Could Germany’s Past Be America’s Future?

What happened to interwar Germany may provide a looking glass into what is now befalling America.

Where I reside in upstate New York, the Ku Klux Klan has been stepping up its recruitment efforts. In June, residents in a small town in Fulton County woke up to find flyers in their driveways decrying “cultural genocide of white people” and urging attendance at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. In February, Klan activists distributed Valentine’s Day-themed Klan fliers in Fort Plains imploring white people to “love their own race.” These are part of an effort to attract new members across several states, a Klan spokeswoman said earlier this year. The KKK had tens of thousands of members in this region in the 1920s, primarily targeting immigrants and Catholics at their rallies. As a kid, elders described how white-hooded KKK members marched through the center of Canastota, our small farm village, ending up at the Catholic Church. Crosses were set afire in the countryside elsewhere. The Southern Poverty Law Center ranks overwhelmingly liberal New York as fostering the third most number of hate groups, many of which are clustered upstate, in Trump country.

After Charlottesville, The New Yorker’s Robin Wright canvassed Civil War historians for their estimation of the likelihood of another civil war breaking out. Predictions ranged from five percent to ninety-five percent, with “the sobering consensus” being thirty-five percent. But don’t be fooled by the recent proliferation of Stars and Bars flags fluttering at rallies and a recrudescent KKK. Rather than plunging into a rematch of the War Between the States, we are more likely sliding into a morass of political paralysis and civil strife that resembles Weimar Germany.

Saddled by a punitive peace imposed by its erstwhile enemies, post-World War I Germany, under the Weimar Republic, slid into fourteen years of political gridlock, civil unrest and social and economic chaos. In the spring of 1919, some 15,000 Germans died in nine days of street fighting in Berlin, with another 12,000 wounded. Political violence spread across Germany. In Munich alone, 10,000 communists were killed.

German society was polarized between insiders and outsiders, or what German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler describes as a “cartel of traditional power elites” vs “the onslaught of new forces,” comprising those frozen out of political and economic power. Proportional representation enabled extremist factions, notably the Nazi Party, to surge. Corporate and labor leaders, the landed aristocracy and other interest groups shortsightedly focused on their individual self-interests at the expense of the nation’s. Wealth and income inequality grew. Hyperinflation and the Great Depression devastated Germans’ lives, driving many to support political extremists. Church leaders were passive in the face of growing threats to German democracy and remained largely silent on the ugly racism that took hold in political discourse.

Media titan Alfred Hugenberg, who owned half of Germany’s newspapers, gave Hitler positive news coverage in his conservative-friendly publications. He also connected Hitler with wealthy industrialists and financiers who then helped fund the Nazi Party, key to its eventual ascendance to power.

Bogus “race” science took hold in some circles as Hitler and the Nazis exploited the hatred and divisions to build support for their movement.

While history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, it does often rhyme. What happened to interwar Germany may provide a looking glass into what is now befalling America.

Donald Trump swept into office riding a wave of anger and resentment by those who felt disempowered by an out-of-touch political and economic elite. Media attention centers on the white working class, but, ironically, the median income of Trump voters was $11,000 higher than that of Clinton voters. In Germany, “the typical Nazi voter was a middle-class, self-employed Protestant who lived on a farm or in a small community,” according to sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset.

Job approval for Congress has been languishing in the low double digits for some time. Gerrymandering rigs congressional races to all but ensure that incumbents win, while direct primaries have led to entrenched radicals on the right who view compromise with Democrats as tantamount to treason. Voter suppression measures by the Republicans have helped stoke political polarization. The repeal-and-replace health care fiasco underscores politicians’ myopic focus on narrow political tactics over the greater national good. Big Money flowing to radical right PAC’s and politicians from billionaires—most notably the Koch brothers and the Mercer family—distorts the election process and favors the alt-right, just as it did in Weimar Germany. And Trump-friendly media outlets — especially Fox News and Breitbart — reflect the role that media mogul Hugenberg played in boosting Hitler.

The Charlottesville riots bring to the fore a resurgent open racism in American society. The white supremacist chant, “Jews will not replace us,” eerily echoes those of German brownshirts some eight decades ago. Finally, there is the odd alliance between American Evangelicals and the thrice-married, pussy-grabbing, biblically-ignorant and chronically mendacious Trump. To their credit, religious leaders have been vocal in their condemnation of the paroxysm of violent white supremacism that erupted in Charlottesville. Yet their virtual silence in the face of the president’s earlier racist dog whistles mirrors that of pre-World War II German churches to virulent antisemitism.

So, what faces us next? Will we be witnessing thousands killed in pitched urban warfare? Neo-Nazis emerging from the fringes and into the open light, ranks swollen with new members, coffers fed by shameless plutocrats? A subverted court system, a catatonic Congress, complicit churches? Is the world’s most successful democracy headed for the trash heap of history?

If we do sink into widespread civil strife, it will be along the lines of the deadly clashes that have already taken place in Charleston, Dallas, St. Paul, Baltimore, Ferguson, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria—urban riots as opposed to armies clashing on a field of battle. Recent violent confrontations between radical right neo-Nazis and radical left antifa groups may just be a preview of coming attractions. Our political and civil institutions may prove to be too moribund and dysfunctional to deal effectively with the spread of violence, just as in Weimar Germany. And chaos will ensue.

Nothing can be ruled out. But the conditions underlying Germany’s path to destruction and those stoking divisions in the United States today are starkly divergent. Germany was racked by economic collapse, runaway inflation, war exhaustion and punishing reparations. Its democratic institutions were new and fragile. People were starving. By contrast, U.S. GDP growth is healthy, if unspectacular; unemployment is low; inflation is virtually nonexistent; the stock market keeps reaching new highs.

Observers attribute America’s current malaise to globalization, record immigration, changing racial demographics and loss of good blue collar manufacturing jobs. When those hooded bigots marched through my home town many years ago, the United States was coping with integrating millions of mainly southern and eastern European immigrants into its economy and society. Rural life was being disrupted by the need for factory workers in the cities. At the end of the 1920s, those jobs went away in the avalanche of economic depression. Visionary leadership and successful prosecution of a world war got us through those troubled years.

Whether we Americans can muster the vision and wise leadership to overcome the nebulous existential forces that threaten us today, frankly, is an open question. In these perplexing times, sometimes I throw my hands up and recall a quote from a war refugee in the movie Casablanca: “The devil has the people by the throat.”

James Bruno

James Bruno is a writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.