Third Reich historian Richard Evans worries the similarities between the 1930s and now are too close for comfortHistorians in the News
tags: Nazi, Richard Evans, Trump, Third Reich
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Richard Evans established himself as arguably the pre-eminent historian of 20th-century Germany with his astonishing trilogy on the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Beginning after the cataclysm of the First World War with The Coming of the Third Reich; continuing with the Nazi regime’s first six years in power; and concluding with Nazism’s military aggression, genocide, and eventual defeat, Evans’ books explore Germany from the perspective of both its leaders and its citizens, including perpetrators, victims, and everyone in between.
America is not Germany, and this is not 1938, let alone 1933. But as an expert on fascism and as a historian who has written about how authoritarian regimes accumulate power, Evans has particular insight into the early days of the Trump administration. (The new movie Denial, which is about the libel suit brought against historian Deborah Lipstadt by Holocaust denier David Irving, features Evans—or rather an actor playing him—as the crucial witness, as indeed he was in real life.)
I spoke by phone with Evans, who is based in England and whose latest book is The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, this week. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the differences and similarities between the 1930s and today, why fascists need to undermine the legal system, and the danger of calling seemingly unbalanced leaders “crazy.”
Isaac Chotiner: What do you make of Trump as a leader in these early days, and how would you compare it to the way other authoritarians have started their time in power?
Richard Evans: When you look at President Trump’s statements, I’m afraid you do see echoes, and they are very alarming. For example, the stigmatization of minorities. First of all, the Trump White House failed to mention the Jews in its statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. And that is very worrying because the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews was not just a genocide; it had a special quality, because Hitler and the Nazis regarded the Jews as an existential threat to Germany. They used hyperbolic and exaggerated language about Jews. If the Jews were not killed, the Nazis said, they would destroy Germany completely, whereas other groups that the Nazis stigmatized, discriminated against, and indeed murdered, like the handicapped, were only to be gotten out of the way. If you look at the language the Trump team has been using about Islamic extremist jihadis, it is exactly the same: They are an existential threat to America. They will defeat, dominate, and destroy America. That is a very extreme kind of language and a very disturbing echo.
Trump has also been attacking the judiciary. What is the importance of that, and what echoes do you see there?
I think if you look at Hitler’s seizure of power, which happened between his appointment in January 1933 and the summer of 1933, it was achieved by two means. One is by legal, or pseudolegal, means, and there he had to rush legislation past the national parliament in order to give him supreme power to make laws. These laws included, in the end, setting up a one-party state, and also closing down oppositional newspapers, and so on. And of course Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, was an inveterate and incorrigible liar. He was an inventor of news. And he also was very strongly attacked in the liberal and left-wing press and threatened to shut it down, and in the end he actually did. Or he took it over.
The other one is violence on the streets. That is a particular characteristic of fascism and Nazism, after World War I had really got people used to violence and military bands roaming the street beating up their opponents. That is obviously not happening in America today. I think anyone who wanted to destroy America, American democracy, and American institutions is going to use the power of the state to do so. They won’t have their own private armies. That, I think, is a difference.
Again, if you look at the courts, that’s one of the most interesting aspects of what Trump has been doing. He clearly has a contempt for the courts and the law, which echoes that of the Nazis very, very clearly. The courts and the law enforcement agencies did stand up to Hitler. A very famous example is, later in 1933, the trial of the people who Hitler had alleged had burned down the Reichstag earlier in the year. The courts acquitted all but one of them, thus completely undermining Hitler’s claim that the communists started the fire. Hitler then bypassed the courts. He set up a parallel system of justice, the so-called special courts and the people’s courts. In the end, the courts knuckled under, but it was quite a fight. ...