Sinclair Lewis, like George Orwell, offers a cautionary tale for democracy. As the reader learns about Buzz and his very populist platform which he calls ‘the distinguished proclamation for the forgotten men,’ one should be overcome with a real sense of urgency and panic. Sinclair Lewis describes Donald Trump’s rise and populist movement in America, written a little under a century ago in his book. The title “It can’t happen here” speaks to the historical narrative that the United States has developed solely for themselves—they think they have a political and moral exceptionalism. The train of thought being: Fascism is European, communism is Russian, and American democracy is incorruptible because of its political and legal institutions. All democracies are faced with challenges with no immediate or obvious answer: increased migrant displacement, increase in automation, drastic changes to post-industrial economies, climate change, and increasing complacency in political processes. What is to be done, or what can we do? Do we blame immigrants by cultivating racial nationalism, or give support when it’s most needed? Do we blame the decrease in industrial labour, but increased industrial output on immigrants, or do we advocate for ‘clean coal’ and invest in retraining and education programs? Do we elect people who divide us, or do we come together and develop a better society? Sinclair Lewis reminds us that even in a democracy, it is possible for the public to elect a fascist or authoritarian leader. To backtrack a little, it must be noted that populism is a very specific term which often gets thrown around and misused. This may seem harmless, but it desensitizes and distracts us from real populism, and the damage it can do. The Alt-right, and another social media have used populism to move the ‘overtone window’, which seems to be a ‘door-in-face’ approach; what was on the political fringe, now looks more reasonable in comparison.
This weeks readings were interesting in that they addressed populist discourses in the context of the US during the interwar period. This is not something I had considered a great deal before. Populism in this time period is usually examined in a European context, as we did in class the past couple weeks when discussing fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
Linda Gordon’s article is a useful jumping off point for the discussion about the United States, because she attempts to clearly define populism. It is interesting that she notes that there are 13 essential characteristics of populism, but that most liberal ‘populist’ movements do not meet most of these criteria. Gordon makes it clear that from her perspective, the groups that tend to conform to this model tend to be more right wing. This begs the question of whether or not there is something inherent in more liberal movements that makes them less prone to Gordon’s populism? Or whether Gordon’s definition is structured in a way that makes it more likely to focus on right wing groups? For instance, the one American group that she defines as populist is the KKK. While I agree with this assessment of the KKK, I think it is important to consider how her list of 13 attributes functions.
In relation to Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here, Gordon’s article reinforces the point made in the book, that it can in fact happen in the U.S.. In the book, Senator Windrip’s “The Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Man” feels like reading something out of fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. So while this is a work of fiction, it is important to consider the messages and lessons it presents. Together, this two readings provide an understanding of how populism can and has developed in an American context, and in some ways both seem to be providing warnings about how to look to the future.
The article’s main argument is centered around the misuse of populist terminology when describing popular grassroots organizing and movements. Linda Gordon writes that ‘populism’ became a trendy word during the recent US election to describe Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns. These referrals are damaging to the political landscape and emphasises that historians and media should be stricter when calling a person or group populist.
The argument is expanded upon by outlining the history and practices of the KKK, what she calls a true populist movement. The KKK is characterized by all of the 13 elements that are displayed by populist groups such as, large size, mass mobilization, extreme nationalism, victimization and conspiracy theories. For example, the Klan considered all white Anglo-Saxon protestant’s victims who have fallen to the Jews and Catholics. The Jews, ran Hollywood and attempted to subvert women’s morality through their near naked depiction and the Catholics invaded the police, politics and schools.
Is the ‘alt-right’ filling the void that the KKK once occupied? I believe they could fit in most of the 13 elements, but they seem less harmful. They have mass participation which can be seen online and in the event in Charlottesville. They are anti-immigration and angry and distrustful of elites. A distrust of experts can also be seen in the ‘fake news’ campaigns. The alt-right has also expressed disdain for the Jewish community following the fashion of the KKK. One of the leaders, Richard Spencer is a proponent for a Jewish free white only North America.
Does the alt-right wield the same power as the KKK once did? Does the alt-right lack central leadership that diminishes the cohesion needed to wield such power? Can they evolve to be as recognisable as the KKK? How has the Trump era influenced groups like the KKK and the alt-right?
Many people believe that the United States is immune to populism due to their strong beliefs of personal freedom, democracy and their political and military history (for example, fighting with the Allied Forces against Hitler’s regime in WW2). Unfortunately, we are now seeing that this belief has generated a false sense of security. This has allowed populist roots to take hold in many different aspects of the country. Some citizens seem to be downplaying the presence of these roots – almost as a form of willful ignorance. This is reinforced by the belief that the United States oversees the policing of other parts of the world (they are labelled as leaders of the free world), but they themselves do not require intervention as they are the supposed role model. On the other hand, there are many who are not ignorant to the changes taking place but justify this shift as a necessary extreme for the greater good of the American people and to protect the American way of life (consequentialists).
