There are many ways in which reality has differed from the hyperbolic worldview of the people who describe themselves as Antifascists (or Antifa for short), but the one that is most glaring is that Trump was not Hitler. Our President could not be an authoritarian, let alone a totalitarian, even if he wanted to, though there are some indications he wanted to.
And yet there are important observations to make about the past four years. America has faced its second national socialist moment, but it was weak in execution and muddled in message. (The first was the Wilson administration, see Johan Goldberg’s excellent book Liberal Fascism).
It would also be a mistake to call Antifa the true fascists. Though a popular observation among conservative commentators, a better 1930s analogy is that Antifa activists are the street thugs of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands. Commerical property and government buildings in the Weimar Republic were regularly vandalized by such far-left militias. And, as in the 1930s, there are less extreme people attending these specticals too.
Understanding how the strength of our governing institutions prevents the concentration of power that leads to something truly like the horrors of Nazi Germany is as important as noting how history has certainly rhymed a little bit. But such understanding is limited by three factors.
First, “fascist,” as the term is colloquially used, is little more than a political insult. Observations of this phenomenon have given us Godwin’s law, that as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.
Second, this reductio ad Hitlerum is due to the way Hitler has become the iconic example of human evil. Have you ever wondered who held this status before Hitler? As he rose to power, who was Hitler compared to? If you look at contemporaneous analogies trying to argue Hitler was evil, writers compared him to Napoleon, Philip of Macedon, and Nebuchadnezzar. Now Hitler has become the singlular byword for evil.
Third, the basic story of Nazi Germany is ubiquitously known but little understood, because few people know much beyond the basics. From documentaries to period piece movies, little insight is offered beyond vicarious accounts of brutality.
I am going to write a series to show where these analogies are valid and where they are not. As I have suggested in the title of this introduction, the comparisons to today’s America are rarely reasonable. Understanding why they are misplaced can help us appreciate why America is truly great. Yet understanding how the MAGA message is congruent with a populist worldview that elites have been stabbing the common man in the back could use some historical context. And a divine devotion to a leader whose prognostications are fervently followed as gospel should remind us what the German word for “leader” is.
To do this right requires source material more rigorous than watching the History Channel. I have long been a student of Dr. Thomas Childers, emeritus professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. His lectures have been recorded and can be listened to here.
My understanding of the Third Reich was further formed by the following thirty-eight books.
Adolf Hitler 1925 Mein Kampf; Theodore Abel 1936 Why Hitler Came into Power; Hugh Trevor-Roper 1947 The Last Days of Hitler; Eugen Kogon 1950 The Theory and Practice of Hell; William Shirer 1960 The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; A. J. P. Taylor 1961 The Origins of the Second World War; Allan Bullock 1962 Hitler: A Study in Tyranny; Albert Speer Inside the Third Reich; Hannah Arendt 1973 The Origins of Totalitarianism; John Toland Adolf Hitler Vol I and II; Michael Childers 1983 The Nazi Voter: The Social Foundations of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1933; William Allen 1984 The Nazi Seizure of Power; Henry A. Turner Jr. 1985 Big Business and the Rise of Hitler; Detlev Peukert 1987 Inside the Third Reich: Conformity and Opposition; Charles Bracelen Flood 1989 Hitler: Path to Power; John Keegan 1989 The Second World War; Robert Gellately 1990 The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy, 1933–1945; John Lukacs 1990 The Duel: Hitler vs. Churchill, 10 May–31 July 1940; Richard Breitman 1991 The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution; Christopher Browning 1992 Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland; Ian Kershaw 1993 The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation; Henry Friedländer 1995 The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution; Hans Mommsen 1995 The Weimar Republic; Richard Overy 1995 Why the Allies Won; Primo Levi 1996 Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity; Henry A. Turner Jr. Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power: January 1933; Saul Friedländer 1997 Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution,1933–1939; Richard Overy 1997 Russia’s War; Daniel Goldhagen Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust; Richard Breitman 1998 Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew; Marion Kaplan 1998 Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany; Viktor Klemperer 1998 I Will Bear Witness: The Nazi Years, 1933–1941; Viktor Klemperer 1999 I Will Bear Witness: The Nazi Years, 1942–1945; Ian Kershaw 1999 Hitler: 1889–1936 Hubris; John Lukacs 1990 Five Days in London, May 1940; Ian Kershaw 2000 Hitler: 1936–1945 Nemesis; Volker Ullrich 2016 Hitler: Ascent: 1889-1939; Volker Ullrich 2020 Hitler: Downfall: 1939-1945
There is no substitute for reading book-length material to master the details of a subject. Some of these books I read in high school, like William Shirer’s classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I read Volker Ullrich’s recently published books this year. Most of the books I read in my late 20s after purchasing Dr. Childers’s Teaching Company course and plowed through his recommended reading.
The irony is that the people who bash in windows and set fire to buildings in the name of fighting fascism probably have not read any of them and don’t really understand this political phenomenon’s historical context. If they did, perhaps they would realize their behavior can have the opposite effect.
Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.