On the corner of Lombard and Gay streets in downtown Baltimore, sandwiched between the touristy glitz of the Inner Harbor and the corridor of fleshy iniquities that is The Block, sits the Baltimore Holocaust Memorial. Every day, tens of thousands of people drive by it and I would imagine that most don’t even notice that it’s there. The memorial itself is pretty nondescript from afar, with the only thing clearly visible from the cars that file past it all day being a vaguely misshapen,15-foot high bronze sculpture in the form of a flame standing in a drab, concrete park. However, should any passersby decide to park their car and take a closer look at the sculpture, they would discover that the bronze flame that they saw earlier contains within it a mass of skeletal Holocaust corpses which languish in perpetual agony as a reminder of the atrocities of Dachau and Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Underneath this flame is the famous quote from George Santayana that reads: “Those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it.”
That Santayana quote is about as accurate a predictor of human behavior as there ever has or ever will be and it—along with the subject matter of the memorial on which it is featured—should give us pause during this era of resurgent right-wing populism in Europe and at a time where there is the distinct possibility of having a fascistic, xenophobic demagogue occupying The White House. Unfortunately, the bulk of the media coverage and public scrutiny concerning the rise in radical conservatism in the United States has focused on the man who has taken on the mantle of leading the charge of the white brigade, Donald Trump.
This isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing. God knows that Trump provides the press and his political opponents with enough material to fill most news cycles and that there has been a good deal of solid reporting concerning the motivations and makeup of Trump’s followers, as well as the broader social and economic circumstances that explain his appeal. The biggest problem with this type of coverage is that, when you go to juxtapose present events with the historical era that bears the greatest similarities to today’s political climate you inevitably wind up with a big pile of Hitler comparisons, which transfers any discussion of the issue from the realm of reasoned debate to one of hysterical mudslinging.
However, the utility of using interwar Germany in the dying days of the Weimar Republic as a lens to view contemporary America goes well beyond comparing two egomaniacal bigots with hideous hairstyles, particularly when it comes to the relationship between the old and the new guards of the right wing in both countries and the role that religious/racial hatred, the arrogance of established elites and a destructive attitude towards government played in leading to the ascension of a more radical conservatism.
It is easy to forget, given all the sturm und drang that would result from Hitler’s extralegal seizure of the power in the first half of 1933 (known in German as the Machtergreifung), that the Nazi’s were legitimately and democratically elected to a plurality in the Reichstag first. In the summer of 1932, the Nazi party won more than 37% in the German Federal Election, nearly double the vote total of the 2nd place finisher, the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany. However, with no one willing to work with the Nazis and with the octogenarian center-right President Paul Von Hindenburg unable to form a coalition of his own, the Reichstag was quickly dissolved and new elections set for November. They would prove to be the last free and open elections in a unified Germany for the next 58 years.
The Nazis actually lost ground in the November election, but those losses were never exploited by the rest of Germany’s political parties and by, January 30th of 1933, Von Hindenburg had caved to political pressure and named Hitler as chancellor. What happened after that was essentially the first few pages out of the authoritarian power grab playbook, a version of which is currently being used by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and which are very much within the realm of possibility for a Donald Trump presidency. First, use a moment of chaos and catastrophe as an excuse to suspend civil liberties. Then use government power and paramilitary forces to suppress the votes in upcoming elections to give yourself the illusion of legitimacy. And, finally, eliminate the political competition through imprisonment, intimidation and either the de facto or de jure banning of hostile political parties.
Now, how does all of this relate to the 2016 Presidential and Congressional elections? Surely, in many ways, the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 bears a greater resemblance to the current political situation in a number of European nations today, with populist far right groups like The Front National in France and the Dutch Freedom Party who have tried to exploit congested, multi-party parliamentary systems in order to gain the most political power in countries where obtaining a clear majority is next to impossible, but having a more support than any other one party is well within reach. However, there has never been a time in America’s recent history where both major parties looked like they were starting to splinter and 3rd party presidential candidates, who in past elections would be lucky to get 2% of the vote, could plausibly make into double digits. And, given the parallel rises of Trumpism on the populist right and Bernie or Bust on the populist left, I think the dying days of the Weimar Republic are more instructive than they have ever been.
