The Echoes of Nazism in Today’s America: History or Hype?

Is anyone else heartbroken and equally fascinated by what’s happening in America right now? The removal of the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee from a public park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on 13 August sparked demonstrations which culminated in the tragic death of a 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer.

But had it not been for Trump’s subsequent statement, then perhaps Heather’s death and these demonstrations could have been recorded as a local (though tragic) event. Heather may have been seen as “just one more casualty” in a long violent history between right-wing nationalists nostalgic about the old South, and everyone else that enthusiastically excludes themselves from that label.

rump-speech-hero-1_fynh2w

President Trump threw fuel on the metaphorical fire by saying, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”

But then President Donald Trump condemned the violence at a white supremacist rally “on many sides.”

“On many sides”……? Huh?

It’s been remarkable to watch the visceral uproar following Trump’s trivializing remarks. Scheduled “Free Speech” demonstrations in Boston last weekend were overwhelmed with counter demonstrators numbered in the tens of thousands. At the base of Trump Tower in NYC another 1,000 protesters shouted “Black Lives Matter,” while various sand-filled white dump trucks were positioned as a barricade. And comedian Tina Fey devoured an entire sheet cake:

Tina Fey

Tina Fey reminded white supremacists that: “It’s not our country–we stole it. We stole it from the Native Americans. And when they have a peaceful protest at Standing Rock, we shoot at them with rubber bullets. But we let you chinless turds march through the streets with semi-automatic weapons.”

Even other world leaders unequivocally condemned the white supremacists. In Germany, where any Nazi salutes, gatherings or symbols are illegal (even arresting tourists who flout the law), politicians have tweeted their dismay.

Martin Schulz, leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, tweeted: “One must denounce Nazis definitively. What Trump is doing is inflammatory. Whoever trivializes violence & hate betrays western values.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the events in Charlottesvile “absolutely repulsive.” And former Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, tweeted: “In Nazism, anti-Semitism and racism there are never two equal sides — only one side is evil. Period.”

And some of the strongest voices of all are those of Holocaust survivors and veterans of the Second World War. These brave people are standing up against any revival of the same racist intolerance they experienced in 1930s Germany.

Rubin Holocaust Survivor

Marianne Rubin’s granddaughter, Lena Schnall, captured a photo of her grandmother at a rally in NYC after Charlottesville. Rubin was a Jewish child in 1930s Germany and managed to escape with her parents first to Italy, France and then the US.

But are today’s racial clashes in the US actually echoing the same sentiments of Nazi Germany? Is Trump the new Hitler? Are Muslims and refugees the new Jews? Is World War III around the corner? Or is this all just a bunch of short-lived hype that will shortly disappear? 

Professor Richard J. Evans (my favourite historian and eminent Cambridge scholar) was interviewed by Slate magazine shortly after Trump’s inauguration. Well before the events of Charlottesville, Prof. Evans suggested that some parallels can be drawn between Trump and Hitler’s early days in power. I will now elaborate on three points my biggest intellectual crush raised:

1. The stigmatization of minorities.

Hitler despised those he deemed non-German. Although Hitler was a notorious anti-Semite, his prejudice towards Jews also extended to Bolshevists and progressive liberals who endorsed the Weimar Republic. Importantly, a strong right-wing community supported Hitler, which blamed Germany’s defeat in WWI upon the socialists, communists and Jews that had back-stabbed them on the homefront.  Anti-Semitic newspapers and anti-Jewish clubs were commonplace in prewar Germany.

And, once you combine this common hatred with a socially-acceptable belief in “scientifically-measurable” progression and eugenics (which was studied in numerous universities since Darwin coined the idea of “evolution”), then it’s not difficult to see how even the most civilized of societies – which Germany was in the 20th century – could believe that one race was superior to another. By 1935, the Nuremberg Laws solidified the legal persecution of Jews on the basis of “race” and by 1939, Jews were forced to wear yellow stars in public, moved into ghettos and eventually exterminated in concentration camps. Notably, this stigmatization was also experienced by other minorities, such as the disabled, homosexuals, political opponents, criminals, Roma/Gypsies, black people, religious groups…

Eugenics

A class studies the Bertillon method of criminal identification, based on measuring body parts in Paris between 1910-1915. Eugenics was practised throughout the world and was considered to be ground-breaking field of scientific research which would improve society as a whole.

