Expert on Nazi Germany Explains How 'Average' Citizens Enabled Hitler — Just Like Trump: 'Ordinary People Will Do Horrible Things'

Historian Richard Frankel, an expert on Nazi Germany, says history doesn’t have to repeat itself — if we stop it.

Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump

President Donald Trump is a symptom of a much larger problem. New research suggests that Trump's supporters are so motivated by racism and bigotry that they may willing to overturn American democracy so that white Christians like themselves can maintain continued power over our society.

Ultimately, history teaches many lessons. The question then becomes whether we are willing to learn them. How is Donald Trump similar to, or different from, authoritarians and fascists such as Adolf Hitler? In what ways are "regular people" and Trump's "average" supporters implicated and responsible for his assault on democracy and campaign of cruelty? To what extend does the cruelty of Trump and his enablers toward immigrant children and other groups channel the evils of the Nazi regime? Do individuals working together have a chance to slow down Donald Trump and the Republican Party's assault on American democracy?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Richard Frankel, a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the author of "Bismarck’s Shadow: The Cult of Leadership and the Transformation of the German Right, 1898-1945." Frankel's work has also been featured in Newsweek and he frequently appears on the History News Network.

Donald Trump is waging a literal crusade against the American people and American democracy. But in these two years there have been few large national protests, economic strikes or other types of nationwide civil disobedience. It is all very disheartening. Are people just numb and tired? Have they surrendered?

There was the Women's March, which was just remarkable and incredibly inspiring. But overall I sense that with one thing constantly following the other, how do people decide what to protest? Of course at certain moments in our history protests are more common than at other times but getting out in the streets is not as big a part of our political culture as it is elsewhere.

With Trump we also keep coming back to the question, "How is this happening? What can we do about it?"

Looking at Trump and his supporters' authoritarian views and apparent disdain for normal politics and democracy, it does not seem that this situation will end well. 

I do think there's certainly a very strong possibility that it's not going to end well -- and that's from the perspective of a German historian. And as a historian, my natural tendency is to always try to stop people from invoking Hitler. In most cases it was not appropriate to make such a comparison. But now, with Trump, my resistance and that of other historians to making that comparison is being overcome.

But there is an important qualifier: History doesn't have to repeat. It doesn't have to look exactly like what happened before. It won't. But if we wait for Trump and this moment to fully become like Hitler and the Nazis, and that is the point at which you start to act, then it is already too late. The unfortunate aspect is that if you set the bar so high in terms of outrage and horror then people all too often let things continue when they could have been stopped earlier. Once it gets to that point it's way too late.

Where I see things going right now with Donald Trump is that if he is not stopped the result will be some form of authoritarian, racially exclusionary democracy. My focus is much less on a particular system, whether he's a fascist or not. It's much more the question of exclusion. Trump and his allies are trying to create a kind of white, Christian, male-dominated national community for their followers. He's drawing the boundaries around that community and excluding all those groups that don't fit in, whether it's the handicapped, immigrants, Muslims, Jews or other groups. Those Americans and others who are not part of Trump's imagined community will be second-class citizens and will have their rights restricted.

Trump's rise is a white backlash against Barack Obama and the perception that the United States is going to be a "majority minority" country. No modern democracy has survived a transition where the majority ethnic or racial group surrendered power. Trump's voters are rejecting multiracial democracy and cosmopolitan values. Most of the American news media is unwilling to state these facts.

Part of the problem is also a belief that progress is natural and that it moves in the direction of more freedom and more democracy. It happened slowly in this country. But there is nothing inherited or natural about it. Progress can just as easily slip back. As you pointed out, civil rights for African-Americans -- it's only been about 50 years.

If you look at the situation in Germany for Jews, they were technically emancipated in 1871. So when you look at how they had those rights taken from them over a couple of years after 1933, you're talking about 60 years [later]. Things are getting better: Jews are getting more and more rights, Jews are getting more opportunities. more doors are open. Afterwards it got even better for the Jews in Germany, despite the fact that anti-Semitism was on the rise in the 1920s. And yet those rights were taken away.

