Source: The Candidate and the Scholar
Many thanks to Dr Tom Cutterham for this report on the forum event we held on Wednesday 8th March 2017.
It’s always been the case that the most precarious and vulnerable workers face the greatest barriers to organising their labour. In a career like academia that often seems to promote isolation, the challenge of precarity is all the greater—overshadowed as it is by competition for permanent positions. Those are the conditions faced by early career researchers (ECRs), be they graduate students, teaching fellows, research assistants, or newly-employed lecturers.
How do those circumstances influence the teaching and research environments of the university? How can we—as institutions, individuals, and as a community—take action to overcome these barriers and transform exploitative structures? At the very least, what can ECRs share with each other, and how can we work together, to make things a little easier? Those were the questions under discussion at the first ECR forum held last week under the auspices of the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History Research Seminar series, and co-sponsored with the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures.
Sharing their stories and ideas, early career historians at every level from MA students to new lecturers joined in the conversation. One lecturer recently hired at another Midlands university told us about the three phases that characterised the time between his PhD and first permanent job, emphasising the variety of experiences that can make up ECR life. One moment you’re unemployed and living at home, wondering if you can afford the train fare to take up a part-time job that might not pay you for months; the next you’re on a 95% teaching contract, expected to find time for your own publications while writing and teaching four new courses.
Indeed, the question of fractional contracts and their relationship to career expectations was a substantial part of our conversation. A Teaching Fellowship is supposed to be a stepping-stone to permanent academic jobs, but without paid time allocated for research and publications, such roles are hardly calibrated to develop good job candidates. Fractional contracts allow employers to fill teaching needs at minimal cost in salary—but the real costs are passed onto young academics. In turn, access to housing and transport can become a big issue, which means structural privilege comes into play too. When universities like ours pay out big bucks for some salaries, the situation for Teaching Fellows seems hard to justify.
But even where reliance on fractional teaching teaching staff is being reduced, there’s a question over who will take over their work. It seems likely part of the university’s solution lies in Postgraduate Teaching Assistants on zero-hours contracts. Graduate students who attended the forum agreed that teaching experience is valuable, and the money is useful too—but that comes with a fear that valuable research time can be sacrificed to departmental demands that are hard to turn down. They reported, too, that Birmingham’s “Worklink” system often leaves them unpaid for months at a time, increasing financial precarity and raising barriers to academic life.
These questions of pay and working time are often rendered invisible by the prevailing culture of polite silence. And so are some even more insidious problems, like the fact that non-EU citizens face draconian rules around personal mobility (like being told to report to central office whenever they leave Birmingham!) and prohibitive visa costs borne out of their own pockets. Meanwhile, we heard how the often-hidden emotional labour through which academic work is supported falls disproportionately on the female workers who already suffer structural disadvantages. Such unequal structures of surveillance and support help maintain the existing balance of power and privilege.
Working together, though, there are things we can do to improve the situation—and to fight worsening conditions. With the help of student allies, and a creative approach to publicity, Warwick University’s anti-casualisation group successfully fought off an attempt to outsource teaching to a spin-off company. Here at Birmingham, we can develop an agenda for change that both ECRs and senior colleagues can push for. That includes full-time, year-long contracts for Teaching Fellows, and perhaps representation for ECR workers on Departmental and College committees. On issues like visas and Work Link too, we’ll need the union to help us fight.
There are also ways we can help early career historians move through the phases of their career. By sharing CVs and cover letters, organising mock job interviews, and creating fairer, more transparent structures of support (perhaps including writing groups), we can build a better environment for young careers to flourish. Doing so would deepen our own professional community, too.
Creating spaces for open discussion, like this ECR forum, constitutes one small step towards building solidarity and collective initiative on the problems that face early career academics. In the next steps, we’d like to build that beyond the confines of History and Cultures, and start linking up with the rest of our university and with institutions across the West Midlands region. We have learned how difficult it is to resist the silo-effect of separate departments, colleges, and institutions. But we’ve also learned that inspiration can come from crossing those boundaries.
Between 1846 and 1940, more than 50 million Europeans moved to the Americas, irrevocably changing both their new lands and the ones they left behind. As villages emptied, some blamed traffickers in human labour, targeting Jewish emigration agents. Others saw opportunity: to expand their empires, gain economic advantage from an inflow of foreign currency, or reshape their populations by encouraging the emigration of minorities.
