Comparisons of the United States and Nazi Germany have a long pedigree, from the “fascist” New Deal in the 1930s to “(George W.) Bush-Hitler” after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
More recently, Anne Applebaum, a columnist for The Washington Post, claimed in The Atlantic that, in their “apocalyptic thinking,” U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr and other members of President Trump’s administration are contemporary equivalents of the Nazi collaborators in charge of Vichy France, the puppet regime the Nazis established during World War II that assisted in the Holocaust, and some of whose leaders later were executed as traitors.
Now, revived by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the comparison again is in the public domain.
But any analogy or comparison between the Nazi and American systems is invalid. A factual basis for it does not exist.
This certainly is true for the Floyd killing itself. By no rational standard of comparison can the actions of the Minneapolis police officers be characterized, as they recently were by Central Connecticut State University professor Aram Ayalon, as “reminiscent of Nazi Germany.” Nor can the indignation these same actions induced in Rep. Eric Swallwell, D-Calif., justify Swallwell’s subsequent description of Richard Grenell, former U.S. ambassador to Germany in the Trump administration, as “Goebbels with a Twitter account.” Nazi police who killed Jews and others considered genetically inferior in Nazi ideology never were indicted, tried and convicted in any German court. To the Nazis, the whole notion of the rule of law, in which the government and the people exist in a mutual and moral relationship, based on shared rights and obligations, was ridiculous.
From 1933 to 1945, the legal basis for what the Nazis did in every aspect of domestic governance was the so-called Enabling Act, giving Adolf Hitler carte blanche to rule unconstrained by laws or any existing institution. The United States, with its Constitution, its separation of powers and its federalism, is entirely different.
Citizenship in Nazi Germany did not entail any allegiance to a government or a system of laws. The Nazis ordained that under Hitler, the people’s primary allegiance would not be to Germany as a nation, or even to the German government. Rather, it would be to the “Fuhrer,” the absolute leader, who was Hitler himself.
Moreover, in Nazi Germany, there was a national police. Nothing comparable to it exists in the United States. Shortly after the Nazis came to power in 1933, local and regional police forces were absorbed into the newly-established Geheime Staatspolizei (or Secret State Police, known colloquially by the acronym “Gestapo”), which in turn was subordinated to the Schutzstaffel (“Honor Guard of the Leader” or for short, the SS), the sole loyalty of which was to Hitler.
In that way, the SS was not bound by laws of any kind, and oral directives from Hitler were sufficient to sanction the so-called Einsatzgruppen, special units of the SS that accompanied the German army into the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, killing Jews at will. This supra-legal national police force also was responsible for rounding up homosexuals, Roma, and others deemed racially inferior, who were shot or incarcerated in camps until their liberation in 1945. And it was the SS that was responsible for ensuring that the millions of Soviet soldiers who were captured offered no resistance to their enslavement in labor camps, where fully two-thirds of them were worked to death.
The SS was so omnipresent a force in German society that typewriters manufactured while it existed had a special key that, with one press of a finger, produced two s’s on the typed page. One searches America today in vain for any comparable institution.
Although there have been peaceful marches in the United States protesting government policy since the nation’s founding more than two centuries ago, there were none in Nazi Germany. And the only instances in Nazi Germany of mass looting and arson were encouraged by the government, which not only did nothing to stop them; on occasion, it joined in the mayhem.
The best-known example is Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass”) on Nov. 9-10, 1938, in which elements of what remained of the SA – the organization of brawlers and criminals Hitler used before becoming German chancellor in January 1933 – assisted ordinary people in destroying thousands of Jewish businesses and killing hundreds of Jews.
If the same had been the case for the rioting of recent vintage in the United States – if the Trump administration for some reason had encouraged it, sanctioned it and participated in it – comparisons with Nazi Germany would be appropriate. But in reality, such comparisons are absurd. Antifa is not an arm or an agency of the FBI or the Department of Justice.
In sum, any analogy between American and Nazi law enforcement, and more broadly between the United States and Nazi Germany, is not merely false. It is an unconscionable libel and a moral obscenity.
Jay Bergman is professor of history at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. He serves on the board of the National Association of Scholars.