Age: 15, Grade: 10
School Name: Berkeley Carroll School, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Erika Drezner
Category: Critical Essay
Inch by Inch: the Making of Human Atrocity
It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere. — Primo Levi, Auscwitz Survivor
I have often heard sentiments similar to these words of Primo Levi. Phrases like “never forget,” “never again,” and “we remember,” as well as the title of the Auschwitz exhibit itself, “Not Long Ago. Not Far Away,” are just a few examples of these frequent reminders—written into my Hebrew school curriculum, Jewish heritage, and education as a global citizen. Despite this mantra, if I’m being honest, I never understood the need for these reminders, the present day risk. Not truly. There was a qualitative difference between the current xenophobia in the U.S. and the anti-Semitic atrocities of Nazi Germany—a difference just large enough to provide comfort, and allow for complacency. By studying Hitler’s rise to power and the resulting Holocaust, it became clear just how wrong I was. The obvious parallels between Hitler’s escalation of violence against the Jews then and Trump’s increasingly aggressive approach to undocumented immigrants now, along with the uncritical acceptance of both Hitler’s and Trump’s extreme political views are enlightening and terrifying—and what it reveals is even more disturbing: the normalization of abhorrent behavior allows for the systematic increase of extremism, incrementally and, perhaps, without limit.
In the span of one decade, what started as the withdrawl of personal liberties by Hitler and the Nazi regime transformed into extreme violence against the Jewish community, crimes against humanity, and, ultimately, mass murder. In 1935, for example, the Nuremberg Laws, which sought to systematically marginalize and ostracize Jews and any other ‘non-Aryan’ groups, were enacted by the Reichstag. In Article 4 of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, Jews were “forbidden to fly the Reich or national flag or display Reich colors” (Facing History). While this law was undoubtedly an infringement upon personal expression, it was a world away from what was to come. Step by step, the Nazi Party pushed just a bit further: at the start of World War II, Jews were required to identify themselves by wearing a patch with a yellow Star of David labeled “Jude” on their clothing. While the Nuremberg Law preventing Jews from displaying their German pride was unjust, it was not entirely isolating—other Germans could elect to display Reich colors, or not. In contrast, the “Jude” label was isolating. It was inescapably identifying, and undeniably humiliating. Next came the Jewish ghettos, which Jewish people in Germany were forced to inhabit. Typically, they were enclosed districts that separated Jews from non-Jewish communities, and kept them in poverty. This took the ‘otherizing’ of Jews one step further: no longer could Jewish people be the neighbors and friends of Nazi deemed citizens, or even attempt to be a part of regular German life. The ultimate step, and by far the most disturbing, was the creation of death camps like Auschwitz, facilities designed by Nazis specifically for mass murder. By starting small and gradually building, the Nazi regime was able to strip away Jews’ dignity and dehumanize them in the eyes of other Germans. And in so doing, Hitler managed to create a society that not only tolerated the murder of 6,000,000 people, but even participated in it.
It is not far-fetched to liken Hitler’s campaign of terror against the Jews to Donald Trump’s rhetoric and actions in connection with the current immigration debate and wonder just how much Americans will tolerate. Just as the average German citizen could not have concieved that Hitler’s slights of the Jewish people early in his reign would escalate to genocide, I cannot imagine that most Americans contemplated that Trump’s racist rhetoric during his campaign would lay the foundation for eventually separating small children from their parents and putting them in cages. The broad acceptance of, or at least complacency with respect to, Trump’s troubling policy of separating families is shocking, but more understandable when viewed in light of the steps leading up to it. Crucial to the success of Trump’s campaign, and later the acceptance of his “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, was his promise to build a wall on the border between Mexico and the U.S. He incited support for this policy through racist language, including his suggestion that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” who are “bringing drugs [and] crime” to the United States. Slowly, he manipulated the American public, creating a climate in which the caging of children is tolerated, even celebrated, by some. Admittedly, Donald Trump does not stand alone as an American president who harmed children—President Obama’s administration was responsible for disturbing acts of violence as well. In fact, in his first three years in office, Obama launched 283 drone warfare attacks on Pakistan alone which, according to CNN, killed 168 children (Bergen and Braun; Woods). But the difference between the actions of Obama and Trump is clear: the suffering of children was used for political gain by Trump, but was handled with humility and regret by President Obama. In other words, while Obama was apologetic, Trump promoted his actions, which normalized his behavior and inspired a base increasingly tolerant of racism. While his family separation policy remains the most extreme of his administration to date, in retrospect, it’s hardly surprising—Donald Trump’s plan for ‘the wall,’ combined with his wildly insulting generalizations about Mexicans, served as the underpinning for the inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrants and, frighteningly, for what has yet to come.
