Recent allusions to 1930s Germany in the era of Donald Trump’s America have been of interest to the Left, and a mixed bag of ridicule and hurrahs from the Right. Trump himself has even invoked the comparison (albeit against his own intelligence agencies). I suggest that if we want to make the Nazi comparison responsibly, we should take our bearing from the approaches developed by Holocaust historians to study Nazi history. Doing so may lead to important lessons and conceptual tools for civic action today.
For more than a generation, historians of the Holocaust and German history have been split between two narratives regarding the rise of Nazism. On the one hand, there are histories that focus on the motives of individual actors (such as Hitler or Goebbels), and on the other, there are histories that focus on the impersonal and changing tapestry of social forces (such as depression and war) to which leaders responded opportunistically. While these ‘intentionalist’ and ‘functionalist’ perspectives are both typical modes of political analysis today, neither of them presents clear or fruitful analogies with the present. Increasingly, what passes for newsworthy is not intentional action or impersonal analysis, but viral events of an exclusively discursive nature — e.g. the effervescence surrounding a tweet and its interpretation.
Historian Alon Confino (2012) has argued that, in addition to focusing on motive or opportunity, historians should explore the cultural and linguistic conditions of social change. Because language and history in a culture are in constant flux, these can be the sites of political action as well. This shift in focus to the cultural conditions of human action enables the historian to ask new questions of the past and, by analogy, would enable us ask new questions of our present.
Masha Gessen’s, “The Autocrat’s Language” is a step in this direction, examining how Trump has taken on the language of victimhood in what amounts to a senseless discourse of persecution perpetuated by one of the most powerful people on the planet. This rhetoric is a kind of sense-breaking within our cultural terms, Gessen writes, poisonous to public life and the meanings through which it operates. By confusing the cultural reasons for terms like ‘safe space’ and ‘witch hunt’ in the English lexicon today, she writes, “Trump’s word-piles fill public space with static. This is like having the air we breathe replaced with carbon monoxide. It is deadly. This space that he is polluting is the space of our shared reality.”
Nonsensical though they may seem, Trump’s words become unavoidably central to discourse because they carry significance for many, circulated through the wildfire structure of social media. A tweet from Trump is news, regardless of its content. This engineered ubiquity raises concern for journalists. Just weeks into his presidency, Keith Olbermann recommended that the media refuse to repeat any of Trump’s false claims because this alone could stop America’s “descent into fascism”. But as false and misleading claims pile up without an end in sight, Trump’s disjointed narrative seemingly builds momentum.
America’s inability to avoid this alternate reality also comes from the increasingly unstable topography of the American press itself. Echoing Olbermann’s call, Salon’s editorial team recently declared a one-day hiatus from Trump. The focus of the country has been on one man for two years, they say. “If we cannot dislodge him from the White House anytime soon, maybe we can start to deflate the outsized role he plays in our national psychology.” But the alt-right media affirms Trump’s role; thus, in immediate response, Breitbart proclaimed, “Broken: Salon Can’t Handle Covering President”.
At times, Trump wonders aloud whether he is actually predicting world events, and people from different spheres have echoed back, ‘yes’. At other times, however, his administration has claimed to simply be repeating the news. It is important not to miss these murky exchanges, which contribute to a media culture of attributing all things to him or understanding through him, even as much of what he says repeats the media. Here, we can follow Confino in attending to the middle-ground of culture, in which these self-reinforcing interactions find their motor and fullest realization.
What might an analogy with Nazi Germany look like in a cultural register? We might begin to lay our contemporary scenario over historical accounts in the following way:
Throughout the 1930 campaign, the Nazis had tried every stereotype, and the increasingly divided press had taken the bait, legitimizing their talking points. As historian Bernhard Fulda (2009) writes, “Years of hostile press coverage had undermined the legitimacy of parliamentary democracy in the eyes of a substantial part of the electorate” (168). This era of ‘alternative facts’ proved ripe for an assault on the Republic itself. The story of the next two years shows what is possible when the culture of a free press is unprepared to declaim a political discourse built upon fears of violence and salacious consumer appetites.
