Analysis

In Trump's America, Whiffs of the Reichstag Fire

In their upcoming meeting, grandmaster Netanyahu can teach the new president how terror can advance personal and political aims.

Flames rise from Germany's Reichstag in the infamous 1933 blaze used by the Nazis to garner greater support.
Wikimedia Commons

Martinus van der Lubbe, a 24-year-old unemployed Dutch anarchist, entered the Reichstag in Berlin under cover of darkness on the night of February 27, 1933. He carried with him the matches and firelighters he had bought earlier that morning with the last of his funds. He entered the main chamber and set the drapes on fire. The fire soon spread to the wooden panels and engulfed the auditorium, fanned by the building’s famous dome, which now served as a chimney. Looking at the orange flames from his balcony, Adolf Hitler told Rudolf Diels, the first chief of the Gestapo: “There will be no more mercy now. Anyone who stands in our way will be butchered. The German people won’t have any understanding for leniency.”

How dare you compare, people might say, but it’s too late for such admonitions. Van der Lubbe and the Reichstag fire have already made their comeback. In the past few weeks, the number of Google searches for both terms has spiked like never before. They are appearing with increasing frequency in the headlines of news and opinion articles, as if the fire happened last year: “We need to be seriously concerned about a Reichstag fire scenario,” Paul Waldman wrote in the Washington Post. “Beware Donald Trump’s Reichstag fire,” the Week Magazine warned. “Has Trump set the stage for a Reichstag fire?” asked the Russian RT, which is said, notably, to be run by the Kremlin.

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Hardly anyone believes Trump is Hitler or that Washington is Berlin or that a new Holocaust is just around the corner. But the Third Reich is undeniably the most recognizable and accessible historical precedent for the disintegration of a liberal democracy and its seizure by a resolute, ruthless, unprincipled and unrestrained demagogue that no one dares oppose. The ability of Trump and his aides to invent incidents and concoct attacks that never were, from massive voter fraud to Muslims dancing in the streets on 9/11 to the Bowling Green Massacre, can be reasonably compared to the sinister conspiracies, many anti-Semitic, fabricated by the Nazis during their first years in office. 

One of the most egregious of these was the claim made by Hitler and the entire Nazi propaganda apparatus, that Van Der Lubbe - if he was indeed the arsonist, which some people dispute as well - was part of a vast Communist plot to terrorize Germany and depose the lawful regime. The claim was so ludicrous that it was thrown out by a brave Leipzig court, which convicted van der Lubbe but acquitted his alleged co-conspirators. Hitler was incensed, of course: He subsequently unleashed the Gestapo and his brownshirt goons on a few carefully selected judges, and before too long the entire German legal system was at his beck and call.

Trump hasn’t reached that stage yet, though his tweets against the judges who stayed his executive order on Muslim immigration, up to and including the Federal Court of Appeals, are viewed not only as an attempt to intimidate the judicial system but also to lay the groundwork for the day it might be cowered into submission - after the first major attack on Trump’s watch is carried out by Muslim terrorists. If the judges prevail “we can never have the peace and security to which we are entitled,” Trump wrote. “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system,” he tweeted. And you can rest assured that Trump will be first in line.

It goes without saying that America in 2017 isn’t the crumbling, seething, recession-hit and violently polarized Weimar Republic of 1933, though if you listen to Trump, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. Ryan Lizza wrote in the New Yorker this week of concerns that in case of a major terrorist attack, Trump will cajole Congress to grant him sweeping war time powers, which are substantial, to be sure, but would certainly not enable him to abolish habeas corpus, the right to privacy and freedom of speech and assembly as well as to grant unchecked powers to the police, as Hitler did in the first 24 hours after the Reichstag burned. Trump also doesn’t have at his disposal a political police or disciplined street gangs who could be dispatched to round up thousands of political rivals and other dissidents, as Hitler did, and to bring them to the first Nazi concentration camp, set up in Dachau for this specific purpose.

A few days later, following the elections held on March 5, the German Republic was abolished. The Nazis didn’t win the absolute majority they had hoped for, but they were the biggest party by far. They set up a coalition with the ultra-conservative right, while arresting or terrorizing most of the opposition. Reichstag members, drunk with power or frightened beyond words, passed the so-called Enabling Act, which allowed Hitler and his ministers to pass any law they wanted with no regard for the German constitution and without the need for parliamentary approval. One shouldn’t compare, of course, but it’s inevitable, though the immediate association in this case isn’t to Trump, at least not yet, but to the up and coming Member of Knesset Bezalel Smotrich of Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi Party. 

Smotrich has formulated a draft law that I will translate as a Prevailing Clause, which will allow the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court rulings on the unconstitutionality of Knesset legislation. He is threatening to table it if the High Court of Justice decides to nullify the controversial land-grab Regulation Law that permits confiscation of private Palestinian land in the West Bank and is itself deemed by most legal experts to be unconstitutional and a violation of international law. Unlike the Nazis’ Enabling Act, Smotrich’s clause won’t do away with the need for a formal vote in parliament - but it will cripple the Supreme Court, impair Israel’s separation of powers and corrode its constitutional framework. In a country in which the ruling coalition willingly succumbs to every whim of the prime minister and enthusiastically embraces laws proposed by its most fanatic members - and in which the opposition constantly tries to play catch up - the road to clamping down on dissent and curtailing basic rights would be paved.

