By Jon Blake
May 3, 2019
As I was packing three weeks ago for what has become my annual trip back to Oxford for the International Media Law Moot Court Championships in the second week of April, I scanned the overflowing bookshelves beside my bed to look for a book I could read in the nooks and crannies of a hectic and gratifying week-long schedule of events. What caught my attention was the thinnest most unassuming of the books, a paperback so old and tattered that it had lost its binding. When I pulled it out, the barely functional front cover read, “The Last Days of Hitler” by Trevor Roper, an historian whose work I had long admired and who, shortly after the end of World War II, Britain had tasked with investigating Hitler’s death, in part to counter rampant rumors that Hitler had escaped and was living in all manner of places plotting his return to power. I remembered those rumors as a boy. They were prompted by the fact that Hitler’s remains had not been found at the time Roper wrote his book. A popular explanation was that the Russian military, which was first on the scene at Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, had found them and secreted them away in Moscow. Stalin had been a major promoter of the idea that Hitler had escaped. When Stalin died eight years after Hitler’s death, the Russians revealed that since the end of the war they had had the remains of both Eva Braun and Hitler, including Hitler’s jaw. Based on prewar dental records, it was then definitively proven to be Hitler’s. In the 10th edition of his book, Roper described the unfolding of these facts.
The book, as a physical object, was on its last legs, would not survive until my next opportunity to read it, and was the right length to read throughout the week and most likely on the eight-hour return flight. I was also certain that it would be relevant to the issue of hate speech, a major theme of the moot court arguments and related discussions and currently a hot, life-or-death issue both in our country and worldwide.
And so I started reading the fragile, browning pages that fell out of the binding as I turned them and fluttered to the floor of the trans-Atlantic flight returning me home a week later. What leapt at me from the first few pages were the uncanny parallels between the environment in the complex of bunkers in Berlin where Hitler spent the last several weeks before he and Eva Braun, whose existence he had tried to hide from his country for over a decade, committed suicide, and the environment in our nation’s White House. Hitler was a supreme narcissist, often had temper tantrums when he foamed at the mouth, and humiliated his cabinet ministers, aides, and military commanders and fired them for any suspected disloyalty. All but one of his circle of closet advisers were toadies, trying desperately to outdo each other in their sycophancy.
For purposes of comparison, recall the cringe-worthy televised Trump cabinet meeting at which each of the members spoke of what they most admired about the president. Roper refers to Hitler’s closest advisors not as a government but as the court of a 16th century potentate in a small, backward and corrupt Southeast Asian nation. Another similarity came to me as I listened to the taxi’s radio that drove me home from Dulles Airport after my return flight. It was reporting on Trump’s purge of the Homeland Security Department, purges being a staple of Hitler’s governance style.
As I progressed more deeply into the text, I also began to notice individual-by-individual parallels between Hitler’s inner circle and Trump’s. Uninformed by any other source of information inside the cabin of the United Airlines plane, I paired Goebbels with Steven Miller and Bannon; Borman with Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and perhaps Nick Mulvaney; Himmler with Wilbur Ross or Steve Mnuchin; Goering with Giuliani or perhaps Scott Pruitt; Schellenberg, Hitler’s foreign intelligence officer, with John Bolton; and, of course, Hitler with Trump.
My imagination took me one step further. Could a play be written about Hitler’s last months that highlighted, but not explicitly, the parallels between the overall environment of the two men’s flailing governments and the mentalities of their leading figures? It occurred to me that several of the figures among Hitler’s closest advisors in the play could be made up to look like their counterparts in the Trump cabinet, without the counterparts being identified by name. It would be easy, I thought, to make up the actor playing Hitler to look like Trump because of his hair, the Himmler character to look like Wilbur Ross with his tired frog-like appearance, and the Schellenberg character to look like John Bolton, because of his distinctive mustache.
As I read on toward the end of the book, I came to the period beginning a few weeks before his death, when Hitler repeatedly ranted that the German people were not worthy of his heroic leadership and, in a campaign of brutal retribution, actively sought to impose maximum suffering on the German people. Thus, he gave orders from his bunker to withhold military support for his soldiers and German citizens on the Eastern front in order to let the murderous Russian army penetrate Berlin, rather than the Western allies that generally respected the rules of war contained in the Geneva Convention. To further explain Hitler’s motivation, Roper quotes from Mein Kampf, which Hitler had written fifteen years earlier, a slogan that defined his mentality as “world dominance or total ruin.” He had come to the “total ruin” stage.
