No, Mr. Schwarzenegger, the Capitol Riots were not like Kristallnacht

In a short video, posted on YouTube, the former Conan the Barbarian star and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger brandished his stage sword and compared it with American democracy. The tertium comparationis between the “hardened steel” of a sword and American democracy was somewhat nebulous, especially as the brief message ended with a call to “healing.” Is our democracy’s resolve “hardened” by challenge, or are we to threaten rioters with the sword of justice? But I am not writing as a critic who might take issue with Schwarzenegger’s poetry.  I am writing about Schwarzenegger invoking Kristallnacht 1938 as a historical parallel to the recent “breaking of glass” in the US Capitol, a parallel that Schwarzenegger vaguely claims to be familiar with because he was from Austria, even though he was born in 1947.

I am not just confused by this parallel. I am disturbed by it. Here is what happened on Kristallnacht, a three-day state-sponsored, highly organized, and nation-wide pogrom unleashed on Jewish houses of worship, business, and private homes that took place from November 9 to November 11, 1938. I am quoting from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum page on “Kristallnacht.”

Nazi Party officials, members of the SA and the Hitler Youth carry out a wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms throughout Greater Germany. The rioters destroyed hundreds of synagogues, many of them burned in full view of firefighters and the German public and looted more than 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses and other commercial establishments. Jewish cemeteries became a particular object of desecration in many regions. Almost 100 Jewish residents in Germany lost their lives in the violence. In the weeks that followed, the German government promulgated dozens of laws and decrees designed to deprive Jews of their property and of their means of livelihood even as the intensification of government persecution sought to force Jews from public life and force their emigration from the country.

After the pogroms, the implementation of German anti-Jewish policy was gradually concentrated in the hands of the SS. Thus, Kristallnacht figures as an essential turning point in Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, which culminated in the Holocaust, the attempt to annihilate European Jews during the war.

My own family was victimized on that day. My grandfather, a World War I veteran of the German army, was among those on lists of prominent Jews to be detained in concentration camps that had been established as early as 1933. My mother’s twin brother, then sixteen years old, was not on such a list but a local policemen thought he should be so he sent him away as well. My grandfather was later released as a decorated WW I volunteer. My uncle was released later, which forced the family to release his seat on a Kindertransport they had secured for the twins. My mother escaped to England. My grandparents and my uncle were ghettoized in Mainz and, in early 1942, deported to German-occupied Poland, where they perished.

Kristallnacht was not spontaneous but well planned. It was violent, deliberate, and devastating for the millions of Jews still living in Germany at that time.

As others have argued, there are many parallels between Trumpism and Hitlerism, or Trumpism and fascism. In many ways, popular support for Trump, the cult of personality, the destruction of trust in mainstream media and the creation of a cloud of disinformation that stokes hatred and encourages violence, all this rings familiar and sheds light on the erosion of democratic institutions that preceded the rise of Hitler in Germany who, btw, was elected and legally appointed as Chancellor before he used constitutional emergency powers to eliminate all opposition. The totalitarian state was not established in a day, and the ground was prepared by a decade and more of the erosion of trust in the rule of law.

But the Capitol riot of January 6 is not equivalent to November 9, 1938. If Schwarzenegger is looking for a parallel, here is one: the abortive Beerhall Putsch of 1923 that landed Hitler in prison. To be sure, that was not the end of Hitler’s political career. Let us brandish the sword of Conan to make sure the January 2021 riots were the end of Trump’s.

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