By Adam East, reprinted from Medium |
In the book The Nazi Conscience, Claudia Koonz investigates the transformation of the minds of the German public before and during the Nazi Regime. She analyzes the changes that occurred in the perceptions held by different segments of the German population regarding their Jewish neighbors and explores what prevented outraged Germans from stopping the slow growth of atrocities enacted on their fellow people. What happened that allowed for the stripping of rights and property, to the eventual incarceration and murder of millions of people? Koonz describes how Nazi leaders slowly and tirelessly attempted to unify Germans around a hyper-masculine national pride that subtly (or not so subtly) excluded, dehumanized, and blamed Jewish citizens for the ailments of the nation.
Hitler first took office in 1933 as chancellor, and consolidated power within a year when he appointed himself “Führer,” after the Reichstag fire. Although the Nazi party never technically won a majority of the vote in any free elections, Hitler held onto his new position for more than ten years until he ended his life in 1945. Contrary to my early perceptions of the period, Nazi leaders did not immediately push a violent, emotional outlash against Jewish people, although there were sporadic outbursts from more radical party members. Instead, the state introduced ever harsher laws after short outbreaks of Nazi violence in 1934, 1935, and 1938 that steadily stripped Jewish people of their rights to property, work, and citizenship. This contradiction — between these un-sanctioned, violent attacks against political dissidents and Jewish people, and the seemingly logical or rational adoption of laws targeting these same people — pacified resistance from German citizens. Hitler knew he would quickly lose favor if he openly supported outright violent and abusive practices. In fact, Hitler said to a British Journalist in early 1934 — “Everyone knew that it was possible to raze buildings using shellfire, but these methods would never convince an opponent, they would serve only to embitter him. The only way to make a successful revolution lies in gaining hold on one’s opponent by persuasion.”
Alongside the slow erosions of Jewish people’s rights, propaganda teams sought to alter public perception of German Identity to exclude Jewish people, attempting to classify them as an inferior and dangerous race. Numerous print and film outlets shared stories that spewed racist stereotypes of Jewish people in an effort to cause distrust among the public that had previously been more tolerant. Indeed, prior to the Nazi regime, the german public was one of the least anti-Semitic countries in Europe. Koonz wrote “Germans did not become Nazis because they were anti-semites; they became anti-semites because they were Nazis.” Due to the slow and bureaucratic nature of the state’s attacks on Jewish citizens, and the accompanying deluge of racist media, citizens were compelled to or had excuses to carry out bureaucratic duties that would harm their Jewish neighbors. Additionally, people had economic, social, or professional incentives to turn on their neighbors; jobs, housing, and goods would open up for “Good Germans” as targets of the regime were disappeared or robbed of their rights and homes.
Once in power, Hitler worked to distance himself from the more radical and hateful positions he had earlier espoused. Only on three occasions between 1933 and the 1939 invasion of Poland did Hitler directly vent his phobic racial hatred of Jewish people in a public speech. By avoiding these charged topics when addressing his citizens, he was able to convince the general public that he was perhaps changed, and no longer as “radical” as in his youth. In fact, after an outbreak of violence from die-hard Nazis in 1934, Hitler publicly called the perpetrators “provocateurs, rebels, and enemies of the state.” In spite of his lack of public anti-semitism and his condemnation of racial violence, the more vocally anti-semitic party members still looked to his earlier speeches and writings to fuel their own racist convictions. They heard coded messages in his speeches and assumed they would eventually be able to carry out their genocidal desires, when he gave the order.
Understanding the history of Nazi Germany is crucial to truly comprehending the danger of the Trump/Pence regime, their supporters, and their policies. We should not only fear and oppose the outright violent minority that have spiked rates of hate crimes, but more importantly we should fear and oppose the slow normalization and legalization of the subtle (and not so subtle) actions that target and attack specific communities. Because this targeting can appear more rational or benign, it may produce less resistance from the public. For example, although large demonstrations expressed outrage against the initial separation of children at the border, the public outcry has diminished even though 500 children remain locked up without their parents, more than a month past a court-ordered deadline for reunification.
Additionally, we should familiarize ourselves with and challenge the numerous publications and media outlets that seek to dehumanize and scapegoat immigrants, refugees, Muslims and so many marginalized groups. Ominously, numerous publications have been stoking fears of these same groups for far longer than Trump has been in office. Since the attacks of September 11th, xenophobic, islamophobic, and racist publications have gained traction and legitimacy. Germany teaches us an important lesson on the perils of inaction in the face of growing atrocities, legalized discrimination, and an expanding media force “othering” certain segments of the population. There is a real and present danger of being pacified by the appeal of rational, lawful attacks on fellow human beings over outright violence. As Claudia Koonz explains,
“While the overwhelming majority of Germans deplored the wanton destruction of Jews’ property …, they gradually came to accept the pariah status of Jews as inevitable. In 1934 an American professor who taught in Germany observed that his colleagues complained a great deal about an outrage here or an injustice there. But, lacking the civil courage to act on their objections, they preferred not to admit their weakness.”
By failing to unequivocally oppose both the outbreaks of Anti-Semitic violence and the “respectable, lawful cold pogrom”, the non-Nazi Germans were unable to halt the terrible fate that eventually befell millions of people.
Today, we in the United States are facing a similar situation to the one faced by the citizens of Nazi Germany. Since taking power, Trump and his allies have relentlessly attacked immigrants, refugees, women, LGBTQIA people, and other marginalized groups. Most recently the Trump administration started separating refugees at the border and even attempting to question the citizenship of Latinos along the border. The number of refugees taken into the United States has slowed to a trickle, while we drop more bombs across the Middle East and Africa. These atrocities raise the urgent question, do we sit back and ride the “Trump Train” to whatever destructive destination he has in mind? Or do we, the outraged and righteous majority, unite across our silos of interest and pull the brakes before we arrive at Trump’s fiery, final stop? He has told us and shown us where he intends to take us, and has already started us on this deadly journey. We are well on our way to being even more of a hyper-national, xenophobic, militaristic empire waging all out war on its own citizens, people all over the planet, and the entire world ecosystem. Trump seeks this outcome even though we already face an ever worsening climate crisis, the worst refugee crisis of the 21st century, are home to the largest prison population in the world, are bombing at least seven countries, all while struggling to provide jobs, housing, and adequate healthcare for our own citizens.
As Maya Angelou wisely warns us, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Trump has shown us who he is over and over again. It is now up to us to peacefully rise together and demand Trump and his regime step down and their policies be reversed. For those communities targeted by the hate he spews, for all the people of the world, for all the future generations, and for the very environment that ensures our survival. We must stand up together and say no to this deadly, fascist regime.