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Lessons from German History after Charlottesville

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tags: Hitler, racism, fascism, Nazi, Charlottesville, authoritarianism, Trump, Alt Right, White supremacists



Jeffrey Herf, Distinguished University Professor, Department of History, University of Maryland, College Park. His publications include Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Harvard University Press, 1997); The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006); and Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Related Link HNN's Full Coverage of Charlottesville Updated Continuously

The first eight months of Trump create a dilemma for a historian of modern German history. If you raise the specter of Hitler, ask what Trump has in common with fascism in the past and make comparisons to the emergence of the German dictatorship from the collapse of Weimar democracy, a chorus erupts about the misuse of historical analogies. If you focus on the differences between the United States in 2017 and Germany in 1933 and offer reassurances about American checks and balances, another chorus bemoans your complacency and facile optimism. In reality both choruses are speaking up within me, keeping me up at night and asking how I can best to be true to my vocation as a scholar and my responsibilities as a citizen.

The first point to be made is that I and others were right in spring 2016 when we spoke of Trump’s authoritarianism, demagoguery, appeals to racism and the taint of fascism that surrounded his candidacy. We have learned nothing about Trump since January 20th that we did not know before. The yearning for a strongman, attacks on minorities and thinly veiled appeals to racial hatreds, a song-and-dance with Nazis, white supremacists and an embrace of the identity politics of the “alt-right,” a penchant for conspiracy rally speeches full of rhetorical violence and juxtaposition of an idealized past to a miserable present do recall the themes of the anti-democratic right in Europe’s twentieth century. Trump’s reference to “the very fine people” that included Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville continues his flirtation with the extreme right, a tactic that was apparent when he adopted one of the far right’s most famous slogans: “America First.” His gut reaction to Charlottesville, equating Nazis armed with assault rifles to liberal counter-protesters, is in the tradition of the America firsters of the 1930s, including Charles Lindbergh, who opposed intervention in the war against the Nazis.

Yet the contrast to Hitler’s first eight months is stark, in terms of both what Hitler did and the way the established elites responded. In March 1933, following the Reichstag Fire, the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament) passed the Enabling Act, thus giving Hitler the power to pass laws without consent of the parliament. With that action, it ceased to exercise any restraint on his powers and lost its raison d’etre. It became a rubber stamp that provided Hitler with a fig leaf of legality that facilitated his destruction of the rule of law. That spring, the German government and the police under its control were using force and violence to arrest, intern or drive underground or into exile political opponents, especially Communists and Social Democrats. Independent trade unions were destroyed. On April 7, 1933, the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” purged Jews and political opponents from in the universities. Soon other laws implemented similar purges in the legal and medical professions. In March, Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, announced the opening of the first concentration camp in Dachau. That same month Joseph Goebbels, the minister of the newly created Ministry for People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda, announced at his first press conference that “there is no such thing as absolute objectivity.” The destruction of Weimar’s free press and the establishment of government press censorship followed. On July 14, 1933, Germany was officially declared a one-party state. All non-Nazi political parties ceased to exist.

In the following eight months, Hitler became more popular, his power grew and the conservative elites continued to support him. Relieved that he had destroyed the political left and the power of German trade unions, big business shook off its initial puzzlement about the “socialism” in National Socialism and fell into line. Prominent German jurists offered justifications for dictatorship in the face of a national emergency. The military leadership, eager to break the arms restrictions of the Versailles Treaty and the budgetary restraints on rearmament created by parliamentary democracy, lent their support as well. Leading academics, such as the philosopher Martin Heidegger, expressed relief at the end of supposedly outmoded ideas of academic freedom and urged students and faculty to join a new national people’s community led by the Fὒhrer.

