It Can Happen Here
June 16, 2018 4:09 PM   Subscribe

It Can Happen Here
Liberal democracy has enjoyed much better days. Vladimir Putin has entrenched authoritarian rule and is firmly in charge of a resurgent Russia. In global influence, China may have surpassed the United States, and Chinese president Xi Jinping is now empowered to remain in office indefinitely. In light of recent turns toward authoritarianism in Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the Philippines, there is widespread talk of a “democratic recession.” In the United States, President Donald Trump may not be sufficiently committed to constitutional principles of democratic government.

In such a time, we might be tempted to try to learn something from earlier turns toward authoritarianism, particularly the triumphant rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s. The problem is that Nazism was so horrifying and so barbaric that for many people in nations where authoritarianism is now achieving a foothold, it is hard to see parallels between Hitler’s regime and their own governments. Many accounts of the Nazi period depict a barely imaginable series of events, a nation gone mad. That makes it easy to take comfort in the thought that it can’t happen again.

But some depictions of Hitler’s rise are more intimate and personal. They focus less on well-known leaders, significant events, state propaganda, murders, and war, and more on the details of individual lives. They help explain how people can not only participate in dreadful things but also stand by quietly and live fairly ordinary days in the midst of them. They offer lessons for people who now live with genuine horrors, and also for those to whom horrors may never come but who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.
posted by y2karl (42 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
It seems to me willful naivete to think it can't, even prior to now. There were Nazi rallies in Madison Square Garden and the American business community loved fascist Italy right up until it didn't. The current environment is particularly ironic in its parallels--the right convinced it can control him, the left arguing over who the true leftist is with some accelerationism thrown in--but it's not like we were special.

Hell, we refined the modern version in South America. As per Naomi Klein, you just ram through as many changes as possible as fast as possible to keep people too backfooted and tired to react. It quickly goes from unbelievable to trite to passe. Imagine if Comey had been using a private email server in the prime of BUT HER EMAILS. But now, who cares? There's kids in internment camps. There's always another outrage over the next hill.

Which is the idea, of course.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:16 PM on June 16, 2018 [41 favorites]

Not done yet, but I’m actually finding this a little encouraging so far?
When Mayer returned home, he was afraid for his own country. He felt “that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man,” and that under the right conditions, he could well have turned out as his German friends did. He learned that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.”
Most of us hate him and their policies! Right? Yes. I’m not googling polls, because that way madness lies, but it’s still like...40% Nazi, tops, right?

Mayer suggests that even when tyrannical governments do horrific things, outsiders tend to exaggerate their effects on the actual experiences of most citizens, who focus on their own lives and “the sights which meet them in their daily rounds.” Nazism made things better for the people Mayer interviewed, not (as many think) because it restored some lost national pride but because it improved daily life. Germans had jobs and better housing. They were able to vacation in Norway or Spain through the “Strength Through Joy” program. Fewer people were hungry or cold, and the sick were more likely to receive treatment. The blessings of the New Order, as it was called, seemed to be enjoyed by “everybody.”
Now I definitely feel better. Even if these assholes were smart enough to bribe white people into supporting white supremist fascism, they’re not competent enough to pull it off.

Thin comfort, you say?

Let me have this.
posted by schadenfrau at 4:31 PM on June 16, 2018 [17 favorites]

The people in the first book were all in Marburg, the people in the second book I didn’t seem to catch where they were at, but based on my reading of Berlin Stories it seems like Berlin was a very raucous, violent and fractured place with several political ideologies in conflict. I imagine those groups and beliefs didn’t suddenly convert to Nazism after the Night Of The Long Knives but instead realized they should probably go way underground and keep quiet, choosing instead to find different ways to resist.

This leads me to wonder now about how different German cities had different generalized experiences under Nazism.

At any rate this is a great article and gives a nuanced view on the mid to late 1930’s Germany that I’ve been looking for. I’ll be checking these books out.
posted by nikaspark at 4:48 PM on June 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Those seeking a little more clarity before clicking: the link's to a NYRB article contrasting three books: one new (Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century, by Konrad H. Jarausch) one old (the excellent They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 by Milton Mayer) and a 1939 memoir first published in English in 2003, Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler.
posted by Rash at 4:52 PM on June 16, 2018 [9 favorites]

Well, that makes me want to throw up.

I mean, thanks for posting, great article. Also I want to throw up. Or possibly print out one of those Trumpler signs and start waving it on the street corner.
posted by bq at 5:19 PM on June 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

I found this part chilling...

