Trump's Hitler Fantasies Remind Us of the Destruction that Comes when Militaries Serve Autocrats
"Let it perish and be annihilated by some stronger power…I shall shed no tears for the German nation,” Adolf Hitler had stated in 1941. Four years later, that dire reality came into being when the Red Army reached Germany. Hitler moved into his Berlin bunker and left Germans to their fate. His March 1945 Nero Decree mandated the destruction of vital military and transport infrastructure, orders that Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and War Production, worked to countermand.
By then, disaffection within the German armed forces that had started with Hitler’s 1938 purges of its leadership had produced assassination attempts. The most famous of these, which took place in July 1944 at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia, left its target with only minor injuries. “I am invulnerable. I am immortal,” a dazed Führer repeated to the doctor who treated him right after the explosion. For believers, Hitler’s survival proved that he enjoyed divine protection, while a military conspirator concluded ruefully that Hitler had a “guardian devil” keeping him alive.
While Hitler's personality cult had already begun to deflate as the war went badly for Germany, his suicide on April 30, 1945 --his final middle finger salute to his people--was a huge blow for the men and women who had served him for years, including in the military. An estimated 10-20% of German generals and admirals were among the tens of thousands of Germans who killed themselves in 1945.
This terrible history, and Hitler's hatred for everyone he ruled, makes Donald Trump's ideal of himself as a 21st century Hitler all the more disturbing. As we read in an excerpt of Susan Glasser and Peter Baker's forthcoming book about the Trump White House, the former president was unhappy that the U.S. military would not do anything and everything he asked it to do.
"You fucking generals, why can't you be like the German generals?" said Trump to Gen. John Kelly, then his chief of staff. Trump refused to believe Kelly's response that some of those German generals tried to kill Hitler. "No, no, no they were totally loyal to him," insisted Trump, who, in classic strongman fashion, makes facts about the past and the present conform to his fantasies.
Trump did not succeed in making the U.S. military a collaborator in his 2020-2021 coup attempt because the generals who served the Trump administration were well aware that armed forces that serve autocrats often end up demoralized, forced to deeply compromise or abandon their codes of ethics and conduct.
As I write in Strongmen, which covers a century of military coups, "valuing loyalty over expertise...can result in a deprofessionalized military, especially if misguided wars end in defeat." (The Russian army now serving Vladimir Putin might take note).
Gen. Paul Selva lived the transition from a democratic to an authoritarian commander-in-chief as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2015 to 2019. Having spent part of his youth living under Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, he swiftly refuted Trump's 2017 request that the military organize a spectacle for Trump's own glory. "Parades were about showing the people who had the guns. And in this country, we don't do that. It's not who we are," Gen. Selva told Trump.
Trump had different ideas. His administration sent thousands of troops to the southern border in 2018 to deal with a supposed illegal immigrant emergency, and its response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests gave Americans a taste of the tactics military juntas use against their own people.
While the generals refused to deploy troops in the capital, Gen. Mark Esper, Secretary of Defense, and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, allowed themselves to be Trump's props during that period. The experience left them ready for what would come later that year.
The resignation letter Gen. Milley wrote in June references Trump’s Hitler fantasies (he never sent it since he decided to stay on to prevent further abuses of power, as Baker and Glasser recount). Recalling the World War II fight against Fascism, Gen. Milley tells the president that "in fact, you subscribe to many of the principles that we fought against."
Awareness of Trump's authoritarian intentions also informs Gen. Milley's November 13 declaration that the military takes an oath of loyalty to the Constitution, and not to any individual, "a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator."
By then, Trump had denied the results of the 2020 election. Rogue Gen. Michael Flynn sought to politicize the armed forces and create support for the imposition of martial law so the military could "rerun" the election. That's why 10 former Defense secretaries issued a Jan. 3, 2021 warning that military involvement in elections "would take us into dangerous, unlawful, and unconstitutional territory."
We should always take note of such interventions, since military commanders think carefully about their public statements. That's why a July 2022 essay by a group of retired generals and admirals warrants our attention. It reminds us that Trump's actions on Jan. 6 as commander-in-chief constituted a "dereliction of duty,” but it is really a warning for the future.
If we find ourselves in such an emergency again, they write, "military ranks can and must respond in accordance with their oaths." Members of the military have a "duty to question and disobey unlawful orders---those a person 'of ordinary sense and understanding,' as a Court of Military Review ruling put it, would know to be wrong."
As those commanders know, autocrats like Trump think differently. From Fascism onward, authoritarians have had only scorn for the "ordinary sense and understanding" that undergirds the rule of law and professional ethics.
Authoritarians specialize in institutionalizing lawlessness. They encourage everyone who serves them, including their militaries, to become their worst selves, normalizing practices of plunder, war crimes, genocide, and more.
Trump's positive evocation of Hitler is in this spirit. It is imperative to make sure all members of the military see Trump, who may run for president again, as a man consumed by a Fascist vision of total control that has spelled disaster for militaries in the past.
References: Hitler quotes in David Cesarani, Final Solution, and Roger Moorhouse, Killing Hitler; Christian Goeschels, Suicide in Nazi Germany.
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