Originally published by Cambridge University Press, March 28, 2023
By Ben Kiernan
As the mob incited by President Donald Trump ransacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, “saw the Nazi imagery in the crowd.” Milley told his staff: “These guys look like the brown shirts to me. This looks like a Reichstag moment.” He was referring to the burning of the German parliament in 1933, a crucial event in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.
What can we learn from the history of genocide as we observe current developments ? And how have previous genocide perpetrators learned from history ? The Cambridge World History of Genocide identifies these and other connections between past cases that may help predict or even prevent future repetitions.
In 2017, Donald Trump had visited France for the annual Bastille Day celebrations. He watched the parade in Paris with President Macron. In their book The Divider: Trump in the White House, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser report that a French general overseeing the parade predicted to an American counterpart: “You are going to be doing this next year.” That idea soon took root in Trump’s mind. Baker and Glasser write: “Trump stubbornly wanted a similar military parade to mark the U.S. Fourth of July independence day holiday. But his cabinet staff was less enthusiastic, and it became a point of contention.” Trump privately ”expressed admiration for Hitler’s generals, while calling his own generals ‘fucking losers,’ and subjecting them and others to racist rants… In an exchange with his then White House chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, Trump reportedly complained: ‘You fucking generals, why can’t you be like the German generals?‘”
Kelly asked which generals, prompting Trump to reply: “The German generals in World War II.” Those German generals, Trump asserted, “were totally loyal to” Hitler – whose expectations of his generals had become a model for Trump.
In August 2017, neo-Nazis and white supremacists assembled in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a “Unite the Right” rally. They protested plans to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Some of them chanted “Jews will not replace us,” and the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil.” Swastika flags flew on “full display”. One protester drove a speeding car into a group of counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring nineteen others. The car’s driver, James Alex Fields, Jr., of Ohio, was later convicted of murder. A former teacher of his reportedly described Fields as “fascinated by Nazism.” From his jail cell, Fields texted his mother “a meme of Hitler.”
Several days after the Charlottesville events, Trump stated that “the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists… should be condemned, totally,” as “rough, bad people.” Yet he suggested they had been the targets of the violence: “a group on this side, … you can call them the left, … came violently attacking the other group.” Trump emphasized repeatedly that there was “blame on both sides” and “very fine people on both sides.”
The next year, on another European visit, Trump privately told his chief of staff Kelly that “Hitler did a lot of good things”. Such admiration for history’s best-known genocide perpetrator, once unthinkable, had become commonplace in some US circles.
And it was inspiring mass murder. In August 2018 Patrick Little, a former unsuccessful Republican Senate primary candidate in California, posted on the website Gab his call for the “complete eradication of all Jews.” Robert Gregory Bowers, aged 46, reposted on Gab another statement from Little: “I am organizing protests calling for the demolition of all holohoax memorials. Never again will we let jewish lies be used as a weapon against our children. #NeverAgain”. On October 27, 2018, Bowers murdered eleven worshippers and wounded six at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Bowers’ rampage in turn inspired John T. Earnest, according to a manifesto he posted online, to unleash two attacks in California. Earnest’s manifesto included both antisemitic and anti-Muslim statements. First, in March 2019, he set fire to the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in Escondido. Then on April 27, Earnest attacked the Chabad of Poway synagogue, near San Diego. Firing an AR-15-style rifle, he screamed that “Jews” were “ruining the world.” He shot dead Ms. Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, and wounded three other people.
The wealthy African-American rapper and entrepreneur, Kanye West, adopted Trump’s view of the Charlottesville violence. In a video-interview at the TMZ newsroom in 2018, West said: “I want to talk to the guys in Charlottesville on both sides.” Van Lathan of that newsroom engaged West in a video exchange. Responding to West’s assertion that slavery was “a choice,” Lathan mentioned that “12 million people actually died because of Nazism and Hitler”. West then retorted “something like ‘I love Hitler, I love Nazis’.”
