While it often gets glossed over today, Adolf Hitler was a popular figure in American politics back in the 1930s. He was seen as a person who brought order and stability — two things conservative Americans have always valued more than freedom and individual liberty — to Germany after a liberal Weimar period.
Men like Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Father Coughlin all lined up to support Hitler, and Americans loved him. It was a love affair that didn’t last, and it’s one that Americans run from today. We want to paint ourselves as the heroes of this world narrative, after all. It’s a bit hard to do that after fawning all over one of the most despised people in human history.
Of course, Americans are blind to their own faults. That’s why, even after it’s repeatedly demonstrated it can’t work, we’re walking down this path again. And it’s eerily similar, too — right down to the rationalizations and defense of strongmen in power that are used.
Consider this letter to the editor purportedly published in Moody Monthly, a magazine put out by the Moody Bible Institute, back in October of 1933:
Here’s the full text:
To the Editor:
After much prayer to our Saviour, I send you this word. I think you very much for your article in June about our brethren in Germany. God bless you that you give justice to Adolf Hitler, that you do not misjudge him. He tries as best he knows how to help Germany. You know that he was a Roman Catholic and he still knows little about the Bible. But he studies the New Testament, and we who know Christ as God and Saviour who died for our sins on the cross, love him, and we have to pray for him and not to believe everything his enemies speak about him.
I am a German. Two years ago I was on a visit in Germany for three months. All my relatives live in Germany. They are Christians that believe in the shed blood of Christ for our sins. They praise Hitler. They have full freedom to preach Christ crucified for our sins. We believe that Christ will come soon and that He will be merciful to Hitler too. Hitler’s father was a drinker, but Adolf lives with his mother and is a very good son. I am an old woman and pray for the coming of the Lord.
I should stress that there isn’t any evidence that Hitler himself was anything more than culturally Christian. There’s no evidence he was atheistic, either; Hitler, if he was consciously religious at all, probably worshiped the state — or his idea of the state.
However, plenty of high-ranking Nazis were, and Christianity in Europe has a long and ugly history of Antisemitism that directly lead to the Holocaust.
What I want to call attention to, though, is the language used by Ms. Nabholz: “He tries as best he knows how to help Germany” and “he still knows little about the Bible” but “he studies the New Testament” are directly parallel to some of the justifications that right-wing Christians gave for Trump.
None of this changes my mind when I say I think it’s unfair to compare Trump to Hitler or Mussolini, though. Both Hitler and Mussolini knew what sacrifice meant, since both fought in World War One. Trump’s idea of sacrifice is abusing the visa program to get cheap labor.
Simply put, when you compare Trump to Hitler or Trump to Mussolini, you’re insulting Hitler and Mussolini. All the same, however, this letter dovetails nicely with other, existing Hitler apologia from the period — and Trump apologia today.
As this letter shows, justifying strongmen is a long and storied human tradition — a long and storied human tradition because we’re too fucking stupid to learn from it, even though the rhetoric barely changes at all, as we deftly demonstrated in 2016.