These debates about and experiences of emigration shaped competing ideals of freedom in Eastern Europe and “the West” over more than one hundred years. After the Second World War, the “captivity” of East Europeans behind the Iron Curtain came to be seen as a quintessential symbol of Communist oppression. The Iron Curtain was not, however, built overnight in 1948 or 1961. Its foundation was arguably laid before the First World War, when Austrian Imperial officials began a century-long campaign to curtail emigration in the name of demographic power and humanitarian values.
Professor Tara Zahra works on transnational and comparative approaches to the history of modern Europe. The focus of her research and teaching is Central and Eastern Europe (including the Habsburg Empire and successor states and Germany), but her work integrates Central Europe into broader histories of Europe and the world. Her most recent book is The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World (Norton, 2016). The book explores how debates about and experiences of emigration shaped competing ideals of freedom in Eastern Europe and “the West” over the course of one hundred years.
Her previous books include The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe’s Families after World War II (Harvard, 2011), which tells the story of Europe’s displaced and refugee children in Eastern and Western Europe from 1918 to 1951, and won the George Louis Beer Prize from the American Historical Association for European International History. Her first book, Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900–1948 (Cornell, 2008), is a study of Czech and German nationalist mobilization around children from the Habsburg Empire to the Nazi occupation. It was awarded five prizes, including the Laura Shannon Prize in Contemporary European History, the Hans Rosenberg Prize of the Conference Group for Central European History, and the Barbara Jelavich Prizes of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies.
She is currently working on a co-authored book with Pieter Judson on the Habsburg Empire during the First World War (to be published by Oxford University Press) and beginning projects on Roma and statelessness in the Habsburg Empire and on the history of gender, sexuality, and migration in twentieth-century Europe. Professor Zahra is Professor of East European History at the University of Chicago and in 2014 was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.
In week 8, we’re delighted to welcome Dr. Mo Moulton, who will be speaking on an aspect of her current research. All welcome, and there will be drinks afterwards.
We’re delighted to be hosting a round-table on Wednesday 22 February 2017, in Muirhead Tower Room 112, from 4-6pm. Around the theme ‘Reconstructing the Historical Subject’ Dr. Adam Dighton, Dr. Marta Filipová, Dr. Ben Mechen and Dr. Zoë Thomas will discuss their current research. Prof. Matt Houlbrook will chair.
All welcome! Contact: Dr. Simon Jackson, S.Jackson.email@example.com
Dr. Adam Dighton: Military History at the British Army’s Staff College, 1885-1914.
The study of military history formed an important part of the syllabus used to train high ranking officers at the army’s Staff College during the latter half of the ‘long nineteenth century’. During the period between 1885 and 1914 the justification for teaching this subject underwent a fundamental transformation. This was caused by a change in the perceived didactic function of history during this time. It is the aim of this paper to examine why this change took place and how it affected the way in which history was taught at this institution.
Dr. Marta Filipova: The people or the proletariat? Class appropriation in interwar Czechoslovak culture.
The paper examines the attention to the working classes in the visual arts and literature in Czechoslovakia after 1918. I look at the different interpretations of proletarian art on the background of the emergence of the new political entity, negotiations of modernity by artists and art critics, and their attempts for renewal of art. I therefore address the questions of identity, belonging and construction of artistic narratives.
Dr. Ben Mechen: ‘A positive advance of our standard of civilisation’ – consuming and defending pornography in postwar Britain.
This paper will outline my postdoctoral project exploring the cultural politics of pornography in postwar Britain. In particular, I will seek to locate the pornographic consumer within this history, a problematic figure – like those who laboured to produce explicit imagery – usually absent from existing work. Drawing upon letters sent by buyers of pornography – men and women, straight and gay -to a late 1970s inquiry into obscenity, I will ask: how were sexual subjectivities formed in the age of pornographic reproduction?
Dr. Zoë Thomas: Historical pageants, citizenship, and the performance of women’s history before second-wave feminism.
This paper argues that the early twentieth-century craze for historical pageants provided an opportunity for women’s groups to bring a nascent, popular form of women’s history into the lives of local communities across Britain. Prior to second-wave feminism, when scholars advanced the study of women within the academy, thousands of people had been invested in re-enacting women’s history since the inter-war years. Emphasizing the bravery and public duties of women in the past, pageants also provided a non-controversial format through which women’s groups could effectively project their beliefs about the role they felt women should play as newly enfranchised citizens.
