Should We Avoid Comparing Modern Politicians to Hitler?

History Hit Podcast with Frank McDonough

3 mins

15 Oct 2018

This article is an edited transcript of The Rise of the Far Right in Europe in the 1930s with Frank McDonough on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 23 November 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

Historians don’t like comparisons. Name me a great comparative historian – if you can. There aren’t that many out there, because, really, historians don’t like to compare one thing with another. We leave that to people who work in the modern day. You know, political scientists and economists, they do comparisons and usually they get it completely wrong. 

So historians tend to look at the past as it existed then. They think the conditions that existed then are not necessarily something that we take away and say “Right, let’s compare this to the present” about. Other people do that, you know. Commentators do it, other people do it, they’ll say, “Oh, you’re a fascist”, or, “You’re a national socialist”. “You’re a Nazi” is the one, isn’t it? 

The problem with calling people Nazis

Filmmaker, historian and author Laurence Rees has spent 25 years meeting survivors and perpetrators of the Holocaust. Dan Snow talks to him about his work on the subject on the HistoryHit podcast.Listen Now

Well, saying that someone’s a Nazi in the modern day is a bit disingenuous to what Adolf Hitler actually did and disingenuous to his victims. That regime committed genocide on a huge scale. One of the policies that Hitler had early on was to sterilise handicapped people. And the Nazi regime killed handicapped people too.

It then went on to victimise the Jews and gassed them with carbon monoxide and Cyclone B in death camps. And other groups were also killed, including gypsies and gay people. 

So the Nazi regime is the most brutal, horrible, vicious regime that’s ever existed. And I think that we need to be careful before we call somebody like Nigel Farage (former UKIP leader) a Nazi.

Nigel Farage is not a Nazi, right? Whatever he is, he’s not a Nazi. And Donald Trump is not a Nazi either, right? He may be right-wing and we may categorise both men as populists, but we’re going to go down the wrong alleyway if we start to brand these people fascists. That is too simplistic.

Frank McDonough says it’s too simplistic to brand modern-day populist politicians like Donald Trump “Nazis”. Credit: Gage Skidmore / Commons

You know, the world is more complicated than we just repeat the past all the time – we don’t. Even if Hitler came back now, he would be completely different. In fact, there was a German novel imagining that he has come back and he’s a rather farcical figure. It’s a different situation that we face now.

We have to look at political figures and political news in the here and now.

It’s great to have historians to comment on what the dangers are from the past, but, really, we need to look at what’s going on today and analyse it for itself and for now. We need to get away from these labels completely, that this X or Y is a fascist.

There’s a difference between these authoritarian right-wing people and fascists and there are gradations of all these people around the world. 

When American forces liberated the Nazis’ concentration camps at the end of World War Two they captured distressing footage that was later used in an official video report. Watch the report on HistoryHit.TV. Watch Now

The populist right on the march

There’s no question that the populist right is on the march, there’s no doubt about that. And we should be worried about the populist right being on the march, because, really, liberal democracy has anchored the world; that sort of appreciation of the individual and the sanctity of the individual. We should be worried that that is under pressure.

You know, people are talking about “post-truth”. The truth is that people aren’t listening to experts anymore, because, really, on Twitter an expert can go on and make statements and someone else will tell you, “Oh, that’s a load of baloney”. 

Everyone today doesn’t feel the respect that people felt for experts or for doctors in the past. In my day, you  went to a doctor’s surgery almost in awe of the doctor. Now you find that people question the doctor’s ability: “Oh, that doctor’s useless”. People are always telling you what they think about doctors.

We also question whether economists know anything. Politicians too.

We have as high an opinion of politicians as plant life.

We don’t really look up to politicians, do we? Unless they’re on “Strictly Come Dancing”, and then we can laugh at them.