An Uncomfortable Comparison


In late 2021 the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that we still have roughly 240,000 living veterans who served in World War II.  That sounds like a lot, but it is also estimated that roughly 16 million people served, not counting the many more who worked in industry to fuel the war effort.  It was a difficult time for all, including the families of those who were overseas.  Of the 16 million who served, over 400,000 died and another 670,000 were wounded.  So, of these millions of men and women only 1.5% remain to convey the events of the times in a meaningful way.  These men and women deserve our respect and our gratitude for fighting Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers.  It is because of their efforts that we enjoy the freedoms of today.

Nazi is an acronym for National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei in German).  They were a far-far-right group of maniacal misfits that rose to power on the heels of World War I and the resulting financial issues from war reparations and the Great Depression.  The 1919 Treaty of Versailles may have sown the seeds of World War II.  These issues, coupled with a sense of loss of national identity and pride ushered in one of the most notorious group of villains in world history.  They took power partially by force, but they were eventually voted into power by the German people.

My wife’s father entered World War II on Normandy Beach and fought with other Americans from there to Berlin.  He knew the horrors of war and saw the effects of fascism in ways we cannot fully understand or appreciate.

Today our school children are taught a different history of America’s role in the war and place in the world.  They see the term “Fascist” used to inappropriately describe other United States citizens.  Even our politicians will throw around the term as if it is just another slur.  This is such a historically derogatory term that we should not let it be thrown around flippantly, as it dishonors those who fought on our behalf to save the world from the true fascists, German Nazis.  We now see President Putin use the term to describe Ukrainians because he knows it stirs up emotions in the Russian people.

The most accurate comparison we can find to the Nazis of World War II is to examine the behaviors then and now.  Hitler was initially backed by a group of thugs known as the “Brownshirts.”  Unlike today when someone might describe a political opponent as a Fascist, the Brownshirts went around as vigilantes, supporting Hitler’s rise to power, while suppressing his opponents through violence and intimidation. 

The Brownshirts were organized under a rigid command structure, with Ernst Rohn as their leader.  Rohn was a fanatical antisemite and anti-capitalist.  Under his direction they began a campaign to vilify German Jews and successful businesses.    When Hitler ultimately came to power his new supporters convinced him to assassinate many who had helped him rise to power and between June 30 and July 2, 1934, he had Rohn, and many supporters killed in an event referred to as “The Night of the Long Knives.”  This gave rise to the SS, an even more radical group of thugs who went on to commit unspeakable atrocities.  Millions of lives were lost to either extermination or direct armed conflict.

Our public, and many private, schools do such a poor job of teaching history today that the events of World War II and true fascism are lost on younger generations.  We see groups like Antifa, and Black Lives Matter use coercive tactics to influence public opinion, corporations, and politicians.  We see leaderless initiatives take hold through social media like ESG, CRT, and Climate Change that begin to take on fascist characteristics of capitulation through intimidation.  At times their actions cross the line into coercion, and weak leadership at all levels fails to push back on these groups and identify them for what they are, neo-fascists.  This is a direct parallel to the German citizenry in the 1930’s who knew what was happening and just tried to ignore the obvious.

There is a far right to our politics that also has shades of these same coercive tactics in play.  The January 6th group had at its core a desire to influence the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election.  But this desire to influence morphed into what appeared to many to be an armed insurrection.  The normally conservative and reserved older generation of Trump supporters found themselves on the wrong side of history.  This in no way rises to the level of sedition, but it was the wrong way to effect change.

Groups marching on Washington in protest to influence political opinions and sway legislation is not uncommon in our history.  We need to remember that we were formed from protest against overreach by King George III.  Protesting is in our blood, armed insurrection is not and has only occurred twice, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

When Thomas Jefferson was pondering Shay’s Rebellion he is often quoted by protesters as having said:

“A little rebellion now and then is a good thing,”

However, Jefferson was expressing the idea that a little rebellion is normal for a democracy and should not be punished too harshly by the state.  He was not endorsing rebellion as a way of accomplishing a mission but speaking specifically to Shay’s Rebellion.  He saw it as a reminder to politicians that they are answerable to the people not the other way around.  The author of the Declaration of Independence would never advocate for destruction of what he knew was the creation of a new, better form of government.

It is time to tone down the rhetoric and realize that we are one nation with a wide range of opinions.  We also need to recognize that our political and corporate leadership is weak at the national level, and that politicians and CEO’s respond to everything they see electronically as if it were the truth.  It is this type of reactionary politics that leads to fascism, not the desire to protest.  We are at a generational transition of power in government and for it to be successful all sides need to come together.  The old guard will not surrender power lightly or easily, and they have the capacity and willingness to turn the power of the government against their opponents.

We are at a crossroad where electronic media in all forms can influence what we see, understand, and ultimately believe.  This is the true battlefield for our nation and the world.  The Nazis were masters at propaganda and influencing public opinion, and this eventually led to war and tragedy.  The only parallel to fascism in our government today is perhaps the new alphabet soup of agencies born out of the 9/11 attack.  In the name of safety, we surrendered many of our liberties to agencies such as the NSA, TSA, FISA Courts, and the heads of some federal agencies.  Today we readily accept video surveillance at every streetcorner, every store, every home as normal.  We allow ourselves to be tracked through GPS and cell phone data, all day, every day.  Only time will tell the effect on our citizenry, and our nation and definition of freedom.

Unfortunately, these efforts have parallels to the surveillance techniques used by the Nazis to coerce citizens into specific behaviors.  They used this to encourage citizens to vilify specific groups and to turn against each other.  Parents turned against children, children against parents, and all turned against foreigners and Jews.  The only difference may prove to be technology and the speed of change.

Social media also encourages inflammatory discourse to drive advertising and it is a new form of threat to all democracies.  We need to be sure we have the proper controls around these influencers so that they cannot pit us against each other for profit.  Unlike times past, electronic media can shape opinion and spread disinformation (propaganda) worldwide, instantly.  Those who seek to divide us are masters of these communication channels whether they are domestic or foreign.

If this sounds familiar, the Nazis implemented laws to suppress opposition to government policies.  They quickly set up separate courts.  In December 1934, the government enacted the “Law against Malicious Attacks on State and Party.”  This included a clause that criminalized “malicious, rabble-rousing remarks or those indicating a base mentality” against the Nazi Party or high-ranking government or party officials.  The parallels to today should be concerning to us all. 

Freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of our republic, and a major differentiator between the U. S. and other nations.  Criticism of government and government officials helps keep them in check and losing even minor capacity for free speech is concerning.  Our children need to understand that to be free and enjoy free speech you must be tough enough to take criticism.  You must risk being offended, or offending others to maintain this liberty.  Without it there can be no open dialog, no coming together to find compromise.

If for no other reason than respect to our World War II veterans, we need to set aside the fascist remarks and begin to come together with a single voice.  These men and women fought true fascism and know its horrors.  We do not have extermination camps, government takeover of business, nor are we fighting to limit freedoms.  They were on the battlefield to preserve our freedoms, and the right to protest, not to foster an environment of mutual disrespect. 

When any World War II veteran speaks, we need to listen.  Their experiences are not limited to history books.