O Say Can You Not Nazi
November 12, 2016 5:40 PM   Subscribe

What factors make 2016 America different from Weimer/early Nazi Germany?

My lovely brother and a good friend of mine are both distraught because they are certain Trump's election means America will 100% definitely for sure become like Germany under Hitler. Please give me concrete, specific reasons why this is not necessarily true - anything you know of that distinguishes us from Germany in that period and/or Trump from Hitler. It doesn't have to be limited to politics.

(If your answer to this question is "Your brother and friend are right," please refrain from answering. This question is about WHY they are wrong, not IF they are wrong.)
posted by sallybrown to Law & Government (21 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
The comparison is absurd. First, Weimar Germany was cobbled together in a country that only existed since Bismark's unification in the mid-to-late 19th century and then had been pieced together following WWI. There was zero in terms of institutional identity or framework. That's a pretty big difference from the United States with a functioning constitution stretching back two centuries plus institutional identity that still matters (even if the House isn't exactly the greatest it's a pretty far cry from the active undermining of the Weimar republic by the people dedicated to defending it.

Second, Hitler took the chancellorship in Germany when there was massive unemployment and deflationary spiral. Neither condition approaches what we have in the US today. People in Germany accepted/embraced Hitler because starvation was a real possibility. People in US voted Trump because they wanted the UAW retirement package of the 1970s. It's not even close. We have positive GDP growth, positive if low inflation, and a social safety network that is well beyond what was happening in 1933 Germany.

Finally, we have the entire post-WWII experience to draw from. This is not a framework of loyalty oaths to individuals or belief in a demi-God emperor. The Nuremburg trials made it very clear what the limits of following orders are.

If your brother and friends honestly think that the US is going to set up a series of extermination camps and/or invade Mexico on a racial cleansing blitzkreig, they need to just drink more or take some drugs. it's not going to happen. We do not have a population that is ready to accept that nor do we have an economic system that could tolerate it. Yes, the Court may or may not allow restrictions to LGBT rights. That sucks. And it's wrong. But it's also not the mass slaughter of 6 million people.

This is not the Weimar republic.
posted by limagringo at 5:58 PM on November 12, 2016 [45 favorites]

Well, several factors come to mind right away. I'm sure I'm going to get yelled at a lot because these are not kind things to say but here it is.

(1) Psychology. Germany had lost its expansionist destiny fantasy of WWI and had been smarting ever since and was aching for the chance to beat its chest again. Expansionism is just not a thing here. If anything, there has been a trend towards extreme isolationism since the Iraq war.

(2) History. You only need to read a little German history to understand that they had been carrying on Nazi-fashion (barbarous mass murder of minorities and political dissidents) for hundreds of years. Read a bit about the German wars of religion and you will see that it was basically a tradition. The Weimar years were the weird exception.

We don't do that here. The grievous exception were the lynching years in the south, and I'm not going to minimize that, but it was nothing, nothing like the scale on which group-murder had been going on in Europe.

(3) Religion. The idea that Jews deserve to die, the more painfully the better, had been an assumption of the church for hundreds of years in Europe. Jews had always, always had the sh*t relentlessly kicked out of them in Christian Europe -- even the most "tolerant" of the Christian regimes (and they were all Christian regimes) always made it clear that the Jews were tolerated as long as their presence was advantageous to the crown, not because they had any inherent right to be left alone (and more often than not they were kicked out or pogrom-murdered when the advantage shifted or when a particularly pious monarch came to the throne.) Murdering Jews was not a new idea.

Notwithstanding the tensions between church and state in the USA, we have - thank God - nothing like this tradition here. We have a constitution founded on the separation of church and state.

There are comparisons to be made, but they are superficial and they ignore the bigger picture.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:59 PM on November 12, 2016 [12 favorites]

I'm having some trouble finding demographic data on the Weimar Republic, but I doubt it was 40% minority.

That is a difference, but certainly not a guarantee. I've favorited this because I need the reassurance, too.
posted by schadenfrau at 6:02 PM on November 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

In 1933, the Reichstag, essentially the German Parliament, voted in the Enabling Act, which had been proposed by Hitler himself. It gave Hitler, as Chancellor, unitary power to enact laws. The Reichstag voted it in in a parliamentary hall lined with Hitler's Stormtroopers. Once the Enabling Act was passed, Hitler was able to enact any law he liked simply by declaring it. Within weeks, it was illegal to criticize the government; the Gestapo was established; trade unions and political parties were declared illegal; and anti-Jewish measures began to be implemented. The rest, as they say, is history.

