President Donald Trump exhibits the characteristics of a demagogue.
His attacks on the media, fear mongering, overt lying and the way he plays on people’s prejudices and emotions all fit the mold. As such, more than a few memes and articles circulating on the internet compare him to one of the most recognizable demagogues in recent history: Adolf Hitler.
But to compare Trump to the leader of a political party that murdered 11 million people is an oversimplification. A better comparison might be between the rise of the Nazi war machine and the rise of the “alt-right” white nationalist movement.
But is this a comparison that should even be made?
Or is it more dangerous not to make the connection?
Street Roots visited the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, which is preparing for its grand reopening this June at a new location in downtown Portland, to pose these questions to Holocaust history experts.
April Slabosheski, a Holocaust educator, said that while there are risks in making analogies, there are important uses for Holocaust history in the United States at this moment.
“I think it’s OK for those two things to be very true,” she said.
Historically, authoritarian regimes thrive alongside economic depression. The Great Depression of 1929 hit Germany particularly hard. One might argue the U.S. today is not so different, as large swaths of rural America still haven’t recovered from the 2008 recession. This is also where Trump found his voter base.
Slabosheski said that when people ask her if there are similarities between post-recession U.S. and post-depression Germany, the first thing she does is explain what Germany actually looked like in the years leading up to Hitler’s reign.
Germany had recently lost World War I, with more than 2 million Germans losing their lives along with it. The peace treaty Germany signed at the end of the war assigned the country billions of dollars of war debt. Germans weren’t just economically depressed; they were starving – and there was great instability of governance, with regular assassinations of prominent political leaders, Slabosheski said.
The United States’ government is more established than Germany’s government was in 1933, making it less vulnerable.
“We have low unemployment, the dollar is as strong as ever, people have health insurance – all sorts of things you could look at as positive,” said Judith Margles, the center’s director. “They lost World War I, and they were suffering because of that loss.”
“The situation in Germany was unimaginably awful,” she said. “It was emotional and economic and physical.”
Does this mean Trump’s America bears no resemblance to Hitler’s Germany?
It’s “a risky comparison at best,” Slabosheski said. However, “this trend, if you will, of economic struggles and authoritarianism, populism, xenophobia – those are so intimately connected.”
One striking difference, she noted, is that today’s far-right and xenophobic movements are not isolated to the United States; “it’s happening everywhere.”
Slabosheski offers a workshop on anti-Semitic legislation, and it begins with the question of how Hitler rose to power in the first place. The Nazi party had already been actively recruiting for 10 years prior to Hitler’s appointment to the Cabinet of a popularly elected German president, Paul von Hindenburg, in 1932.
“There was enough representation in the German parliament by the Nazi party at the time that the Nazi party was able to pass laws that put Hitler and the party, essentially, in complete control of government decisions,” Slabosheski said.
“These early laws, they really played on a sense of panic and so-called threats to the safety of the country and the people of Germany to be able to pass whatever laws were necessary, even if they were not constitutional,” she said, “which saying out loud makes me feel kind of sick right now.”
The first law was the Reichstag Fire Decree, passed after an anarchist set a government parliament building on fire.
The decree stated that “as a defensive measure against Communist acts of violence that endanger the state,” it was suspending seven articles of the German Constitution.
Slabosheski said that while the arsonist was not a communist, the Nazi party claimed that he was and used the fire as a reason to pass the decree.
If this sounds familiar, it should. On Jan. 30, the White House used the terrorist attack on Muslims in Quebec to justify Trump’s controversial security measures after false reports from Fox News indicated that a Moroccan immigrant was suspected of the attack. It was later revealed the suspected attacker was a French Canadian who was anti-immigrant.
The Reichstag Fire Decree, Slabosheski said, “took a lot of rights away from people, and the really critical ones were due process of police investigations and being able to have a fair trial.”
The decree also limited people’s ability to assemble freely. The same objective is currently being pursued by Republican lawmakers in at least eight states, The Intercept reported in January.
Because the decree took away due process, the Nazi party was able to arrest and detain most of the communist and socialist representatives in parliament. This allowed them to pass the Enabling Act.
“It was called the Enabling Act because it enabled Hitler to have all the power,” Slabosheski said. “It transferred all the power of the presidency and parliamentary legislation to Hitler and the Nazi party in the Cabinet.”
