Book Review: The Coming of the Third Reich, by Richard J. Evans, With Thoughts on Contemporary American Politics

I’ve been hearing lot of comparisons between the rise of Donald Trump in American politics and the rise of Hitler in Germany, so I was very interested to read the first volume of Evans’ history of Nazism to see how similar our current situation in the US is to Weimar Germany in the 1930s. You’ll be relieved, I think, to find that there are few similarities, or at least the scale of the disfunction of Germany was enormously higher than what we are experiencing today.

The violence level in late Weimar Germany was incredibly high. Here is an image of a pitched battle between Communist “Red Front-Fighters’ League” militia and Brownshirts in a Berlin street in 1932, during the run-up to the Reichstag elections that gave the Nazis the most seats and the right to form a government (though they never won a majority)

street fight berlin 1932

(Image credit Yad Vashem)

Note the presence of armored cars, guys with sticks or batons, tear gas, a line of riot police in the background. Could be Ferguson, huh? Except that in these brawls, unlike the police-community violence in Missouri last summer, dozens of people were routinely getting killed. The Red Front-Fighters’ League and the Brownshirts of the Nazis, with cameo appearances by the Social Democrats’ militia the Reichsbanner, the Stahlhelm of the conservative Nationalist Party (later merged with the Brownshirts), and various smaller party militias were well-organized military formations, led by combat veterans of WWI, armed with firearms, sometimes heavy weapons, and always (in the street battles) at least with knives, knuckle-dusters, spiked clubs, and suchlike. They were there to fight. Each side went to the others’ political rallies in force with the intention of getting into a fight and beating up or killing some of the enemy.


(Image credit AP)

Now, here’s some Trump violence. Security guards and/or cops are – fairly roughly – removing a protester from a meeting. The protester is there, unlike the Brownshirts at Communist meetings or the Red Front at Nazi meetings, to make some noise and manifest his opposition to Trump’s ideas. You’ll notice the presence of a number of other probable Trump opponents in the background who are not making noise as such and have not (yet) been kicked out. Occasionally, protesters get sucker-punched or shaken up at Trump rallies, and Trump has expressed his pleasure in these cases, but I haven’t heard of anybody going to the hospital yet, to say nothing of the morgue.

The political dysfunction level in Germany in the early 1930s was equally high. The Reichstag met only a few times between the elections of 1930 and 1932. The Reichs Chancellor during that time, Heinrich Brüning, though a member of the formerly democratic Centre Party, used the power the Weimar Constitution gave to President Hindenburg to rule by decree because he couldn’t assemble a majority coalition in the Reichstag. The Reichstag elections of 1932 returned a chamber dominated by parties that opposed the very existence of the democratic system: the Nazis with over 200 delegates and the Communists with 110, as well as minor far-right parties (soon allied with the Nazis) with another couple dozen. Faced with the inability of the electoral system to produce even a grudging vote of confidence for a minority government, Franz von Papen took power as an explicitly non-political dictator in 1932, dispensing with the Reichstag entirely. As the leader of the largest party, Hitler insisted on being allowed to lead a government, and von Papen finally gave in (after a further round of elections) and Hitler became Reichs Chancellor in January, 1933. He was nominally the head of a coalition in the Reichstag, and following the Reichstag fire in February, 1933, he had most of the opposition members arrested, gained a 2/3 majority in the rump, and then passed an Enabling Act that essentially made him dictator.


(Image credit: Bundesarchiv) Here he is, in proper civilian top hat and frock coat, next to the aged Reich President, Hindenburg, at the Potsdam church.

Now, our political system has its moments of diminished functionality. For example, the Senate is currently refusing to perform its Constitutionally-mandated function of giving advice and consent to a number of presidential nominations, including now the nomination of a Supreme Court justice. The federal court system is thereby made less effective and in some cases has been unable to fulfill its Constitutional mandate of judging cases in an  expeditious manner. This is not a good thing. But it is a long way from there to the Congress being unable to organize itself, elect officials, or even meet because too many members disagree with the fundamental premise of the republican form of government. When the Trump-heads elect 40 or so senators and 200 or so house members and shut down business entirely, then I will begin to believe that it is 1933 in America.

