With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Cheese to Chalk: Can Democracies be Compared to Dictatorships?

Just before the US presidential election on 3 November 2020, the American philologist and professor of gender studies Karen Tongson commented on a BBC speech by Thomas Mann in July 1942, in which the exiled writer predicted the demise of the  “scheusäligen” (unspeakable) Nazi system:  “Aus wird es sein mit seiner Schund- und Schand-Philosophie und mit den Schund- und Schandtaten, die daraus erflossen” (It will be the end of the Nazi philosophy of disgrace and shame and the disgraceful and shameful deeds ensuing from it).

Professor Tongson used this speech by Thomas Mann to reflect on the state of American democracy on the eve of the presidential election. She said she was “somewhat less optimistic” than Thomas Mann. Then she added that if she had to add up all the many ‘disgraceful and shameful’ deeds of the 45th president of the United States, it would take far too long, and concluded that democracy in the US was on the edge of the abyss (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 28 October 2020).

Others observing US developments were also concerned about whether the US system of checks and balances would be able to survive Donald Trump’s continuous attacks on its basic tenets. In particular they expressed their alarm at Trump’s refusal to accept the election result. Finally, however, the confirmation of Joe Biden’s victory by the Electoral College on 14 December showed that it is not as easy as many observers had feared to dismantle the political framework of an American system that has grown into a solid structure over two centuries. Once again, the comparisons drawn between current US developments and events in 1930s Germany have proved excessively alarmist.

Not only the politics of Donald Trump, but also many political actions by his pre-predecessor George W. Bush were frequently compared with the politics of Nazi Germany. A typical example for this trend were the hypotheses expressed by the American writer Naomi Wolf in her interview for the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 9 November 2007. Since the tendency to confuse the fundamental differences between totalitarian dictatorships and democratic states is reflected particularly clearly in Ms Wolf’s arguments, I would like to respond to her theories in detail.

Are the 1930s repeating themselves?

In her interview in the SZ Wolf insists on comparing the US situation during the era of George W. Bush with that of Germany in the 1930s.  Her comparison does not refer to the crisis-ridden Weimar Republic of 1930–1933, but to the Hitler dictatorship created in 1933. In other words, the United States in the Bush era is compared to a German state in which Hitler’s Enabling Act turned the German parliament into the dictator’s puppet, in which all parties, except for the one in power were suppressed, free unions and the free media destroyed. From then on, government policies could only be criticised indirectly in the manner, for instance, of the Frankfurter Zeitung. The 1930s in Germany are also associated with the notorious Aryan Paragraph, the concentration camps, the Nuremberg Laws, the November pogroms of 1938 and finally with Hitler’s Enablement Letter of October 1939 at the beginning of the Euthanasia Programme, with the aim to murder the mentally ill.

Outside Germany, the Nazi regime in the final years of the 1930s is notorious for its task forces (Einsatzgruppen) on the Eastern Front, which “by the middle of September 1939 had begun to eliminate the intellectual and religious elite in Poland” (according to the German historian Friedrich Battenberg).

What, therefore, induces Ms Wolf to make such a daring comparison? How can she spot any similarities between a democratic system and a totalitarian dictatorship? She says that “for seven years [the Bush] administration trampled on the social contract of [American] democracy... It simply expected [the people] not to notice.” As an American she felt she had the right to compare it to Hitler in the 1930s.

Attempts by the Bush administration to fire federal attorneys are compared to “Goebbels’ measures.” Then she claims doctors were supporting torture, even doctors

and psychiatrists who were under oath not to harm anyone and who with their signature were permitting practices defined by the Red Cross as torture. She compares such doctors to those in Germany.

Although Ms. Wolf tries to put this statement into perspective by declaring that this is not a comparison but a parallel, this is a specious, unconvincing argument. Even Ms. Wolf’s interviewer can’t quite understand the difference between a parallel and a comparison.  What is also confusing is that Naomi Wolf also compares the Bush administration to a completely different totalitarian dictatorship, namely the Stalinist USSR.  For her, the US fight on terror is on a par with Stalin’s hunting down enemies of the state. She also claims that under Stalin the definition of an enemy of the state, a subversive, or a saboteur constantly changed.

Thus the US under the Bush administration ends up being compared to a regime that caused more than 680,000 so-called ‘enemies of the state’ to be executed in 1937-38 alone.

Totalitarianism vs. democracy

The above examples show Naomi Wolf’s illogical argumentation. It is like comparing chalk to cheese, leading from one non-sequitur to another. Democracies, however much they may be beset by crises, exist both institutionally and structurally on a completely different planet to totalitarian dictatorships. A totalitarian regime is established not by partially hollowing out the political and social checks and balances, as is the case in certain democracies, but by eliminating them completely. The facts that Hitler’s destructive and self-destructive politics could be stopped only by the superior military power of the Allies and the Stalinist terror only after the dictator’s death are due to the complete destruction of the system of control by institutions in both totalitarian states. The United States today has a complex network of checks and balances: the two chambers of Congress, an independent judiciary, federal structures, self-governing bodies, and, last but not least, a free press, the fourth estate. Openly criticising the politics of Stalin or Hitler usually led to a death sentence, a famous exception being the Catholic bishop von Galen. By contrast, the radical criticism of actions by the Bush administration filled hundreds of columns in the US press on a daily basis. Anyone who dismisses such fundamental differences as irrelevant lives in a world of their own making. In fact, they are turning the real world on its head. This is the bizarre impression that Ms Wolf’s arguments create. It appears that 80 years’ worth of painstaking research on political science and history aimed at defining totalitarian systems and revealing how they differ from authoritarian regimes, and showing how right-wing and left-wing dictatorships differ from each other, are all lost on Ms Wolf.

