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Comparing the alt-right to Nazism may be hyperbolic — but it's not ridiculous

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“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain is rumored to have said, “but it does rhyme.” There’s no evidence that Twain actually said this, but the sentiment is apt nevertheless.

Nearly a century ago, Europe began its descent into fascism. Devastated by the Great Depression and embarrassed on the world stage, Germans were angry and alienated. Hitler opportunistically seized the populace with racialized rhetoric and bombastic appeals to nationalist pride. In a few short years, authoritarian politics took hold in Germany, and quickly metastasized.

Today, a half-articulated fascism is sweeping across Europe. In France, Great Britain, Greece, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia, right-wing extremism is spreading. Against the backdrop of a collapsing European Union, economic stagnation, and a massive refugee crisis, the ground is increasingly fertile for reactionary parties.

Echoes of this can now be heard in America. Fascistic rhetoric has been appropriated by the “alt-right,” an openly racist movement that helped propel Donald Trump into the White House.

There’s a debate in media circles about what to call the “alt-right.” If they’re white supremacists (and they are), why not call them white supremacists? Or neo-Nazis? Or ethno-nationalists? The term alt-right may obscure their nakedly racist project.

The question of what to call the alt-right is important, and worth asking. But there’s another, perhaps more important, conversation to be had about what the movement represents and what we might learn from its historical precursors.

Christopher Browning is the Frank Porter Graham professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Browning is the author of Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers, a seminal work in Holocaust scholarship; his research examines totalizing ideologies and the political violence they inspire.

I spoke with Browning about the alt-right and the broader wave of reactionary politics rolling across Europe and North America. I was looking for a historical perspective on fascistic movements — how they emerge, why they gain traction, and when they give way to violence.

Sean Illing

Perhaps you can start by saying a bit about your focus as a historian, particularly as it relates to World War II and Nazism.

Christopher Browning

In terms of my own specialization, I do research above all in Holocaust studies and Nazi Jewish policy. I've focused more or less on two aspects: Nazi decision-making and Nazi perpetrators, both at the grassroots level — the shooters and the bureaucrats — and the people who organized the broader policy.

So the issue of fascism and the mechanics of the Nazi regime in particular has been the general focus of my work.

Sean Illing

What did Hitler’s political trajectory look like? What were the sociopolitical conditions that helped pave the way?

Christopher Browning

Certainly one thing is that Germany had experienced an extraordinary series of disasters. The first was World War I, of course, and then there was the revolution that overthrew the Kaiser and introduced the Weimar democracy, and then the severe hyperinflation of 1923 in which the currency was destroyed and people's savings disappeared. Shortly after that, you had the Great Depression of 1929, which decimated Germany.

So if you look at the period from the late teens to 1929, the series of traumas were just one after another. All of Europe experienced similar pains, but it was especially concentrated in Germany, both in terms of the economics costs and the instability of a massive regime change that was highly polarizing among the German people.

All of this combined to clear a path for Hitler.

Sean Illing

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Hitler was dismissed as a marginal buffoon when he first lurched into politics, right?

Christopher Browning

Not quite. In the 1920s, he attempted his “Beer Hall Putsch” in Munich when he was still a very regional politician. He was a powerful speaker, a classic rabble-rouser, and he eventually got himself arrested. But he then turned his trial into a kind of showcase for putting the republic on trial and promoting himself.

In the 1924-’28 period, he was pretty much in obscurity. His party did not do well. In hindsight, though, we can see that he was building the apparatus of the Nazi Party and reorienting it into an intellectual vehicle and a machine for winning elections. He shifted the focus from South Germany to a broader, more nationalist vision.

He also focused on expanding the party's membership. He began recruiting lower- and middle-class people, anyone he considered disadvantaged, because they were very resentful of their inability to succeed in the period of the 1920s. These were families crippled by inflation and, in particular, university students who saw no opportunities for themselves. In fact, the first organizations that went Nazi were student organizations, and this was a sign that disaffected intellectuals were flocking to Hitler.

hitler hindenburg
Hitler (right) and Hindenburg two months after Hitler's ascendance to the chancellorship. (Bundesarchiv, Bild)

Sean Illing

So he was not perceived as a serious threat until it was too late to do anything about it?

Christopher Browning

Well, some people took him seriously as he was building up his party, but the big break came in the 1930 election when he goes from being the 12th-largest party in Germany to the second-largest party. That absolutely stunned everyone. It was the great unpredictable surprise that woke everyone up to the reality of Hitler's ascendance.

After that, everyone took Hitler seriously, but by then the Nazis had thoroughly penetrated the German government.

Sean Illing

To my mind, the most troubling fact about Nazi Germany is that the Holocaust wasn’t committed by a super army of moral monsters — though it’s comforting to believe that. Of course the act itself was monstrous, but many of the ordinary people who participated — the low-level soldiers and the guards — were otherwise sane and functional human beings.

The lesson there is that an entire country or people, no matter how educated or advanced or cultured, can be led into an abyss given the right stew of ideas and conditions.

You’ve written a lot about this subject. How do you think about this capacity for people to get swept up in an orgy of rage and violence?