“we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.”

It reminds me of now, when news only matters for about 12 hours, only to be forgotten in favor of the next outrage.
posted by Tiny Lee at 5:20 PM on June 16, 2018 [19 favorites]

In Origins of Totalitarianism , in the last third of the book, Hannah Arendt casually mentions that before the germans rolled through eastern europe, the democracies of eastern europe had already dismantled thenselves and handed themselves over to strongmen. That had always struck me: German Fascism didn't topple fledgling interwar democracies, it took over existing dictatorships.

If nazi germany had been as powerful as the US war machine is now, i shudder to think of the consequences.

To the barricades to the barricades its late but not to late!
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 5:42 PM on June 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

Really important to remember in any version of this discussion (from a Jew): there never weren't Nazis. None of this is obviously new, none of it was ever new, as is pointed out in the article. If you just found out about it because of today's political climate that's fine, but none of this is new has been our refrain for years and years and years that was ignored or belittled until it was topical. Antisemitism wasn't real until it hit home for people who it doesn't effect, as is the case with these things each time. We have always known it can happen again.
posted by colorblock sock at 5:52 PM on June 16, 2018 [47 favorites]

From the article: "the ultimate safeguard against aspiring authoritarians, and wolves of all kinds, lies in individual conscience: in “decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large.” " I feel this is true, and it's why I've started volunteering for local DSA events despite hating politics. Not only because my conscience is nagging me, but also to help nudge the collective conscience toward doing the right thing.

Times may be scary but it's still very easy to ignore what happens outside our immediate worlds, and for the lucky among us with good jobs and comfortable lives, the scary stuff can seem far away. Whatever tiny bit of good I can do in the fight for democracy will hopefully make a few other people think that maybe they should also step up, and we can start a ripple effect.

I remember discussing In the Garden of Beasts with friends a few years ago and one idea that really stuck with me was that we normally only realize the point at which things have gone too far in hindsight. (That is, those of us not directly affected by the things in question.) So I'm trying to do my bit before it's too late - I really don't want to spend my retirement manning the barricades, I'm too old for this shit.
posted by Quietgal at 6:17 PM on June 16, 2018 [12 favorites]

We are living INSIDE a pogrom as the world has before, the difference is we are doing it with 24/7 news cycles..........missing it every day.
posted by Freedomboy at 7:26 PM on June 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

A fictional perspective on this is The Conformist, by Alberto Moravia. The book focuses on a man in fascist Italy, and his life just before the war. He has had a troubled childhood, and desires nothing other than normalcy, which he finds in the fascist party. The appeal is not the ideology, but rather in the fact that everyone else is doing it. Fascism provides a thrillingly normal experience for Marco, the protagonist.
posted by codacorolla at 7:26 PM on June 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

It Never Actually, Entirely Stopped Happening Here
posted by penduluum at 7:35 PM on June 16, 2018 [17 favorites]

Bring back General Sherman
posted by moorooka at 9:01 PM on June 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think the “It never stopped happening here” reason is a combination of US specific racist and European colonial bullshit mixed in with Ur-Fascism as described by Umberto Eco. I still believe Nazism was a escalation on top of that.
posted by nikaspark at 9:09 PM on June 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

There were Nazi rallies in Madison Square Garden and the American business community loved fascist Italy right up until it didn't.

Heck, one of the things that could get you blacklisted during the Red Scare was having been anti-Hitler before the U.S. and Germany were officially at war.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:58 PM on June 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

it makes total sense to me that germans felt fine with hitler up to--and even after-- the war, at least until the wall went up and shit got really, really real. i fear the only way to expunge reactionary nationalists and fascists is for their own popular base to experience a crisis bigger than their fear of the future or the scapegoated minority of the day that riled them up in the first place. today, trumpies are still doing fine enough that they wont bail on him even if he starts doing proto-fascist stuff, like shooting protesters with live ammo, or even calling off an election. what's it gonna take to move them? maybe another great recession, or a war, or both. short of that, i see trump or another iteration of him ending american democracy within the next decade or two. problem is, destructive technology now is far greater than it was in eras of dictators past. i am not sanguine.
posted by wibari at 12:01 AM on June 17, 2018

Seconding The Conformist in movie form.
posted by kokaku at 12:57 AM on June 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

There's an excellent BBC television documentary series called The Nazis: A Warning From History, episodes from which seem to be available free online here.

