Over the last decade, far-right nationalist movements have grown in power around the world. Citizens in England, Germany, Italy, France, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and the United States are increasingly rejecting international partnerships, opposing immigration, and choosing blunt authoritarianism over messy democracy. To Benjamin Carter Hett, award-winning author of four books about Nazis and the Third Reich, this is not an unfamiliar phenomenon. His latest, The Death of Democracy, traces the rise of nationalism in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s and explains how a unique confluence of circumstances gave Adolf Hitler, a crafty orator with a gift for reading his audience, an opening to seize power.
Though Hett has pushed back against the notion that the Nazi regime could be replicated in the U.S., he acknowledges the striking parallels to the political ascent of Donald Trump: Nazism began as an antiglobalist movement that capitalized on rural anger about urbanization and immigration. Hitler was supported by mainstream conservatives who naively thought he would help them advance their own agenda. A propaganda machine, helped along by technological developments in print media, radio, and film, projected Hitler’s vision to the masses. And dictatorial rule was presented as the only option in the face of an intractable political divide and an exaggerated left-wing threat.
Born in Rochester, New York, Hett grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, and was largely educated in Canada. He earned a law degree from the University of Toronto in 1990 and worked as a trial lawyer for four years before deciding the long hours and high stress were not for him. He began reading European history in his spare time, and the subject excited him. He returned to the University of Toronto for a master’s in history and then earned a PhD from Harvard University, where he taught for two years. He currently teaches at New York’s Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and he’s at work on a book about events in Europe and the U.S. from 1937 to 1940.
I met with Hett at his Hunter College office. A measured speaker with a masterful grasp of early-twentieth-century German politics, he’s also an astute observer of the current political climate, and he makes frequent comparisons between the two on Twitter (@BenjaminHett). After watching a short film about a large gathering of American Nazis in 1939, Hett tweeted that it was “hard to tell the difference from any Trump rally.”
Barsamian: In The Death of Democracy you point out that Germany’s reputation in science and scholarship in the 1920s was unrivaled. It was a “land of poets and thinkers.” And yet “somehow, out of this enlightened, creative, ultramodern democracy grew the most evil regime in human history.”
Hett: It seems counterintuitive that Hitler could emerge in a country that led the world in science, architecture, and industrial design, where every town had orchestras playing Beethoven. Germany in the 1920s was one of those places and times in history where you had this critical mass of geniuses. And yet it went down the drain and was replaced by Hitler’s unspeakably barbaric regime.
Barsamian: You identify the First World War, from 1914 to 1918, as a significant factor in the rise of Nazism and Hitler.
Hett: There is this idea that World War I began in Germany with an outburst of enormous patriotism: crowds cheering in the streets and women throwing flowers as the boys marched to war. It’s a myth, of course. There was at least as much opposition to the war as there was support for it. But what people remembered later was this feeling that the country, which was divided in many ways — by social class, regional differences, religion, and so on — had come together in the face of a military threat. It probably helped that it was August, and the weather was beautiful.
Fast-forward to the end of the war, in November 1918. The weather was cold and rainy, and of course Germany had lost. Social unrest led to a revolution, and the monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II, fled to Holland while the left-wing Social Democrats took over the government. But this revolution was never universally accepted by Germans, and it became less accepted over time. The perception grew that there had been a coup d’état, that the Social Democrats had seized power illegitimately. Increasingly the German people came to believe the Social Democrats had signed the armistice to end the war at a time when Germany still could have won it.
That was a story that the Nazis were able to profit from politically. They promised to overcome what they portrayed as the betrayal and treason of the German defeat and the revolution of 1918.
Barsamian: They called it the “stab in the back.”