This is further complicated by the great divide that is taking place not only in America, but all over the world. Not all, but some, label those on the other end of the political spectrum as extremists and state that they are out of touch with reality. They dehumanize each other and don’t see each other as fellow human beings with differing view points. All they see is red or blue, liberal or conservative – an enemy. Some are extremely indoctrinated in their nationalism because of the system that they were raised in. When a child acts inappropriately we don’t usually blame them, we blame the parents – can the same be argued for those on the extreme right and left? We cannot excuse the behaviour as it has severe (and sometimes violent) consequences for many marginalized groups, but this demonstrates the difficulty in bridging the gap between the two extremes and opens the door for understanding both ends of the political spectrum.
Populism functions on a variety of levels, but the largest and most powerful motivating factor, in my opinion, is victimization. If people felt empowered and didn’t feel like victims, the tactics used by many populists wouldn’t be able to take hold in people’s minds. It seems that the large majority of people still clinging to Trump and his beliefs are those who feel as though they don’t have any other options available to them. For example, there are those who state that the “liberals in the big cities” have forgotten about those inhabiting the rural areas. The most vulnerable to indoctrination of populist beliefs are those who feel as though they have nothing to lose (and everything to gain); this is further complicated by some of those who have racist and xenophobic tendencies. As discussed in the article, there was a heavily racialized aspect of the victimization process during the second wave of the KKK (and now, especially in regards to the topic of immigration and refugees), not solely economic disparity between the large “liberalized” cities and rural areas. There was – and arguably still is – a belief that the American dream and true freedom was only for a select group of people, and that allowing outsiders to take part would tarnish America. This mixture of denial and victimization, in addition to the dehumanization and constant labelling of everyone who doesn’t share the same opinion as themselves as the alt-right or the alt-left is a deadly combination, one that has created an environment that is allowing hatred to flourish and one which is further dividing us instead of allowing us to come together to create a dynamic society that attempts to cater to the different needs of each socioeconomic group.
Were some of the young German women who went East during Generalplan Ost under the Nazi regime “just doing their jobs?” After our group discussion the answer seems to be no, but it’s complicated.
This became the fundamental topic that our class facilitator brought forward. Rightly so, the Lower book highlights the often downright malevolent complicity that German women working during the Eastern occupation carried out. But can we place a value on complicity? Can consent be treated as a sliding scale in this context? What about the nurses, secretaries and teachers who went? As we saw during a previous class, fascism harnesses the youth as a resource through social and institutional controls. For some young women in the Third Reich, new opportunities to travel and start careers that were never possible before were suddenly available and encouraged. If you were in their shoes, would you say no?
However as we discussed, the Nuremberg Trials made clear that “I was just following orders” is not tolerable. The Milgram Shocking Experiment came up, and we talked about how far people can go when instructed to do so by an authority figure. Combine that with years of racial brainwashing under the Nazi state, and the “innocence” argument loses its edge. You do not have to be working in the death camps to be complicit, and support for genocide could be as simple as forwarding an SS officer’s paperwork.
In sum, the women who participated should not be absolved. But Lower’s examination of some of these women’s circumstances shows how complex this topic really is.
In Hitler’s Furies, the concept of female complicity and their involvement in the war and Holocaust was a prominent theme. The question remains, are women the victims or perpetrators of this violence?
I can say that neither myself nor our group had a definitive answer. There were many perspectives presented by the author about the intentions behind the range of actions presented by the women. The author includes examples from the disregard and differentiation of Jewish people, being bystanders to the death camps around them, and to extreme of actually killing Jews as part of firing squads.
Our group discussed some of the potential underlying intentions for the various actions, including:
- Whether this was due to the systemic and overarching rules of the Nazi regime – Did the culture of fear and racism corrupt thoughts and actions where they wouldn’t normally outside of these circumstances.
- The ability to use these structures to move up the social ladder. At the time of the Holocaust and the war, women in Germany did not have social and political opportunity. Through being mothers, wives, and members of the Nazi party, they were able to exploit the system to gain opportunities and jobs.
- Did complicity come from being strictly in a “mother” role – Did this role perpetuate comfort for men in the battlefield and physically engaging with the Holocaust?
Not to excuse the horrific action of genocide through the Holocaust, but the ability to try and disseminate the individual intention versus the collective intention in the context of war, suffering and suppression was extremely insightful in how these multiple factors can feed into a problem.
