Words do not adequately describe the sense of fear that I feel as I watch the 2016 Republican National convention and the coronation of Donald Trump. Earlier today, on Facebook I posted a link to a YouTube clip of Leni Riefenstahl 1935 propaganda film "Triumph of the Will" that chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, which was attended by more than 700,000 Nazi supporters. The film contains excerpts from speeches given by Nazi leaders at the Congress, including Adolf Hitler, Rudolf Hess, and Julius Streicher, interspersed with footage of massed Sturmabteilung and Schutzstaffel troops and public reaction. The film's overriding theme is the return of Germany as a great power, with Hitler as the leader who will bring glory to the nation. Sound frighteningly familiar? If you have not seen Riefenstal's film, view it here. A lengthy piece in The Tablet, a Jewish news publication, traces the parallels between how Hitler ultimately seized power and what we are witnessing in Cleveland and among the Republican Party and Trump's followers. Here are excerpts:
“What a memorable day!” wrote a middle-class Hamburg housewife in her diary on Jan. 30, 1933. She had just watched the parade of torch-bearing storm troopers celebrate Adolf Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany.Frau Solmitz did not, however, extol only Hitler. She waxed melodic about Hitler’s cabinet, in which there were just three Nazis. All the others were upstanding conservatives, men like Franz von Papen, the aristocratic former chancellor and leader of the Catholic Center Party, and the career bureaucrat Constantin von Neurath, who was named to head up the foreign ministry. These were experienced men, reasonable men. They would contain Hitler’s excesses. After four years of economic depression and political paralysis, 14 years since the humiliation of the Versailles Peace Treaty, decades of an overweening Jewish presence in German public life, it was time for a new beginning. It was time to make Germany great again.
In the end, a small clique of businessmen, estate owners, bankers, high-ranking civil servants, and army officers prevailed upon the president, Paul von Hindenburg, to name Hitler chancellor of Germany. For these traditional conservatives, the Nazis were uncouth, low class, and undisciplined. Yet these same conservatives made a political bargain with the Nazi party.
[T]he process by which traditional and radical conservatives came together through a common language carries numerous warning signals as we experience the surge of right-wing populism from Poland across the continent, on to the United Kingdom, and across the ocean to the United States.
Americans often say that the German people elected Hitler to power, but that is not accurate. The highest vote the Nazis received in a free election came six months before the seizure of power. In July 1932, the Nazis won 37 percent of the electorate. . . . . In the end, the conservative elite saved the Nazis from the political wilderness.
There was nothing inevitable or predetermined about the Nazi assumption of power. It was the result of a conscious political decision by traditional conservatives made in a time of crisis when Germany wallowed in depression and the political system lay paralyzed.
The conservative elite had its roots in the churches, Protestant and Catholic, . . . . These traditionalists hated the very idea of democracy, but they understood that there had to be limits to state power, and they shied away from rampant, excessive violence. They also understood that human beings are imperfect and prone to error and that the essential Nazi hubris was the belief in the perfectibility of the race. Yet the traditionalists struck a deal with the Nazis on Jan. 30, 1933, one they reconfirmed many times during the 12 years of the Third Reich.
Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the two officers who led the Supreme Military Command and effectively ruled Germany dictatorially in the last two years of the war, shifted the blame for Germany’s defeat away from the military (and themselves, of course). The army had remained upright and upstanding, the army had never been defeated in the field, so they claimed. Germany had been betrayed at home by socialists and the Jews; that was the only reason Germany had to sue for peace.
It was a nasty, dirty game, and highly potent politically. Hitler used the stab-in-the-back legend to great effect; traditional conservatives—including Hindenburg though not Ludendorff, who later dallied with the Nazis—also found the rhetoric highly appealing.
The Weimar Republic is often seen as merely a prelude to the Third Reich. But that reads back into the past Germany’s later history. The Republic certainly suffered numerous crises and had a fragile character. Amid the chaos, Germans experienced the most democratic order they had ever known; a vibrant, thriving culture; and social improvements like public housing and public health clinics, which often dispensed sex and birth control advice. Many spheres of life largely closed off to Jews, like the universities, opened up; women obtained greater educational and professional opportunities.
Weimar, in short, represented a great moment of democratic reform, cultural efflorescence, and sexual experimentation. It was everything that conservatives, traditional and radical, hated. The choice words they used in common for the Republic marked another step on the road of their accommodation.
Traditional conservatives were by and large genteel anti-Semites. In the Weimar period, they tended not to share the murderous tendencies of the Nazis (though that would change over the course of the Third Reich). But they didn’t particularly like Jews, and they thought the Jewish presence in German public life overbearing and distasteful. Germany, in the common view of the Right, radical and conservative, faced an überfremdung, a flood of foreigners, Jews in particular, who exercised a degenerative influence on the German people and German society.
On all this the old conservative elite and the Nazis could easily agree, even though the Nazi solution to the problem would prove more far radical than anything the traditionalists had imagined.
Which brings us to the current right-wing populist surge all across Europe and the United States. Certainly, real grievances exist that have created support for the Right. As one report after another recounts, many communities have been hard hit by globalization. The factories rust away, the jobs available are low-level, low-paying service positions. Inequalities have risen everywhere, most obscenely in the United States.
[T]he right-wing sensibility in the Western world is largely cultural in nature. It is directed against those identified as foreigners, even when they are third-generation Germans, French, or Britons, whose families may have hailed from Turkey, Morocco, or Jamaica. Race is also a factor, but not exclusively so.
Sometimes the language is coded and comes across in polite terms. At other moments, it is virulent. The political language that they speak enables the creation of a broad-based right-wing populism. “Respectable” members of society in Poland, France, or the United States hear the coded language and nod their heads in approval, while those on the far right, prone to violence, respond affirmatively to the more virulent rhetoric.
Trump, like many other right-wing leaders, plays both sides of the rhetorical street (as Hitler did as well, and masterfully so).
Trump seems blithely unaware of the tainted history of the term [America First], which goes back to the isolationists, Nazi sympathizers, and anti-Semites of the 1930s and ’40s. “Make America Great Again” is also code that plays well. Trump conjures up the 1950s, a wonderful decade for some in America, but certainly not for African-Americans, who remained subject to Jim Crow legislation and violence of the worst sort in the South as well as the North, nor for Hispanics, who suffered all kinds of discrimination.
Republicans in the United States continue to dance around Trump, many unable to decide whether their party should back such an obviously incapable, self-aggrandizing, and racist candidate for the presidency. . . . . But by and large, Republicans have moved into Trump’s camp, Paul Ryan perhaps the most prominent among them. They bemoan the fact that they can’t control him, but they don’t have the courage to separate themselves from a candidate with substantial popular support.
Ours is a presidential system, and despite the difficulties Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had with Congress and the Supreme Court, presidents wield enormous power. In possession of that power, Trump will be fully capable of shredding the constitution from within, as the Nazis did.
Today’s Republicans and similarly-minded figures in Europe are like the conservatives who put Adolf Hitler in power: delusional about their influence, playing dangerously with the structures of our democracy. . . . . And much of the reason lies in the fact that Trump’s political language is only more blatant than what many Republicans have been saying for decades.
That is the lesson from the right-wing populist upsurge in Weimar Germany, which culminated in the Nazi assumption of power. The political language of fear and hostility directed at “foreign” elements (never mind the fact that many and even most of those so-called foreigners had been residents and citizens for generations) enables moderate and radical conservatives to come together. The moderates make the radicals salonfähig, acceptable in polite society. That is the real and pressing danger of the current moment.