Should we be seeing the storming of the U.S. Capitol as Trump’s Kristallnacht?

On Sunday 10thJanuary 2021, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator action hero turned former governor of California, posted a short video on Twitter that went viral. Staring straight into the camera against a backdrop of stars and stripes, the man once known for his body-built body flexed his moral muscles by comparing the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol with the Nazis.

“Wednesday was the Night of Broken Glass right here in the United States,” he said, referring to the horrors of Kristallnacht, the night of 9th/10th November 1938 when Nazis in Germany and Austria smashed the windows of Jewish homes, schools and stores and set fire to the synagogues. “The broken glass was in the windows of the United States Capitol,” he continued. “But the mob did not just shatter the windows of the Capitol. They shattered the ideas we took for granted. They did not just break down the doors of the building that housed American democracy. They trampled the very principles on which our country was founded.”

Witnessing, in real time, Trump-incited protestors scale white walls and balconies and swarm into the home of the U.S. Congress was truly shocking. Individually most looked pretty ‘normal’ with their caps, hoodies, beards – or horns – in place of masks. But as a mass emboldened by a collective mission, they felt sinister. A mob stitched together by the blatant, you’d think unbelievable, lies of their leader. Trump’s temper tantrum had turned a corner and stamped on the accelerator to become a genuine threat to life. 

But, though I admire Schwarzenegger for speaking out unequivocally, can you really equate what happened on 6th January with Kristallnacht? Are Trump’s ‘mobsters’ a valid equivalent to the rioting members of the SA (Sturmabteilung) and Hitler Youth? Is Trump an accurate counterpart to Goebbels? And finally, has democracy been shattered in the way Nazis shattered Jewish lives and livelihoods that night? I don’t think so, but I ask genuinely because making such serious comparisons to such a vast audience, albeit diluted by a schmalzy soundtrack and other comforting dollops of Hollywood, carries responsibilities and consequences. If it was America’s Kristallnacht, what should we and the rest of the world be doing about it?

Accurate or exaggerated, Schwarzenegger is certainly more qualified than most to draw such parallels. Born in Austria in 1947, he grew up with and among people who had lived through the Third Reich and Second World War: active cogs in the Nazi killing machine; passive bystanders, looking away but “going along… step-by-step… down the road;” or any of the other shades of innocence or culpability in between. 

What is indisputable in both scenarios – and recent ones here – is the role lies play in leading to things spinning out of control. But it’s intolerance that ultimately fuels these lies. Of course, there’s a healthy form of intolerance, which makes us speak out in the face of ‘wrongness’. But on either side of that, lie two unhealthy extremes: intolerance of anything or anyone that is different to us, ‘other’; and over-tolerance of that which may be familiar, desirable or comfortable to us, but that harms others.

viral image of woman standing up to a far-right protestor

For me, a comparison to Nazi times is more helpful when applied to us… the ordinary people who, back in the 30s and 40s, inadvertently enabled their leaders to carry out murderous plans by doing nothing. Resisting was hard, for it could cost you, or your family, their lives. My mother’s best friend’s family vanished that way. Today, however, we can express a healthy intolerance of what we consider wrong, by resisting the temptation to see the mob as a collective ‘other’ made up of misguided cretins, uneducated loons, neo-fascists, Satan worshippers, conspiracy theorists… Some of them may well be any or all of those things, but they will also all be individuals – fathers, sons, mothers, neighbours – united in believing they are right and on the side of truth and goodness.

Maybe, to prevent re-enactments of Nazi times, we could (or should?) invest the time we spend judging, cursing and dismissing those we see as ‘other’, ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ more wisely; by trying to listen to and understand them instead. That, after all, was what was neglected in the first instance. And people who feel unheard also feel they have to shout the loudest. And by having to shout, they become distorted versions of themselves. That is what we witnessed on Wednesday. It may sound fluffy or impossible and I am not in any way condoning or defending what happened in Washington. I am just trying to avoid becoming inadvertently complicit in deepening the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’. For we all know where that can lead. 

You can see some pictures here. Or read a bit more about what happened here.

How worried should we be about the rise of the far right?

I raise this question specifically in the wake of last week’s 75th anniversary of the Dresden bombing raid by the Allies, an occasion of remembrance that is known for bringing far-right protestors out in droves. Each year, in what they call their ‘Trauermarsch’ (funeral march), several hundred neo-Nazis, xenophobic Pegida and anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) protestors set off from the city’s central station to commemorate the dead. The blatantly neo-Nazi flags, tattoos and slogans, however, betray their true agenda. 