Germans in 1933 did not have a broad-ranging fundamental loyalty to their system of government. The Weimar Constitution was never really fully legitimate in the eyes of many Germans. The Kaiser was kicked out in November, 1918, grudgingly, by the Social Democrats, the largest party in the Reichstag since the elections of 1912. Even the SD leader didn’t want to get rid of the monarchy but was afraid of the possibility of a Communist uprising (which actually did occur shortly after the end of the war in 1918-19, both in Berlin and in Munich) and also by the insistence of the victorious Allies (the French, at least) on a war crimes trial for the Kaiser. So the SDs wrote a republican federal constitution, a very free and democratic one. Unfortunately, nobody really believed in it. The right either wanted Wilhelm back or, failing that, wanted some other dominant figure to head the nation. When the Nazis entered power in January, 1933, they went out to the old garrison church in Potsdam, where Kaisers had traditionally been crowned, to hold the opening session of their Reichstag. Hitler didn’t quite sit on the throne – it was left empty by tradition – but it was clear that he was laying claim to be the new leader of the German people. The left, of course absent from Hitler’s enthronement, never really accepted the republic either; even many SDs remained convinced Marxists, just not Marxist-Leninists, and expected that a brief interlude with “bourgeois democracy” would lead to a natural evolution towards socialism. And the SDs vote decreased going into the 1930s, with many voters deserting them for the Communists. Meanwhile, the former liberal centrist parties all but disappeared. The only exception to this rule was the Centre Party, the ancestors of today’s Christian Democrats, who were almost entirely Catholics at the time and strongest in southern Germany and the Rhineland (today’s CDs, since the Konrad Adenauer days after WWII, include center-right Protestants as well; the current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, is a Protestant from East Germany). They represented basically Catholic interests and Hitler was careful to avoid insulting them too much (he was raised as a Catholic in Austria, though he did not practice any religion as an adult). The Centre assented to Brüning’s rule by decree in the 1930s, and, although the Centre leadership made von Papen resign his party membership when he took office as a dictator after the 1932 election, most Centre deputies voted with the Nazis to support Hitler as Chancellor in 1933 and then to dismantle Weimar entirely with the Enabling Act.

In America, there are people who reject the basic assumptions of our system of government. The Bundy crowd, who refuse to pay grazing fees for their cows on federal land because they don’t think the federal government has any right to own land are examples. There are people who believe that the only legitimate authorities are county officials, and don’t even believe in states’ rights. But they are a tiny minority and most of them are now going to prison for long spells for their violent resistance to federal authority. There are a larger number of very conservative people who have interpretations of the Constitution more in keeping with the attitudes of people before the Civil War; the idea, for example, that the Constitution is a compact between states and that states have the right to nullify federal government actions with which they disagree. These ideas have a certain currency on the right and I wouldn’t doubt that significant percentages of Trump’s supporters (and Cruz’s) hold these beliefs. But they are not violent opponents of our system. They do not reject the right of people who get elected to govern. They may not have liked it that Barack Obama won the presidency twice. They may have clung to the ridiculous idea that he was not an American citizen for some reason. But they are not trying to bring the system down. In most cases (Bundy clones aside) if there is a federal court ruling or a law passed by Congress and signed by the president, they obey. Running in an election does not make you a democrat; here in Africa, we know about that, there are tons of presidents-for-life here who make sure they get re-elected every five years or so. Look at Robert Mugabe in Z imbabwe, for example. But if you run for office and lose and go into opposition – as Republicans did when Obama was elected – even very hostile and obstructionist opposition, you thereby demonstrate that you accept the fundamental legitimacy of the democratic institutions. At least a little bit.

I’ve not described enormous stretches of Evans’ work, a book that anybody interested in the period should read. But I hope I have conveyed the impression that the rise of Donald Trump is a long way from being like the rise of Hitler. Even if he wins – which seems unlikely, but who knows? He looked pretty unlikely as the Republican nominee until a couple of months ago – but even if he wins, he’s no Hitler until he has Congress and the courts behind him, a party militia at his beck and call, a military leadership prepared to knuckle under to his demands, and all the other things Hitler had. And most of all, he can’t be Hitler until Americans abandon faith in their political system and decide they need a leader with unlimited power to get them out of some sort of (perceived) existential mess. None of these things are true now and they aren’t going to be true on January 20, 2017, even if Trump and Palin are going to be sworn in that day.


3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Coming of the Third Reich, by Richard J. Evans, With Thoughts on Contemporary American Politics

    1. The book has been out for a while, though. Yes, as you can tell, I loved it. I’m reading the second volume now, “The Third Reich In Power”; somehow less topical, though. Maybe after President Trump and Vice-President Palin are sworn in next January, it will be more meaningful.

      The third volume of Evans’ work is “The Third Reich At War”. Hope that one doesn’t become timely…


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