Tag Archives: Hitler

What if the order had been reversed…

This is an exercise in fantasy, relating to something that is for many reasons entirely impossible, but still worth thinking about. What if Donald Trump had been elected as president two generations before Adolf Hitler had won the election that made him chancellor of Germany? How much more guilty of civil carelessness would the minority of the German public who considered Hitler to have been “the lesser evil” be? And to what extent could they all be accused of being morally bad people because of this electoral decision?

Of course both Trump and Hitler are products of their own times, and could not realistically have risen in other eras of history and still been the same persons. Two generations before Hitler no conspicuously rich second generation immigrant without political experience but with a rare skill for gaining media attention; based in New York and representing all the evils that city is famous for, but drawing his primary support from the south and the “heartland”; building a campaign around all the things that white men lived in existential fear of; could have realistically took the White House. Something like Trump could only happen in the 21st century. Likewise Hitler could only have risen to power at a time when Germany was failing in its recovery from a world war, and it is highly unlikely that there would be enough left in the aftermath of any future world war for yet another Hitler to rise to power in. Thus it seems impossible to imagine another Hitler arising after Trump. Most impossible though is the idea that the path of influence between them could have been reversed: Trump read Hitler’s speeches and was clearly influenced by them, but it is unimaginable that Hitler would have turned to someone like Trump for inspiration.

But regardless of the impossibility of it, as an exercise in civil conversation between (even tacit) Trump supporters and those who see the sort of disaster that Trump’s sort of politics could portend, let’s imagine what the discussion between a Hitler supporter and an intense Hitler critic in post-Depression Germany would have been like in the time after Hitler had won his major election but before he had properly risen to power… if they furthermore would have had the advantage of looking at Trump’s election in hindsight.

Given the completely unrealistic premise this is based on, I want to try to give both sides a fair and realistic hearing on this. So let’s say that this is an open discussion between Dietrich, an avowed Social Democrat and anti-Hitler campaigner, and Reinhold, an independent who had chosen to vote for the Nazis in the recent election. Let’s randomly say that this discussion would have taken place on March 10, 1933.

D: As much as I respect you as a person, Reinhold, I still find it hard to believe that you could vote for that hemorrhoid Hitler. How could you honestly do such a thing!? Don’t you see what kind of danger you are putting our country into?

R: Dietrich, Dietrich, first of all the election is over a week ago already. Whether you like it or not, Hitler won. Why don’t you just relax and give him a chance to sort things out and see if he can fix the sort of mess that your Social Democrats and the rest of the corrupt old guard have got us into?

D: Why don’t I?! First of all because all of the hate-mongering that Hitler used to wheedle his way into power, and all of those psychotic brown shirts he’s got working for him stand a good chance of destroying everything that we hold dear about our German heritage! He practically makes Donald Trump look reasonable for crying out loud!

R: Ha ha! Heinz’s Law. You lose.

D: What?

R: You know: “As a political discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Trump approaches 1.” It goes with the same premise that whoever mentions Trump first automatically loses the debate.

D: That’s a stupid, ad hoc rule and you know it!

R: Is it really? Come on! You guys on the left have been calling every semi-competent center-right leader since the Bismarck “another Trump”. Face it: that’s a losing tactic.

D: OK, I’ll concede two things here: First of all there have been other elitist, populist hate-mongers since Trump’s time concerning whom Trump’s name has been thrown around a bit too freely. Secondly I admit that, whatever Hitler’s flaws, when it comes down to it no one can be another Trump.

R: Good… so why do I feel like there’s a “but” coming here?

D: There certainly is! The similarities in their campaign styles alone were big enough where the German people should have been able to learn something from the Americans’ mistakes back then!

R: That’s just ridiculous. First of all Trump had no connection at all with the people he was manipulating into voting for him. He was a spoiled little rich boy, not a committed patriot like Hitler. Secondly there really wasn’t any major crisis in the American economy back then. Production and markets were functioning just fine. There was a structural change going on regarding the sort of work that would need to be done in the future, and there was a need for the government to play a more active role in the changeover, but it wasn’t anything like Germany is today. We’ve got a real crisis, not one made up by opportunists to discredit their opposition! Beyond that the Mexicans and Muslims that Trump laid out as the enemies of the people were not in any position of power in their society, or in the world at large. Hitler’s point regarding the Jews is far better grounded. All in all they’re nothing alike!

D:  OK, another point I can grant you: Hitler does seem to be more sincere than Trump was overall. He does seem to have some sort of moral convictions rather than being pure con-artist to the core. But (yes, of course another “but”) that hasn’t stopped him from continuously changing his message to tell people what they want to here and push their particular panic buttons. And furthermore if you take the kind of hatemongering that brought Trump to office and combine it with a sense of sincere dogmatism of conviction about the matter that may make him even more dangerous than Trump. And even though the target of Hitler’s hatred is more thoroughly rationalized, it’s still the same sort of nastiness against other people that Trump was selling. Those Brown Shirts are really in no way morally better than the “Alt-Right” folks who supported Trump.
Now I know that you’re not the sort of person who believes in attacking Jews just because they happen to be born Jewish. I’m not accusing you of being that particular kind of deplorable. What I’m saying is that you really should know better than saying with your vote that you find that sort of policy to be morally acceptable and politically supportable!

