What we can learn from history

US NEWS TRUMP 3 ABA
President Donald J. Trump walks back to the Oval Office as he returns to the White House on March 2, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Propaganda should be popular, not intellectually pleasing.

- Joseph Goebbels

Comparisons of President Trump and his cabinet with Adolf Hitler and his regime are counterproductive exercises in hyperbole that make political division in this country worse. If anything, such comparisons indicate too many Americans never learned in school how Nazism kept its vise grip on Germany in the early 20th century.

Trump offers enough to worry about without comparing him to Hitler. He's been in office less than two months; but if those six weeks are any indication of the future, his self-proclaimed accomplishments in government, like his claimed acumen in business, won't stand up under close scrutiny.

Buying the Hitler comparison would mean seeing White House press secretary and communications director Sean Spicer as the doppelgänger of Hitler's spokesman and propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Saturday Night Live skits with comedian Melissa McCarthy portraying Spicer have been hilarious. But there was nothing funny about Goebbels. Spicer may vigorously defend his boss, but his job isn't what Goebbels did.

Goebbels was one of the architects of Hitler's rise to power. Born into a Catholic working-class family, he studied history and literature at the University of Heidelberg under Friedrich Gundolf, a renowned Jewish professor. Gundolf died two years before Goebbels warned in a 1933 speech that the "future could have extraordinarily unpleasant consequences for the Jewish race."

By then Goebbels was firmly ensconced within Hitler's inner circle, having been named the Nazi Party's Reich propaganda leader in 1929. Four years later the Nazis took over Germany's government and Goebbels took control of the news media, making sure they closely adhered to Hitler's point of view. Later, as minister of public enlightenment, Goebbels became the arbiter of all artistic expression and banished Jewish writers, artists, and journalists.

Goebbels' hatred of Jews reached a peak in 1938, when he used the murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jewish teenager as an excuse to launch the spontaneous demonstrations known as Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, in which 70,000 Jewish businesses and more than 900 synagogues were destroyed. More than 90 Jews were killed by marauders and 30,000 sent to concentration camps.

During the war, Goebbels became an even closer confidant to Hitler and was rewarded with a succession of promotions, including his 1944 appointment as "general plenipotentiary for total war." Hitler spent his last days with Goebbels and wanted him to become the next Reich chancellor. But after Hitler's suicide in 1945, Goebbels commanded an SS orderly to shoot him and his wife after they had poisoned their six children.

Goebbels' story makes it clear that comparisons of today's America to Germany 80 years ago are grossly overstated. Trump has prompted such exaggerations with outrageous statements such as calling the news media "the enemy of the American people." But his efforts to delegitimize the media by calling anything other than his midnight texts "fake news" don't come close to Goebbels' crackdown on journalists.

A better comparison might include Trump's "Make America Great Again" theme, which brings to mind a 1928 speech by Goebbels in which he said, "History proves that the greatest world movements have always developed when their leaders knew how to unify their followers under a short, clear theme."

Goebbels believed a successful government must control all information. He said its propaganda must overwhelm all other sources of information. As he put it, "Propaganda shows that it is good if over a certain period it can win over and fire up people for an idea."

Goebbels also said: "When someone comes along who can put into words what everyone feels in their hearts, each feels: 'Yes! That is always what I have always wanted and hoped for.' . . . I have met people who attended a Hitler meeting for the first time, and at the end they said: 'This man put in words everything I have been searching for for years. For the first time, someone gave form to what I want.' "

That may sound like what some Trump supporters have been saying about him, but it doesn't make him another Hitler. President Barack Obama's supporters similarly said Obama spoke for them. It's what their fans say about Oprah Winfrey and "Dr. Phil" McGraw. Don't get carried away comparing Trump to Hitler. The comparison isn't valid. But that doesn't mean there aren't lessons to be learned from the history of World War II about good leadership and bad.

Harold Jackson is editorial page editor of the Inquirer. hjackson@phillynews.com