Skip to content

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

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.

On the 85th Anniversary of the Machtübergebung (handing over of power) and Trump’s State of the Union

85 years ago today a cabal of German conservatives successfully persuaded Reich President Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of the German Reich. Within weeks, the National Socialist regime began consolidating power, purging its enemies, and eroding the Democratic foundations of the German Republic. We now know it resulted in the most violent, totalitarian dictatorship in history, despite the apparent normalcy of its beginnings.

Exponat: Photo: Kabinett Hitler, 1933

I can think of no more perfect anniversary through which to view tonight’s State of the Union speech, where millions of Americans will look on with horror as millions more of their fellow countrymen applaud, champion, and normalize a crypto-fascist president who has done more to erode the foundations of American democracy than any other person in history.

30. Januar 1933: Hitler wird Reichskanzler

Image Credit: 

Presse-Foto Röhnert
Deutsches Reich, Berlin, 30. Januar 1933
18,1 x 24,2 cm
Inv.-Nr.: BA 97/2992

Das Foto zeigt (v. l. n. r.) neben Göring, zunächst Minister ohne Geschäftsbereich und kommissarischer preußischer Innenminister, und dem neuen Reichskanzler Hitler, dessen Stellvertreter, Vizekanzler Franz von Papen. Hinter ihnen stehen (v. l. n. r.) : Walther Funk, der zum Zeitpunkt der Aufnahme noch nicht in der Regierung, sondern persönlicher Wirtschaftsberater Hitlers war; daneben vermutlich Ministerialrat Hans Heinrich Lammers, den Hitler später zum Staatssekretär und Leiter der Reichskanzlei ernannte; es folgen der “Stahlhelm”-Führer Franz Seldte, der das Amt des Reichsarbeitsministers übernahm, der Reichskommissar für Arbeitsbeschaffung Günther Gereke, Reichsfinanzminister Johann Ludwig Graf Schwerin von Krosigk und Reichsinnenminister Wilhelm Frick. Rechts neben Frick befinden sich Werner von Blomberg sowie Alfred Hugenberg.

Dieses Objekt ist eingebunden in folgende LeMO-Seite:
Die Kabinette von 1919 bis 1933

Der 9. November

Ausruf der Republik

Philipp Scheidemann declares a German Republic from a window of the Reichstag building on November 9, 1918. (Source: Der Tagesspiegel)

While November 9 has some disastrous implications for German history, namely Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch and the violent turning point of Kristallnacht, it is also the anniversary of the two most crucial inceptions of German democracy, Philipp Scheidemann’s declaration of the Weimar Republic and the end of the Kaiserreich in 1918, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. If there is ever a day to contemplate the duality of German history, it is today.

German Social Democracy

The law banning the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), October 22, 1878.

The law banning the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), October 22, 1878. (Source: Reichsgesetzblatt, 1878 Nr. 34)

Jacobin Magazine has recently published a short introductory essay by Adam J. Sacks (MA and PhD from Brown University) on the German Social Democratic Party’s civil society and associational life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, titled “When Social Democracy was Vibrant.”

I do not always agree with and can be quite critical of Jacobin, largely because they can adopt a very rigid Orthodox Marxist approach that reproduces the Revolution/Reform divide that has torn the global Left apart over the 20th century and which continues to foster liberal, social democrat, and socialist autocannibalism in American politics today–a cycle that only benefits, empowers, and emboldens conservatives, reactionaries, nationalists, and racists in this country.

Sacks’ article on how the German Social Democrats built a party not strictly through political and electoral success–indeed, as he points out, Bismarck banned the party between 1878-1890)–but through creating and building a network of civic associations and a distinctly Social Democratic social environment, is a truly fantastic introduction to the study of German Social Democracy and German history more broadly.