I found it frighteningly easy to imagine Trump, in a moment of impassioned pique at some failure in his crazy agenda, lashing out at his countrymen and supporters in similarly punitive ways. In fact, journalists as a group and even individually have been cast in that role since the start of his Administration, and Trump has repeatedly and publicly incited violence against them. That said, Trump clearly lacks the steely resolve that made Hitler such a powerful leader. Even Trump’s intense hatred of Muslims and other minorities, though similar to Hitler’s pathological campaign to exterminate Jews, gypsies, and Slavs, is lazier and for show. There is not much there, there. In the end, Trump is always the con man and Hitler, the true believer, though both, at their core, were rooted exclusively in themselves—one a buffoon; the other a man monster.
Hitler’s last days were full of dramatic events, e.g., Hitler’s order to kill Goering, Himmler’s betrayal, Hitler’s last-minute decision about who should succeed him after he committed suicide, his last desperate and repeated deployment orders to a German Army division that had been destroyed weeks before he issued those orders, and Hitler’s marriage to Eva Braun less than 24 hours before their joint suicides. Perhaps oddest of all, as Hitler and Eva Braun’s bodies were being burned in the garden above the bunker to prevent Russian soldiers from desecrating their corpses, the remaining members of Hitler’s entourage in the bunker—from Goebbels, his wife and five children, Bormann, the Iago of the group, and ordinary typists and policemen, broke into festivities, smoked (an indulgence that Hitler had banned) and even danced in the bunker—a reaction that even surprised the participants, both at the time and later when they were interviewed.
Fascinating characters also abound. For a week or so before Hitler’s suicide, a bizarre young woman who cultivated her reputation as a heroic spy and pilot, stayed in Hitler’s bunker. Of all the witnesses of the last days’ events in the bunker, she had the most unreliable memory, or perhaps was the most delusional or histrionic. There was also one man in the inner circle, though not in the bunker, Albert Speer who was clear-eyed from almost the beginning of Hitler’s ascendency about the events, Hitler, and the people surrounding him. But Speer could not shake off the thrall that Hitler cast over him. He was executed for war crimes after the Nuremberg trials.
Lastly, of Hitler himself, here are the ruminations of his Finance Minister toward the end, who had been a German Rhodes Scholar before the war: “It was terrible to hear, that no counsel, no reasoned arguments, no reference to the fearful sufferings of our poor people, can break through those walls which the Fuehrer has erected around his convictions, and behind which he allows nobody to see. Can it be that there is really nothing there—only the gigantic obstinacy of a deluded spirit, sacrificing all to its self-worshipping Ego?”
In a note to the 10th edition of the book, Roper tries to answer the question why the Germans acceded, with so little resistance, to Hitler’s increasingly volatile, unstable, and destructive leadership. He observes: “Dictatorships kill political intelligence in the governed, as well as in the governors.” I wondered as I read that sentence whether it isn’t after all the best explanation for why Trump’s base is so loyal to him despite all of his crazed actions, policies, and exhortations.
Commentary by Terry Bacon
I published this article by Jon Blake in part because he is a well-educated student of history and a keen observer of politics and politicians and in part because other observers of our current political situation have also noted the parallels between Hitler and Trump. Are the similarities between these two men worrisome enough that we should fear an American rendition of the madness and ultimate destruction of Nazi Germany? The idea that history repeats itself is an old one. It’s first recorded use in English was reportedly in 1561, but its most famous expression is from Spanish philosopher George Santayana, who wrote in 1906, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So it behooves us to recognize the ways in which Trump is like Hitler–as well as the ways in which he is not. The preservation of our democracy may depend on it.
I’ve just finished watching a fascinating documentary on Netflix entitled, “The Dark Charisma Adolf Hitler,” which I would highly recommend. As I watched it, I kept Jon Blake’s article in mind and noted a number of similarities between Adolf Hitler and our current president:
- Hitler ignored or perverted the rule of law and assumed absolute power. After becoming Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, Hitler asked President von Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag (the German equivalent of our Congress). In the general election that followed, the Nazis received less than fifty percent of the vote, so in March of that year Hitler connived to have Hindenburg sign the Enabling Act, which allowed Hitler and his cabinet to pass laws without the new Reichstag’s involvement or approval. In circumventing the legislative branch of the German government, Hitler seized sole executive and legislative power, effectively making him a dictator. Trump cannot dissolve Congress, but he has found ways to circumvent our legislative branch of government when Congress won’t do his bidding. After Congress wouldn’t fund his wall, Trump took money from other parts of government, mainly the Department of Defense, to fund the wall’s construction. More recently, he and his administration have been ordering people like Don McGahn, William Barr, and others to ignore Congressional subpeonas. Trump has extended “Executive Privilege” far beyond its traditional boundaries, and he’s used his power to pardon as a carrot or stick to reward people who are loyal to him or punish those who aren’t or might not be loyal. Trump has not yet had the audacity to go as far as Hitler did in consolidating executive power, but that clearly is his impulse and desire. He wants to make unilateral decisions and is frustrated when he can’t. If he could govern without a legislature (aka Reichstag), he would. Bear in mind that before he became president, he ran a business empire where he was the sole decision maker, virtually a god. He doesn’t know any other way to govern.
