America’s Civility Police are rounding up suspects this week after Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to use the term “concentration camps” to describe the concentration camps set up by the Trump Administration. NBC’s Chuck Todd chided her in a Tweet, insisting that Holocaust comparisons are out of bounds. Republicans, of course, lined up to take shots at her, but New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio also objected, stating that he was “uncomfortable” with the comparison. As usual, AOC was ready:
So say what you will. Kids are dying and I’m not here to make people feel comfortable about that.
Something important is missing from criticisms of Cortez’s language – facts. By any rational definition, these hastily constructed and deliberately punitive “detention centers” are concentration camps. They have a punitive purpose. Inmates have committed no crimes of any scale, yet have little or no access to due process. The Administration is even insisting on the right to hold legal asylum seekers in camps indefinitely.
Comparisons to the Nazis in this case are accurate and deadly serious. Children separated from their parents for no reason apart from cruelty are dying of neglect, and the civility cops are whistling past the graveyard.
Part of the problem is our ignorance. Almost everything Americans know about the Nazis is based on events in 1945, not 1933. Our camps look nothing like Auschwitz, but neither did any of the other German concentration camps during Hitler’s first nine years in power. Americans are unaware of the policies and compromises that brought Hitler to power. They are unaware of the many years of careful grooming necessary to prepare the German public for the Final Solution. They don’t understand the persecution of journalists, professors, attorneys and others who stood in the way of total power. As a result, they don’t understand the parallels playing out before their eyes. It’s awfully late now to learn, but better late than never.
How Hitler Came to Power
Let’s begin our brief review by recalling that the Nazis came to power through the electoral process, with the help of German conservatives. In a series of hung elections held across 1932-33, the Nazis fell just short a majority of seats in the Reichstag. In early 1933, just before the last Weimar Era election, conservative leader, Franz von Papen convinced President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Chancellor. Von Papen wanted to see his conservative rival and current Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher, replaced. In return for his help, Hitler promised to make von Papen Vice-Chancellor, a position from which he intended to manipulate Hitler. That plan didn’t work out.
With Hitler as Chancellor and Herman Göring installed next to him as Minister of the Interior, the Nazis were free to carry out a reign of terror in the streets in the weeks leading up to the March 1933 Election. Despite their efforts to disrupt the political process, the Nazis only mustered a disappointing 44% of the popular vote. It was the first time that the Nazis held more seats than the rival coalition between the Social Democrats and the Communists, but it still wasn’t enough to form a government. They needed allies.
The seats needed to form a government would come from their fellow conservatives in the DNVP. The DNVP was the only party that had been allowed to campaign without violent interference from the Nazis. Running on the interests of farmers, a more assertive and militaristic foreign policy, and opposition to Socialism, the DNVP provided a moderate, polite outlet for those aligned with the Nazi agenda, but turned off by the Nazis’ thuggishness. DNVP leaders came mostly from the military, aristocracy, religious hardliners and industry, which were already heavily overlapping.
Many conservatives were troubled by the Nazis’ anti-Semitic rhetoric, but only in terms of tone, not substance. They considered Hitler and his followers to be uncouth rabble, and saw Hitler’s Jew-baiting as a tasteless quirk. Most DNVP leaders were fundamentally anti-Semitic themselves, they just had other issues they cared about more. The DNVP was particularly obsessed with the threat of a Bolshevik Revolution in Germany. If they had to tolerate the persecution of Jews to block Socialists from coming to power, then so be it.
With the help of Germany’s conservatives, Hitler was able to form a governing coalition in March 1933. However, to achieve the 2/3 Reichstag majority he needed to dismantle the republic for good, he needed one more partner and some dirty tricks.
First, Hitler reached a deal with the leader of the Catholic Zentrum Party, promising to preserve Catholic institutions under the nascent Reich. This wasn’t difficult, as Pope Pius XI had already helped Mussolini dismantle the troublesome democracy in Italy and backed the Fascists against Republicans in Spain. Germany’s Social Democrats had succeeded by 1926 in liberalizing the country’s abortion laws, removing many penalties for abortion, but they were determined to make abortion legal. Catholics would do almost anything, including handing power to the Nazis, to prevent full legalization of contraception and abortion. The Zentrum Party became an enthusiastic partner in Hitler’s plan to dismantle democracy. That agreement was cemented with a formal Reichskonkordat between Hitler and the Pope that summer, and the formal dissolution of the Zentrum Party.
A coalition among the Nazis, Conservatives and the Catholic Party was still not, however, enough to reach a 2/3 majority. To win the Reichstag margin necessary to pass the Enabling Act, the Nazis had to block the Communists and many Social Democrats from taking their seats in the Reichstag. Having already rounded up and jailed most of the leftist leaders, that job was fairly simple. A rule change loosened the requirements for a quorum in the Reichstag, giving Hitler the margin he needed. With the support of religious leaders in both the Catholic and Protestant communities, and with help from the Conservative Party, on March 23, 1933, the Reichstag voted Hitler dictatorial power and Germany’s first democratic experiment ended.