Today’s America is obviously a far cry from outright genocide, but stigmatization of minorities still exists. For example, Trump’s travel ban imposed against people from Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, as well as all refugees caused huge controversy last February. Trump claimed he was protecting American borders from Muslim extremists, despite the fact that only three refugees in American history (Cubans in the 1970s) were ever convicted of terrorism.

Muslims in protest

Muslims pray in protest of Trump’s travel ban in Dallas earlier in 2017. Although  judges have overturned the order, aspects of the ban were implemented and will be reviewed by the US Supreme Court in October.

Trump’s attempts to reverse Obamacare could also be perceived as a stigmatizing the poorer segments of American society who cannot afford private healthcare. The ongoing struggle of the #BlackLivesMatter black-community against state violence and discrimination is still speaking out against various Trump policies (although the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin which sparked the movement occurred before Trump took office).  Also, the Trump administration announced last month that transgendered individuals would be banned from serving in the US military. Even some of the most conservative Republicans and retired military generals have denounced the policy.

transgender

In August 2017, civil rights groups have announced their intent to file suit against Trump for the intended ban against transgendered people serving in the military.

2. Not adhering to conventions of normal political life.

Although the Nazi party won 37% of the vote through an entirely democratic and legitimate political process, Hitler’s almost immediately changed German laws to create a one-party state. Although historians cannot agree over who exactly burnt down the Reichstag –  Germany’s parliament – afterwards Hitler enacted emergency measures which allowed him to suspend German citizens’ rights, including habeas corpusfreedom of expressionfreedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, the secrecy of the post and telephone. Hitler never reinstated these rights during the Third Reich. This was, again, in the name of protecting German citizens from domestic terrorism.  In June 1934, Hitler also violently eliminated about 100 rivals in a violent purge called “Night of the Long Knives.” Then, after President Hindenberg’s death in August 1934, Hitler merged the presidency with the chancellorship. Incredibly, Hitler consolidated his power and created a violent dictatorship in less than two years.

Hitler HIndenberg

President Paul von Hindenburg and newly-elected Chancellor Adolf Hitler in a parade in Berlin in 1933. By consolidating the roles of presidency and chancellorship shortly after Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler was able to create a secure dictatorship.

What about Trump’s adherence to normal political life? Trump’s administration has passed more Executive Orders than any other president since Roosevelt, but many of these orders are politically insignificant (such as designating buildings or naming people to certain positions). However, the controversies surrounding Trump, especially with regard to Russia hacking the US elections and the dramatic resignation (dismissal?) of FBI Director James Comey, throw doubt on Trump’s ability to “adhere to normal political life.”  What about Trump barring certain journalists from the White House press room? Or the appointment of his daughter Ivanka Trump, and husband, Jared Kushner, as “special advisors” and even representing the US government at the latest international G20 conference? Or the fact that less than a year into the job, some seven high ranking officials were either sacked or resigned from the Trump administration?

Sean Spicer

After White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer‘s resignation, he said what has been claimed as the most Sean Spicer thing ever: “You can keep taking your selfies.” Huh?!

3. Spurning international agreements.

A month after Hitler came to power, he withdrew Germany from the League of Nations. He argued that the Disarmament Conference did not allow it military parity with the Western nations (meaning that Hitler wanted to rearm and the Allies wouldn’t let him).  Hitler obviously would not agree to any international policy that would limit Germany’s autonomy. He continued to flout international laws by annexing Austria and invading the Sudetenland without any hassle from the French, British or Soviets. Well, not until he invaded Poland.

Goebbels at Geneva

Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in Geneva in February 1932 with the League of Nations. Shortly after, Germany would withdraw from the League.

Trump’s isolationist policies (if we can call them that) echo the goal of many historic politicians (Hitler included) who wished to put the needs of the nation before any obligations towards the international community. “America First” is Trump’s slogan which seeks to revive the exhausted American coffers by tightening federal budgets with more domestic investment (for example, by slashing diplomacy and development funding by a 32%). Recently, Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement which nearly 200 countries signed in December 2015 in an effort to combat global warming and help poorer countries adapt to an already-changed planet. Similarly, however, Britain has left the European Union so perhaps isolationism is a growing economic model in an increasingly globalized world. But by spurning such international agreements, Trump appears as an antithesis to the incredible global action by the US in the last 3 years: stopping the Ebola epidemic, rallying more than 65 partners to fight ISIS, and leading those same 200 countries to forge this historic climate change agreement in the first place! Barack is probably on a beach somewhere, shaking his head…

Trump Paris Agreement

World leaders were visibly upset that Trump would not concede on an international policy for climate change.