The series was first shown in 1997. Part of the BBC's response to Trump was to quietly start running it again in February 2017, just a couple of weeks after the toxic dimwit's inauguration.
posted by Paul Slade at 1:11 AM on June 17, 2018 [10 favorites]

Many Germans were not so much pro-Hitler as anti-anti-Hitler—and their opposition to Hitler’s adversaries aided his rise. Decades afterward, memoirists referred to their “happy times” in the Hitler Youth, focusing not on ideology but on hiking trips, camaraderie, and summer camps.
I wonder if there is a parallel here to contemporary Americans who hate politics, ignore politics, don't want to talk about anything political. Ignorance is my luxury, if I want it, because I am the beneficiary of societal injustice. But when I am confronted with the injustices that benefit me, maybe I start to get angry at those ungrateful, holier-than-thou Social Justice Warriors. Facing the reality of injustice forces me to consciously take a side, when up until now I was a passive participant in an oppressive system. Hence the folks who fancied themselves cheerfully apolitical until people started informing them that Black Lives Matter, etc.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 3:05 AM on June 17, 2018 [33 favorites]

Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday is also important reading on this topic.
posted by chavenet at 3:16 AM on June 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

How many times have I heard someone deny fascism, simply because no one was rounding up Jews? Why must these two things always be equated in so many minds? It is as if, to many, it's all okay so long as Jews aren't being forced to wear yellow stars.

It didn't start with the stars and the Jews. But I guess, to many, it started with groups that it was okay to persecute. Like queers and "gypsies". Groups that didn't matter, or were outright undesirable. Cripples too, IIRC.

If you wait until they come for the Jews, it's too late.
posted by Goofyy at 4:35 AM on June 17, 2018 [11 favorites]

A bewildering thing about Naziism in particular is that the modern official/mainstream German attitude about it seems like the only instance of a country reckoning with any if its historial faults. I'm pretty sure the typical French person doesn't feel like France needs to apologize for its role in the Rwanda massacres. Does Japan own up to its atrocities? The best answer I can tell is "kinda but not really". Turks deny the Armenian genocide.

And on top of that, German guilt didn't just happen, it had to be imposed form the outside, with denazification and dropped "YOU DID THIS" pamphlets. I think that gets forgotten too easily, and people assume the Holocaust's evil was obvious in retrospect. Human history and behavior says that's not. To this day in the USA it's mainstream to deny the Confederacy's fundamental purpose, and even to minimize the evil of Atlantic slavery itself.

Goofyy: But I guess, to many, it started with groups that it was okay to persecute.

And a thing about prejudice is that it never looks that way on the inside. You can't get an ostensibly non-antisemitic Islamophobe to recognize the parallels to antisemitism, even if this person goes on and on about how Nazis were evil liberals or whatever… and that's precisely because they share a mentality with antisemites, whereby the people in question are just obviously "other". It's so insidious.
posted by InTheYear2017 at 5:44 AM on June 17, 2018 [8 favorites]

Please call them Roma and Sinti, after going to the memorial in Berlin a week or so back and seeing what happened to them I just can’t see the word “Gypsy” as anything other than an absolutely violent made up term that’s among the worst racial slurs out there.

I cried, then walked over to the monument for the LGBT people, I walked to Bebelplatz, then over to the monument to Magnus Hirschfeld...I cried a lot.

Did you know that after the allied forces liberated the concentration camps they left the LGBT people there? Because being gay was a crime. Did you know after LGBT were let go from the concentration camps that postwar Germany arrested them and put them into prison were most of them died there? And that to this day there is a refusal to grant any financial reparation of any kind to LGBT people affected by the holocaust because according to the German government “we don’t breed”?

Yes I know just how absolutely fucking devastating the Nazis were to my people. And yes I know how absolutely evil, brainless and fucked up every discrimination, pogrom and genocide before and after the Nazis has been and still is. I feel this deeply and personally because as a trans person the destruction of Magnus Hirschfeld’s institute for sex research put the world back about a hundred years on medical advances for trans people. Because, you know, trans people were taking hormone replacement therapy in 1919. I can well imagine that if Nazism hadn’t hadn’t risen like it did I wouldn’t have suffered 38 years trying to force myself to be a cis person before I finally had to face the fact of who I am.