Christopher Browning

I've written a book called Ordinary Men that looks at the case study of one killing unit that should've been the least likely group of people in Germany to become Nazi killers. These were middle-aged working-class people from Hamburg, people who came of age before Hitler and therefore were not corrupted in their youth by his ideas. They were mostly socialists and communists, and they came to Hamburg, which was one of the least Nazified cities in Germany.

So if you wanted to stack the deck and find a group of people least likely to become Nazi killers, this was it. And yet of all the police battalions in the East, it had the fourth-highest killing rate of any battalion.

As for the question you posed, it's quite clear that you can always find willing executioners. You can mobilize people to commit mass murder, even if those people are themselves not highly ideological. This is the unfortunate lesson of history.

Sean Illing

Obviously, I’m asking you these questions against the backdrop of an increasingly disordered Europe. What do you make of what’s happening there at the moment? Does it feel like history repeating itself?

Christopher Browning

Both yes and no. One on the hand, neither Europe nor the United States has anything like the economic catastrophe of 1929-’33. In Germany in 1932, for example, 25 to 30 percent of the population was unemployed. In the United States today, while there are pockets of devastation, you don't see comparable numbers. It's slightly worse in Europe, however, where you have a nagging 10 percent unemployment in several regions. So Europe today is certainly closer to the Europe of 1932 than the United States, which I think is in a very different economic situation.

Remember also that the great looming menace in the early and midcentury period wasn't Islamic jihadism but the Bolshevik Revolution. In both cases, though, there was a country or a movement around which horrific scenarios could be imagined, and so there was a dire threat that seemingly justified any means to deal with it.

Sean Illing

I imagine you see parallels between the refugee crisis in Europe today and what occurred after World War I as well.

Christopher Browning

I do. The refugee problem is not terribly different from what we saw after World War I with people fleeing the Russian empire and the creation of various state boundaries. The obvious difference is that these were European refugees, not Syrian refugees, and in that sense they were much more assimilable. Indeed, many of the Russian refugees were badly needed and welcomed.

So there are added difficulties when you're assimilating refugees from Syria or Afghanistan, and we're seeing this play out across the continent as we speak.

Sean Illing

There are many who see the creeping fascism in Europe right now as proof of the failure of multiculturalism. Do you see the rising ethnic tensions in that way, or is it perhaps an epiphenomenon of some other political or institutional breakdown?

Christopher Browning

Well, that’s a difficult question. I think there are several things. Perhaps most obviously, the economies in Europe are not nearly as vibrant as they once were. After World War II, many of these economies were able to absorb population shifts. Absorbing new people into a stagnant economy is extraordinarily difficult, and that's part of what we see today. The economic vibrancy of the ’50s and ’60s, which allowed for the absorption of vast numbers of people, is largely gone.

So the unrest this creates complicates things and creates favorable conditions for reactionary politics.

Sean Illing

How comfortable are you with these comparisons?

Christopher Browning

There are indeed some parallels, but there are obvious differences as well. As you say, the Nazi template often obscures more than it helps, because it's like saying there's no genocide unless you have gas chambers. I think we shouldn't set Hitler and the Nazis as the threshold people have to clear before they become a fascist threat.

The alt-right is clearly into racial politics, and they clearly believe in a racial theory of history — that the white man is the creative source of value in the civilized world. They clearly believe — and preach — that the white race is threatened by impure outsiders. And they clearly have a broad ethnonationalist vision.

They're pining for a kind of racial utopia, and their goal is to create it. This is very similar to racialized fascist movements of the past, including Nazism. I don't think we can talk about this without acknowledging this.

What we don't have with the alt-right is the blood-and-soil war talk that Hitler popularized. This idea that one must fight and conquer or die. They don't talk about foreign policy and expansionist imperialism the way Hitler did either.

But they certainly have the other half of the Nazi equation, which is this notion of a racial utopia.

Sean Illing

There are hints of this, however. Richard Spencer, the emergent face of the movement, has said that the goal is a “white ethno-empire stretching across North America and Europe.”

I wouldn’t argue that the alt-right, such as it is, is anything like the threat posed by Nazism. But this is not exactly a marginal movement. These people appear to have — or certainly believe they have — an ally in the next president of the United States.

How alarmed should we be?

Christopher Browning

Very alarmed. But I would say the more immediate danger is the increasing dysfunctionality of our democratic system. We already have a Congress that is so gerrymandered that it would take a Democratic landslide of 56 or 57 percent to simply get a change in the majority. And we certainly know that the voter repression laws that are likely to creep in between now and 2020 are going to make things worse. The House of Representatives is in danger of disappearing as a democratic body — it's already halfway there.

So we're losing our democratic institutions now, and within four years it might be unrecoverable if gerrymandering isn't outlawed. There aren't many reasons to think Trump's SCOTUS nominations will be of any help with these problems either.

My first fear, then, is that we've lost the ability to truly hold our government accountable in an election. The ability of voters to change their government is slipping away rapidly, and that is the greatest short-term crisis.

Sean Illing

How concerned are you about Trump’s role moving forward? He doesn’t appear to have an ideology, and so he’s essentially a giant question mark, which in many ways is the scariest aspect of his impending administration.

