One of the best-known quotes from a victim of Nazism is that of Lutheran minister Martin Niemöller, who lamented having failed to protest the persecution of political leftists and Jews before being targeted himself — at which point there was no one left to protest on his behalf.
Adolf Hitler hardly kept his antisemitism and racial utopianism secret, and Niemöller would later regret having initially supported the Führer’s dictatorship and warmongering.
Like Niemöller, Victor Klemperer was a proud World War I veteran and German Lutheran married to a Lutheran. Unlike Niemöller, Klemperer converted to Christianity from Judaism, so was persecuted by the Nazis as a Jew. Klemperer’s published diaries, titled “I Will Bear Witness,” and an earlier book, “The Language of the Third Reich,” offer powerful analysis of how Nazi rhetoric marginalized groups of people in order to curry political favor with supporters.
What do Niemöller’s and Klemperer’s stories tell us about American politics in the new year? That fascist-oriented authoritarians do three things: First, they announce their agendas and ideologies. Second, they rely on cult-like worship, political passivity and unprincipled complicity as they dehumanize perceived enemies and scapegoats. Third, they unleash catastrophes that affect even those who imagined themselves secure.
As a historian of 20th-century Europe, I have taught the rise of fascist dictatorships for more than 30 years. I never imagined sounding an alarm about parallel perils to American democracy, but that moment for me has come.
Klemperer drove home a truism evident in histories of the Third Reich, Benito Mussolini’s Italian fascism and other murderous dictatorships about language paving the path to persecution.
Critical to the success of fascist rhetorical strategies are the motifs at play. Associations with animals and disease and images of sexual violence recur throughout fascist discourse. Politically, anti-democrats herald loyal lawbreakers as martyrs or heroes. Fundamental to dictators’ success is repetition, since reiteration normalizes the abnormal; supporters dismiss extremism as meaningless rhetorical excess, while even staunch opponents are numbed to the diatribes’ shock and meaning. All of these elements are manifest in the rhetoric of former President Donald Trump.
The value of knowing history is not to wait for it to repeat itself exactly, for that will never happen, but to be alert to its patterns and predictions. The warning signs are evident, and we ignore them at our collective risk.
Trump’s language on immigrants, whom he accuses of “poisoning the blood of our country,” has rightly drawn attention for its echoes of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” The former president’s attacks on immigrants are of course ironic, considering his family history — his paternal grandparents, his mother and his first and third wives were immigrants. But Trump’s focus is clearly on migrants of color, not white Europeans.
The depiction of immigrants as threatening to blood purity is underscored by references to their supposed sexual perversions as rapists and their putative mental illnesses, all of which animated Nazi language on Jews and “asocial” Germans targeted for the pre-World War II “euthanasia” campaign. Trump’s political language is alarming as well. The use of the term “vermin” to describe “the radical left thugs” he vows to “root out” is consistent with fascist portrayals of perceived enemies as animals and therefore suitable for slaughter.
The demonization of political enemies is hardly new to American politics, but its outlines matter. Trump’s attacks on Department of Justice special counsel Jack Smith as a “deranged lunatic” and his threats to exact “retribution” against the news media echo past dictators. Trump’s characterization of felons serving prison sentences for violently invading the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 as “J-6 hostages” who should be “freed” — and his salute as a recording of a “J6 Prison Choir” song plays at his rallies — recall the Nazis’ ceremonial martyrdom of those killed in the 1923 Munich beer hall putsch. In both cases, the lionization of criminals reflects an abandonment of the rule of law.
When Trump announces that he plans to serve as dictator on his first day of a second term and refuses to sign Illinois’ decades-old election pledge not to “directly or indirectly teach or advocate the overthrow of the government,” we should take him at his word. Relying on the checks and balances of the American democratic system to restrain a President Trump recalls the millions of Europeans who voted for Hitler and Mussolini on the assumption that the government would contain their most extremist impulses. As Niemöller came to recognize, authoritarians mean what they say; while calamities necessarily unfold over time, those who believe they are safe almost always discover they were misled.
Klemperer witnessed how language served as an effective means to advance the Nazi movement’s aims. If not yet as consistently extreme as Hitler, Mussolini and other fascist dictators, Trump’s rhetoric evokes disturbing comparisons with fascist leaders who were not taken sufficiently seriously before it was too late.
Maria D. Mitchell is a professor of history at Franklin & Marshall College.