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What German History can tell us about the appointment of John Bolton as National Security Advisor

March 27, 2018

I have not yet commented on Trump’s appointment of John Bolton as National Security Adviser. There were too many thoughts about history swirling in my head to make a quick judgement about it. I think I’ve finally found the words though. This appointment is nothing short of terrifying. It is the most concrete step yet taken by this regime to accelerate or hasten a war. And as any historian of the last 200 years can tell you, very bad things happen when a regime precipitates war abroad to manufacture its own security and legitimacy at home.

I do not enjoy making comparisons to Hitler and the Nazi state. They have become the knee-jerk go-to argument of hack internet polemicists for decades. But I am a historian of modern Germany, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi state. It is what I know, what I work on, and what I reference responsibly when I make qualified efforts to understand the world. And sadly, the comparisons have become significantly less outlandish in these past few years. History and the death of German democracy provide alarmingly apt resources for understanding the current situation though.

It has become almost a joke among those on the Left and in the Center that Trump’s White House has a revolving door of employment that has seen many of his appointments scarcely last a year in their positions. In many cases, this is unequivocally a good thing. Neo-fascists and racists like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka have absolutely no business with their hands on the levers of government (nor does Trump for that matter), and their absence in the White House is unequivocally good. But the revolving door of appointments has also produced dangerous instabilities in our government, leading to the appointment of a war monger like Bolton. The cabinet that Trump constructed in December 2016-January 2017 was shocking and destructive from the start. But the cabinet that has been constructed in the wake of high- and low-profile departures is equally terrifying. The moderating influences in the White House, dubious as they may have been, have been eliminated. The instability of Trump’s regime, the inability of its more moderate personalities to entrench themselves, and the cowardice of Republicans in congress, who refuse act in the face of the regime’s many transgressions against democratic values and traditions, have produced a wildly radical, consolidated, but volatile regime, precariously perched and willing to act beyond the pale with little or no provocation, and willing to do anything to preserve itself.

When Adolf Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor on January 30, 1933, the German Cabinet contained only three Nazis out of eleven positions, and one of those Nazis held no portfolio. It was a similar situation to today, in which German conservative and center-right politicians believed that key moderating forces would restrain those radical National Socialist elements, while the conservatives and center-right pushed their agenda through government. Those moderating forces intended to “box in” Hitler and the Nazis, however, proved utterly incapable of pushing back against Nazi coordination and radicalization. Gradually, but swiftly, those non-Nazis were either replaced, or they willfully acclimated to the Nazi program. The supposed instability and weakness of the Hitler Cabinet gave way to a reshuffling of the German state and government, much like we have seen in just over a year of Trump’s administration.

Hitler mit seinem Kabinett.

Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler with his Cabinet (January 30, 1933)
German History in Documents and Images
© Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Heinrich Hoffmann

In a functional and stable democracy, H.R. McMaster is not the person I want advising the President on National Security. But there can be no doubt that within the context of Trump’s regime, he was a moderating influence against the regime’s most atavistic impulses. Bolton is not. Bolton is a source of those impulses. A de facto Fox News propagandist who has already orchestrated a war and war crime this century with impunity, Bolton is precisely the type of dangerous, militant rhetoritician that feeds and energizes Trump’s aspirations toward tin-pot dictatorship. His appointment can in no way be spun as a positive development for America and democracy.


Joachim von Ribbentrop
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H04810 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 

And history tells us this personnel change has monstrous parallels. For me, I am unable to view the appointment of John Bolton as anything but a striking parallel to the Nazi regime’s decisive shift in foreign policy at the beginning of 1938, a shift intended not just to prepare for war (that had already begun), but to provoke war. In February of 1938, Hitler replaced Konstantin von Neurath as Foreign Minister with Joachim von Ribbentrop, and he dismissed Werner von Blomberg as War Minister, eventually replacing him with Wilhelm Keitel. Neurath and Blomberg were hardly anti-Nazis, the former having finally joined the party in 1937, but both were limiting presences in the Hitler cabinet, willfully collaborating with Hitler and the regime where it suited them, but standing in the way of the worst radicalization and the complete consolidation of dictatorial power. Ribbentrop and Keitel, however, made them seem moderate by comparison. Both secured their positions until the end of World War II by falling in line with the most radical of Hitler’s visions, becoming mouthpieces and vanguards of Hitler’s personal will, and entrenching themselves by regurgitating Hitler’s will back to him in history’s most horrific fascist echo-chamber.

Bild 183-H30220

Wilhelm Keitel
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H30220 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

It is no surprise that Hitler’s most aggressive foreign policies came shortly after this reshuffling: the Anschluß, the Sudetenland, the annexation of Czechoslovakia, and eventually the invasion of Poland. Nor is it coincidental that the regime began actively trying to trigger war after the appointments of Ribbentrop and Keitel. Like Goebbels, Göring, Himmler, and Speer, Ribbentrop and Keitel were both enablers and ideological opportunists: they were ideological believers who fueled the radicalization of the regime and Nazi program with unwavering support of Hitler’s vision and a ruthless ambition to expand their own purviews through accelerating Nazism’s horrific initiatives.

While acknowledging the very different context of America in 2018 from Germany in 1933 and 1938, the replacement of McMaster with John Bolton has the terrifyingly probable potential to reproduce this cataclysmic dynamic in America’s foreign policy and propensity to making war.

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