German Leaders Thought Hitler Was Trump

Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine asks why leading Republicans are supporting Trump and finds the answer in 1933:

“Like Hitler, Trump is a radical, authoritarian figure who lies outside the normal parameters of his country’s conservative governing class. Thus, there is a parallel between the two men’s unexpected rise to power that is worth considering: Why would traditional conservatives willingly hand power to a figure so dangerous that he threatened their own political and economic interests? Why, having failed in their halfhearted efforts to nominate an alternative candidate during the primaries, don’t they throw themselves behind a convention coup, a third-party candidacy, or defect outright to Hillary Clinton? Why do so many of them consider Trump the lesser rather than the greater evil?”

“….In January 1933, the Nazi party’s vote share had begun to decline, and its party was undergoing a serious internal crisis, with dues falling, members drifting off, and other leaders questioning Hitler’s direction. A widely shared belief across the political spectrum at the time held that Hitler would not and could not win the chancellorship….”

“Hindenburg and the German right viewed Hitler in strikingly similar terms to how Republican elites view Trump….Alfred Hugenberg, leader of the German-Nationals, deemed the Nazis “little better than a rabble, with dangerously radical social and economic notions…Hindenburg considered Hitler qualified to head the postal ministry at best. Hitler, in their eyes, was not a serious man, unfit to govern, a classless buffoon. His appeal, the German elite believed, came from his outsider status, which allowed him to posture against the political system and make extravagant promises to his followers that would never be tested against reality.”

“All this is to say that German conservatives did not see Hitler as Hitler — they saw Hitler as Trump. And the reasons they devised to overcome their qualms and accept him as the head of state would ring familiar to followers of the 2016 campaign. They believed the responsibility of governing would tame Hitler, and that his beliefs were amorphous and could be shaped by advisers once in office. They respected his populist appeal and believed it could serve their own ends….Their myopic concern with specifics of their policy agenda overcame their general sense of unease….Think of the supply-siders supporting Trump in the hope he can enact major tax cuts, or the social conservatives enthused about his list of potential judges, and you’ll have a picture of the thought process….”

“Whatever norms or bounds that we think limit the damage a president could inflict are likely to be exceeded if that president is Trump. Those Republicans who publicly endorse Trump because he probably won’t win may be making an error on a historic scale.”

The full article is here.

Smarter Works Better Than Tougher – Stairway Postscript

The French phrase “l’esprit de l’escalier” refers to that unpleasant moment when you realize what you should have said. According to the usual source, Denis Diderot originated the expression:

During a dinner at the home of the statesman Jacques Necker, a remark was made to Diderot which left him speechless at the time, because, he explains, “a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs” (“l’homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier“).

Hence, the wit (not the spirit) of the stairs.

The phrase doesn’t quite apply to what happened this afternoon, but it’s close enough. I was driving to the grocery store when I realized what I should have included in my previous post. I should have mentioned Greece’s ongoing financial crisis. Sensible people understand that Greece will never be able to pay back everything it owes, partly because the economic austerity demanded by its creditors has slowed the Greek economy, making Greece poorer and even less able to pay off its debts. Even the International Monetary Fund, one of Greece’s creditors, understands this. The Greeks need debt relief, like the Germans received after World War 2.

The Germans, however, believe they and the other creditors need to get tougher with Greece. More austerity and more pain will eventually convince the Greeks to get their fiscal house in order or drive Greece out of the eurozone, leading to who knows what consequences for the Greeks, Europe and the rest of the world. In this case, the Germans, like the Republicans, prefer tougher over smarter.

But how was I going to get Germany’s bad behavior into a post about the Republicans? (Believe it or not, I’ve got literary standards.) Then it hit me, probably when I was making a right turn. Remember that rabid speech given by arch-right winger, modern-day fascist Pat Buchanan at the 1992 Republican National Convention? The late Molly Ivins said “it probably sounded better in the original German”.

See, it fits together after all. It’s what I should have said.

Why the Germans and the Jews?

A recent subscribers-only article in the New York Review of Books begins with a joke that’s not supposed to make anybody laugh:

The historian George Mosse liked to tell a hypothetical story: if someone had predicted in 1900 that within fifty years the Jews of Europe would be murdered, one possible response would have been: “Well, I suppose that is possible. Those French or Russians are capable of anything.”

The article’s author, Christopher Browning, continues:

Indeed, the wave of pogroms in Russia in the 1880s and the Dreyfus Affair that consumed France in the 1890s stood in stark contrast to the situation of Jews in Germany, who at that point enjoyed the greatest degree, anywhere in the world, of assimilation, social mobility, and access to preeminent positions in business, the professions, and culture (even if they were still blocked from careers in the military and the higher civil service).

The book being reviewed is Why the Germans? Why the Jews? Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust by the German historian Götz Aly. It’s an attempt to explain why the Holocaust occurred in 19th century’s “land of golden opportunity for Jews”.

The principal explanation Aly offers is that:

an uneven and incremental process of Jewish emancipation [in Germany] during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries … transformed Jewish life. Armed with a culture of education and freed from past restrictions, Jews quickly seized the economic opportunities offered by modernization, urbanization, and industrialization. Educationally unprepared Germans nostalgically tied to traditional ways of life moved into cities and took up new occupations only reluctantly. Spectacular Jewish advance contrasted with German lethargy, resentment, and disorientation, producing envy of Jewish wealth and success as well as fear and a sense of inferiority vis-à-vis Jewish competition.

Many Germans benefited when jobs once held by Jews were made available and Jewish property was redistributed. But most Germans needed a “new morality” to “justify” their treatment of the Jews:

For those consumed by envy of Jews but ashamed of [the] tawdry motive [of material gain], race theory concealed their embarrassment. For those suffering a deep inferiority complex about Jews, race theory inverted success and failure, turning Jewish accomplishment into evidence of Jewish vice. For those troubled by the large difference between Jews they knew and the Nazi stereotype, race theory allowed individual experience to be ignored.

