Academics have been busy in the last few years calling out ham-fisted analogies between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler, and the contemporary United States and 1930s Germany. It’s easy to laugh at clumsy historical references, but harder to make informed judgements about the validity or otherwise of these references. In our latest article, Dr Mathew Turner applies his expert knowledge of Weimar Germany to assess how viable these comparisons are.
By Mathew Turner
History is a profession with few occupational hazards, a realisation that first struck me many years ago. Prior to embarking on a 10-month research stay in Germany, I was required to submit a formal document that outlined for my home university any potential safety risks I might face. Since I was heading to one of the safest countries in the world, it was very difficult to find anything to write in the “potential dangers of research environment” part of the form. Indeed, I contemplated whether or not to mention that rifling through thousands of archival documents brought with it the threat of ill-placed staples and paper cuts (to say nothing of my acute dust allergy that may well have pushed the Germans’ world-class health system to the brink had the decades’ old documents caused a flare-up).
Against all odds, I survived. More recently I have come to appreciate that the true threat to an historian of Nazi Germany is not posed by dust, paper, or staples, but something far more sinister: Godwin’s law. This adage, coined by American author Mike Godwin, states that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”. Crucially, this “law” determines that, once invoked on certain discussion threads, the poor soul who mentioned the Nazis or Hitler in their response automatically loses the relevant debate.
The most extreme form of this practice is what political philosopher Leo Strauss termed reductio ad Hitlerum: an association fallacy in which anything that can be connected to Hitler—from the virtues of vegetarianism to the joys of a manicured moustache—is axiomatically devoid of all good, solely because Hitler was a very bad man. You don’t drink alcohol? Well, you know who else was a teetotaler….
Admittedly, the chances of creating a groundswell of support against this injustice—perhaps replete with a catchy hashtag such as #GodwinGoodriddance—are miniscule. For historians of Nazi Germany, however, the invocation of Godwin’s law in an online discussion is the nearest to an actual occupational hazard. The implied loss of an argument simply by drawing on one’s expertise, however sophisticated the manner in which this knowledge is employed, can be a source of genuine frustration. Godwin himself has clarified that his “Law” was intended not to stifle online discussion, but to encourage “meaningful and substantive” comparisons between the matter under discussion and Hitler/Nazism.
This article scrutinises a number of examples in which political commentators and citizens compare Trump to Hitler, and American democracy to the system of democracy that failed in Germany, allowing Hitler to come to power in January 1933. Through a closer examination of historical context, it highlights some of the prevailing historical conditions that led to the collapse of democracy in Weimar Germany, and reflects on the current political situation in the United States.
Indeed, recent events—the state of politics in the United States over the past four years—have encouraged me to view Godwin’s Law in a slightly different light. It will always remain my position that no debate should be wound up purely because a participant makes a poor (and frequently incorrect) historical analogy. Over the last four years, however, political commentators and engaged citizens have compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler with frequent and predictable regularity. Such analogies have been part of attempts to denigrate Trump—to criticise his anti-immigration policies, his reluctance to condemn racially-driven violence, and his trashing of basic democratic processes, for example.
At the time of writing, Joe Biden has been declared the winner of the 2020 US presidential election, while Trump refuses to face electoral reality and concede a dignified defeat. And right on cue, at least one commentator has made a comparison between Trump in his so-called White House “bubble bunker”, and Hitler in his Führerbunker in April 1945.
It is worth devoting some space to debunking the incongruous bunker analogy. Trump’s bunker is (at this stage) merely rhetorical, and depicts a White House in which the possibility of electoral defeat—however decisive and undeniable that defeat might be—cannot be contemplated despite its statistical reality. Hitler’s bunker, by comparison, was no exercise in rhetoric but an actual bunker in which Hitler and his remaining, fanatical entourage spent their final days as millions of Soviet troops encircled Berlin. There is no suggestion (at this stage) that Trump’s stubbornness will extend to a “last stand” in the White House Presidential Emergency Operations Center, and will require his physical removal by Secret Service personnel. But if the last four years are any guide, there is every reason to think that such a “last stand” comparison will be drawn, despite its incongruity.