Hett: Yes. I would say it was one of the most-accepted conspiracy theories in history. The truth is that by August 1918 the military leadership of Germany — particularly the supreme commander of the army, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg — had recognized that Germany was militarily defeated. Hindenburg told the civilian government and the kaiser that Germany was going to lose, and the only rational thing to do was to sign an armistice with the Western Allies. But a year later, when Hindenburg was called to testify about the war, he claimed that the army had been betrayed by politicians at home. Within a few years a majority of Germans thought their army hadn’t been defeated at all. They could believe this because, at the end of World War I, the German Army had been on foreign ground, holding positions in France, Belgium, and the former Russian Empire. And the government censors had kept bad military news from reaching the home front. So civilians had been unaware the Germans were actually losing.
Barsamian: The Weimar Republic arose out of the postwar revolution in 1919. What was its political structure, and who were its leaders?
Hett: In early 1919 the Social Democrats held national elections for a constituent assembly that would draft a new constitution. Along with their allies, the Catholic Centre Party and the liberal German Democrats, they won a big majority and were able to draft a constitution to their liking. They set out to create a kind of state-of-the-art democracy with full individual rights, like those granted by the U.S. Bill of Rights. Unlike our Congress, their parliament — the Reichstag — would have proportional representation, which meant that in elections people voted for a party. Whatever share of the popular vote a party got, that’s the share of representatives, or “deputies,” it would have in the Reichstag. The president was elected separately by the whole population and was equipped with emergency powers, meaning he could do by decree pretty much anything he wanted, with one check on that power: a majority of the Reichstag could overturn a presidential decree. If the parliament was politically deadlocked, however, the president could use decrees to function as a dictator. The constitution’s framers didn’t think this was a problem, because it didn’t occur to them that an opponent of democracy might get elected president.
That’s precisely what happened in 1925, when Hindenburg won the presidential election by a narrow margin: someone who didn’t like the new democratic system now occupied the powerful office of the presidency.
Barsamian: Some might say the current occupant of the White House is an “opponent of democracy.”
Hett: I would quibble with the idea that the cultural and political shocks of 1920s Germany are similar to what is going on in the U.S. today. The scale of the upheaval in Germany after World War I was off the charts. There had been a revolution, a regime change, and an economic crisis more severe than anything we have experienced here since the Great Depression. And the political extremism in Germany was far worse. That said, certain underlying structural factors in the U.S. and Europe today are perhaps a mild echo of conditions in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.
In both places we see a backlash against a political swing to the left. A forerunner to Trump was the Tea Party movement, which arose in reaction to Barack Obama’s election as president. You’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to think that Obama’s race played a role. A significant number of people who flocked to the Tea Party then, and who have flocked to Trump since, were angered by the notion of an African American president. That is a bit similar to what was happening in Germany in the 1920s and early ’30s. The Weimar Republic had created more opportunities for Jews, and there were Jews in prominent positions — for instance, Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau. That was a kind of red flag to the far Right, which assassinated Rathenau.
We don’t have an economic crisis on the scale of Germany’s in the 1920s, but capitalism has become extremely unbalanced. More and more it distributes its rewards disproportionately to the rich. Incomes for working people in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, have basically been stagnant since the 1970s. The victims of this cannot be expected to be particularly judicious in deciding whom to blame for their situation. So they blame people they consider to be political elites, especially if those people come from somewhere else.
In the 1920s there was a flow of refugees and migrants across Germany’s eastern border as a result of the Russian Revolution and other political turbulence east of Germany. And because of its relatively low military manpower at the time, Germany couldn’t stop the migrants from coming in. This became an emotional political issue and tied into a general theme of the world doing things to Germany that Germans couldn’t control.
Hitler and the Nazis essentially said, “We’re the party that will stop this. We’re putting Germany first.” They would cut Germany off from the global economy, from global trade, and from international finance, making it self-sufficient. The Nazis deployed their Brown Shirts, or paramilitary storm troopers, to patrol the Polish-German border. They were positioning themselves as the voice of German nationalism.
Barsamian: Immigration is a huge part of the narrative for nationalist movements in both the U.S. and Europe today. What do you foresee in the coming decade, given that people are unlikely to stop fleeing areas that are either politically unstable or increasingly vulnerable to climate change?
