusal was seen as cowardice. Only one policeman who took part, “more aware of what truly required courage — said simply, ‘I was cowardly’”.
Major Trapp, for his part, bumbled around the town in floods of tears, one policeman reportedly heard him utter “Man, … such jobs don’t suit me. But orders are orders.”
The battalion was assigned to the liquidation of the Jewish ghettos. Jews were loaded onto trains till bursting, worse than cattle. The men became numb to such tasks. An “out of sight, out of mind” mentality was promoted. Officer Heinrich Steinmetz admitted he knew “that for the Jews affected these deportations meant death.”
Distance makes devils of us all.
In the 1960s Stanley Milgram conducted a simple experiment. A volunteer performed a memory test on a learner (who was an actor). If a question was answered wrong, the volunteer was to administer a (fake) electric shock. For each wrong answer, the shock went up 15 volts (until 450 volts) eliciting a response from the learner — complaints, cries of pain, calls for help, and eventually complete silence. If the volunteer asked to stop, the experimenter answered: “The experiment requires you to continue”.
The results were astounding.
Sixty-five per cent administered the final 450-volt shock, and all went to 300 volts. Every participant questioned whether to continue at least once. If a non-authority figure instructed the volunteer to continue, then no one obeyed. If not observed completely, the volunteers cheated, giving milder shocks, but did not quit the experiment.
A variant of the experiment found, if the volunteer completed a task which indirectly inflicted pain, then obedience was one-hundred per cent. People behind desks running logistical genocide were even further removed than the volunteers or the officers. The compartmentalisation of the Holocaust allowed people to exhume themselves of personal responsibility. “If it wasn’t me, it would be someone else,” one policeman said, few would remember any victims of the deportations in contrast to Józefów.
For the rest of the populace the monstrosities occurring in the death camps and across Europe were known, but unacknowledged. Even amongst RPB101 anti-Semitism was not customary. Lieutenant Drucker remarks, “Under the influence of the times, my attitude to Jews was marked by a certain aversion. But I cannot say that I especially hated Jews — in any case it is my impression now that that was my attitude at the time.”
The policemen though interviewed in the sixties, still reflected Nazi sentiments in their language: “the Jews were ‘dirty’, ‘unkempt’ and ‘less clean’ than the poles”. Yet, others recognised the Jews as human beings ravaged by starvation and poverty. Some men were brutal anti-Semites. Lieutenant Gnade initially “rushed his men back from Mins to avoid being involved in killing”, later he enjoyed it, becoming an anti-Semite “out of conviction”. He was disliked by the men, particularly for his enthusiasm and brutality.
Most of the men did become hardened killers. Little known “Jew hunts” were conducted throughout Poland in the hopes of catching the remaining Jews to make the area ‘judenfrei’ or Jew-free. Killers volunteered for small assignments (around one-third of the men), and there was never a shortage of volunteers. Larger tasks required selection. Some never or rarely participated, and there is no evidence they faced any punishment. As Browning himself asked “Why did most men in Reserve Police Battalion 101 become killers, while only a minority of perhaps 10 per cent… did not?”
The Zimbardo Prison Experiment offers some answers. Under the Stanford Psychology Department, a mock-prison was constructed. Volunteers were randomly divided between guards and prisoners. “About one-third of the guards emerged as “cruel and tough.” …[inventing] new form of harassment and enjoyed their newfound power. … A middle group of guards was “tough but fair”. They “played by the rules” and did not go out of their way to mistreat prisoners. Only two (of the eleven guards) emerged as “good guards” who did not punish prisoners and even did small favours.”
This is strikingly similar to the RPB 101 officers and the participation rate in the Milgram experiment. Even Zimbardo himself was desensitised. When a fellow colleague visited the experiment, they found it inhumane, it was quickly shut down. Zimbardo — who had acted as prison warden — had gotten swept along with the others.
At a final tally, 500 men from RBP 101 were responsible for at least 83,000 deaths. Milgram concluded, “Men are led to kill with little difficulty”. Both his and Zimbardo’s findings suggest RPB101 were ordinary men after all. If we are to learn anything from history and psychology it’s that anyone can commit monstrous acts. It could be you or me, or Mr Jones down the street. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a former prisoner of the Soviet gulags wrote: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”
Evil lies in the choices we make. In the person, we choose to become.
The State of the Union
But what tipped the scales in Germany, and to a lesser extent Italy? Why was this the birthplace of fascism and not America or the UK? America, in particular, was hard hit by the depression and suffered longer than Germany. As the great plains turned into a dustbowl, the people were scattered on the winds. Still no revolt.
Disillusionment did inflate the Communist party membership to 55,000 by the end of the 1930s. In 1939, 20,000 gathered at Madison Square Garden denouncing Roosevelt’s New Deal as a ‘Jew Deal’, the Black Legion and Friends of Germany leading the movement. But they never held the sway with the public as Mussolini and Hitler had done.