The First Nazi Concentration Camps
In April 1933, Hitler organized a national boycott of Jewish businesses and issued an edict removing Jews from the civil service. Harassment escalated and economic conditions for Jews worsened. But for the next few years the intimidation of Germany’s Jews escalated slowly. Nazis focused their energies at first on consolidating power.
Hitler opened one of the first of his new concentration camps later in March 1933 at Dachau. It provided a more orderly place to put the thousands of Germans rounded up in raids on political enemies. From a Nazi press release at the time:
“the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5,000 people. All Communists and – where necessary – Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated there, as in the long run it is not possible to keep individual functionaries in the state prisons without overburdening these prisons.”
One of Dachau’s earliest prisoners was Fritz Gerlich, a popular and principled Catholic newspaper editor who had opposed both the Nazis and the Communists. Destruction of the free press was a top priority for the Nazis, as journalists were almost entirely aligned against them. By one estimate, the Nazis enjoyed support from less than 3% of the country’s newspapers. The Nazis did, however, have significant investments in their own non-conventional media enterprises. Much like our Sinclair Media, Fox News, or the Regnery company who publishes authors like Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro, well-funded Nazi media operations cranked out high-volume propaganda for the cult. Once the Nazis seized power, this shadow press took control of the existing mainline media while professional journalists, or as Hitler called them, Lugenpresse (“lying press”), were squeezed and harassed, many of their prominent members sent to concentration camps. Gerlich was murdered at Dachau during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934.
Max Amann, the SS figure named head of the Reich Media Chamber in 1933, turned his position into a major financial boon. His power to harass or shut down dissenting media was a valuable bargaining lever, allowing him to buy out attractive media businesses he accused of disloyalty. By 1944, he was a multi-millionaire, though just a year later he’d find himself in an Allied prison camp.
In April 1933, Germany’s Protestant leaders gathered to form a new “German Evangelical Church” under the authority of a new Nazi leader, Ludwig Müller. Protestants had already formed the “German Christian Movement” a few years prior, to organize followers to support either the Nazis or the DNVP in a crusade against Socialism. A few dissidents emerged, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but they had negligible support or impact among German Christians. Bonhoeffer himself would eventually be executed by the Nazis for his role in an assassination plot against Hitler.
On May 2, 1933, the day after May Day, brown shirts stormed union offices all over Germany. Labor leaders were sent to concentration camps or murdered. All independent labor organization, collective bargaining, and strikes were banned. All existing labor contracts were nullified. Workers were organized under a single government union with Nazi leaders. Workers were not forced to join the party or the union, because it was virtually impossible to gain employment without Nazi support. Labor unions were replaced with a Nazi surveillance mechanism, and working class agitation, long a frustration for business leaders, was over.
Night of the Long Knives
As the Nazis consolidated power in their first year, tensions rose in the ranks. Dozens or more paramilitaries and quasi-official mafias, all key to the Nazis’ early rise, began jostling for leverage in the new Reich. Their activities were eyed with concern by the military, who had been cool to Hitler from the beginning. There were fears that escalating disorder stoked by these mobs might trigger intervention or even a coup from the restless Reichswehr.
It was time to clean house. In June 1934, Hitler flew to Munich to publicly discipline an SA unit accused of fomenting a riot the night before. His real target was their commander, Ernst Röhm, who had fallen out of favor. Hitler had Röhm executed, and members of his unit who could be rounded up were sent to the camps. The next day leading Nazis launched a nationwide purge, killing a still-unknown number of Nazi figures whose loyalty was in question, or whose usefulness had declined.
Hitler used this occasion to kill of many enemies and even former collaborators. Former conservative Chancellor Kurt von Schliecher was murdered along with his wife. Former DNVP leader, Von Papen, who played a key role in elevating Hitler to the Chancellery, narrowly escaped execution while many of his colleagues died. Adalbert Probst, head of the now-dissolved Catholic Youth League and prominent critic of Hitler, was murdered. Erich Klausener, a prominent member of the Catholic Zentrum Party, had been moved from the central police into the Transportation Ministry after Zentrum placed absolute power in Hitler’s hands. Earlier that June he had made an impassioned speech opposing the Nazi’s violence. He was executed in the purge. Conservative and Catholic political parties that had brought Hitler to power had, by mid-1934, been eliminated, their leaders either killed or cowed into collaboration.
