Historical Perspectives on January 6, 2021: A Conversation with Esther Adaire and Steve Remy

In April 2021, I began an extended conversation with German historians Steve Remy (Professor, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York CUNY) and Esther Adaire (PhD candidate, Graduate Center, CUNY) about their reflections on the January 6 insurrection in the United States Capitol. The ramifications of that day are still evolving, and domestic far-right extremism, especially supporters of white supremacy, remain a serious threat to American democracy. Similarly, Germany’s military and police forces have come under scrutiny for their failure to root out right-wing sympathizers in their ranks, exemplified most recently by the June 17 withdrawal of a German NATO platoon from Lithuania after charges of racism and anti-Semitic harassment were made against some of its members and the allegations that the far-right group NSU 2.0 have ties to police forces in Hessen, North Rhine-Westfalia, and elsewhere. I asked Remy and Adaire to reflect on questions of historical mythmaking, the utility of drawing comparisons between historical events across time and space, and about what Germany’s twentieth-century experience of fascism might teach contemporary policymakers in democratic nation-states grappling with violent and racist political movements.

—Elizabeth Jones for EuropeNow


EuropeNow German historian Jeffery Herf’s November 23, 2020 editorial in the Washington Post cautioned Americans about the false and insidious claims made by the former president and his supporters about a “stolen election,” and how they recalled the ultra-nationalist discourse that sprang up soon after the German army’s defeat in November 1918, the “stab-in-the-back” legend (“Dolchstoßlegende”). As Herf reminded readers, the myth that Germany’s wartime victory was sabotaged by liberal democrats helped to lay the rhetorical groundwork for Hitler’s rise to power. Six weeks after Herf’s warning, the January 6 insurrection at the United States’ capitol punctuated an initial phase of toxic mythmaking about the 2020 election and launched a second, more lethal phase. How do you understand events since the November election and does labeling January 6 a watershed risk either amplifying its mythic status or diminishing it as a one-off or extraordinary event?

Steve Remy For American scholars of Germany’s and Italy’s experiences with fascism and dictatorship, the last five years have been rather heady. Donald Trump’s improbable candidacy and victory in November 2016 provoked a flood of analogies comparing him to Adolf Hitler or likening America in 2016 to Italy in 1922 or to terminal-stage Weimar Germany. The profusion of historical analogies then generated much commentary about historical analogies. How to make them, or how not to make them, and their possibilities and limitations as guides to navigating the present and future.[1] A parallel development came in response to what the historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat has called the “new authoritarian age.” In the two decades since Fareed Zakaria identified the phenomenon, a post-Cold War form of “illiberal democracy” has metastasized beyond Italy and post-communist Russia to India, the Philippines, Brazil, Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the United States. Commentary on the global eclipse of constitutional democracy in the new authoritarian age has been augmented by more general reflections on how democracies die, to borrow the title of Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s 2019 book.[2]

The broadening scope of historical contextualizing is a welcome development. It remains hard, however, to resist the lure of Weimar analogies as we grapple with the accelerating erosion of constitutional democracy in the United States before but especially since the November 2020 election. In The Washington Post, for instance, the historian Jeffrey Herf called our attention to the significance of the lie that in 1918 liberals, leftists, and Jews “stabbed the German army in the back” just as it was about to win the war. This lie originated within the nationalist right and Hitler and the Nazi party deployed a modified version as a key weapon in the attack on the republic’s legitimacy. In this version of events, profit-seeking Jews had undermined Germany’s economy and thus the war effort. For his part, according to Hitler, the Kaiser Wilhelm II had proven too weak to do what was necessary to win. Then what Hitler would call the “November criminals” betrayed Germany by submitting to a humiliating treaty.

Like post-War World War I Germany, the far right in the contemporary United States is pervaded by lies, the dominant one being the lie of a stolen presidential election. That this biggest of lies has secured its position as the core “truth” of the Republican party was made clear in the purge of Representative Liz Cheney, a conservative Republican from the deeply pro-Trump state of Wyoming, from her position as leader of the House Republican Conference on May 12. That her replacement, Elise Stefanik, has a far less sterling record as a conservative is meaningless. What matters is that Stefanik has embraced the lie of a stolen election (and the money that comes with doing so), thus passing the only litmus test that really matters now in the Republican party.

