“In July 1932 the Nazi Party wins 230 seats in German parliamentary elections, becoming the largest party represented. Modern propaganda techniques—including strong images and simple messages—helped propel Austrian-born Hitler from a little known extremist to a leading candidate in Germany’s 1932 elections.”
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Like many others who care deeply about the ideals of American democracy, I have been riveted by the presidential election coverage of recent months. I devour almost every election analysis or commentary in the New York Times and Washington Post. Each evening my husband Rich and I tune into the day’s news coverage and analysis, trying to make sense of the presidential campaigns and in particular, the unfathomable rise and candidacy of Donald Trump.
This recently reached a crescendo with the reports that former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and avowed anti-Semite David Duke expressed his support for Trump’s candidacy and encouraged his radio listeners to volunteer for the Trump campaign. On the David Duke Radio Program, he stated that voting against Trump “is really treason to your heritage.” His meaning could not be clearer. Under questioning by the press, Trump was first slow and then half-hearted in his disavowal. The media-sphere erupted in astonishment and alarm. Political cartoons showing Trump dressed in a KKK hood abounded. Yet just a few days after this incredible series of exchanges, he went on to win seven of eleven states in the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses, mostly untarnished by his canoodling with white supremacists. The prospect of his eventual nomination as the Republican candidate grows stronger with each primary election or caucus.
In the midst of this volatile political environment and its angry rhetoric, I was drawn to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum during a business trip to Washington D.C. Although I had visited this powerful memorial twenty years ago, I wanted to re-sensitize myself on how insidious demagoguery and fascism can be. Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in January 1933 even though at the time his Nazi Party received only 38% popular support. Amazingly, the German establishment believed that somehow keeping him “inside the tent” ̶ and in charge of a new coalition government ̶ would control him and ultimately unite various political factions.
Within weeks, Nazism became strategically and systematically normalized within German society. Constitutional protections were suspended on February 28. The month of March ushered in the creation of the Dachau concentration camp. By April, the Nazi Party called for a nationwide boycott of Jewish-owned businesses in Germany and passed a Law against Overcrowding in Schools and Universities, limiting the number of Jewish students in public schools. On May 10, 1933, university students throughout the country burned an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 books deemed as “Un-German” ̶ books written by Einstein and Brecht to Hemingway and Helen Keller ̶ in organized public rallies. I was astounded to learn that at first, many German citizens viewed the book burning as a university fraternity prank, unwilling to believe that a society as educated and culturally rich as Germany’s could actually wish to destroy ideas.
By October, new German laws had forbidden “non-Aryans” to work in journalism. With each new decree or public rally, Nazi ideology insinuated its way into the politics, literature, journalism, art, culture, science and education of German society. By August 1934, less than two years after his ascent as leader of a coalition government, Adolf Hitler abolished the office of President and declared himself Führer of the German Reich. He was now the absolute dictator of Germany, with no legal limits on his authority. All of these remarkable milestones had been foreshadowed more a decade before through Hitler’s writings, rallies, and speeches. But many Germans found his views so extreme that they assumed there was little chance that his ideology would appeal to more than a minority fringe element.
As I moved silently from one exhibit to the next at the Holocaust Museum, there was no mistaking the modern parallels between Nazism and the shocking rise of nationalism and authoritarianism among Trump and his millions of supporters. Most notably there is a shared core belief among followers that a strong leader will rescue a depressed and fractured country from “the others” and make it great again. For the Nazi Party, “the others” included Jews, the mentally and physically disabled, the elderly and infirm, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the political opposition. “One People – One Country – One Leader” became the simple central slogan of Hitler and the Nazi Party. It reinforced the cult of Hitler as the savior of the German state in tatters after World War I and the chaos of the 1920s. For more than a dozen years, Hitler and his Nazi Party spread their poisonous venom in the most heinous and unimaginable of ways, culminating in the mass extermination of six million Jews and others deemed “dangerous” to the state.
