American articles have ascribed the term “Lügenpresse,” recently hurled at reporters in some Donald Trump rallies, to the Nazi era. That’s partially accurate. The derogatory German term for “lying press” was already being widely used by German Catholics a century before the Nazis came to power to describe their opponents in the liberal and democratic newspapers. The term was back in vogue in the First World War to cast aspersions on the foreign media and their negative reporting on Deutschland. The term Lügenpresse was then exploited by the Nazis as catchphrase for Jewish-owned and other liberal media outlets, but it was no less prevalent over the past year among Germans who accused modern German media of covering up sordid crimes committed by Muslim immigrants. So it is a loaded term with deep roots in German consciousness that sounds detached and even ridiculous in an American context – except, possibly, if you’re a Nazi yourself.
This is not to say that comparisons between the rise of Donald Trump and the ascent of Adolf Hitler are inappropriate. On the contrary: Such analogies may be light years from perfect, but they are hardly misplaced. It just seems to me that the emergence of the specifically German word Lügenpresse provided a convenient peg for some in the media to remake a connection that they have otherwise been shying away from in recent months, either because they are wary of the expected pushback or because, as Americans, they would prefer not to believe that America in 2016 bears any resemblance whatsoever to Germany of the 1920’s or 1930’s.
Nonetheless, some of the elements of the Nazi ascent to power, as well as the emergence of other totalitarian regimes in Europe at the time, can provide clues and early warning signs to explain Trump’s success in the Republican primaries and his continuing popularity as we approach the presidential elections. Conversely – and this has been dealt with less in the media – Trump’s astonishing selection as the GOP candidate for the presidency, his continuing appeal to millions of Americans and the basic characteristics of his message have provided a new and valuable viewing angle on one of the last century’s most perplexing questions: how was Adolf Hitler possible?
And please spare me your “how dare you compare” indignation, if you are so inclined. I do not claim that America is Nazi Germany, that Trump is Hitler or that another Holocaust is just around the corner. But the blanket ban on using the most discussed, most debated and most researched issue of the 20th century as a reference point for viewing current events is, in my view, beyond ridiculous. Especially as it usually comes from people who routinely depict every two-bit Arab propagandist as a Goebbels and every minuscule human rights NGO as successors of kapos and Judenrats.
Viewed through the lenses of the current presidential campaign, historical descriptions of Hitler’s appeal to the German masses suddenly seem hauntingly familiar. Take, for example, Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw’s description of the recurring themes in Hitler’s speeches: “The contrast of Germany’s strength in a glorious past with its current weakness and national humiliation – a sick state in the hands of traitors and cowards who had betrayed the Fatherland to its powerful enemies and behind them, the Jews...a cheating and corrupt government and party system presiding over economic misery, social division, political conflict and ethical collapse.”
Or Richard Evans, writing in The Coming of the Third Reich: “He gained much of his oratorical success by telling his audiences what they wanted to hear. He used simple, straightforward language that ordinary people could understand, short sentences, powerful emotive slogans...There were no qualifications in what he said; everything was absolute, uncompromising, irrevocable, undeviating, unalterable, final. He seemed, as many who listened to his early speeches testified, to speak straight from the heart, and to express their deepest fears and desires. Increasingly, too, he exuded self-confidence, aggression, belief in the ultimate triumph of his party, even a sense of destiny.”
Of course, most people didn’t take Hitler seriously at first. Refined Germans viewed him with distaste and dismissed him as a buffoon, and not only because of his melodramatic speeches and volatile gestures. Writing in the New Statesman, social critic William Crotch recounted his own impressions of the future German dictator in the late 1920’s: “Another thing that struck me was the man’s utter incapacity to deal with important details....His talk was a succession of vague generalities, couched in attractive if flowery language, but showing in every case either complete ignorance or at least complete contempt for detail.”
But while Hitler was becoming the darling of the masses nonetheless, he never considered himself one of them. As historian Yaakov Talmon wrote in Myth of the Nation and Vision of Revolution, Hitler was contemptuous of the slow-witted German masses. “Denying them rational understanding, judgment, willpower, and mental balance, he composed an astonishingly shrewd vade-mecum (handbook, CS): how to bamboozle them with hysteria and incitement, oversimplification and repetition, stunts and tricks, parades and ceremonials. Brooding morbidly over its lost glory and wallowing in an ecstasy of self-pity, a defeated Germany offered a uniquely propitious target for the possessed demagogue to cast his spell and hypnotize its masses: he and they shared the same resentment of defeat and foreign dictation.”
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes that initial successes of the Nazis and other totalitarian movements in the 1920’s and 1930’s stemmed from their reliance on hitherto politically uninvolved masses desperate for economic and social relief. Their success proved “that democratic government had rested as much on the silent approbation and tolerance of the indifferent and inarticulate sections of the people as on the articulate and visible institutions and organizations of the country.” Having been detached from political discourse and ignorant of recent history, Arendt writes, these masses were willing to accept bold lies and bald assertions as fact and to adopt the fantastical depictions of reality made by their leaders. And this was before the age of the Internet and social media, when the so-called Lügenpresse could still dictate the public’s agenda.
For me, at least, the rise of Donald Trump has been an eye-opener. Watching so many Americans fall under his spell has provided a prism to the hypnotic influence that Hitler had on Germans close to a century ago. How justified grievances and genuine economic plight, the disintegration of classes in society and the formation of others in their stead could combine with resentment, racism and downright ignorance to bring a patently unqualified and dangerous person so close to a position of so much power. How masses of Germans were willing to accept and support the litany of lies, the fountains of fabrications and dangerous delusions offered by Hitler. How hatred toward foreigners and those perceived as foreigners can burst out from the underground and then be drummed up to fever pitch. How the established leadership of a country, like that of a political party, can find itself weak and paralyzed even when faced with such an existential danger. How a politician more disciplined, more focused, more knowledgeable and more persuasive than Trump – but with the same dangerous ideas – might have easily made up the 5-10 percent of popular support that Trump seems to be missing.
Of course, it goes without saying that freethinking and individualistic Americans are not regimented discipline-yearning Germans. Or that the U.S. is strong and resilient, while Hitler would never have come to power without the double whammy of Germany’s crushing defeat in World War I and the catastrophic 1929-1930 depression, though perhaps I underestimate the ability of modern social media and cynical politicians to create a delusional world in which things seem just as bad today. Or that the united forces confronting Trump in 2016 are nothing like the splintered body politic of the late Weimar Republic – hopefully – with the Communists exerting a radical influence in the other direction that pulled Germany apart.
“How did Adolf Hitler – described by one eminent magazine editor in 1930 as a “half-insane rascal,” a “pathetic dunderhead,” a “nowhere fool,” a “big mouth” – rise to power in the land of Goethe and Beethoven? What persuaded millions of ordinary Germans to embrace him and his doctrine of hatred? How did this “most unlikely pretender to high state office” achieve absolute power in a once democratic country and set it on a course of monstrous horror?” asks Michiko Kakutani in her New York Times book review of Volker Ullrich’s new biography of Hitler. The answer, I propose, is clearer today than it was before Trump emerged on the scene.
Even if you believe the polls and assume that the 2016 elections will have a happier ending and that Donald Trump will soon wind up as a sorry footnote in history, it’s hard to deny that his stupendous success thus far has been, at the very least, educational. As Evans writes: “The story of how Germany, a stable and modern country, in less than a single lifetime led Europe into moral, physical and cultural ruin and despair is a story that has sobering lessons for us all.”
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