Hett: Many have predicted that in twenty-five years or so the U.S. is going to become a “majority minority” nation. In other words, the country’s going to get increasingly diverse, and white people will make up less than 50 percent of the population. Maybe that will spell the end of the racialized, anti-immigrant backlash we’re seeing now. But I also think that the prospect of white people losing their majority is partly what’s fueling the backlash. A segment of the U.S. feels the country is being taken away from them.
It’s a similar situation in Europe, with the added dimension that in places like Germany the native-born population has a falling birth rate and is not reproducing itself. If they want to continue to have a viable economy and a social safety net, the Germans need new workers, and if they’re not going to have more babies, those new workers need to be immigrants.
But Europe does not have the same culture of immigration that we do. However racist we have been toward immigrants in the U.S., most Americans at least acknowledge that this country was built on immigration, whereas in Germany and other European countries there’s a deep-seated notion that if your heritage doesn’t go back many generations, you are not of that place and never will be.
Trump’s ascension has licensed a certain degree of vitriol against women, migrants, and ethnic minorities, much as Hitler’s rise to power gave people permission to say and do things they couldn’t have before.
Barsamian: Let’s talk about the origins of the Nazi Party, which grew from the German Workers’ Party, or DAP, after Hitler took it over in 1920.
Hett: The DAP was one of many radical right-wing fringe parties that sprang up in Germany after the First World War. The DAP would have gone nowhere if Hitler hadn’t wandered into one of its meetings. Incensed by a speaker who advocated that the state of Bavaria secede from Germany, Hitler rose and poured a torrent of abuse on the man. Anton Drexler, who had founded the DAP, said, in effect, “That guy has got a mouth on him. We could use him.” So they made Hitler their spokesman. Six months later Hitler was in charge and had changed the name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party — the Nazi Party.
“National Socialist” is an oxymoron. “National” implies nationalism, whereas socialism is conventionally thought of as an international, universal ideology. Its slogan was “Workers of the world, unite!” But Hitler saw how he could present socialism as a kind of nationalist egalitarianism. He thought this would have a potent electoral appeal, and he turned out to be right.
Barsamian: The Nazis were able to win support first in rural, Protestant areas. Why?
Hett: When the Nazis really started to do well in elections, after 1928 and ’29, it was because they’d locked in the support of the rural, Protestant middle class. We tend to think of the Nazis as being primarily anti-Semitic and militaristic, but neither of those attitudes was at the forefront of Nazi campaigning in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Their platform was antiglobalist. The north and east of Germany, the agricultural heartland, was being hit hard by the global economy at the time. There had been a dramatic drop in grain prices worldwide, and it was becoming difficult for farmers to make a living. Rural areas were experiencing poverty, which led to anger at the new, democratic Weimar Republic, and at the broader forces of global trade. The Nazis, as nationalists, were against global trade.
Barsamian: You write that religious belief was a component of German rural identity: “For German Protestants the male-centered family was the core of the social order.” You add that the “Weimar Republic concentrated in one package everything Protestants didn’t like.”
Hett: In the 1920s Germany was experiencing a culture war with a strong religious component. Protestants, particularly in rural areas, strongly disliked the big cities and all of the changes happening there. They resented the political prominence of the urban working class and saw the Weimar Republic as too urban, too modern, too sexually experimental, too emasculating — and too Jewish, because they tended to think of all modern trends, from political democracy to modern art, as Jewish. By opposing modernism, the Nazis were able to consolidate their support among the Protestant rural middle class.
Barsamian: That rural-urban divide exists today in the U.S. If you look at an electoral map, you’ve got a sea of red between blue coasts — this at a time when diversity, inclusion, and progressive representation of minorities are at a zenith in popular culture. And then Trump gets elected. Do you think he helped spark the backlash we spoke of earlier?
