The Right Wing

What Will a Trump Presidency Look Like? The Rise of the Nazis Is a Pretty Good Guide

Milton Mayer's book presents an upsettingly familiar formula to fascism and explains how It could happen here, too.

Photo Credit: Darron Birgenheier / Flickr

Editor's Note: This essay is adapted from Thom Hartmann's review of They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer.

After watching the rise of Donald Trump and the inevitable protests against his hateful rhetoric, many of us can't help but recall the warnings we've read and heard from those who knew from personal experience what such an authoritarian could do to a great nation.

They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-'45 is an intensely personal book for me. Although I was born after Hitler was five years dead, the horrible dance between fascism and democracy has fascinated me since childhood. Through a series of odd coincidences, my adult life has been heavily intertwined with those of both Hitler's Nazis and their victims.

I've had several close friends who lost family members in the Holocaust. I've spent a lot of time in Israel, sobbed at Yad Vashem, and my wife Louise and I played a role when two of our closest friends, Hal and Shelley Cohen, started Orr Shalom, which is now one of the largest Jewish (and non-Jewish) programs for abused children in Israel. Before I learned English I was speaking Yiddish, learned from our Holocaust-survivor neighbors in Detroit who cared for me when my parents worked, and today I can recite Hebrew prayers and speak German with accents and inflections more characteristic of a first than a second language.

On the other side of the coin, I think back to the days I spent with an old and dear friend, Armin Lehmann, who is no longer alive to witness the rise of Donald Trump and speak out. At the age of 16, Armin was the Hitler Youth courier who handed to Adolf Hitler the papers that caused Hitler to commit suicide two days later. Armin was there when the suicide happened. He was there when Joseph and Magda Goebbels poisoned their six children and then committed suicide. He watched it all. If you see the movie Downfall, you'll see a teenage actor depicting my friend Armin.

Armin and I first met in 1984 when we were paired up by a marketing/training company to lecture in Amsterdam (and later, many other cities) to teach advertising, marketing and communications for American Express and KLM. I had no idea he had been Hitler's last courier, or that he would later write a book titled In Hitler's Bunker: A Boy Soldier's Eyewitness Account of the Fuhrer's Last Days. We were friends for 15 years before he told me of his experiences. Throughout those years, I knew him only as a tireless campaigner for peace, and until his death, the man behind a peace-themed website.

Armin's revelation about his past came when an old friend and I set out to write a book about the religion — the cult — of the Nazis. Scott Berg and I traveled across Europe, interviewing people. We snuck into and photographed the altar in an old castle where Hitler initiated his inner circle, near an SS cemetery where every week fresh-cut flowers appear and the tombstones are regularly polished to a high gloss. We infiltrated a meeting of aging SS members, complete with black candles and wreaths hung from the ceiling, near Wewelsburg, a city in Germany that Hitler intended to turn into his Vatican for his Thousand Years of Peace.

On our way into the meeting, we passed a house decorated with ancient runes and human skulls. When discovered, we fled, fearing for our lives. (Scott and I ended up not finishing the book after several unsettling and threatening experiences. I decided it would be less dangerous and more productive to write a book about the Kennedy assassination.)

Years before that (1978), I'd met a former Nazi who so impressed me with his commitment to peace and his deep spirituality (much learned from his Hasidic mentor, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust) that I wrote a book about him, titled The Prophet's Way. (It's also available in German.) In the years I lived in Germany (1986–'87), I met at least two dozen elderly Germans who hated Hitler, who still loved Hitler, and every shade in between.

I include all this personal and historical/reference information with this review of Milton Mayer's book in hopes of establishing enough credibility in your mind to make a simple statement: It could happen here, too.

This was also Mayer's great fear and great fascination, after he got to know real Nazis. An American Jew of German ancestry and a brilliant reporter, Mayer went to Germany seven years after Hitler's fall and befriended 10 "ordinary guy" Nazis. His book is, in large part, his story of that experience. Intertwined through it, written in 1955, are repeated overt and subtle warnings to future generations of Americans: us, today.

Mayer opens the book by noting that he was prepared to hate the Nazis he would meet. But he discovered they were just as human as the rest of us:

I liked them. I couldn't help it. Again and again, as I sat or walked with one or another of my ten [Nazi] friends, I was overcome by the same sensation that had got in the way of my newspaper reporting in Chicago years before [in the 1930s]. I liked Al Capone. I liked the way he treated his mother. He treated her better than I treated mine.

He wrote about how if he were to die that night, at least he could look back on some good he had done. But his Nazi friends would never be able to die in peace, knowing the evil they had participated in, if even by acts of omission, could never be wiped clean. And he dreaded that Americans would feel the same for the acts we might one day commit as a nation:

Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany — not by attack from without or by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler. It was what most Germans wanted — or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.

I came home a little bit afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under combined pressure of reality and illusion. I felt — and feel — that it was not German Man that I met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.

