Proceed With Caution: Similarities Between 1930’s Germany and the Current United States

Prior to the first polls closing on 8 November 2016, I boarded a flight to China on a business trip. By the time the plane touched down the results were in, and as we were taxiing to the terminal a cabin announcement was made reporting the results. A deep and spontaneous groan resounded through the plane of mainly US business travelers.

That planeload of people was certainly not part of the demographic group targeted by the Trump campaign. As a broad generalization, they were relatively well educated, successful US professionals with business interests in China, or Chinese with interests in the United States. For both groups the oft-iterated campaign rhetoric of decreasing trade with China held no positive outlook, nor did the specter of the US once again becoming the world bully hold any attraction to the handful of internationally oriented tourists on board.

At breakfast in the hotel the following morning I watched images on English language Chinese TV broadcasts of protesters being dragged away by riot police in US cities, with commentary suggesting that, for a country that has spent lots of effort protesting about demonstrators being dragged away by police in other countries, the US should certainly be setting a better example with their own citizens. Responding to the rhetoric of pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, Chinese economists were pleased with the opportunity being presented to them on a silver platter of increasing their own leverage in the region if the US did indeed carry through with pulling out.

As the days went by and the opposing result of the popular vote was released, I found myself often being asked by Chinese colleagues how it could be that the will of the people was not reflected in the election result. Some European colleagues asked if it was possible for a re-vote to occur since the result wasn’t a clear victory for either main candidate, or if it would trigger some form of a coalition government.

Sadly, the answer turns out to be no. In a glaring fault of its organization, the United States political system operates on a winner take all system, more or less. If 50.001% are for, and 49.999 % oppose, then 49.999% of the population find themselves with no voice. Under the assumption that all candidates are generally centrists with the interests of everyone, including the 49.999%, in mind this system does offer some theoretical advantages over more fluid coalitions, but in the increasingly polarized political spectrum which has developed over the last 30 or so years this is no longer a valid assumption. There have been some notable attempts by 3’rd parties to try and enter the system, yet in the end all they accomplished was to take votes from the main party candidate closest to them, resulting in the other party’s candidate winning the race. For the presidential election, however, there is the wildcard of the electoral college, and if there was ever a clear-cut opportunity to justify its existence as something more than a rubber stamp the 2016 election was it. But they let their chance to stand up for the good of the country slide, and suddenly the country, and the world, found a man who had highly questionable credentials, no relevant experience, and a team of equally inexperienced advisors set to take over one of the world’s largest economic and military powers, and to top it off the majority of the voting population didn’t want him to be there.

In the days between the official confirmation and the inauguration, a general response to expressions of concern went along the lines of “Don’t worry, it was all campaign nonsense and reason will set in. Besides, anything significant will have to go through months or years of Congressional committees before it becomes effective.” In less than a month that mindset has been erased by Trump actively and aggressively bypassing the normal course of action. In his few days of office Trump has also shown a complete disregard for the fundamentals of democratic governance on domestic issues, and has abused executive orders to overturn multiple social and environmental protections which had been created and approved through the democratic system and been pillars of multiple administrations from both parties. In addition, he has purged numerous government agencies and implemented gag orders to prevent details of further changes from being made public.

The world has seen a very similar pattern before. While studying in Germany during the 50’th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, I took several classes on German history in the 1930’s. The similarities to the Nazi takeover of the German government are disturbingly striking.

As a single example, consider Trump’s unprecedented and unwarranted executive order on refugees and foreign travelers. To single out adherents of a certain religion and certain regions and to bar them entry is contrary to the very fiber of the United States, stands in contravention to multiple longstanding international agreements on refugees, and only serves to incite hatred and fear in this country. In numerous other parts of the world his actions have, in the course of hours, thrown away the general good will toward the United States built up over decades. Furthermore, by replacing foreign policy which helped to dissuade terrorism by actively eroding the view of the United States as the world’s bully with policies indicating that we are looking to become worse members of the international community than we were before, Trump’s policies in the end serves to strengthen the support for extremism and associated terrorism – decreasing rather than increasing the safety of US citizens and others.

While I was living in Germany the Bosnian conflict was in full swing. On a visit in Bad Duerkheim in December 1994 I watched US Air Force transport planes from the nearby base at Rammstein depart overhead with loads of food and supplies for refugees from that conflict. Some older Germans I was with watched them go over and recalled the days of the Berlin Airlift, and commented how the United States could always be counted on to help those in need. Later, in the spring of 1995, I sat in a “German for Foreign Students” class where three of my classmates, all of whom were in Germany as refugees from that conflict, gave a joint presentation about their experiences. Here are my unedited notes written later that evening:

“…One was a Croatian woman who had lived in the Serbian section of Sarajevo for the first 1.5 years of the war and had spent that time playing that she was a Serb to stay alive and the other was a Serbian woman who had done the same in a Croatian region. The one from Sarajevo really sort of freaked me out when she was talking about seeing friends raped and killed with absolutely no emotion coming into it.”

My view of refugees was forever changed as a result of that discussion. These were not pictures in an old book or a news blurb, but well educated young women who simply found themselves caught in a conflict well outside their scope of influence and who had somehow overcome the odds and escaped with nothing more than their clothes and memories.

Given support and an opportunity to resume their interrupted studies, they were forging ahead in a new environment but had holes in their history which would never be filled. It was memorably chilling to listen to the Croatian’s account of walking down a street with her best friend when they met a Serbian soldier who recognized her friend from having been in a class with her at school. He recalled she was Croatian, told the other woman (who was telling us) not to associate with Croats anymore, and then knocked her friend down and beat her to death with his rifle in the middle of the sidewalk while others simply walked by. And there truly was no emotion in her telling it, or several other similar accounts.

She wasn’t in that room asking for our sympathy or even our help, she was speaking from deep inside a tunnel she had allowed us to glimpse into, but which then closed as there was no way she could move forward if she allowed herself to look back.

Years later at a museum, I think in Berlin, I came across an exhibit about the SS St. Louis. In 1939, several hundred Jewish refugees from the Nazis obtained visas and sailed from Hamburg to Cuba. On arrival, they were refused entry. The ship then went to the US, and was also denied entry despite a direct appeal to President Roosevelt. Returning to Europe, several countries were willing to take them in. Those who landed in England survived, many of the others ended up being arrested after the Nazi invasion of their host countries and died in the extermination camps.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an anti-Nazi theologian who was arrested and hung by the Nazis in 1945 for his resistance activities, famously wrote the following:

“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Despite decades of post-war German policy being a leading global force for tolerance, acceptance, and environmental protection, many people still hold a bias against Germans because of the Holocaust. There is a widespread mindset that since the German people didn’t stop Hitler they were all complicit in the Nazi atrocities.

As a US citizen, I am not willing to be complicit in Trump’s destruction of the good things this country stands for and the potential impacts to the world of the economic and environmental conflicts he is actively courting. The means at my disposal are the means of every US citizen – letters, calls, and emails to elected officials expressing opinions on specific issues as well as more abstractly requesting them to do all in their power to protect this nation, and the world, from Trump and his actions.

For those who are not US citizens there are still ways to take action, such as urging your government to officially protest US policies which have an impact outside of US borders.

Above all, whether as a US citizen or not, please do not stand by silently. Bonhoeffer also wrote “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.” I have chosen to take action in the ways in which I can, and I would encourage you to join me.


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