Unlike scores of op-ed writers and political pundits four years ago, UC Berkeley Jewish history professor John Efron resisted early comparisons between the Trump administration and fascist regimes of history.
In 2017, he strongly opposed the Muslim ban, issued by executive order, yet noted that the ban did not cause Muslims to be attacked violently on a daily basis, result in widespread vandalism of Muslim business nor include anti-miscegenation laws, among many other persecutions of Nazi Germany, up to and including Jewish genocide. The parallels in that context seemed overwrought, Efron said.
“But as time went on, things began to look different,” he said. “Comparing the U.S. of today with the Germany of the 1920s and 1930s is not as outlandish as it first seemed.”
Efron spoke at a Jan. 11 Zoom forum organized by the San Francisco office of the American Jewish Committee, attended by board members, professional staff and German diplomats Hans-Ulrich Südbeck, the consul general to the U.S. based in San Francisco, and Stefan Schlueter, Südbeck’s predecessor, who Zoomed in from Argentina.
Convened to place recent events in American politics in a historical context, the forum was held just days after a violent mob of right-wing extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol building, threatening the electoral process and halting the normal functioning of Congress.
The forum’s purpose was “to learn from history, and these experts, about how to assess a grave risk to our society and to our democracy,” said AJC director Rabbi Serena Eisenberg. Coming on the heels of the Jan. 6 act of insurrection, “today’s program could not be more timely.”
Efron is a prolific writer on Jewish history, a specialist on German Jewry and co-author of the textbook “The Jews: A History.”
In his keynote, Efron shared lessons and “cautionary tales” from the German Weimar Republic — the nascent postwar democracy, formed in 1918 after World War I, that Hitler successfully toppled when he came to power in 1933.
“Trump is not Hitler,” he clarified. “But there are valid points of comparison — and an increasing number of historians are looking to Weimar for lessons.”
Efron named three essential similarities between the Trump era in American politics and the Weimer period, when Hitler, like Trump, rose to power as a bombastic critic of existing political mores. They focused on the centrality of conspiracy theory to the Nazi rise; the use of the phrase “fake news”; and the manner in which political power was ultimately taken and consolidated.
“At its core,” Efron said, “Nazism was a political ideology formed in reaction to” a giant set of conspiracy theories.
One of the most salient conspiracies, essential to Nazism, was the “stab in the back” theory. This was the belief that Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I was not caused by external forces, such as the military might of the Allied Powers, but by internal ones: sabotage by German traitors, leftists, pacifists and Jews.
It was a staple of Nazi propaganda from start to finish. “They never stopped talking about World War I,” Efron said.
Though completely unproven, the theory resonated with large segments of the German public, creating a “chasm” between those who believed in it and those who didn’t. Eventually the two camps were so siloed that each “simply did not believe anything the other side said.”
“Contemporary America, of course, did not lose a war,” Efron said, speaking to the current U.S. political environment. “But the governing party did lose an election.” Trump and his supporters, and some members of Congress, he said, “refused to even countenance the idea that he could have lost.”
The second point of comparison Efron highlighted was about “fake news,” or “Lügenpresse” in German. (Nazis also used a rhyming term, Judenpresse, which has been revived by American neo-Nazis on the internet today.) Nazi propagandists did not invent the concept. But Hitler used it prolifically to refer to any news story that ran counter to his ideology.
By repurposing and supercharging the term “fake news” to refer to any story critical of him, Trump also “succeeded in seriously eroding faith” in traditional news sources, “even the most distinguished and well-established media outlets,” Efron said.
Also noteworthy is the way in which the Nazi party ultimately won and consolidated power, he said. Both then and now, the tools of democracy, not a military coup, were used to gain power. And neither leader won a majority support of the public, only a plurality.
There are clear differences between Trump’s rise to power and Hitler’s. Trump won a national election, while Hitler was appointed by the German president and moved quickly to establish a dictatorship.
But both had widespread and fervent public support. And both relied on “enablers” in the judiciary, and in the traditional Conservative elite, Efron said.
After Hitler failed to overthrow the government in a violent coup known as the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to five years in prison. He served only nine months and was released on good behavior, benefiting from a judiciary sympathetic to the political right. In prison, Hitler would begin writing “Mein Kampf.”
In 1933 Germany’s chancellor, Franz von Papen, who was not a Nazi, vouched for Hitler’s chancellorship under the naive belief, Efron said, that a Conservative coalition “would save Germany from the left.” He thought that Hitler’s appointment to the position would moderate his views and cause him to tone down his rhetoric. In fact, the opposite occurred as Hitler’s popularity only grew as he increasingly came to define the party.
“In both countries, the right-wing enablers believed that they could control their leader,” Efron said. “In both countries, they were utterly wrong.”
Südbeck, the German consul general, called Efron’s analysis “fascinating” as a former student of modern German history himself.
He does not think the U.S. needs advice from Germany “on issues of democracy,” he said, because “the very strength of U.S. democracy is its ability to cleanse itself.” However, using the lessons of German history, he stressed the importance of “naming and shaming” those who work against democracy. “Instigators must be held accountable,” he said.
Of Hitler’s rise, Südbeck echoed Efron: “Respectable conservatives were the ones who made the chancellorship of Hitler possible.” Even after his conviction for treason, and his writing “everything” down in “Mein Kampf,” he said, his ascent was facilitated by “well-meaning, decent” conservatives such as von Papen.
To Südbeck, the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 was not a surprise but rather the culmination of “four years of decent people not speaking up.”
During a brief question-and-answer portion following his remarks, Efron admitted to being stumped by one question.
“I have many Republican friends who are Jewish, and love Trump,” AJC board member Anat Pilovsky said. “How do you explain that?”
Exit polling after the general election showed roughly 30 percent of American Jews supported Trump (although his approval rating has sunk since Jan. 6). Efron called it “one of the great conundrums within the Jewish world at the moment,” indicative of a “deep split” in the Jewish community, as “big as any in the modern period.”
“It’s terribly, terribly puzzling,” he added. “And disturbing.”
Efron avoided mawkish optimism in his closing remarks.
Now is “not the moment for a Hollywood, happy ending,” he said. Or the “proverbial big hug.”
“Democracy simply cannot function when one side of a major political party is enthralled — and their supporters are enthralled — to a conspiracy theory. We have a serious situation in front of us.”