Admittedly, in trying to understand the current political situation in the United States it may be useful to talk about a “bunker mentality” displayed by both Hitler and Trump—one characterised by paranoia, delusion and megalomania. We live in a digital age, however, in which both experts and idiots have access to the same social media platforms with millions of followers. It has been almost fashionable to bandy around words such as “fascist”, “dictator”, and “socialist” with reference to Trump and Biden. Opponents of Trump have frequently punctuated crass—and incorrect—historical comparisons between Hitler and Trump with the not-so-imaginative hashtag #HitlerTrump. With historical nuance in short supply, there have been very few signs of the “meaningful and substantive” discussion that Godwin hoped his law might cultivate.
This lawlessness, however, has not been restricted to the legion of impertinents who inhabit the Twittersphere—undoubtedly bolstered by Trump’s own prolific use of the platform. Only days out from the first presidential debate in September, Biden himself referred to Trump as being “sort of like [Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef] Goebbels”, both of whom he alleged subscribed to the theory that if “you say the lie [for] long enough, keep repeating it, repeating it, repeating it, it becomes common knowledge”. Within the same interview, Biden compared Trump to other historical figures, characterising the President as “more Castro than Churchill” in the treatment of protestors whom the President had ordered to be removed from the vicinity of the White House.
It is easy to dismiss Biden’s perplexing comments as mere hyperbolic flourish designed to smear a political opponent. Likewise, there are vast numbers of Twitterati who have thoughtlessly conflated Hitler with Trump, Socialism with National Socialism, or German voters in 1930 with American voters in 2020. All could be derided as attention-seeking trolls reaching for what they know will be an impactful, though ill-fitting, comparative example from an infamous time in history.
Yet, even serious attempts by ostensibly well-meaning and highly-educated individuals have revealed how problematic comparisons between Hitler and Trump can become when they rest on a deficient understanding of the complexities of history, and the perils of comparative analysis. For example, only a week ago the president of the World Mental Health Coalition, Bandy X Lee, tweeted the following:
Donald Trump is not an Adolf Hitler. At least Hitler improved the daily life of his followers, had discipline and required more of himself to gain the respect of his followers. Even with the same pathology, there are varying levels of competence.
The tweet caused uproar and it was quickly deleted by Lee, who has also co-authored a book titled The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump in which she assesses Trump’s mental (in)stability. In her defence, Lee claimed that her tweet was by no means intended to praise Hitler. Rather, that while both Hitler and Trump are/were mentally unstable, the former has a greater claim to “competence”.
The contention that Hitler and Trump share the “same pathology” is a fascinating one that Lee is presumably well-credentialed to make as a respected forensic psychiatrist. The issue here is that Lee asserted a number of highly questionable historical conclusions about Hitler in support of her psychiatric evaluation of Trump—and almost everything she wrote about Hitler was inaccurate, misleading, or wrong.
It virtually goes without saying, for example, that life for Germans in the years 1942 to 1945—during which allied bombs laid waste to German cities, incinerating hundreds of thousands of civilians, with defeat and complete destruction looming—hardly amounted to an “improvement” in the daily lives of Germans. Allied bombs, moreover, did not discern between those who were Hitler’s “followers” and those who were not.
If we generously restrict the period of analysis to the six years that passed from Hitler coming to power in January 1933 to his brutal invasion of Poland and the beginning of a European war in September 1939, it is indeed the case that Hitler presided over substantial economic growth and a rapid decline in unemployment.
While historians characteristically disagree on the specifics, there is broad agreement that the German economy of the mid-1930s benefited both from mass infrastructure projects (some of which had already begun courtesy of Hitler’s predecessors in Weimar Germany) and from the rapid rebuilding of the armed forces. That the latter was undertaken from 1936 onwards with the thinly veiled intention of waging a European war, one that Hitler intended would destroy millions of lives, is conspicuously absent from Lee’s praise of Hitler’s alleged competence.
Also missing is the disturbing fact that thousands of Germans found their daily lives were “improved” at the expense of the roughly half a million Germans who in 1933 identified (or were subsequently identified by the Nazis) as Jewish, the escalating persecution of whom eliminated competitors in business, the arts, and the bureaucracy. From September 1941 onwards, the deportation of remaining German Jews to certain death at killing centres in the East “improved” the daily lives of many Germans who occupied vacant homes and stole any remaining possessions. Indeed, it is a fact that Germans immensely benefited materially and financially from the starvation and death that followed Hitler’s plundering of Europe.
