(left) The torchlight procession in honor of the new Chancellor Adolf Hitler moves through Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin on the evening of January 30, 1933 (From the official German archives via Wikimedia Commons)(right) Multiple white nationalist groups march with torches through the UVA campus in Charlottesville on August 11, 2017 (© Mykal McEldowney – USA TODAY Network)

The U.S. and pre-Nazi Germany: the similarities are growing, and dangerous

Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Pundits and historians are comparing President Joe Biden and the Democrats to the Social Democrats, the staunchest supporters of the short-lived German Weimar Republic which Adolf Hitler and the Nazis toppled in 1933.

I googled “Weimar and Joe Biden” and got a slew of hits.

The comparison between Weimar and today “is imperfect, but the cautionary tale is still clear,” Salon’s Matthew Rozsa wrote last year. He’s pursuing a Ph.D. in history.

Added Rozsa, “If Donald Trump’s movement is destined to be America’s answer to Nazism, then the Joe Biden administration is currently a rough equivalent of the Weimar Republic.”

Murray State University historians David Pizzo and Ken Wolf get the comparison.

“Biden and the Democrats are institutionalists like the Social Democrats, who were called the ‘Midwife of the Weimar Republic,” said Pizzo. “In other words, they had faith in the democratic system. So do the Democrats.”

The left-of-center Social Democrats were the main party throughout most of the Weimar period. The republic was founded in 1918 when Imperial Germany lost World War I. (Germany’s current chancellor is a Social Democrat; the Social Democrats are the main party in a three-party parliamentary coalition.)

To the end, most Social Democrats had faith that Germany’s parliamentary democracy, however fragile, would ultimately triumph over Nazism, even as the Nazis grew more popular and more violent.

“Biden has an institutionalist mindset, too,” said Wolf, an MSU professor emeritus. “He and the Democrats believe in the system.”

But Pizzo and Wolf fear Trumpian authoritarianism, largely rooted in white nationalism and tinged with violence, is a clear and present danger to our republic. “Biden should be shouting ‘five alarm fire!’ now,” Pizzo said.

He and Wolf agreed that the president’s forceful Jan. 6 address was a good start. But the two historians warn that Biden must back up his strong words with strong action. “The Social Democrats vowed to resist Hitler and the Nazis by burying guns in their back yard,” Wolf said. “You shouldn’t say things like that unless you mean it.”

Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has unanimously resolved that the pro-Trump insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were engaging in “legitimate political discourse.”

The mob, which aimed to overthrow the November, 2020, election and keep Trump in power, included members of white supremacist and white nationalist militia groups, QAnon cultists, and neo-Nazis.

“Many QAnon theories and violence chillingly mirror Nazi propaganda and terrorizing activity,” wrote Teri Schure in Worldpress.org shortly after the failed Trump coup, which was been likened to the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s abortive 1923 coup.

While the pro-Trump militias are loosely organized, Hitler had the Brownshirts, a  paramilitary group that guarded Nazi rallies and “threatened and terrorized opposing party members and violently intimidated [Romani, ...trade unionists and] journalists who opposed Hitler,” Schure explained. “The Brownshirts were particularly cruel to the Jews and rabidly carried out unbridled and unchecked street violence against them.”

She added that the Brownshirts considered themselves patriots on a mission to destroy the Weimar Republic and “cleanse Germany from the Communists and the Jews.” The pro-Trump militias also see themselves as patriotic.

Rozsa warned that “there is an obvious risk that... Biden and the narrow Democratic majorities in Congress will fail, and that Trump or a successor will take over and then cement themselves into power for at least the next generation. Every American who wants to avoid this — especially Biden and the leading Democrats in Congress — needs to learn the right lessons from Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.”

Biden, Rozsa urged, “must recognize the gravity of the crisis and prioritize neutralizing it. That means making sure Republicans can’t cover up the truth about Trumpism’s anti-democratic agenda, and that voting rights are protected.”

Yet he wrote that “none of that will be possible as long as Republicans in the Senate can filibuster legislation to death.”

Rozsa proposed that if the president can’t convince Sens. Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema to quit backing the filibuster and get behind his program, then they deserve to be effectively treated as Republicans even if they remain nominal Democrats.

He added that “Biden can still creatively use executive power to at least somewhat follow this next step. That step is to make sure that he adequately addresses the people’s legitimate needs. The Weimar Republic fell, in part, because of widespread economic hardships that the government simply could not fix. Biden needs to make sure that the vast majority of Americans feel economically secure, safe from threats foreign and domestic (like terrorists and pandemics), and protected from long-term existential crises like global warming, plastic pollution, and income inequality. Any legislation passed anywhere in the nation that limits citizens’ access to voting must be stricken from the books. Lies spread in bad faith to discourage voting, from Trump claiming he won in 2020 to myths about mail-in ballots, have to be proactively rebutted.”

Lastly, he argued, Biden must never let the public forget the attack on the Capitol. “Just as George W. Bush's presidency was defined by his response to the 9/11 terrorist attack, so too will Joe Biden’s be defined by whether he can make 1/6 into a cornerstone of our political consciousness. If he can do that, he will be able to make sure that Trumpism’s anti-democratic philosophy — which poses a far more dangerous threat to America than Islamist terrorism — is known by all but its followers for what it is.”

Rozsa admitted, “This won't be easy, but we don’t have a choice. A century ago one of the world’s great powers collapsed into authoritarian evil with astonishing rapidity: While monarchists and major capitalists believed Adolf Hitler was a clown they could control, the opponents were divided, confused, and ineffective. Aspects of that history are repeating themselves, and the question now is whether we have learned from the mistakes of the past to alter the outcome.”

Rozsa cited disturbing similarities between Hitler and Trump, notably their contempt for democracy. Trumpism, like Nazism, is based on the “big lie,” which Hitler defined in Mein Kampf as a lie so brazen and told so often that the public will believe it.

Hitler appealed to anti-Semitism and nationalism by falsely “claiming that Germany had actually won World War I but had been betrayed behind the scenes by socialists and Jews.” Trump, who panders to prejudice, especially racism, sexism, xenophobia, and religious bigotry, is still trotting out his Big Lie that Biden stole the election from him in 2020.

In addition, Pizzo said the behavior of Germany’s conservative establishment toward Hitler and the Nazis is remarkably similar to how America’s Old Right has reacted toward Trump and Trumpism.

After Hitler gained power in 1933, he outlawed all political parties but the Nazis. “The Social Democrats opposed him, but the conservative parties all went along with it just as McConnell and the Republicans have gone along with Trump,” Pizzo said.

Once in control, the Nazis launched a ruthless program of state-sponsored terrorism against Jews — the first step toward the Holocaust — and brutally suppressed Social Democrats, Communists, the anti-Nazi press, and other groups that opposed them. Many were killed, thrown into Dachau, Hitler's first concentration camp, or forced to flee the country.

“It is fatal for conservatives to think that they can play with the fire of right-wing extremism without getting burned.” Robert Gerwarth wrote in Foreign Policy magazine. “Trump is no Hitler, but his deliberate mobilization of the far-right has made the Republican Party dependent on voters who include militant nationalists, Holocaust deniers, white supremacists, and conspiracy theorists — in short, people who want more than just a different government.”

Pizzo said that if the Republicans retake the House — and possibly the Senate — in November, and Trump or a Trumpian is elected president in 2024, American democracy will likely perish.

“The Republicans will systematically dismantle every circuit breaker, every firebreak, every levee – pick your analogy,” he said. “We are already closer to a fascist coup than we have ever been in our history.”

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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

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