From there, the Nazis began slowly to pass discriminatory laws.
“In 1933, Jews and other unwanted people were expelled from chess clubs, for example,” she said. “It didn’t start with murder.”
One of the most common questions they get at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education is: Why didn’t the Jews leave?
It was in part because they were assimilated into German society, Margles said. They were doctors, lawyers and business owners.
“They couldn’t believe it could happen to them, because they were German. So it was utter disbelief. It was, ‘Oh, it’s bad now, but it’s only going to get better,’” she said.
“I think another really important lesson that goes right along with that is there were quotas in most countries where people could have emigrated, but they really couldn’t – there wasn’t anywhere to go,” Slabosheski said.
In June 1939, the U.S. turned away a ship carrying 937 Jewish asylum seekers because President Franklin D. Roosevelt and State Department officials argued that the refugees posed a threat to national security.
The United States has seen a recent rise in reported hate crimes. Was this present in Germany leading up to Hitler’s reign?
“You could have the perspective that right now could be the beginning of that, but a lot of other analysis suggests that these groups have been recruiting for 40 years,” Slabosheski said. “I think for me personally, we are so in the moment that I don’t have the historical distance to say what the comparison is.”
Margles pointed out that hate groups have remained present in Oregon since the 1800s.
“I think they’ve just either been louder or quieter, depending on how loud they think they can be,” she said. “If you think back to the ’20s, when the Klan was here – the Klan in 1923 was the largest Klan in the country west of the Mississippi, in Oregon.”
She said the Neo-Nazi movement quieted down until the 1980s, then got loud again, then retreated back underground and found its home on the web.
“And now, I don’t know whether it’s more, but it’s just a license to use their voices out loud because we have people in high places who are speaking the same rhetoric,” she said, referencing a story The New York Times posted earlier that day revealing Trump’s earpiece Steve Bannon’s affinity for Julius Evola.
Evola is popular among fascists. He was neo-Nazi-associated and a leading proponent of Traditionalism, “a worldview popular in far-right and alternative religious circles that believes progress and equality are poisonous illusions,” The Times reported.
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Additionally, the omission of Jews from the statement released by the White House on International Holocaust Remembrance Day was apparently no accident, given that the State Department’s statement, which included a reference to Jewish people, was reportedly scrapped by the Trump administration.
Following our interview, Margles was meeting with a Holocaust survivor who had been liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
“She weighed 59 pounds at age 16 when she was liberated. Imagine having that statement released and what she would think,” Margles said.
She said her center released a statement in response, calling the omission of Jewish people from the blurb posted by the White House “a grotesque insult to the memory of those who perished and to the survivors amongst us.”
Having a propagandist such as Bannon in the White House has raised concerns. He’s been credited with turning Breitbart News into an echo chamber for the “alt-right.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, under Bannon’s direction, Breitbart “aggressively pushed stories against immigrants, and supported linking minorities to terrorism and crime.”
Inciting fear of the other is a popular tactic of demagogues and authoritarian regimes.
“The Nazis used propaganda to play on emotions – which was huge – to unite people against a common enemy, to build up a sense of national pride that people had lost, and to sort of mythologize a historical Germany that didn’t really exist,” Slabosheski said.
They explained the Nazis glorified Germany of the past through imagery, old German songs and clothing and parades that promoted nationalist pride.
“Make Germany great again,” Margles lamented.
But Trump’s America has an X factor.
“One of the most important things about teaching Holocaust history, especially in this time, is the idea that the Holocaust wasn’t inevitable,” Slabosheski said. “It required the participation from millions of people who didn’t stand up and didn’t say no to all of these measures that were being enacted.”
Both women agreed: In the years leading up to the Holocaust, Germany didn’t see anything that came close to the protests and outcry that Trump’s exclusionary measures have wrought from U.S. citizens.
“That thing that happened in Arizona a couple nights ago – they were deporting this woman and people were just – it’s just incredible – people came out and just blocked this (Customs) car,” Margles said. “People are really protesting right now, and they’re not going to be stopped.”
She warns, however, that citizens must never normalize Trump’s policies.
“The moment we wake up and we say, ‘It’s starting to feel kind of normal; I guess this is what it is,’ we are in big trouble,” she said.
