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.”
Germany is a mostly white country, and while you’ll see some nonwhite Germans in cities like Berlin, they are few and far between. When telling me about a meeting of black Germans in Hamburg a few months ago, Michael said, “People would be speaking in German about their experiences here—and they’d stop and say ‘racial profiling’ in English because there are no words for that experience in German.”
That’s why, when Trump says he wants to ban Muslims from coming to the U.S. (remember, an estimated 23 percent of American Muslims are black), that there are “good Mexicans” and “bad Mexicans,” Germans hear that massive deportations and internments are coming. But Americans, including black Americans, assume that it’s the same rhetoric we’ve always heard. When George Wallace said, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” in 1963, black folks weren’t re-enslaved. Later comments from other political figures, referring to “welfare queens” and “superpredators,” foretold of bad policy, but not the end of America as we knew it. So we rationalize that things might be bad, but essentially we’d all be perfectly fine under President Trump, right?
All of this puts me in an interesting position. I’m acutely aware of the racial realities in the U.S., but I found myself trying to assuage the concerns of mostly white Germans about an American political leader rising to power off of racial resentment and violent rhetoric.
Whom was I trying to convince that it would be OK—them or me?
No matter how many facts I lay out to German audiences explaining Trump’s slim chances of winning—he’s only in the primary phase; he’d have to win more than 70 percent of the white male vote; black and Latino turnout will be at historic levels—I’m starting to have doubts.
At a reporter’s roundtable in Frankfurt with Germany’s version of NPR, someone asked me for the hundredth time, “Can Donald Trump actually win the American election?” I gave my boilerplate answer regarding the numbers, his behavior, the nation’s temperament; that a Trump presidential win in 2016 just doesn’t seem that likely. Then an older woman, maybe in her 60s, who’d been anxiously listening, started talking.
“I guess I’m the oldest here, so I’ll just come out and say it,” she said, looking around the room. “You say he can’t win, you say not enough people take him seriously, you say not in your democracy. We were saying the same thing in 1933.”
I really didn’t have an answer for her.
On March 5, 1933, Hitler’s Nazi Party was elected in Germany and took the whole world on a path to ruin. We Americans, and especially black Americans, are kidding ourselves if we don’t see the parallels through German eyes.
Donald Trump may become the Republican nominee for president. While the numbers and American history may say that his chances of winning the White House are slim, world history tells us that his victory is possible. Dictators are underestimated and discounted, and they do get elected democratically; they do ruin countries of otherwise largely reasonable people. Germans may not be as familiar with American culture or race relations as we are—they may not fully understand Black Lives Matter or have any idea what was going on in Beyoncé’s “Formation” video—but they know fascism when they see it coming, and they know to be worried. We should be, too, and it’s a shame I had to get out of the country to realize it.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.