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Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it

Parallels from Germany under Hitler

by Sibylla Wallenborn

I was born in Germany in 1943. My first two years of life were filled with war, hunger, and depression. My youngest memories are of climbing over the rubble left when bombs fell on my city to stand in line for hours for rations. A family of four was able to receive 3/4 liter of non-fat milk per week. The milk was often grey in color. Families struggled without fathers and brothers lost in the war. There were no widow’s benefits. Hunger, exhaustion, cold, and defeat ruled the German existence. It didn’t really start getting better until I was seven, when food became easier to obtain and the country began to recover. When I was 12, I started reading the books written by survivors of the concentration camps. I became ashamed of my nationality and swore to leave Germany as soon as I could stand on my own two feet.

At 20 years old I left for England. I met my husband there, and by 1969 we had moved to the United States, where we raised our daughter. It is sad to see this great nation growing to have so many parallels with the crisis that overtook Germany in the 1930s-40s.

The parallels are shocking:

The Weimar Republic failed six million people, who were left jobless with no social safety nets. The economic crash lead to an impoverished and desperate nation. January 1933 makes the end of efforts to support the previously existing economic, social, and political systems. The last ‘free’ election was held in 1933, and people began to look for solutions outside the set political system.

Despite inheriting a growing economy from the president before him, Donald Trump played up the poverty and joblessness of American people to help build a base. People who weren’t yet seeing the growth other areas where, who were still struggling in the wake of the Great Recession, were easily swayed to believe the current system was broken and against them. “Drain the swamp!” They rallied to a man whose best qualification was that he had no idea what he was doing.

From the chaos following World War I, Adolph Hitler rose from obscurity to a figure of power and authority, promising to make Germany great again, challenge set norms, and change society. He ended established societal norms and closed down programs important to German citizens. His Nazi party joined up with the German Nationalist party, who were the majority in parliament. He consolidated the roles of chancellor and president into his own hand. Around 1933, he installed the ‘enabling law’, freeing him from control of the parliament or the German constitution. He selected his staff very carefully to support him, instituting draconian methods to enforce his will on all aspects of life in Germany. When the German National Party tried to reign him in, the party was declared null and void by Hitler.

When Trump initially launched his campaign, established Republicans shied away. Numerous republicans fierce rejected the notion of being the ‘Party of Trump’, and were disgusted by him at the debates, where his blatant disrespect, even for other candidates, and for everyone else became apparent. As soon as he won the nomination, those critics fell silent. Any Republicans who have dared speak out are declared traitors. Trump began dismantling any program set in place by his predecessor, including attacking the Affordable Care Act, which ironically helped to support many of the people who voted Trump into office. Trump has declared that he has the ultimate authority on anything, in direct violation of the American Constitution.

The first concentration camps were constructed in 1933, and all who resisted the Reich were incarcerated. Following a failed assassination attempt on July 20, 1944, the German elite, along with any known family and associates, were rounded up and eradicated. Every political leader of every German state had to swear an oath of loyalty to him. Violating the oath was punishable by death.

As part of Trump’s campaign of fear against “Mexicans” (and by that he generally means anyone from south of the US border) has allowed him to construct camps along the southern border, holding refugees and those his administration has caught and detained in filthy, inhumane conditions. Children are torn from their parents and kept in cages. Trump fires anyone who dares speak out against him and immediately launches a smear campaign on their character, occasionally demanding they be locked up in jail for the crime of disagreeing with him. The voting landscape has been increasingly gerrymandered to help his supporters win seats at every political level. He has engaged in voter suppression tactics to help silence the voices who might speak against him, disproportionately targeting those on the other side of politics.

Hitler outlawed free speech- owning a printing press became illegal, as it might detract from the alternative reality he was weaving.

Trump has attacked the free media, branding anything that doesn’t support him as “fake news” and undermining one of the founding principles of our first amendment. His hatred and disrespect for news, media, and journalists themselves has led to a period of deep mistrust in those institutions. People now feel free to seek “alternative facts” when presented with information they don’t like, an oxymoron that has come to define his presidency. Fox News alone seems immune from the hatred, because they peddle the lies spewing from the White House and are content to be his propaganda mouthpiece. Hitler too had his own propaganda machines.

So how was Hitler so successful at rising to power? He promised jobs. Jobs, even with low wages, were guaranteed for two years, giving people at least a modicum of food and shelter security. Those jobs entailed helping to build Hitler’s war machine. Within a few weeks, workers lost their rights, unions were smashed, and industry became heavily regulated. He financed his war machine with loans and by printing bank notes. The nation fell deeper into debt than it ever had before. In 1936 Hitler set his goal for defense, saying the Germany army had to be ready in four years, and the economy had to able to finance a war within that time frame.

Even though the United States defense budget is the largest in the world, significantly larger than that of all European countries combined, Trump demands more money for the military. There is no accountability on how that money is spent.

World War II broke out in 1939, and in addition to the horrendous number of casualties of the war itself, millions of Jews, ethnic minorities, prisoners of war, German political opponents, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and non-Jewish civilians were murdered in the concentration camps. All were exterminated in the name of the “final solution”- Hitler’s plan to give the German “master race” lots of room and a luxurious existence.

Trump and his base advocate for anyone who disagrees with them to either be jailed or removed from the country. “If you like socialism so much move to China!” “Lock her up!”. He has routinely used racist language to refer to ethnic minorities, including hispanics and blacks. He has praised white nationalists and white supremacists as “very fine people”, allowing a previously marginalized group of society to rise up in prominence and get louder and bolder, with anti-Semitic attacks increasing in frequency.

The United States stands on the precipice. Our national debt is enormous, and people are still impoverished. Institutionalized racism is at the head of everyday life, and our nation’s leaders promote further hatred and anger of the “other”. Our Great American Melting Pot of cultures and people is in danger of boiling over, perhaps already has. The country once known as the greatest nation in the world, a paradigm of democracy and equality, has become an international laughingstock at best and a pitiable, horrible place at worst. Our freedom of speech is under attack, our very values are being eroded away. We cannot stand in silence at this affront to our lives and liberty. We must learn from the past so we can move forward into a brighter future, together.

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