Opinion

The Trump Civility Debate Isn't New. In the 1930s, America Debated Whether It Was Civil to Shun the Nazis

Americans who protested Nazism too loudly, including Americans Jews, were criticized for their 'discourtesy': our fear of incivility appeased Nazism. We can't go there again

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Wednesday, June 27, 2018, in Fargo, N.D.
Evan Vucci/AP

The intensifying frustration with Trump administration policies has led to targeted acts of resistance, from press secretary Sarah Sanders being booted from a Virginia restaurant to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen being booed outside her Alexandria townhouse. These acts, in turn, have sparked calls for administration opponents to be more civil.

Intrepid Internet sleuths have discovered similar resistance and calls for civility during the Nazi era: Hollywood rebuffing Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Reifenstahl, including kicking her out of a cabaret.

American Christian religious leaders urging Jews to "appeal to the German sense of justice and German national conscience" rather than "baiting Hitler and trying to fight back," and Jews would be better served if they showed "good-will" towards the Nazis rather than "hate." 

These tidbits reveal an important dynamic at play during the Nazi era. When they learned of the horrors the Nazi German government was inflicting upon its citizens, some Americans protested the persecutions, boycotted German goods, and shunned representatives of what they considered an evil regime.

Others, however, insisted that the United States must exercise restraint and remain respectful of a duly-constituted foreign power and chided those who took their criticism too far.

Although the events involved (so far) don't involve more serious and consistent forms of persecution, the philosophical dilemma is the same. Should opponents of a regime that has shattered norms respond in ways that presume those norms still exist?

Within months of Hitler becoming Germany's chancellor in January 1933, Americans realized what his regime would be like.

The government immediately began rounding up political opponents, beating Jews in the street, and shuttering opposition and independent newspapers. The first concentration camp, Dachau, opened its gates in March. The next month, a law banned anyone Jewish or of Jewish descent from working for the government, including for universities that were all state run. Jews’ ability to be doctors or lawyers or attend school was severely restricted. By the fall of 1933, the state had assumed complete control of the media.

The American press, which had dozens of journalists in Germany, reported routinely on these policies, which the government proclaimed and which were enshrined in law. Americans who were even slightly informed knew that Germany as a modern, enlightened state had ceased to exist.

Few Americans actually supported the fascist regime. The debate was whether to maintain ties or to ostracize the government and everyone who supported it.

A Bruenn JR shop, a Jewish-run store after it has been vandalized by Nazis and its frontwall inscripted with anti-Semitic graffiti after Kristallnacht.
AFP

The State Department took the official position that Jewish persecution was a domestic matter that did not affect United States-German relations. U.S. Ambassador William Dodd recounted in his diary how careful he had to be not to embarrass Nazi German foreign office officials.

The U.S. government didn’t wield a diplomatic weapon against Nazi Germany until 1938, when it withdrew its ambassador in the wake of the nationwide pogrom known as Kristallnacht.

Elite American universities, with longstanding connections to German institutions, tried to hold onto them. (For a full account, see Stephen H. Norwood’s compelling, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower.) Harvard welcomed both Hitler’s foreign press secretary Putzi Hanfstaengl to his 25th anniversary reunion and the Nazi warship Karlsruhe to Boston Harbor. Harvard and Columbia maintained student exchanges with Nazified institutions. Both universities sent delegates to the 550th anniversary of the University of Heidelberg, which had purged not only its Jewish professors but also "Jewish science."

Challenged about his decision, Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler sniped that the Germans might retaliate by refusing to send representatives to Harvard’s tercentenary celebration, "because they do not approve of what the newspapers here call the New Deal."

Two years later, when Harvard thought better of sending a representative to the University of Goettingen’s bicentennial, Harvard’s student newspaper groused that the administration had been "downright discourteous" to Goettingen.

A youth stands on one of the charcoal-coloured concrete slabs of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, May 12, 2005
AP

Students who were "discourteous" to university leaders or engaged in protest faced severe punishment. Columbia expelled Robert Burke, a student who had led a protest outside the president’s mansion and had referred to Butler "disrespectfully." Burke was never readmitted. 

Why did so many Americans choose to act as if Hitler was like any other leader, Germany like any other country? I don’t think it was a product of strategic calculation, but of conceptual failures that may provide a lesson for the contemporary moment.

American institutions in the 1930s wouldn’t or couldn’t change their existing frameworks. Diplomats treated other diplomats courteously. Harvard greeted returning alums and visiting dignitaries warmly. Religious leaders preached turning the other cheek. It was easier to maintain established modes of courtesy, greetings and theology, than to consider alternative responses.

Similarly, the contemporary American press treats American presidents a certain way: attending and reporting extensively on White House press conferences; sending legions of reporters on presidential foreign trips; assuming the president (and First Lady) play an essential role in comforting the nation in times of distress.

Some of this has begun to change, but the press still reverts to old forms when the new reality means only new ones will do.

In addition, Americans were reluctant to acknowledge just how bad things were in Germany. Americans, including American Jews, didn’t want to be consumed by the fascist threat across the ocean. They wanted to live their lives. The best way to do that, and still be considered a good and moral person, was to pretend the news was exaggerated, that the persecution would ease in time. Americans who visited Germany before the war often returned with glowing accounts of clean streets and low crime rates, and of course they hadn’t seen any Storm Troopers pummeling Jews.

Passersby examine the menu at the Red Hen Restaurant Saturday, June 23, 2018, in Lexington, Va.
Daniel Lin/AP

Nasty anti-Nazi protests therefore were unnecessary and staged by nasty people. Similarly, Donald Trump may not mean the awful things he says. It’s performance, reality television. If he’s just kidding and yet the opposition gets down in the dirt, then his opponents are indeed the ones responsible for the decline in civil discourse.

Finally, Americans engaged in wishful thinking. if we keep Hitler in the family of nations maybe he won't invade Czechoslovakia. If American Jews don’t boycott German goods maybe Hitler won’t unleash a Holocaust. If we pretend there is still civil discourse maybe there will be civil discourse.

Of course all efforts to retain ties and rein in the Nazi regime failed miserably. Germany couldn’t be appeased either in its quest for world domination or the Jews’ annihilation.

The only way to avoid the same conceptual failings, which admittedly still might not remedy the fundamental problem, is to perceive situations clearly. German representatives were monsters. Conditions in Germany were horrible. Making nice and being polite didn’t make Nazis nice and polite.

We see that now. We could have seen it then. The response then and now is not civility, but ruthless honesty.

Laurel Leff is Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Associate Director of Jewish Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. She is the author of Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper and Well Worth Saving: American Universities' Life-and-Death Decisions on Hiring Scholars from Nazi Europe, to be published in Fall 2019