I really have to commend Jacobin for providing Sacks the platform, and Sacks specifically for writing such a wonderful, easy to read introduction to what can be a twisted, meandering, and confusing historiography accessible in this country to really only the specialist few. Sacks’s article is just damn good history, written damn well, and extremely accessible to the non-specialist reader. Without drowning the reader in historiography or a sea of esoteric German historical terms, Sacks breathes life into Social Democrat life while also illustrating why specialists find it so significant.

Here is one particularly striking example of Sacks’ accessibility, clearly explaining why SPD’s history matters in a way that absorbs the reader.

Building an alternative public sphere was a means of self-preservation and a way to provide immediate benefits to members who enjoyed scant political power. Despite being Germany’s largest party, the SPD was essentially shut out of lawmaking and had no say whatsoever in any cabinet or government ministry, which were formed at the pleasure of the kaiser. Their elected representatives used parliament mostly as a platform to circulate socialist views — agitating for an expanded franchise, for instance — and to lend the party a certain amount of legitimacy. Parliament was also seen as a barometer of mass support. Party members gleefully watched as their vote totals rose, seeing an inexorable march toward socialism.

But in the meantime, workers were ailing. So even as the party organized for the socialist future, they also built associational organizations that became a “cradle to the grave,” alternate socialist public sphere.

The desire was for universal emancipation in all senses of the term. Without education, health, and communion with others, there could be no liberation. And without socialist organizations, the dominant society could further monopolize all spheres of life with its values of competition and chauvinism.

Sacks does a fantastic job of making German and Social Democratic history here accessible, without dumbing it down. Here we see how he then links this explanation with one of the most crucial concepts in German studies, history and society, Bildung:

One important animating ideal for the Social Democrats was the notion of Bildung. A concept for which there is no simple English translation, Bildung encompassed education along with self-actualization: one can formulate a new image of oneself and, over time, attain it through conscious effort. For the Social Democrats, winning socialism meant winning Bildung for all — not just the privileged classes. Bringing the working class, excluded and beaten down, into the most elevated realms of society, and exposing them to the loftiest of human achievements, would prove to workers their worth and further prime them as democratic agents.

With time, these institutions and community-building efforts signaled a moral protest against a failing society, where elites weighed down upon even the most modest dreams of workers.

As a historian of Germany myself who can frequently get lost in my own words, creating a slurry of superfluous references and seemingly endless foreign words whose meanings are inadequately inferred, I am quite envious of Sacks’ lucid prose. This is precisely the kind of historical writing that we are in need of right now, and I don’t think its an exaggeration to state that Sacks’ article on Jacobin will probably do more to engage lay readers today than all the specialist monographs being worked on right now. That’s not to say it is an all-encompassing or comprehensive essay at all–but I think this is precisely how historians must engage with readers and the public in order to foster further exploration and engagement of the subject.

From a strictly popular history standpoint, I also am happy for the article engaging readers with complex German history that does not revolve around Hitler, National Socialism, or either World Wars, which are the primary ways of engaging Americans in German history. Sacks’ article is a nice antidote to this monolith of German history in America, and I hope to see more historians, and not just the super stars of the field writing op eds, but all those underemployed PhDs and graduate students with knowledge worth sharing, in the pages of popular magazines and websites.

If Jacobin keeps providing a space for history like this, they may just win a subscription from this critic of theirs (though to be fair, I do enjoy or agree with some of their articles already).

Again, I would highly recommend giving Sacks’ article a read here.


(Featured Image: The law banning the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), October 22, 1878. Reichsgesetzblatt, 1878 Nr. 34)

On “Never Again”

The phrase “Never Again” is a constant refrain in both the specialized discourse and popular discourse on the Holocaust. It is such an empty, shallow palliative.
It is hard for me to look at the world today and not see direct parallels with Nazi persecution and the antecedents of genocide. The mass murder, terrorizing, and expulsion of Rohingya in Myanmar is one such parallel that is impossible to ignore.
But so to is what is happening today in America, where Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions have announced the end of DACA and the eventual deportation of Dreamers. It is impossible for me not see the parallel with the National Socialists’ Polenaktion in October 1938 that revoked the residency of and deported 12,000 Polish Jews, 8,000 of whom were denied entry to Poland and left to waste away in a No Man’s Land at the border. It was one of the crucial antecedents to the terror of Kristallnacht the following month throughout Germany. Now 800,000 Dreamers in America face the same possible fate.
The parallels are there and impossible to ignore, and many millions of Americans support and cheer on these actions.
It happens Again and Again.