The reasons why Germany was in a position where this could happen are complex, and I'm no expert in them. But there is no reason to believe anything similar could happen here—no matter how much a certain person might wish the presidency had such power.
posted by Orlop at 6:13 PM on November 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

* We have a Constitution that preserves freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of person. While this does not prevent authority figures from trying to cause shit against dissidents, at least there is a means in place to stop them. The million dollars which has so far been donated to the ACLU will go a long way towards resolving many such cases.

* There is no way Donald Trump can make himself an arch ruler without either a) completely taking over the military in its entirety or b) successfully rewriting the actual literal Constitution. Even if he tried - by trying to introduce an amendment - this amendment would have to go through the following process:

1. A two-thirds majority of Congress, or two-thirds of the states' legislatures, need to agree on the exact wording of the Amendment.

2. 75% of the states in the country (38 out of 50 at present) need to agree to accept it.

Only THEN would it become an amendment.

* Even though a lot of the GOP population supported Trump, a lot of the GOP party insiders do not like him very much. And they are about to become very, very sick of him, because they are going to either be cleaning up after him, or they are going to be doing all the work becuase he is completely at sea about exactly how politics and governance actually work.

So the differences between the USA and Weimar Germany are that Germany didn't have a Constitution, and Hitler was charismatic, as opposed to the USA having a constitition and Trump being a dick.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:24 PM on November 12, 2016 [16 favorites]

Another important piece of the puzzle is that organizations like the Shoah foundation and many survivors themselves have gone out of their way to publicize what happened, fight against any hint of similar activity (at least in America and Western Europe), and make sure that "Never Again" is as important a lesson as the fact that it happened. People know what happened. And they know that as a culture we think it was unthinkably horrible - not just that people were dehumanized, rounded up and slaughtered, but also that regular people stood by and let it happen - and that better people risked their own lives to save others. I think most regular people today identify more with the helpers than the complacent. That more people would be willing to step up and stop a roundup than would passively accept it.

Then again, while I don't believe death camps or genocide are things that could happen here, I am not convinced that something very similar to the internment of Japanese-Americans couldn't happen here with Muslims. People have been pretty complacent about Guantanamo. If the government decides to trump up terrorism charges against people and arrest them, while I would like to think people would stand up in protest, especially if families with children start to be taken away, I can also see people afraid for their safety taking the most convenient stance of waiting and doing nothing. I only mention that - even though I know it's what you specifically asked not to see - because I do believe that mentioning it is exactly what is needed to keep it from happening. Never again.
posted by Mchelly at 6:25 PM on November 12, 2016 [24 favorites]

Another difference - Weimar Germany did not have Twitter, Facebook, email, or cellphone video. A lot what enabled the Third Reich to get as far as it did was its secrecy, especially in terms of the international community knowing what was going on. Today, if there was a naitonal guard action against a mosque or something, a couple of cell phone videos would get emailed out to people's buddies in other countries and then posted on Twitter and suddenly the Hague is finding out and is all "FUCK no", as opposed to in the Third Reich when no one knew what was happening until it had gotten widespread.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:31 PM on November 12, 2016 [15 favorites]

I've found immense comfort in Donald Trump's lack of work ethic, and in what he's already signaled as far as his willingness to go all in and do this presidency thing. He's already phoning it in!! He didn't expect to get the job, and he's not happy about all the downgrades in living circumstances, publicity, (perceived) glamour, and required reading. He hates this shit. He's going to delegate as much as possible.

And Mike Pence wants a theocracy, but he's not going to get it. The other guys in the transition team and being named as potential appointees to cabinet positions seem 100% interested in their own profits and power goals. I wouldn't hire Giuliani/Gingrich/Carson to handle a traffic ticket--I really doubt they have the discipline and focus to pull off a years-long ethnic cleansing (and accordant propaganda/suppression campaign). They can't stop fighting amongst themselves long enough to get anything done.
posted by witchen at 6:32 PM on November 12, 2016 [45 favorites]

I'm someone who's genuinely concerned about what Trump's election means for the stability of our democratic institutions, and even I don't think this is a situation that bears any real resemblance to the Weimar Republic. As limagringo points out above, Germany (which itself had only existed in its modern form since 1871) had absolutely no democratic institutions, traditions, or ideology before the republic was formed in 1919 following the abdication of Wilhelm II (who, as a side note, is actually in some ways a much closer analogy to Trump, personality-wise, than Hitler). This meant that virtually no one felt a deep sense of personal identity with the republic or with the ideals of a democratic system.

