The Trump-Hitler comparison. Is there any comparison? Between the way the campaigns of Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler should have been treated by the media and the culture? The way the media should act now? The problem of normalization?
Because I’d written a book called Explaining Hitler several editors had asked me, during the campaign, to see what could be said on the subject.
Until the morning after the election I had declined them. While Trump’s crusade had at times been malign, as had his vociferous supporters, he and they did not seem bent on genocide. He did not seem bent on anything but hideous, hurtful simplemindedness — a childishly vindictive buffoon trailing racist followers whose existence he had mainstreamed. When I say followers I’m thinking about the perpetrators of violence against women outlined by New York Magazine who punched women in the face and shouted racist slurs at them. Those supporters. These are the people Trump has dragged into the mainstream, and as my friend Michael Hirschorn pointed out, their hatefulness will no longer find the Obama Justice Department standing in their way.
Bad enough, but genocide is almost by definition beyond comparison with “normal” politics and everyday thuggish behavior, and to compare Trump’s feckless racism and compulsive lying was inevitably to trivialize Hitler’s crime and the victims of genocide.
But after the election, things changed. Now Trump and his minions are in the driver’s seat, attempting to pose as respectable participants in American politics, when their views come out of a playbook written in German. Now is the time for a much closer inspection of the tactics and strategy that brought off this spectacular distortion of American values.
What I want to suggest is an actual comparison with Hitler that deserves thought. It’s what you might call the secret technique, a kind of rhetorical control that both Hitler and Trump used on their opponents, especially the media. And they’re not joking. If you’d received the threatening words and pictures I did during the campaign (one Tweet simply read “I gas Jews”), as did so many Jewish reporters and people of color, the sick bloodthirsty lust to terrify is unmistakably sincere. The playbook is Mein Kampf.
I came to this conclusion in a roundabout way. The story of Hitler’s relation to the media begins with a strange episode in Hitler’s rise to power, a clash between him and the press that looked like it might contribute to the end of his political career. But alas, it did not. In fact, it set him up for the struggle that would later bring him to power.
It was one of the crucial, almost forgotten incidents in the dark decades before World War II — the November 1923 Munich “Beer Hall Putsch,” Hitler’s violent attempt to take over all of south Germany in preparation for a strike against Berlin.
Hitler and his swelling Nazi party had been threatening a power move for months. Threatening first violence, then alliance with one of the other factions. Hitler was keeping them off balance, promising he’d not use force with one, scheming to use it with another, finally betraying his word to all.
At the very apex of the Beer Hall Putsch, a clash between his militia and Munich’s chief opposition newspaper, the Munich Post, may have changed the course of history, giving evidence that Hitler had the potential for a far more ambitious course of evil than anyone in Germany believed. Only the reporters who had been following Hitler seemed able to imagine it.
On the night of November 8, 1923, amid a clamorous political meeting in the Bürgerbräukeller, a huge echoey beer hall where political meetings were often held, Hitler stood up, fired a pistol into the air, and announced his militia had captured the three top leaders of southern Germany’s Bavarian province and handcuffed them in a back room in the beer hall. The next morning, he declared, his Stormtrooper militia would capture the capitol buildings and then head north to Berlin.
It didn’t happen. That morning there was a firefight on the bridge to the city center that ended with Hitler’s forces having failed to cross that bridge, Hitler flinging himself — or being flung — on the ground amid gunfire in ignominious defeat.
What caused his defeat? Some have suggested (myself among them) it was Hitler’s fateful decision to detach his elite private militia, the forerunner of the SS — the Stosstrupp Hitler — and send them on a mission to trash and pillage the offices of the Munich Post, the newspaper he called “the poison kitchen” (for the slanders about him they were allegedly cooking up).
Trash and pillage they did. I saw a faded newsprint photograph of the after-action damage to the Munich Post — desks and chairs smashed, papers strewn into a chaos of rubble, as if an explosion had gone off inside the building.
By the mid-’90s, when I first saw that picture, the memory of this chief anti-Hitler newspaper during his rise to power from Munich to Berlin had virtually disappeared from history. But while researching my book, I’d found a cache of back issues crumbling away in the basement archive of a Munich library, seemingly untouched for years.
Cumulatively, the stacks of issues told the story of a dozen-year-long struggle between Hitler and the paper, which began soon after the mysterious Austrian-born outsider appeared as a fiery orator and canny organizer on the Munich streets in 1921.
The Munich Post never stopped investigating who Hitler was and what he wanted, and Hitler never stopped hating them for it.
As Hitler sought to ingratiate himself with the city’s rulers (though never giving up the threat of violence), the Post reporters dug into his shadowy background, mocking him mercilessly, exposing internal party splits, revealing the existence of a death squad (“cell G”) that murdered political opponents and was at least as responsible for Hitler’s success as his vaunted oratory.