Back to the Blog

Several years ago, I deactivated my blog and deleted most of the posts I had published. I had found that maintaining the blog while travelling, researching, teaching, and dissertating was simply not a priority. I was under the belief that if I could not maintain a blog on a daily or weekly basis, it was not worth putting my thoughts or words out there. Most of the time the ended up on the blackhole of Facebook. I have, however, come around to the belief that even if there are no readers, no schedule, and no philosophical structure to my often unconnected or irregular thoughts, they still warrant a platform. Otherwise all this site is is a placeholder for me on the internet–a place to insert myself once I am ready. Once I have the time. Once I have the focus. Once I have the discipline. However, those things may never come in the way that I imagine them. I may never be a “public figure” in the way that younger, academic me envisioned.

So for now, I have decided to reactivate my blog. I have no firm schedule for updating it, nor a routine for writing on it. I may attempt to recover some of the posts I had deleted…or not. Even if this only becomes a spot for me to jot down a few thoughts or comments every couple months, or once a year, or never again, I think I will keep it public as a place for me to exist as more than a headshot and a husk of an academic CV. More crucially, I think it might become a place for me to engage history and thought with the current political reality under Donald Trump’s cryptofascist regime and with the Zeitgeist of American culture and media.

Going ahead, I will attempt to make this space ‘Me’ on the web, even if that space is filled with dated posts and irregular thoughts.

On the 75th Anniversary of Munich

Nick Baumann, a senior editor for Mother Jones, recently published an article for Slate for the 75th anniversary of the Munich Conference. As Baumann recounts in the article, which you can find here, the Munich Agreement (signed in the wee hours of September 30, 1938) ceded the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany. The Munich Pact also lives on in popular memory as poster-child for Appeasement policy and its failure to halt German aggression and expansion. Baumann, however, counters the traditional narrative that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was duped by Hitler, his promise of “peace for our time” lasting only eleven months. To the contrary, Baumann argues that British public opinion at the time cheered Appeasement and welcomed Chamberlain home a hero, while the Prime Minister in fact  made the best possible choice for his country, since it was still dreadfully behind Nazi Germany in the race to rearm.

Overall, Baumann’s piece is commendable for illustrating the rupture between historical record and popular perception, particularly in the United States where Chamberlain and Appeasement are buzzwords thrown about to mobilize support for military action and defense spending. However, I think more assessment of the German camp would make the argument even stronger. It was not just that Britain was unprepared for war, but also that Germany had a relatively small window during which they could have achieved victory before their technological and material superiority would have been outpaced by their competitors. What was Hitler’s motivation at the Munich Conference? It was not to win the marginal territorial concession of the Sudetenland, or even to neutralize Czech defensive fortifications in the Sudetenland en route to eventually taking Prague and the country. His goal was to provoke a war at the height of German military strength and logistical prowess. This is precisely why Hitler privately expressed disappointment over Munich–he lost his best chance at starting a war statistically in his favor. Just because Hitler and the Nazi regime were nevertheless able to claim it as a diplomatic victory for their onlooking public or that it satisfied a modicum of their expansionist aims does not immediately qualify it as an uncontested German victory. Chamberlain did not simply choose the best option for his country at the time, he also, if somewhat inadvertently, scuttled German war plans at the height of their effectiveness. This is precisely why I am skeptical of the common argument that Hitler, unlike Bismark, “got greedy” in occupying Czechoslovakia (the supposed “last straw” for the Allies) and invading Poland. His goal was not simply territorial expansion, but war itself.