Donald Trump and Germany in the 1930s: Reflections After a Visit to Nuremberg

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Donald Trump and Germany in the 1930s: Reflections After a Visit to Nuremberg

A photo of a display at the Documentation Centre Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, Germany.  (Photo: Holly Hayes/flickr/cc)

Nuremberg, a historic medieval city, was widely known in the 1930s as the most pro-Nazi city in Germany. Last December it was also the origin of a wonderful seven day cruise on the Danube River for my wife and me. Conscious of its historical significance, we had come early to see the city, especially to tour its World War II sites.

Nuremberg was the site of gigantic annual rallies celebrating the Nazi Party and its Führer, Adolf Hitler. Our tour guide Tom, a native of Nuremberg, began to open my eyes anew to the fanatical power and charisma of Hitler. Tom took us first to the vast parade grounds and reviewing stand before which in 1934 an astounding one million people assembled rank on rank. To address his followers the Führer descended to the speaker’s platform from a doorway above, “like an angel from heaven”, said our guide, to proclaim “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer” (one people, one nation, one leader).

Donald Trump announced last June his candidacy for the Presidency, descending to similarly orchestrated acclaim on an escalator at Trump Tower. Although the number of followers on that occasion afford no comparison with Hitler’s masses, I did think of comparable egos. Campaigning in Iowa in January, Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

We next visited Nuremberg’s Documentation Center, a new museum whose four floors thoroughly document the crimes of the Nazi era. As you go through the museum the Nazi posters, newsreels and photographs of the era, recordings of interviews with prominent people and the sound tracks of pumped up Nazi rallies give you a feel for the incredible fervor of the time. Ordinary Germans, interviewed in the 1960s and 1970s, admitted being swept up in the emotion. “Being at the Nazi rallies was the thing to do,” said one. As Tom explained, the Nazi Party message was: “Put yourself totally in our hands and you will be taken care of.“  Unless you’re Jewish, communist, trade unionist, homosexual, gypsy, or mentally or physically deficient, in which case…

How could the German people become so swept up, so willing to be put on such a barbaric history track? Historians still struggle to explain. But the punitive reparations demanded by the victorious allies after World War I along with the severe economic depression of the 1920s and early 1930s left Germans bitter and demoralized.  Together with Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the Nazi ideology began to provide millions of disillusioned and desperate Germans with an explanation for their plight, a focal point for their discontent, and hope for the future.

There seems to be a similar mood in America today among many people who have been left out of an incomplete economic recovery, scared of increased threats by ISIS and others, and threatened by the increased presence and voices of people of color, immigrants, and those of other religions. And the pace of economic and technological change is too fast and bewildering for many more of us.

In such a climate Donald Trump develops his presidential campaign with astounding success. His themes are strikingly similar to those of Hitler and the Nazis of the 1930s:

On Mexican people: “They are sending people that have lots of problems…they’re bringing drugs, crime and rapists”.

On Muslims entering the United States, Trump would propose a total and complete shutdown. In South Carolina on Feb. 19, Trump told a bizarre story, probably apocryphal: that Gen. John J. Pershing shortly after the Spanish-American War (1898) used bullets dipped in pigs’ blood to execute dozens of Muslim prisoners in the Philippines. Said Trump, the moral of this story is that “We better start getting tough, and we better start getting vigilant or we’re not going to have a country.”

Trump cheers at a rally when his supporters physically tackle an African American protester, saying next day that “Maybe he should’ve been roughed up”. On Feb. 27 he declined to disavow the support of white nationalist and ex-Ku Klux Klan supporter David Duke.

In 1938 on Kristallnacht  (The Night of Broken Glass) hundreds of Jewish synagogues and thousands of Jewish businesses throughout Germany were destroyed along with many Jews beaten or killed by Nazi SA thugs.

Trump mocks a disabled reporter for the New York Times at a Nov. 25 rally.

Regarding our military: “We’ve gotta make our military so strong, so big, so powerful, that nobody’s going to mess with us (a line he frequently uses).”

At a rally in South Carolina Feb. 17, Trump defends torture, saying “Waterboarding is fine but not nearly tough enough.”

He said also, “I think apologizing is a great thing, but you have to be wrong. I will apologize if I’m ever wrong.”

Does some of this sound like Germany and its leader in the 1930s?

There's something in the air...

Pastor Martin Niemöller, a German anti-Nazi theologian and Lutheran pastor, is said to have spoken these prophetic words after the war:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

The Nuremberg tour and my contemplation of the Nazi horror confirmed for me in a visceral way the dangerous situation we are facing in our country. More and more people seem inclined to accept the words of this vicious and ego-driven man, whose perspective on our nation and world have little relation to the values and vision of the founders of this country.

A few weeks ago Pope Francis, responding to Mr. Trump, indicated that Christians along with others should be building bridges, not walls. Whether or not one sees in this dangerous demagogue an incipient fascism, it is urgent that we heed Pastor Niemöller’s warning, and decisively raise our voices in support of the Common Good, and for justice and compassion for all.

Richard W. Gillett

Richard W. Gillett is a retired Episcopal priest, writer and labor activist. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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