Hett: I think Trump’s election has unleashed a certain amount of racial and cultural division, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. There’s always been a liberal-conservative split about attitudes toward culture, ethnicity, diversity, and immigration. Trump’s ascension has licensed a certain degree of vitriol against women, migrants, and ethnic minorities, much as Hitler’s rise to power gave people permission to say and do things they couldn’t have before.
Hitler . . . could only make angry arguments. Trump, too, can’t make an appeal to reason. All he can do is push the anger button and throw abuse at people. In a sense, he is just lucky that the one thing he can do is something that resonates with a certain segment of the population.
Barsamian: Since Trump was elected, there have been swastikas painted on campuses and the doors of minority students’ rooms. Videos have surfaced on social media of teenagers in different parts of the country either making Nazi salutes or discussing how Jews control the world and black people need to be put in concentration camps. In a country founded on the principle of free speech, how do we address these incidents?
Hett: I’m inclined to think, as awful as such actions are, that it might behoove us to take a deep breath. The young people I deal with, nearly without exception, are admirably antiracist. There will always be kids who do stuff like that because they are clueless about what they are saying and just want to piss people off. So I’m not incredibly worried about the next generation.
Having said that, there’s too much we don’t know about history — you’re never going to hear a history professor say people know enough about the past! [Laughter.] When people on the street are asked about the Second World War or the Holocaust, their knowledge is usually dismal. The same is true for the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. But we probably need to take a deep breath here, too, and remember that history isn’t a front-and-center concern for everybody, and this doesn’t mean our society is going to hell.
The videos you mention are ghastly, and the thought of someone saying that black people should be sent to concentration camps speaks for itself in its ghastliness. But we need to focus on what really matters, which is structural racism — the fact that African Americans get shafted on every conceivable level, from how the police deal with them to day-to-day activities like going to a store or trying to rent an apartment. We need to worry more about those problems and less about misguided high-school kids.
Barsamian: Let’s get back to the rise of Hitler.
Hett: German politicians, even those from the working-class parties like the Social Democrats, tended to be educated, thoughtful, and well-read. Hitler was different. He came from a humble background. He made grammatical mistakes. He had little going for him: no family name, no money, not much formal education. What he did have was a remarkable talent as a public speaker. He could tell what audiences wanted to hear. He had political cunning and strong nerves, waiting patiently for the right moment to strike. When people around him were saying, “We’ve got to do something now,” he had the ability to hold out.
His early following was largely made up of people who had been dislocated by the war and veterans who couldn’t settle down in peacetime. His supporters had a tendency toward political nationalism and were happy to be in a situation where they could break some left-wing skulls. The party may have been centered in lower-middle-class tradesmen, but some prominent, wealthy businesspeople around Munich were also attracted to him. It wasn’t until later that the Nazis’ following crystallized around the rural, Protestant middle classes and, to some extent, the upper-middle class.
Barsamian: When and why did Hitler tap into the preexisting anti-Semitism in German culture?
Hett: Before World War I anti-Semitism had become a kind of cultural code on the German Right. It was the glue that held together a package of ideologies, including nationalism, militarism, hypermasculinity (and a corresponding contempt for women and feminism), and a general dislike of modernity, urbanization, and industrialization. Anti-Semitism became the shorthand for all of this.
Hitler believed strongly in a racially based — not religiously based — anti-Semitism. He believed Jews were a race of people. Rhetorically he linked them not only to the democracy of Weimar, but also to the emerging communist regime in the Soviet Union, and to international finance. Somehow in his mind global finance and Soviet communism were both faces of the world Jewish conspiracy. Hitler understood that anti-Semitism was a foundational issue for his most dedicated followers, but he also knew it wasn’t going to get him big numbers of votes in the broad middle classes that he wanted to attract. If you look at Hitler’s speeches, he would talk about international-finance “spiders,” for instance. He wasn’t using the word Jews, but his audiences knew what he meant.
Barsamian: Perhaps the most cogent and well-written chapter in Hitler’s book-length manifesto Mein Kampf is the one on propaganda, which was central to the Nazi strategy.