She was asked, isn’t that what Americans have been doing for decades with other forms of oppression, such as mass incarceration and immigrant detention centers? “You are absolutely right,” she replied, “and that’s humiliating.”
Suddenly, people are concerned about issues they were aware of but did nothing about in the past, she said.
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“If he is impeached, are people going to say, ‘Phew!’? Are we going to climb back under our tables and do the things we’ve always done and just let the other indignities, which aren’t quite as bad as what we’re seeing now, continue?” Margles asked. “Then I think we’ve done a really terrible disservice.”
Slabosheski said she’s noticed a difference among students she educates when visiting local schools. She typically ends her lessons by asking the class what kind of a country they are living in, in comparison to what they had just learned. Now, she said, she doesn’t have to bring it up because students are already chiming in with comparisons to mass incarceration and other issues they see on the news.
“To say that this is about to be the Holocaust, kind of inevitable-izes what’s happening now,” Slabosheski said. She said she worries thinking that way could result in people feeling helpless, which could lead to less civic engagement.
“That’s not why one should study Holocaust history. Because there are all these moments when people could have stepped in, and a lot of people did step in, but not enough,” she said.
“This is not a fascist country,” Margles said, “but things are odd right now.”
Margles said the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education has been fielding more calls than usual since the election.
In some cases, primary schools reach out to the center when a swastika shows up on a bathroom wall. When that happens, the center sends a local Holocaust survivor, educator or docent to speak to students.
Usually the center would get about three calls like that a year, but at the time of our interview Feb. 10, the center had received that many calls – all directly in response to a hate-related incident at a school – during the past week alone.
That doesn’t necessarily mean incidences are increasing, Margles said. It could just mean the response to such incidents is changing.
“What we’re doing matters now more than ever,” she said. “If we can help people to better understand, I feel really proud of that.”
Email staff writer Emily Green at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GreenWrites.
If you go
Speakers and tours
The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education has moved to 724 NW Davis St. It’s closed until its grand reopening in June, however the public can request group tours of the Holocaust Memorial in Washington Park or invite Holocaust survivors, educators or docents, who all have a personal connection to the Holocaust, to give a lesson or presentation on Holocaust history. For more information or to request a tour or speaker, visit the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education website.
Speakers reflect a range of experiences; some were hidden children, some were refugees, and some survived concentration camps.
There is no fee for memorial tours, However a donation of $25, to cover administrative costs, is recommended.
In March, the center will host a free public workshop on the gradual implementation of anti-Semitic legislation. The date and time have not yet been determined. Check the center’s website for updated information.
The White Rose
While most Germans remained silent during the Holocaust, many for fear of death, a professor and a small group of students at the University of Munich formed a resistance group called The White Rose. From June 1942 to February 1943, they anonymously distributed leaflets in the hopes of inciting action and resistance among their fellow Germans. Members of the group’s core were all discovered and executed.
This is an excerpt from the second leaflet The White Rose distributed in 1942:
It is impossible to engage in intellectual discourse with National Socialism because it is not an intellectually defensible program. It is false to speak of a National Socialist philosophy, for if there were such an entity, one would have to try by means of analysis and discussion either to prove its validity or to combat it. In actuality, however, we face a totally different situation. At its very inception this movement depended on the deception and betrayal of one’s fellow man; even at that time it was inwardly corrupt and could support itself only with constant lies. After all, Hitler states in an early edition of “his” book (a book written in the worst German I have ever read, in spite of the fact it has been elevated to the position of the Bible in this nation of poets and thinkers): “It is unbelievable, to what extent one must betray a people in order to rule it.” If at the start of this cancerous growth in the nation was not particularly noticeable, it was only because there were still enough forces at work that operated for the good, so that it was kept under control. As it grew larger, however, and finally in an ultimate spurt of growth broke open, as it were, and infected the whole body. … If the German does not at last start up out of his stupor, if he does not protest wherever and whenever he can against this clique of criminals, if he shows no sympathy for these hundreds of thousands of victims. He must evidence not only sympathy; no, much more: a sense of complicity in guilt. For through his apathetic behavior he gives these evil men the opportunity to ask as they do; he tolerates this “government” which has taken upon itself such an infinitely great burden of guilt; indeed he himself is to blame for the fact that it came about at all!