I have not even addressed Lee’s dubitable claim that Hitler—the man who rose at around 2pm each day, avoided making critical decisions, loathed the mundanity of cabinet meetings, and preferred to watch films and listen to Wagner while Germany somehow ran itself—“had discipline”. Nor that Hitler—who was forced temporarily to jettison the worst of his antisemitic rhetoric in order to achieve electoral success in the early 1930s—“required more of himself to gain the respect of his followers”. Given the centrality of Hitler’s antisemitism within his world-view, there is a reasonably compelling and contrary argument that to gain the “respect” (or the vote) of Germans, Hitler may well have required not more of himself, but less.
This is a lengthy qualification of Lee’s comments which, to be fair, would be extraordinarily difficult within the confines of a tweet. Such a platform does not lend itself to a full and dispassionate examination of relevant and complex historical contexts, nor to the highlighting of uncertainty and ambiguity that must necessarily form the backbone of any productive historiographical disagreement. Professional historians today could not manage such a feat. And only imagination allows us to envisage how past luminaries—such as Thucydides, Voltaire, and Gibbon—would have baulked at having their thoughts on a complex matter of history limited to a measly 280 characters.
It is very tempting, then, for historians to insist that Twitter and similar social platforms are anathema to the discipline of history and should be appropriately boycotted. Likewise, that commentators such as Lee should frankly stick to what they know within their own fields of recognised expertise and leave history to historians.
It would be a futile act of protest, since—outrageously—it is highly doubtful that such invocations from historians would be heard, let alone heeded. Neither the implied threat of Godwin’s law, nor the reactionary storm of outrage (oftentimes misinformed) that typically follows have curtailed the practice of injecting Hitler analogies into a contemporary debate. Indeed, it is likely that the anticipated strength of this reaction tends to encourage rather than dissuade the practice of false equivalences involving Nazism and reductio ad Hitlerum.
Clearly, historians have more productive ways of spending their time than to challenge every misuse of the past, especially those perpetrated online. Nor do historians have any right to act as gatekeepers in determining who is and is not qualified to make historical comparisons, especially given historians themselves are in no way immune from the misapplication of history. Indeed, it is possible for misfired historical analogies to unintentionally provide a seed for subsequent, fruitful historical discussion.
I am willing to join the chorus of commentary that has to varying degrees sought to compare or equate Hitler, Nazism and Nazi Germany, to Trump, US politics, and the present day United States. My contribution, however, is made with a number of disclaimers that are overwhelmingly and glaringly absent whenever such comparisons are made.
The first being an acknowledgement that history is extraordinarily complex. Reconstructing the past from the fragmentary and incomplete traces of itself is an impossible task, and the result is a necessarily flawed attempt to convey an understanding how and why events took place. Historians must carefully and simultaneously use evidence to support their arguments, while highlighting any ambiguities, uncertainties, and unfillable gaps in knowledge. Historical events are unique to a particular time and place. Owing to the intricacies of historical context, the past is gone and can never be repeated in exactly the same manner at some near or distant time in the future. Any understanding of the past applied to comprehending the present, then, must at least recognise such complexities and be measured in what can reasonably be compared.
Having aired that disclaimer, I will limit my comments to present-day American democracy. The incumbent President has refused to accept the outcome of a lost election, alleged (without evidence other than assertion) widespread voter fraud, the exclusion of Republican observers, and has arguably—though not directly—called into question the integrity of American democracy. Some prominent Republicans, too, have charged Democratic rivals with “rigging” or “stealing” the election outcome. This expressed disquiet at the highest official levels has, in turn, fuelled street protests marked by outrage and marred by acts of vandalism and violence. A common observation has been that the nation has not been this divided since the American Civil War.
If we were to compare the state of politics and democracy in the United States today, with Germany in the early 1930s as it began to lurch towards Nazism, at least superficially there are some commonalities. In both examples we have seen: violence in the streets (sometimes organised) along political lines; the polarisation of political ideologies; the politics of fear and xenophobia; and allegations that democracy is failing.
There is, in my view, strong cause to doubt that the United States will suffer the same self-destructive fate that befell Germany’s fledgling Weimar Republic. A dominant reason for this optimism stems from a deeper understanding of historical context, which reveals two vastly different—if not incomparable—sets of conditions.