Hett: Hitler had a cynical but nonetheless shrewd understanding of politics. There’s the famous passage in Mein Kampf where he talks about how in politics a big lie can be much more effective than a little lie. He says we tell little lies all the time, so we’re good at spotting them. If a politician tells small lies, voters will recognize them right away and write him off. But most people don’t tell whoppers. So if you tell a big lie, people will think it must be true. And even if the lie is later debunked, it will have a residual effect.
Barsamian: In 2019 “fake news” and conspiracy theories are spread by media personalities like Alex Jones of InfoWars. What do you think it is about our era that has birthed this phenomenon?
Hett: It’s so much easier now — with the Internet, with Twitter, with YouTube — to put ideas out there. When you had to own a TV station or a radio station or a newspaper, there were certain limits on what reached the public. The downside was that the elite could form a consensus and shut out a substantial part of the population. The upside was that the part of the population that was basically nuts didn’t have a voice the way it does now. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the degree of tribalism in our politics seems to have accelerated more or less in tandem with the development of the Internet.
I have to admit, I occasionally have the highly undemocratic thought that, though it’s great in theory for everybody to have a voice, not all voices are equal in merit. Easier access to an audience means you can get large numbers of people to believe something insane like “Pizzagate” [a debunked conspiracy theory about child sex trafficking among Democratic elites — Ed.]. It’s hard to imagine how that could have happened twenty-five years ago.
Somewhere at the root of all this is the fact that, for four decades or so now, there’s been a real sense that people are falling behind economically. That breeds discontent and anger — and it’s legitimate anger — which in turn breeds a suspicion of traditional media outlets. And that has coincided with the rise of social media, where people are able to voice their frustrations and anger and hatred to an audience.
Barsamian: Hitler made Joseph Goebbels his minister of public enlightenment and propaganda. It was Goebbels, you say, who knew how to persuade people — simple messages, endlessly repeated.
Hett: Goebbels was the perfect complement to Hitler and probably the most intelligent of the Nazi leaders. This guy had a PhD in literature. But he was an absolute political fanatic, 110 percent Nazi. He worshipped Hitler and was a ferocious anti-Semite. And yet, because of his intelligence, he could also separate himself from that and imagine how Nazism looked to somebody who wasn’t a Nazi. He could think effectively about what kind of message might appeal to that person. Whatever political views we hold, most of us have trouble imagining the viewpoint of the other side. Hitler might not have been a major political phenomenon without Goebbels to do a fair bit of his thinking for him.
Barsamian: Jane Mayer of The New Yorker has reported on the closeness of the president and Fox News. A source in one of her recent articles refers to the network as a “servile propaganda operation.” Again, it’s hard not to draw a parallel here.
Hett: In Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany the propaganda outlets were state controlled. In a typical American way, we’ve arrived at a similar model via the private sector. In 2017 Fox News gave up using the slogan “Fair and Balanced.” It’s not even claiming to be a traditional news organization anymore. Insofar as people persist in believing things that are patently untrue, our situation is going to get worse and worse.
Barsamian: You write about Nazi propaganda as a “cult of irrationality.”
Hett: The Nazis changed the way politics was discussed. They introduced a more bullying, violent tone. They would talk scathingly and hatefully of their opponents and use violent language. And certainly there was an utter contempt for facts — at least, if the facts were inconvenient. The Nazis played on people’s emotions with stories that might resonate politically but couldn’t be supported logically.
There’s this increasing anti-intellectualism in the U.S. today, a contempt for verifiable evidence of what’s happening around us. Many Americans seem to want to retreat into convenient, comforting fables.
Barsamian: It’s redolent of the Führerprinzip.
Hett: You could translate that as the “leadership principle,” best expressed in the Nazi slogan “Führer, command; we will follow.” Whatever the leader says, you do it; you don’t stop to think. The not-thinking may be the most important part.