The Nazis claimed that they were able to “seize power” in January 1933. Historians, however, have punctured that self-serving myth and shown what actually happened: Hitler did not seize power, but rather was invited into it by conservatives who underestimated the man who, in short order, was able to outmaneuver them while amassing unchecked control. The political and economic establishment tolerated the use of force and violence to suppress dissent as well as the codification of antisemitism in government legislation. In the months after passage of the Enabling Act, Hitler’s power grew. It increased dramatically and quickly as one decision to go along after another deepened the complicity of established elites who ignored Hitler’s obvious contempt for the rule of law while giving themselves false reassurance that he was merely continuing the Presidential emergency rule of the Weimar Republic.

In eight months as president, Trump has used his power to do much damage to American economic relations around the world. He has attacked the free press and, in firing FBI director James Comey and pardoning former Sheriff Arpaio, manifested his lack of respect for the rule of law. His very public record of continual lying has undermined his power in foreign policy, for that power rests in part on the idea that the United States President speaks the truth about events in the world. His lack of knowledge of complex policy issues and demonstrated uninterest in learning about them, combined with his inability to communicate his arguments in any remotely intelligent way—all qualities that were fully evident in spring 2016 – has led to an absence of any legislative accomplishments for which he can claim credit. He owes his only legislative victory, the appointment of the conservative Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom he has now publicly belittled. Trump has been stymied by the FBI and by intelligence agencies which he first insulted and compared to the Nazis, then has been unable to control, and which continue to examine Russia’s efforts to aid him in the election. Having failed in his effort to block the appointment of an independent counsel with the power of subpoena that is tasked with examining ties between his campaign and the Russian government, he is powerless to stop an investigation that may bring down his presidency. Yet he has not expanded his power or base of support in the public.

In sharp contrast to the rapprochement between big business and Hitler after January 1933, Trump’s lies about the “very fine people” on both sides in Charlottesville led corporate CEOs to resign from a council on manufacturing that he had called into existence. A number of four-star generals have publicly reasserted that racism and antisemitism are at odds with the values of American democracy. Trump’s threats of trade wars and rejection of the Paris Climate Accord and the TPP trade accord with Asian nations have opened the possibility for greater Chinese influence in Asia, reduced American leverage in trade talks and antagonized close American allies in Europe, thus alarming American business leaders, who fear the loss of American influence in the Pacific.

Trump’s constant attacks on “fake news” in the media delight his core supporters but, again in contrast to Hitler and Mussolini, he been unable to destroy the country’s leading newspapers, news networks or multiple websites. Indeed, ironically thanks to him, these media outlets are enjoying increased subscriptions and giving employment to a legion of energetic and determined journalists. Where Hitler’s popularity grew in the first year, opinion polls indicate that Trump’s has been steadily declining. By August 2017, an anxious public was looking to former generals to prevent Trump from dangerous and rash decisions and, in the case of Defense Secretary James Mattis, to offset the obsequious worship emanating from Trump’s civilian cabinet members, and to former Marine General John Kelly to bring order to the West Wing.

The expansion of Hitler’s power after 1933 was due to his willingness to use terror to crush his opponents, to the timing of an economic recovery he had nothing to do with, and to the support he received from the established political and economic elites. Trump has been a failure in multiple ways, but he remains President of the United States and continues to enjoy strong support among many Republican voters. He has created a base that can threaten those Republican politicians who challenge him (especially those up for re-election in 2018), but his support is not limited to this bloc; a remarkable percentage of Republican voters on the whole say they still approve of his performance. Moreover, the great majority of Republican Senators and Representatives align with him because they too want to abolish the Affordable Care Act, reduce taxes on upper-income groups and increase military spending. Without the support of the Republican Party and its leadership in Congress, Trump’s power would be even less than it is now. That he attacks the very party that enabled his election is another sign of his political incompetence and opens the possibility of a Republican revolt against him.

