U.S. media articles have ascribed the term “Lügenpresse,” recently hurled at reporters in some Donald Trump rallies, to the Nazi era. That’s partially accurate. The derogatory German term for “lying press” was already being widely used by German Catholics a century before the Nazis came to power to describe their opponents in the liberal and democratic newspapers. The term was back in vogue in the First World War to cast aspersions on the foreign media and their negative reporting on Deutschland. The term Lügenpresse was then exploited by the Nazis as catchphrase for Jewish-owned and other liberal media outlets, but it was no less prevalent over the past year among Germans who accused modern German media of covering up sordid crimes committed by Muslim immigrants. So it is a loaded term with deep roots in German consciousness that sounds detached and even ridiculous in an American context – except, possibly, if you’re a Nazi yourself.
This is not to say that comparisons between the rise of Donald Trump and the ascent of Adolf Hitler are inappropriate. On the contrary: Such analogies may be light years from perfect, but they are hardly misplaced. It just seems to me that the emergence of the specifically German word Lügenpresse provided a convenient peg for some in the media to remake a connection that they have otherwise been shying away from in recent months, either because they are wary of the expected pushback or because, as Americans, they would prefer not to believe that America in 2016 bears any resemblance whatsoever to Germany of the 1920’s or 1930’s.
Nonetheless, some of the elements of the Nazi ascent to power, as well as the emergence of other totalitarian regimes in Europe at the time, can provide clues and early warning signs to explain Trump’s success in the Republican primaries and his continuing popularity as we approach the presidential elections. Conversely – and this has been dealt with less in the media – Trump’s astonishing selection as the GOP candidate for the presidency, his continuing appeal to millions of Americans and the basic characteristics of his message have provided a new and valuable viewing angle on one of the last century’s most perplexing questions: how was Adolf Hitler possible?
And please spare me your “how dare you compare” indignation, if you are so inclined. I do not claim that America is Nazi Germany, that Trump is Hitler or that another Holocaust is just around the corner. But the blanket ban on using the most discussed, most debated and most researched issue of the 20th century as a reference point for viewing current events is, in my view, beyond ridiculous. Especially as it usually comes from people who routinely depict every two-bit Arab propagandist as a Goebbels and every minuscule human rights NGO as successors of kapos and Judenrats.
Viewed through the lenses of the current presidential campaign, historical descriptions of Hitler’s appeal to the German masses suddenly seem hauntingly familiar. Take, for example, Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw’s description of the recurring themes in Hitler’s speeches: “The contrast of Germany’s strength in a glorious past with its current weakness and national humiliation – a sick state in the hands of traitors and cowards who had betrayed the Fatherland to its powerful enemies and behind them, the Jews…a cheating and corrupt government and party system presiding over economic misery, social division, political conflict and ethical collapse.”