Reading About Hitler Makes Me Think of Someone Else

I’m about halfway through Hitler: Ascent 1889 – 1939 by the German historian Volker Ullrich. It’s 1932 and Hitler is on the verge of becoming the German chancellor. I’ve learned a lot about Hitler’s rise to power. At the same time, I can’t stop noticing similarities between Hitler and our president.

I wish I’d been taking notes all along, so I could be specific, but it’s hard not to be reminded of the president when reading about Hitler’s lies, exaggerations, insecurities, misconceptions, exorbitant promises and celebration of violence. There’s his successful use of the media, his ability to excite a crowd of admirers, his reliance on certain emotional catchphrases, his need for total loyalty, the way he pits his underlings against each other and, of course, his targeting of scapegoats to explain all of the world’s ills.

There is also the reaction of some contemporary observers to the possibility that a man like him might rule the nation. Paul von Hindenburg, a military commander in World War I, had been the German chancellor since 1925. He was 84 and ill when he agreed to seek the office again in 1932, partly because he was thought to be the only candidate who could beat Hitler. The left-wing Social Democrats didn’t even nominate a candidate. They threw their support to Hindenburg, even though Hindenburg was a right-winger, because they were so afraid of the alternative. From the Social Democratic Party’s newspaper:

Hitler in place of Hindenburg means chaos and panic in Germany and the whole of Europe, an extreme worsening of the economic crisis and of unemployment, and the most acute danger of bloodshed within our own people and abroad. Hitler in place of Hindenburg means the triumph of the reactionary part of the bourgeoisie over the progressive middle classes and the working class, the destruction of all civil liberties, of the press and of political, union and cultural organizations, increased exploitation and wage slavery.

The declaration ended with: “Defeat Hitler! Vote for Hindenburg!”

A journalist noted: 

What a bizarre country. Hindenburg as the pet of the pro-democracy camp. Years ago when I heard of his election … I threw up out of fear and horror. Today, in the face of the fascist threat, a democrat has to anxiously hope for Hindenburg’s re-election.

The Nazis attacked Hindenburg on the basis that leftists were supporting his candidacy (“Tell me who praises you and I’ll tell you who you are!”), as if the leftists truly admired Hindenburg and weren’t supporting him simply as the lesser of two evils. A leader of the Social Democrats responded: 

If there is one thing we admire about National Socialism, it’s the fact that it has succeeded, for the first time in German politics, in the complete mobilization of human stupidity.

That reminds me of the present moment too.