Though Trump is dangerous, he has become president of a liberal democracy that is 241 years old, one whose rules and norms are vastly better established than they were in post-World War I Germany and Italy. In this very important sense, the differences between the United States in 2017 and Hitler’s Germany in 1933 and Mussolini’s Italy in 1922 are greater than the similarities. Trump does not have the power to end the investigations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. He has not turned the FBI into an instrument of presidential will. He cannot control the actions of state governors or attorneys general. His threats to Senators have, in some cases, backfired. The military leadership has been a brake to, not an accelerator or cheering section for, his outbursts. He is resorting to insult and lies about his opponents but not to actual violence and terror. He faces the prospect of criminal indictment and impeachment, something that would have been inconceivable in a dictatorship. In short, as dangerous as he is, Trump remains hemmed in by American democratic norms and institutions.

Moreover, the fact that Nazism emerged, and that it led to World War II and the Holocaust, has had a profound impact on subsequent history and on American politics. That is the case because now, in contrast to 1933, it is obvious what can happen if a democracy falls into the hands of a dictator who thrives on conspiracy theories and shows no respect for the rule of law. We now know how a slippery slope of agreement with a leader with authoritarian inclinations can lead to catastrophe.

On Antifascism

In our discourse, the noun “antifascism” recalls the history of the Communist Party and the popular fronts of the 1930s. Yet it properly refers to far broader segment of opinion of that era. Americans are not accustomed to describing Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as “antifascists.” Yet they were the two most consequential leaders of an antifascism inspired by liberal democratic values. Trump’s effort to foster a moral equivalence between Nazis, white supremacists and those protesting against them was one of the most revolting moments in American political history; he will never get over it. With his comments after Charlottesville, he placed himself outside of a tradition of democratic antifascism blazed by Roosevelt and Churchill and the Anglo-American alliance that fought the Nazis. World War II was a war against fascism, one that Americans before Trump were used to calling “the good war.” The antifascism that bound together the bipartisan nature of FDR’s wartime cabinet stood in contrast to the antifascism of the Soviet Union, which was linked to illiberal ideas about Communist dictatorship. It is important to keep in mind these distinctions between liberal and illiberal antifascism.

When self-styled “antifa” groups shout down speakers, support boycotts of Israel and engage in violence at rallies, they evoke the illiberalism and radicalism of the Communist antifascism and repress the memory of American and British governmental antifascism during World War II. Yet during those same years, for many Communists and all leftists, antifascism meant fighting against Nazism and antisemitism. But the meaning of Communist antifascism changed in early years of the Cold War when Stalin and the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe conducted numerous antisemitic “anti-cosmopolitan” purges. The Communists applied the label “fascist” to the government of West Germany, to the United States and, especially following the Six Day War of 1967, to the state of Israel. In the Soviet bloc, a tradition that began in opposition to Nazi Germany degenerated into a set of slogans that incited diplomatic and military attacks on the Jewish state in the context of anti-Israeli terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s being carried out by the PLO, with help from its European supporters. Today, “antifa” is not a slogan of the children of light against the forces of darkness. It now has a far more checkered and ambiguous history because it was also a slogan of the anti-cosmopolitan purges of the early 1950s and then of the Communist and radical leftist “undeclared wars” against Israel of the 1960s to 1989, and recently of the efforts to boycott, divest from, and sanction the state of Israel.

Yet in Charlottesville it was not antifa groups who carried torches and assault weapons and bellowed slogans like “blood and soil,” and “the Jews will not replace us.” It was a young generation of Nazis and white supremacists who did so. As a historian I have documented and interpreted both the ideological core of the Nazi regime during the Holocaust as well as the antisemitism of the radical left during the Cold War. At the moment, the greater danger comes from right-wing extremists and the wink and nod they have received from the President of the United States. Clearly, the events in Charlottesville were very much an expression of racism against people of color and a celebration of the racist legacy of the Confederacy. That said, it is striking that most of the media and political discussion about the events in Charlottesville notes but then fails to reflect on the centrality of antisemitism, that is, hatred of Jews and Judaism, to the marches and rallies of the neo-Nazis there. We must not forget the obvious: Nazism was first and foremost about hatred of the Jews. American neo-Nazism fuses that hatred with racism toward African-Americans, but the antisemitic dimension of the slogan “the Jews will not replace us” received insufficient attention in much of the subsequent commentary.

