“Everyone seems to have become Hitler.”
Historian Gavriel D. Rosenfeld wrote these words in his study of how the Nazi past has become a recurring theme in contemporary culture – to the point of almost becoming trivial. What is especially interesting is that he had already reached that conclusion a year before Donald Trump was elected to be the 45th president of the United States.
Since then, comparisons between Trump and Hitler – and even between current developments in the United States and the waning days of Germany’s ill-fated Weimar Republic — have become almost daily fare. This is perhaps no surprise, given his unbridled attacks against his political opponents and the mainstream press, his singling out of minority groups as scapegoats for the challenges that American society faces, and his populist, demagogic style more generally.
As a historian of modern Germany, I have spent many years exploring the crimes that Hitler and his followers committed. When people make facile comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis, they are trying, usually in good faith, to warn us about the dangers of ignoring history and its supposed lessons.
But it is my very familiarity with that history that makes me highly skeptical about the inflationary use of such comparisons. They do more to confuse than clarify the urgent issues at stake.
Long history of Nazi comparisons
Godwin’s Law holds that the longer an online discussion progresses, the likelier someone will eventually be compared to Hitler. By now, this seems to apply not just to the virtual world of chat rooms, but also to living rooms across America.
Comparing politicians to Hitler is nothing new, of course. We live in an age where George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton (“Hitlery”) and Barack Obama have all seamlessly been compared to Hitler. That’s just a few of the more recent examples, but they clearly show just how little value such glib analogies have.
The Trump presidency has made use of the Hitler card even more pronounced. Such comparisons have not just increased in frequency and intensity, however. Serious ones are now even being made by leading experts on Nazi Germany.
The British historian Jane Caplan, for example, wrote an analysis in November 2016 directly addressing the question of whether or not Trump was a fascist.
Caplan didn’t reach any definite conclusions, but she did point out quite a few striking similarities between the rise of fascism in Germany then and the current political climate in the United States now. In short, she feels that America is in a vulnerable position right now – one that radical forces can use to their advantage.
A few months later, Yale historian Timothy Snyder published “On Tyranny.” His book similarly concludes that America under Trump bears striking similarities to Germany in the interwar period and reads like something of a how-to manual for resisting the rise of authoritarianism in today’s America.
Respectable warning voices like these, engaging in historical analysis grounded in empirical scholarship, give the lie to any fears that Hitler is somehow being trivialized.
In fact, such experts are well equipped to communicate to a broader public the potential value of historical analogies. When paying close attention to historical context, analogies can become useful tools – ones that help us understand our present, and perhaps even shape it for the better.
Unfortunately, considered analysis on par with that of Caplan or Snyder is the exception, not the rule. That’s no surprise given the frenzied, often nasty character of current political discourse.