Comparing politicians to Adolf Hitler is a tired, cheap trick that has been used to demonize George W. Bush, John McCain and even Barack Obama. The problem with the comparison is that it makes blanket generalizations of who is good and who is evil, while overlooking the historical conditions that allowed a nation to be conned into believing Nazi propaganda.
As Americans suffered during the Great Depression, Germany, along with many countries around the globe, faced a severe economic meltdown in parts of the 1920s and early 1930s. Germany was strapped with heavy financial burdens from World War I; there was crippling inflation, overwhelming unemployment and families starved. The economic situation was bleak and ordinary Germans were scared and desperate. So when a small man with a fiery voice told them he was going to change their lives, by taking out Germany's public enemy No. 1, Adolf Hitler appeared to be their savior.
In retrospect, it's easy to simply call Germans anti-Semitic, but when one examines the venomous mood at recent McCain-Palin rallies—against the backdrop of America's current economic crisis—one can see how easily a peaceable gathering could turn into a rabid mob.
McCain seems to recognize the dangerous road his campaign was headed down. In appearances this week, he has noticeably ratcheted down the rhetoric. But the lasting effect on his supporters was obvious: McCain and Palin have effectively and swiftly transformed Obama from a respectable American senator into "an Arab," someone who pals around with "an unrepentant terrorist," someone like Osama bin Laden, who had friends who "bombed the Pentagon." It is not so large a leap from that to "kill him," as one man recently shouted at a Palin rally in Florida.
This transformation was easy because Americans are suffering, and they are scared. They are scared about the economy; they are scared about their national security. It's no wonder that at rallies where Obama's name is said often in full—Barack Hussein Obama—that people conjure up illogical images of public enemy No. 1.
Did all of the people standing at that rally embrace the epithets being tossed out? Likely not. But history shows how the fervor of a crowd can drown out the voices of reason. Even McCain couldn't calm down the angry rally when he tried to call Obama a respectable person. The damage has been done, and the dire economic straits in America add gasoline to the fire that the McCain campaign set by allowing Sarah Palin to behave like a minister of propaganda.
While the polls show that Obama is actually gaining momentum from the economic crisis, this does not mean that we should disregard these incidents at McCain rallies as harmless rumbling from a couple of bad Republican apples. Just as each voice in a poll is counted, we have to consider the older woman who told John McCain that she is scared of Obama as representative of what others like her may believe. The jeering when McCain tried to explain to the woman otherwise, (forgetting to mention that Arabs are not by definition terrorists) also points to the reality that the fear of Obama may not be so limited.
Even McCain is learning that there are no gray areas when fear, as opposed to intelligent discourse, is the tactic used to gain political support. As Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi says, "Fear is not the natural state of civilized people."
Plenty of non-Jews despised Hitler. Some tried to denounce the Nazi regime; many protested in their own small way, even risking their own lives by hiding Jews during the war. But many were silenced by fear. It is the angry mobs, full of hungry, scared people that remain in our memories as the pivotal events that allowed the Holocaust to happen. Keeping those mobs angry came through years of consistent propaganda, inundating Germans with films, posters, speeches, slogans, music and ads about the deviant and greedy nature of Jews.
Fox News documentaries like "Barack Obama: History of Radicalism" play an enormous role in feeding the fear of Americans. Imagine that Arab-fearing woman from the rally sitting in her living room, watching Fox's documentary of a college-aged Obama with a Pakistani roommate, linked to radical organizations. Then picture her at a rally in which Sarah Palin tells the crowd that Obama is not a true American, that he pals around with terrorists. Would that woman speak out if a Pakistani man, or say someone who looks like the caricature of a terrorist, were targeted by a group of people riled up from a Palin rally?
Let's up the ante and give the man a long beard and a long flowing robe. Could that man really walk safely down the street, immediately after a rally like that one?
We'd like to think that we have learned from history; after all it was Americans (white and black) who liberated the Jews from German tyranny during World War II. But without flipping too far back into the pages of the past, the similarities in the propaganda machines are eerily familiar.
Rose-Anne Clermont is a Haitian-American writer based in Berlin, Germany.