*Image Credits, from top-left, clockwise: Officers reading military history in the Prince Consort’s Library in the army camp at Aldershot; Pravoslav Kotík, Accordion player, 1923; Women’s Institute outdoor pageant in 1927; Walker’s Court in Soho. All images courtesy the speakers.
Please join us for this session with Dr. Rimner – drinks will be held afterwards in the Bratby bar.
On Wednesday 1st February we are delighted that Dr Tom Stammers will be giving a paper for the Modern and Contemporary History seminar series.The revolutionary history of France took a particular toll on the palaces and the possessions of the French monarchy. Whilst historians of heritage have analysed the process by which the treasures of the crown became redefined as the property of the nation within France, far less attention has been directed to the fate of objects that circulated outside national borders. Yet France’s royal families- Bourbon, Orléans and Bonaparte- each spent large periods of their lives in exile, and seized on material culture as a way of affirming their patriotism and dynastic identity.
This paper will be focused on the Orléans dynasty, who lived from the 1848 Revolution to the Franco-Prussian War in the suburbs of London. Deprived of the throne, Louis-Philippe and his sons struggled to uphold their dignity and credentials as a ruling house. In this time of limbo, cultural pursuits- whether art collecting, exhibitions, literature- were a crucial means of integration into the elite tiers of British society. The enormous correspondence of the duc d’Aumale and the comte de Paris with Lady Frances Waldegrave offers an unrivalled glimpse of the family’s evolving cultural and political ambitions, torn between trying to build a home in Britain and harbouring dreams of a restoration. This paper will analyse what collecting can reveal about the family’s affinity for British political culture in the 1850s and 1860s- and also what it discloses about the failure of liberal monarchy in France after 1871.
Tom Stammers is lecturer in Modern Cultural History at the University of Durham. He has researched and published widely on the history of collecting in post-revolutionary France. He is currently completing a book manuscript entitled Collection, Recollection, Revolution: Scavenging the Paris in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Tom has published in leading journals in European cultural history and has been awarded fellowships at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris and the Maison Française in Oxford; in 2015 he organized a major conference with St John’s College, Oxford and the Ashmolean Museum on collecting and cultural history entitled A Revolution in Taste: Francis Haskell’s Nineteenth Century which will become a volume published by Oxford University Press. He is starting new research on the formation, exile and dispersal of French royal collections in Britain and Europe in the nineteenth century, as well as on the evolution of the Louvre. He is a frequent contributor to the arts magazine Apollo.
This guest post is by Dr. Frank Uekötter, and is based on a talk he delivered at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History this week, in cooperation with the Institute for German Studies. A podcast is available here.
The topic at hand allows two different perspectives, and I would like to make clear from the outset that I plan to explore both of them.
First, it is about an assessment of Donald Trump and his upcoming presidency: is this a return of fascism, or a twenty-first variety of fascism, a fascism 2.0? How far do we get when we read Donald Trump through the lens of fascism as it presents itself through the burgeoning historical literature?
But second, it is worthwhile to explore this connection in the opposite direction, too: how do recent trends in Nazi historiography and the literature on Italian fascism look in an effort to make sense of Trump? Does existing scholarship provide proper guidance, or would a different literature offer deeper insights?
Of course, historical research has its own set of rules, and for good reasons, and nothing that I will say in the following shall be construed as to mean that political relevance is all that matters. However, the case for Nazi history has always been political as well as academic: it grew out of a conviction that the collapse of democracy during the inter-war years must never repeat itself. So when we see democracy under threat again all over the West, it pushes us to reflect on whether our historical literature, and our general style of engaging with the fascist past, provides the kind of help that it purports to offer.
Such an endeavour runs into two fundamental problems, one of a moral nature and one of a cognitive nature. In cognitive terms, it is perhaps obvious that any assessment of Trump’s rule is preliminary on day one of his presidency. We have an incoming administration that is fraught with tensions. It embraces isolationism and yet wants to go to war against what it calls “radical Islam”; it flirts with protectionism in an economy built on globalization; it wants to abolish Obamacare and protect entitlements; and it has yet to decide whether anthropogenic climate change is real or imagined. Nobody can possibly know how this will play out, and I will refrain from speculation as much as I can. Maybe Trump will have a great presidency, or an abysmal one, or one that is completely different from what we expect – we do not know, and we should not pretend otherwise.
