Expert Weighs in on How Much America Is Like the Third Reich

March 25th 2017

Kyle Fitzpatrick

In these strange times in American politics, a lot of parallels have been drawn to a particularly dark time in world history: the Third Reich, a period from 1933 through 1945 when Germany was under Nazi rule.

It was a devastating period marked by deaths of millions of Jews and other minority groups, coupled with the loss of legal protections.

Many have likened the rise of President Donald Trump and his administration to Adolf Hitler and Nazism.

Some have argued the connection seems hyperbolic at best.

Yet, when figures like Trump suggest creating registries for religious groups and sign executive orders that ban certain people from entering the country, it’s hard to not wonder if America is indeed gliding off path.

To understand the ramifications of the Trump administration’s actions — and to address the burgeoning debate — ATTN: spoke with Sir Richard J. Evans about the subject. Sir Evans is the President of Wolfson College, Cambridge and is a noted historian of modern Europe. He has also written several publications about the Third Reich.

ATTN: To start, do you think the current state of America is truly similar to the origin of the Third Reich?

SRE: No, history doesn't repeat itself. Nazism came to power in the wake of World War I, which brutalized politics, and brought mass violence onto the streets of Germany's towns and cities.

Trump doesn't have thousands of stormtroopers rampaging across America beating up and killing his opponents. It's a waste of time looking for historical parallels. What we need to ask is: is democracy under threat? And if it is, how can this threat be countered? Lessons from the 1930s might be useful here.

ATTN: Programs — like Trump's VOICE initiative — have drawn comparisons to how the Nazis painted the Jewish population as criminals. How dangerous are these equivalencies?

SRE: It's certainly true that the Nazis propagated all kinds of lies about Jewish criminality. One can find similar falsehoods about immigrants in many countries, however. We need to present accurate material about the criminality of different groups in society, not just isolate one of them.

For a European like myself, the most striking aspect of crime in America is the 40,000 people killed by firearms each year. More people are killed in the USA by toddlers and young children wielding guns than are killed by terrorists.

ATTN: What do you make of the uncomfortable closeness Trump has with White Supremacist groups and his inability to renounce them?

SRE: This is part of the reason why Trump was elected: a large number of his voters were white working-class and lower-middle-class Americans who were concerned about what they saw as the growing numbers and influence of minorities.

ATTN: Trump and his team have made a habit of attempting to delegitimize venerated institutions. From judges to press outlets to scientific organizations, no one seems to be immune. Why is this troubling?

SRE: This is the most worrying aspect of the Trump Presidency so far. The courts, the media and the Democrats and even the Republican Party have come under fire from him. These institutions are all guarantors of our fundamental rights and freedoms. In the U.S. these [institutions] are supported by the Constitution, and Trump's ignorance of the Constitution, for example its outlawing of religious discrimination, is disturbing.

We need to defend these institutions if democracy is to be preserved and our leaders held accountable for their actions. Just as concerning is his ignorance of scientific fact. His refusal to accept verified and indisputable scientific evidence for global warming caused by human activity is imperilling us all.

Finally his threatened withdrawal of funding for the arts and for academic research threatens to make America a culturally impoverished society.

ATTN: To this, what do you make of Trump targeting specific entities on Twitter?

SRE: Trump seems to shoot from the hip in his use of social media. The allegation that Obama was engaged in surveillance of Trump Tower using a British intelligence agency (GCHQ), a complete fabrication, is a case in point; it is endangering hitherto good relations between our two countries.

It would be better if he stopped using Twitter altogether. It's his thoughtless tweeting that more than anything else is giving him a bad reputation across the world.

ATTN: What about his spreading false information on Twitter?

SRE: His sloganizing about 'FAKE NEWS' is all too reminiscent of the lies and inventions of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

ATTN: What do you make of Trump and his associates suggesting that they are being victimized? Is this a tactic to curry support, favor, or sympathy?

SRE: I can't believe the most powerful man in the world is being victimized.

ATTN: What differences do you see between Donald Trump (or a Steve Bannon) and Adolf Hitler? Is there a pattern of behavior that is problematic — or helpful for the resistance — that you see?

SRE: There are echoes of the collapse of German democracy in 1933, certainly. But it is not helpful to draw parallels. Hitler for example prepared everything he said very carefully and never spoke off the cuff. Trump's undoubted contempt for American democracy has to be tackled on its own terms.

ATTN: What is the "point of no return" for us? At what point would the writing be on the wall that very bad things are coming?

SRE: I would say democracy and the Constitution should be defended at every stage. If you start waiting for a point of no return, it will have come and gone before you even notice.

It is possible for example that Trump will find some way of silencing his critics, for example (as he has threatened) finding someone to buy up the “New York Times” and “Washington Post” and turning them into his mouthpieces. Or he may impose regulations that override the courts and suspend civil liberties if there is a major terrorist attack. We can see this has already happened in Turkey.

We have to hope it doesn't happen in the US.

ATTN: How do individuals and groups stand up to this? What could have been done in the Third Reich to have prevented what came to pass?

SRE: We can't rewrite history. The opposition in Germany in 1933 was bitterly divided between Communists and Social Democrats. So one lesson is for the opposition in the USA to be united. I think legal and constitutional institutions are stronger in the US than they were in Germany in 1933.

I hope they will stand up to any pressure that may be exerted on them.