Germany after 1945 and the South after the Civil War

The events in Charlottesville and the controversy over monuments to defenders of the Confederacy and slavery raise another comparison between the history of the United States and that of Germany, namely that between the South after the Civil War and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) after World War II and the Holocaust. As the Yale historian David Blight has recently reminded us in his important work, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, a desire for whites in the North and the South to reconcile displaced the voices of those such as the African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who stressed that the cause of the war lay in racism and the defense of slavery. In place of a truthful reckoning with the history of slavery and the postwar reconstruction governments, Southerners resorted to the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, imposed legalized apartheid against blacks, and fostered comforting but false myths about the nobility of the South’s “lost cause.” The monuments that Trump described as “beautiful” were built many decades after the Civil War to honor defenders of slavery and white supremacy. The South lost the war but the ideology of white supremacy that had emerged during slavery survived and thrived.

On May 8, 1945, the day Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies, there were eight million members of the Nazi Party. The American, British, French and Soviet allies were well aware that Nazism had found deep and broad support not only among these stalwarts but also within the German army, which had fought to the bitter end. In the year following the war’s end, the Western Allies arrested 100,000 former officials of the Nazi regime, many on suspicion of participation in horrific acts. During the four years of Allied occupation, from 1945 to 1949, the Western allies convicted six thousand former officials, including the surviving leaders of the Nazi regime, of serious crimes. In Nuremberg, the United States conducted separate trials of military officers, leaders of big business, physicians, judges, propagandists and members of the Reich Security Main Office, who carried out the Holocaust. In the process, the core facts of the regime’s criminality became public knowledge based in large part on the massive documentary evidence found in the regime’s own files. Yet after 1949, when West Germany regained some of its sovereignty and instituted democratic politics, a majority of West German opposed judicial reckoning with the Nazi past and even called for amnesty for those already convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The more democratic West Germany became, the more opposition there was to continuing the reckoning of the occupation years--years that bore some comparisons to Reconstruction after the Civil War in the South. Even so, however, lies about Nazi crimes and romance about a kind of lost cause did not come to dominate West German politics. Why not?

Despite a flood of criticism at the time and historical accounts since about the West German era of amnesia and avoidance, there was a crucial difference between post-Nazi West Germany and the US South after slavery. Nazism did not revive as an important political force in postwar Germany, a fact that was one of the most remarkable and taken-for-granted developments of recent European history. The International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg and successor trials revealed its leaders to be criminals, and genocide to be the logical outcome of their antisemitic and racist ideology. Moreover, the Allied military authorities prevented the emergence of armed Nazi groups. Neo-Nazi groups formed but remained on the fringes of West German politics. While former supporters of the Nazi Party joined the major conservative parties, it was made clear to them that any effort to revive Nazism would be crushed. The cynicism of rapid changes of heart was obvious to Allied occupiers, but cynical opportunism was preferable to glorifications of Hitler and denial of the facts of Nazi criminality. In contrast to the decision to withdraw Federal troops from the South in 1877, thus bringing Reconstruction to an end, the United States military remained in West Germany, both to deter a possible Soviet attack and to prevent a Nazi revival.

West German political leaders learned important lessons from the past. Konrad Adenauer, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, the major conservative party, was aware that conservatives had invited Hitler into power in January 1933. He was determined not to make the same mistake again while also seeking the votes of Germans who had supported the Nazis but who, he hoped, had abandoned Nazi convictions. Though largely silent about the crimes of the Nazi regime, Adenauer supported financial restitution for the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and offered political and financial support for the fledgling state of Israel. He adopted a policy of amnesty and integration of former Nazis and eschewed timely trials for war crimes. Integration and amnesty were there for those ex-Nazis who, whether out of cynical opportunism or genuine change of heart, accepted the new democracy and made no effort to revive Nazism. Establishing a bulwark of the democratic right against the undemocratic, extreme right was part of what the West Germans called “militant democracy” and the “anti-totalitarian consensus.”

