October 31, 2018 | Beginning November 9th, 1938, Nazi paramilitary forces and civilians laid waste to hundreds of synagogues and thousands of Jewish businesses throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland over a number of days. At the end of the pogrom, shards of broken windows littered the streets, giving rise to the name of what many consider to be the start of the Holocaust—Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Anti-semitic sentiment had been stoked in Germany for years at that point, but never before had it been so violent.
On Saturday, October 27th, 2018, a known anti-semitic conspiracy theorist by the name of Robert D. Bowers opened fire at the Tree of Life Congregation, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eleven worshippers were killed and four more suffered serious injuries, a casualty count that made the event the deadliest anti-semitic attack in United States history. Anti-semitism is nothing new in the U.S., but never before has it been so violent.
Too many similarities exist between Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht and the Tree of Life massacre. The pretext of both events mirror each other far beyond the sheer desire to intimidate a specific demographic through violence. The significance of Kristallnacht—a turning point in global history—paints a fearsome picture for its 2018 doppelganger. Particularly in the wake of the pipe bomb scare that targeted liberal and so-called “globalist” leaders, this particular spike in violence is not just another mass shooting in the U.S. They say history does not repeat itself; rather, it rhymes. Right now, it is rhyming all too well.
Clearly, there is no perfect equation between Kristallnacht and the Tree of Life masacre. Quantitatively conservative historical estimates put the death count of Kristallnacht in the dozens. Other counts put it at the hundreds, plus tens of thousands of arrests, many of which led to internment at concentration camps and even suicide. The Tree of Life massacre is smaller in both casualty count and the fact that the perpetrator acted alone. Even so, the ideology fueling both events was disastrously anti-semitic and violent. Furthermore, the timeline of German politics in the 1930s has an uncanny resemblance to contemporary U.S. politics, which is truly is alarming—and thus a worthy comparison.
From a sociopolitical perspective, the rise of far right ideology in the U.S.—of which Donald Trump is a symptom—is very similar to the rise of far right ideology in the Weimar Republic. Germany had suffered after World War I. Not only did it incur heavy casualties from the war, but it was also humiliated internationally and burdened with extensive war reparations by the Treaty of Versailles. In 2015, the United States was grappling with its fourteenth year of war in Afghanistan, in addition to extended military involvement in Iraq and Syria. Disastrous U.S. foreign policy decisions in the Middle East and Southern Asia had brought a negative spotlight to the country that had not been seen in decades, if ever.
Add a particularly gruesome terrorist insurgency in the Middle East—the Islamic State, or ISIS—and transformative relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and the United States’ reputation abroad had been at best in a precarious position. With looming problems at home involving healthcare, education, automation, and stagnant wages, many on both sides of the aisle felt the U.S. was spending inordinate amounts of money, lives, and time in that region of the world, only for negative gains. Since the September 11 attacks in 2001, Islamophobia had grown in popularity with deadly consequences, and the extended military campaigns in the Middle East combined with the rise of ISIS fueled the anti-Muslim flames.
Enter Donald Trump, an unconventional political candidate for the Republican Party who promised to wipe out ISIS, end the costly war in Afghanistan, and enforce a radical immigration ban on Muslims seeking refuge in the U.S., as well as a registration database for Muslims already in the U.S. In addition to his extreme views on immigration from Central and South America, reproductive rights, and globalization, he had given a legitimate voice to resentment felt in large, if seemingly out-of-sight pockets of the population.
The extremities of Donald Trump’s many statements throughout his campaign were often compared to that of Adolf Hitler, particularly the registration database for American Muslims. Trump was often criticized of anti-semitic behavior, allegations that Trump himself and conservative news outlets alike brushed of as overblown hype from the opposition. Beyond those details, however, the comparisons are plenty. Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in 1933 after promising to return Germany to its pre-war glory, revivify the anemic military, and hold those to “blame” for Germany’s loss in the war accountable—namely vindictive external powers and marginalized groups within Germany’s borders.
“Make America Great Again” and all that the slogan entails is highly reminiscent of the Nazi Party’s message, particularly after the stock market crash in 1929. In addition to scapegoating Jews and other minority populations within Germany for political problems there, Hitler also promised to reform the German economy and improve employment rates, targeting particularly affected demographics such as the middle class, farmers, and war veterans. Furthermore, the messianic message Donald Trump and his supports touted during the campaign also echo Hitler’s general message and particularly his policies—namely the Reichstag Fire Decree and the Enabling Act—that secured his position as an effective dictatorship in Germany and severely circumscribed civil liberties therein. A recent example of this is Trump’s announcement just yesterday that he would seek to end birthright citizenship—a legal right enshrined in the U.S. constitution and a cornerstone of U.S. civil rights.
Many public figures, including well-meaning pundits and scholars, have repeatedly downplayed the nationalist, anti-semitic, and Islamophobic sentiment fueling Trump’s popularity as the true reason for his victory in 2016. The classic idea that “it’s the economy, stupid” provided grounds for an economic alternative to the ideological argument, and it certainly should not be dismissed; economic anxiety has often been touted as a key motivator behind blue-collar whites’ defection to the Republican Party in usually Democratic states like Wisconsin and Michigan. It has also been, in recent times, shoved aside in favor of the pure racism, tribalism, and anti-semitism arguments as the causal animus behind Donald Trump’s rabid base of followers. While those factors may be virulent and immediately obvious, one cannot forget that economic anxiety is inextricably intertwined with these bigoted views.
Anti-globalism, for instance, is both representative of criticisms of an ever-globalized world that has indeed left much of Trump’s base behind, as well as a dog whistle for anti-semitism and bigotry. While neoliberal elites dismissed the working class’s plight in favor of efficient trade deals and technocratic policy-making, Trump spoke directly to their plight. In reality, technological change, has taken most of their jobs, not immigrants—with international competition being a relevant, but less impactful aspect. However, Trump has scapegoated common targets—immigrants, for instance—and has also dredged up “globalists” as enemies.
Globalists, of course, are the choice boogeymen of Trump’s most feverish supporters: the alt-right. The alt-right decry globalists to dog whistle to their most concerning members—notably openly white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. Case-in-point is their triple parenthese campaign on Twitter that was meant to ‘mark’ globalists… which ended up being predominantly Jewish targets. In the words of David Frum, writing in the wake of the Tree of Life massacre shooting, “Every Jew knows who you mean when you castigate ‘globalists’.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s policies have done very little to help the victims of the modern world’s economy. Save for a few steel and coal workers, his working class supporters have been disproportionately and negatively impacted by his trade war. In addition, his historic tax reform gave pennies to his supporters, while sending billions to the one percent. In the end, economic anxieties may be salient, but they also serve as cover for a bigoted and tribal animus. In the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson, “If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you.” Certainly, Trump has given his followers plenty of people to look down on.
When Kristallnacht happened, many people simply looked the other way and law enforcement did not intervene. This anti-semitic violence in recent days cannot have a similar result, for it could be a treacherously slippery slope.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Photo of Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, Berlin, destroyed during Kristallancht in November, 1938, from Flickr.