Barsamian: Did the Nazis glorify the German past? Was there a nostalgia for some magical moment when all was well in Germany?
Hett: Hitler was pretty dissatisfied with almost all of German history. He was certainly no fan of the German Empire, which he thought had failed dismally in World War I. The Nazis did sometimes hold forth an ideal of a rural Germany where people had lived wholesome peasant lives and young women and men had worn traditional clothing — a folk-festival fantasy that had never truly existed.
But Hitler was also pretty hardheaded about certain realities, such as the fact that to conquer parts of Eastern Europe, he needed modern industry — a military-industrial complex, as President Eisenhower would later put it.
Barsamian: How did the Nazi Party fare at the polls?
Hett: The 1928 election was won by the center-left Social Democrats. It was the high-water mark of the Weimar Republic. Then, from 1928 to 1930, there was a huge change. The Great Depression started, the unemployment rate skyrocketed, and the Nazis were prepared to present themselves as the party that had the answers to the crisis. In the Reichstag elections of September 1930, Nazi representation jumped from 2.6 percent to 18.1 percent. Pretty much overnight the Nazis became the second-biggest party in the Reichstag, after the Social Democrats. Now Hitler was a major player.
In 1932 there was an endless procession of elections. Hitler ran for president and lost. That summer there were parliamentary elections, and the Nazis’ share of seats went up to 37 percent — very near the size of that Protestant middle class we’ve talked about.
Barsamian: Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor on January 30, 1933. Why did he do that?
Hett: From 1930 on, Hitler’s movement attracted more interest from establishment conservatives, particularly in the army and big business and also among Hindenburg’s advisers. These two forces — the Nazis and the mainstream right-wing elites — needed each other but didn’t always agree. They were looking for ways to use each other.
Establishment conservatives were trying to figure out how to take advantage of Hitler’s popular support to enact their agenda of limiting democracy, building up the armed forces, and cutting back on the welfare state and regulation of business. They didn’t like or respect Hitler much, but they thought his Nazi Party might be useful.
In January 1933 the Reichstag was deadlocked. The two largest parties, the Nazis and the Social Democrats, were never going to work together. And the Communists refused to form a left-wing coalition with the Social Democrats and others. Everyone was trying to figure out how to create a stable government and avoid a civil war or a military coup.
Eventually some of Hindenburg’s advisers convinced him that making Hitler his chancellor was the way out. Hindenburg didn’t like or respect Hitler. Hitler had never risen above private first class in four years of service in the army; he was from south Germany; he was of lower-class origins. Hindenburg was an aristocrat.
Barsamian: So there was a class divide there.
Hett: A class divide, a regional divide — all kinds of divides. Days before Hindenburg named Hitler as chancellor, he called him “fit at best to be my postal minister.” But Hindenburg himself was coming under a lot of pressure. He’d been accused of tax fraud, and there were suggestions that his use of emergency powers to govern through decrees — what we would call “executive orders” — was unconstitutional.
Really his only choices were to suspend the parliament — and some of his political opponents were threatening to have him prosecuted or impeached if he did that — or to make Hitler chancellor so he could enlist Hitler’s constituency in parliament. Then he, Hindenburg, wouldn’t have to face impeachment or prosecution.
Four weeks into Hitler’s time as chancellor, there was a fire at the Reichstag building in Berlin, in the chamber where the deputies met. Hitler convinced Hindenburg it was the beginning of a Communist coup attempt. So Hindenburg, again using the emergency powers of the president, issued the Reichstag Fire Decree, which basically tore the heart out of the Weimar constitution. It suspended all individual rights: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly. It allowed the police unlimited powers of arrest and allowed the Reich — the federal government — to take over state governments.
Hitler instantly went from being a relatively weak figurehead to having the power to arrest thousands of political opponents. This is really what made him a dictator. He also insisted that new parliamentary elections be called, because he was sure the Nazis could win. And in a not-very-free election, where the opposition press was often shut down and political rallies were broken up by the police and the Nazis controlled the radio, the Nazis still got only 43 percent. It wasn’t the outcome Hitler had been hoping for. Two weeks later, with the Communists banned from voting and twenty-six Social Democrat deputies arrested or in hiding, the parliament passed the Enabling Act, giving Hitler the full power of the Reichstag. He could now pass laws by decree.
