A new biography of Hitler offers us a warning from history.
Many years ago I read what was then considered the classic biography, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, by Alan Bullock. My copy, which I just pulled off my Third Reich bookshelf (yeah, I’ve got one), is falling apart but I still have it. (I should head down to the Strand and get a used hard copy but why do I have a feeling the Strand will be sold out of Hitler biographies?)
On the same bookshelf, I found The Last Days of Hitler, by Hugh Trevor-Roper. (I have a dim memory that the Trevor-Roper book, originally published in 1947, has been criticized in fairly recent years but I don’t remember the specifics.)
I mention these books by way of asserting I know something about Hitler and, therefore, have a rational basis for comparing the rise of Trump to Hitler.
This new biography, Hitler:Ascent, by Volker Ullrich, sounds excellent. Let me pull a few excerpts from the Nation’s review by Richard J. Evans, with some bolding:
here are more ways of destroying a democracy than sending troops into the streets, storming the radio stations, and arresting the politicians, as Adolf Hitler discovered after the failure of his beer-hall putsch in 1923. Ten years later, on January 30, 1933, when he was appointed head of the German government, Hitler was the leader of the country’s largest political party, the National Socialists. Even five years earlier, in May of 1928, he’d been a political nobody…
Many people in Germany thought that Hitler would be a normal head of government. Some, like the conservative politician Franz von Papen and the leaders of the German National People’s Party, thought that they’d be able to control him, because they were more experienced and formed the majority in the coalition government that Hitler headed. Others thought that the responsibilities of office would tame and steer him in a more conventional direction. They were all wrong.
Hitler won mass support between 1928 and 1930 because a major economic crisis had driven Germany into a deep depression: Banks crashed, businesses folded, and millions lost their jobs. Hitler offered voters a vision of a better future, one he contrasted with the policies of the parties that had plunged the country into crisis in the first place.
The first politician to tour the country by air during an election campaign, Hitler issued an endless stream of slogans to win potential supporters over. He would make Germany great again. He would give Germans work once more. He would put Germany first. He would revive the nation’s rusting industries, laid to waste by the economic depression. He would crush the alien ideologies—socialism, liberalism, communism—that were undermining the nation’s will to survive and destroying its core values.
Ullrich quotes a police report on one of Hitler’s early speeches, in which he “used vulgar comparisons” and “did not shy away from the cheapest allusions.” Hitler’s language was never measured or careful, but “like something merely expulsed.” Yet, revising earlier opinions, Ullrich shows how carefully Hitler prepared his speeches. Seemingly spontaneous, they were in fact calculated. Full of base allegations and vile stereotypes, they were precisely designed to gain maximum attention from the media and maximum reaction from the crowds he addressed. When he declared that fines were of no use against those he called Jewish criminals, his listeners interrupted him with chants of “Beatings! Hangings!”
Aided by his talented propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, Hitler not only flaunted his vulgarity and exploited tribal hatreds; he also lied and lied his way to success.
Few took Hitler seriously or thought that he would actually put his threats against the country’s tiny Jewish minority, his rants against feminists, left-wing politicians, homosexuals, pacifists, and liberal newspaper editors, into effect. Fewer still believed his vow to quit the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations. But within a few months of taking office, he did all of these things—and much more.
Once in power, the Nazi regime was run exclusively by men: Only heterosexual white males, the Nazis thought, had the required detachment and lack of emotional connection to the issues at hand to make the right calls. Nazi propaganda mocked disabled people; within a few years, they were being sterilized and then exterminated. Hitler railed against the roving bands of criminals who were destroying law and order and called for the return of the death penalty, effectively abrogated under the Weimar Republic. Within a short space of time, the executions began again, reaching a total of more than 16,000 during his 12 years in power, while Germany’s prison population rocketed from 50,000 in 1930 to more than 100,000 on the eve of the war. Feminist associations were all closed down, the law forbidding homosexual acts between men was drastically sharpened, vagrants were rounded up and imprisoned, illegal Polish immigrants were deported. Germany pulled out of international organizations and tore up treaties with cynical abandon, dismantling or emasculating the structures of international cooperation erected after World War I and freeing the way for rogue states like Italy and Japan to launch their own wars of conquest and aggression. Ullrich tellingly quotes the Nazis’ triumphant declaration of “our departure from the community of nations,” buttressed by Hitler’s assurance that he would “rather die” than sign anything that was not in the interests of the German people. Hitler followed up on this commitment as well, though of course this proved not to be in the interests of the German people in the end.
There are some differences, though, and those differences are why I don’t believe Bannon-Trump’s American fascism will succeed, or even be in power much longer.
- Trump has risen a decade too late: our economic crash came in 2008 and was largely dealt with successfully by the Obama administration. Trump’s Hitlerian campaign screeches–“He would make [America] great again. He would give [Americans] work once more. He would put [America] first. He would revive the nation’s rusting industries, laid to waste by the economic depression”–were anachronistic. Bannon took them from the Hitler playbook, but didn’t bother to upgrade them from the 1930s to the 2000s. Bannon-Trump have consistently produced a temporal disconnect.
- Trump’s dark projections of our country come from video games, not from reality. He has not been able to sell that bizarre vision to a majority of Americans.
- Our fourth branch of government, the news media, has a long history of resilience to tyranny and suppression and is being particularly majestic now.
- And our third branch of government, our court system, has–despite a bad series of anti-democratic decisions by the Roberts’ majority Supreme Court–proven the power of the rule of law.
- You have to go back 230 years before you find an American population kvetching about a single, unremovable despot, rather than a democratically elected government. With a few sporadic exceptions, we’re just not historically prone to blind worship of kings, strongmen or demagogues.
- And leaks.
One of our greatest strengths is Trump’s great weakness: that cliché “diversity.” Although the Bannon-Trump cabal has indeed lifted the vulnerable scapegoat principle right out of Goebbels-Hitler, our fascists are going after way too many scapegoats. Their sort of diversity (“bad hombres”) are women, African-Americans, Latinos, undocumented workers, Muslims and Jews (apologies if I left any minority out). I believe it’s spread them way too thin, and not all their scapegoats are abjectly vulnerable.
Besides, once you add up all the specific groups Bannon-Trump are attacking, you wind up with…a majority. And we are pissed.
Meanwhile, I’m planning a trot down to the Strand–which is, by the way, owned by Fred Bass, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden’s father-in-law.