Trump whips up a xenophobic fervor against Muslims, Mexicans, the Chinese, Syrian refugees, Europeans. He has proudly declared his intent to commit war crimes if elected president. Off the top of his head he recklessly calls for a boycott against Starbuck’s and Apple. Just below the surface, violence fulminates at his rallies and sometimes bubbles to the surface. Recent videos from rallies show aggressive behavior by his supporters directed at any protestors. African-American attendees are particularly at risk for his wrath, even some who have not uttered a single word of protest. Apparently, their mere presence at his rallies is enough to provoke aggression. Trump’s cyberbulling is so well-documented that his Twitter references to “psychos,” “dummies,” “losers,” and “child molesters” alone fill dozens of pages. He does not need an Office of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda to spread his puerile and hateful messages for him. His millions of Twitter followers do it with zest, eager to be on what they perceive as a winning team. They want to be “great again” too.
We all want to trust that an evil totalitarian regime such as the Third Reich can never happen again, certainly not in the country founded on the very ideals of democracy, equality, liberty, freedom of expression. Some still believe that Trump, our modern political equivalent of P.T. Barnum crossed with a strain of the fiery bigot Father Coughlin, will self-destruct before November. We may laugh at the cartoons depicting him as a bloated orange balloon, but with each new outrageous outburst or scatological zinger in a debate, we want to believe that this time he will implode. But he hasn’t.
As I entered the Holocaust Museum, I selected an identity card for Fanny, a young Jewish woman born in Ukraine in the late 19th century whose personal journey was described in haunting detail. After the death of her father in World War I, she and her mother emigrated first to Paris and then to the Brittany coast of France in an effort to make new lives for themselves. She supported herself and her mother by working as a seamstress. But soon after the Germans invaded France, she and her mother were deported to one of the many death camps designed and managed by the Third Reich. She perished there in 1944.
I carried Fanny’s photo and her story in my hand as I worked my way through the museum. I thought of my friend Andrew and how all four of his grandparents were from Ukraine. Fanny could have been a childhood friend of any one of them. The museum displays exhibits of German society of the early 1930s ̶ photos of happy schoolchildren playing in a park, attending a birthday party, or enjoying a meal with extended family. Joyful families on vacation in the mountains. I looked at the faces of these innocent and trusting children and knew that in another time and place, these just as easily could have been my grandchildren Eve and Soren at their synagogue’s summer camp. The black and white photograph of the young woman, face shielded from the camera by her newspaper while she waits on the designated-for-Jews bench at the bus stop, could have been my stepdaughter Annika. In the displays of photographs, jewelry, children’s paintings, clothing, and finally, the pile of thousands of shoes, I see what could have happened to some of the most beloved people in my life. These could have been the stories or the shoes of my family. My friends.
But in fact, even though I never met Fanny or the schoolyard children or the woman at the bus stop, they are my family. My human family ̶ just like Muslims, Syrian refugees, African-Americans, the Chinese, or the Mexican immigrants are. In 2016, these are the new “others” that are targeted and blamed.
When Donald Trump makes preposterous claims that Islam hates America, I know that this statement is hateful and false. I’ve been blessed with many Muslim professional colleagues and friends throughout my career in international health. I’ve traveled often to the Middle East. Without fail I’ve been treated with genuine friendship, respect, and gracious hospitality. Ghada insisted on taking me on a guided tour through her favorite gold souk in Dubai, after which we enjoyed a delightful afternoon tea on a terrace overlooking the Persian Gulf and shared stories of our mutual University of Iowa educations. Dr. Lisa invited me to a women-only birthday party in Jeddah, and once inside the apartment, all the women shed their abayas and veils and hunkered down in front of the television to watch the latest episode of “Oprah” before we shared cake and ice cream and a song for the birthday guest. I am honored to learn from their religious and cultural traditions and in turn, to share my American, Iowan, Chicagoan, and Unitarian ones. There is no “other” among friends.
I’ve often thought about what I might have done as an average German citizen in the 1930s. Would I have been silent? Complicit? Minding my own business and going along with the ruling authority? I’d like to think that I would have aspired to the moral integrity of the heroes whose names and stories I also saw exhibited at the Holocaust Museum. Raoul Wallenberg and Tina Strobos and Malvina Csizmadia and dozens of others. Some of these heroes are alive still, now in their late 80s and 90s. I stopped to read a few of their stories, awed by their courage and their impact.
As I exited the museum at closing time, I paused for a minute to ponder the famous post-war quotation on the dangers of political apathy by German Protestant minister Martin Niemöller, who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. The quotation, now immortalized in carving on a concrete museum wall, carries forth an urgent message to America in 2016. Will I speak out? Will you?
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.