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Nazi diehards, Trump diehards, pretty much the same


In his 1947 book, Nuremberg Diary, the psychiatrist G.M. Gilbert reports on the psychological development of the 21 top Nazi defendants over an eight-month period, as they were tried for war crimes and other atrocities in 1945-1946. Gilbert was in an ideal position to do so: he was Chief Prison Psychologist at the Nuremberg Trial, and had unlimited access to the prisoners, who tended to trust him more than they trusted even their own lawyers.

One source of interest in the book (which makes fascinating reading) is to see how the defendants evolved from their initial psychological state of denial (“I did nothing wrong,” “I was only obeying orders,” “Hitler meant well but was misled by Himmler,” “There really was a ‘Jewish Problem’ that had to be solved,” etc.) to later states of remorse and contrition, as they realized the enormity of what Hitler had done. Not all did so; about three months into the trial, Gilbert characterized the 21 defendants according to their degree of repentance. Some—Hans Frank, Albert Speer, Hjalmar Schacht, Hans Fritzsche—were increasingly willing to denounce Hitler and accept their own responsibility for what had happened. Others—Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Julius Streicher, and, in particular, Hermann Goering—were far more recalcitrant. All four in fact went to their deaths (by suicide or hanging) stubbornly resolved to protect the Nazi myth. For Gilbert, they presented the most compelling cases of pathological denialism. After the massive evidence presented at the trial—films, photographs, eyewitness accounts, diaries, official records, confessions—how could anyone rationally deny that the Nazi regime had committed the worst crimes in human history?

Still, many of the defendants, looking back at their careers, came to understand that they had been hoodwinked by Hitler’s mesmerizing personality. Hitler’s chief architect and, in the war’s final stages, armaments minister, Albert Speer, is a good example. “I must admit that

[admiring Hitler]

was weakness on my part,” he told Gilbert. “I should have and actually did realize


it sooner, but kept playing at this hypocritical game until it was too late—well, because it was easier.” About half the defendants expressed a similar rationale. “I should have…but I didn’t.” And, of course, by the time they realized the jig was up, they were already on trial for their lives in the old Nuremberg Prison.

The analogy between the hardcore Nazis and Trump supporters is natural and apt. Most of us know that Trump is a criminal and a disaster for America (just as Hitler proved to be a disaster for Germany, which largely lay in ruins at the conclusion of World War II). And yet, there’s that 90% of Republicans that stands by his side, unable to see through his lies, stubbornly refusing to take any responsibility for what has happened and what is likely to happen that will be far worse, as Trump hunkers down for the coming fight he started.

Goering is the prima facie example of the psychology of hardcore Trump supporters. Throughout the Diary, Gilbert—who spent a lot of one-on-one time with him in his cell—portrays Goering as self-righteous, stubborn, immune to facts, glaringly defiant, and determined to continue the fight. Goering lashed out at his co-defendants who dared criticize Hitler. “It makes me sick to see Germans selling their souls to the enemy!” At another point, he screams to Gilbert, “I just wish we all had the courage to combine our defense to three simple words: Lick my arse!” Then Goering tries to justify his crimes. “They ask me why I didn’t turn against him [Hitler]…the German people would never forgive me for that…If I’ve got to die, I’d rather die as a martyr than a traitor.” It was pride that prevented Goering from acknowledging his role in the deaths of a hundred million people and the devastation of large tracts of Europe.

It is pride, too, that prevents Trump supporters from seeing and acknowledging their complicity in his crimes. The pride of stubbornness, of being unable to change course even when they know the present path leads to disaster. It is also, possibly, the hope that, someday, future generations will bless their names (Goering predicted that “in 50 years” Germany would erect “marble monuments” to him and the other leading Nazis). But future generations will not bless Trump supporters, any more than Germans came to celebrate the Nazi ringleaders.

There is one exception to this: the neo-nazi white nationalists active in Germany, who continue to try and resurrect a Nazi regime. Inspired by Trump, they’re infecting America, too, and other Western countries; New Zealand just gave proof of that. What we can do, what we must do for our future, is convince swing Republicans to take the Speer route, confess their errors, and reform, rather than the Goering route of denying responsibility to the end. (Goering, by the way, cheated the hangman: he committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule just hours before he was to be hung. Sic temp tyrannis!)

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