So yes, I understand these things. I also understand that what happened to my people also happened to Roma and Sinti people, to black people, to Jewish people, to disabled people. The stark intentional evil perpetrated upon us by the Nazis was a particularly pointed form of evil and for all that trump is buffoon, I don’t see him quite as absolutely horrific as Hitler and his men were. I’m watching with a keen mind, certainly, because some form of evil is emergent In the US and knowing history helps to understand. That said I don’t think we have gotten to 1932 Berlin quite yet IMO.

And if we do. React.
posted by nikaspark at 5:57 AM on June 17, 2018 [10 favorites]

This leads me to wonder now about how different German cities had different generalized experiences under Nazism.

Volker Ullrich's Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 is quite good on this. I highly recommend it.

"His dismantling of the fragile democratic norms should have come as no surprise. [He] had always been frank about his intentions. His coalition partners either thought he wasn’t serious, or they could control him": an epitaph for their time, and ours.
posted by adamgreenfield at 6:05 AM on June 17, 2018 [10 favorites]

Bit of a link dump coming up (sorry y2karl). I think these are better here than in a separate thread.
It's not so much It Can Happen Here as It is Happening Here.
None of what is happening should be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.
I think parrt of the problem is that people are shouting NAZI which is completely true, but to those not comprehending, and there are many, this brings up a certain almost cartoonish images of pencil moustaches and jackboots from a time out of modern day experiance when it is in fact much more insidious.
The American Taliban might be a slightly better description of the mindset of these people walking the streets looking at first sight like everybody else.
Dominionism Rising: A Theocratic Movement Hiding In Plain Sight.
Mefi first started noticing this back in 2004 and there have also been several posts about The Family and CStreet.
In 2012 there were warning articles such as: How is Dominionism Getting into Politics? Meet the Apostles and Prophets of the NAR and then during the election How Dominionists Gained Control Of The Trump Campaign which resulted in Trump Inauguration Looms, Bigots, Racists, And Dominionist Christians Rejoice.
It's not exactly a secret: Here's What the Trump Cabinet Bible Study Is Learning: Leader Responds to Attacks.
Only slowly are the guardians at the gate waking up to do their task properly
God’s Plan for Mike Pence
Will the vice president—and the religious right—be rewarded for their embrace of Donald Trump?
The media spent most of the election frothing about the Orange Clown and ignoring what was happening behind the curtain. And now while this shit show still rolls on the true colours of the demented power seekers isn't even attempting to stay hidden.
Maybe America needs a Guide to Surviving the Dominionist Theocracy.
posted by adamvasco at 6:31 AM on June 17, 2018 [14 favorites]

Heck, one of the things that could get you blacklisted during the Red Scare was having been anti-Hitler before the U.S. and Germany were officially at war.

“premature anti-fascism” was one of the most Orwellian retroactive descriptions and it was used on a wide and broad segment of Americans. Hell just being vaguely anti-segregationist could get yiu into Red Channels and unemployable.

It’s Happening Here
posted by The Whelk at 6:58 AM on June 17, 2018 [5 favorites]

Sure is. When does the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette get picketed? I believe the correct term is Mitläufer.
posted by adamvasco at 7:07 AM on June 17, 2018

For what it's worth, there's little to no evidence that the government ever labeled anyone a "premature anti-fascist", rather than that being a sardonic self-appellation. Which is not to say no one ever got side-eyed for it, nor that the Red Scare didn't overlap extensively with pro-fascist sympathy. Just that historians seem to think it's a myth that anyone was specifically targeted on those grounds — or at least, that exact phrase. (Opposing segregation, on the other hand, was widely solidly seen as communist, without question.)
posted by InTheYear2017 at 7:11 AM on June 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’d like to add to the links Adamvasco brought here and say that my personal experiences with hardcore dominionist Christians in dallas Texas in the 1990’s were scary as hell. They were planning an extremely violent religious war. Stockpiling guns and ammo and stuff and talking about how they were going to execute it point by point. It was frightening as hell. I was very close to this group of people, and seeing them take the turn and descend into that...madness is all I can call it freaked me the hell out. I don’t know how many other people they were working with but I can say I watched a whole family and 5 of my (no longer) close friends become a radicalized Christian terrorism cell over a three year period.
posted by nikaspark at 7:12 AM on June 17, 2018 [7 favorites]

I think we forget, or never really take in, the truth that e.g. the U.S. and Britain didn't enter the war because of their horror of how people were being treated. They entered the war for political reasons, not ideological ones, and slapped the ideology on their wartime propaganda after the decision had been made. There are no good guys.