If I — and my countrymen — ever succumbed to that concatenation of conditions, no Constitution, no laws, no police, and certainly no army would be able to protect us from harm.

Among Mayer's stories are some of the most telling aspects of how the Nazis came to take over Germany (and much of Europe). Mayer told how one of his friends said:

To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it — please try to believe me — unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop.

Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained, or on occasion, "regretted," that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these "little measures" that no "patriotic German" could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

In this conversation, Mayer's friend suggests he wasn't making an excuse for not resisting the rise of the fascists, simply pointing out an indisputable reality. This, he suggests, is how fascism takes over a nation:

"Pastor Niemoller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing: and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something — but then it was too late."

"Yes," I said.

"You see," my colleague went on, "one doesn't see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don't want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don't want to 'go out of your way to make trouble.' Why not? — Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.

"Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, everyone is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there will be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this. In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, 'It's not so bad' or 'You're seeing things' or 'You're an alarmist.'

"And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can't prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don't know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. …

"But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That's the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and the smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked — if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in '43 had come immediately after the 'German Firm' stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in '33. But of course this isn't the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

"And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you.

"The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying 'Jew swine,' collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in — your nation, your people — is not the world you were in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays.

But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God.

Mayer's friend pointed out the terrible challenge faced then by average Germans, and today by people across the world, as governments are taken over by authoritarian, corporatist, fascist regimes.

"How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men?" Mayer's friend asked rhetorically. And without the benefit of a previous and recent and well-remembered fascistic regime to refer to, he had to candidly answer: "Frankly, I do not know."

This was the great problem that Mayer's Nazis and so many in their day faced.

As Mayer's Nazi friend noted:

I do not see, even now [how we could have stopped it]. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice — "Resist the beginnings" and "Consider the end." But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men?"

And here we are.

Hundreds of hours a day of right-wing programming pour out of television and radio stations nationwide, and conservative extremists (and their politician puppets) are the most common guests and experts on network news and weekend political TV shows. It was a set-up that was perfect for a fascist like Trump, and he is not the first one to employ this formula to rise in power.

As you can see, the formula is indeed simple. Identify real problems within a society, such as crime, poverty and unemployment. Invent a conspiracy about who is responsible for these problems. Say it is led by a specific group (Muslims, immigrants, liberals), and hyperinflate a few anecdotes to make that conspiracy seem vast and powerful.

Say they are trying to destroy the nation by weakening its defenses and corrupting its morals, thus causing the economic pains felt by the average person. Rally the people behind you in self-defense to restore military strength and moral clarity, and to empower great wealth and corporations to "create jobs again." Or you can boil it all down simply by promising to make the country "great again."

As Leo Strauss, the mentor of the neoconservatives currently controlling much of Washington, pointed out, it's not even necessary that the so-called enemies of the nation really be enemies. The myth of national victimhood, when wrapped in the language of morality, will elevate a politician to power just as surely as true national victimhood.

It was the formula Hitler used, and as Trump has proven, it still works today. It is, in fact, the most consistently reliable way for demagogues to gain power. It works because it's gradual but relentless, and progressively absorbs — and then intimidates or co-opts — both government and the media.

Thus, Donald Trump dominates the media, wall-to-wall, and even if he goes away from our political infotainment world any day soon, the genie is out of the bottle.

Even many of the so-called liberal news networks perpetuate those extremist views by failing to denounce the hateful smears against Muslims and African Americans and Mexicans and women. Former MSNBC producer Jeff Cohen told me (and wrote in his book Cable News Confidential) that he was ordered by the network always to have at least two conservatives on the Donahue show whenever one liberal appeared, "and three conservatives to Michael Moore."

It seems like not much has changed on that network, perhaps because it's profitable (as Les Moonves revealed about CBS last week), or perhaps it's because, like the average Germans of the 1930s, they do not want to stand up to an authoritarian fascist all on their own.

In 2005, Attorney General Gonzales called the Geneva Conventions "quaint" (as Trump suggests now); Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld stood accused of ordering torture (Trump wants more!); Bush and Cheney knowingly lied to us and the world in order to lead an election-year preemptive war (Trump suggests a few more wars); and Congress reauthorized the original PATRIOT Act which, itself, had been passed in 2001 without Congress reading it, eerily like the German Parliament passed the Enabling Acts after the Reichstag was burned.

Despite all of the warnings, we have not stood together as a people and reversed this slide into authoritarianism.

So how do we counter it? As Mayer so movingly narrated, the experience of 20th-century Europe demonstrates that those abusing power must be confronted with equally vigorous power.

In the 1930s, Germans who believed in republican democracy were overwhelmed before they realized how completely their civil liberties and national institutions had been seized. We must not allow it to happen in our nation. Read They Thought They Were Free and awaken as many as you can.

Thom Hartmann is an author and nationally syndicated daily talk show host. His newest book is "The Crash of 2016: The Plot to Destroy America — and What We Can Do to Stop It."

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