From 1930 into 1931, violence was increasingly present at right wing events, and, in one case, directly responded to an article published by Goebbels in his newspaper, Angriff. This led to the first in a series of regional newspaper bans throughout the Reich. Central to this controversy was the language chosen by the press in covering these incidences, evoking ‘civil war’ with increasing frequency. As Fulda argues, “compilations of long (and one-sided) chronologies of political clashes… conveyed the impression that contemporaries were already experiencing the first signs of… a fully-fledged civil war” (173). Addressing street violence in a non-partisan way became almost impossible.
By mid-1931, President Hindenburg issued an emergency decree compelling newspapers to print replies from the government, intended to prevent “concealment and distortion of true [facts] and the assertion of false facts” (176). While proclaimed on the basis of perceived necessity, and without explicit political inclination, by 1932 Hitler had convinced the president that his ministers were using the press decrees to the advantage of the left-wing KDP. Hitler’s portrayal of the Nazi party as victims of the decree, along with his own promise to abide by the Republic’s laws, led to his appointment by Hindenburg to the chancellorship in 1933.
A cluster of rhetorical moves here signals the deterioration of the media’s credibility and status as a free press. This, I think, is an analogy that does not rely on direct comparison between Trump and Hitler or the alt-right and Nazism. A political disjunction in the press can be a primary cause of social instability and the impetus for a restriction of free speech among citizens. Political leaders exist in a symbiotic cultural relationship with the press that covers them, and executives can find legal reason to silence them if this balance becomes too precarious.
I am not prepared to suggest let alone predict that Trump would issue an executive order against the press without broad support, but the more divisive right and left wing politics become, the greater this possibility. Increasingly, the issue of censorship could fall into the hands of a person who takes criticism personally, is erratic and vengeful in his invocations of necessity. It may not even be Trump but a successor who takes this step.
The earliest scholarly responses to the Third Reich focused strongly on the way the Nazis relied on a feedback loop with the press to influence the flux of language and history. I would like to briefly mention three because they may be helpful resources for beginning to speak about the growing culture of crisis in America today without necessarily feeding into its destabilization.
The philosopher Ernst Cassirer was Rector of Hamburg University before he was dismissed for being Jewish in 1933. His Myth of the State (1946) offered the earliest comprehensive analysis, analyzing the downfall of the Republic as an effect of ‘mythical’ tendencies in German culture. Specifically, Cassirer examined and the dual function of words as semantic and as magical. Whereas the semantic function of language describes a given state of affairs by stating facts, the magical function “tries to produce effects and to change the course of nature” (282-3). Magical speech gains strength, not by proof of relevance, but through repetition and circulation. As bare assertions find evidence for themselves in the world, magical speech solidifies into what Cassirer calls ‘political myth’, and the politician starts to resemble a “public fortuneteller” (289).
The Nazis fashioned words to bolster their worldview. Prefixes like Volk- (People’s) and Juden- (Jewish) have semantic targets but, in use, were affectively charged in excess of their meaning. Trump has already given us examples: ‘#great-’, ‘#fake-’, ‘#failing-’, ‘#crooked-’. More than a secret code, this magical function is what has recently been called ‘dog whistling.’ It is speech that aligns action, even if the code is not conscious or its intent provable. This exceptionally elusive sense of speech is also what Judith Butler (1997) has called the ‘perlocutionary’—the way a word ‘hits’ an audience, whether intentional or not (17-8). At a time where ‘factual’ speech has been put against the ropes, we should be open to examining this magical, perlocutionary force of speech more concretely.
In a second major study, Hannah Arendt (1951) argued that Nazism flourished by destabilizing the temporality of political proclamations. Hitler often displaced his statements into the future tense—i.e. as prophecies. As she writes in Origins of Totalitarianism (1955), “there is hardly a better way to avoid discussion than by releasing an argument from the control of the present than by saying that only the future can reveal its merits” (346). After giving these prognostications, the goal of Hitler’s supporters was to delay or re-frame the question for the sake of demonstrating Hitler’s “unending infallibility”. The most effective means of ensuring these, Arendt says, is to warn people of events “bound” to happen in the long run, or which the prophet can control (346).
Just as essential as claiming the future, Arendt says the Nazis also worked to re-shape the past. Communities have always re-constructed the past in a “legendary” way, correcting facts and events in ways that they feel comfortable assuming responsibility for them (208). This makes legends, Arendt argues, “not only among the first memories of mankind, but actually the true beginning of human history” (208). Arendt’s position is, to be sure, radical for modern historians, but the ‘magic’ of historical revision bears serious consideration today, in how histories of oppression and violence are taught to children and the words evoked (or ignored) in the process.
