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Party Like It’s 1939


Attempts to connect our current situation with the 1930s are coming out pretty regularly (and more will follow). But when two leading historians of fascism speak up, it’s worth listening.

Timothy Snyder sat down with Süddeutsche Zeitung last week, while Richard Evans weighed in with Slate.

Snyder certainly thinks we need to be learning from the 1930s:

Most  Americans are exceptionalists, we think we live outside of history. Americans tend to think: “We have freedom because we love freedom, we love freedom because we are free.”  It is a bit circular and doesn’t acknowledge the historical structures that can favor or weaken democratic republics.  We don’t realize how similar our predicaments are to those of other people.

I wanted to remind my fellow Americans that intelligent people, not so different from ourselves, have experienced the collapse of a republic before. It is one example among many.  Republics, like other forms of government, exist in history and can rise and fall. The American Founding Fathers knew this, which is why there were obsessed with the history of classical republics and their decline into oligarchy and empire.  We seem to have lost that tradition of learning from others, and we need it back.  A quarter century ago, after the collapse of communism, we declared that history was over – and in an amazing way we forgot everything we once knew about communism, fascism and National Socialism.

Evans sees specific parallels:

When you look at President Trump’s statements, I’m afraid you do see echoes, and they are very alarming. For example, the stigmatization of minorities. First of all, the Trump White House failed to mention the Jews in its statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. And that is very worrying because the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews was not just a genocide; it had a special quality, because Hitler and the Nazis regarded the Jews as an existential threat to Germany. They used hyperbolic and exaggerated language about Jews. If the Jews were not killed, the Nazis said, they would destroy Germany completely, whereas other groups that the Nazis stigmatized, discriminated against, and indeed murdered, like the handicapped, were only to be gotten out of the way. If you look at the language the Trump team has been using about Islamic extremist jihadis, it is exactly the same: They are an existential threat to America. They will defeat, dominate, and destroy America. That is a very extreme kind of language and a very disturbing echo.

Snyder also links rising Islamophobia to Nazi tactics:

[R]ight now the comparison we need to ponder is between the treatment of Muslims and the treatment of Jews. It is obviously the case that the point of the Muslim ban is to instruct Americans that Muslims are an enemy: a small, well-assimilated minority that we are supposed to see not as our neighbors or as fellow citizens but as elements of an international threat.

Both address questions of Trump’s maneuvering within a system of checks and balances. Snyder’s first concern was to disabuse us of the idea that institutions would in any way curb the new POTUS’s power:

He never took them seriously, acts as if they don’t exist, and clearly wishes they didn’t.  The story that Americans have told themselves from the moment he declared his candidacy for president, was that one institution or another would defeat him or at least change his behavior – he won’t get the nomination; if he gets the nomination, he will be a normal Republican; he will get defeated in the general election; if he wins the presidency will mature him (that was what Obama said). I never thought any of that was true. He doesn’t seem to care about the institutions and the laws except insofar as they appear as barriers to the goal of permanent kleptocratic authoritarianism and immediate personal gratification.

Evans specifically looks at the judiciary:

Again, if you look at the courts, that’s one of the most interesting aspects of what Trump has been doing. He clearly has a contempt for the courts and the law, which echoes that of the Nazis very, very clearly

and reminds us that, like the Ninth Circuit, German courts did try to make a stand:

A very famous example is, later in 1933, the trial of the people who Hitler had alleged had burned down the Reichstag earlier in the year. The courts acquitted all but one of them, thus completely undermining Hitler’s claim that the communists started the fire. Hitler then bypassed the courts. He set up a parallel system of justice, the so-called special courts and the people’s courts. In the end, the courts knuckled under, but it was quite a fight.

[S]ome in the judiciary were conservative, but they did have respect for the law and institutions of the law, and for the constitution as well.

Evans’s description of day-to-day administration is eerily familiar:

Hitler … did not rule, for example, through a Cabinet. He didn’t use the accepted institutions of government. He had a clique of people around him, Goebbels, Hermann Göring, and so on: a whole group of top Nazis who were his cheerleaders, really. They’re the ones who do the work. Within just a few years, the Cabinet didn’t meet at all. It’s just a very informal way of ruling that of course leads to a lot of chaos, because competencies are not clearly defined and there are a lot of rivalries within Hitler’s group of leading Nazis that prove often counterproductive. It’s interesting there again to see how the civil service, that’s the administration at every level, really, did not provide a very serious resistance to the orders that came down from above.

In terms of media opposition, Evans highlights the strategy to close down opposition voices–or just overwhelm them with alternative facts:

[O]f course Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, was an inveterate and incorrigible liar. He was an inventor of news. And he also was very strongly attacked in the liberal and left-wing press and threatened to shut it down, and in the end he actually did. Or he took it over.

Snyder also picks up on the repercussions of government facing down the press:

When you say that the press is the opposition, then you are advocating a regime change in the United States. When I am a Republican and say the Democrats are the opposition, we talk about our system. If I say the government is one party and the press is the opposition, then I talk about an authoritarian state. This is regime change.

Most chilling are Evans’s thoughts on how calculated all of this might be:

Many people thought that Hitler was a buffoon. He was a joke. He wasn’t taken seriously. Alternatively, they thought that he could calm down when he assumed the responsibilities of office. That was a very common belief about Hitler. There is a major difference in the sense that Trump speaks off the cuff in a very unguarded, spontaneous way. I think that’s true with his tweets. Hitler very carefully prepared all his speeches. They might seem spontaneous, but they were carefully prepared.

[Hitler] was such an actor. He’s somebody who projected an image of himself onto the public. He could also deceive himself, particularly in the last years of Nazi Germany, when they were clearly losing the war. He somehow managed to convince himself that they were winning. He carried on fighting where it was clearly in everyone’s interest, maybe not his own, but it was in everyone’s interest to stop.

I’m still not convinced that the disarray in the White House is purposeful–but I don’t doubt that folks are using this to their advantage.

Both historians have books coming out later this month, conveniently, so there’s plenty more where this came from.

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