Trump and the Problem with History Lessons

It’s 2017, and there’s literally no way to mention Hitler or Nazi Germany online without inciting several rolled eyes and at least a couple of avid proclamations of Godwin’s Law. Somehow, we found ourselves here, where the 20th Century’s worst atrocities lead a double life: a brand-name shorthand for true evil, moonlighting as a hackneyed joke from that other universe known as the Past.

It’s the fault, of course, of all those who coined the term “grammar Nazis,” or who lightly and carelessly compared a minor inconvenience to the Holocaust for a cheap laugh. It’s the fault of overblown comparisons related to local council bureaucracy. And mostly, it’s the fault of the way we teach history, where grand narratives and dramatic, symbolic moments supersede intricacy and qualification.

Apart from a minority (who, I cross my fingers, are subject to more and more punches to the face), we’ll all hopefully agree that World War II, the rise of the Third Reich, and the Holocaust, were unbelievably dark periods in human history that we should endeavour to avoid again at all costs. But while every schoolchild knows about Auschwitz and Anne Frank, what they don’t get taught – and it surely can’t be for the sake of protecting them from trauma – are the political and social conditions that made it possible.

If you were living in Germany during Hitler’s rise, you’d have fought back. You’d have spoken up as he cynically focused his political message towards groups impacted by the Depression, like farmers and the middle class. You’d have stood up and been counted when Hitler suspended many basic rights in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire. When Goebbels took control of large swathes of the mass media and began a campaign to dictate the concept of “truth”, you’d have seen through it and the revolution would have been televised.

Because the 1930s and 1940s were a different world entirely, and back then, people were stupid.

So when Donald Trump issues a media blackout at the EPA, it’s different. This can’t lead to that.

And when Sean Spicer uses his role as White House Press Secretary to distribute a press release with a list of positive coverage of Trump’s first week, it’s different. This can’t lead to that.

And when Trump signs an Executive Order announcing the publication of a weekly list of crimes committed by “aliens”, it’s different. I swear.

This can’t lead to that.

Obviously, I’m not saying that we’re going to end up with concentration camps spread across the USA. That would be insane. Because nobody would use the words “concentration camp” in 2017.

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