This would be wise for moral reasons too. I am deeply disturbed by many things that Trump said on the campaign trail, and I am even more disturbed by the things that he did not say: I have yet to hear a serious commitment to democracy, the rule of law and human rights from Donald Trump. However, moral indignation has not kept Trump out of the White House, and I am not sure whether it will be helpful in the next four years either. The transition has already been a noisy one, and Trump’s presidency may be turbulent as well, with many statements and decisions that will provide fodder for cheap outrage. It may be amazingly simple to criticize Trump, and it may not even require a familiarity with current events: it may be sufficient to look at his hair, at his penchant for gold, or at Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live”.
I think we need to do better: we need a more sophisticated critique of Donald Trump, and such a critique needs a clear understanding of the potential and the limits of historical precedents. And when it comes to historical precedents, fascism is clearly the defining one for Donald Trump, the event in collective memory that resonates more than any other. Of course, historical precedents never work out in every detail, but they leave traces in our collective imagination and our political language. And so there are good reasons to read Trump through the experience of fascism.
The Nazis ruled Germany for twelve years, and Mussolini was in power for 21 or 23 (depending on whether you count the farcical Republic of Salò), but our historical imagination has not given equal attention to all these years. The Second World War and the holocaust have dominated collective memory since the 1990s, and that has left its mark on research and teaching, for instance in the special degrees on the holocaust that some universities offer (the University of Birmingham being one of them). Books and exhibits in this vein typically speed through the early years of Nazi rule and devote most of their attention to the years since 1938.
But if I look at these years with a view to what we can learn about Trump, I find it very difficult to distil meaningful insights. There are certain things that we take for granted as we search for ways to engage with Trump: the freedom of speech, the right to protest and organize, an economy with plenty of opportunities, many of which are not subservient to Trump, and the assumption that there will be another presidential election four years from now. None of these certainties existed in 1938 and thereafter: Nazi rule was firmly entrenched, a war economy left no part of German society untouched, and personal freedom was constrained in a way that left little if any room for collective action.
Does it make any sense to compare these societies, given that the United States of 2017 is so vastly different from Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1945? I will later suggest two ways in which we can learn from this time period if we look at it as part of the full history of National Socialism. But looking at the years between 1938 and 1945 in isolation, I doubt that we can learn very much beyond the idea that it should never come to this again, which does not strike me as a controversial point. Whatever drove American voters on 8 November, I am fairly confident that they did not mean to vote for genocide and another world war.
We can learn more when we look at the early years of fascist rule. The first months of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s reign resonate with our contemporary situation, as it was anything but clear at that time where they would lead their countries. They only had general goals, and goals that were remarkably similar to Trump’s “Make America Great Again”. In his book To Hell and Back, for example, Ian Kershaw described the guiding thoughts of the early fascists as follows: “Italy could never be great under the leadership of the old notables.” However, Hitler and Mussolini had very little in the way of blueprints for the immediate first steps. In fact, it was anything but clear whether Hitler and Mussolini would stay in office for long: their rule did not stabilize for more than a year after they came to power. It was quite plausible in 1922 and 1933 that Mussolini and Hitler would turn into noisy but brief episodes with little in the way of lasting significance, and the same holds true for Trump in 2017: he may just flame out in a Twitter-based supernova.
Having noted these similarities, however, there are also a number of important differences.
In a way, Trump is a test for the power of globalization as an economic system. Unlike Trump, Hitler did not have to worry about the global economic context. World trade had already collapsed, and he could plot his economic recovery with a degree of autonomy that is unthinkable in the twenty-first century. Just think of the Mefo bills (MEFO-Wechsel), the clandestine financial tool that provided Nazi Germany with the fiscal resources for economic recovery: no government can pull off such a feat in today’s world economy. I also doubt that investments in infrastructure will have the same effect on unemployment as in the 1930s: building is a matter of expertise and technology rather than manual labour nowadays. And it is anyone’s guess how America’s growing debt burden will play out and how the Federal Reserve will react. Trump may squeeze some extra short-term economic growth out of infrastructure investments and expansion of fossil fuel production, but that leaves a long way to go towards an “economic miracle”. Or, to phrase it differently: a boost for Trump’s personal finances is more likely than a boost for America’s economy.
