Munich 1923 / Charlottesville 2017
As a scholar of German-Jewish history, I’m reluctant to make overstated analogies with the past. But if I had to suggest a parallel, I would start in Munich in 1923. The Nazi party, founded three years earlier out of the political disillusionment of Germany’s loss in World War I, started to gain a foothold. It was one of many right-wing, nationalist parties vying for power in the nascent democracy of the Weimar Republic. Allied against liberal democratic principles, the Nazi party began to find a diverse base of support among artisans, merchants, civil servants, shop owners, war veterans and students. Members of the elite, including publishers, manufacturers, business owners and aristocrats, also were attracted by its nativist rhetoric and virulent anti-Semitism. Fueled by ethno-nationalism, rabid scapegoating and promises of greatness and rebirth, the Nazi party even had, as some historians have argued, an integrative function in German society during these early years.
Composed almost entirely of men in their 20s and 30s who felt politically, economically and socially disenfranchised, the party relied heavily on hate rallies, thuggery, raucous speeches, racist newsletters and anti-democracy manifestos. Led from the very beginning by Hitler as a salvific figure, the Nazis marched throughout Germany; they gathered in beer halls and in streets, donning uniforms, sporting insignias of hate and marshalling military force. It would take another five or so years for its message of hate and nationalist regeneration to take hold in Germany as a truly popular political revolution. And it would be another five years after that until Hitler would be sworn in as chancellor of Germany.
I do not think President Donald Trump is Hitler, and we are not (quite) in 1933. But it has become abundantly clear that our president is an enabler of extremely dangerous rhetoric, ideas and actions. He has countenanced the shameless, meteoric rise — or better put, return — of American Nazis, who have reignited long-existing racist structures and catalyzed anti-immigrant and anti-Black movements in the United States. At the same time, Trump’s authoritarian behaviors have laid the groundwork for eroding our constitutional, democratic system of checks and balances with his attacks on the judiciary, the free press and anyone publicly opposing him.
His inexplicable reticence to come out immediately in condemnation of the white supremacists who gathered Aug. 11-12 in Charlottesville, Va., was appalling, and it was outdone only by his unconscionable press conference during which he condemned “both sides,” as if there are moral equivalencies between the violence of white supremacy and our country’s fundamental democratic values.
It is clear that the rally was a carefully orchestrated assault — mounted as a visual and auditory spectacle — that aimed to normalize white supremacy. It sought to engender fear in nonwhites while galvanizing support among Trump’s Middle America for a form of Nazism that was palatable and perhaps even inspiring in its brazenness. While the rally made use of stock Nazi intimidation techniques (torches, flags, Hitler salutes and military militia) as well as racist rhetoric and nationalist slogans (“Blood and Soil”), it applied Nazi principles to propagate a new slogan of purity: “You [shouted as an accusatory ‘you!’] will not replace us!” To be sure, the Nazis might have said this, and they certainly would have felt the same way: You — the Jews, the Communists, the liberals, the immigrants, the homosexuals — will not replace us (the “true Germans” rooted in the “soil” of German land and endowed with a special right of existence above all others by virtue of the purity of “blood”). And at times, the slogan actually became: “Jews will not replace us!”
The generalized slogan plays directly on the fears of garden-variety Trump supporters from white Middle America: They fear affirmative action replacing white students; they fear immigrants taking their jobs; they fear diversity education replacing European education; they fear globalization replacing ethno-nationality; they fear feminism replacing patriarchy; they fear Islam replacing Christianity; they fear Black Lives Matter replacing the value of white lives; they fear Jews controlling capital and the media; they fear gay marriage replacing heteronormative families. “You will not replace us” is a slogan that makes certain parts of Nazism palatable to Trump’s Middle America because it mirrors a broader set of anxieties.
The rally was also an assault on higher education, particularly the value of the open, public university and the ideals of diversity, community, free inquiry and difference, which Richard Spencer explicitly has linked with corruption and ideology in his “manifesto” for the alt-right movement. As Spencer writes at the end of his manifesto: “Higher education … is only appropriate for a cognitive elite dedicated to truth.” Storming the university is a first step in enforcing its “truth” of white supremacy. America’s white supremacists consider themselves to be both victims and redeemers, the future embodiment of the “true America” sought by Trump and his die-hard supporters.
Let me return to Munich in 1923. After nearly a year of thuggish hate rallies, manifestos and virulently anti-Semitic speeches, the year ended with a failed coup by Hitler and members of the Nazi party in Munich. While in jail, Hitler came to the realization that Nazism would not come to power by a forceful revolution, but would need to be brought about legally. The Nazi party would eventually be elected by popular vote, by millions of people who stood behind its message of hate. It was hardly inevitable or preordained. The far-left, left and center parties had largely written off Hitler as a fringe lunatic who never would be taken seriously. They adopted a “wait-and-see attitude,” while fighting among themselves. The other nationalist parties on the right and far-right acquiesced, compromised and collaborated with the Nazis out of self-interest, enabling Hitler to come to power through a hastily concocted, coalition government.
Of course, the future is never a foregone conclusion. It remains open as long as we act to resist the normalization of white supremacy and stave off the scourge of Nazism. I send my gratitude to the thousands of brave men and women who resisted the Nazis in Charlottesville, who drowned out their messages of hate with messages of love, who risked their bodies and livelihoods in the name of our democracy. Resistance to hate is never futile. The essential difference between Munich in 1923 and Charlottesville in 2017 is that we resisted — forcefully and vocally — in solidarity. And we will resist again and again.
Todd Samuel Presner is professor of Germanic languages and comparative literature at UCLA and the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director at the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies.