Richard Evans established himself as arguably the pre-eminent historian of 20th-century Germany with his astonishing trilogy on the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Beginning after the cataclysm of the First World War with The Coming of the Third Reich; continuing with the Nazi regime’s first six years in power; and concluding with Nazism’s military aggression, genocide, and eventual defeat, Evans’ books explore Germany from the perspective of both its leaders and its citizens, including perpetrators, victims, and everyone in between.
America is not Germany, and this is not 1938, let alone 1933. But as an expert on fascism and as a historian who has written about how authoritarian regimes accumulate power, Evans has particular insight into the early days of the Trump administration. (The new movie Denial, which is about the libel suit brought against historian Deborah Lipstadt by Holocaust denier David Irving, features Evans—or rather an actor playing him—as the crucial witness, as indeed he was in real life.)
I spoke by phone with Evans, who is based in England and whose latest book is The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, this week. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the differences and similarities between the 1930s and today, why fascists need to undermine the legal system, and the danger of calling seemingly unbalanced leaders “crazy.”
Isaac Chotiner: What do you make of Trump as a leader in these early days, and how would you compare it to the way other authoritarians have started their time in power?
Richard Evans: When you look at President Trump’s statements, I’m afraid you do see echoes, and they are very alarming. For example, the stigmatization of minorities. First of all, the Trump White House failed to mention the Jews in its statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. And that is very worrying because the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews was not just a genocide; it had a special quality, because Hitler and the Nazis regarded the Jews as an existential threat to Germany. They used hyperbolic and exaggerated language about Jews. If the Jews were not killed, the Nazis said, they would destroy Germany completely, whereas other groups that the Nazis stigmatized, discriminated against, and indeed murdered, like the handicapped, were only to be gotten out of the way. If you look at the language the Trump team has been using about Islamic extremist jihadis, it is exactly the same: They are an existential threat to America. They will defeat, dominate, and destroy America. That is a very extreme kind of language and a very disturbing echo.
Trump has also been attacking the judiciary. What is the importance of that, and what echoes do you see there?
I think if you look at Hitler’s seizure of power, which happened between his appointment in January 1933 and the summer of 1933, it was achieved by two means. One is by legal, or pseudolegal, means, and there he had to rush legislation past the national parliament in order to give him supreme power to make laws. These laws included, in the end, setting up a one-party state, and also closing down oppositional newspapers, and so on. And of course Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, was an inveterate and incorrigible liar. He was an inventor of news. And he also was very strongly attacked in the liberal and left-wing press and threatened to shut it down, and in the end he actually did. Or he took it over.
The other one is violence on the streets. That is a particular characteristic of fascism and Nazism, after World War I had really got people used to violence and military bands roaming the street beating up their opponents. That is obviously not happening in America today. I think anyone who wanted to destroy America, American democracy, and American institutions is going to use the power of the state to do so. They won’t have their own private armies. That, I think, is a difference.
Again, if you look at the courts, that’s one of the most interesting aspects of what Trump has been doing. He clearly has a contempt for the courts and the law, which echoes that of the Nazis very, very clearly. The courts and the law enforcement agencies did stand up to Hitler. A very famous example is, later in 1933, the trial of the people who Hitler had alleged had burned down the Reichstag earlier in the year. The courts acquitted all but one of them, thus completely undermining Hitler’s claim that the communists started the fire. Hitler then bypassed the courts. He set up a parallel system of justice, the so-called special courts and the people’s courts. In the end, the courts knuckled under, but it was quite a fight.
Although I was surprised, reading your books, at how some courts kept independence longer than I would have thought.
Yes, some in the judiciary were conservative, but they did have respect for the law and institutions of the law, and for the constitution as well.
There has been a debate in the press and among progressives about whether, crudely speaking, the guy is a buffoon and crazy and has no plan, or whether he is canny and smart and has a real plan for authoritarianism. Was this debate similar to ones about Hitler, once he came to power?
Absolutely, yes. Many people thought that Hitler was a buffoon. He was a joke. He wasn’t taken seriously. Alternatively, they thought that he could calm down when he assumed the responsibilities of office. That was a very common belief about Hitler. There is a major difference in the sense that Trump speaks off the cuff in a very unguarded, spontaneous way. I think that’s true with his tweets. Hitler very carefully prepared all his speeches. They might seem spontaneous, but they were carefully prepared.
All we heard for months about Trump growing into the role has been proven false. But even the counterargument could be read two ways, either “He’s not going to grow into the role because he deep down is a fascist,” or “He’s not going to grow into the role because he’s a little bit off his rocker, and he’s not going to change because crazy people, especially as they get older, do not change.”
Yeah. I think it’s dangerous to regard Hitler, for one, as crazy. He was an extremist. I think that that’s a kind of evasion, really, of the things that they’re saying and doing, just to write them off as being crazy.
It is really is hard for me to see Trump as not being crazy, even though I don’t think of Hitler as crazy. The tweeting at 3 a.m. about cable news shows, just the inability to understand his own self-interest.
Yes. I think it’s much more fruitful to use a concept like irrationality. What that means is just really not adhering to the conventions of normal political life. That’s something that Hitler did. He did not rule, for example, through a Cabinet. He didn’t use the accepted institutions of government. He had a clique of people around him, Goebbels, Hermann Göring, and so on: a whole group of top Nazis who were his cheerleaders, really. They’re the ones who do the work. Within just a few years, the Cabinet didn’t meet at all. It’s just a very informal way of ruling that of course leads to a lot of chaos, because competencies are not clearly defined and there are a lot of rivalries within Hitler’s group of leading Nazis that prove often counterproductive. It’s interesting there again to see how the civil service, that’s the administration at every level, really, did not provide a very serious resistance to the orders that came down from above.
Do you feel that Hitler was always in control of his faculties to the very end? That might be a better way to speculate.
Yeah, I do, actually. It’s a complicated question, because he was such an actor. He’s somebody who projected an image of himself onto the public. He could also deceive himself, particularly in the last years of Nazi Germany, when they were clearly losing the war. He somehow managed to convince himself that they were winning. He carried on fighting where it was clearly in everyone’s interest, maybe not his own, but it was in everyone’s interest to stop.
Was Hitler capable of talking about something other than himself for an extended period of time?
Yeah, he went on about the Jews.
I know you are being slightly sarcastic, but I do think that is an interesting difference.
You drew a comparison between Islam now and the Jews. Trump himself could not sit and talk about Islam for more than 30 seconds. He can bring it up in a speech, and then he will start talking about himself.
Yeah. But Hitler did bring everything back to himself. His standard speech begins with his own partly fabricated life story, where he basically was poor, and he was different. He got his identity in the war fighting for Germany. Germany instead collapsed. He rebuilt Germany and so on. It does go back to himself. When you look at his rambling and incoherent table talk, which was recorded during the war at lunchtime and dinner times by his entourage or written down, there again it’s quite narcissistic. He’s constantly talking about himself, or he’s laying down the law about all kinds of subjects of one sort or another. He’s got quite an obsessive personality, as I say. He talked in his public utterances a lot about the Jews and how he thought they’d destroyed Germany and they were going to destroy the world unless he organized Germany against it. But I would say he did have quite a lengthy attention span. He could concentrate and focus on things.
Yeah, OK. That’s one difference. That’s good.
He could certainly concentrate.
Do you feel much more hopeful about the future here and in Europe? Because people are not killing each other in the streets, as you mentioned earlier.
Yeah. They’re just killing each other in tweets. The level of verbal abuse that you find now in the public discourse is just astonishing. Of course history never repeats itself. Democracy dies in different ways at different times. The First World War did have this brutalizing effect on public life right across Europe. It was heavily militarized. You can’t go out on the street without seeing squads of thugs in uniform beating each other up. That’s simply not characteristic of our own times. I think the Second World War cured Western society of that level of violence. But there has been an economic crisis. America is deeply divided. Britain is deeply divided. There are massive and bitter political divisions and social divisions in many European countries, so there is a parallel there, certainly.
One of the worrying things is the poisoning of political and public discourse through lies and insults. That’s very similar to the early 1930s in Germany. During the Irving-Lipstadt trial, when I was an expert witness, I had sacksful of obscene and abusive letters, but they were just between the writers and me. I just filed them away. Now all that stuff’s out and on the internet. Now they just go onto Twitter and websites and Facebook and so on. Our public discourse has been poisoned, and that’s very true of the kind of extremism, the lies, the insults, distortions you get in public discourse in Germany in the Weimar Republic.
When you look at Europe today, how pessimistic are you?
I think it is a critical moment, and a lot of it goes back to the credit crunch and the economic crisis of 2008, and the feeling of a lot of people that they’ve been left out, that globalization has harmed them, or they’ve not seen an improvement in living standards or reductions in social and economic inequality. I think one of the lessons of 19th-century Europe is that peace and prosperity are best guaranteed by international collaboration. There was an arrangement between different states called the Concert of Europe in the 19th century, and in the post- or late-20th century, it’s the European Union. I think it is a disaster that Britain has chosen to leave the European Union at a time when you have a very unpredictable administration in Washington with no guarantee that it will in any way protect or look after our interests, when America is effectively abdicating its role as leader of the free world.
Not just abdicating, but almost consciously or actively trying to undermine the idea of Europe.
Yeah, it’s spurning international agreements and organizations just as Hitler left the League of Nations in 1933. I think it’s a dangerous moment for Britain, and I think it’s a huge miscalculation to leave the European Union. The European Union needs to be strengthened, not weakened.
Thanks for talking. These are not the nicest times to be discussing.