It’s not 1933 and Trump is not Hitler but there are striking social, political and economic parallels between America today and Germany in 1920s and 1930s – similarities that may provide insight into what kind of mandate the American electorate will give the president-elect.
When the National Socialists came to power during the German elections of 1933, they did so in the aftermath of a crippling economic crisis, riding a wave nationalism, and using racially charged rhetoric to scare the middle class into supporting its agenda. If we look beyond the Internet memes and doomsday predictions, there are still valuable insights to be gained by comparing the social, economic and political circumstances of America today and those of Germany during the post-armistice years.
The Weimar effect
In 1919, Germany’s constitutional assembly gathered in the city of Weimar to sign a new constitution that significantly expanded civil liberties, including equal rights for women and provisions protecting the minority groups. And in 1922, less than 15 years before the Nuremberg Laws were passed, the German government appointed Walther Rathenau, a Jew, as its new foreign minister.
This was the dawn of the Weimar Republic, a liberal government in the interwar years that passed fiscal reforms, negotiated trade deals, made important infrastructure investments and presided over a cultural renaissance in the country. It was also a government that would bear the brunt of the blame for stifling war reparations and ongoing economic anxieties after the Great Depression. In conservative corners there was also a sentiment that the country was heading in the wrong direction; that liberal reforms and cultural influences from outside of Germany were not in the nation’s best interest. In a troubling sign of things to come, foreign minister Rathenau was assassinated by a right-wing paramilitary group that threw a grenade into his motorcade as it drove through the streets of Berlin.
In the US today, there has also been a pendulum effect. After eight years of the Obama administration, conservative America has made its displeasure heard. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a protest to years of liberal reforms that included the recognition of same-sex marriage, large government-sponsored programs (Obamacare), new financial regulations, and the signing of international agreements such as the Paris climate treaty and the Iran nuclear deal.
Like the Weimar government, the Obama administration has shouldered the blame for challenges inherited from previous administrations, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of ISIS, anemic economic growth and the national debt. Like Weimar, they were unsuccessful at convincing the electorate that things were actually going in the right direction.
“Some I assume, are good people”
In 1916, in the midst of a brutal conflict, Germany’s Minister of War, initiated a census of all Jewish soldiers and officers in the army. Apparently, some in the military leadership felt that Jewish servicemen were not fully committed to the war effort. In fact, the results of the census, which were never made public, showed the complete opposite – nearly 100,000 Jews had served in the German army, many on the front lines, and around 12,000 gave their lives during the war. Although the results did not confirm the war ministry’s inclinations, the damage of the census was already done and suspicions about Jewish subversion would eventually become a centerpiece of Nazi propaganda.
Flash forward to June 2015. While announcing his candidacy for president, Trump stated that, “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…they’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”.
A few months later, following the deadly shootings in San Bernardino, the candidate proposed, “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. And just one month before election day, Trump said that, “I just hear such reports about Philadelphia…I hear these horror shows, and we have to make sure that this election is not stolen from us and is not taken away from us.”
It’s important to note that the African American population of Philadelphia is over 40 percent.
It would be easy to dismiss these comments as mere campaign rhetoric if they didn’t reflect a general mood of worsening race relations in the US. A recent Pew Research survey found that 61 percent of black Americans and 45 percent of whites say race relations are generally bad. This sentiment is exacerbating generations-old divisions, deepening suspicions between blacks and whites and further dividing the political landscape into “us” and “them”. We may already be seeing the impact. Recently, the FBI reported that hate crimes increased 6 % between 2014 and 2015. Similar crimes towards Muslims have increased 67% during the same period.
On March 5th, 1933, the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) won enough votes in German national elections to form a coalition government. They did so with support from all segments of the electorate, but it was the middle class, whose injured national pride, economic insecurity and fear of communism compelled them to embrace and enthusiastically support the National Socialist revolution.
In his book, ‘The Nazi Seizure of Power’, William Sheridan Allen studied the experience of a single German town between 1922 and 1945. Reflecting on middle class support for the Nazis, he writes: “The depression engendered fear. Businessmen whose enterprises were doing well worried about the general situation in Germany…Only the workers were directly hurt, but the rest of the townspeople, haunted by the tense faces of the unemployed, asked themselves: Am I next?”
In 1930, during the first depression-era elections in Germany, the Nazi party won around 20% of the popular vote – a dramatic increase from its earlier performance. By 1933, the party would attract 43% of the popular vote, enough to form a coalition government with a group of small nationalist parties on the right.
In his study, Allen explains that the support for the Nazi party in the small town of Northeim was in part due to the political divisions that existed between the left and the right: “The middle class was so intent on dealing a blow to the SPD (Germany’s socialist party) that it could not see that the instrument it chose would one day be turned on itself”.
On March 23, 1933, the Nazis coalition was able to use a supermajority of votes to pass the Enabling Act, granting Hitler the power to enact laws without approval from the national assembly (Reichstag).
If we then look at the results of the 2016 US elections, we see that 53% of white, college-educated, male voters supported Trump. Among women in the same group, that number was 45%. This was a middle class revolution. The results are astounding because the American middle class historically chooses stability and order over disruption. However, the shift of the middle class towards more extreme political views is the result of developments that have been brewing for the past 10-15 years. Demographic changes, globalization, social and economic stratification have gradually turned middle class angst into an all-out revolt.
Take household income and wealth for example. As of 2014, the median household income in the US had decreased 4% over the past 15 years. The Great Recession and the collapse of the housing market only strained these households further as they saw their median wealth fall by 28% between 2001 and 2013.
Political gridlock and the inability of legislators to address fundamental issues of economic insecurity has only added fuel to the fire. A 2012 study by the Brookings Institute showed that during the 112th Congress (2011-2012), 71 percent of major issues were left unlegislated. That compares to less than 30 percent unresolved issues 60 years ago.
So is history repeating itself?
The answer is, not yet. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Germany was still a relatively young nation and its democratic institutions had not been fully tested. It had also just experienced a catastrophic period of hyperinflation with a mark-to-dollar exchange rate of around 4.2 trillion marks. Finally, Germany’s security situation after WWI was highly unstable with the loss of territory in the Alsace and Eastern Prussia as well as the occupation of the Ruhr by Belgian and French troops to force reparations. America is still a long ways away from these types of existential threats.
However, economic discontent, racial tensions, and the inability of politicians to make progress on important issues, were and still are a volatile combination. In the case of Germany, these developments led to a political earthquake in favor of an extremist movement, a rapid centralization of power and ultimately the suspension of basic freedoms of press, speech and political opposition. A similar outcome in America is highly unlikely but even the faintest possibility should be enough to make us think about what kind of future we are creating for ourselves.