Last Thursday, an 89-year-old Auschwitz survivor recorded a video which promptly went viral. She compared “the humiliation, the demonization of others” and “the attempt to bring out the worst traits in people” in contemporary Austrian politics to her own experience of fascism. Gertrude – her last name has been withheld – lost her entire family in the Holocaust. Her testimony has now been watched more than three million times.
On Sunday, Gertrude’s compatriots will vote for their next president. Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate whose anti-immigration party was set up by a former SS officer, looks set to win.
Across Europe, a wave of hyper-nationalist politicians is threatening to splinter the European Union, with Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France waiting in the wings. In the US, many Americans are still figuring out how they’re going to face the next four years of a president elected after a campaign built on racism, anti-intellectualism, misogyny and truth distortion; his suggestion of a register for Muslims horrified many. It also prompted comparisons – some of them lazy, some of them astute – between the 1930s and now.
Against this backdrop, Volker Ullrich’s timely recent account of Hitler’s rise to power, Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, has received critical acclaimand prompted considerable debate about the historical parallels between our times and that of the pre-war period. It also raises questions about whether history can teach us how to rewrite our own script.
Ullrich, a German historian and journalist for the Hamburg broadsheet Die Zeit, based his book on decades of research. He tells me it was written between 2009 and 2013 to a background noise of extreme right movements on the rise. As a result, he says, one question became fixed in his brain: “What are the necessary social and psychological conditions that allow populists of Hitler’s ilk to gain a mass following and attain power?”
Making Germany great again
“There are certain traits you can recognize that Hitler and Trump have in common,” Ullrich says. “I would say the egomania, the total egocentricity of both men, and the inclination to mix lies and truth – that was very characteristic of Hitler.”
Like Trump, “Hitler exploited peoples’ feelings of resentment towards the ruling elite.” He also said he would make Germany great again. Ullrich also notes both men’s talent at playing the media, making use of new technology and their propensity for stage effects.
Ullrich, however, is keen to highlight how they differ. “I think the differences are still greater than the similarities,” he says. “Hitler was not only more intelligent, but craftier. He was not just a powerful orator, but a talented actor who succeeded in winning over various social milieus. So not just the economically threatened lower middle classes which Trump targeted, but also the upper middle classes. Hitler had many supporters in the German aristocracy.”
Trump was also democratically elected, while Hitler never had a majority vote. “He was appointed by the president of the German Reich.” Then there’s the fact that Trump does not lead a party “which is unconditionally committed to him”.
“A further obvious difference is that Trump doesn’t have a private militia, as Hitler did with the SA, which he used in his first months after coming to power to settle scores with his opponents, like the Communists and Social Democrats. You can’t possibly imagine something similar with Trump – that he’ll be locking Democrats up into concentration camps. Even Hillary Clinton, who he threatened to send to prison – that was just an empty threat, he’s not going to do that.”
“Finally, the American constitution is based on a system of checks and balances. It remains to be seen how far Congress will really limit Trump or if, as is feared, he can override it. It was different with Hitler, who, as we know, managed to eliminate all resistance in the shortest space of time and effectively establish himself as an all-powerful dictator. Within a few months, there was effectively no longer any opposition.”
According to Ullrich, Hitler’s rise was neither an accident nor inevitable, and could have been prevented very early on.
“Hitler profited from the fact that his opponents always underestimated him,” Ullrich explains. “His conservative allies in government assumed they could tame or ‘civilise’ him – that once he became chancellor he’d become vernünftig(meaning sensible, reasonable). Very quickly it became clear that was an illusion.”
“There were many situations where he could have been stopped. For example in 1923 after the failed Munich putsch – if he’d served his full prison sentence of several years, he wouldn’t have made a political comeback. Instead, he only spent a few months behind bars, [having been released after political pressure] and could rebuild his movement.”
The western powers made the same mistake with their appeasement politics, indecision and indulgence. “In the 1930s Hitler strengthened, rather than weakened, his aggressive intentions,” Ullrich says. “So you could learn from this that you have to react faster and much more vigorously than was the case at the time.”
Ullrich also contends that if Hindenburg, the president of the Reich, had allowed Chancellor Brüning, of the Centre party, to remain chancellor to the end of 1934, rather than responding to pressure from conservatives to dismiss him in 1932, “then the peak of the economic crisis would have passed and it would have been very questionable whether Hitler could still have come to power”.
At the same time, Hitler’s ascent was no mere fluke. “There were powerful forces in the big industries, but also in the landowning class and the armed forces, which approved of a fascist solution to the crisis.”
The ‘boo’ word
Ullrich is not the only historian leery of comparing like for like.
“The problem with fascism is that it’s a sort of ‘boo’ word,” says Richard Bosworth, a professor of history at Oxford and award-winning biographer of Mussolini. “If you tag somebody with it, then on the one hand you’re saying that person is going to murder six million Jews and invade Russia, and on the other hand you feel rather good about using the term and so you don’t engage in proper analysis.”
The result, Bosworth argues, is that you become distracted from “trying to work out more clearly what Trump stands for, and what the contemporary United States stands for”.
If fascism “now just means aggressive nationalism, racism, patriarchy and authoritarianism, then maybe it is back on the agenda,” Bosworth continues. But today’s context is fundamentally different. Today’s “alt-right” agitators “live in a neoliberal global order where the slogan, ‘all for the market, nothing outside the market, no one against the market’ is far more unquestionably accepted than the old fascist slogan of ‘all for the state, nothing outside the state, no one against the state’”.
“Whatever history’s instruction is, it’s not literal,” agrees Simon Schama, a professor of history at Columbia University who has written histories of the French, American and Dutch revolutions. “You don’t match present predicaments to some sort of template of what fascism is or isn’t.”