What scares me is how poweful the U.S. is. Who can fight them? Who can stop them?
posted by windykites at 8:08 AM on June 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

One key point: "Nazism made things better for the people Mayer interviewed, not (as many think) because it restored some lost national pride but because it improved daily life."
posted by doctornemo at 8:35 AM on June 17, 2018

A nice three-part review. The books sound like the offer useful insights into German life during and after the Nazi period.

It would be interesting and perhaps productive to read them alongside parallel accounts of contemporary fascism in other nations: Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
posted by doctornemo at 8:49 AM on June 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

A bewildering thing about Naziism in particular is that the modern official/mainstream German attitude about it seems like the only instance of a country reckoning with any if its historial faults...

I’ve heard tell of earnest decolonization efforts being made in New Zealand, but as I am neither Kiwi nor Maori I’m not in a position to speak to how effective the efforts are, or how widespread decolonization sympathies are among the Newcomer population.

I can say with confidence that my country — an obscure boreal confederation, you probably haven’t heard of it — has made baby steps toward addressing a history replete with racist cruelty, but we only wish we were as aggressive about it as New Zealand.

We’re also officially embarrassed by Japanese internment during WWII, though I’m unclear on how much official embarrassment counts toward making right.
posted by Construction Concern at 9:21 AM on June 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

It didn't start with the stars and the Jews. But I guess, to many, it started with groups that it was okay to persecute. Like queers and "gypsies".

Or, in the New World, Native Americans. The 19th-century ethnic cleansing by Europeans was inspiration and justification for the Third Reich's attempted colonization of Eastern Europe.

It Already Happened Here.
posted by Rash at 9:37 AM on June 17, 2018 [11 favorites]

I'm iffy with this line in the piece: "With our system of checks and balances, full-blown authoritarianism is unlikely to happen here..."

These checks and balances work because we have collectively agreed to make them work. We have to ensure that this collective agreement is maintained. The partial authoritarianism we're under now has already hurt and killed people.
posted by droplet at 10:49 AM on June 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

It Already Happened Here.

And supposedly the Nazis used What the US did as a basic design pattern and made something worse from that. My fear is that the US is taking the Nazi pattern and making something worse from it.
posted by nikaspark at 2:56 PM on June 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

It Already Happened Here.

"Where Do You Think 'Here' Even Came From?"
posted by XtinaS at 3:40 PM on June 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

But the American has been told, his whole life, that moral courage is a liability. Don’t stand up for the weak. Never invest in them. Never lift anyone up when they fall down. Don’t show an ounce of empathy, self-sacrifice, frailty, kindness. Everything is self-interest. Everyone must be self reliant. The most cruel one wins. Only the strong survive. And so on.

"Never apologize, Mister; it's a sign of weakness."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:32 AM on June 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Is there any discussion anywhere of what an appropriate use of force would be to get Trump out of office as circumstances change and unfold? I don't see checks and balances in effect and Trump seems to believe that he could just be all NOPE! to any political process to remove him from office, so what would be called for in that situation? Would any other nation even touch it with a 10 foot pole if Trump went full king? Would the average people be forced to choose between maintaining a semblance of normal life or giving their existence to "the cause?" I just feel like a child wishing the adults could sort themselves out.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:58 PM on June 18, 2018

Nations will not interfere in anothers internal machinations until such time as they themselves are threatened.
The US has by and away the worlds largest military so no other country will even contemplate going down that route. Any force will have to come from within and that will get very messy very fast given the US love affair with guns.
Traditionally coups have often occurred when the leader is out of the country and I am sure this has been discussed behind closed doors by some members of the US Military. I am equally sure that how to counter such a threat is also being discussed by a different set of the same military behind different closed doors.
I also think that the cabal behind the curtain may well be discussing what is the opportune moment to sacrifice the orange clown and the immediate bunch of shysters surrounding him and then continue with the Pence Theocracy; which will of course be heralded far and wide as for the greater benefit of the country.
This is sometimes referred to as Christian Imperialism and has been in the making since the mid 1970's.
posted by adamvasco at 3:05 PM on June 18, 2018

May the space invaders be on their way then.
posted by WeekendJen at 7:24 AM on June 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

"With our system of checks and balances, full-blown authoritarianism is unlikely to happen here..."

A man was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for waiting for checks and balances to help him.

Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, "Jump in, I can save you."

The stranded fellow shouted back, "No, it's OK, I'm praying to God and he is going waiting for the institutions to save me."

You know the rest of the joke.
posted by mahershalal at 1:30 AM on June 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

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