Just as the big lie of a betrayed Germany was a motivating factor in Hitler’s decision to attempt a putsch in Bavaria in November 1924, the lie of a stolen presidential election moved soon-to-be former president Trump to incite a mob of supporters to stage a violent insurrection as congress was preparing to certify Joe Biden’s victory. Another American historian, Benjamin C. Hett, pointed out in the Los Angeles Times that both the Beer Hall putsch and the January 6 insurrection failed because state officials backed the rule of law. But Hett warns us that America’s democracy might not be so fortunate next time, particularly if we don’t adequately protect the legal bases of the electoral process at all levels.[3]

Both lessons from Weimar—the power of a big lie to undermine democracy and the necessity of defending the rule of law—should be clear to anyone concerned with the integrity of future elections and the survival of constitutional—as opposed to illiberal—democracy. Looking back at the last six months, I think we are in the midst of an attempted coup d’état being staged by a Republican party that has almost completely prostrated itself to Donald Trump. I would date the beginning of the attempt to the moment then-president Trump pronounced that an election outcome that did not result in victory for him would be fraudulent. The institutions and customs of constitutional democracy and not least the presence of enough people—from local election officials to the Republicans who voted to certify Biden’s victory―willing to respect the rule of law were enough to ensure the election was not stolen by Trump.

But it may not be enough by 2024. Acceptance of the stolen election lie and fealty to Trump have saturated the Republican party at local levels around the country, with the potential result being the achievement of a longer-standing Republican objective: securing minority rule. It is through restrictions on voting and the possibility that state legislatures will be able to overturn election results not to Donald Trump’s liking that could make the coup a success. They must be exposed and opposed at every level.[4]

Here, I notice another bundle of similarities with Weimar Germany, namely with the second half of the 1920s. The fiasco of the Beer Hall putsch taught Hitler a lesson: the Nazi party could not hope to overthrow the republic by attempting a German version of Mussolini’s “march on Rome.” Rather, the party would seek power legally. “We enter the Reichstag to arm ourselves with democracy’s weapons,” Joseph Goebbels wrote in a party newspaper ahead of May 1928 elections, “… as the wolf attacks the sheep, so we will come.”[5] Playing the parliamentary game, however, would be more than a matter of seeking seats in the Reichstag with the intention of neutralizing it. It was in the second half of the 1920s that Hitler regained near-total control over the party at the top. At the same time, the party engaged in aggressive grassroots mobilization that made it the nationalist party capable of appealing to a far wider range of voters than those representing the traditional conservative elite.[6]

Also crucial was that the Nazis party came to rely heavily on its paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung (SA, or Storm Troopers), to attack political opponents and otherwise foment the very disorder and lawlessness the party was promising German voters it would end. I see a similar dual-track phenomenon in the US: Republican party officials bleating about defending the integrity of elections and law and order while at best downplaying or ignoring the very real threat posed by well-armed right-wing militias and at worst signaling (as Trump did to the Proud Boys) that they should be prepared to act. I also suspect that many Republican lawmakers are afraid of not just losing votes but becoming the targets of assault or worse should they defy Trump.

There’s another big (and old) lie that I think deserves more attention than it is getting: that America is being—or perhaps already has been—“stolen” by hostile elements, some from within its borders (liberal elites ensconced in liberal coastal cities, communities of color, and LBGTQ+ Americans) and others from without (non-white and/or non-Christian immigrants, migrants, and asylum seekers). For many, including Donald Trump, an international conspiracy of Jewish financiers and globalists are also hard at work subverting America.[7] This is an updated version of not just Hitler’s “November criminals lie” but fears of “replacement” popularized by Anglo-American white supremacists in the late  nineteenth century. I see the fear and fury generated by the revival and mobilization of this lie across a significant segment of white America as equally corrosive of constitutional democracy’s foundations as the big lie of a stolen election.