R: You seem to be equivocating on whether my voting for Hitler makes me a bad person or not. I guess I’ll just have to live with that. Our country is pretty seriously divided right now, not only from this rather nasty recent election, but from all of the ways that your Social Democrats have been screwing things up over the past 15 years. Of course Hitler was not my first choice, and of course I don’t believe in attacking all Jews for the evils that a small minority of them are doing. But given how screwed up things have become, for basic working people in particular, you can’t really say that leaving the old guard in place or letting Otto Wels and Ernst Thälmann turn this country into some sort of Marxist nightmare would have been viable solutions. Hitler was clearly the lesser evil here.
All that being said, whether you and your leftist friends like it or not, Hitler is now our chancellor. The people have spoken and your leftists lost. So now you really should give him a chance to see if he can follow through on his promises to make Germany great again. Or are you going to join all those putzes who promised to move to Switzerland if the Nazis won? (Good riddance if they do go!)

D: As you know, as was the case with Trump, Hitler and his cronies still got less than a majority of the popular vote. I won’t deny it though: I’m still stunned that they got as much as they did. I honestly thought and hoped that the German people were smarter and more civilized than that; you included. All I can say at this point is that if Hitler gets what he wants then moving to Switzerland could turn out to be an excellent decision.

R: Come on now, Diet! We still have a system of checks and balances in this country. Old man Hindenburg is still in place trying to insure some resemblance of sanity in the system. Hitler and his boys still need to convince the other 2/3 of the Reichstag to go along with it before they do anything too radical. Things can’t really get too bad. So for now let’s just come together as Germans and see what we can do to rebuild this great nation.

D: In many ways I hope you’re right. The scary part is that I’m sure that back in the day Trump supporters were saying the same thing right after he was elected…



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In considering the varieties of “Christian Politics” lately, I’ve been looking at the question of which of the outspoken voices in this field are genuinely committed to a pluralistic democratic form of government and which believe that their priority should be to enforce God’s will on their fellow citizens, using the democratic process as one imperfect means of doing so until “God’s kingdom” can be more properly realized. This is actually a particularly hard line to draw, as many of the most conspicuous characters in the field work very hard on trying to have it both ways. The question is, when someone like the Southern Baptists’ lead lobbyist Richard Land says that his goal is to establish “an American society that affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority,” how seriously do we need to take that, either as a promise of stability or a threat to religious freedom? When Chris Hedges labels this sort of political action as “American Fascism” is he exaggerating, or does he have a legitimate point? This goes back to a question of the essence of American identity, the minimum requirements for freedom of religion, and the practical limits we are willing to place on freedom of expression.

silencerIf we start with the fourth point from Wolterstorff that I quoted last week –– “There is to be no differentiation among citizens with regard to religion [or lack thereof] in their right to hold office and in their right to political voice” –– the key question becomes, what constitutes a significant threat to the right to political voice for various players within the political process?

Since the term “fascist” is already on the table here, let’s go ahead and consider the negative examples of the Axis Powers leading up to World War 2. The Germans, due to a fair amount of frustration with the loss of their previous cultural stability based on “Christian tradition,” and the consequent economic turmoil that their country was going through, became increasingly polarized between Communists and right wing nationalists, both of which claimed to represent the interests of the common working people. As their country became more polarized and as it became more and more difficult to pass basic legislation due to ideologues’ unwillingness to compromise, basic legislation started to be passed more and more by executive decree –– using Article 48 of the Weimar constitution. The practical matter of getting stuff done –– keeping the power turned on and keeping the trains running –– became more important to people than the principle matter of everyone continuing to have a voice in government. Into this situation stepped a brash young Austrian-born leader by the name of Hitler, taking power as something of a minority compromise candidate and insisting on overcoming the problems of divisive fragmentation in German political culture through ruling by decree. The idea was to silence everyone who didn’t agree with him by calling their patriotism into question, especially those of the political left. Within two months citizens’ constitutional right to elect representatives to theoretically speak on their behalf became a thing of the past. Hitler’s speech of February 1, 1933 was a classic in terms of religiously justifying his party’s process of seizing power and silencing the opposition:

Since that day of treachery [the surrender at the end of World War 1] the Almighty has withheld his blessing from our people. Dissension and hatred descended upon us. With profound distress millions of the best German men and women from all walks of life have seen the unity of the nation vanishing away, dissolving in a confusion of political and personal opinions, economic interests, and ideological differences…

Communism with its method of madness is making a powerful and insidious attack upon our dismayed and shattered nation. It seeks to poison and disrupt in order to hurl us into an epoch of chaos…. This negative, destroying spirit spared nothing of all that is highest and most valuable. Beginning with the family, it has undermined the very foundations of morality and faith and scoffs at culture and business, nation and Fatherland, justice and honor.

as leaders of the nation and the national Government we vow to God, to our conscience, and to our people that we will faithfully and resolutely fulfill the task conferred upon us.