Moreover, the republic itself was unstable from the start, beset with intense political turmoil (like, literally pitched battles in the streets between varying factions all across the full political spectrum) and hyperinflation unlike anything that has ever existed here (think those pictures of wheelbarrows full of worthless currency to buy a loaf of bread). The period of 1924-29 was one of relative stability (with an emphasis on the word "relative"), and is mostly the period that's associated with the cultural flourishing of the Weimar period, particularly in Berlin. Nevertheless, it only barely papered over the inherent weaknesses in the government, and when the global financial crisis hit at the end of 1929 (triggered by Wall Street's crash), the Weimar government went into a decline that it really had no means or hopes of reversing.

I think it helps to think of Weimar not in isolation, but within the context of the crisis unleashed across Europe following the end of World War I and the collapse of the old (imperial) order. World War II flowed directly from all of the unresolved problems that came out of World War I -- indeed, there's an argument to be made that WWII was fundamentally a continuation of WWI, and that Weimar was essentially not much more than a 14-year cessation of official hostilities.

Again, Weimar is an important (and fascinating) period to study, but it does not follow that just because there are useful lessons to be learned from it that therefore the American equivalent of the Third Reich is around the corner. I won't pretend to know for sure what's around the corner in the U.S., but it's not that.
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 6:41 PM on November 12, 2016 [16 favorites]

Oh, and the wikipedia article on the Weimar Republic is actually a good place to start, and worth reading in its entirety. Note, especially, this observation in the fourth paragraph: German Foreign Office official Harry Graf Kessler had predicted as early as February 1919 that the Republic was doomed. "The paradox," he wrote, "by which a Social Democratic Government allows itself and the capitalist cash-boxes to be defended by royalist officers and unemployed on the dole is altogether too crazy."

Kessler was entirely correct -- and, more to the point, he made his observation two full years before Hitler even started to come to public prominence. In other words, the Weimar Republic contained the conditions for its own collapse from the very start, Hitler or no Hitler.
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 6:54 PM on November 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

A little bit about fascism:

1.) Fascism is a mass movement. It is a street-fighting movement. The NSDAP answered to this description. Trumpismo does not. Sending around offensive meme-cartoons is not on the same level as beating up strikers.

2.) Fascism grows in influence when the system is threatened. The Weimar state was weak. Large numbers of the poor and disenfranchised had cast their lot with the communist party. The situation could not be more different from what we face today. After eight years of slow-motion depression, the labor movement is quiet. The American state faces no serious political challenges to its legitimacy.

3.) Fascism is the nuclear option. You cry havoc and release the goons when you think you're on the verge of losing it all, when you think that the Reds will take over. Again, this was a plausible scenario in early 1930s Germany. They had experienced local communist takeovers in the wake of world war one and, again, there was a huge communist movement afoot. Fascism is your last choice. In the past, the American ruling class has successfully contained or crushed popular movements without having to take it to that level. Remember the Occupy movement? Remember how the state was able to put them down by normal, somewhat-legal methods punctuated by the occasional sucker punch?

The point I'm making here is that the while the Trump movement may be right-wing and nasty, it remains within the boundaries of American bourgeois politics and shows no likelihood of breaking that mold at any point in the future.
posted by the hot hot side of randy at 8:15 PM on November 12, 2016 [8 favorites]

A slightly orthogonal approach is to note that while he is well justified in his alarm, he is afraid of the wrong thing. The scary thing is Trump's supporters, particularly the virulent right wing, who are enabled by Trump's victory. There's also an upsurge in racist attacks and hate crime nation wide (and also here in the UK post brexit vote). Hitler might not be coming, but there are plenty of bigots on the streets. Fight them, and take the trumpists in your own circles to task.
posted by Mistress at 4:00 AM on November 13, 2016 [23 favorites]

Weimar came into existence after one of the most devastating events in human history: World War I. Germany was utterly crushed—economically, demographically, politically, culturally—by its defeat and the human chaos generated by the conflict. Remember that the nation had been subjected to a sustained naval blockade that caused widespread hunger and resulted in many children growing up during the war being permanently stunted in growth. The war's end generated lasting disorder and civil unrest. There was a revolution in 1918-19 involving a large number of returned servicemen on both sides. This meant that paramilitary conflict, involving groups like the Freikorps (consisting largely of war veterans), became normalised. This is the context and milieu that eventually generated the SA and the early Nazi movement.