The Nazi Social Agenda
After the passage of the Nuremberg Race laws in 1935, patterned specifically on America’s Jim Crow regime, the camps began to see new inmates punished for race-mixing or attempts at illegal immigration, but the concentration camps remained primarily penal camps for dissidents. For the next several years, deaths in the camps were primarily the result of negligence or individual punishments, not a strategic program.
While life grew steadily worse for Jews in Germany, the Nazis continued through the 30’s to focus most of their energy on their social and military agenda. While shutting down or consolidating most of independent religious institutions, Hitler faithfully fulfilled his promises to religious conservatives, pursuing an aggressive social conservative agenda.
Abortion laws which had been liberalized in 1926 and had gone largely unenforced in the Weimar Era, were rolled back by the Nazis in 1933. Thousands of women would eventually land in concentration camps, accused of attempting an abortion. Obtaining contraceptives became extremely difficult. Hitler declared in 1934 that, “In my state, the mother is the most important citizen.” And she was important, for the purpose of breeding little soldiers. Nazis awarded the Motherhood Cross to women who bore at least four children and granted subsidies for large families.
In 1936, the Nazis realized Mike Pence’s dream, creating the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion. Later that year the SS began rounding up suspected homosexuals and sending them to concentration camps. Officials with the Reich Office had permission to carry out summary execution of suspects, however, they were blocked from investigating the many prominent homosexuals within the Nazi regime
Late in the Weimar Era, Germany had liberalized its gun laws to allow tightly regulated individual ownership of weapons. In 1938, the Nazis took individual gun rights much further, dropping almost all regulation of long-bore weapons and lowered the legal age for purchase from 20 to 18. Effectively there were few remaining controls on ownership of rifles and shotguns, with the predictable exception that they could not be sold to Jews. Nazis loved guns. Hitler had to crack down on dueling in the ranks after a senior leader of the Hitler Youth killed a prominent German soldier and Nazi writer, Roland Strunk, in a duel in 1937. The event was notable enough to make it into the New York Times.
Five years into Hitler’s dictatorship, Jews were facing painful and economically damaging harassment, but violence and arrests were still relatively limited. Concentration camps were still populated mostly with political prisoners and homosexuals. There were no death camps. By late 1938, with Hitler’s opponents silenced and his power firmly consolidated, he was free to ratchet up his deadly campaign against the Jews, strengthened in part by grassroots support and apathy in the western democracies.
Growing Fascist Sympathy in the West
Kristallnacht, an organized, coordinated outbreak of mob violence against the Jews launched on November 9, 1938, was the opening of a new phase of Nazi persecution of the Jews. In the wake of Kristallnacht, the SA rounded up thousands of Jews who were “guilty” of minor offenses like traffic tickets, and sent them to the newly expanded network of concentration camps. On January 30, 1939, Hitler warned that the outbreak of war in Europe would lead to the extermination of the Jews. In that speech, he remarked:
It is a shameful spectacle to see how the whole democratic world is oozing sympathy for the poor, tormented Jewish people, but remains hard-hearted and obdurate when it comes to helping them.
And it was true. The US and all the western democracies were lodging diplomatic complaints about Nazi anti-Semitism while working feverishly to block the immigration of German Jews. Fascists were actively organizing in the US, Britain, France and elsewhere, working to limit the capacity of the world’s remaining democracies to stop Hitler. US aviation hero, Charles Lindbergh and industrialist Henry Ford, were both being cultivated as Nazi assets.
Ford had funded the publication of The Elders of Zion, a libelous conspiratorial screed against the Jews, in the 1920’s. Hitler often quoted the book. Ford was quoted by name in Mein Kampf. The Nazis awarded him the German Eagle in a ceremony in Detroit in 1938. American aviator, Charles Lindbergh, was a particularly prized asset, receiving the German Eagle directly from Göring while on a publicity visit to Germany just a few weeks before Kristallnacht.
Conservatives in England were largely taken with Hitler, all the way up to the Crown Prince, Edward. Casual anti-Semitism was common in England. Harold Harmsworth, the newspaper mogul who founded the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail, was an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler. He sent Hitler a congratulatory telegram after the annexation of the Sudetenland. Harmsworth, like much of the rest of the British Tory establishment, was obsessed with fear of a Communist takeover, seeing Hitler as a bulwark against the Bolsheviks. Harmsworth promoted Hitler as such in his media.
One lonely and increasingly isolated conservative hated Hitler from the beginning and never wavered. Winston Churchill issued one of the earliest public warnings about Hitler from the right in 1930, a position which was unpopular and regarded as mildly hysterical by conservative politicians all the way up to 1940. Remember, Neville Chamberlain, architect of the Munich Agreement, was a Tory.
