Teachers are grappling with how to teach about the current Presidential election campaign, especially as the Republican campaign has become increasingly vitriolic and personal. Donald Trump's style is more reminiscent of a right-wing radio shock-jock than of a Presidential candidate and his campaign watches like a reality television show. His supporters plan to vote for him as an expression of their anger, rather than based on any coherent positions. Despite this, I think the best approach to teaching about the election is to help students focus on issues rather than personalities, although personalities as portrayed on television are much more entertaining.
Historical comparisons are also important. Donald Trump is not Adolph Hitler, the United States is not Weimar Germany, and history never exactly repeats itself. But some of the historical parallels between politics in 1920s Germany and the United States today are very disturbing. In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published an allegorical political novel It Can't Happen Here about a rightwing Senator elected president after a populist campaign promoting a return to prosperity, patriotism, and traditional values (Make America Great Again?). Once president he dismantles civil liberties and tries to establish a fascist United States. Maybe it can happen here?
A popular aphorism attributed to philosopher Georg Santayana is "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We may be entering a historical cycle of dangerous forgetfulness with the Donald Trump campaign for the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Trump incites violence against protesters at his campaign rallies and brands undocumented Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists who he wants to throw out of the country.
In 1922, Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party were first emerging as a political force in the German state of Bavaria using anti-Semitism to mobilize mass support. As these headlines and articles from the New York Times show excuses were already being made for Hitler's anti-Semitism and he was receiving support from surprising places including influential Americans.
NEW POPULAR IDOL RISES IN BAVARIA: HITLER CREDITED WITH EXTRAORDINARY POWERS OF SWAYING CROWDS TO HIS WILL, The New York Times, November 21, 1922, pg. 18
"He is credibly credited with being actuated by lofty, unselfish patriotism. He probably does not know himself just what he wants to accomplish. The keynote of his propaganda in speaking and writing is violent anti-Semitism . . . But several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler's anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes. A sophisticated politician credited Hitler with peculiar political cleverness for laying emphasis and over-emphasis on anti-Semitism, saying: "You can't expect the masses to understand or appreciate your finer real aims. You must feed the masses with cruder morsels and ideas like anti-Semitism. It would be politically all wrong to tell them the truth about where you really are leading them."
ANTI-SEMITISM RIFE ALL OVER BAVARIA: KNILLING GOVERNMENT MUCH CONCERNED BY GROWING STRENGTH OF HITLER'S FASCISTI MOVEMENT, The New York Times, November 28, 1922, pg. 23
"Hitler, the Fascisti leader, has been going about preaching his doctrines. He was receiving an ovation from several thousand persons in the streets of the capital . . . This party has become the rallying point for all the disgruntled elements in the State . . . Hitler parades primarily under the anti-Semitic banner, which is attractive to many outside the ranks of his party."
BAVARIAN FASCISTI STAGE MASS DEMONSTRATIONS, WITH 50,000 IN ATTENDANCE, The New York Times, December 2, 1922, pg. 13
HELP FROM AMERICA TO BAVARIAN FASCISTI: MONEY IS BEING SENT, IT IS SAID, BY ANTI-SEMITES OF GERMAN EXTRACTION, The New York Times, December 11, 1922, pg. 3
"American money is helping to finance the Fascisti movement in Bavaria led by Herr Hitler. . . The funds from overseas are declared to be confined to donations by German-American anti-Semites and friends of Bavarian National Socialists . . . Herr Hitler is reported to have given interviews in which he said that his program embraced as essential that large masses of the Jews of Bavaria be taken as hostages in order to influence the international financial and business worlds in favor of Germany. The movement is constantly growing and is declared to be enveloping individuals in all circles of life."
BERLIN HEARS FORD IS BACKING HITLER: BAVARIAN ANTI-SEMITIC CHIEF HAS AMERICAN'S PORTRAIT AND BOOK IN HIS OFFICE, The New York Times, December 20, 1922, pg. 2
"A rumor is current here that Henry Ford, the American automobile manufacturer, is financing Adolph Hitler's nationalist and anti-Semitic movement in Munich . . . Hitler reviewed the so-called Storming Battalion attached to his organization, numbering about 1,000 young men in brand new uniforms and all armed with revolvers and blackjacks, which, however, they carried concealed. Naturally, peaceful citizens ask who paid for all these uniforms and arms . . . The wall beside his desk in Hitler's private office is decorated with a large picture of Henry Ford. In the ante-chamber there is a large table covered with books, nearly all of which are a book written and published by Henry Ford."
This was 1922. A year later Adolph Hitler was arrested and imprisoned for leading an effort to overthrow the state government in Bavaria. In 1925 Hitler and the Nazi Party published his racist tract Mein Kampf or My Struggle. By 1933 Hitler held power in Germany. World War II started in 1939. Jews were placed in extermination camps and about six million were murdered. World wide, about eighty million people died in Hitler's war.
January 1933: Adolph Hitler appointed Chancellor of Germany
February 1933: Nazis burn the Reichstag, the German parliament building
March 1933: Nazis open Dachau concentration camp
March 1933: Parliament grants Hitler dictatorial powers
April 1933: First non-Aryan decrees
May 1933: Book burning in Berlin
September 1935: Nuremburg Race Laws
January 1937: Jews banned from professions
November 1938: Kristallnacht
September 1939: Germany invades Poland starting World War II
July 1941: Germany begins "Final Solution"
December 1941: Start of mass gassings at Chelmno concentration camp
January 1942: Wannsee Conference formalizes "Final Solution"
May 1942: New York Times first reports on mass killing of Jews
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Nazi Final Solution was responsible for the death of: 6 million Jews, 250,000 people with disabilities, 200,000 Roma (Gypsies), and Thousands of homosexuals. An estimated eighty million people died during World War II, including fifty million civilians.
Again, Donald Trump is not Adolph Hitler, the United States is not Weimar Germany, and history never exactly repeats itself. But some of the historical parallels between politics in 1920s Germany and the United States today are very disturbing.