And in their biggest, most shamefully ignored scoop, on December 9, 1931, the paper found and published a Nazi party document planning a “final solution” for Munich’s Jews — the first Hitlerite use of the word “endlösung” in such a context. Was it a euphemism for extermination? Hitler dissembled, so many could ignore the grim possibility.
The Munich Post lost and Germany came under Nazi rule — but, in a sense, the paper had also won; they were the only ones who had figured out just how sinister Hitler and the Nazis were. I believe Hitler knew this. And so, back in 1923, when Hitler had thrown the opposition into disarray and division, he saw the chance to eliminate the Munich Post. And he took it and tried, though he failed at that, too.
After the 1923 fiasco, Hitler served nine months of a five-year sentence for rebellion and pledged to stay out of politics. But his parliamentary party didn’t quit, and eventually Hitler had demonstrated enough neutral behavior (discounting the murders committed by the Nazi death squads not directly connected to him) that he was allowed to campaign again. Was it a mistake? Had he learned a lesson? As it turned out, Hitler used the tactics of bluff masterfully, at times giving the impression of being a feckless Chaplinesque clown, at other times a sleeping serpent, at others yet a trustworthy statesman. The Weimar establishment didn’t know what to do, so they pretended this was normal. They “normalized” him.
And so they allowed him and his party back onto the electoral lists, the beginning of the end. Democracy destroying itself democratically. By November 1932, his party had become the largest faction in the Reichstag, though not a majority. After that election though, it looked as if he’d passed his peak: his total vote had gone down. It looked like the right-wing parties had been savvy in bringing him in and “normalizing” him, making him a figurehead for their own advancement.
Instead, it was truly the stupidest move made in world politics within the memory of mankind. It took only a few months for the hopes of normalization to be crushed. As Sir Richard Evans, the leading British historian of the period has proven at painstaking length, the Reichstag Fire was not a Hitler plan to excuse a takeover through martial law. It had indeed been the work of a Dutch man, Marinus van der Lubbe. But Hitler, ruthlessly and savagely, took advantage of it, instituting martial law and crushing electoral democracy. There would have been another excuse. Once in power Hitler was going to go on maximizing it until the “final solution.”
And the Munich Post never stopped reporting on this ultimate aim and on Hitler’s use of murder, decrying any attempts to “normalize” the tyrant. They kept fighting until two months after his January takeover. In March 1933, when the Nazis ruled the media and the Post was “legally” shut down. There had been a few other brave journalistic souls — Konrad Heiden, Fritz Gerlich. But swiftly, oh so swiftly, the order of the day became “gleichschaltung” — “realignment,” or forced conformity, savage normalization. Goebbels and other Nazi propagandists made it their crusade to get the German body politic “adjusted” to the new reign of terror. “Gleichschaltung” meant normalize or else.
Hitler’s method was to lie until he got what he wanted, by which point it was too late. At first, he pledged no territorial demands. Then he quietly rolled his tanks into the Rhineland. He had no designs on Czechoslovakia — just the Sudetenland, because so many of its German-born citizens were begging him to help shelter them from persecution. But soon came the absorption of the rest of Czechoslovakia. After Czechoslovakia, he’d be satisfied. Europe could return to normal. Lie!
There is, of course, no comparison with Trump in terms of scale. His biggest policy decisions so far have been to name reprehensible figures to various cabinet posts and to enact dreadful executive orders. But this, too, is a form of destruction. While marchers and the courts have put up a fight after the Muslim ban, each new act, each new lie, accepted by default, seems less outrageous. Let’s call it what it is: defining mendacity down.
And look where it got us. Perhaps we should have seen it — the way Trump’s outrageous conduct and shamelessly lying mouth seemed so ridiculous we wouldn’t have to take him seriously. Until we did.
Give him the harmless attention he seems to crave and he’ll no longer be a nuisance. The whole thing would be childish if it didn’t seem sinister in retrospect. It recalled to me a conversation I had with Alan Bullock (1914-2004), Oxford University historian and author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1952), the first substantive biography of the dictator.
Bullock, then nearing 80, told me how students of Hitler were often misled to focus on his vicious anti-Semitism. In fact, Bullock had initially argued, it was likely he had believed in nothing and just used the Jew-hatred to advance his cause with the nitwit thug segment of the German people. Just as Trump appealed to his nitwit thug racist, anti-Semite followers. Hitler was a “mountebank,” Bullock exclaimed, a con man who played the Jewish card, using it to whip up rowdy enthusiasm and give the impression of a movement. This is the comparison I’d been seeking.