Above all, race theory turned persecution and murder into self-defense, requiring “pitiless” cleansing in the present to achieve a future Utopian happiness and social harmony. “Pseudoscience,” Aly concludes, “disguised hatred as insight and made one’s own shortcomings seem like virtues. It also provided justification for acts of legal discrimination against others, allowing millions of Germans to delegate their own aggression, born of feelings of inferiority and shame, to their state”. This “passively expressed anti-Semitism gave the German government the latitude it needed to press forward with its murderous campaigns”.

Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War by Paul Fussell

Paul Fussell’s best-known book is The Great War and Modern Memory. In that book, he wrote about the effect of World War I, especially trench warfare, on British writers. Wartime is Fussell’s similar book about World War II. This one isn’t mainly concerned with the war’s effect on writers, however. It has a much broader scope. There are discussions, for example, of the myth of “precision” bombing; the frequency of military foul-ups; rumors; rationing; stereotypes; accentuating the positive; casualty rates; popular songs; swearing; hunger; and sexual frustration. There is even a whole chapter devoted to “chickenshit” – the petty crap that superiors inflict on subordinates.

Fussell wrote from experience. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart as an infantry officer in France. His goal in Wartime was to capture the reality of World War II as it was endured by American and British soldiers, sailors and airmen, especially those who actually saw combat (a small minority of those who served). He often does this by contrasting military reality with the sanitized version presented to the people back home. If you were in the service but not in combat, your main emotions were boredom and anger. If you were in combat, it was fear and horror.

According to Fussell, the authorities eventually realized that engaging in more than 240 days of combat (not consecutive days, but total days) would drive anyone insane. That sums up World War II for the men who did the actual fighting.

A Different View of “Peace For Our Time”

The recent deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program evoked lots of references to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain negotiating with Hitler in 1938. Chamberlain infamously came back from Munich, waved a “scrap of paper” and promised “peace for [not “in”] our time”. Germany immediately absorbed part of Czechoslovakia and eleven months later invaded Poland.

How could Chamberlain have been such a fool? If only he had stood up to Hitler! Was he a coward? What happened in Munich was appeasement at its worst.

chamberlain-plane-ticket-pic-collect-178249005

As is often the case with famous or infamous historical events, the common view isn’t necessarily correct. Historians who suggest a new interpretation of the past are called “revisionists”. Sometimes they’re right, especially when their revisions are based on new evidence.

I’m not qualified to judge the merits of the standard view of the Munich Agreement, but, according to this article at Salon:

… among historians, that view changed in the late 1950s, when the British government began making Chamberlain-era records available to researchers. “The result of this was the discovery of all sorts of factors that narrowed the options of the British government in general and narrowed the options of Neville Chamberlain in particular,” explains David Dutton, a British historian who wrote a recent biography of the prime minister. “The evidence was so overwhelming,” he says, that many historians came to believe that Chamberlain “couldn’t do anything other than what he did” at Munich. Over time, Dutton says, “the weight of the historiography began to shift to a much more sympathetic appreciation” of Chamberlain.

The author suggests several reasons why, in his opinion, Chamberlain made the right decision: (1) most historians believe the British military wasn’t prepared for war with Germany in 1938; (2) Chamberlain’s military advisors told him that British forces couldn’t stop Germany from invading Czechoslovakia, but could eventually defeat Germany given time to prepare; (3) by 1938, Australia, New Zealand and Canada were no longer required to participate in a British war; (4) the Soviet Union was considered a potential enemy, not an ally; (5) America’s neutrality laws made it unlikely that America would join the fight; (6) although France was a likely major ally, British authorities had a very low opinion of France’s unstable government and the French military; (7) the British public, still traumatized by World War I, was strongly in favor of negotiation; (8) preserving the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia wasn’t seen as justification for war, partly because Czechoslovakia had only existed for 20 years and many ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia wanted to be part of a Germany; (9) the British generally believed that Hitler was similar to Mussolini, a fascist leader they knew, who was “more bravado than substance”.

The Munich agreement between the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy was greeted in Britain as a success: “cheering crowds filled the streets and the press rejoiced”. The French reaction was similar. When Germany took more of Czechoslovakia six months later, however, Chamberlain realized that war was inevitable, increased the pace of British rearmament and instituted Britain’s first peacetime draft.

Maybe Chamberlain and his supporters should have known better. After all, some of the British, as well as observers in other countries, correctly predicted that Hitler’s ultimate goal was the subjugation of Europe. We know the rest.

Still, it’s impossible to say whether Hitler would have been stopped sooner or more easily if Chamberlain (and the French president Daladier) had never made a deal in Munich. Nick Baumann, the author of the Salon article, concludes:

The story we’re told about Munich is one about the futility and foolishness of searching for peace. In American political debates, the words “appeasement” and “Munich” are used to bludgeon those who argue against war. But every war is not World War II, and every dictator is not Hitler. Should we really fault Chamberlain for postponing a potentially disastrous fight that his military advisers cautioned against, his allies weren’t ready for, and his people didn’t support?

At any rate, removing some economic sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program isn’t the same as letting Hitler take part of Czechoslovakia in exchange for a promise of peace. 

By the way, the author of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, the book I’ve been writing about recently, argues that we can learn nothing from history, since circumstances are always changing. In other words, history is bunk. But that’s consistent with his view that science is the only true path to knowledge. A more reasonable view is that there are recurring patterns in history, even if history doesn’t repeat itself. Looking back, it’s reasonable to conclude that negotiation is generally better than war.