While part of me is swift to unreservedly dismiss all forms of far-right nationalism and extremism, another part is keen to understand: What are their grievances? What are their goals? And how should we, as individuals, meet this growing trend around the world? 

I am at the very beginning of my research into these questions, but in relation to the Dresden bombings of 13th and 14th February 1945, it seems that the far-right scene have several axes to grind. For them, Dresden has become a symbol of how the Allies rewrote the history of the Second World War. Drawing on the language and inflated figures first propagated by Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda ministry, Dresden was a “terror attack,” an indisputable war crime in which up to 300,000 people – primarily women, children and refugees fleeing from the east – were horrendously murdered over three nights. (This claim is in spite of the 2010 historical investigation commissioned by the city and largely accepted by historians that conclude figures would be closer to 25,000.) By shifting the focus onto atrocities committed by the victors, they can call for a stop to Germany’s culture of atonement and guilt.

Dresden, the “Florence on the Elbe”
Dresden after the bombing in 1945

This year, the emphasis of their message was not so much on the numbers as on what they call “the truth” about the bombings. They want to make a stand against the way the bombing of Dresden, once known as the “Florence on the Elbe” for its Baroque beauty, is relativised and compared with what happens in wars all around the world. They want to preserve Dresden’s uniqueness, the myth of martyrdom and its status as a ‘city of innocence.’ In some of this they do have a point. The debate about whether Dresden was a war crime or not still divides international historians and the public alike. Just a few weeks ago, I travelled to Coventry Cathedral to hear historian Dan Snow explore the legitimacy of Dresden as a target with Sinclair McKay, whose book Dresden, The Fire and The Darkness has recently been published. 

In the official ceremonies two days before the far right took to the streets, the man who has become a bit of a hero in my eyes, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, addressed the dangers of this way of thinking. Unlike the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz at which he had spoken a few weeks before (see my January blog), the victimhood of Germans had to be placed centre-stage here. For whether perceived as deserved retribution or a tactical military operation, the bombing raids were calculatedly horrendous creating infernos of such intense heat that people literally melted. It’s an event that does indeed deserve much self-reflection and on-going soul-searching by the Allies as well as a continuation of the already considerable efforts of reconciliation by the British. 

Speaking with his hallmark combination of deep sensitivity and resolute strength, Steinmeier remembered the victims but, even here, he was quick to remind Germans of their role as perpetrators. He warned against the “political forces” that seek to “manipulate history and abuse it like a weapon.” He reached out to all present to “work together for a commemoration that focuses on the suffering of the victims and the bereaved, but also asks about the reasons for this suffering.” And, seemingly referring to the far right directly, he said, “Whoever pits the dead of Dresden against the dead of Auschwitz, whoever seeks to talk down German wrongs, whoever falsifies improved knowledge and historical facts, we as democrats must loudly and clearly contradict them. We must defy them.”

Steinmeier later joined thousands of residents in holding hands to form the annual human chain of “peace and tolerance.” Standing quietly beside him in icy rain and wind was the Duke of Kent, a long-standing contributor to British reconciliation efforts and Patron of The Dresden Trust (of which I am now honoured to be a Trustee). I don’t think Steinmeier dared initiate what happened next, but to his credit, the Duke did. Over a delightful few seconds, the nearly eighty-five-year-old royal looked down and, seeing the empty right hand of the German President, reached out and took it in his. And there they stood for a considerable time, hand in hand bearing witness to their respective nations’ capacities for the wholesale destruction of innocents.

The Duke of Kent (left) holding hands with German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier

So far, my answer to my own questions is that there are way too many of us prepared to make a stand against the dark desires of the far right for them to gain significant power. In Dresden, two days after Steinmeier’s call to protect democracy, thousands of anti-fascist counter-demonstrators took to the streets forcing the comparatively low numbers of neo-Nazis to change their route. As one said, “On a day like this, you can’t just stand idly by. We are here to say that this is not our Dresden. There is no room for Nazis in this city — not now, not ever.”

Learn more:

Dresden marks WWII bombing in far-right stronghold.

Dresden: The World War Two bombing 75 years on – BBC News

History Extra Podcast: The bombing of Dresden