Having taught Western Civilization for many years, I have always been fascinated by the rise of fascism in Germany — how Hitler, an obscure man from the lower middle class, with limited education and unimposing appearance, a corporal in World War I, gained control of the most powerful and technologically advanced country in Europe. The current presidential campaign may shed light on Hitler’s remarkable achievement.
Germany lost World War I and was severely punished by the Treaty of Versailles, which took away German territory, limited the German military, and billed Germany for the war. Article 239, which the German people bitterly resented, blamed Germany for starting the war. After the war Germany was governed by the Weimar Republic, a government imposed on Germany by the victorious Allies.
The 1920s saw rampant inflation weaken the German economy and then the Great Depression devastated it. The Weimar Republic, never popular with the German people, failed to solve the economic problems, and the public gravitated to the extremes — the Communists on the left and the Nazis on the right.
Hitler’s Nazis triumphed by telling the people what they wanted to hear. They maintained that the German army had not been defeated in battle; instead, it had been sabotaged by Jews and socialists. Hitler promised to revise the hated Treaty of Versailles by building up the military and acquiring additional territory. He said Germany needed “living space.” How he was going to accomplish these goals was never clearly explained.
Building up the military and acquiring additional territory had widespread appeal, as did his opposition to the Communists and his racial rhetoric. From the start, Hitler emphasized racism, arguing that the Aryans (Germans) were superior people and the Jews were subhuman. The ideal Aryan, he asserted, was tall, broad-shouldered, blond, and blue-eyed. That the short, stooped, dark Hitler was the opposite was ignored by his followers.
An adept communicator of Nazi ideas through radio and by his oratory at mass meetings, Hitler projected strength and resolve, unlike the failed politicians associated with the Weimar Republic.
As Hitler gained support, rumors circulated that Nazis used strong-armed tactics, that they were intolerant, and that they beat up or killed many of their opponents. None of the charges seemed to affect his supporters, who viewed him as the only leader who could save Germany. People who should have known better, including politicians who thought they could control Hitler once he got in power, as well as businessmen, industrialists and military leaders, put aside their concerns and supported him.
The German people, especially the lower economic classes, had real grievances. They were angry and frustrated. Their government seemed inept and out of touch. They turned to Hitler, who understood their feelings and promised wholesale changes. They were not sure how he would make Germany great again, but he had captured their imagination and gained their support.
Like the Germans of the late-1920s and early 1930s, the American public is angry and frustrated with a national government that seems inept and out of touch. The middle and lower classes, which have suffered for years while the elite has prospered, has embraced a political novice who has never held a political office.
Eager to reverse the policies of the Obama administration, 17 candidates — all claiming to be conservative — sought the Republican party’s presidential nomination in 2016. Ironically, the candidate who has received the most votes thus far is Donald Trump, the least conservative of the 17 candidates. A further irony is that the richest of the candidates has become the spokesman for the disaffected classes. Trump has become the front-runner because he understood the anger and frustration of the American public, especially the middle and lower classes, and promised simple solutions. Like Hitler, Trump is an effective communicator who projects strength. The media loves him because he is newsworthy. At each debate, he was the center of attention. He draws large, enthusiastic crowds wherever he goes.
Trump’s policies, which have widespread appeal, cannot possibly accomplish what he promises. A recent article by Max Boot and Benn Steil in the Weekly Standard explains that his trade policies to stop “cheating” by foreign governments would raise prices and kill jobs; deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants would take 20 years and cost over $400 billion; the 1,000 mile wall on the Mexican border will cost over $40 billion; and his foreign policies, especially his admiration for Vladimir Putin, would be even more disastrous.
Thus far, none of his insulting remarks or flawed policies has dampened the ardor of his supporters. They simply ignore these realities. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie and other politicians have endorsed him, as have several evangelical leaders.
Hitler, who had never held political office, promised to revive German greatness with vague generalities and undefined policies. He became the most popular political leader in Germany. Donald Trump is not a replica of Hitler. He does not have a private army of brown-shirted thugs, but he has employed some of the same techniques that Hitler used. His promise to “Make America Great Again” with vague generalities and undefined policies has generated much popular support.
Many of the Germans did not know what kind of leader they were getting in Hitler. The frustrated Trump supporters, as gullible and naive as the Germans in Hitler’s day, do not know what kind of leader Donald Trump will be. He may prove to be a dynamic executive who solves America’s most pressing problems in an effective and legal manner. Or he may be an authoritarian who destroys our constitutional system of government.
As yet, no one really knows.
James Cook is professor emeritus of history at Georgia Highlands College.