The urban-rural divide was deepening.
The country’s constitution made it the most liberal democracy the world had ever seen. The government had expanded welfare programs and education. Women had entered politics and the workforce in record numbers, the government guaranteeing equal pay. One city had a vibrant queer culture. The nation was a world leader in science, production and artistic innovation. It won 20 Nobel prizes.
“People in cities were more comfortable with a break from the past. Those in the countryside less so,” said Shelly Cline.
Cline was not talking about America today but Germany in the 1920s. She’s a historian and the director of education at the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education in Overland Park. Earlier this month, she gave a presentation on propaganda and the rise of the Nazi party for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum; she’s since given another talk on Americans’ response to the Holocaust (it should be up on the library’s YouTube page within a couple of weeks).
The Eisenhower Library has focused programming on the Holocaust this month because that history “raises important questions about what Europeans could have done to stop the rise of Nazism in Germany and its assault on Europe’s Jews,” according to its newsletter. “Questions must also be asked about the responsibility of the international community, including the United States.”
I watched Cline’s talks because I’m interested in the rise of violent right-wing extremism in the United States and the tribal divides that are making us hate each other. I know I’m not alone. On Friday, the traditional-conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks expressed dismay at what he described as Trump voters’ “venomous panic attack.” Brooks quoted Jack Kerwick of American Greatness magazine, who wrote: “The decent know that they must become ruthless. They must become the stuff of nightmares. The good man must spare not a moment to train, in both body and mind, to become the monster that he may need to become in order to slay the monsters that prey upon the vulnerable.”
It’s a crucial time to listen to historians.
Cline agreed there are parallels between pre-Nazi Germany and America today.
“We often think Germany is a complete mess after World War I, destitute and embarrassed, so Hitler rose to power,” Cline told me. “That oversimplification is dangerous, and the myth of the Weimar Republic as a disaster is also a product of Nazi propaganda.”
Germany’s liberal advances from 1923-1929 were essentially erased by the Nazi party, which came to power because of the economic crisis sparked by the stock market collapse in the United States. The U.S. called in its post-World War I loans, sending Germany into its own depression, Cline said. That economic crisis, she said, “lays groundwork for Hitler.”
“We’ve completely forgotten about this vibrant liberal time sandwiched between an authoritarian monarchy and Nazism,” she told me. “It’s a good reminder that, just because you have advances and positive things in your country, nothing is guaranteed. It’s very easy to backslide into more dangerous authoritarian times.”
No period is exactly the same, she emphasized. Our amount of access to information is one obvious difference, but people still behave similarly: “You choose what you consume, you choose how you consume it, what you believe, what you don’t believe.”
Besides the literal “America First” slogan, there are other parallels to the America of the 1920s, which was working hard not to get involved in what was starting to happen in Germany. Racial violence in the United States was so bad in 1919 that historians now refer to it as the red summer. Anti-Semitism here was at its 20th century peak in the 1920s, Cline said.
Now, she said, anti-Semitism here is back to a 30-year high.
The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education has been around since 1993, most active in the Kansas City metro, giving presentations to adults, training teachers and gathering testimonials from Holocaust survivors.
Over the last couple of years, they’ve worked to expand their geographic reach. The center’s executive director, Jessica Rockhold, is from Russell, Kansas. Cline grew up in Belleville, earned her PhD at the University of Kansas and studied in Germany before coming back to work at the center. The pandemic’s shift to Zoom presentations has made it easier to reach more Kansans.
“It’s so refreshing for us to be able to talk to new audiences, have people excited to get that information,” she said. “As a kid growing up in a town where there were 1,000 people, it was special when we got to have speakers and cultural events, my mom took me to all those events whenever it was possible.”
She said that question about parallels between pre-Nazi Germany and America today is among the most common.
“People are making those connections between now and then,” she said.
The real difference is: This time we know what to do differently.