Nor was the US immune to war crimes. Soldiers raped women during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, some kept collections of body parts, or executed prisoners of war (POW). However, the Allied High Commanders stamped out such attitudes, with the “promise of ice cream and three days leave”. Contrasting the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments, the US authorities curtailed the carnal instincts, the soldiers generally fell into line.
The Allied Commanders operated within their nations core values. For the US, the belief “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…” provided a moral bedrock. If America were to evoke nationalism, this passage would haunt any self-proclaimed Nazi.
In terms of nationhood, Germany was young (as was Italy); the US was ninety-five when it formed in 1871. It was forged as an empire, uniting the German-speaking peoples. By its very nature was as an exclusionary enterprise, Germans were an ethnicity first and foremost. When the nation eventually transitioned to democracy it was skin deep. Therefore, an absolute leader was a known entity, no different than Bismarck or the Kaiser. America formed to become a democracy. Authoritarianism is antithetical to the very mythos of the country. To this day Americans believe in the individual over the institution, the reverse is true in Germany.
These characteristics of America haven’t changed in the past hundred years. Still, the warning of Nazism is sounded. Trump towers over the debate, but he seems to bear little resemblance to Hitler beyond the superficial. Hitler was a lower-class German, a decorated war veteran who was virulently anti-Semitic from a young age. Hitler was open about what he desired and pursued it with unparalleled vivacity. Trump is a property tycoon and reality TV star. He is an elderly man, who has seen no war, only the panorama from his skyscraper.
Fame and fortune were his driving motivations. Trump’s affliction is not hate, but greed. He is spoilt. A lifetime mingling with elites from Hilary Clinton to Mike Tyson has created an expectation of acquiescence. That’s what normally happens. Cause and effect. To his surprise, the system doesn’t work like that. The result is not the machinations of an insidious agent corrupting the system from within, but an emotional outburst reminiscent of a toddler.
Even if he desired to become an American Fuhrer, he is constrained. Economics Professor Tyler Cowan writes, “American fascism cannot happen anymore because the American government is so large and unwieldy. … No matter who is elected, the fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, they cannot control all the branches of American government, they cannot control the judiciary, they cannot control semi-independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and they cannot control what is sometimes called “the deep state.”
Only 4.3% of Washington DC voted for Trump, and it has worked tirelessly against him. “The courts have ruled against his executive orders; a Republican Congress has not been a rubber stamp for his ideas on trade, immigration and health care reform; …The Pentagon and even the State Department have re-exerted their traditional control over foreign policy.” The bemoaned inertia of the big state has its silver linings.
The policies themselves are also far from extreme. In 2006, George W. Bush passed the Security Fence Act, Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama voted in favour. Over four years 548 miles were built. Whereas Trump’s proposed wall was met with the usual cycle of outrage, seen as a symbol of xenophobia. In reality, the only difference was the building material, unbeknown to everyone concrete had become the foundation of fascism. Trump should have plumped for a chain-link fence.
The Muslim ban, a similarly controversial story, involved restricting travel to citizens of seven Muslim majority countries. However, Trump had only extended Obama’s policy. In 2015, the then-President signed a law restricting travel to the same seven countries on grounds of terrorism. So, is Obama a fascist too?
Trump is crude and rude. He is bombastic and belligerent. He has an uncanny knack for analysing an opponent’s weakness and hanging them by it. He may even have an authoritarian streak. But is he evoking a golden new future devoid of capitalistic markets? Does he desire territorial expansion or the extermination of a certain race? Is he trying to create a national religion centred on him?
Well maybe the last one.
This is not to say Nazis, racists, and fascists don’t exist. They do. Just as they did in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Just as they did under Obama, and as they would have done under Hilary Clinton. The alt-Right is supposed to capture this constellation of hate. But the movement is fractured and disunified. Trump was not its architect, nor did he rise with them. Instead, they latched onto the Trump Presidency like a parasite and have quickly fallen into “disarray” according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre.
Still many are tarred by association with the group. The lesson of Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the German far-left, comes to mind. Do not slur potential allies for the sake of ideological purity. You may live to regret it. By muddying the water, you risk giving your enemy a breeding ground.
Trump is no fascist, but he does fall in alongside strong-men such as Putin and Duterte. These regimes rely on their use of technology to “manage” democracy. Hitler and Mussolini were products of their time, Putin and Trump are too. We should treat them as such.
If we are to learn from the thirties, let’s consider the French. On the eve of WWII, they lined up along the Maginot Line, awaiting an attack. This was a series of impervious defences built to deter a future German invasion. When the attack finally came, the Germans went around. The French Generals who had prepared for a rerun of WWI watched as history took a different course. The past is a foreign land, it was once said, they do things differently there.
Writer Alan Moore warned, “The past can’t hurt you anymore, not unless you let it.” It’s the future we need to be worried about.