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1930s Germany and 2020 USA: Should we fear the parallels?

The dangers are real. Timothy Snyder spelled them out in his short book, “About Tyranny.”

Germany at the dawn of Nazism, the USA today. Similarities? Differences? Many today ask such questions, for valid reasons.

Joachim J. Savelsberg
Joachim J. Savelsberg
The German Führer then sought to delegitimize core democratic institutions. The American president today does the same when institutions do not serve his political goals: the courts, the electoral process, democratic opposition, even branches of the administration that do not fall in line. He calls the mainstream news media, decried as “Lügenpresse” (press of lies) in 1930s Germany, “fake news.” He scapegoats minorities and stirs up of hostile emotions against adversaries, another parallel. Further, while Hitler affiliated SA- and SS-militias with his Nazi Party, President Trump encourages self-recruiting militias (“stand by!”). Hostilities toward democratic countries supplement these parallels.

Followers and enablers

Another similarity between Germany of the inter-war years and the United States today is about those who enable leaders with authoritarian leanings. Hitler attracted followers from among those who felt national humiliation after the defeat in World War I. Many had not gotten firm ground under their feet after returning from the trench warfare. After the Great Depression, he attracted scores with his protectionist economic policies. Many saw economic benefits, conveniently overlooking the dark side of the Nazis’ program.

In today’s America, millions are on the losing side of an increasingly globalized economy and IT revolution, deprived of lines of work that had been a source of pride since the industrial revolution. They too feel humiliated and insecure, let down by political (and ridiculed by cultural) elites. Others see 401(k) benefits in a stock market that roars in delight at Trump’s deregulation program, no matter the long-term cost. Yet others do not dare to speak up against the new leader because they depend on his political base.

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Many differences — yet dangers are real

There are differences between Germany in the 1930s and the USA today, of course. Trump has not declared as his goal the extermination of an entire people. His ideology is not as clear-cut as Hitler’s, and he does not have the same discipline to stick to a set of core principles. Further, German democracy of the 1920s was young and fragile, in contrast to America’s firmly settled democratic institutions today.

Yet the dangers are real. Timothy Snyder, Yale historian of European totalitarianism spelled them out in his short book “About Tyranny.” Closer to home, almost a century ago, Sinclair Lewis anticipated the risks of fascism in his ironically entitled “It Can’t Happen Here.”

I was born in Germany in 1951, barely six years after the horrors of Nazism, World War II and the Holocaust. I saw the scars of that history. I immigrated to the United States and moved to Minnesota thirty-one years ago. My American wife and I raised our daughters in St. Paul. I learned to appreciate America’s diversity, the academic institutions in which I work, and the thousands of students I taught at the University of Minnesota. Today, I am concerned.

Joachim J. Savelsberg is a professor of sociology and law and the Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair at the University of Minnesota. His recent books address issues of genocide and collective memory.

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