So what?

Although the words of caution from Holocaust survivors are obviously crucial warnings during such social upheaval, I’m not convinced that Hitler’s Germany and Trump’s America are synonymous. But perhaps I’m being cynical. Prof. Evans claimed there is one big difference between Hitler and Trump: while Hitler’s speeches and policies were exceptionally well-practiced, focused and deliberate, Trump’s tweets and policies are spontaneous, erratic and unguarded. This implies that Trump is not single-mindedly achieving some ultimate vision, but leisurely and arrogantly deciding grand policies without much foresight. As comedian Frankie Boyle quips, “Trump’s nothing like Hitler. There’s no way he could write a book.”

The good news? The violence from the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville followed by Trump’s trivializing comments has forced Americans everywhere to defend their most basic national values, whatever they perceive them to be.

Trump may not be the voice for Americans everywhere – he certainly struggles to reflect the mood of the country – but at the very least he’s forcing Americans to have a conversation, a confrontation, of what it means to be American. He’s the proverbial trickster. A rousing ringleader. The grand master of controversy. The court jester who masquerades and provokes. The words that spill out of his mouth are not intricately prearranged, but reckless, and thus easier to destroy.

Fortunately, the greatest difference between 1930s Germany and today’s America is the lack of political violence by its leader. Whereas Hitler mobilized his Sturmabteilung brown-shirt henchmen to beat up political opponents in the streets, Trump has no such organized paramilitary government wing. Instead, Prof. Evans argues, political violence has taken the form of tweets and trolling, poisoning our political discourse.

But at the same time (and with the greatest respect, Prof. Evans!), Twitter, Facebook and other social media also allow everyone – Trump included – a political voice and online presence to confront ideas, create communities and mobilize politics. Smart phones allow people to record events like Charlottesville, so that those who promote hatred and bigotry are exposed. Modern communications certainly attracts trollers and hackers, but the brutal political violence that typified Nazi Germany is not what one experiences when they open their laptop, check their news, and write their blog. Thankfully.

Covefefe.

 

Should the Youth be given the Vote? Historical Reasons Why Age is Arbitrary

I made a rather startling discovery. Those who suffer from dementia can still vote in the UK and Canada. “Really?” you may ask. “Really,” I reply.

Man yells at cloud

Voting in an inalienable right in democratic nations. Once you gain the right to vote, it is extremely difficult to lose.

Criminals are some of the only disenfranchised groups. In Britain, a criminal’s right to vote is suspended while you serve your sentence. This is the same for Australia, except prisoners who serve less than three years can still vote. In Canada, criminals still retain the right to vote, regardless of the prison sentence. The United States has some of the most punitive measures against voting for criminals and because it varies drastically between states, I excluded the USA from this article. (Apologies to my American friends, but you can read more about the almost 6 million felons, or nearly 2.5% of voting Americans, who could not vote in the 2012 federal election here).

Voting is a pillar of equality among citizens and the act of voting is a benchmark in a person’s life.

What about the Youth Vote?

Historically speaking, the argument that youth aged 16 and above should get the right to vote is a very recent phenomenon. Before the Second World War, only people aged 21 years and older were given the right to vote in most major western democracies. In the 1970s, this age was lowered to 18 years of age in the UK, Canada, Germany, and France due to the fact that 18 years was the age of military conscription. However, some nations retain 20 or 21 years as the age of suffrage. Only since the 1990s have some nations successfully lowered the youth vote to include 16 year olds. Scotland is one of them.

Youth Polling Place Scotland

Over 75% of Scottish youths voted in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum

After years of campaigning, the Scottish National Party were able to give youth the right to vote in the June 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. Impressively, over 75% of those youths aged 16 and over (who registered) turned out, compared with 54% of 18- to 24-year-olds. This turnout was considered hugely successful and resulted in Westminster granting new electoral powers to the Scottish Parliament in December 2014. Now, all youths aged 16 and over can vote in both parliamentary and municipal elections in Scotland.

Nicola with Babies

Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP Party campaigned successfully for years to secure the youth vote (Photo from BBC Article)

For the rest of Britain, youth cannot vote in UK general elections until age 18. Although calculating the youth turn-out rates must not be accepted entirely at face value, in the recent general election one statistic claimed that 72% of all 18 to 24 year olds turned out to vote. This means that turn-out rates for young British voters were remarkably high.

