I started writing this one day after President Biden and Vice President Harris were inaugurated. Many of us were thoroughly relieved that the event turned out to be a dignified, uneventful transition of power. I wouldn’t quite call it peaceful, given that the capital was full of police and troops prepared to quell a repetition of the January 6th mob attack, but there were no outright acts of violence.
The pandemic forced most of us to view the inauguration online. Those few who were invited had to maintain a safe distance and wear masks to prevent the event from functioning to boost the spread of the virus. A few hours after the formal inauguration, President Biden started the process of annulling some of ex-president Trump’s most objectionable policies. In his first day, President Biden signed 15 executive orders and two agency directives in areas such as mitigation of COVID-19, rejoining the 2015 Paris climate agreement, negating travel ban from Muslim-dominant countries, and delivering economic relief to those in need. In the coming days, he will expand this list; it promises to be a major transition from the last four years.
My semester will start in two weeks and most of my classes regard climate change, so I will be looking closely at the new administration’s climate change policy changes, both in class and in the coming blogs.
Tomorrow, January 27th, is International Holocaust Day. This time last year, I gave a talk as a part of my school’s “We Stand Against Hate” seminar series (see the February 4, 2020 blog). Less than two months later, we were all were forced into a lockdown. My talk then focused on my experiences in the Holocaust and the connections that I have been trying to establish between that planned genocide and climate change, which I refer to as a self-inflicted genocide.
Transitions like that between these two presidents are much more complicated than the straightforward exchange of batons shown above. We know what has already happened; the future is always uncertain but we are optimistic that it will be better than the past. Last year we were wrong; 2020 was a mess! I hope that we will do better this year. The Trump-inspired mob attack two weeks ago is an important piece of our recent past.
Last week, I focused on the visible part of that attack. Some of the people involved carried signs with swastikas because they identified with Nazi ideals. Others, who understand the almost universal regard for Nazis as the ultimate evil, used the opposite rhetoric, misrepresenting policies and guidelines with which they disagreed as exemplifying fascism.
I started this blog more than eight years ago, as an attempt to use my Holocaust background as leverage to try to mobilize mitigation efforts in the face of the dangers of climate change. This excerpt from my first blog (April 22, 2012) summarizes my attitude:
The Webster Dictionary defines genocide as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of racial, political or cultural groups.” There is no question that the Holocaust was a genocide. Genocides do not repeat themselves exactly. They come in different guises. Despite the deniers, it is straightforward to teach students to condemn the Holocaust, but it is more difficult to teach them how to prevent future genocides. One of the most difficult parts is to see them coming. Despite the fact that Hitler published the first volume of his manifesto, Mein Kampf, in 1925, where he laid out his philosophy, he was, nevertheless, democratically elected as German Chancellor in 1933. Few people believed in 1933 that he would seriously try to accomplish what he preached or anticipated the consequences that resulted from his actions.
As you can see, that first blog solicited 82 comments, which forced me to expand on the issue in the next two posts, each of which received more than 60 comments. The discussion sort of dried up but this has remained the underlying theme over the more than eight years I have been writing this blog. It has also persisted as one of the most important anchors between me and my students throughout my teaching. The focus of the analogy is not the Holocaust itself or the multitude of crimes that the Nazis perpetrated after they came to power, the part I want to look at now is how they got to power in the first place.
When the most recent lockdown started, I realized that I don’t know enough about this last point. At first, it was a revived interest in WWII, specifically in Germany; a lot of Russian archival material about WWII had suddenly become available. I focused on Volker Ullrich’s two books on Hitler. In the December 29, 2020 blog, I discussed his second volume that described in details WW2 from 1939 – 1945 with a focus on the Nazi leadership from the perspective of today’s German historians that took advantage of the rich Russian archives. That volume spanned 632 pages of mostly text, few pages of detailed maps with abundance of arrows and close to 150 pages of tight-spaced references and notes. Hitler himself was mostly in the background.
In December (after the end of our online fall semester), I started to read Ullrich’s first volume, Hitler: Ascent, 1989-1939. The book was published in German in 2016 (English Translation, 2017). On the cover of the English translation, the publisher quoted a New York Times review:
“A fascinating Shakespearean parable about how the confluence of circumstance, chance, a ruthless individual and the willful blindness of others can transform a country” By Michiko Kakutani – The New York Times.
The book made me think about our own transition, with the similarities and the happy differences that follow.
Hitler was a “normal” kid when he grew up in Austro-Hungary at the end of the 19th Century. He moved to Germany in 1913. A year later, he joined the German army in WWI. By the end of the war in 1918, he was 25 years old. Germany (together with Austro-Hungary and Turkey) lost the war and had to pay for it.
