Is 2016 the new 1933?
In an era when European right-wing, ultra-nationalist movements garner more support than at any time since World War II, it is no surprise that Donald Trump’s explosive political rhetoric targeting religious and ethnic minorities has drawn charges of fascism or neo-fascism.
At one rally, Trump ordered his audience to raise their hands and promise to vote (for him). The image of a crowd with raised hands pledging their loyalty to their leader drew widespread comment. On “Meet the Press,” conservative columnist David Brooks compared the incident to Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies. While scholars are usually careful in their use of such incendiary labels, even noted philosopher Justin E. H. Smith was curiously ambivalent in his New York Times Sunday Review article, “No, He’s Not Hitler. And Yet…” Trump appears not to care what historical similarities his movement evokes, as seen from his indifference to the association of his “America First” slogan with the discredited pre-World War II isolationist movement of the same name.
But what is the history and why should it matter?
In late January 1933, the coalition of conservative parties governing Germany invited Adolf Hitler, leader of the ultra-right wing National Socialist German Workers Party (“Nazi” for short), to join their government as its chancellor. They naïvely believed they could co-opt him and control his movement. It was a fatal political blunder. Hitler quickly marginalized his opponents and consolidated power. The rest, as they say, is history.
The relevance of any historical comparison to American politics in 2016 and Nazi Germany lies, not in the period after 1933 (for which there is no reasonable comparison), but in prior years, as the Nazis rose from obscurity to national prominence. The Great Depression hit Germany hard — one in three German workers was unemployed. The newly formed conservative government pursued traditional conservative policies, including reducing welfare rolls, sacking government workers and cutting government expenditures. Not surprisingly, the economy worsened and unemployment spread to the middle class, the backbone of Germany’s conservative parties. In other words, the conservative political establishment had failed to protect even its own constituents, and in national elections from 1930 to 1932 the conservative parties lost supporters, mainly to Hitler’s Nazi Party.
As a radical (read “populist”) conservative, Hitler railed against the conservative establishment as well as the parties of the left, promising to make Germany great again. Now things should start to sound familiar. He played on the conservative fear of a left-wing revolution, and denounced the “alien” Jews, even though most Jewish families had lived in Germany for generations. (Many Nazi supporters dismissed Hitler’s rhetoric as political theater, a view that turned out to be tragically wrong.)
Violence was common at Nazi rallies and in the streets. Offering only vague policies, Hitler nonetheless came across as a strong leader, capable of dealing with the nation’s problems and restoring order. Having refused to take part in past governing coalitions, Hitler was seen as an outsider, above “establishment” politics and therefore untainted by the failures of previous administrations. In the pivotal election of 1930, besides the voters they won away from the conservative parties, the Nazis attracted persons previously alienated from traditional politics; approximately a quarter of all Nazi voters that year had never voted before.
But historical similarities do not mean that history repeats itself.
There are major differences between Germany then and the United States today. Germany had indeed declined in power, having been defeated in World War I and suffered humiliating peace conditions imposed by the victors. Further, the German working class voted overwhelmingly for the left-wing parties; Trump’s support is strongest among white, working-class voters. And certainly Trump has nothing resembling the disciplined organization that Hitler commanded. Moreover, unlike the German conservative establishment, GOP leaders are acutely aware of the danger Trump poses to their party, as seen by their strong criticism of his comments about a “biased” judge of Mexican-American descent.
While the answer to our original question is that 2016 is not the new 1933, the similarities are troubling. History may not repeat itself, but its echoes deserve close attention.
Rodney D. Anderson is professor emeritus in the Department of History at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida (and a proud graduate of Houlton High School, class of 1956). He and his wife spend summers at their family camp at Drew’s Lake in Linneus.