Stop & Think this week offers a response to the historic siege of the United States Capitol Building on January 6 by pro-Trump rioters. I look at disturbing parallels between Nazi Germany and contemporary Trumpist America based on my PhD research on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Some of my readers may disagree with my analysis, but I ask you to read with openness of heart and honesty of mind.
Thank you for stopping and thinking with me,
A Time for Vigilance and Resistance: Disturbing Trends in Nazi Germany and Trumpist America
I’ve studied every surviving word of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) — all of his journals, letters, sermons, lectures, and books. What I’m seeing in America today increasingly reminds me of the rise of Nazism in Bonhoeffer’s Germany. Like Bonhoeffer, followers of Jesus should pay vigilant attention and fiercely oppose these dangerous trends.
- We see increasingly apocalyptic political rhetoric like “Save America!”
The rally where Trump spoke and incited violence minutes before the Capitol siege on January 6 was titled “Save America!” The clear implication is that if you don’t side with this group, you support the death of America, and thus you’re a mortal enemy.
Pitting two groups in a life or death struggle is the core logic of extremism, and it was a common tactic in pre-Nazi Germany’s rhetoric.
- We see the personalization of political power.
At the rally, Trump Jr said, “This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party!” soon before the Capitol Building was stormed by mobs decked in Trump merchandise shouting “Traitors!” against members of Congress. Law and order becomes code for a cult of personality around the unquestionable Leader.
Politics in Germany was radically personalized, and Hitler declared emergency law (dictatorship) soon after his power was established.
- We see the increasingly public use of threats and violence.
Again at the “Save America!” rally, Trump Jr told the crowds that he and others would personally come to the homes of people who don’t support Trump and “have a good time.” The crowd erupted with the cry, “Fight for Trump!” and Trump Jr raised his fist. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Guilani hammered the podium and said, “Let’s have trial by combat!” The rioters went to the Capitol, hung up a noose, and chanted “Hang Pence!” as they broke into America’s seat of democracy. Weeks prior, the “Jericho March” pro-Trump rally was built around the symbolism of a massacre: “They devoted [Jericho] to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old” (Joshua 6:21). This violence-inciting rhetoric is being normalized.
Nazism fueled this “muscular,” “masculine,” openly violent ethos.
- We see the increasing emboldening of White supremacists, Neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists, and other extremists around Donald Trump.
Rioters at the Capitol Building wore shirts that said “6 Million [Jews] Wasn’t Enough” (6MWE) and celebrated Auschwitz with Nazi slogans. Please see the pictures below and read this unpacking of the numerous neo-Nazi and White supremacist symbols being promoted at the riot. These people included known White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and conspiracy theorists like the Proud Boys and the guy in the horns, Jake Angeli, the “QAnon Shaman” who was labeled Antifa but personally tweeted his allegiance to Trump and has since been arrested. Charlottesville’s 2017 “Unite the Right” summit of White supremacists was a precursor to this “Day of Broken Glass.”
These extremists raided the Capitol Building in the light of day knowing that the whole thing was being documented, and they weren’t ashamed or afraid. Trump himself said to these people on January 6, “We love you; you’re very special.” A photographer who was inside describes what he saw as a “zombie movie.”
Pre-Nazi Germany saw the same thing: the emboldening and normalization of extremists as “patriots.”
- We see the media environment being destroyed, which devastates trust and fuels further conspiracy theory, extremism, denial, and violence.
Rioters inside the Capitol were shouting “Round up the media” and vandalized media equipment outside. Group leaders and platforms increasingly become the only trusted sources of information, and asking questions and thinking critically becomes the ultimate act of betrayal. Social media is flooded by claims that the folks at the Capitol were leftist radicals, but the prominent cases have been identified, and they are known far-right, pro-Trump extremists like Jake Angeli.
The media environment had a similar dynamic when Nazism took power.
- We see lots of “good people” and lots of “good Christians” refusing to condemn this larger cultural movement of (predominantly Christian, White) nationalism or actively supporting it.
Christian nationalism fuses together Christian symbols, nationalistic identity, and cults of personality. The mob at the Capitol wore Christian shirts, carried crosses, and chanted Christian slogans side by side with Neo-Nazis and White supremacists, or they were the same people in some cases (see the photos below). The lead-up “Jericho March” rally was organized by self-proclaimed Evangelicals, including Eric Metaxas. Disturbingly, large percentages of so-called conservative Americans say they support this siege on the Capitol, and extremist groups promise that they will intensify their struggle (see here and here).
Remember that Germany was an overwhelmingly Christian country with a conservative culture. Remember that Hitler incessantly declared that he was sent by God to restore Germany’s faith and family values. Remember that the vast majority of German Christians fell for Hitler’s Christian nationalism.
- We see no signs of real repentance and transformation.
Yes, a few of Trump’s people have resigned. Yes, Trump verbally condemned the “heinous attack” on the Capitol and called for “healing and reconciliation” in a scripted statement. But Trump very shrewdly failed to acknowledge that his supporters perpetrated this “violence and mayhem”; he knows not to alienate his base. Trump’s concession speech ended ominously: “Our incredible journey is just beginning!” Afterward, Trump announced that he wouldn’t participate in the democratic transfer of legal power on January 20, and he has failed to take any responsibility for fanning 1-6 above for the last five years.
My book Bonhoeffer’s New Beginning: Ethics after Devastation (especially chapter 5 and “Beginning Anew”) is about what to do when these things happen. I won’t try to summarize 300 pages here. My interviews with the Bonhoeffer Center and the Bonhoeffer Podcast give windows into my findings.
But this passage from Bonhoeffer booms in my mind during this moment. It calls for a critical vigilance and fierce resistance to the rise of Christian nationalism in the United States and around the world today:
“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power and with its apologia [defense] for the weak… Christianity has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should give much more offense, more shock to the world than it is doing. Christianity should […] take a much more definite stand for the weak than to consider the potential right of the strong.” (1934 Sermon in Bonhoeffer’s Complete Works 13:401-402)
Photos from the January 6 Pro-Trump Capitol Siege:
- A man holds a flag that shows Trump as Rambo holding a machine gun and a flag that says “Make America Godly Again.”
- A person draped in a Trump flag bows to a cross.
- Rioters wear shirts that say “6 Million [Jews] Wasn’t Enough” and “Camp Auschwitz”; notice the Proud Boys shirt in the back.
- Rioters fly a flag that says “Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President.”
5. The photographer inside the Capitol says that some of the rioters were declaring, “Trump was sent by God!” Watch his testimony here.