Was Nazi Germany Everyone’s Fault? Is trump’s America?

‘…[H]istorian Richard J. Evans argues against the popular conception.

— Pacific Standard
(Photo: tk_five_0/Flickr)

Historical inquiries into the rise of totalitarian regimes tend to conclude that they were either no one’s fault or everyone’s. For instance, when the US invaded Iraq, ostensibly to topple Saddam, the argument was that he had no popular support and Iraqis would welcome their liberators and rise up en masse.

On the other hand, the consensus has been that Hitler’s rise required mass acquiescence and complicity from ‘good Germans’, and thus their culpability. Most opined that Hitler did not maintain power by violence but rather popular support — pointing to votes in which he received more than 90% approval — and that Nazi terror was directed almost entirely against marginal groups in the service of Aryan supremacy, which appealed to the masses.

The counterargument is that the Germans retroactively interviewd to create that impression would have been young in the ’30’s, and that Nazi propaganda was most effective with younger Germans. A revisionist view is that it is not straightforward to determine the level of public approval for a totalitarian regime. Arguably, there is evidence that Nazi violence was directed against major segments of the German population, especially the working class. In this view, the plebiscites establishing support for Hitler were not free or fair and that those who tried to vote against him were considered traitors and at times beaten by his brownshirts.

There is probably a middle ground between mass culpability and mass innocence, and the sources of political authority are not black or white.

‘People certainly knew about the Holocaust, but that didn’t mean all supported it. Some actively participated. Some were tacitly accepting. And some substantial number disapproved, but were politically neutralized by widespread Nazi terror…’

Much of this has a bearing on the specter of authoritarianism arising in trump’s America in the past four years. The events playing out now represent the greatest potential America has seen for a descent into totalitarianism. It would be hard to argue that the 70 million red staters who supported trump were intimidated by overt terror or the threat of terror. Ballot boxes have clearly not been stuffed to distort the outcomes of the vote, except in trump’s autistic deluded statements about “BIG wins” that are evident to none but himself. And trump’s “brownshirts”, by and large, have not been beating up those who try to vote against him.

But have his supporters, in some sense, been innocent culpable ‘good Germans’? And to what extent is that true of his GOP functionaries and those who have refused to stand against him? In my earlier essay “Is The Coup Happening?” I catalogued some of the disparate motivations at work in his supporters’ complicity in trump’s defiance of the need to accept he lost the election. How do we tease apart the contribution of the appeal of totalitarianism in their support?

One might suggest that terrorizing the working class is playing a role here — duping them into acting against their own interests and suffering for it without even realizing. Some of this relates to the advances in the power of subtle mind control through the mass media in modern America as contrasted with Germany of the ’30’s. I return time and time again to the arguments of Jerry Mander in his provocative 1978 book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, about halfway between the Nazis and us. One of his most powerful expositions was of the ways in which the reductionistic presentation of information on TV and the inherent passivity of the viewer create fertile grounds for our political disempowerment and authoritarian control. This may be even more true in the post-TV internet era. (Is Google making us stupid?) (Parenthetically, one of the strongest antidotes to this is — quite simply — reading.) Related to this is the explosive growth of psychological expertise in manipulative mind control in the advertising and mass marketing industries, techniques clearly exploited in the methodology of media creation trump’s will to power and fabrication of reality.

Certainly innocent susceptibility to propaganda has played a role, as has the appeal of racial purity and tribalism, as they did in Germany. That the “majority minority” US of the 2010’s is a more heterogeneous society than the Germany of the 1930’s makes the appeal to homogeneity and demonization of the outsider much less impactful, makes it easier for those of us who assert that “Black Lives Matter” to stand against, and contributes to the fact that he only garners around 50% rather than 90% support. But now, when we have to think about what degree of reconciliation and healing is desirable and possible with trump gone, we must decide how fair or unfair it is to assume that most or even many of that 70 million bear responsibility for the actions of the trump regime. Let us hope we continue to appreciate how much messier it is than that.