As an historian who specializes in the last days of Germany’s Weimar Republic — Germany’s last free moment before its democracy’s slide into dictatorship — I’ve been horrified by the political news in this country in the last several months.
I won’t belabor the obvious comparisons and questions. There is little to be gained by asking how much Donald Trump is like Adolf Hitler, or whether his followers are “just like” the Nazi Party before it took power.
Certainly there are obvious similarities. Fear of people with different ideas or identities, fear of a loss of power to new groups, fear of downward mobility, fear of new cultural trends which more-or-less traditional groups see as degenerate, all seem to be common among Trump supporters, especially those who give interviews to the press.
There are, though, significant differences in the historical moments that should give observers pause. In 1932, Weimar Germany was in the midst of the worst depression in modern history and Germany was still reeling from a lost war that had ended only 14 years earlier, a war that had cost Germany’s territorial integrity and a fair share of its wealth.
The United States, on the other hand, is in the midst of economic recovery from the “Great Recession,” and is easily the greatest military power that the world has ever seen.
In other words, any facile statement that history is about to repeat makes too many assumptions to be worth serious consideration.
What, then, would prompt a German historian to write to the newspaper? Grave as the moment has seemed to be up to this point, the descent into violence that the Trump campaign presents is the most serious threat to democracy that we have seen in this country in a long time. This violence, and the notion that violence is in and of itself a good thing, is definitely reminiscent of Germany just before the Nazis took power.
The aroma of violence has permeated Mr. Trump’s “movement” for a long time. Mr. Trump’s desire to punch protesters or see them carried out on stretchers, like in “the good old days,” brings American politics to a new low.
Democracy, even a strong democracy like that in the U.S., is always fragile. Republics depend on compromise, discussion, coming to grips with opposing arguments, and moving forward with at least some shared purpose.
In the modern world, intellectually vibrant conservative and liberal discussions are necessary to test all reasonable ideas and work towards the common good.
Where the German comparison is apt is when discussion is replaced by violence, when a shared sense of citizenship is replaced by hatred.
Americans should reject ideologies that promote hatred, violence and xenophobia, and recognize all of us as participants in the democratic experiment that began in the 18th century and should still have centuries ahead of it.
Richard Bodek teaches German history at the College of Charleston.