On August 24 the cover of the German magazine Stern stirred strong reactions in the German and American media and couldn’t be ignored in Israel and the rest of the world either. U.S. President Donald Trump was depicted wrapped in an American flag and giving the Nazi salute alongside the headline “Sein Kampf” — “His Struggle,” a play on Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” As expected, criticism erupted that the German media, which lambastes Trump, had crossed the line of good taste, that this was incitement for its own sake by a magazine identified with the left.
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The interest created by Stern’s picture stands in contrast to the provocative use of many images from Nazi Germany — including that of Hitler. These images have burst into the political discussion in recent years, especially amid the economic crises and the refugee crisis, but failed to rouse the reaction of the Stern cover. For the most part, when the comparison comes from right-wingers or conservatives, not only does it evade harsh criticism, it’s considered harmless, not to say ridiculous.
In the shadow of the economic crisis that devastated Europe, followed by the European Union’s demands, Greek nationalists compared German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Hitler, but that was still low-frequency compared to the Polish media's comparisons since 2007, especially since the rise of that country’s conservative Law and Justice party.
In Israel, since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, comparing any leader to a Nazi is considered incitement. We recall the picture of Benjamin Netanyahu with Merkel in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel in 2014, when the shadow of Bibi’s finger drew a Hitler-style mustache on Merkel. And in Turkey, comparing Merkel to Hitler became part of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s psychological warfare before his referendum on changes to the constitution. The use of Nazi symbols that doesn’t originate with the nationalists has provoked far greater condemnation.
Ironically, it was Hollywood that created the most Hitler-related films in every genre. The most blatant example is the 1964 classic “Dr. Strangelove,” in which Stanley Kubrick compares the U.S. president to Hitler when he decides to launch a nuclear strike against the communist threat. But apparently what’s permitted to other countries, including the United States in 2017, is still forbidden to the Germans, in Israeli opinion as well.
Still, the use of Nazi symbols doesn’t stem from a growing interest in the Holocaust, just as the debate on the Trump picture isn’t based on rejecting the relativization of Hitler. Bringing up the memory of the past is always used as a lever in national politics that will also be understood abroad.
This comes at a time when the debate is between those who oppose immigration and those who want to keep the borders open; between those who favor a neoliberal economy and those who want to reduce social gaps; between those who want, for example, to increase the salaries of women and the disabled, and those who miss the old chauvinistic world; and between liberals and democrats on one side and anti-Semites and other racists on the other.
The first of the latter in the United States was the Ku Klux Klan in the 19th century. During the following century, most of the movement adopted the Nazi ideology that gave the group’s loners a home, a symbol and an identity that was, at least until Pearl Harbor, completely legitimate. But in the early 2000s, talk about the far right was marginalized; these groups were no longer seen as a problem in America or Europe. The right-wing extremists symbolized a warped patriotism when they mobilized to defend the homeland against the “external” enemy.
Rioting, vandalism and brutal violence have always been part of far-right groups everywhere, and these methods have been used not only against Jews, but against immigrants and foreigners in the past two decades.
Therefore, the Americans and Europeans know that what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, wasn’t an unusual occurrence. For that reason I find their describing the incident as exceptional, and their surprise at Trump’s unemotional reaction, an obstacle to understanding the sociopolitical situation in the United States and Europe.
In that connection, what Stern actually wanted to express is the spirit of the times, how what became taboo after the war has returned to the discussion and is considered normal — how the West is in denial about the dangers it’s bringing on itself, as it’s wrapped in the flag as a way to express opposition to any damage to national pride.
Yael Ben Moshe is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Communication at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem, and a research fellow at the Bucerius Institute and the Haifa Center for German and European Studies at the University of Haifa.