So you can't get too comfortable. That's one of the things I think people don't necessarily appreciate. It's comforting to think that things always work out for the better over time. Maybe in the very long run that happens, but there are these steps backward, as we are seeing with Donald Trump. We have to fight to keep our democracy, our rights and our freedoms.

Part of this denial by many people about the dangers that Donald Trump and his authoritarian fascist movement represent is also a function of the myth of American exceptionalism.

That is a fundamental part of nationalism. If you're a nationalist, you believe your group is special and somehow superior. This means not acknowledging your country's wrongdoing. It means forgetting and playing dumb. Nationalism also means explaining away all the horrible things your country has done that are very similar to the horrible things that all countries have done.

But if you're a nationalist, you can't really acknowledge such things. So when people point them out, you take offense. They're attacking your identity by saying you are not special. And this is why academic history is not popular in certain respects.

Which is why piss-poor fantasy history from the likes of Bill O'Reilly is so popular.

A historian's job is not to make people feel good about themselves. You might write a particular history that has a story to it and it may make people feel good, but that's not the point. Our history will read like the history of Britain and the history of France and the history of Germany and Russia. Countries that have had empires, that have suppressed people and committed unspeakable acts of violence. That's the reality. Should it make you feel bad? It should make you aware of the dangers and want to prevent such things from happening in the future.

What do we know about Hitler's rank-and-file supporters, those everyday "good Germans" who either actively or tacitly supported him? Once Trump is gone there will need to be a national reckoning about all of those people, who history may remember contemptuously as "good Americans."

Of course Hitler was not elected chancellor before he came to take full control and power. The most he had was 37 percent of the vote in a multiparty system, which means about two-thirds of the country didn't want a Nazi dictatorship. At the same time, if you take all of the people who voted for the Nazis, the Communists and the German nationalists, a significant majority of Germans voted for some kind of dictatorship.

They were certainly not voting for democracy anymore. That was finished. And so the notion that the end of democracy under Hitler came as some kind of surprise to Germany is partly false because most of them didn't want democracy anymore. They were looking for something else. They did not want a Hitler dictatorship, but some kind of authoritarian system was going to happen. It should also be clear that those people who followed Hitler or voted for him did so for different reasons. They were not all vicious anti-Semites. Some voted for him for economic reasons, some voted for him for nationalistic reasons, some voted as a protest. The frightening part, of course, is all those people weren't bothered enough by Hitler's anti-Semitism to not vote for him.

Just like in this country with Donald Trump.

Exactly. I can't say that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist. But there was no secret to his beliefs, just as there was no secret to Hitler's. So if you voted for him for some other reason, obviously, again, you were not bothered enough by Trump's racism to prevent you from voting for him. So there's a certain tolerance and acceptance of racism among Trump's voters and supporters.

Hitler became more popular as time went on, because he succeeded in doing things that people wanted. The economy improved -- not necessarily because of his policies, but it did improve. He started to take apart the Treaty of Versailles, which was enormously unpopular, and until 1939 he did it peacefully, which is what most Germans wanted. So the more success he had, the more Hitler was able to win people over. This included people who hadn't voted for him before.

Eventually, during the war, when Hitler's successes became enormous, even people who had opposed him at one point or another started to back him. So Hitler was popular, really, throughout the regime. It's quite remarkable. More so than the party itself and more so than any number of institutions in the party. So it's hard to say, in terms of "good Germans," who they were, because of course it was very difficult to express oneself. You don't know if your neighbor is flying a Nazi flag because they have to or because they really believe it.

I do believe, generally speaking, that most Germans were supportive of Hitler. And like what is happening in the U.S. with Trump and immigrants and Muslims and other groups, Hitler was tremendously successful at marginalizing the Jews.