For Adenauer, such policies precluded fostering foster a mythic history of the Nazi era that glossed over its crimes. Speaking in Cologne in March 1946, he acknowledged that “National Socialism could not have come to power if it had not found in broad layers of the population soil well prepared for its poison…. The German people suffered for decades in all of their strata from a false conception of the state, of power, [and] of the position of the individual person.” A change in mentality and renewed respect for individual human rights was essential. He and other conservatives did not propose building statues of Nazi personalities in West German towns and cities. In foreign policy, he rejected the antagonism to “the West” of pre-1945 German conservatism and replaced it with appeals for European integration, reconciliation with France and Atlanticist links to the United States.

Popular memory followed suit: former SS officers met quietly, not in public; veterans told war stories that left out the Nazi race war on the Eastern Front; and generals wrote bestsellers but did not lionize Hitler (indeed, they blamed him completely for the defeat). In so doing they obscured their own responsibility for the catastrophe. There were those who sought to reinterpret World War II as a defense of the West against the Soviet threat but Adenauer rejected such retrospective justification. Cities built memorials to the German citizens killed in Allied bombing attacks. As anticommunism came to dominate West German politics, timely justice gave way to the desire to “draw a line under the past.”

In the midst of this era of integration and amnesty, which one German historian has called “politics toward the past” and another that of “a certain silence” about the crimes of the Nazi regime, another new and unique political tradition emerged.1 It was one that sought to found a democracy not on the forgetting of past crimes and injustice but on their vivid memory. The German word for it was Vergangenheitsbewältigung, roughly, “coming to terms with the Nazi past.”2 It rested on the novel idea that such vivid memory and truthful reckoning were indispensable for the establishment of a liberal democracy. The tradition had left-of-center beginnings on May 6, 1945, two days before the formal surrender to the Allied forces, when Kurt Schumacher, the leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), spoke to his party colleagues in the city of Hannover. He stated flatly that the Germans “saw with their own eyes with what common bestiality the Nazis tortured, robbed and hunted the Jews,” yet they remained silent and hoped for a Nazi victory in World War II. In May 1946, again in Hannover, Schumacher addressed the First National Party Congress of the SPD and made clear that his party would remember Nazism’s victims:

Our first thoughts concern the dead. The victims of fascism among our own people. The dead from the freedom struggles of oppressed peoples. The army of victims of the war among all nations. The women and children who were swept away by bombs, hunger and illness. The Jews, who fell victim to the bestial madness of the Hitler dictatorship…. The victims are not forgotten. We will erect a memorial to those who died in the German freedom struggle, who gave their blood for the existence of an “other” and better Germany. They will live on in our hearts, in our thoughts, and in our work.

The Germans would build memorials not to the Nazis but to their victims who, he said, would “live on in our hearts.” The memory of the victims who lived on in the hearts of West German Social Democrats became one of the foundations on which a democratic and a better Germany would be built. In response to an invitation from the American Federation of Labor, Schumacher became the first German political leader to be invited to the United States after World War II.