But despite these five major differences, maybe we should not overstate the difference between the inter-war years and today’s society on this point. Today’s political parties no longer maintain paramilitary units, but they do operate in societies that bear the marks of brutalization. In the inter-war years, those who stood up for democracy faced a serious risk of getting killed, and we are slowly inching towards a similar situation in our own time: just think of Jo Cox, Gabrielle Giffords, or Trump’s casual talk about gun violence against Hillary Clinton. Furthermore, we should keep in mind that during the inter-war years, the threat came not just from the use of violence but also from the imagination of violence. Anger and guns make for a dangerous mix, and the imagination of armed struggle is a standing theme in America’s political discourse. Just listen to a right-wing media outlet of your choice.
Violence is typically the last resort in politics, an act of desperation after everything else has failed. In a way, it is odd that Trump focuses so much on brute force: after all, the president of the United States has plenty of other means at his disposal. But then, does Trump think this way? His rhetoric suggests an America on the verge of collapse, with all sorts of threats around and within it – and a desperate situation calls for desperate measures. As Trump said when he pitched his candidacy to black voters in August, “what the hell do you have to lose?” It is a slogan that resembles the famous 1932 election poster of the Nazis that called Hitler “our last hope” (Unsere letzte Hoffnung: Hitler). If the situation is desperate, everything looks legitimate.
The difference is that this perception made far more sense in late Weimar Germany than in today’s United States. In 1932, Germany really was at the nadir of the Great Depression, and it did not have a military that could defend the country. Today’s United States has the world’s most powerful military, it has top credit ratings from Moody’s and Fitch, and it can pay pensions for a huge baby boomer generation – it has a lot to lose. However, we know from the history of fascism how even imagined crises can linger and have consequences in the real world: think of “Jewish capitalism” or “Jewish Bolshevism” or Italy’s “wasted victory” in World War One. It is not that these notions were hard to disprove – to “fact check” – but few people had an interest in speaking out on behalf of the Jews or Italy’s gains in the Great War, and it is an interesting question whether that is different today.
We may soon observe a stark imbalance of political representation. There are a lot of multinational corporations that stand to lose from protectionism, and these corporations can pay for large hordes of lobbyists. Capital will put its finger on the scale as much as it can. But is there a powerful group that is interested in speaking up on behalf of those without lobbyists: illegal immigrants, or Muslims, or poor people who lose their health insurance? And even if there are powerful voices pointing out realities, it remains to be seen whether it will gradually dawn on the Trump administration that the perceived crisis is more imagined than real.
Crisis in the Institutions: the Key Similarity
In a famous book of 1955, the recently deceased political scientist Karl Dietrich Bracher spoke of a “dissolution” of the Republic of Weimar. Bracher argued that Germany’s first parliamentary democracy did not collapse suddenly on January 30, 1933. It suffered from a gradual and escalating crisis that sucked the lifeblood out of the democratic system. It is a precedent that has haunted Western democracies ever since, and one that makes for the most powerful connection between the experience of fascism and the events of 2016. America’s democracy is in crisis, and its decline began long before Trump launched his bid for the Republican nomination. For those who know the pre-1933 critique of Weimar democracy, a lot sounds terribly familiar: the obsession with scandals (real and imagined), charges of corruption and weakness, an obsession with nationalism that depicts opponents as unpatriotic (rather than people with other goals), and a disregard for institutions and the rule of law.
I am particularly eager to stress the last point. I have mentioned the permanence of the Constitution as one of the defining differences between Hitler and Trump, and that makes it particularly worrying that Republicans did not appear too much concerned about the Constitution in recent years. I do not think that it is an overstatement to speak of a silent crisis of the American Constitution. The Republicans refused to hold a hearing on Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, they held up confirmation hearings for many of his top officials for long periods without a clear rationale, they risked default on America’s federal debt in their quest to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and they did not raise their voice when Trump suggested mass election fraud after the election without providing a trace of evidence. In short, they have met the rules and procedures of democracy with contempt unless it played out to their advantage, and that is a deeply disturbing thing. After all, rules and procedures are not some kind of addendum in a democracy – they are the soul of democracy, an essential feature that distinguishes democratic rule from the law of the jungle.
In some respects, today’s crisis of democracy is even more dramatic than the crisis of the Weimar Republic. I am thinking of the media here. Weimar Germany had plenty of news outlets and legions of journalists while today’s media outlets have suffered from declining readerships and declining revenues for years on end, and they are now faced with a “Teflon president” who seems strangely immune to scrutiny and criticism: nothing sticks. Years of right-wing criticism of the “mainstream media”, along with a citizenry that thinks quality news comes for free, have taken their toll.