Already in Trump’s presidency, we see revisionist tendencies that work against hard won victories, not least of which regarding the Holocaust’s significance. As Priebus said in response to indignation following Trump’s statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, “If we could wipe it off of the history books, we would. But we can’t.” Is this another dog whistle? Or, perhaps a whistle without a whistler?
Perhaps most relevant today is the work of Victor Klemperer (1947), who was a professor of French Literature in Dresden until he was dismissed in 1935 for being Jewish. Shorn of university resources and access to media, Klemperer’s analyzed what he happened to encounter—bits of Nazi news reels, the appearance of racist commonplaces in otherwise civil interactions. Today, these observations are published as The Language of the Third Reich.
One of the most marked characteristics of Nazi speech, Klemperer observed, was its ironic tone—as noted in writing by ‘scare quotes’. The Nazis used the ironic quotation obsessively, to both “question the truth of what is quoted” and to declare, without commitment, that an opponent’s claims are untrue (68). President Trump has pushed this even further by applying quotes to his own words— to ‘so-called’ judges and ‘tapes’. When Jeffery Lord suggested that Trump is speaking a new dialect—‘Americanese’— eyes rolled when ears should have perked. Such a denial of language as a shared cultural system obfuscates that words have consequences while simultaneously relying on their effects.
In Germany, this style of ironic invective had notable cultural effects. Much like the oddly proud label of ‘deplorable’ today, Klemperer observed that Nazi speech praised ‘fanaticism’—a roundly negative connotation in other times—as a measure of devotion to the Reich (54). Much like Gessen, Klemperer writes that Nazi pronouncements were, in truth, like doses of poison that “permeated the flesh and blood of the people...imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously,” even by the Jews (14). Who among us has not already made a “very bad” joke about “fake news” that is, in reality just “sad”?
In the destruction of sense, the elevation of fanatical politics, and the hunger for belonging within the German volk, Klemperer witnessed an ethically deplorable subjection of the individual mind to a mass culture of uncritical complacency. “The sole purpose of the LTI is to strip everyone of their individuality,” he writes, “to paralyze them as personalities, to make them into unthinking and docile cattle in a herd driven and hounded in a particular direction, to turn them into atoms in a huge rolling block of stone” (21). Arendt and Cassirer would agree. “Not the individuals but the group is the real "moral subject," Cassirer wrote (285). We face this challenge anew in an age of retweets, trolls, and echo chamber politics.
If we were to indulge what seems to be the fictional analogy of our time, Orwell’s 1984, the more productive point comes out of his appendix, where we learn that newspeak achieved its aims, in part, by replacing every occasion for saying something ‘should’ happen with an assertion that it ‘will’ or ‘must’ occur. A unified moral subject aims to have no discussion of what ought to be done; it simply asserts the public good. The discursive effervescence surrounding a tweet provides a challenge for contemporary ethics because if we are merely repeating what we’ve heard, or what is being said, it may become the case that something like ‘civil war’ will produce itself in the minds and mouths of the American people, even though nobody intentionally does anything unethical or illegal.
How can we, today, with our increased connectivity, rise to meet this challenge, which was for Klemperer, almost impossible? Maintaining balance requires that we maintain the critical capacities of our own speech—not to allow ourselves to be transformed into an “atom in a huge rolling block of stone”, nor to be crushed beneath it. This practice starts by capturing the small linguistic changes in political discourse floating freely around us, thus beginning to construct a picture of the political myth, past, present, and future they portend.
When a new word appears, we must ask what kind of destiny it seeks to invoke. What kind of history is attributed to it, and with what provenance? This entails demanding a non-fallacious explanation before accepting actions on behalf of ‘the people’. Hitler warned the world of his goals, and Germany eventually rose to meet those goals by #failing to develop and maintain such a culture. To insist upon one’s ability to discern right and wrong can disrupt magical speech when and where it threatens to become tyrannical—this, I think, is the most fruitful way we can draw the Nazi analogy today.
Robert Leib received his PhD in Philosophy from Villanova University
English Editions of Works Cited