Germans know fascism when they see it.
While Americans can joke about “Soup Nazis” and Hitler mustaches, Germans know firsthand what it means when a failed businessman moves from a fringe candidate to a leader who takes over your democracy and burns everything to hell.
I learned this, repeatedly, while I was in Germany for a weeklong lecture on the 2016 U.S. presidential election hosted by the State Department and German officials. As I hopped from one beautiful, Old World city to another, from Hamburg to Frankfurt to Munich to Berlin, every person I spoke to said that the rise of business mogul-turned-reality-TV star-turned-GOP front-runner Donald Trump reminded them of the early stages of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.
“How is he so successful?” asked a student reporting for her school paper.
“Doesn’t America know how dangerous he is?” asked an irritated Gen X woman in Hamburg.
As an American—and an African American—I want to believe that this is an exaggeration, that Germany’s past has made its residents paranoid. Yet the longer I was there, the more convinced I became that they may be right. Why does Trump automatically dredge up images of Hitler to your average German? Because while the Nazis and World War II are ancient history to most Americans, those events are living history to Germans. Baby boomers grew up in a country rebuilding after the war. Generation X lived through the Berlin Wall being torn down. Millennials grew up at the end of the Cold War as East and West Germany reunified.
When your entire country is devastated because a megalomaniac riles up angry white guys, blames foreigners for everything and promises to “make your country great again,” it makes you a little nervous to see that act repeat itself, even if it is in another country.
Germans, like Europeans in general, can draw direct lines from violent, aggressive rhetoric to bombs destroying their homes, millions being displaced and whole nations collapsing. The scars of World War I, World War II, even the war in the Balkans in the ’90s, all still affect Germans and other Europeans. Pieces of the Berlin Wall are still for sale in souvenir shops.
But in America, aggressive language like the “axis of evil” and “You’re either with us or against us” means that someone else is getting bombed, not us. Americans don’t have direct experience with just how much the wrong leader can irrevocably screw up the country and make you a cautionary tale in history books. Germans are so afraid of violent language taking them back to their Nazi past that they’ve taken extreme measures to stop it.
“The Germans don’t even have a word for race,” said Michael, a black American and Howard University graduate who works for the State Department. He met me for dinner after one of my talks in Hamburg to give me the breakdown of what it’s like to be black in Germany.
“The word is so close to Hitler’s old ‘master race’ that they just eliminated it from vocabulary,” he said. “You can’t find it in books or in government documents.”
He then leaned over the table and whispered, “The census doesn’t even take records of different races in Germany, only nationalities; they’re still so afraid of a return to those days.”