The deliberate cultivation of dishonesty and contempt for facts is for sure not going to lead anywhere good. I’m not saying that tomorrow morning we’re going to see people hauled off to concentration camps. But many bad things could happen, and some of them are happening.
Barsamian: The following year, 1934, Hindenburg died. How did that clear the way for Hitler?
Hett: First came the event known as the Night of the Long Knives, on June 30, 1934. Hitler struck in two different directions. He attacked establishment conservatives inside his administration who had been working against him, having them killed or arrested. And he murdered some of his own followers who threatened to rival his authority, notably among the Brown Shirts. This made the army very happy. It had been worried about the Brown Shirts because they outnumbered the army at the time. Their membership was reckoned to be in the millions, whereas the army was limited to a hundred thousand troops by the Treaty of Versailles. And, of course, any dictator who wants to stay in power has to have the army’s support.
When Hindenburg died in August, it raised a problem for Hitler, because a lot of establishment conservatives were pushing to restore the monarchy, and he didn’t want a royal family infringing on his power. Hitler moved quickly to head off any prospect of bringing back the monarchy, proclaiming, with fake piety, that Hindenburg had defined the position of Reich president and no one could ever follow him. Instead of a president and a chancellor, Germany would have one ruler, him, occupying the position of führer.
He held a referendum for the German people to vote on this idea, and the vote was overwhelmingly in favor. How free a vote it was is open to debate, but most historians think a majority would have voted in favor anyway.
Now there was no one in his way.
Barsamian: You write about the paradoxes of Hitler: He lied all the time yet also said clearly what he intended to do. He was a loner yet “had a remarkable intuition for the thoughts, hopes, fears, and needs of other people.” He had an enormous contempt for the German people, yet was a populist.
Hett: He had nothing but contempt for the great masses of any people, Germans included. This is surprising because Hitler proclaimed the Germans to be some kind of master race. And yet, on a number of occasions during World War II, particularly after the war started to turn against him, Hitler said that if the Germans lost, it would be because the Russian people were stronger, and if so, it was only natural the German people should perish and the world belong to the Russians. In Mein Kampf he says, in essence, that the masses of any people are foolish and stupid and weak and they can’t hold very much in their heads, but if you endlessly repeat a simple idea, then they will get it. And, of course, if you lie to them massively, they won’t be clever enough to figure it out.
By all accounts this was a man who was closed off from normal human interaction. He quite possibly had no real friends. Goebbels might have been about as close as he got. He famously had his mistress, Eva Braun, but they had an odd relationship in which Hitler was not particularly intimate with her, and certainly not respectful of her. Some biographers say that, of all human beings, he probably loved only his mother, who had died when he was a young man.
Yet he could read people as few can. That was one of the real secrets to his political rise. He could tell with remarkable accuracy what a person was thinking, feeling, or hoping to hear, then say exactly that. The parade of foreign statesmen who visited him in the 1930s after he became chancellor almost invariably came away impressed, believing him to be a man of peace who meant well. Hitler could convince them of this because he could read them.
Barsamian: Hitler appealed to people partly through use of lowest-common-denominator issues. It could be argued that Trump has done the same at his rallies. Trump doesn’t really have the working class’s best interests at heart, yet he’s so dependent on their support and adoration that he has to keep them satisfied. And keeping them satisfied seems to mean keeping them angry.