Jews were Germans and many people saw them as such. And in almost six years: pushing them to the margins, removing their rights, removing their citizenship and removing them from the national community, so that by the time of the war what happened to them was much less of a concern to ordinary Germans. If you don't want to ask about what's happening to Jews, you don't have to.

For example, if you aren't necessarily totally anti-Semitic yourself, but there's an auction for Jewish property after the Jews have been deported and now you've got a nice living room table and chairs. You know on the one hand that's a terrible thing. You have just gained at the expense of someone who may have likely died as a result. And so to assuage that, you think to yourself, "They must have done something to deserve this. Innocent people can't get deported."

Continuing the parallels with Trump, there is the common argument that Hitler was viewed as being a fool or an idiotic cartoon character by most Germans, especially elites, even while he and the Nazis were taking over the country. Is this correct?

Certainly earlier on he was seen that way. Outside of a very small circle of extreme nationalists Hitler was not taken seriously at all. German politics until the end of the First World War was still very much a kind of elitist enterprise. The notion that someone like Hitler, who was really a nobody, could play any kind of leadership role was laughable to most middle-class and upper-class Germans. This was true even in the early 1930s as he became a powerful national figure.

The business elites, military officers and some aristocrats who helped him win power did so because they firmly expected to be able to manipulate him. "Who is this guy? We are the natural rulers, and this person has no political experience whatsoever. He has never won an election, he has never held any elected office. We are going to use his popular support for our purposes."

I think there was also a certain degree of belief that after Hitler became chancellor he wasn’t going to last. He was the third chancellor in two years. Things were very unstable. Hitler had no experience, so the idea that he was going to succeed where all these other seasoned politicians and experienced people had failed before led a lot of people -- Jews included -- to take a "wait and see" approach.

As a historian of Germany, what were your thoughts when you first heard about Trump's concentration camps for immigrants, refugees and migrants? Especially the children who are put in very Nazi-sounding "tender care" baby prisons? 

Trump and other Republicans and Trump-supporting conservatives en masse only care about people who are in their group. Therefore, if you make fun of Ivanka Trump you are going to be demonized. But for them, if you make a horrible remark about a disabled child who has been removed from the arms of her mother: "So what?" That person’s mother should never have crossed the border. They are not thinking about that person as a human being. Trump's comments after Charlottesville where he called Nazis and other white supremacists "very fine people" was just another example of this.

With Trump's nationalistic rallies, and all of his language and imagery, he is setting up an environment where violence is possible. No one should be surprised when the violence occurs because we have seen that throughout history. Trump's intentions do not matter.

Once a process of violence and nationalism on a massive scale starts there is very little that can be done by regular people.. For example, the only people who could stop Hitler after a certain point were the Russians, the Americans and the British. Individuals could not do it even though they tried.

How are people socialized into treating other people so badly? In particular, what of Trump's ICE enforcers who are enthusiastically breaking up families and otherwise dehumanizing and abusing nonwhite people?

You are going to have a certain segment of the population who are already ideologically aligned in that way. They are racist and hostile already. They are ready to go. Unfortunately, ICE seems to be an organization that attracts those kinds of people. In any society, whether they are sociopaths or not, such people need to be ideologically motivated. The problem is you need many more people. Hitler could not have followed through on his plans with just the SS. He had to bring in many other people, conscripts, to take direct roles in the killings.

That’s why it is important to inoculate people against such bigotry, racism and hatred ahead of time. Many ordinary people will do horrible things when told to do so by their leaders and government.

What are some things that give you hope? What are some things that scare you and cause you concern and worry?

What gives me hope is the public resistance. I think that awareness is putting some obstacles in Trump's path and has slowed down what otherwise might have been.

The scary part is the enablers and those other people who are in a position to stop Trump or otherwise restrict him but either aren't doing anything or are actually making the situation worse. There are, of course, people in the Republican Party in both houses of Congress who are complete cowards.

Again, Hitler couldn’t do anything without people who helped him ... and those people were not all Nazis.

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Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Follow him on Twitter.