Compared to a democracy that has functioned, by and large, since 1776, the Weimar Republic and parliamentary democracy were never fully embraced by Germans. Once faced with an existential threat from two political extremes—Communism and Nazism—German citizens found little will and enthusiasm for its defence.
Unified Germany’s first attempt at democracy was born in 1919 in the aftermath of defeat in the First World War—a conflict that had pushed Germany to the point of total collapse. A devastating loss in a war that cost the lives of over two million German soldiers, another 4.2 million of which were wounded. On the home front, at least 400,000 civilians died in four years of war from the starvation and disease caused by the allied naval blockade.
The immediate post-war years, moreover, offered Germans no respite from the humiliation of defeat. The Treaty of Versailles burdened Germany with a massive reparations bill, even as its terms stripped Germany of the territory, materials and industry needed both to pay the debt, and to recover. The greatest source of shame and cause of lingering resentment for virtually all Germans, however, was the treaty’s “war guilt” clause, which laid all blame for the outbreak of war squarely and solely at the feet of Germany and its allies.
All-out civil war was narrowly avoided from November 1918 to January 1919, as the newly formed German Communist Party backed by the Soviet Union sought to bring about a communist revolution in major cities across Germany. The attempt was ultimately crushed by right-wing paramilitary whose unconcealed contempt for the not yet formally established Weimar Republic was barely outweighed by their hatred of communism.
Once fighting in the streets had ceased, the men who were the elected representatives of the inaugural Weimar government begrudgingly ratified the Treaty of Versailles in July 1919. It was viewed as an unforgiveable—if not treasonous—act, one that laid the foundations of a weakened and vulnerable democracy towards which millions of Germans were hostile from its very beginning.
In its 14 years of existence, Weimar Germany faced a number of existential crises. Failure to pay reparations led to a French and Belgian military occupation of the industrialised Ruhr territory in January 1923, in turn worsening Germany’s already crippled economy. Extraordinary hyperinflation took hold that year, rendered life savings worthless, and by its height in November a single US dollar was valued at 4.2 trillion German marks.
An American bailout in 1924 gave Germany and Weimar democracy some breathing space, and a cultural renaissance took place—the “golden” or “roaring” twenties. Both money and time were borrowed, however. The onset of the Great Depression in October 1929 signalled the end of future credit for German businesses, and Germany became one of the hardest hit countries in Europe.
Unemployment rose sharply, from 1.3 million in mid-1929 to over 6 million by the beginning of 1933. The crisis proved fatal to the Weimar Republic, the leaders of which appeared impotent as the unprecedented economic disaster ravaged Germany. The value that most Germans had slowly but ultimately come to place in parliamentary democracy as a viable and stable form of government withered against a backdrop of economic ruin.
Although Weimar democracy had its critics—many of whom were determined, from the Republic’s inception, to see it destroyed—Germans participated in the electoral process in substantial numbers. Across the eight elections held prior to 1933, an average of 79.3% of eligible German voters cast their ballots. Moreover, the growing hostility towards the Republic and democracy that intensified as the economic crisis took hold did not decrease voter participation. In fact, in the three elections held since October 1929 the average percentage of eligible voter participation was 81.6%. By contrast, voter turnout was the lowest during the “golden” period of 1924 to 1928, in which three elections saw a nonetheless respectable average of 76.2% of eligible voters turn out.
What can be observed, however, is that this measurable jump in German voter participation came at a time of near existential crisis for the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s. Critically, at this time, an increasing number of Germans voted for parties that, at best, were open in their hostility towards the Republic, and for parties on the extreme right and left that—at worst—openly campaigned for the destruction of Weimar democracy as a policy.
Weimar democracy was particularly vulnerable to the extremes of politics, not least owing to its use of proportional representation. The result was a proliferation of smaller political parties, each vying for a share of votes. While this increased voters’ choice, it led to the formation of unstable, multi-party coalition governments. Within a complex political spectrum, the only viable option for a functioning Reichstag was a patchwork coalition of several parties willing to meet in the middle and to find compromises, despite what were at times considerable ideological differences.
It was possible for such a chaotic system to function, but it relied on Germans to support parliamentary democracy, and to defend it from the extreme right and left fringes of Weimar politics—respectively, the National Socialists, and the German Communist Party—determined to destroy it.