The third leading figure of “coming to terms with the Nazi past” was Theodor Heuss, president of the Federal Republic from 1949 to 1959 and a leader of the liberal Free Democratic Party. He established that office as a center of rhetorical reflection on the moral issues facing the country and was a counterpart to Adenauer who, as Chancellor, held the reins of political power. Like Adenauer, Heuss refrained from seeking timely justice and even sought amnesty for some prisoners previously convicted by the Allies. Yet, as a newspaper editor in Stuttgart in November 1945, he wrote that “the German political victims within Germany, and on their side the hundreds of thousands, yes millions of foreigners who were tortured to death, speak to the heaviest and costliest sacrifice of National Socialism: the honor of the German name, which has sunk in filth.” He felt a “duty once again to clear our name and the name of the German people. The memory of those who suffered yet were innocent, and who died bravely, will be a quiet, calm light illuminating our path in the dark years through which we are going.” As with Schumacher, this founding father of the West German democracy placed memory of Nazism’s victims at the core of an emergent political culture.

At the inauguration of a memorial to Nazism’s victims at the former concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen in December 1952, President Heuss delivered a speech entitled “No One Will Lift This Shame from Us.” He said that “whoever speaks here as a German must have the inner freedom to face the full horror of the crimes which Germans committed here.” He rejected arguments that pointed to act of “the others,” that is the Allies during the war or the Soviets in the postwar years. Such balancing of accounts “endangers the clear, honorable feeling for the fatherland of everyone who consciously knows our history” and faces up to it. Efforts to forget were pointless. “The Jews will never forget, they cannot ever forget what was done to them. The Germans must not and cannot ever forget what human beings from their own people did in these years so rich in shame.” In 1954, in a speech at the Free University of Berlin, he praised the German resistance to Hitler of July 20, 1944. He called them, paraphrasing Martin Luther, the “Christian nobility of the German nation,” who, in attempting to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime, redefined the meaning of patriotism and love of the “fatherland” for the German generations coming of age. Patriotism did not mean spreading comforting myths about the glories of the past. Rather, it meant staring the truth straight in the eye with an unflinching gaze. His words inspired several generations of West German historians, lawyers, journalists and politicians, who documented the crimes of the Nazi regime. They resonated in President Richard von Weizacker’s speech to the Bundestag on May 8, 1985 on the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and again in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remarkable speech to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in 2008 when she declared that Israel’s survival (in face of Iranian threats) was a matter of unified Germany’s reason of state.

The tradition of “coming to terms with the Nazi past” began among political and intellectual elites and only over time became a consensus in the German political establishment and among broad sections of the public. From its origins until today, it has faced resistance and repeated appeals to “finally draw a line under the past.” Yet despite shortcomings and justice delayed, antisemitism never again became government policy, and a democracy that guaranteed rights to all of its citizens was established and persists. This history of the connection between the truthful public memory of past crime and injustice, on the one hand, and the establishment of a viable liberal democracy, on the other, is one that Americans, in the South and elsewhere, would do well to ponder. Financial restitution to the immediate survivors of the Holocaust (but not their descendants) was important in the aiding them in the terrible years after they had lost so much. For the establishment of a liberal democracy in West Germany, it was important as a public acceptance of responsibility to assist them. Yet telling the truth about the past and the reestablishment of the rule of law and respect for the rights of all citizens were even more important for the successful transition to democracy.

It was a tragedy and a disgrace that myth and amnesia about the reality of racism and slavery persisted for so many decades in the American South.3 Had Reconstruction continued and Jim Crow never become established, racism might no longer be a factor in American politics and Donald Trump might not now be the President of the United States. West Germany and unified Germany are not utopias, but the history of the links between memory and democratization and, yes, between antifascism and a commitment to liberal democratic values, is one that should be instructive to Americans of all political persuasions. When Nazis marched with torches and bellowed “the Jews will not replace us,” a President of the United States who understood the history of this country would have said that he, as President, was proud to stand in a now long and honorable tradition of American antifascism linked to support for the values of liberal democracy and opposed to racism and antisemitism. Such a President would have placed the power and prestige of the office on the side of those brave people who came to Charlottesville to oppose those evils.

1 On “politics toward the past” see Norbert Frei, Adenauer’s Germany and the Nazi Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

2 On coming to terms with the past see Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

3 On the mythic memory of the Civil War, see David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2002).



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