In combination with a slow rise in stakes, Hitler’s political strategy of reorienting citizens to prioritize loyalty to the leader over values and ideas enabled him to pave the way for the implementation of extreme policy. In the wake of President Paul von Hindenburg’s death, Hitler was quick to combine the positions of president and chancellor to form the superpower position of Führer. But with this came a different kind of change: a shift to leader over constitution. Within twenty-eight days of the President’s death, the words of the longstanding military oath were amended to include an “unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and people [and] Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces,” from what was previously a “loyalty to the Constitution” and a “vow [to] protect the German nation” (Facing History). With the oath changed, citizens of Germany now pledged their allegiance to a person over a principle. While this drastic transformation is remarkable, it was also predictable—Hitler’s campaign was built on a foundation of egoism. With this groundwork laid, Hitler’s base was obliged to him. In an already vulnerable time, filled with hyperinflation and a distrust of democracy, Hitler was able to leverage the loyalty to him and institute policies that otherwise would have been met with resistance.
Just like Hitler, the blind devotion of Trump’s base seems beyond limit—it runs so deep, in fact, that his supporters tolerate, or even champion, ideas that two years ago would have been repugnant to them. While the American voter traditionally identified with a political party or ideology, Trump supporters are often referred to fan club-style—just as Beyonce’s fans are called the “Beyhive,” many Trump supporters now proudly call themselves “Trumpers” and “Trumpians.” These self-proclaimed labels illustrate how a large segment of the American public has morphed to identify with a political leader over philosophy. In fact, in an episode of NPR’s This American Life podcast profiling a political club in South Bend, Indiana, a reporter asked an attendee at a Trump rally why he supported Trump. He replied, “I just like him.” When pushed regarding specific policies he favored, he replied again, “I just like him” (Episode 683: Beer Summit). This is just the type of support Trump had set out to build: In 2016, while campaigning, Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” (Diamond). While nicknamed ‘fandoms’ and flagrant calls for allegiance to person over principle may be unique to Donald Trump, the loyalty shown by the man at the rally cannot be attributed to our current president alone. Truth be told, plenty of liberals are equally fixated and, at times, ill-informed supporters of Democratic politicians. In fact, I have had countless conversations with people who claim to strongly support a politician yet, when questioned, cannot articulate the basics of their platform. Still, the point remains: American politics under Donald Trump has taken a turn similar to that of Nazi Germany and, although a military oath to a “Supreme” leader may be more patently fascist than even the intense alliegance Trump engenders, the extreme prioritization of person over policy under Hitler and Trump shows just how alike these two leaders actually are.
The similarities between political tactics taken by Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler are frightening, and they emphasize how an incremental increase in extremism, combined with blind faith, can be overlooked with disastrous results. But such destruction is not inevitable: the incremental changes can serve as warning signs, as long as we are perceptive enough to notice them early on, and brave enough to stand up. Even for the well-intentioned, however, resistance is hard. The comforts of standing by are enticing, especially when a problem lacks obvious urgency or does not directly affect you, or when protest feels futile or even risky. But if we heed the lessons of history, we know that the initial small infringements upon liberty often mark a turning point, one that does not bode well for the future, and one that is wrong in and of itself. By refusing to tolerate even the most subtle forms of marginalization against a group, and by understanding how they may foreshadow atrocities to come, we are able to combat greater threats against humanity—ideally before kids are being put in cages, and before it’s too late.