Many Americans are concerned about their place in an economic and social order that is rapidly changing before their eyes. A charismatic leader talks of making a country great again, by protecting one group of people from another group, though they are neighbors. He claims we are broken and that only he can fix us. Emotions are stirred. Facts are ignored.
If you are looking for societal parallels between today’s America and Europe in the 1930s, you will find them.
Let me be clear: I am not accusing Donald Trump of planning a genocide. I do not believe he condones the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis, nor am I accusing his supporters of so much as harboring anti-Semitic tendencies. In short, I am not comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler.
I am saying, unequivocally, that we ignore history at our peril. I am saying that the 300 million non-Jewish Europeans who did nothing to stand up for Jews, gypsies, gays and others who were being first disparaged verbally and then, not so long after, rounded up and systematically exterminated, were not terribly different from most of us.
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I am saying: Don’t kid yourself. It can happen again. Indeed, it has, in other parts of the world, with horrifying frequency, since then. It can happen anywhere. It can happen here.
But don’t take my word for it. Take the word of history. Look back to the Fascist movements in Italy when they didn’t ask for allegiance to the nation, they asked for allegiance to a leader. Then watch a Trump rally, where the wealthiest nation the world has ever known is painted as teetering on the edge of insolvency and insurrection, and one man is presented as its only hope for salvation. Note well the appeal to emotion rather than reason.
Read up on the how the Nazis spread rumors that Jewish ghettos were epicenters of epidemics, breeding grounds for disease and the Jews must therefore be quarantined, kept out of society, for the safety of the German people.
Then consider the call to ban Muslims from the United States. Listen the chants — “Build a wall! Build a wall!”
Whether to keep a people out or keep them contained, a politically motivated call for quarantine or separation is unlikely to end well for a vulnerable population deemed dangerous for any reason.
Look at how language was used in the Nazi era — code words like “liquidation,” and “final solution” meant to dehumanize victims, and“aktion,” – a wink and a nod that meant mass deployment of violence against Jews in the area. Now consider statements that suggest “Second Amendment people,” can “do something,” about Hillary Clinton and any judges she appoints.
Alas, few are likely to take the time to do this historical work. We are busy people and we do not, we claim, have time to sort through the constant barrage of propaganda masquerading as news, and lies and innuendos masquerading as facts.
Our media gatekeepers offer “fact checks” after publicizing the lies and half truths so unquestioningly, and so often, that they hardly matter.
So we tell ourselves we will vote, and on Nov. 9, we will wake up and it will all be OK.
Some of us even tell ourselves we can hold our noses and vote for a candidate of our particular political party, despite what that candidate says and stands for, because our party and our democratic system is strong enough to survive.
We tell ourselves we are different than those 300 million Europeans whose indifference paved the way for the Holocaust.
We should know better.
Alan Berger is the Raddick Family Eminent Scholar Chair of Holocaust Studies and director of the Center for the Study of Values and Violence After Auschwitz at Florida Atlantic University.