The fabric of America’s democracy is eroding, therefore, and there can be no doubt about who is at fault. As the German chancellor Joseph Wirth declared after the murder of the German secretary of state Walter Rathenau in 1922, “dieser Feind steht rechts” – the enemy is a right-wing enemy. And yet it would be short sighted to focus only on the ranks of the enemies in the defence of democracy. We can also read Weimar democracy as a lesson on how the democratic camp changes in the face of a mortal threat. If the Republic of Weimar looked weak and indecisive more often than not, this had a lot to do with how the forces of democracy were locked into unloved coalition governments for lack of a choice. Democracy changes if there is no viable alternative, and so do the democrats themselves: their discipline inevitably languishes if they see themselves as beyond serious competition. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which always presented her as the inevitable candidate, should be a warning to democrats everywhere: if candidates think that they are the only thing that can forestall a disaster, they may learn that the voters actually prefer the disaster.
Scholars have long recognized that fascism did not come to power in an instant: it rose against the background of long-standing weaknesses in the political system. We can make a similar statement about Trump: he is not only the cause of America’s political crisis but also the symptom of a fundamental crisis of American democracy. However, the experience of fascism is not just about long-term trends – it also teaches lessons about the significance of random events. Hitler’s rule took an unexpected turn when the Reichstag burned and another turn when he arrested and killed the leaders of his SA in order to forestall a presumed putsch. Mussolini’s rule changed irrevocably after the murder of Giacomo Matteotti. Contingent events of this kind are difficult to anticipate by nature, but they matter enormously: a fundamental crisis can suspend the rules that usually govern an administration, and they can put a ruler and his reign on a new trajectory. Carl Schmitt famously argued that “sovereign is he who decides on the exception”. Having read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, I am inclined to agree with Schmitt’s assessment. In a society with plenty of rules and entrenched interests, emergency situations provide a kind of leverage that goes beyond politics as usual. (However, unlike Carl Schmitt, I do not think that authoritarian rule is a good thing.)
Trump could use a crisis to his advantage: a major terrorist attack, or a riot. In fact, I am inclined to say that he does not stand much of a chance without a major crisis: politics as usual may grind him and his revolutionary ambitions to pieces. But would it really work? A major terrorist attack may trigger memories of 9/11 and George W. Bush and all the lies and deceptions that he used to drag America into a disastrous war. But Bush II seems to have disappeared from America’s collective memory in mysterious ways. It began during his second term when he was slowly sliding towards insignificance, and now it is almost as if his presidency had never happened. Could a President Trump use an existential crisis in the way that Bush did? Even after 9/11, Bush had to fight hard to gain Congressional approval for war against Iraq – now imagine Trump requesting Congressional approval for war against North Korea or Iran! As it stands, this is an open question, and one with broader significance. When it comes to the future of democracy in the twenty-first century, one of the crucial questions is whether we still learn from experience.
In sum, we can and should reflect our current predicament in light of the experience of the inter-war years and the rise of fascism. Democracy and the rule of law was ascendant in the decades before 1914, it was remarkably stable all over the West after 1945 – but something happened in the inter-war years that made democracy unstable and unattractive.
Beyond this, however, the return of a crisis situation does not explain one crucial thing: why Trump? There were quite a few dictators who came to power in the inter-war years, but to the best of my knowledge, none of them was a real state mogul with bad hair. As a billionaire investor with a penchant for gold, Trump looks unique among the rulers of Western democracies. But is he?
I think there is a fascist template for Trump, a political profile that matches his personal CV and that few critics have spotted: the builder. Fascism thrived on large building projects that showed national determination and strength: land reclamation in the Pontine Marshes in Italy, the autostrada and the Autobahn projects, monumentalist urban construction programs. To be sure, the builder was not only a fascist figure: the link between political charisma and charismatic building projects worked in the United States as well. Just think of Eisenhower and the interstate system or Franklin D. Roosevelt and the programs of the New Deal: they provided concrete evidence that government made a difference, and they left an impression with voters.