Weimar democracy came apart at the seams when Germans began to desert in droves the centrist political parties that held the entire system together. Despite their political differences, these parties had remained stable enough after elections in December 1924 and May 1928—following which they respectively commanded 73.9% and 58.5% of the total vote—and governed during a period of relative stability and illusory prosperity.
The impending economic crisis would, however, test the strength of Germans’ democratic resolve. The warning signs were soon apparent. In September 1930, the first election was held since the onset of the Weltwirtschaftskrise—and some 11 million Germans collectively voted for the Communist Party (4.6 million) or the Nazi Party (6.4 million).
The result was a dramatic improvement in the fortunes of both political movements. The Communist added some 1.3 million extra voters from the previous election in May 1928. For the Nazi Party, however, the additional 5.6 million represented a nearly eight-fold increase in electoral support, and announced the party’s arrival as an influential force in German politics.
The biggest losers in September 1930 were the centrist parties on which the very existence of Weimar democracy relied. Although able to form a governing coalition—one that necessarily included all political parties represented other than the Nazis and the Communists—it barely held together with only 54.6% of the collective vote.
In a period of turmoil economically, and near-anarchy politically, a grand coalition that avoided only the extremes of politics and held a slender majority was all that stood to defend Weimar democracy. And its claims to political legitimacy were tenuous at best.
The condition of the Republic was terminal after the election of July 1932, in which the Nazis increased their vote from 18.3% to 37.3% and became—by a margin of nearly 100 seats over its nearest rival—the largest political party in the Reichstag. The Communist Party also continued to increase support, albeit by far smaller margins (from 13.1% to 14.3%). By this stage, the centrist parties could no longer form government without including either Nazis or Communists—a Faustian pact none were willing to make.
The final (legitimate) election was held in November 1932, the result of which continued the bleed of votes from the centre to the extremes. The Communists increased their vote to 16.9%, while the Nazis actually lost 4.2% of the vote, down to 33.1%. Sensing Hitler’s popularity had peaked, and with a shared loathing of Communism, remaining conservative politicians formed a government with the Nazi Party on 30 January 1933, of which Hitler was appointed Chancellor. He soon made true his promise to annihilate democracy: within six weeks Hitler was to pass the Enabling Act through the Reichstag, granting him absolute authority thereafter.
Weimar parliamentary democracy was dismantled by Hitler and the Nazi Party—but it was arguably German voters who willingly signed its death warrant. Neither the Communists nor the Nazis concealed their intention to tear down democracy—indeed, for both it was a core political platform. This threat did not dissuade Germans from supporting these two polarised extremes. The combined vote of Communist and Nazi parties increased from 14.65% in May 1928 to 53.48% in July 1932. Put differently, by July 1932 a clear majority of German voters chose to support a party that had promised to end democracy.
Clearly, the circumstances that prevailed in Weimar Germany—defeat in a catastrophic war, a flawed model of democracy, a populace unwilling to embrace (and critically, to defend) a democratic system, an existential economic crisis, an acute polarisation of politics to extremes at the left and right, and majority support of extreme parties that promised to dismantle democracy—do not apply to the present-day United States. Weimar was a 14-year old, unpopular democracy that ultimately destroyed itself. Although it must be stressed that at various times in shamefully recent history the right to vote was denied to vast numbers of Americans, democracy in the United States has existed for over 240 years. Throughout this time, it has held together in the face of a divisive and bloody civil war, two world wars, defeat in Vietnam, and various economic crises.
American democracy is not flawless, but it has proven itself to be sufficiently robust to survive the types of events that led to the end of Weimar democracy and the rise of the Nazi party to power.
Whereas Germans needed to be convinced of the value of democracy, for the vast majority of Americans (albeit to varying extents) the right to elected representation is a fundamental part of the story of American freedom. And that cherished right to vote has tended to be accompanied by a resolve to defend democracy from those seeking to weaken or destroy it.
Even Trump, who has asserted all manner of unfounded—and frankly, idiotic—claims of voter fraud and of political opponents “rigging” or “stealing” the election—has not overtly criticised the very concept of democracy. His reluctance to do so may stem less from his own commitment to democratic values than to the backlash he would face from the legion of Americans of all political stripes seeking to protect democracy.
American democracy may well fail at some point. But the likelihood of a Weimar Germany style slide into authoritarianism—via the ballot box—is exceedingly unlikely.