Is there something similar in the air?

When, after his election, Donald Trump began to rattle the pillars of American democracy, one after the other, some observers began to fear that the “German scenario” of the 1930s was rearing its ugly head in the USA (but also in Europe) once again. There was something similar in the air according to Polish-American historian and journalist Anne Applebaum, in her interview for the Tagesanzeiger (December 2016). In his 2017 book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder added:

“The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions—even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.”

The system collapsed like a house of cards

Incidentally, an inverse impression of the robustness of government institutions was propagated by many witnessing the German situation in the early 1930s. Shortly after Hitler was proclaimed chancellor, Benno Reifenberg, the editor of the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung, called it a hopeless misjudgment of the German nation to believe one could force a dictatorial regime upon it: the diversity of the German people would surely call for democracy.” Very few analysts recognised how significant the turning point was on January 30 1933. One of few exceptions was the communist dissident August Thalheimer, who was swift to perceive the imminent catastrophe shortly after the National Socialists seized power. His predictions were to be borne out very rapidly. The Reich Chancellor’s decree “Zum Schutz von Volk und Staat” (For the protection of the People and the State), issued after the Reichstag fire of  February 27, 1933, triggered the almost-total dismantlement of pluralist structures throughout the state, at a breathtaking rate. As early as the beginning of July 1933, the French ambassador in Berlin, François-Poncet, summarised the first months of the Nazi Regime by saying “[Hitler] only had to puff – and the whole political system collapsed like a house of cards.”

What amazed many observers was the fact that the process of extensive ‘enforced conformity’ met with very little resistance. The spectacular rejection of the above-mentioned Enabling Act by the SPD party in the Reichstag was only one of few exceptions to the rule. The Catholic journalist Waldemar Gurian noted the ‘moral powerlessness’ of those who opposed the National Socialists. He said “the spineless opponents had stopped believing in themselves and had capitulated to save their lives, not realizing that by prevaricating on the final decisions they were sealing their fate.”

Certain exiled Russian thinkers who had witnessed the collapse of the ‘first’ Russian democracy 16 years beforehand were also surprised at the inability of German democracy (and several other Western democracies) to resist the attacks by their totalitarian opponents, especially considering the centuries-old tradition of the rule of law, which prevailed in this part of Europe in contrast to Russia.

No repetition of 1933  ‘German scenario’ in the Trump era

Now let us return to Donald Trump and the frequent fears that history in the form of the 1933 German scenario may repeat itself.

In On Tyranny, Snyder writes that Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who had to experience how democracy gave way to fascism, national socialism or communism. Americans’ only advantage is that they can learn from their experience. He believes the time is ripe. In an interview for the Süddeutsche Zeitung on February 7, 2017, Snyder added that institutions would not tame Trump, since for Trump, institutions and laws were merely obstacles standing in his way, which he wished to eliminate. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former advisor, is frequently quoted in this context. Bannon refers to himself as a “Leninist” with the aim of destroying the existing American system.

In the end, Trump and his advisors underestimated the robustness of the US democratic institutions, which look back on a history spanning more than 240 years. Trump’s electoral defeat of November 3, 2020, and the fact that all his attempts to challenge and overturn his opponent’s electoral victory have failed are a clear indication of this. The US pluralist structures may have suffered considerable wear and tear after four years of Trump’s administration but they are vigorous, and far from being destroyed as was the case in Germany after the 1933 Enabling Act.

Nevertheless, the consequences of Trump’s challenges to US democracy should not be underestimated either. His egomania and stubborn denial of reality have badly damaged US political culture, maybe permanently. Joe Biden is confident that Americans’ trust in their institutions has stayed strong, despite the turbulent last few years. Yet, whether the confidence of the president-elect is justified remains to be seen.

POSTSCRIPT: Some observers have compared the storming of the US Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 with the burning of the Reichstag in Berlin on February 27, 1933, an event that paved the way for Hitler´s dictatorship in Germany. The crucial difference between these events was, however, ignored. A few weeks after the burning of the Reichstag, the German parliament was turned by the Enabling Act into the dictator´s puppet. A few hours after the storming of the Capitol, the American legislature definitively confirmed Trump´s electoral defeat. The American system of checks and balances demonstrated again its vitality. Even in the last phase of Trump rule there was no repetition of the “German scenario” of 1933.

English translation from the German Text “Irreführende Parallelen – lassen sich Demokratien mit totalitären Diktaturen vergleichen?” (DieKolumnisten, December 30, 2020).

Translated by Elizabeth Rogans