Hett: Hitler understood that perfectly well, and I think so does Rupert Murdoch, and maybe Donald Trump, though he sometimes doesn’t seem to understand much of anything. In the early years of the Weimar Republic, when the economy was still relatively good, it was harder to harness people’s anger, and Hitler didn’t do well politically. It’s only when a situation turns bad that an appeal to anger can really gain traction. Hitler didn’t know how to be any other type of politician. He could only make angry arguments. Trump, too, can’t make an appeal to reason. All he can do is push the anger button and throw abuse at people. In a sense, he is just lucky that the one thing he can do is something that resonates with a certain segment of the population.
Barsamian: In writing The Death of Democracy, what did you uncover that was surprising?
Hett: After Mein Kampf Hitler continued writing, and those manuscripts were later published posthumously. In them there is a remarkable passage in which he talks about how the global economy is affecting Germany, and he uses the example of a German company outsourcing jobs to China — not something we tend to think of as happening in the 1920s. He makes the point that if a company does this, it benefits the shareholders of that company but not German workers. And he observes that Europeans need to consider this, because the drift in the world economy is toward moving manufacturing to places like Asia.
I hate to give someone as repugnant as Hitler credit for anything, but I have to acknowledge that’s a fairly astute economic insight, one that I don’t believe too many people had in 1928.
Barsamian: Hitler’s economic program had enormous popular appeal: building infrastructure, the autobahn highway network, the Volkswagen — the “people’s car.”
Hett: Hitler did not have deep economic knowledge. He stumbled onto success in spite of himself. The autobahn was meant for moving military vehicles and equipment, but it ended up being a generator of economic growth, because commercial goods also moved along the highways.
Then, in 1935, when Hitler reintroduced conscription for the German Army, it had the effect of employing a lot of young men. By the second half of the 1930s, when German heavy industry was running at full throttle, there was actually a labor shortage. So Hitler’s agenda of military expansion did, in the short term, solve some economic problems. But it also created new economic problems, which were a factor in propelling Hitler toward World War II.
Barsamian: What other parallels do you see between what happened in Germany in the 1930s and contemporary politics in the U.S.?
Hett: Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump are very different human beings, but there are important parallels. The role of the establishment conservatives is one. As I’ve mentioned, Hitler would never have gotten in the door as chancellor if Germany’s conservative elites hadn’t thought his crude and worrying political movement might help them push through their own agenda. I think this is pretty close to how a lot of establishment Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham see Trump: maybe not their cup of tea, but he’s getting them the tax cuts. The problem is, they may be making a bargain with a force that will lead them places they don’t want to go. Republicans have always stood for free trade. Trump’s isolationism is the opposite. Republicans have long supported a strong foreign policy. It seems there is no brutal dictator that Trump doesn’t want to appease. And the deliberate cultivation of dishonesty and contempt for facts is for sure not going to lead anywhere good. I’m not saying that tomorrow morning we’re going to see people hauled off to concentration camps. But many bad things could happen, and some of them are happening.
Take the national emergency Trump proclaimed in February. The use of such power contributed greatly to the downfall of German democracy in the 1930s. It’s not too hard to imagine that if Trump gets away with this, he might be tempted to use emergency powers to curtail freedom of the press. Frankly, calling the press the “enemy of the American people” is horrifically Hitlerian.
The anti-immigrant rhetoric we’re seeing nowadays is very redolent of what was going on in Germany. The Nazi Party’s official program was explicitly anti-immigrant as well as anti-Semitic.
Barsamian: Since Trump’s election, the word Nazi has been used quite a bit on the Left to refer to the president’s supporters. What are the dangers in that?
Hett: As a historian, I would say that it’s disrespectful to the people who suffered under the Nazi regime. The scale of that was so much worse in every respect. I’ll take a backseat to nobody in my contempt for Donald Trump, but he’s certainly not Hitler. He doesn’t have the operatic evil that animated Hitler, for one.
Another danger is that looking for precise equivalents to Nazism in the U.S. might cause us to miss something important. Any authoritarian, populist, demagogic movement here will be rooted in our own traditions. As Marshall Curry [director of the documentary A Night at the Garden, about American white nationalism in the 1930s] recently said, “When fascism comes to America, it won’t have a German accent.”