(Yesterday, one of my newspapers asked me to write a few lines to accompany the editorial cartoon video you see here, ‘Transition of Power.’ I sent them a short paragraph, but realized I had more to say on the matter.)
In the 1980s, my father was stationed in Lahr, West Germany with the Canadian Armed Forces. Growing up overseas was a privilege, but during the Cold War, there was no doubt as to why we were there. Our Canadian schools ensured we got the most out of our time in Europe. We were able to see a lot of it, were exposed to different cultures and we learned its history.
A school visit to Dachau concentration camp had a profound impact on me as did visits to other World War II sites. The history of that era is something I’ve read about a great deal in the more than three decades since.
Most recently, I’ve read the Third Reich trilogy by British historian Richard J. Evans, which details the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. It was a bit of a slog to get through it, but well worth the effort. While there are many differences between the world of the 1930s and today, the similarities to today’s climate in the U.S. can’t be ignored.
There is a well-known internet adage called Godwin’s Law. It states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.”
It’s true. We tend to be cavalier with the assertion and most often, it’s unwarranted. The mere mention of Hitler in the same sentence as a current leader is looked upon with derision, along with accusations of lazy logic. Some might say that to compare the current U.S. President to the leader of the Third Reich is irresponsible and inappropriate, largely because it amounts to placing a living human being in the same company as a man who is considered to be the worst mass murderer the world has ever known.
So why is this different?
Today, we have the benefit of hindsight, to see what was allowed to happen in Europe of the late 30s and early 40s once the invasion of other countries began. While world politicians talked, worried about polls, votes and public perception, the ball continued to roll toward what we now know as the worst genocide in human history.
And by the time enough people noticed, it was too late.
We can pretend that what’s going in America is politics as usual, that things will settle down soon and he’ll mellow into the job, despite there being no sign of this happening. It has become cliché to say that we ignore our history at our own peril, and yet we continue to do so time and again.
Hitler surrounded himself with men who supported his views, some who entertained demons far worse than his own. These were men he tasked with carrying out his orders, but also whose appointment gave tacit approval to come up with orders of their own. And they did.
Goebbels, Bormann, Himmler, Eichmann, Mengele, and more. Without Hitler, these men might never have been put in positions that allowed them to achieve their full, horrific potential.
So it isn’t just one man being compared to another, it’s what that one man represents. It’s what he allows simply by his presence.
We forget that Hitler didn’t start by building concentration camps. He started by promising to build a better Germany for Germans, swore to return the Fatherland to its former greatness, and he pointed fingers at minorities and said they were to blame for all that was wrong in the world, then he compared them to vermin.
Yes, the blame rests largely on his shoulders. Hitler wrote the tune and he conducted the orchestra, but he wasn’t the one playing the instruments.
The score was performed by the German people of the time, a shame they later had to live with. Had they known what they were allowing in the 1930s when they failed to speak up, had they a glimpse into the future to see the legacy of their misplaced rage, would they have changed course?
We can never know. How could they possibly have imagined the nightmare to come?
But that is what it means to learn from history, to see the same patterns repeating and to make different choices. Unlike the German people, we know too well what is possible when bad men are given power.
If we allow men like Donald Trump and those he enables to flourish, to explore the full potential of the seemingly limitless power they are currently testing and exploiting, the shame will rest on all of our shoulders.
Will Donald Trump and his inner circle become as monstrous as Hitler and his followers?
I doubt it.
But how far down that road is far enough? A quarter of the way? Half the way?
What are we willing to give up in order to find out?