During the 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath, public figures from many spheres—comedians like Louis C.K., politicians like Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and authoritarian historian Timothy Snyder, to name a few—made comparisons between then-candidate and now-President-elect Donald Trump and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
But historian Nancy Koehn, professor at the Harvard Business School, says comparing Trump with Hitler isn't the right frame of reference. We should be looking at the broader context—of Germany 1933 versus America 2016—instead.
"There's a lot more going on than an individual person. There was a lot more going on in 1933 than Adolf Hitler. History is not made by individuals alone: it's a combination of larger forces," she said.
From that perspective, there are number of ways the two eras are similar—and plenty of ways they are different, too.
To start, Koehn says Hitler rose to power in Germany on a "wide gale" of authoritarian rule that swept Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, from Mussolini in Italy to Franco in Spain. "One critical difference," she said, "is there are no major fascist parties that are commanding presences in the world today."
The world was also mired in an economic depression far more severe than the one that hit in 2008.
"The economic distress that Germany, America, England, and most of the world was mired in by 1933 isn't anything like the very real economic concerns, losses, sense of falling behind, and income stagnation we see today," Koehn explained. "The conditions are just not the same. Not only are they not the same in terms of magnitude for all but the very poorest Americans today, they are not the same in terms of their scope."
The world of 2016 is also far more complex, in many ways, than 1933. Social media has led to democratic uprisings like the Arab Spring, but also the rapid dissemination of fake news and propaganda. Economic globalization has made the world more interconnected and interdependent than ever. Global terrorism has also made it more unstable.
Some conditions, however, were similar. Koehn points toward a sense of dissatisfaction about economic and social conditions among both middle-class Americans today and Germans of the 1930s.
There was, too, a growing perception that government was inefficient and unresponsive to the needs of the public.
"[There was] growing sense among different parts of the population, but nontrivial parts in terms of their numbers, about the legitimacy of government and frustration with elites," Koehn said.
Perhaps most strikingly, Hitler—like Trump—campaigned on a platform of restoring Germany from a perceived loss of greatness. Both relied on rhetoric singling out minority groups as scapegoats for the country's perceived economic and social problems.
"Hitler rose to power...by claiming he would make Germany great again. He didn't use exactly those words, but his message was about nationalism, about xenophobia," Koehn said.
"Hitler blamed Germany's fall from past grace and power on an 'other' [Jewish-Germans] which found an outlet in Germany, as Trump's lashing out against Latinos, Muslims, and other minorities found an outlet as a perceived source of America's fall from greatness."
All in all, in order to draw lessons from history our understanding of it will have to be more nuanced and complex, Koehn said.
"This is a more tessellated pavement, a more complicated picture than the comparisons thrown about both before the election and since the election," Koehn said.
To hear more from historian Nancy Koehn, tune in to Boston Public Radio above.