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history pragmatic historian

Challenge – What Would You Have Done as Hitler Rose to Power?

This is a post I’ve been waiting to write for a couple of weeks, ever since I saw Amy Siskind’s smack-in-the-face tweet:

"Wonder what you would have been doing in Germany, as Hitler rose to power? -- You're doing it right now." -- Tweet by Amy Siskind, May 27, 2018
“Wonder what you would have been doing in Germany, as Hitler rose to power? — You’re doing it right now.” — Tweet by Amy Siskind, May 27, 2018

When I was studying the Holocaust as part of a World War I & II class in high school, this is exactly the thought that kept going through my mind. What would I have done? Would I have gone along with the Third Reich’s activities and had to live with my cowardice and the shame of inaction just so I could survive? Would I have found a way to help those being persecuted and killed in the ghettos and concentration camps? Would I have risked my own life to do so?

If you are unfamiliar with Amy Siskind, she is the creator of The List, a weekly list of all the not normal things that have been happening in our democracy since Donald Trump took office. The List is meant to serve as a roadmap to how a democratic country can slide into authoritarianism.

As each week goes by, The List gets longer and longer. And that’s not a good thing.

Beyond Godwin’s Law

As our democracy erodes, inevitably parallels are made to Nazi Germany.

If you’ve poked in the crevices of the internet for long enough, you eventually come across Godwin’s Law. Godwin’s Law is an internet adage coined by Mike Godwin that states that the longer an online conversation becomes, the more likely a comparison to Hitler will be made. A corollary to this law is that once Hitler is mentioned, the conversation ends and the person who mentioned Hitler loses whatever online argument s/he was trying to make.

At the risk of being a major loser, here I am, bringing up Hitler and Nazis.

And, darn it, I’m a historian. Aren’t I supposed to only mention lovely, nostalgic things about history, not these difficult subjects? Aren’t I supposed to be politically neutral, to not take sides? Aren’t I only allowed to talk about the past, not what’s happening currently?

The Reality of History

Nope, nope, nope, on all accounts, nope!

There’s the old saw about people who don’t study history being doomed to repeat it. How can we not repeat the bad stuff if we don’t study the bad stuff? What’s the good of studying the past if we don’t ever apply it to the present? And, in applying it to the present, why would we not use our judgment of what worked and what didn’t? Why would we not examine the past using our values? Why would we not take sides?

In order to make history work for us, we need to apply what we learn about it to our present circumstances. That is one aspect of practicing history, and a very important aspect, at that. It’s what makes us pragmatic historians.

Connection & Empathy Challenge

So, your challenge for today, one that is related to Connection & Empathy on History’s Hierarchy of Purpose, is to think about Amy Siskind’s question. What would you have done as Hitler rose to power? What are you doing today that will help save our democracy? (Even small actions help, so don’t let this question make you feel discouraged.)

But that’s not the totality of the challenge.

Hitler and the Nazis are often brought up in situations that aren’t appropriate or exactly parallel. That’s why there’s that corollary to Godwin’s Law … for people who sling these words around as ad hominem attacks with no discernment.

So, let’s ask some questions related to Amy Siskind’s tweet in order to dig deeper.

  • Did any German citizens resist Hitler and the Nazis? If so, how many did?
  • Did Germany have free speech laws similar to those in the United States?
  • What was Germany’s judicial system like at the time?
  • How about the country’s media or press? Was it independent?
  • How did Germany’s government structure compare to the U.S. structure of federal & state governments?
  • How big was Germany’s population? How does it compare to the U.S. population today?
  • How did Hitler rise to power? Was there a slow erosion of rights or was this sudden? Was there a tilt in power from the people to the wealthy elite (an economic imbalance) at the time?

As you can see from my line of questioning, the point is to compare the conditions that led to and supported Nazi Germany to what’s happening in the United States today. No matter how much we think history is repeating itself, there are always details that differ from one time to the next. Those differences may make all the difference.

You can find some answers to the above questions on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. By trying to answer these questions and any others that occur to you, you’ll be able to see if the Hitler comparison works in today’s situation.

2 thoughts on “Challenge – What Would You Have Done as Hitler Rose to Power?”

    1. Joan – Everyone who cares about our democracy ought to read that excerpt.

      Here’s just one paragraph that struck me with its similarity between Nazi Germany and the United States:

      “”What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.”

      I have been seeing changes, little shifts toward corporatocracy & oligarchy and away from taking care of people, for years now. Too much happening in government to pay attention to it all, so most of us didn’t pay any attention. Now, we are getting hammered with the constant diversions, the stupid little things, like FLOTUS hasn’t been seen for 2 weeks, this comedian called someone a bad name, etc., etc., that we easily lose track as Scott Pruitt destroys the EPA while stealing from the taxpayers or Mick Mulvaney stops protecting consumers at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (he just changed the name so that consumers are no longer put first) or Donald Trump makes deal upon deal upon deal with countries that are run by dictators and have not been friends of the U.S, while simultaneously ruining our relationships with allies and making gobs and gobs of money off of taxpayers. And it all becomes so much to bare that we have to turn away in order to stay sane. (Some of us choose to pay no attention at all, while others tune in and out as we have the fortitude to deal with it.)

      If my Twitter feed and conversations with family and friends are any indication, many of us are watching and speaking up and acting where we can, which is a blessing, and we have people like Amy Siskind and Robert Reich, who are keeping us informed and sounding the alarm. The White House and a complicit Congress are rapidly dismantling our democracy and we have got to be steadfast and strong in working to save it.

      Thank you for sharing that excerpt, Joan. It serves as a historical roadmap of how we can be hoodwinked so subtly.

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