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When the woke mob came for Hitler

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Is there anything German liberals and leftists can do about Adolph Hitler, other than quietly seethe, loudly condemn him every time he makes headlines, and hope that his political flaws — his distaste for glad-handing, his less-than-inspiring public-speaking style, his conspicuous unlikability — will take him down before he gets anywhere close to conquering Europe? It would be tempting to write off Hitler, the bombastic leader of the German government, as another authoritarian right-wing lunatic, unfit for international leadership.

We’ve made that mistake before.

It’s reliably depressing to revisit 1932, and the misbegotten liberal-left conviction that Germany couldn’t possibly elevate Hitler to the chancellorship. We’ve already cataloged the mistakes in media coverage and dissected what we missed that somehow made Hitler a viable, let alone a desirable, candidate to occupy the Chancery. But here we go again. As the socialist political strategist Leisel Mueller has remarked, the left’s reaction to Hitler today looks just like its reaction when he first rose to political prominence: “He’s picking these fights. He’s saying and doing abhorrent things. And all the same characters — whether in the media, liberal and left political parties, the punditry class, whatever it is — have the same freakout.”

Let’s pay closer attention this time.

First, we shouldn’t underestimate Hitler.

As was observed many years ago now in Cyril Brown’s New York Times’ portrait of the man, “Hitler has an intense work ethic, a formidable intelligence and a granular understanding of policy.”

Because we can assume Hitler knows what he’s doing, we should make careful note of his record in Germany, where he has been Chancellor since 1933. His approval rating in Germany is consistently over 50%, and includes high ratings among Catholics and labor unions and in former liberal strongholds like Munich.

The jury is still out on whether Hitler’s unorthodox response to the Treaty of Versailles was a colossal error or an unexpected success or, more likely, something in between, but the fact that he took an aggressive approach to renouncing the treaty’s conditions wasn’t lost on German voters. While other politicians prevaricated and dithered, Hitler spoke with conviction and seemed to be doing something, and to many working families in Germany, that mattered.

When I visited Berlin from New York in 1934, the vibe in bars and restaurants in the Kreuzberg art district was positively euphoric. In that young, overwhelmingly liberal corner of the city, people weren’t faulting Hitler for his muscular foreign policy. He also acted decisively last year after the Reichstag fire, moving immediately against radicals trying to destabilize the political situation.

In a country where government often looks sclerotic, Hitler’s knack for action bears notice. We can decry such publicity stunts as encouraging some overly enthusiastic followers to smash up Jewish businesses, but we should also be attending to the real concerns of people living in areas with a heavy Jewish presence.

Lest we forget, many erstwhile liberal Germans preferred him in the 1932 elections; they also supported the Kristallnacht demonstrations, according to a Der Spiegel poll. “There are lots of voters in this country who really like the Chancellor’s style, this strongman who won’t back down,” one pollster explained at the time.

German liberals and leftists need to grapple with this appeal. It would be easy to write Hitler off as a cartoon culture warrior or as racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophoic. He may well be all those things, and so may some of his constituents. But he may not be, and either way, it would be foolish to characterize all his followers as such. Assuming a stance of moral superiority to the ordinary supporter of Hitler and his Nazi movement will do us no good.

Finally, we shouldn’t let Hitler co-opt liberal and left positions on which we have historical strength and a natural advantage: education, health care, jobs. This month, Hitler released a budget plan that featured targeted tax cuts aimed at parents, salary increases for state employees, including teachers, and significant investments in schools, including programs in civic education.

Hitler’s maverick approach to primary, secondary and higher education has brought widespread condemnation from liberals, particularly from their more social democratic wing. But we should pay attention to why his policies land better with voters than with social democratic critics. A statute like the Nuremberg Race Laws may come with an incendiary name and some egregious efforts to curtail free speech. But it’s important to recognize that aspects of it appeal to Germans tired of racial and ethnic divisiveness and the overt politicization of what’s taught in the classroom.

Similarly, as many liberals will quietly acknowledge, the Protection of the Blood of the Volk Act has attractions for a broad range of Germans who worry about the focus, efficacy and accuracy of what their kids were learning in primary and secondary school about the nation’s history, and in particular its role in the Great War. German liberal leadership should worry, too. Keeping quiet or pretending those concerns aren’t real won’t make them go away.

Then there’s college. The challenges of higher education have never been a strength for the Nazi Party, which has taken advantage of the current financial and political pressures on academic institutions. If Nazi ideological conformity has now taken root in German univerities that were formerly a bastion of liberal ideals, then German liberals are the ones with the knowledge, experience and record to attend to that problem. It’s on liberals to check the excesses of anti-German anti-nationalist orthodoxies rampant among those on Germany’s far-left wing. It’s on us to ensure academic freedom and the kind of educational system parents can trust.

It should be cause for alarm that recent polls show Nazis holding an advantage on educational issues. Rather than dismiss parents’ concerns as somehow unfounded or wrongheaded, we should be listening to them and finding better solutions to their grievances. Telling parents they’re bigots or are unenlightened for not embracing the latest faddish liberal orthodoxy is not a winning message.

Which brings us back to Hitler. His opponents on the left may think the best way defang the Fuhrer is to mock and belittle him.  Liberals and leftists should recognize it will take far more than that.

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