It's needless to say, nothing like this seems to bear comparison with the US. I can understand your brother's fear and anxiety and I sympathise greatly, but whatever unfolds in the US will be its own thing and not comparable to events in Germany 90 years ago.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:04 AM on November 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you all. My response of "I don't know, it just seems very different" was not cutting it.
posted by sallybrown at 7:41 AM on November 13, 2016

There were very many small parties in the Weimar parliament making a ruckus all the time and making it impossible to conduct any actual state business. Also there was a general sense of insecurity and instability with street fights and politicians getting killed etc. All great stuff to use in a call-for-a-strong-man rhetoric.

For a society that was just trying to get used to democracy, the benefits simply weren't clear to everyone.
That and what others said about the aftermath of WWI. Whole large areas of German heavy industry were just taken down and carted off to the winner countries in reparation, and it was easy for Hitler to get people really angry about it.
posted by Namlit at 8:12 AM on November 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Fascism is a mass movement. It is a street-fighting movement.

And as Sonny Jim pointed out, there were all these de-mobilized military idling around during early Weimar, which formed up into the various Freikorps. Hitler's peers, they easily transitioned into his SA bully-boys. Trump's got nothing approaching that. Activities of right-wing militias in the US, which increased during Obama's administrations, will probably die down, as they did when the junior Bush took over.
posted by Rash at 10:08 AM on November 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

As far as I can tell, there is no U.S. equivalent to Article 48 of the Weimar constitution, which gave the president emergency powers to rule by decree, and was used dozens of times before the Nazis even took power. Being able to eliminate civil rights, opposition parties, legislative bodies, elections -- I don't think there's anything in the U.S. legal toolkit that could accomplish that.
posted by mcwetboy at 3:16 PM on November 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

there is no U.S. equivalent to Article 48 of the Weimar constitution, which gave the president emergency powers to rule by decree

Yes, but. It's true that there is no equivalent to Article 48 in the U.S. constitution, but that doesn't mean the president can't invoke emergency powers under certain circumstances. FDR created the Japanese internment camps in 1942 by invoking emergency powers, which was upheld by SCOTUS as constitutional; on the other hand, Truman tried to invoke emergency powers to seize steel mills during a strike in 1952 during the Korean War, which SCOTUS struck down. So how well a president is contained from invoking emergency powers depends on the willingness of the other branches of government to either allow or limit those powers. Again, this isn't to say that what can be done in the U.S. is the equivalent of what Hitler did in 1933, but it's also true that concerns about certain types of things Trump might be able to do unilaterally aren't entirely unfounded.

posted by the return of the thin white sock at 5:45 PM on November 13, 2016 [9 favorites]

There is a really great book called Germans into Nazis by Peter Fritzsche that does a solid job of exploring some of the historical catalysts and attitudes that paved the way for the rise of Nazism in Germany. I haven't read it in awhile, but I remember it being an interesting look at the time period and the movements in that direction.
posted by helloimjennsco at 6:48 AM on November 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

The situation in every country is different. This is my list of things to watch out for:

1) Scapegoating - those in power blame [minority] for things that are going wrong.

2) Othering - those in power start referring to [minority] as sub-human, vermin etc.

3) Rights are no longer universal - [minority] start to be deprived of their right to work, practice their religion, freedom of movement etc.

4) Smothering of dissent - free expression & free press effectively no longer exist. Outspoken critics have accidents or are accused of crimes that destroy their credibility.

5) Emergency powers. An emergency results in an executive power-grab, look out for any weakening or over-ride of the existing checks on executive powers.

6) Dissent becomes treason - Disagreement with those in power becomes a betrayal of ones country.

By the time it gets to 6), you're hosed.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:19 PM on November 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

(Great post title, by the way)
posted by Mchelly at 9:11 AM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

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