In the discussion today, our group discussed a wide variety of topics related to the readings. To sum up a few of our most important points, we began with a debate concerning culpability versus innocence. The reading was specifically examining how much culpability specific German women had in terms of the crimes of the Nazi regime. This book is viewed as enlightening because it changed the narrative about women’s roles in the Nazi regime, pointing out how many women were involved and confronting the idea of all German women as innocent victims. However, some argued that it detracted from this by describing their political involvement in the election as being swept away by a populist movement of men.
There was some discussion over the cruelty of women in positions of power. Because one of our facilitators has a background in studying philosophy, there were some ideas about their lack of power in society in general and how that might translate to controlling tendencies when some of these women were finally given a chance to influence lives.
Finally, we talked about in-groups versus out-groups and the phenomenon of women who might have otherwise been disadvantaged gaining power through oppressing other victim groups. This evolved into how this played out into the larger society, with a significant culture of snitching and internal group monitoring.
Overall, it was a wide-ranging discussion with a lot of very interesting points of view.
While many of us think of World War II and Nazi Germany, we rarely focus on the role that women played during the war. While one may believe that women kept to themselves and stayed out of the battlefields, in actuality many of these women did the exact opposite. In Wendy Lower’s: Hitler’s Furies, German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, she discusses how women in the Third Reich are largely a historical blind-spot, and many of them actively participated in the genocide of millions of Jews — while getting away with it.
Lower touches on some interesting points about what it was like to be a woman during the war, and their role in society. For many, the role of women was to continue the Aryan race and ensure the success of the German people. This is why mothers were glorified and others were taught how to find the perfect Aryan husband. Yet for many women this was not enough, and the need for adventure grew. For some this lead to travel and for others this lead to genocide.
What I found most impactful was how Hitler’s Germany created such a patriotic climate that women felt justified in participating in violence. Whether this was being a bystander or actively crushing jewish infants sculls, women were just as guilty of favouring duty over morality as the male Nazi counterparts.
As we have discussed in class, one of fascisms’ key components is its extreme nationalism, and Lower’s book is an excellent example of how far this nationalism can cause someone to act. Does this make Trumps “Make America Great Again” slogan problematic? Where is the line when patriotism goes too far? Another concept we discussed in class is the fetishization of youth which Lower also touches upon, since the terror regimes fed on the idealism and energy of young people. How are young people today being influenced by political agendas? The women in this book were effected by many different factors such as the political environment, and the economic crisis. Were they a product of their time? Or is fascism itself powerful enough to create such loyal and patriotic followers? Could this possibly happen again in the future? Finally, why do we tend to not look at women’s roles in the past? Is this still a problem today?
In the context of the book “Hitler’s Furies”, in particular the chapter entitled “What Happened To Them”, sexism can be said to have had a benefit for women who were involved in the atrocities committed under the Third Reich–do not read that as an endorsement of sexism, of course. What I am talking about is how the position of women in society at the time acted both as an impediment for women to truly walk the halls of tangible political power (for the most part) and it also provided them with a practical defense during the Nuremberg Trials. SS Clerks (including the ones who transmitted kill orders), stenographers and cleaning staff–jobs which employed mostly women, who were viewed as being the weaker, fairer sex–were largely not considered dangerous by those responsible for bringing those responsible for the Holocaust to justice. Not even those female detectives who were responsible for gathering Jews for deportation to the death camps weren’t given any serious consideration. Convictions of women for Nazi crimes against humanity were few in number and many of them weren’t pursued in the post-war era. This is exactly what led to the “silver lining” of sexism referenced to in the title.
Not only did women carry the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of the prosecutors purely because of their sex, they were able to make the argument that the power to inflict misery and destruction on the Jews required power and authority which was beyond anything that would have been given to a woman in the Third Reich. Judging by the fact that the number of women prosecuted during the Nuremberg Trials is so dramatically eclipsed by the number of men prosecuted, this was ultimately a great strategy to deploy. Another interesting factor which the book brings up is that this defense could have been easily turned around by any of the prosecutors because there were numerous examples of crimes committed by women where a great number of witnesses were called to testify. What authority did, say, the wife of a high-ranking Nazi official or the secretary of a camp commandant, have to kill, torture or steal from Jews, even if they were enemies of the state? Absolutely none. Prosecutors, had they been able to move past their preconceived notions of female frailty and gentility, would have been able to convict women perpetrators because they extended their authority beyond what the government had prescribed for them. The men could have (and often did) use the excuse of “following orders”. Women would have been in a situation where they disobeyed orders and seized authority that did not belong to them.
Hitler’s Furies, pages 167-180