It is not coincidence that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump came from out of nowhere to have such tremendous success this election and a lot of that success doesn’t have too much to do with who they are or what the stand for, but the specific time and place in history in which they exist. Both candidates, in their own ways, garnered a good deal of their support on an opposition to an increasingly globalized economy, which has in recent decades been characterized by free trade deals that sweeten the pot for corporations while leaving the average member of the US working class out to dry. The candidates certainly pushed their supporters’ frustration in very different directions—towards class struggle against the rich and opposition to establishment/neoliberal politics for Bernie, and over to scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims, along with a focus on personal business savvy for Trump—but their campaigns only succeeded to the extent that they did by mining rich veins of antagonism to the status quo among large swaths of the American public.
Now, if we’re using 1933 Germany as the comparison point for this year’s presidential elections, it bears mentioning that the right wing and conservative movements in America have followed the script from the collapse of Weimar Republic much more closely than their liberal and left-wing US counterparts. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most crucial one is that the American left is and always has been much smaller and less organized than those in continental Europe.
Aside from some brief blips during the first quarter of the 20th century with the Socialist Party of America and the Progressive Party, the American left has never really had a substantial party to serve as their standard bearer in presidential elections. Had there already been a sizable and extant democratic socialist party in the United States to the left of the Democrats that Bernie Sanders could have cast his lot with back in 2015, the odds of him not accepting the presidential nomination of said party to support Hillary Clinton and present a united front against Trump are drastically reduced. Regardless of what his actual feelings are towards Hillary, Bernie realized as the Democratic nomination drifted farther away from his reach that the mounting either an independent run or joining the Green Party ticket would not just ensure Donald Trump’s election, but—perhaps more importantly from his perspective—torpedo any chance of seeing his progressive policies implemented in his lifetime. The two-party system in America certainly has it’s share of detractors, but one of its major benefits is that it discourages electoral victories by small pluralities and makes it very hard for more ideologically extreme candidates to win elections unless they are—like Trump—able to co-opt the machinery of one of the two major parties.
The American right wing and conservative movements, on the other hand, have mirrored the actions of early 1930s Germany to a startling degree, with Trump and his populist followers playing the role of the ascendant National Socialist German Worker’s Party and the GOP establishment taking on the part of the more traditionally conservative German National People’s Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei: DNVP). The DNVP, which was comprised primarily of middle class Germans, civil servants and the German aristocracy, was very regressive in their attitude towards government, objecting to the very idea of the Weimar Republic and favoring a return to monarchy.
Throughout the late 20s and early 30s, the DNVP viewed Hitler and the Nazis as pawns to be used to their own ends. After all, they had a shared a common aim in the dissolution of the Weimar Republic, were both extremely nationalistic and had a tremendous distaste for the socialist and communist parties in the country. It made perfect sense to use the patriotic fervor, muscle and electoral power of the Nazis to consolidate power in the Reichstag and realize their vision of a return to German imperial greatness in the emasculating wake of World War I, and then dispatch of them when they were done. The only problem with their plan was that it was the Nazis were the ones who wound up steering the ship and manipulating the DNVP to achieve their goals. The angry little rube who headed the populists to their far right, a man who they thought could be corralled and put to work for them, wound up being far more effective at movement building and the consolidation of power than they were and, pretty soon, the most the could hope for was quiet acceptance into the Nazi party.
If that sounds vaguely familiar, that’s probably because it’s pretty much what happened between the Tea Party, Trump and the GOP establishment. Given Trump’s recent polling tailspin and what has been, even by his standards, a fortnight of inordinately inexcusable gaffes and thinly veiled calls to arms, it is seeming less and less likely that this historical comparison will extend to a right wing electoral victory in November. However, even a thorough drubbing of the GOP in the general election isn’t cause to celebrate too long, as Trump is not the disease itself so much as he is a symptom. If anything, the rage and disillusionment of his followers will only be increased in the wake of their primary success and Trump’s framing of the election as “rigged” can only serve to increase extrajudicial violence and put the brakes on any sort of rapprochement within the two wings of the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the unexpected rise of Bernie Sanders and the election of an polarizing, easily demonized centrist Democrat like Hillary Clinton to The White House will only increase the chances of a schism within the Democratic Party.
To paraphrase a man who had his fair share of experience in dealing with the forces of right wing extremism, this election is not the end. This election is not even the beginning of the end. But, this election may prove to be the end of our beginning.