- Hitler used violence against his enemies, killing many of them and sending others to prison or concentration camps. Trump wishes violence upon his opponents. He’s done it openly in rallies when he speaks about smashing a reporter or a protester in the face (and offers to pay the legal bills of any of his followers who will do that). He praised the Montana GOP representative who body slammed a reporter, and he frequently talks tough in extreme ways, as when he said that if Iran went to war against the U.S. Iran would cease to exist. Trump is a bully through and through and believes in violence as a means to an end. We are fortunate that he cannot create a private police force like Hitler’s Storm Troopers and the Gestapo–because if he could he would–and thousands of his gun-toting supporters would join.
- Hitler took his racism and hatred to a genocidal extreme, ordering the deaths of millions of Jews, gypsies, and other people he considered undesirable. Trump is also a racist and a misogynist. His “Make America Great Again” is a euphemism for keeping America white, and his staunchly anti-immigrant position is a thinly veiled attempt to keep brown people out of the country. He refuses to condemn white supremacist violence (ala Charlottesville) because it would rankle his base and, at his core, he approves of it. His anti-Democrat, anti-liberal rhetoric is intended to inflame his supporters, and it works. The instances of thwarted right-wing terrorist attacks against news media and Democratic politicians prove that point.
- Hitler reserved all the important decisions to himself, and while the Germans were winning in the early years of WWII they were content to allow him to make unilateral decisions because he considered him flawless. As Nazi victories came so easily from 1939-1941, many Germans, including high-ranking military officers, thought he was a military genius. Trump prefers to make all the major decisions by himself, too. He once said, “I don’t listen to other people, deliberately.” In a Fox News interview about all the empty positions at the State Department, Trump said, “I’m the only one who matters.” Like Trump, Hitler was a narcissist and egotist who believed his own delusions about his infallibility and genius. When the tide inevitably turned against him, he blamed everyone but himself.
- Hitler was at his best in large rallies. He glorified in the adulation of the crowd and gave rousing speeches about the wrongs done to Germany by its enemies, about Germany’s rightful role in the world, and about his grand vision for the future of Germany under his leadership. Sound familiar? Trump is truly in his element at his political rallies, staged and orchestrated as they are by his staff, where thousands of MAGA hat-wearing loyalists hold signs with his name on them and clap, cheer, and chortle at his every pronouncement, no matter how false or nonsensical it might be. Trump is a natural born marketer, and his favorite product is himself. The glories heaped upon him by adoring crowds feed his ego like no other source of nourishment. Likewise, Hitler stood proud and complete as throngs of Germans shouted “Sieg, heil!” and raised their right arms in the Nazi salute at pauses in his rousing speeches.
- Lastly, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, claimed that Hitler was sent by God to help the German people, and a bastion of the German Christian church not only supported Hitler but carried a version of the Nazi flag with a cross in the center instead of a Swastika. Similarly, Franklin Graham and televangelist Paula White have opined that Trump was sent by God for the American people, a claim echoed by millionaire Michael Lindell at the recent CPAC. More disturbing, a Fox News poll found that 25 percent of Americans believe Trump was sent by God. When you believe that an obviously flawed leader was sent to you by the Almighty, then that person, by definition, can do no wrong.
America is not likely to follow the disastrous path Nazi Germany took, despite these similarities between Hitler and Trump. Hitler was a powerful orator, and Trump is barely articulate. Hitler was a powerful enough speaker to enlist the majority of German citizens in his quest for national and racial superiority, and he came to power when the German people were suffering from runaway inflation, depression, starvation, high unemployment, and national humiliation following Germany’s defeat in WWI. Trump is claiming to make America great again, but most people believe the country was already great. We aren’t suffering the deprivations the Germans were in the 1920’s and 30’s. When Trump claims that he’s responsible for everything good in our lives now, including a robust economy, most of us know better, and when he tells us the press and the Democrats enemies of the people, we know he’s just trying to inflame his base. In the end, I take solace in Jon Blake’s conclusion that Hitler was a true believer and a man monster, whereas Donald Trump is a con man and a buffoon.
I don’t normally quote Karl Marx, but in this case the quote is too apt. He said, “Hegel remarks somewhere that history tends to repeat itself. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy; the second time as farce.” Hitler was the tragedy; Trump is the farce.
I’m going to close my commentary, first by thanking Jon Blake for allowing me to publish his article, and second by quoting Teddy Roosevelt:
”Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”
Here is a salute to all true patriots.