Schama is clear: Trump is obviously not Hitler. “But, you know, if you like, he’s an entertainment fascist, which may be less sinister but is actually in the end more dangerous. If you’re not looking for jackboots and swastikas – although swastikas are indeed appearing – there’s a kind of laundry list of things which are truly sinister and authoritarian and not business as usual.”
Schama points a finger to Breitbart, the website of Steve Bannon, Trump’s senior adviser. “There’s no question that, for all Bannon wants to say, Breitbart has run a kind of dog-whistle antisemitic show because the crucial headlines were: Bill Kristol: Renegade Jew, or [Washington Post columnist] Anne Applebaum singled out as ‘Polish, Jewish, American Elitist’. You don’t use a word like that unless you’re operating from a set of dog-whistle assumptions about an antisemitic constituency.”
Schama also points to deeply worrying messaging, such as “the parallel universe of lies which are habitual, massive, cumulative”; the criminalization of political opponents; the threat to change the libel laws against the press and the demonization of different racial and ethnic groups, going as far as proposing a Muslim registry.
“What is that if it’s not racially authoritarian?” asks Schama. “If you want to call it fascist, fine. I don’t really care if it’s called that or not. It’s authoritarian, you know, ferociously authoritarian.”
Six history lessons to keep in mind
On 2 May 1935, Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons after the Stresa Conference, in which Britain, France and Italy agreed – futilely – to maintain the independence of Austria:
When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind.
Now that the world has lived through the brutal years that followed Churchill’s grimly prescient oratory, what can we do to prove him wrong? If historians are best placed to distinguish between illuminating and misleading historical analogies, how do they think history can help us and what is distinctive about the present?
Don’t ignore what people vote for
If you’re of German heritage, it’s hard to understand how so many people could have bought Mein Kampf and gone on to vote for Hitler. Maybe no one really read it, or got beyond the first few pages of bluster, or took antisemitism seriously, you tell yourself.
“Or they liked what he said,” Mark Mazower says bluntly. Mazower is professor of history at Columbia and author of Dark Continent, the acclaimed study of the forces that shaped 20th-century Europe.
“I think one of the mistakes this time around would be not to think that the people who voted for Trump were serious. They may have been serious for different reasons, but it would be a big mistake not to try and figure out what their reasons were.”
Politicians need to rethink their modus operandi
Hitler presented himself as a “messiah” offering the public “salvation”, Ullrich points out. With austerity and hostility to the EU and to immigrants riding high, there is fertile ground for European populists next year to seduce with equally simplistic, sweeping “solutions”.
The problem, in Mazower’s view, is that establishment politicians currently have no response. “The political class has very impoverished historical memory and as a result it has a very limited imagination,” Mazower contends. “It is by and large made up of people who do not see themselves in politics in order to effect sweeping change and so they tend to operate very incrementally and very technocratically. They’re very suspicious of vision and as a result what fills their brains is party calculation – which of course always occupies politicians but in the past coexisted with bigger things. The current crop of leading political figures in Europe in particular is just not up to the task.”
Mazower goes on to argue that the development of an alternative narrative able to inspire is, “going to be a long-term project”, which will be, “in the hands of people under 30, 35, not the current political class”.
Beware the rise of the surveillance state
“The Gestapo was piddling compared with the size and reach of surveillance equipment and operations today,” says Mazower.
“Very belatedly, everyone is waking up to the fact that there was a general assumption that no government in the west would fall into the wrong hands, that it was safe to acquiesce in this huge expansion of surveillance capabilities, and the debate wasn’t as vigorous as it could have been.”
“Now, there is a lot of discussion about allowing this kind of surveillance apparatus in the wrong hands,” he adds. “And we’ve woken up to this a bit late in the day.”
Deal with the inequalities caused by neoliberalism
Ullrich calls crises, “the elixir of rightwing populists”, and urges that politicians “do everything they can to correct the inequalities and social injustice which have arisen in the course of extreme financial capitalism in western countries”.
Jane Caplan, a history professor at Oxford University who has written about Trump and fascism, highlights the want of “dissenting voices against marketisation and neoliberalism. The failure to resist the incursion of the market as the only criterion for political utility, or economic utility, has been pretty comprehensive. That’s pretty problematic I think.”
Narrow sectarianism plays into the hands of populists. Bosworth points out that the Italian fascists “only had 35 seats out of 500-odd in the Italian parliament after the 1921 elections” when Mussolini became prime minister. The establishment was so desperate to sideline socialists and trade unions that it preferred to “give him a chance”.
The fasces – or bound bundle of wooden rods, from which the word fascism derives – symbolises strength through unity, and if opposition to fascism is to be successful it is essential to combat like with like.
“I think all of us will say that you must have alliances,” Caplan says. “You can’t do this on your own. In a crisis situation like America it’s got to be a broad-based alliance. There’s not room to say, ‘Well, we’ll wait for things to get worse and then we’ll have a communist revolution’ or something. That’s not going to happen. The objective is so much more important and so much more urgent.”
But as Caplan points out, there is cause for hope too: local institutions like the churches and the NAACP, “are very, very rooted organizations and it would take a huge effort to crush them”.
Don’t normalize fear, intimidation and self-censorship
Paranoia, bullying and intimidation are a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. They are also alive and well in our culture today, where online trolls, violent thugs at rallies, threats of expensive libel action and of course terrorist acts are equally effective in getting individuals and the press to self-censor.
“You just have to call this out,” says Schama. “It requires government. Trump should have repudiated the Ku Klux Klan. Not just left it out there. It requires responsible, moral, aggressive repudiation. The Daily Mail ‘Enemies of the People’ front page was disgraceful and the government should have made that clear. It’s the kind of thing Stalin would have said, or Robespierre.”