It's the 84th anniversary of the Reichstag fire. Timothy Snyder in the NYRB:
On February 27, 1933 the German Parliament building burned, Adolf Hitler rejoiced, and the Nazi era began. Hitler, who had just been named head of a government that was legally formed after the democratic elections of the previous November, seized the opportunity to change the system. “There will be no mercy now,” he exulted. “Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.”
The next day, at Hitler’s advice and urging, the German president issued a decree “for the protection of the people and the state.” It deprived all German citizens of basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly and made them subject to “preventative detention” by the police. A week later, the Nazi party, having claimed that the fire was the beginning of a major terror campaign by the Left, won a decisive victory in parliamentary elections. Nazi paramilitaries and the police then began to arrest political enemies and place them in concentration camps. Shortly thereafter, the new parliament passed an “enabling act” that allowed Hitler to rule by decree.
After 1933, the Nazi regime made use of a supposed threat of terrorism against Germans from an imaginary international Jewish conspiracy. After five years of repressing Jews, in 1938 the German state began to deport them. On October 27 of that year, the German police arrested about 17,000 Jews from Poland and deported them across the Polish border. A young man named Herschel Grynszpan, sent to Paris by his parents, received a desperate postcard from his sister after his family was forced across the Polish border. He bought a gun, went to the German embassy, and shot a German diplomat. He called this an act of revenge for the suffering of his family and his people. Nazi propagandists presented it as evidence of an international Jewish conspiracy preparing a terror campaign against the entire German people. Josef Goebbels used it as the pretext to organize the events we remember as Kristallnacht, a massive national pogrom of Jews that left hundreds dead.
The Reichstag fire shows how quickly a modern republic can be transformed into an authoritarian regime....
Clearly, a Trump comparison is coming:
If we know the history of terror manipulation, we can recognize the danger signs, and be prepared to react. It is already worrying that the president speaks unfavorably of democracy, while admiring foreign manipulators of terror. It is also of concern that the administration speaks of terrorist attacks that never took place, whether in Bowling Green or Sweden, while banning citizens from seven countries that have never been tied to any attack in the United States.
It is alarming that in a series of catastrophic executive policy decisions—the president’s Muslim travel ban, his selection of Steve Bannon as his main political adviser, his short-lived appointment of Michael Flynn as national security adviser, his proposal to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem—there seems to be a single common element: the stigmatization and provocation of Muslims. In rhetoric and action, the Trump administration has aggrandized “radical Islamic terror” thus making what Madison called a “favorable emergency” more likely.
Hmm. Concerns there undoubtedly are, but drawing such crude parallels clouds rather than clarifies the debate. And equating Jews in the 1930s with Muslims now is grotesque - especially given the virulent antisemitism still so commonplace in the Muslim world.
As it happens Michael Gove (yes, Michael Gove) reviewed Snyder's latest book (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century) in the Times (£) on Saturday, and made some relevant points:
[W]here Snyder falls down is his willingness, again and again, to reach for comparisons to the Nazis to alert us to present dangers. And specifically to invite comparisons between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump. On page 31 of his book Snyder speculates that the elections of 2016 may be the last democratic elections in his country, just like the German elections of 1932 that presaged Hitler’s seizure of total power.
On page 45 of his book he chooses to compare Trump’s behaviour at campaign rallies to the deployment of the SS. On page 60 he chooses to compare Trump’s rhetoric explicitly to Hitler’s. On page 67 he goes further and brackets Trump’s stump speeches with the “shamanistic incantation” of Hitler. On page 73 he compares Trump’s attitude to any opposition to Hitler’s approach to critics. On page 82 he compares feelings of fear on the streets of the US today with totalitarian terror in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. On page 110 Hitler’s exploitation of the Reichstag fire is compared to Trump’s approach to terrorism.
It shouldn’t need saying, but let me restate it for the avoidance of doubt, that Trump is a man of many flaws. If I were an American I would not have voted for him and as a Briton I can say freely that I disagree with him on a host of issues — from his travel ban to his tariff plans. As our prime minister has said, some of his comments have been unacceptable and some of his policies are indefensible. However, vulgar and boorish though he may sometimes be, and wrongly conceived and poorly executed as some of his policies may be, he is not a genocidal maniac. He is not, to quote Snyder’s chilling phrase, “standing over death pits with a gun in his hand”. He is not Adolf Hitler.
By comparing Trump to Hitler, criticism of Trump is less effective because it is so crudely exaggerated it is easier to dismiss. Snyder has some acute points to make about Trump, not least his relations with Russia, but the acuity of his critique is diminished because it is yoked to so many unjustified Nazi references.
More than that, there is a cheapening of the specific evil of Nazism, a diminution of the debt we owe to its victims, in so promiscuously using references to that regime to make contemporary political points. It is a sin that many, including I, have committed. When any of us do, we should apologise. History, as Snyder says, does not repeat, but it does instruct. And one of its most powerful lessons is that when we seek to damn our enemies by anathematising them as massively and grotesquely evil we risk undermining democracy’s precious fabric.