Bullock, as I’ve written, would later change his mind to incorporate the vision of Hitler offered by Hugh Trevor-Roper, who found the anti-Semitic ideology to be primus inter pares in Hitler’s fevered brain. Be that as it may, he saw that this tactic of playing the fool, the Chaplinesque clown, had worked over and over again, worked like a charm. It kept the West off balance. They consistently underestimated him and were divided over his plans (“what does Hitler really want?”). The tactic became irresistible, as repeated always success does.
Few took Hitler seriously, and before anyone knew it, he had gathered up the nations of Europe like playing cards.
Cut to the current election. We had heard allegations that Trump kept Hitler’s speeches by his bedside, but somehow we normalized that. We didn’t take him seriously because of all the outrageous, clownish acts and gaffes we thought would cause him to drop out of the race. Except these gaffes were designed to distract. This was his secret strategy, the essence of his success — you can’t take a stand against Trump because you don’t know where Trump is standing. You can’t find him guilty of evil, you can’t find him at all. And the tactics worked. Trump was not taken seriously, which allowed him to slip by the normal standards for an American candidate. The mountebank won. Again.
Suddenly, after the inconceivable (and, we are now beginning to realize, suspicious) Trump victory, the nation was forced to contend with what it would mean, whether the “alt-right” was a true threat or a joke to be tolerated. Did it matter that Trump had opened up a sewer pipe of racial hatred? Once again, normalization was the buzzword.
And I remembered the Munich Post, defending Weimar Germany. I reflected on how fragile democratic institutions could be in the face of organized hatred. Hitler had been tricky about his plans until he got the position and the power to enact them. Trump had been tricky, neither accepting nor rejecting the endorsement of KKK leader David Duke. David Duke! The KKK! In this century! He claimed he didn’t know who he was. He couldn’t be disqualified because of someone he didn’t know. That’s where we all went wrong, thinking he was stupid and outrageous, not canny and savvy and able to play the media like Paganini. The election demonstrated the weakness of a weak democracy, where basic liberties could be abolished by demagoguery and voter suppression.
And after Trump’s victory I began to follow the debate over how much deference Trump was owed, how much responsibility he had for the hate speech the alt-right morons cheered. Some found solace in the hashtag #notmypresident. David Remnick seemed to have woken the next morning with an especially felicitous gift of disgust, writing: “The fantasy of the normalization of Donald Trump — the idea that a demagogic candidate would somehow be transformed into a statesman of poise and deliberation after his Election Day victory — should now be a distant memory, an illusion shattered.”
He was joined in that spirit of defiance by Teju Cole in The New Times Magazine, Jamelle Bouie in Slate, Masha Gessen in The New York Review of Books, Charles M. Blow in The New York Times, and, most recently, Charles P. Pierce in Esquire.
It looked like a movement was building. What form it would take was unclear.
But now, a couple months later, the momentum is dissolving. The default position is normalization. Should we be content with that? Or should we resist, be it by taking to the streets or simply by “preferring not to,” Bartleby-style?
While sifting through possible courses of action, I remembered something sad — possibly the saddest thing I had ever read: the last few issues of the Munich Post. They had put up a brave front. Somehow, most touchingly, they had continued the serialization of a novel begun before Götterdämmerung, the way a normal newspaper might in normal times. It was a novel by the elusive, pseudonymous B. Traven, called The White Rose. It’s a novel about corporate greed and land-grabbing in Mexico’s oil fields — a text of protest perhaps more relevant to our current struggle than to the struggles of Germany in the 1930s.
I had to search another Munich archive to find the very final issues of the Munich Post, but they were even more dispiriting than I could imagine. The paper went down fighting a lie, fighting Nazi murderers, refusing to normalize the Hitler regime.
A week after Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, the Munich Post published their regular murder survey under the headline “Nazi Party Hands Dripping with Blood,” enumerating the bloody casualties: 18 dead, 34 wounded in street battles with the SA Stormtroopers.
These are the headlines that followed in daily succession:
“Germany Under the Hitler Regime: Political Murder and Terror”
“Blood Guilt of the Nazi Party”
“Germany Today: No Day Without Death”
“Brutal Terror in the Streets of Munich”
“Outlaws and Murderers in Power”
“People Allow Themselves to Be Intimidated”
The era of normalization had begun everywhere else, but the Munich Post resisted.
The Munich Post lost, yes. Soon their office was closed. Some of the journalists ended up in Dachau, some “disappeared.” But they’d won a victory for truth. A victory over normalization. They never stopped fighting the lies, big and small, and left a record of defiance that was heroic and inspirational. They discovered the truth about “endlösung” before most could have even imagined it. The truth is always worth knowing. Support your local journalist.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars, among other books. LARB published the afterword to his new edition of Explaining Hitler last year.