Drawing Lessons for Today from Hitler's Rise

Revolution #029, January 8, 2006, posted at revcom.us

"People look at all of this and think of Hitler, and they are right to do so. The Bush regime is setting out to radically remake the world, in a fascist way, and for generations to come."

From the Call for The World Can't Wait - Drive Out the Bush Regime

"The Bush Administration is the most dangerous force that has ever existed. It is more dangerous than Nazi Germany because of the range and depth of its activities and its intentions worldwide. I give my full support to the Call to Drive Out the Bush Regime."

Harold Pinter, Nobel Laureate of Literature

Each time people attempt to draw lessons for today from the rise of Nazi Germany, hysterical pundits and politicians break into a chorus of condemnations. When Congressman Dick Durbin suggested that the accounts of Guantanamo could easily have been describing Nazi prisons, he was forced to tearfully apologize on the floor of the Congress. And not long ago, when The World Can't Wait Drive Out the Bush Regime ran a paid full-page ad in the New York Times, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly blew a gasket and argued that the Times should have refused the ad because it included this comparison.

Even among those who hate the Bush regime, many feel that making this comparison is too extreme.

But the question must be asked, is it true? Are there similarities that merit recognition? How did a nation of millions come to widely embrace and otherwise go along with Hitler's openly genocidal, brutally misogynistic, virulently racist, hatefully anti-gay regime?


It is easy to look back today and believe that the Nazis were a unique evil without parallel. But during their rise it was very controversial for people to correctly identify the direction and the logic of society as it became dominated by the Nazis, a once-fringe group of extremists. Even after the first nationwide action where Nazi Brownshirts were posted at Jewish businesses, it was still the case that, in the words of one observer, "the majority of the people on the street were inclined to treat the matter as more or less of a joke."

And despite the Nazis increasing dominance over society and their long history of fierce anti-communism and anti-Semitism, when the escalation of terror would taper off for a while people would tell themselves that the worst was over. For instance, while 60,000 Jews left Germany during 1933 and 1934, by mid-1935 10,000 of them returned. All the way to the gates of the death camps, people took false comfort in the assumption that such things "could never happen here."

People also told themselves that the traditions of a nation that had given the world Beethoven, Kant, and Marx, could never do such a thing. They told themselves that the real powers in Germany were merely using Hitler and would never let him do anything really destructive.

While the Nazis certainly didn't harbor any moral qualms with it, they did not actually start out with a plan for mass extermination of Jews. Their first years of terror were aimed at annihilating the communists (whom they correctly saw as a political threat) and other political dissidents and at forcing Jews out of public life. It was not until 1941, eight years after Hitler became Chancellor, and after Hitler launched WWII, that the Nazis began systematically killing prisoners and Jews. It wasn't until January 1942 that the "Final Solution" was discussed by the Nazis at the Wannsee Conference and another six months before the gas chambers were in operation that took the lives of millions. Still, the logic and moral justification for such a program was discernible even in the early days.

Today, as in Nazi Germany, when political rhetoric is extreme and even barbaric, this is not a reason to dismiss it but to take it on all the more seriously, especially when it is gaining influence.


When he was still a marginal figure, Hitler would openly rant about his desire to kill Jews and to "purify the German Volk." But when he became Chancellor he was acutely aware that this would alienate many. So he retooled his public image, dropping almost all references to race and instead focusing on the cause of uplifting the German people and defending them against all enemies.

The vicious anti-communism and anti-Semitism continued throughout Hitler's Party, but Hitler was seen by millions as much more reasonable and moderate! When Hitler orchestrated the first boycott against Jews he projected it as a defensive action, taken to stop an international Jewish campaign against German products and the Nazi regime.

By creating a false sense of victimhood, Hitler was able to put his political opponents on the defensive and confer a sense of selfless bravery on his Nazi thugs who fought forcefully, often cruelly, to impose absolute Nazi authority.


Nazi Germany is known for its brutal Brownshirts and its virulent anti-Semitism. But while these were integral to the establishment of the Third Reich and in gluing together the base of the Nazi Party, there was another dynamic at play which helped secure the active support or tacit compliance of millions more.

In The Nazi Conscience, Claudia Koonz describes: "A fateful pattern was established: after devastating physical violence against Jews, the regime curbed unsanctioned racial attacks and in their place enacted anti-Semitic laws. Many victims and bystanders failed to appreciate the threat of these bureaucratic strategies that in the long run proved far more lethal than sporadic attacks."

The worst crimes committed by the Nazis came when they changed the laws and when Hitler grabbed unrestrained power unto himself. This legality and the sense of order it provided imbued the Nazis use of force with legitimacy, and disarmed many who otherwise would have objected. But ease of mind was the last thing that any moral person should have found in the tightening grip of the Nazis repressive laws.

Today, just as in Nazi Germany, the restructuring of laws and institutions should provoke more alarm, more resistance, and fiercer opposition because it is these structural changes that are the most absolute and which could take the greatest toll.


There is also little understanding about the resistance that was waged against the Nazis. It was neither the case that no one objected, nor was it the case that the Nazis were just too powerful and that their victory was inevitable.

During his rise, Hitler and his regime were filled with vulnerability. Large sections of people were turned off by his hateful rhetoric and aggressive tactics. Many thousands poured into the streets to protest and object. But, too many people either waited too long to resist or confined their objections to the effect of the Nazis only in one sphere of society.

Martin Niemöller was a pastor who originally enthusiastically supported Hitler. Besides his unconscionable support for Hitler, Niemöller made a second major error. When he did finally oppose Hitler, he restricted it to trying only to prevent the Nazis from interfering with his church. The idea that any arena of society could be protected from Nazi influence without driving out the whole Nazi regime proved false.

After eight years in Nazi prisons and camps, Niemöller spoke around the world, teaching the lessons he had learned. He is famous, in part, for this poem: "First they came for the communists, but I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the Jews, but I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, but I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, but I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then, they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."

This poem explains the situation that prevailed by 1943, when a brave student resistance arose called The White Rose. Though they were heroic, these students were up against a regime that had consolidated its fascist state apparatus. And such a chill had set in throughout society that their movement couldn't take hold on a scale large enough to challenge the Nazis. Tragically, the leaders of the White Rose were hunted down and killed.

It is urgent that we deepen our understanding of what allowed the nightmare of Nazi Germany to destroy so much and so many. There are parallels to the situation we face in the U.S. today. And there are invaluable lessons we must draw and act upon that can shape the future for hundreds of millions worldwide.

The point is not that Bush is exactly the same as Hitler in some arbitrary or mechanical sense. Nor is the point that Bush and his program today are the same as Hitler and his Nazis in their most gruesome end years.

No. As it says in the Call for The World Cant Wait Drive Out the Bush Regime, "The point is this: history is full of examples where people who had right on their side fought against tremendous odds and were victorious. And it is also full of examples of people passively hoping to wait it out, only to get swallowed up by a horror beyond what they ever imagined. The future is unwritten. Which one we get is up to us."

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