By late 2020, US national officials were sounding alarms that Donald Trump was following a neo-fascist playbook. After Trump lost the presidential election to Joe Biden, General Mark Milley compared Trump’s false claims of election fraud to “Hitler’s insistence to his followers at the Nuremberg rallies that he was both a victim and their savior”. Milley saw some Trump supporters, the militia group known as the Proud Boys, as “the same people we fought in World War II”. It was the Proud Boys, neo-fascists who call themselves “western chauvinists,” whom Trump had called upon to “stand back and stand by” during his presidential campaign debate with Joe Biden.
In their 2021 book I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker of the Washington Post recount that Milley saw Trump as “the classic authoritarian leader”. This was not only “a Reichstag moment,” Milley told aides, but “The gospel of the Führer.” President Biden stated on August 25, 2022: “It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the – … it’s like semi-fascism.”
Meanwhile Kanye West doubled down. In October 2022, using the name Ye, he wrote on Twitter: “I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE[…] You guys have toyed with me.” Ye added that “the Jewish media blocked me out,” and “Jewish people have owned the Black voice.”
In the ensuing public outrage, Trump claimed that he hadn’t seen West’s comments, but added that Ye was “great to me.” A conservative radio host asked him whether Ye was getting a “fair shake.” Trump replied that Ye had made some “rough statements, on Jewish,” but added: “He’ll be fine”.
On November 22, Trump invited West to dinner at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. Ye brought along Nick Fuentes, founder of “America First.” According to The New York Times, Fuentes leads “an annual white-supremacist event,” the America First Political Action Conference. Several weeks beforehand, he had demanded “that Jews leave the country.” Trump asserted that Kanye “arrived with a guest whom I … knew nothing about.” The New York Times reported that they hit it off: “During the dinner, according to a person briefed on what took place, Mr. Fuentes described himself as part of Mr. Trump’s base of supporters,” and that “Mr. Trump turned to the others, the person said, and declared that he liked Mr. Fuentes, adding: ‘He gets me’.”
Did Fuentes “get” Trump ? On October 30, 2019, Fuentes had made a “joke” of the Holocaust, casting doubt on its occurrence while comparing Jews incinerated in death camps to “six million cookies” burned in an oven. Then on May 24, 2021, Fuentes stated: “I don’t see Jews as Europeans and I don’t see them as part of Western civilization.”
Resurgent Nazism and neo-Nazism have combined with a growing white supremacist movement. In 2020, the Department of Homeland Security concurred with the FBI Director that among domestic threats, “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists – specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs) – will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.” In March 2023, the Anti-Defamation League reported a five-fold national increase in white supremacist groups’ propaganda activities since 2018, including a 40 percent rise since 2021. Rising racism and ethnic persecution are clear indicators of potential genocide.
The persistent recent evidence of the growing influence of Nazi and racist ideology in U.S. politics and society, and the various outbreaks of Nazism-inspired violence, are far from isolated. Without quick and effective counter-action to combat this dangerous, hateful, accelerating trend, there is only one direction that it can take. In October 2022, the Jewish Democratic Council of America published a digital ad combining images of the January 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol, antisemitic graffiti, and the recent “Kanye is right” banner hung above a freeway in Los Angeles, all juxtaposed with images of rallies in Hitler’s Germany.
Of course, there are major differences between Nazi Germany and the USA today. But prominent Americans also see significant similarities. Some assert that Hitler’s example offers a positive model, while others note dangerous warning signs in the spread of that viewpoint. The world history of genocides has often been a matter of would-be perpetrators making conscious connections. Trump and the far right’s evocations of these past tragedies must not go unheeded.
Banner image: The Killing Fields, Cambodia, a year after the overthrow in 1979 of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. This photo of a newly-excavated mass grave at Choeung Ek, near Phnom Penh, shows some of the contents of the first four grave pits excavated there, of an estimated 107 pits containing the bodies of, among others, former inmates of the secret Khmer Rouge prison known by its code-name ‘S-21’. These first four pits yielded over seven hundred skulls, including about three hundred found in a single pit. Photo: Ben Kiernan, September 26, 1980.