Trump may not be able to follow in Smotrich’s footsteps and do away with the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution or with the Supreme Court’s role as its ultimate arbiter, but he can certainly pick up valuable pointers on how to use terror attacks to advance political agendas in his meeting on Wednesday with grandmaster Benjamin Netanyahu, once known as “Mr. Terror” himself. In the early 1990s, Netanyahu instinctively knew how to position himself in front of the cameras with the smoking hulls of buses that had just been torn apart by terrorist bombs serving as background. He exploited Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombings in the mid-90s to whip up public resentment against Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo process and then to deprive Shimon Peres of what had been viewed as a slam-dunk victory in the 1996 elections. He emerged as the number one terror guru for large chunks of the American right by virtue of his rhetoric and charisma as well as his admittedly prescient predictions of the imminent rise of Islamic terrorism. He is a virtuoso in playing on his citizens’ darkest fears in order to push them ever rightwards, to dull their sensitivity to the evils of occupation and the erosion of democracy and to convince them that the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is always on their side. Trump is trying to do the same with Americans, but he obviously lacks Netanyahu’s patience, guile, resolve, restraint or discipline.

Like Netanyahu - but unlike his predecessor Barack Obama - Trump plays up rather than down the central role played by radical Islam in fomenting terror. Obama’s refusal to utter the words “radical Islam” after terror attacks in the U.S. and elsewhere enraged his right-wing critics, who accused him of appeasing radicals and kowtowing to political correctness. Obama replied that he would not grant the terrorists’ wish to be seen as representing Islam, but he may also have kept his own self-interested political calculations in mind. The less he portrayed the war on terrorism as an epic clash of civilizations, the less he fanned the flames of anti-Muslim resentment, as Trump and Netanyahu would, the more he kept American voters calm, suppressed outbursts of racism and xenophobia and thus prevented - with limited success, ultimately - the movement of public opinion to the right and of voters to the Republican Party.

A person wearing a Donald Trump mask gestures near a statue of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by sculptor Itay Zalait, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, December 6, 2016.
Baz Ratner, Reuters

Trump and the terrorists, on the other hand, have perverse common interests. Each serves as a recruitment center for the other. When Trump rails against dangerous Muslim hordes that are about to swamp and cripple America and when he imposes new immigration guidelines that clearly single out Muslims, he is making radical Islam’s argument that the United States is fundamentally hostile to Islam. Conversely, when the terrorists grow stronger, accuse the United States of heinous crimes and carry out, god forbid, successful terror attacks, fearful Americans are bound to ditch moderation and to embrace Trump’s simplistic, black and white, all or nothing, no middle ground views. It was Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame who once said that if there’s another 9/11 or a major war in the Middle East involving a U.S. attack on Iran - a prospect that may now be closer than ever before - “I have no doubt that there will be, the day after or within days, an equivalent of a Reichstag fire Decree that will involve massive detentions in this country.” And he was speaking during the presidency of George W. Bush, who seems moderate and sane with the benefit of Trump hindsight.

It remains to be seen how much Netanyahu will influence Trump, although the Israeli right wing is already buzzing with conspiracy theories that the president’s pro-peace and anti-settlement statement in an interview published on Friday in Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom newspaper was actually made at Netanyahu’s request, to calm down his hyperactive right wing and settler partners. Trump, on the other hand, is already changing the tone and tenor of Israeli politics, because Jerusalem is growing more daring as Washington’s watchful eye draws shut. There’s no doubt that Netanyahu wouldn’t have dared announce the building of thousands of new housing units in the West Bank or enabled the passing of the land confiscation law if Obama was still in the White House; it’s highly doubtful whether he would have declared open season on anti-occupation NGOs either. It can’t be a coincidence that Netanyahu is suddenly reprimanding the British and Belgian prime ministers for engaging with Breaking the Silence at the same time that the mayor of Jerusalem shuts down an art gallery for hosting a speech given by one of the group’s members, concurrent with the outrageous decision of Israeli immigration authorities to detain Jennifer Gorovitz, vice president of the New Israel Fund and former head of the San Francisco Jewish Federation, for questioning at Ben Gurion Airport. With a Trump White House, a GOP Congress, Christian Evangelicals and Sheldon Adelson at his side, Netanyahu is also likely to minimize his already diminished attentiveness to American Jewry or to heed their reservations about his policies. He’s been waiting too long for this day to arrive.

American liberals are feeling proud, strong and jubilant now, emboldened by their mass resistance to Trump and elated by the resounding if temporary rejection of Trump’s immigration ban on Thursday by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In all likelihood, however, they are living on borrowed time. It only takes one or two terrorist attacks for public opinion to turn the other way and to embrace Trump’s authoritarian and anti-democratic positions. Israel has been moving in the same directions ever since a relentless wave of suicide bombings terrorized the country 10-15 years ago. If Trump gets his Reichstag fire, you can be sure that there will be no shortage of right wing volunteers, up to and including Netanyahu, who will be fanning the flames by his side. And if the conflagration is monumental enough, democracy will burn on a bed of scorched earth, just as it has before.