There’s good news and bad news in parallels from the 1930s, warns Professor Margaret MacMillan, outgoing Warden at St Antony’s College.

Trump is no Hitler – he’s a Mussolini, says Oxford historian

By Olivia Gordon

It is common today to draw parallels between modern politics and those of the 1930s. Historian Margaret MacMillan, professor and outgoing Warden at St Antony’s, sees obvious similarities between modern Islamophobia and the anti-semitism of that era. ‘You get political leaders like Trump making it acceptable to demonise and damn a whole group of people. He talks about Mexicans as rapists and criminals, and Muslims as terrorists.’ On Donald Trump’s US entry policies, she comments, ‘I find it very disturbing.’

But is it going too far to compare Trump to charismatic 20th century tyrants like Hitler or Mussolini? In some ways it is, MacMillan says. ‘He’s not a Hitler — he doesn’t head a fascist party — and the Republican Party is more and more divided by the day. But I think he’s like Mussolini in wanting public attention and portraying himself as the great strong man, making grand gestures and searching for enemies. He’s a lot like some of the Latin American dictators like Chavez or Castro or Perón — claiming to speak for the people; loving the crowds… Making promises — “I will give you money and jobs” — then blaming “our enemies” when they aren’t delivered.’

Trump is no Hitler – he’s a Mussolini, says Oxford historianThese days MacMillan (pictured right) is often asked if we should fear a return to the fascism, racism and financial crises of politics between the First and Second World Wars. An article she wrote ahead of the 1914 centenary, noting how we are haunted by events of 100 years ago, achieved ‘far wider circulation’ than she had anticipated; she was ‘surprised by how many people picked up on it’. That has proved to be a harbinger of a widening tendency to view that era as a mirror for our own times.

Yet the Canadian-born historian is always cautious about the idea that history repeats itself. It’s ‘too glib’, MacMillan says. When the Financial Times asked her in the autumn to compare our own time and the early 20th century, she wrote reassuringly about the differences.

The Thirties Depression is not the same as the economic crisis that began in 2007, she argues. ‘Governments intervened in the recent crisis. We don’t have the level of economic contraction and unemployment we had in the 1930s.’ As she points out, in Britain today we have a social safety net, in the form of benefits and the NHS, which prevents a lot of the misery of the Thirties, when people were sometimes reduced to living in tents. ‘We certainly have problems today but not on that scale,’ she says. ‘Democracy is also better rooted in countries like Germany than it was in the 1930s — the Weimar republic was only ten years old when the Great Depression hit.’

Nor are today’s right-wing politics broadly comparable to fascism and Nazism, MacMillan insists. Some of the anti-immigrant, highly nationalistic ideas of the Thirties are ‘in the air’ now, with the debate over the Brexit referendum last year making it ‘okay to say things about immigrants’. But she sees organisations like UKIP as ‘marginal’.

Trump is no Hitler – he’s a Mussolini, says Oxford historianDemonstrator makes a historical point outside Downing Street in a January protest

‘Racism is always with us, but today people generally are horrified when synagogues are attacked — whereas in the Thirties, certainly in Germany, you didn’t get public outrage. Even in this country there was casual anti-semitism then, but I think now that sort of language is there in a crazy fringe, not in the public reaction.’

Even so, MacMillan can understand why people say we are living in a second Weimar republic. ‘We shouldn’t be complacent,’ she warns. ‘People are worried — our system looks a bit shaky at the moment. If I were Jewish, given the history of Europe’s treatment of Jews, I would get nervous.’

It is also reasonable today to anticipate a possible major war, as switched-on people might have in the Thirties, MacMillan says. She notes that Steve Bannon, seemingly Trump’s close advisor, has said ‘there will be a war with China in the next 30 years’ and she comments: ‘He is terrifying… War is not improbable now.’

She describes how in the Thirties, the British government appeased Hitler partly because it had so much else to worry about — ‘thinking, “Maybe he’ll settle down, maybe what he wants is reasonable… let’s see what we can give him.”’ Speaking even before the announcement of the upcoming June general election, she noted that the British government today has ‘a lot on its plate’, so that it might overlook or downplay any similar dangers.

Donald Trump photographed by Joseph Sohm via Shutterstock; Mussolini via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licence; London demonstration 2017 by Alisdare Hickson via Flickr, also under Creative Commons licence; Margaret MacMillan portrait courtesy of Professor MacMillan.

 

Comments

By Chris Chapman
on

Trump may see himself as a strong charismatic leader, but to be successful, he needs both to be competent and to have a fully competent team behind him. Does he have either ?

By Nel
on

Of course, the United States is not Italy in the 1930s. But Europeans and the British rarely understand the US or care to.

By Dudley Seifert
on

Isn't it about time to stop the anti-Trump rhetoric and inuendo? He was elected President in spite of the smug confidence of the Democrat Party.
Denigration by the left wing media, including the BBC and the upper echelon of the British Press, and by so-called socialist intelligentsia, started months before the election and continues with no respite.
Fortunately the United States of America has the electoral college system, formulated by the Founding fathers, which evolved to enable voters in the lesser populated parts of America to be able to vote meaningfully, not to have their efforts and concerns overwhelmed by the large population centres of the Northeast and California and yet .... the Democrats continue to refuse to accept the fact that their candidate of dubious integrity lost the November election.
Perception, justified or not, is that Washington DC is a political miasma (Donald Trump's swamp), that elected officials' devote half their time to re-election, protecting their so-called privileges, fraternising with lobbyists and frequently displaying surprising ignorance, has resulted in contempt for the present state of the US Government . The nation is clearly divided, maybe dangerously so, even the two parties are split and it doesn't help to have a geriatric, communistic whacko promising free everything to the insufficiently educated young which is resulting in increasingly violent insurrection.
These are critical times for our Christian ethic civilization which includes practically the whole of Europe.
President Trump has put a team of experienced and proven people in place. He has the added complexity of restoring his nation after decades of dubious leadership.You had better hope that his team does a good job.

By RH Findlay
on

"when people were sometimes reduced to living in tents"

Yes, things are different today: 62 million refugees living in tents or wherever.

By John M Collins
on

This article may be correct, but it strikes me as premature. At the moment Trump is still learning what he can and cannot do. His Mussolini-like stance is a front to keep his supporters with him. He may yet prove as appalling a failure as Mussolini finally was, but let us wait and see.

By Peter Marx
on

Four months on, how does Dudley Seifert feel about his comment "President Trump has put a team of experienced and proven people in place"

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