Months after Kristallnacht, in February 1939, 20,000 American Nazis filled New York’s Madison Square Garden where they hailed George Washington as the world’s first Fascist. The Bund’s leader, Fritz Kuhn, was a former Ford employee. After Hitler invaded Poland and war came to Europe, pro-Nazi activism in the western democracies accelerated. The German-American Bund organized a large Nazi march in New York City in October, 1939. Shortly thereafter, the group was dismantled by the FBI and Kuhn was deported to Germany.
Ahead of the 1940 election in the US, Charles Lindbergh accelerated his efforts to protect the Nazis from potential American intervention. Lindbergh was a prominent spokesman for one of the Nazis’ most promising political movements in the west, called America First. The group, dedicated to an isolationist foreign policy, enjoyed financial support from industrialists like William Regnery. His son, Henry, would later establish Salem Media and the Regnery publishing house, which would publish authors like Ann Coulter and Mark Levin. Regnery’s grandson, William Regnery II, would become a campaign volunteer for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Later, he funded neo-Nazi organizations in the US, including the National Policy Institute which hired Richard Spencer as its director in 2011. The history of Fascist involvement in Anglo-American conservatism is long, deep, and as-yet uninterrupted.
Across the Atlantic, Chamberlain’s government collapsed in May 1940 after catastrophic British losses in France and Norway. At a desperate meeting of the British War Council on May 27, 1940, called to discuss the prospect of secret negotiations with the Nazis, it was the Liberal Party who brought a surprise guest, Winston Churchill. His strenuous argument against a peace deal split the room. Capitalizing on his support from outside his own party along with nationalist rumblings among the Tories, over the next few days Churchill played his sorry hand from the back-benches to 10 Downing Street, and on into history. His narrow, unlikely success in steeling British spines was the axial point in the global fight against Fascism. It was Churchill, not Roosevelt, who placed the Anglo-American world implacably at odds with Hitler.
The Final Solution
Despite harassment, intimidation, and even efforts to starve them with reduced rations, Jewish communities in Germany remained more or less intact even after the war began. Seven years into the Third Reich, it was still possible for Germans, and for western observers to argue that Hitler’s anti-Semitic rhetoric was of little real concern. It was in Poland that the first mass extermination of Jews took place, then mostly carried out by troops in the field. Organized deportations of German Jews to concentration camps began in October 1940. The first several of these Nazi deportation camps were in France, where the Nazis simply assumed control of camps originally set up by the French to detain pre-war asylum seekers fleeing the Spanish Civil War.
Hitler first described his vision for Jewish death camps, his so-called Final Solution, at a meeting of Nazi leaders in December, 1941. Jews in Germany, Poland, France and the other occupied territories were already being rounded up into concentration camps. Some of those camps were then being fitted out for mass killing. The new gas chambers at Auschwitz were completed in March, 1942. A third of the Jews murdered by the Nazis would be killed in the industrialized death camps at Auschwitz and Treblinka. For most of Hitler’s time in power, concentration camps were simply detention centers for those considered either a threat, or a despised minority. Our black and white vision of Nazi death camps is not the definition of a concentration camp, nor does it reflect the day-to-day reality of bigoted political oppression during Hitler’s early years in power. For most of Hitler’s reign, his concentration camps looked just like ours, with similar motives and purpose.
Our Concentration Camps
The current expansion of our concentration camp industry resulted from two decisions of the Trump Administration. First, Trump officials reversed a long-standing and successful policy of releasing immigrants with current deportation or amnesty proceedings, with order to appear in court. Rates of court appearance under that policy had topped 90%. Instead of this cheap, simple and human process, Trump officials decided that these people should be interned indefinitely. Second, the Administration enacted a policy of kidnapping the children of suspected illegal migrants, holding them in camps separate from their families. Both of these moves were unprecedented. Neither arose from any need, whether in terms of safety or cost. They have created unnecessary public expense for no purpose but the harassment of a group unpopular with Trump’s bigoted political base.
We have established concentration camps for migrants, many of whom are legal immigrants applying for asylum, in order to satisfy the cruel and cowardly impulses of Republican voters. The comparison to German concentration camps is entirely apt. There is no crisis at our border apart from the one created by this Administration. These migrants, even the “illegal” ones guilty of a misdemeanor comparable to a traffic ticket, pose absolutely no demonstrable threat to us. None of this Administration’s efforts to curb immigration serve a national purpose apart from bigoted political theater, just like the Nazis’ harassment of Jews in the 1930’s.
The Trump Administration is our Third Reich. He is our version of Hitler. Trump’s supporters are our Nazis. Everyone who collaborates with this regime, from the guards at the camps, to the entrepreneurs profiting, to the Republican Senators defending him should pay the price we imposed on Nazis after the war. What will it take for justice to be done? That remains to be seen. We’ll get as much justice as we’re willing to fight for.