MollyMep

Molly Scott Cato said that denying the youth the right to vote because they aren’t responsible enough was “elitist rubbish” (Photo from BBC Article)

British politicians hotly debate the voting age. The Tories believe it should remain at 18, while Labour proposes lowering it to 16. The Liberal Democratics are somewhere in the middle, suggesting it should be only lowered for local elections. The Scottish National Party, who are very popular with Scottish youth, believe it should be lowered to 16 for general elections. My favourite, perhaps, was when the Green Party’s Mary Scott Cato said that arguments that claim 16 year olds aren’t responsible enough to vote is “elitist rubbish.”

Age is Arbitrary: “Childhood” is a Young Concept

Age as a marker is quite arbitrary, especially when you look at it historically.  In the wake of the Second World War, when over 15 million children were left homeless and resettlement was a huge crisis, the United Nations defined anyone under the age of 17 as a child. Today, childhood ends in the majority of sovereign states at age 18.

war orphans poland

These Polish war orphans at a Catholic Orphanage in Lublin, on September 11, 1946, are among the 15 million children displaced by the war. To expedite the settlement process, the UN defined all children under age 17 as a “child”

But childhood as a historical concept has only been closely examined in the last few decades. That is not to say that children or childhood were never discussed in historical sources. But, similar to race and gender, age was often overlooked, understudied or poorly represented within historical accounts.

In the 1970s, a revival of the historiography of childhood occurred as the result of the book “L’Enfant et la vie familiale soul l’Ancien Regime” (or “Centuries of Childhood,” 1962) by a French medievalist named Philippe Ariès. He argued that childhood was actually a recently-invented modern term, which evolved from the medieval period. Importantly, the concept of childhood was not static but underpinned heavily by the culture of the time. This revolutionized social history and led many scholars to investigate how Europeans transitioned from a pre-children-conscious world to one which had ‘invented’ childhood. (For an excellent overview, see Nicholas Stargardt, “German Childhoods: The Making of a Historiography,” German History, 16 (1998): 1-15).

With state intervention in education in the 19th century, and the subsequent child labour laws from the Industrial Revolution, children’s ages became both legally and economically relevant. How old must a child be to work? Can a child be charged with crime? Records of child delinquency are often the first historical accounts that children existed in certain cultural contexts. For example, historians are aware of the punishments of child delinquents in 19th C Irish workhouses, but we know little else about Irish children’s experiences in workhouses who were not delinquent.

Irish Workhouse

Illustration of children in a 19th C workhouse courtesy of workhouses.org.uk

Even biological markers of age are debatable. In the USA, lawyers have used science to argue that grey matter is still being developed well into our 20s in the same area of our brains that regulate self control; this has led to numerous cases where juveniles charged with murder have had their prison sentences reduced.  The use of puberty as a reproductive “line in the sand” has also changed in the last few hundred years: the age of puberty today (10-12 years for girls, 12 for boys) is lower today than it was centuries ago (15-16 for girls). And unlike a few centuries ago, “Puberty today marks the transition from childhood to adolescence more than it does childhood to adulthood.” Meanwhile, in the animal kingdom, biologists define animals as adults upon sexual maturity. It seems that neither the historian or biologist can agree about childhood.

And, to make it even more complicated, children as individuals also vary greatly.  Children’s experiences and what they’re subjected to also vary greatly. When in doubt, think of Joan of Arc, Malala Yousafzai, or Anne Frank.

Anne Frank

Anne Frank was just 15 years old when she died in Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp

So what does this have to do with voting?  

If our definitions and beliefs about childhood are culturally dependent, then the ages we assign it, or the assumptions we have about it, are a product of our culture, and not necessarily an authentic reflection of “childhood.” (If such a thing actually exists).

During the medieval era, children were considered “little adults” who needed to be civilized, which presumes that children are born with inborn rationality and intelligence, but lacking social graces. A medieval parent therefore viewed childhood as a rigorous lesson in civility.

Medieval Children

During the Medieval era, children were viewed as “little adults” and as as Bucks-Retinue points out, even their clothing was just “smaller versions of adult clothes.”