The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 1919:
Of the many provisions in the treaty, one of the most important and controversial required “Germany [to] accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage” during the war (the other members of the Central Powers signed treaties containing similar articles). This article, Article 231, later became known as the War Guilt clause. The treaty required Germany to disarm, make ample territorial concessions, and pay reparations to certain countries that had formed the Entente powers. In 1921 the total cost of these reparations was assessed at 132 billion gold marks (then $31.4 billion or £6.6 billion, roughly equivalent to US$442 billion or UK£284 billion in 2021). At the time economists, notably John Maynard Keynes (a British delegate to the Paris Peace Conference), predicted that the treaty was too harsh—a “Carthaginian peace“—and said the reparations figure was excessive and counter-productive, views that, since then, have been the subject of ongoing debate by historians and economists. On the other hand, prominent figures on the Allied side, such as French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, criticized the treaty for treating Germany too leniently.
Parallel to that, and not surprisingly, completely missing from Ullrich’s book, was the strike of the Spanish flu pandemic:
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the deadliest in history, infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide—about one-third of the planet’s population—and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims, including some 675,000 Americans. The 1918 flu was first observed in Europe, the United States and parts of Asia before swiftly spreading around the world. At the time, there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat this killer flu strain. Citizens were ordered to wear masks, schools, theaters and businesses were shuttered and bodies piled up in makeshift morgues before the virus ended its deadly global march.
In Germany, an estimated 426,000 out of a population of 61 million died from the Spanish flu from 1918-1919. It’s only recently, during our present pandemic, that an interest in the Spanish flu’s contribution to the rise of the Nazis in Germany has started to surface.
When the Weimar Republic was born, WWI had just ended and the Germans were understandably in a bad mood. They were looking for anybody besides themselves to blame. Hitler was no exception. He joined the German Workers Party (DAP) in 1919 and was instrumental in converting it into a new Nazi party by adding NS (National Socialists) to its name. The new party’s name was NSDAP. The table below (not taken from Ullrich’s book), describes the composition of the German parliament (Reichstag) from the mid-1920s to 1933. The transition came in 1930. In 1928, the Nazi party had only 2.5% of the votes. In 1930, it became the second largest party, with close to 20% of the votes. Less than two years later, it became the largest party, with 38% of the vote. It took less than three months after the November 1932 election for Hitler to take absolute power in Germany.
The Weimar republic was able to withstand the Treaty of Versailles and the Spanish flu but not the Great Depression that hit Germany in 1929. That last event spread from the Wall Street crash in the US to the rest of the world. Ullrich’s book describes this crucial 15-year transition in Germany in detail. From the numbers in the table above, it is clear that following the crash, the Weimer Republic became a failed state. Hitler realized it from the beginning of his political involvement. The book portrays him as a person with no formal education to speak of. He was a gifted orator, able to read his audience and tell them what they wanted to hear. Facts didn’t matter and fact-checkers were unpopular at the time. He originally crafted the foundations of the Nazi party in 1919 to give people a scapegoat for their misery—one that didn’t have the governmental power to defend itself. Jews were a convenient target. According to Ullrich, Hitler’s antisemitism was initially an election tactic. It didn’t take long, however, before he converted it into deadly creed. His speeches often accused Jews of profiteering from Germans’ misfortunes. He carefully did not blame the Allied Powers who won WWI and forced the Treaty of Versailles; they had the wherewithal to fight back, both politically and militarily. The Bolsheviks were too busy in the wake of the Russian revolution to fight back, so Germany had the potential to add to its living space by expanding east. As I mentioned before, the false narrative of Judeo-Bolshevism (i.e. Jews caused and benefited from the Russian revolution) became a battle-cry. Hitler demanded an end to all Jewish immigration and in Mein Kampf, he started to advocate liquidation.
The 1930s transition is directly responsible for the loss of approximately 75 million people worldwide, including most of my family. It didn’t end well for anybody, winners or losers.
Hitler didn’t have nuclear weapons but he came very close to being the first to possess them. The first successful nuclear fission demonstration took place in Hitler’s Germany. We don’t need a rich imagination to foresee that a similar evolution of events could results in complete extinction.
The US does have nuclear capabilities and the potential to cause a lot of damage. Fortunately, we do not seem to be going in the direction of 1930s Germany. President Reagan described our nation’s historic tradition of the peaceful transition of power:
“To a few of us here today this is a solemn and most momentous occasion, and yet in the history of our nation it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”
We must take that to heart. President Biden’s inauguration on January 20th could have ended differently and we should all be thankful that the tradition held up.