Trump’s America and the Dictatorships of 1930s Europe: Parallels and Differences

History Hit Podcast with Frank McDonough

5 mins

17 Oct 2018

Image credit: Gage Skidmore / Commons

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.

With the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the so-called “alt right” in the United States, people have talked about similarities between modern-day politics and the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco in 1930s Europe. But to what extent can we compare the two?

The differences

Adolf Hitler didn’t come to power by winning a majority of votes from the German people. He rose to the position of chancellor in January 1933 by appointment of President Paul von Hindenburg. He held an election later but and even in that election he didn’t win outright power.

He gained about 43 per cent of the vote, which was pretty high – 17 million people voted for him. But he still didn’t have an outright majority in order to put the Enabling Act through parliament; he needed the support of the other existing democratic parties. 

Hitler (left) shakes hands with German President von Hindenburg in March 1933. Credit: Bundesarchiv-Bild-183-S38324-CC-BY-SA-3.0

Now, Trump, meanwhile, came to power democratically. He won the US presidential election by winning the Electoral College, which makes him no different from any other American president. It just happens that in voting for Trump, the American public were also voting for Trump’s policies, which seem much more to the right than those of any other American president.

Indeed, although Trump is unusual, a populist, and unorthodox, there is no one who’s really articulating or espousing an alternative to democracy and capitalism in a way that existed in the 1930s.

Communism, fascism and national socialism were all philosophies that critiqued and rejected the democratic way of doing things.

Even China is trying to reform itself so that it joins the capitalist system. Putin is also towards the right, but he still wants to join the capitalist system. So capitalism has won. The only alternative in the world to capitalism is a kind of radical Islam – and that’s not really a philosophy that’s appealing on a widespread basis.

If you look at what proponents of that philosophy are trying to achieve then it’s the kind of societies that could be said to be a step backwards in time, and the methods they use to bring their vision about are very brutal.

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So it’s not as if radical Islam can become a kind of worldwide movement to rank with, say, communism in the 20th century. Most people would probably say that it’s a manageable danger for major powers like America. 

Isolationism and military power

Probably the real danger of Trump is the possibility of him becoming very isolationist and taking America inward again. 

Now there have been some comparisons made between the moves Trump has made and the way that America distanced itself from world affairs at the end of World War One. Remember, America was in favour of the League of Nations, it wanted to be part of that system, but the US Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and it never ended up joining. 

We know that Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was US president between 1933 and 1945, wasn’t really fundamentally isolationist. But, in reality, America didn’t have a large army in the 1930s. Even when World War Two started in 1939, Roosevelt had to build up the army before it was capable of putting large amounts of equipment in the field.

Roosevelt signs the declaration of war against Germany on 11 December 1941.

So really, in the 1930s, there was a much greater flux of military balance in the world.

Today, however, America is the most dominant military power that’s ever existed since the height of the Roman Empire. No one can doubt that America’s military power is awesome.

Hitler, meanwhile, took Germany out of the League of Nations and the World Disarmament Conference shortly after coming to power. So immediately there was a bit of a crisis in the world system. I suppose you could say there was a power vacuum in the world. And there is some similarity there with America today and Trump’s more isolationist tendencies.

But, as has already been discussed, America is a vast military power; it’s much more powerful than Germany ever was under Hitler. Nazi Germany was never the most dominant military power in the world, except for maybe a slight period in the summer of 1941. But really, for most of the 1930s Germany was trying to rebuild its armaments.

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Before coming to power Trump talked about creating an internal security service. Some people say that he meant a Gestapo, something that he denied when questioned about it.  But he did say that the US needed an internal security service to focus on”the bad guys” – everything’s “the bad guys.” And the bad guys that he’s talking about, as we know, are the people that he sees as Islamic-inspired terrorists. He’s talked about Muslims. 

Of course, Muslims have got nothing to do with all of this terrorism, but he wants to make them a kind of scapegoat. Now, there’s a danger there that they could become a scapegoat in the way that the Jews became the scapegoat in Nazi Germany.

He even talked about drawing up a list of Muslims. What’s next, a special passport for them? Remember, the Jews ended up with a special passport, didn’t they? So those issues do present dangers within America. 

He also talked about Guantanamo Bay not necessarily being a bad thing to deal with “the bad guys.” So he likely does have a view that the gloves are off and he’s going to look out for internal security. But I don’t think Trump’s got some kind of huge plan that is going to affect the rest of the world as Hitler did.

Hitler’s plan, remember, was to take over the world militarily. Well, America is already in charge of the world militarily so it doesn’t have to take it over. It is the dominance.