But today’s parent does not view it quite like that. Due to the legality of certain social freedoms – driving a car or drinking alcohol – the state has defined a child in contradictory ways. You can join the military at age 16 in the UK, but you’re not legally entitled to toast the Queen’s health until age 18.  The predictable argument is that if you can join the military, drive a car, leave school for full-time work, pay taxes, marry (and thus have the state’s endorsement to be a parent), then you should have the right to vote. I see no fault in this argument.

So why did I start this conversation by talking about people with dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term for various progressive neurological disorders that includes memory loss, anxiety/depression, personality and mood changes, and problems communicating. We most often associate dementia with Alzheimer’s disease, which has no cure. 46 million people suffer from dementia world wide, which is expected to double every 20 years.

In Britain, 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 have dementia, or a total of 850,000.  But having dementia, similar to having learning difficulties or other mental health problems, does not preclude you from voting. According to the Electoral Commission’s Guidance:

“A lack of mental capacity is not a legal incapacity to vote: persons who meet the other registration qualifications are eligible for registration regardless of their mental capacity.”

If someone suffers from mental incapacity or physical disability, they may assign a close relative as a proxy to vote for them (These situations are generally meant to help those serving overseas, or temporarily inaccessible, so they can still exercise their democratic rights and, sometimes, must be approved by a health practitioner or social worker). If a proxy is authorised, the Electoral Commission makes is absolutely clear that no one – whether relative, doctor, nurse or lawyer – can decide how to cast that ballot. The choice alone lay with the voter. Period.

In Britain, you cannot vote if you reside in a mental institution due to criminal activity or if you are severely mentally incapacitated and cannot understand the voting procedure. Those with dementia are still legally entitled to vote because it is not considered legally incapacitating (especially in its early stages) and worthy of disenfranchisement. Usually it is not until a doctor is requested to authorise a proxy vote whereupon someone possibly becomes disenfranchised, depending on the doctor’s judgement.

In Canada, 1.5% of the Canadian population (around 480,000) have dementia, most of which experience this after the age of 75. The Canadian Human Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate against persons based on age or (dis)ability.

Dementia

Age is the number one risk factor for dementia.

Canada was one of four countries (Italy, Ireland and Sweden) which did not impose any mental capacity requirement (dementia included) upon the right to vote. After a legal challenge in 1992, the call for a minimum mental health requirement was repealed and by 2008, only Nunavut will disqualify someone from voting based upon mental incapacity. Thus, similar to Britain, Canadians with dementia also retain the right to vote.

What does this tell us about our society?

It is impressive that people suffering from dementia (often elderly) still retain this right. This demonstrates that nations like Britain and Canada strongly respect equality among citizens, irrespective of (dis)ability, mental (in)capacity, or age. And, importantly, this demonstrates that these nations honour the incontrovertible democratic rights of its aging and sick citizens. Discrimination is fundamentally not tolerated.

BUT to deny the youth vote while granting it to someone with a progressive neurological condition seems unfair. Should a 16-year-old “child” be considered less politically capable than someone with dementia?  Is that fair?

Youth Vote vs. “Elderly” Vote

In my frustration at this quandary, I read a provocative and humourous commentary calling for disenfranchising all elderly in Time Magazine. Joel Stein said simply “Old people aren’t good at voting”.  Although Stein avoided getting his hands dirty with dementia, he highlighted the “out of touch” policies endorsed by “old people”: They’re twice as likely to be against gay marriage, twice as likely to be pro-Brexit and nearly 50% more likely to say immigrants have a negative impact on society. Although funny, I am a staunch supporter of democracy and believe we should enfranchise people even if we disagree with them. That’s the point of democracy: to find consensus among disparate voices. Young, old, sick, healthy, rich, poor, all should be allowed to vote.

Trudeau Obama

In June 2017, Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama had an intimate dinner

Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama recently enjoyed their enviable bromance over a candlelit dinner in a little Montreal seafood restaurant. They spoke of a great many things, but one was “How do we get young leaders to take action in their communities?”

Such conversations among politicians reflect a growing interest to include the youth’s voice and agency within our political process and communities.  If what medievalist Philippe Ariès said is true – that our concept of childhood is culturally-dependent – then how our culture interprets our youth needs to change. Historically speaking, it appears that that change is already beginning. And although Scotland has taken remarkable strides towards giving political agency to Scottish youths, this can be taken even further.

By engaging youths in political process, supporting their agency and action in multiple national bodies and networks, and listening to their needs and incorporating their voices into politics, then our cultural assumptions will shift. In the same way as we honour our elders and our sick, let us honour our youths.