Christopher Browning

With Hitler, we knew we had an ideologue for whom anti-Semitism and racism was the core. Trump, on the other hand, appears to have no core or drive, apart from self-adulation. He's an egomaniac. Where that will position him in terms of policy is anybody's guess.

We simply don't know.

President Donald Trump says that he no longer wants a “deal” on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Sean Illing

How do we draw a line between pointing out historical parallels and recognizing that these movements — Nazism, the Ku Klux Klan, the alt-right – are distinct phenomena that can’t be divorced from their originating circumstances?

Christopher Browning

At the moment, the true fanatics — the people like Richard Spencer, who raises his right arm in the Nazi salute when he says "Hail Trump" — are still a pretty small minority. At the same time, we've seen these huge rallies that Trump conducts, which mirror the theater of fascistic politics, and that is something about which we should be concerned.

For the moment, at least, most of these people aren't preaching outright violence. They aren't openly talking about being anti-democratic, even if Trump seems to have little appreciation for the role of a free press or political opposition more generally.

But all of that can change. If the polarization we have now continues, it may well be that more people will regard democracy as broken and unworthy of defense. Trump is especially dangerous for this reason. At his convention speech, he said "I alone" can solve things. This is explicitly anti-democratic, and a very dangerous game to play in this kind of climate.

Sean Illing

That shift from theory to action, rhetoric to violence, can happen very quickly. I’m not worried about a genocide anytime soon, but the anti-politics politics we’re seeing from the alt-right and the aggressive ethnonationalist speech could easily give way to violence.

Is that an imminent danger in your view?

Christopher Browning

I think what the Trump election showed is that you can still mobilize a virtually all-white majority to preserve an all-white rule against minorities. The first threat is not that we're going to have a Hitler but rather a hybrid of Putin and Berlusconi, with autocracy at the center and a person at the top who gradually cripples the press and the political opposition.

One could easily imagine, if something like this were to come to pass, justifications or rationalizations made for the use of violence to defend the ruling white majority against an ascendant coalition of minorities.

How much violence would that require? Well, a lot of what the Nazis did was under the veil of legality, and that's among the scariest lessons from Hitler's reign. The degree to which the opposition is crippled by things that had a veneer of legality to them, which made it very hard for people to condemn. This kind of insidiousness is certainly possible here.

Sean Illing

A few commentators have argued that it’s a strategic mistake to compare Nazism to the alt-right because it’s not a perfect analogy and any hint of hyperbole might undermine the legitimate effort to discredit these people. Do you buy this?

Christopher Browning

Obviously, the alt-right buys into some of the Nazi symbolism — there's just no denying that. But they're not equivalent, and that should be clear. The alt-right doesn't have a vast paramilitary formation, and they don't have anything like the numbers or the electoral machinery that the Nazis had. In that sense, they're still a very small and marginal group.

Sean Illing

Do you see Donald Trump as a fascist or an opportunist who latched onto a wave of reactionary politics?

Christopher Browning

I don't see him as an authentic fascist because, as you said, there doesn't seem to be an ideological core to the man. But he certainly is a populist with strong authoritarian tendencies, and he will certainly push whatever buttons bring him popularity and adulation. He will at least borrow some of the fascist repertoire, as he has already with the racist dog whistles.

Look, there are plenty of alarming parallels here. Consider what Hitler was offering his coalition of discontents. He was going to end political gridlock, which we have thanks in large part to a Republican Congress that ensured Obama couldn't do a thing. We've had not the kind of economic collapse that Germany suffered, but we've had pockets of it. We've had sustained economic stress and an uneven distribution of prosperity. The people on the wrong end of this clearly gravitated toward Trump.

There's also this sense of cultural decadence, the feeling that the old traditional values are being eroded and therefore we have to make America great again. This is the brilliance of Trump's slogan — it's a perfect conduit for nostalgia.

Lastly, Trump, like Hitler, taps into this sense of humiliation on the global stage. This notion that we're "losing" and everyone's taking advantage of us is very powerful. It's mostly bullshit when you look closely at the facts, but that doesn't matter. The appeal is potent.

Sean Illing

What’s the logical conclusion of this ethnonationalist drift in domestic and international politics? I see no reason to suppose it will burn itself out anytime soon, and indeed it is likely to intensify.

How worried are you about our political future?

Christopher Browning

This is the wedge issue that will increasingly undermine our functional democracy. To preserve the white majority that won this election, voter repression and anti-immigration measures are going to be central to keeping this coalition together.

One thing we do know is that Trump clearly understands the theater of politics, and the importance of symbols, like the wall and deportation and trotting off to Indiana to brag about saving 800 jobs in Indiana.

He has an instinct for the theatrical that will likely draw us more and more into a politics of spectacle. My worry is that race and identity politics will be critical to his success, and that will require voter suppression and disenfranchisement.

So the increasing hostility to the press and voter suppression laws could be the hallmarks of the next four years, which will make it difficult to hold the government accountable, because we won't have a functionally democratic way of doing so.

This is my foremost concern.