After 1960, infrastructure programs were more of a source of troubles for political leaders: think Khrushchev and his Virgin Lands campaign, China and the Three Gorges dam, Berlin and its defunct new airport. But in the 1930s, politicians could build their careers on the quick and successful completion of large construction projects, and Donald Trump shows that the charisma of someone who “gets things built” is not dead. In fact, it may come back as a result of the opaque nature of today’s economy. In the twenty-first century world, a large building is one of the few achievements that everyone can grasp. When it comes to post-2008 bankers or corporate executives “failing upwards” we struggle to understand the system connecting their achievements and their personal wealth. But if you have a large down town building with your name on it, everybody understands that you have made it.
Trump gives us a lens for the historiography here. It is rewarding to look at the scholarly literature on the Nazi era in this light, for the builder is a notable gap in our body of publications. We have a number of good works on the Nazi’s Autobahn project that have smoked out many of the project’s lingering myths – but we know surprisingly little about Fritz Todt, the man who built the Autobahn as Generalinspektor für das deutsche Straßenwesen (General Inspector of German Highway Engineering). Todt is perhaps the last “big Nazi” for whom we lack a decent book-length biography. The same holds true for the institution that carried his name, the “Organisation Todt“, in spite of the fact that it is one of only two large organizations of the Nazi era that was named after an individual (the other was the Hitler Youth).
The Organisation Todt was a mushrooming institution that grew from small beginnings into a distinct political empire. It was a new creation of the Nazi regime, it stood outside the existing bureaucracy, and the standing of the Organisation Todt hinged on the quick realization of construction projects. These mushrooming administrative bodies were a key feature of the Nazi regime – the SS with its huge business empire was another example – and they contributed greatly to the dynamism of Nazi rule. They were not classic bureaucracies with rules and traditions – they were, in the words of Reinhard Heydrich, “kämpfende Verwaltungen” – “administrations in fighting mode”: government bodies beyond traditional modes of accountability that strived to “get things done” irrespective of costs. And as we know today, these bodies turned into monsters that did not stop until the end of Nazi rule, and their toll in monetary and human terms was obscene.
We should keep memory of these runaway institutions alive because Trump may soon face an important choice. Should he entrust his pet projects like infrastructure spending and deportation of illegal immigrants to existing institutions that are bound to the rule of law? Or should he create new institutions with weak oversight where everything depends on speed and “getting things done”? The Nazi experience suggests that the latter could make a world of difference. A new deportation task force would strive to achieve ever higher numbers of deportations and care about little else. More specifically, it would see government oversight and legal challenges as mere obstacles to its core mission – rather than the natural obligation of every agency of the U.S. government – and a deportation task force would compel the Trump administration to give it as much leeway as possible. In short, a new deportation task force may put the U.S. government on a path to a humanitarian disaster that could tarnish America’s international reputation beyond recall.
You may have noticed that so far I have not made a connection that seems to offer itself: Hitler was a racist, and so is Trump. I think the verdict is still out on this point. Of course, there can be no doubt that he has said racist things about Latinos and Muslims and that he depicted African Americans with stereotypes that are inherently racist (typical codewords: inner-city, lack of education). There is no excuse for these statements. But does he really mean these things? Nobody can doubt that Hitler hated Jews, and he swiftly had them eliminated from the payroll of government institutions after he came to power. I do not see a similar rush towards action in Trump’s administration. The Muslim travel ban seems to have disappeared from his agenda, and in a CBS interview just days after his election, Trump reduced the target number for deportations to two or three million. It is clear that many of Trump’s voters hate Latinos and Muslims but whether Trump himself hates them remains to be seen. It may just be the case that he simply does not care about them. Don’t get me wrong: I do think that this careless contempt would be outrageous, too. It would mean that millions of American residents have to live with existential uncertainties for years on end, and that would inevitably claim a toll in people’s lives. A government that does not care about the people within its realm is shameful. But it is different from a government that seeks to get rid of these people.
Trump may not care about Latinos and Muslims, but he does care about his business interests. This deserves reflection in the present context because the link between fascism and capitalism has been a perennial discussion point. The Marxists famously argued that fascism was simply camouflage for the rule of capitalism, but the explanation never really worked: Hitler and Mussolini showed way too much agency along with their entourages, to be mere puppets of capitalists. Marxists also depicted fascism as a stage in history – while in fact, fascists made history not because of what they were but for how they developed. Now we have a real-life businessman in power, and for all the noise that he generates, I can hear an emerging refrain that may define his administration: don’t do anything that hurts business. But does that make him the embodiment of capitalist rule?
