In his newly-released book about the 2020 election, Wall Street Journal White House reporter Michael C. Bender reveals that former President Trump allegedly praised Adolf Hitler’s role in Germany’s economic recovery in the 1930s as evidence that the Führer “did a lot of good things.”
It is easy to get bogged down in the shock value of a sitting president giving Hitler’s economy an approving nod. But in the case of Hitler’s economy, Trump is not exceptional.
I’m a professor of rhetoric at San José State University in Silicon Valley, and I’ve been studying Nazi propaganda for more than five years for a book I’m writing about Hitler’s rhetoric. Hitler’s supposed “economic miracle” was a Nazi talking point throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s.
But Hitler’s economic achievements can’t simply be dismissed as Nazi propaganda. They were also the subject of heated debate among historians and economists — including those who staunchly opposed Hitler — for decades after WorldWar II. Nearly a century later, the theory that Hitler restored Germany’s economy persists.
In fact, although White House chief of staff John Kelly was reportedly appalled by Trump’s statement, he acknowledged the possibility that Hitler “was solely responsible for rebuilding the economy” with the caveat that those economic accomplishments didn’t balance out subsequent Nazi atrocities.
The implication that Hitler’s economic accomplishments could potentially offset the Holocaust is unsettling on its face. It’s also ignores the inconvenient fact that Hitler’s economy wasn’t detached from Nazi atrocities.
It’s true the German economy rebounded under Hitler. And he did massively reduce unemployment numbers. But Hitler’s “economic miracle” was based explicitly, though not exclusively, on newly-introduced anti-Semitic laws.
The Nuremberg Race Laws were the Nazis’ most famous anti-Jewish legislation. Passed in 1935, they defined Jewishness as a race instead of a religion, stripped Jews of their citizenship and enforced segregation between Jews and so-called Aryans.
The Nuremberg Laws were the legal framework that eventually enabled the Holocaust. But well before Nuremberg, Hitler and the Nazis passed far-reaching legislation explicitly targeting Jewish Germans’ role in the economy.
Some of the Nazis’ first legislative acts were designed to “strengthen the economy” by putting Germans back to work, and Hitler wanted to prevent Jews from holding stable, good-paying, state-aided jobs, specifically to free up those employment opportunities for non-Jewish Germans. So the Nazis drove Jewish professionals out of jobs they already held and smothered future professional opportunities for anyone deemed Jewish.
In April 1933, for instance, less than three months after Hitler was appointed chancellor, the Nazis passed the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which excluded Jews from civil service jobs. That same month, the Nazis passed legislation to reduce Jewish enrollments in schools and universities and restrict Jews’ options for practicing law and medicine.
Within a few months, the Nazis put strict legal limits on Jewish professionals’ ability to work with state or state-regulated entities. The list of suffocating professional restrictions only grew over the next few years, extending to the media, the military, education, business ownership and beyond.
Of course, removing one person from a job to replace them with another doesn’t reduce the number of people out of work. So to accomplish their goal of reducing the unemployment rate, the Nazis redefined who counted as “German” and who qualified as “unemployed.”
Under the new laws, a non-Jewish German man without a job could be officially counted as “unemployed” (women were also legislated out of the job market). After 1933, he could increasingly count on the Nazis to help find him a job — often based on his demonstrated loyalty rather than his qualifications.
By contrast, an out-of-work Jewish German didn’t officially count as unemployed. After 1933, they became a burden on the state and were in some cases designated “work-shy” and sent to concentration camps.
But Hitler’s anti-Semitic economic laws didn’t merely strip Jewish Germans of their employment opportunities. Jewish Germans forced out of the workforce soon found they didn’t qualify for any form of state aid, which also reduced the cost of state-funded social services — a double boon for the Nazis’ economic miracle.
By the time the Nuremberg Laws were enacted, virtually every piece of anti-Semitic legislation passed during the Nazis’ first two years in power had targeted Jewish Germans’ ability to find work and earn a living in Hitler’s booming economy.
Little mentioned among people praising Hitler, of course, was that economic recovery was the direct result of redefining a whole group of people out of the economy. Little mentioned to this day, among people who see Hitler’s economy as evidence that he did “some good things,” is that terror, abuse and brutality were important engines of the Nazis’ economic recovery.
Far from showing he “did a lot of good things,” Hitler’s rebounding economy revealed the first signs of Nazi horrors to come.
Nearly 90 years after the Nazis passed their first anti-Semitic laws, no one is suggesting (at least not so far) that we should pursue genocidal atrocities in order to improve the economy. But using economic ends to justify inhumane means — for example, displacing the poor for international sporting events, destroying the rainforest and displacing indigenous communities, or rejecting public health guidance during a global pandemic — remains frighteningly common.
The breaking news about Trump’s nescient comment to John Kelly, although hardly surprising, sheds further light on the former president’s priorities. But ultimately, it is less important in evaluating Trump as a person than in drawing attention to one of the most pressing questions of our time: How long will we continue to justify inhumane means in the pursuit of good economic ends?