It is a disgrace which gets worse with every day that passes,” one observer wrote of the deteriorating political scene we know all too well. “Politics everywhere and everywhere the terrorism of the Right…. It is astounding how easily everything collapses.” He added, “It is shocking how day after day naked acts of violence, breaches of law, barbaric opinions appear quite undisguised as official decree. Each new decree, he said, was “more shameful than the previous one….. The Liberals tremble.” And finally: “I for my part will never again have faith in Germany.” Thus wrote Victor Klemperer, a Jewish German scholar, in the first months of Hitler’s ascension. Historians have spent decades examining how Germany, an allegedly rational and highly cultured society, became unhinged. Future historians will no doubt be examining how America, the paragon of liberty, became unhinged. The simple answers are, respectively, Adolf Hitler and his acolytes, and Donald Trump and his parade of right-wing enablers, from the FBI to border patrol agents to white nationalists to plutocrats. But there are deeper answers, and they are far more frightening, with far-wider implications than the one-man theory.
They are answers that we Jews understand.
Of course, Jews don’t have to be told to be suspicious of analogies to Nazi Germany. We know they are usually facile, overwrought and wrong-headed, and that they can trivialize the greatest tragedy in the history of humankind. America is not Nazi Germany, Trump is not Hitler.
We are not headed for the genocide of refugees, only for their ban or deportation, to protect us, Trump says, from possible saboteurs, even if that echoes Hitler’s “indignant denial,” according to Klemperer, that he was accusing all Jews of threatening the state: “No harm will come to loyal Jews.” And however much the language of “round up” and “deportation” has a terrifyingly reminiscent ring for Jews, Trump has no real interest in political power or programs, only in personal adulation. He is our panderer-in-chief.
Still, one shouldn’t deny that there are situations in which historical antecedents can be instructive, not because, in this case, Trump is analogous to Hitler, but because the underlying political dynamics of Trumpism to those of Hitlerism may be so. Unfortunately, we Jews know an awful lot, too much, about unhinged societies.
We understand cause and effect, which is why Klemperer’s diaries, published as “I Will Bear Witness,” and Harvard scholar Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s now-famous analysis of grassroots Nazism, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” ought to be required reading in America now. Because whether or not Trumpism is a latter-day incarnation of Hitlerism, both are predicated on something similar, something we would rather not face, but something that is important to discuss, especially as Jews, as Trumpism barrels forward: Hitler and Trump are not the causes of a national movement of hatred; they are its beneficiaries.
So how did Germany become unhinged? According to Goldhagen’s analysis, it wasn’t all that “hinged” to begin with. If you think, he says, of political life as a national conversation, then one of the primary subjects of that conversation in Germany, hundreds of years before Hitler rose to power, was anti-Semitism. And just about every German participated in the dialogue. As one woman in the oral history, “What We Knew,” put it, “There was never any particular sympathy for the Jews,” which, of course, is putting it lightly. This was the sentiment that Hitler exploited.