Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I recently read German historian Joachim Fest’s book Inside Hitler’s Bunker: the Last Days of the Third Reich. The book is the basis for the German language film Downfall which depicted the last ten days of the Third Reich.
I don’t read books or movies about the Third Reich to find comparisons to the present day, I have been studying that period since my years as a college undergraduate and first year graduate student at California State University at Northridge. Most of my history major studies focused on modern German history beginning with Imperial German but really focusing on the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era through the major war crimes trials at Nuremberg. My professor, Dr. Helmut Heussler had served there as a translator.
That was nearly 40 years ago. I continued that study in seminary to some extent, individually during the times that I was stationed in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, and during my second Masters degree. I have continued those studies since then and used what I learned teaching ethics to senior military officers at the Joint Forces Staff College. We dealt a lot with war crimes and I used the film about the Wannsee Conference, Conspiracy as our capstone exercise. I used it so my students could see how ordinary men, officers, lawyers, bureaucrats, and police officials could cooperate to coordinate their agencies actions in regards to implementing the Final Solution to what they referred to as the Jewish Question.
Since 2014 I have made yearly visits to Germany where I take the time to visit the sites and centers related to the study of the Holocaust and the Nazi period. Thankfully because I read, speak and write German I do pretty well navigating around these sites and many of the materials I have now are in German, but I digress, that was all to state my expertise regarding the subject before some troll comes by to say that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
So anyway going back to Fest’s book and one particular statement that Fest made about Hitler in the context of German history and the various leaders who preceded him. Fest wrote:
“What differentiated Hitler from any conceivable predecessors was the complete lack of sense of responsibility beyond the merely personal, of any clear-headed, selfless ethos of service, and of any historic morality.”
I had to stop reading at that point and go back and re-read the preceding section of that chapter to make sure that I had the context right. Hitler certainly absorbed the ideas of racism, anti-Semitism, racial purity and the superiority of the Aryan Race, which do have precedent in German history. They were part and parcel of ideas that he was exposed to while in Vienna before the war and the people that he socialized with in Munich following Germany’s defeat in 1918.
There are also examples of German military forces conducting what amounted to genocide in Namibia when it was a German colony, as well as very harsh measures being conducted against Belgian civilians during the First World War, but those knew limits, and there the comparison with his predecessors ends. Fest wrote:
“There would be a “New Man”who razed everything to the ground, resettled territories, and sought relaxation from his mission… It was a break with everything the world had ever stood for. Trying to invent an origin for this revolution – an origin it did not have – is to fall retrospectively for the regime’s own propaganda. The origins of this program were entirely self generated. No one had ever gone to such extremes, and with such utter madness….”
Then I began to think about President Trump in the context of his presidential predecessors and I realized that in the context of the American political system that what Fest said about Hitler is also true of the 45th American President. While he may represent some of the more isolationist, and racist parts of our history there is no real American Presidential precedent for him.
He has gone back and borrowed from the worst aspects of the American experience and mythology to create his personal cult of personality based on Making America Great Again. He blends crude ante-Bellum and Jim Crow racism, with the anti-immigrant and religious prejudices of the Know Nothings, as well as the Isolationist and Nazi supporting America First movement of the late 1930s and early 1940s. He tries to link himself to Ronald Reagan but that to is a fallacy based on the policies enacted by both men.
Like Hitler, Trump has been enabled by a cult-like following who themselves were ideologically and socially prepared to sacrifice themselves for him and his repackaging of their beliefs despite overwhelming evidence that he will lead them to ruin despite a veneer of success.
I really don’t try to go out of my way to find connections between our era and the early period of Nazi rule in Germany, but when they jump out like this I cannot ignore them. Such moments are epiphanies and should not be ignored.