Echoes of Hitler’s Germany in modern fascism

Safya Khan-Ruf - 22 05 17

“Populism is not the same as fascism but it can often be its harbinger,” said the former Archbishop of Canterbury and Master at Cambridge university, Rowan Williams, during an event discussing fascism under Hitler’s rule.

Open Society under threat? A warning from history was organised by Cumberland Lodge, a charity tackling social divisions, and St Paul’s Institute last week to address the resurgence of populism, nationalism and extremism across the world.

The panel expressed their concern about the inefficiency of people in preventing the rise of fascism in the 1930s. The question of how to connect to people disillusioned with politics was also brought up.

“Populism rises when people are disillusioned and that happens with economical decline. Technology and globalisation have caused millions to be unemployed- this needs to be addressed,” said Lord Nicholas Stern, professor of Economics and Government at the London School of Economics.

Williams however, said that history would not repeat itself exactly – globalisation and technology had altered too much – but that the breakdown of trust in democracy was causing a political crisis. “Once confidence is lost in the broad democratic process, the risk of privatised enforcement rises. Hitler created alternate structures of governance and rendered traditional government irrelevant,” he said.

Trump was also discussed and the panel was asked about the similarities between the US president and former German leader. Maiken Umbach, professor of Modern History at the University of Nottingham, said, “Hitler had a more coherent worldview of politics. But Trump is more pragmatic and will U-turn on policy promises, especially on foreign policy. He isn’t an ideologue like Hitler was”

Listening remains crucial across centuries

The evening, attended by around 750 people, centred around the re-publication of Amy Buller’s book, Darkness over Germany: A warning from History, which examines how a message of hate once fuelled a nation to unite, and which had not been published since 1945.

Amy Buller detailed her interactions with member’s of Hitler’s party and was criticised for engaging with Nazis and even bringing British scholars to observe Germany in the 1930s. But Williams said Buller organised conferences that challenged Nazism foundations at the heart of its power, in Germany. Her engagement gives unique insight in how Nazism developed in Germany. “It is dangerous to suppose others have no reasons to think what they think, we must be willing to listen,” Williams said.

Audience at St Paul’s Church at event

Ignoring Issues

The results of the EU referendum were also discussed and Umbach pointed out there was a significant difference in how people voted based on whether they owned a university degree or not. “It’s no use discussing our ideas in a sheltered class amongst ourselves, we need to get out and understand that people with far right views also believe they are morally right,” she said.

The panel warned the audience against ‘othering’.“We rush to demonise those that are different such as immigrants or those who voted for Brexit and Trump,” said Umbach. The danger, she said, was delegating thinking and debating to another class or a single individual that could do no wrong.

“The real tragedy of the Nazi betrayal is that it claimed to give a radical answer to fundamental problems of the time, it is important to analyse the problems the Nazis claimed to solve… Millions of lives were sacrificed to the Nazi’s false answer to a real need,” Buller wrote.


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