Just like Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump has published an autobiographical book that provides us with a window into his thinking. That is as far as this similarity goes, for Trump’s The Art of the Deal is rather different from Hitler’s Mein Kampf – it’s a business book, for one. The Art of the Deal shows how Trump does business. He sets high goals, then builds up pressure to the best of his ability, and then settles for a deal when the moment seems right. It is a revealing approach, not least for the things that it ignores. Trump does not seem to value research and development or creativity, two pillars of the American economy. His business case is also inherently sceptical of laws and institutions, as they may stand in the way of a deal. To put it more bluntly, Trump’s approach to business is about bending and breaking the rules, to an extent that is corrosive and deeply anti-social: if every businessman used the courts of law in the way that Trump did, America’s legal system would probably collapse. Now it seems that it has made (or kept) him rich, but I doubt that this is a good approach to economic policy.
After all, reliable rules are crucial for a modern economy. Investors rely on all sorts of rules when they make decisions: copyright law, contract law, property law, tax law, tariff law, etc. When a businessman signs a contract, he trusts that the other party cannot cancel it with a tweet. As we all know, Trump has sent tweets that suggest he can do exactly that, and I am sure that a lot of managers will follow closely what comes out of this. Is this the harbinger of a Trump administration where any rule can change at any moment? It would be a great opportunity for politically protected speculators and a nightmare for businesses that make long-term investments, and the latter are arguably more important for economic growth in the long term. Much has been made of the recent boom of the stock market, but in the long run, it’s the investments that count, and whether Trump can create a reliable framework for investments remains to be seen.
I mention all this not only to show that “capitalist rule” is a more ambiguous concept than orthodox Marxism suggests, since there are very different types of capitalists with divergent interests. The Nazi era also provides insights into what happens if a ruler is prone to erratic decisions and unexpected bursts of activism. For one thing, erratic rule relies on a second tier of decision makers who provide more stability and permanence, and Hitler was notably reluctant to fire people (it remains to be see how this will be the case with Trump, who built a media image on firing people). For another, unpredictability can create leverage, and some of Hitler’s successes were only possible because he was so hard to figure out. In other words, the jokes about Trump’s Twitter use are missing a much bigger question: what is the role of Twitter in his emerging style of governance? For those who know Nazi historiography, it may be a return of the “intentionalism versus functionalism debate” in a new disguise. Is Trump’s Twitter use a conscious strategy to draw attention away from other, more contentious issues? Is it camouflage for clever deals that are currently forged behind the scenes, deals that will emerge when the moment is right? Or is it just an obsession that incidentally generates noise that just happens to cloud people’s minds? Twitter is a new-ish medium, but it brings up questions that are anything but new, and the example shows that we can also learn from how historians of the Nazi era think (and not just from what they say).
Let me summarize my remarks in the following ten points.
For a long time, America nourished a sense of moral exceptionalism: the city on the hill that committed itself to a higher standard than other countries. It has always been more convincing as a myth than as a description of reality, and the election of Donald Trump may well mark the end of the entire idea: neither Trump nor his voters seem to care about the idea of America as a moral example, or about the president as the leader of the free world. So if America no longer sees itself as exceptional, why should we treat it as such and compare it only to large advanced modern countries of the West? The story of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law is a global one, and we should situate the story of Trump accordingly. The story of fascism is an important part of this global story. But it is just one of many stories that are waiting to be told.
 I will focus on Germany and Italy in the following, with more emphasis on the former. I am aware that Spain, Italy, Hungary, and Romania had fascist governments as well, but I doubt that they can contribute much to the question at hand.
 Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back. Europe, 1914-1949 (London: Penguin, 2016), p. 135.
 Michael Wildt, An Uncompromising Generation. The Nazi Leadership of the Reich Security Main Office (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).
 Karl Dietrich Bracher, Die Auflösung der Weimarer Republik. Eine Studie zum Problem des Machtverfalls in der Demokratie (Stuttgart: Ring-Verlag, 1955).
 Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985), p. 5.
 Cf. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine. The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Henry Holt, 2007).
 I am aware of Franz W. Seidler, Fritz Todt. Baumeister des Dritten Reiches (Schnellbach: Bublies, 2000 [originally Munich: Herbig, 1986). It is a book-length biography, but not decent.
 It was different in Spain and Portugal – part of the reason why these countries are not discussed in this presentation.
 For my own attempt to tell these ambiguous stories, see Frank Uekoetter, The Green and the Brown. A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
 The Economist of March 15th, 2014.