When it comes to confronting Nazi rhetoric, one of the lessons of history is that speaking out early can help, which is perhaps why a growing chorus of shock and disapproval is emerging in Germany to President Donald Trump’s comments on the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia last week.
One Jewish leader complained that “it takes a very vengeful person to play down the beginnings of these movements as populism or individual cases” of violence. Members of the ruling German coalition government also questioned Mr. Trump’s comments.
“Of course, equating the two sides without distancing yourself from the Nazi element was a huge error,” Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told the German news agency DPA. Justice Minister Heiko Maas said Mr. Trump’s press conference on the demonstrations “trivialized right-wing violence.”
In Brussels, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also distanced himself from the US President’s comments. “The European project has healed the wounds that have inflicted hate, fear of strangers and anti-Semitism on this continent,” Mr. Juncker told Handelsblatt.
“It was not only people who supported racist policies, but people who were apathetic who made Hitler possible.”
Mr. Juncker said Europeans share common values, including respect for human dignity as well as freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.
Charlotte Knobloch, former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said the scenes of neo-Nazis wearing swastikas marching past Charlottesville’s synagogue while giving the Hitler salute “made the blood freeze in my veins.” There are about 100,000 Jews in Germany today, a small fraction of the more than half million who lived there before World War II. Many of them were emigres from Russia.
Ms. Knoblach told Handelsblatt that she was upset by President Trump’s reaction to the marchers. “All forms of extremism and terror must be recognized and defeated at an early stage,” she said.
Federico Finchelstein, an historian of fascism who recently taught about the Holocaust at a university in Dresden, said a major difference between the Nazi era and the United States at the moment was that many Germans in that era were indifferent and did not speak out against Hitler when it was still possible. That has been different this time – on both sides of the Atlantic.
“It was not only people who supported Hitler’s racist policies, but people who were apathetic and didn’t care that a key element of national socialism was racism,” Mr. Finkelstein said. “The key difference is there is a lot of condemnation of the president’s actions from broad sectors of American society.”
Mr. Finchelstein, a descendant of Germans Jews who fled to Argentina and now teaches at the New School university in New York, said that based on his historical research Mr. Trump now seems closer to former Argentine president Juan Peron than either Hitler or Mussolini.
“Peronism is not fascism, which was a dictatorship, but an authoritarian regime that was elected,” said Mr. Finchelstein. “Peron was a populist, which is what we are seeing at the moment in the Trump Administration.”
Mr. Peron served from 1943 until 1955, when he was overthrown in a military coup, and again in 1973 until he died in 1974. Like Mr. Peron, Mr. Trump identifies with the masses and has fiercely attacked the news media as being an enemy of the people, Mr. Finchelstein noted.
The author of several books about fascism in Germany and Italy, Mr. Finchelstein said that the Nazis took a great interest in racial segregation in the southern U.S. states when they were formulating the Nuremberg laws, which outlawed marriages and sex between gentiles and Jews.
“The Nazis were inspired by American segregation practices and laws,” he said. “There is a connection here.”
Dietmar Neuerer is a correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Berlin. Charles Wallace is an editor for Handelsblatt Global based in New York. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org