The National Government will regard it as its first and foremost duty to revive in the nation the spirit of unity and co-operation. It will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life….

Turbulent instincts must be replaced by a national discipline as the guiding principle of our national life. All those institutions which are the strongholds of the energy and vitality of our nation will be taken under the special care of the Government.    

It is not hard to see how a frustrated and impoverished people who are prone to see trusting God as the answer to their problems would readily go along with this sort of program, and how they would gladly participate in the process of silencing anyone who would dare to disagree. With Communists and Jews as scapegoats for all that had gone wrong, and with no one daring to publicly challenge his “mission from God,” Hitler did indeed bring about a major economic turnaround in Germany, instilling people with a great sense of pride in their national destiny and their right to attack all who opposed the value system they represented.

Where did they go wrong strategically? Perhaps just in terms of over extending themselves militarily. Where did they go wrong morally? In too many places for me to try to detail here. Suffice to say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the best solution that the best minds of the time could come up with to reduce the risk of the same sort of tragedy happening again. This document brings together, in rather diversified form, the best of religious and secular thinking of that age about what people should be entitled to for no other reason than that they happen to be human beings. This in turn defines what the task of government is: insuring that the rights of all of its citizens are defended as thoroughly as possible.  I believe it would be fair to say that the primary risk of fascism in the current generation comes from those who have never bothered to acquaint themselves with this document, and/or those who consider their particular religious or nationalist agendas to have a higher priority than the principles of human dignity it lays out.

Some of the most broadly recognized general principles contained in this document are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from slavery, the right to citizenship, the right to family life, and the right to just and fair legal protection for all. These rights spill down into other things that may be more controversial: the right to travel internationally, the right to regular paid vacations, the right to a basic education, the right to change religions, the right to adequate health care… But perhaps the most challenging bit is the practical application of the rather broadly accepted Article 30: Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein. In other words, I can’t use my rights as a means of trying to take away your rights, and visa-versa. That is especially difficult when it comes to speech and religion. How do you allow someone to be free to practice a religion that contains the teaching that it must attempt to dominate all other religions? How do you allow everyone to have their own say when the purpose of speaking for many is to shout the next guy down?

It’s quite fair to say that both the US ideal of freedom of religion and the international ideal of the UDHR remain works in progress. We have never had a state of affairs where perfect respect for all members of society has been realized in an ideal fashion. There have always been some who have been unfairly discriminated against, abused as a labor force, stolen from and/or scapegoated. Since I have become an expatriate from the US the level of social protection and recognition has gradually improved for some, such as Hindus and homosexuals, while it has gradually fallen apart for others, such as inner city school students and minimum wage laborers. This was one of the main points of Barack Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech, which was probably one of the key moments that ended up getting him elected as president. We need to avoid nostalgia for the days when some folks rights were better recognized, and we need to work towards the idea of having all people’s dignity protected more than it has been thus far.

So the question with regard to religious interests in politics is one of how far we can allow particular groups to dominate in the interest of unity, order and prosperity, at the expense of others rights to participate in the democratic process and have their other rights properly recognized? This leads us to consider which groups which are now dogmatically promoting their own agendas at the expense of constructive dialog between interest groups might be genuinely dangerous in the future. Who might we allow into power as a minority compromise group, assuming we can somehow keep them in check with the strength of the system, only to discover as the Germans did in the early 1930s that we have unleashed a monster? But just as critical a question: If we suspect that a particular group could rise up to become the new Nazis, how far can we go in working to preemptively silence them or shout them down without the cure (or immunization) becoming worse than the potential disease?

There are particular groups out there these days that I consider particularly dangerous in terms of having a stronger commitment to their set ideas of right and wrong than they have to constructive dialog and mutual recognition of each other’s basic rights. This, however, is a matter of human temperament for many, which cannot be fixed through eliminating particular political alternatives for them. I believe that the best we can do is to try to educate people in the processes of constructive dialog and in awareness of the rights of others. If we can, both from religious and secular perspectives, avoid tribal mentalities of praying to our various sorts of gods to “bless us, burn them,” we’ll stand a much better chance of not inadvertently wiping ourselves out in the next few generations.

Meanwhile, when we see political groups of various sorts doing hatemongering and attempting to silence the political opposition in the name of doing God’s work, remember where that sort of rhetoric has been used before.

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