As to your second question, I think the survival of democracy in the US demands an extended reckoning with January 6—its inciters, enablers, perpetrators, and apologists. This is a tall order for a country that has endured four years of Trump and Trumpism and is just emerging from the pandemic. And the pandemic, accelerating climate change, unrest in Columbia, communal violence in Israel-Palestine, the massing of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border, and the ongoing challenges posed by China, all remind us that the world will not wait for the US.[8]

January 6 was unprecedented in that an American president incited a mob of his supporters to march on the US capitol with the objective of overturning the results of a free and fair election.[9] The lawlessness and brutality of the insurrection needs to be investigated by congress (though it appears now that a bipartisan investigation will not take place), journalists, and watchdog groups. I also hope that one or more responsible documentary filmmakers will bring the spectacle of that horrible day to a wide audience in way that hearings and reporting cannot quite do. Not least, US counterintelligence and counter-terrorism must take the threat posed by the radical right far more seriously than it has to date. There are promising signs that this is happening. Perhaps there is something to learn from Germany’s recent experience―described by Esther Adaire in her contribution to this forum―with the failures of German law enforcement to effectively counter that country’s far right terrorists.

I do not believe that hearings or diligent investigative reporting or documentaries will change the minds of those who want to believe the election was stolen, or that January 6 was a valorous attempt to save American democracy, or that the whole thing was actually staged by Black Lives Matter and antifa activists. But the documenting must be done. Just as the right’s ongoing coup attempt is taking place on many fronts, preventing it from succeeding will require a similarly broad-based mobilization.

Esther Adaire I appreciate that Steve Remy has brought our attention to broader discourses on “how democracies die,” as well as to scholars such as Rosenfeld, Gordon, and Moyn who have weighed up both the value and the limitations of historical analogy. I must admit that I’ve often found myself frustrated with the onslaught of analogies comparing Trump and “Trumpism” (however this is defined) with some of the more sensational moments of the Third Reich’s history. While prominent historians have offered excellent analogies filled with historical nuance and with the intention, precisely, of demonstrating how the balance of parliamentary-style democracies can tip in favor of right-wing populism, I worry that these analogies are too easily reduced once they enter popular discourse – which has a huge part in the framing of ongoing events and risks a skewed understanding of what specific processes are currently at play within US democracy.

I’m therefore also grateful for Remy’s focus on the late 1920s and the first few years of the ’30s —in particular the nascent National Socialist Party’s attempt to legitimize themselves through legal means and parliamentary procedures, coupled with the SA’s menacing presence on the streets of Germany. What feels most instructive about this period to me is the gradual chipping away at democracy which occurred in the ten years between Hitler’s failed putsch and his becoming chancellor—both in terms of the erosion of popular faith in democracy (done, as Remy points out, by linking Jews and liberalism to every perceived social ill of the time) as well as the undermining of democratic procedures that, though conventional elsewhere, were still new and experimental in Germany at the time (one of many important distinctions between Germany and the US). In this regard, I agree that the internal revolution currently underway within the Republican party seems the most dangerous moment yet in the history of “Trumpism”—starkly reminiscent of German conservatives’ backing of Hitler with the idea that they could reclaim a majority through his populist appeal.

What Remy’s allusion to these broader discourses on the fragility of democracy puts me in mind of is that, rather than relying only on examples from the history of fascism as the ultimate measure of whether democracy is under threat, it is becoming increasingly important to reckon with the uniquely American and uniquely post-Cold War underpinnings of our current predicament. The US’s version of democratic freedom is very much in congruence with the US’s exceptionalist understanding of its place on the world stage, which has starkly asserted itself within the world order of the past thirty years and is now threatened. Unlike the extreme-right political and paramilitary groups of the Weimar era—who abhorred the domesticating, decadent influence of democracy ostensibly forced upon Germany following WWI—those involved in the storming of the Capitol on January 6 claimed to be crusading for democracy, albeit a democracy rooted in uniquely American definitions of freedom. This, I think, needs closer interrogation.

Moreover, Trump himself hails from a slightly earlier era characterized by post-modern loss of affect, and I think the thing that exemplifies this most acutely is the epistemic chaos we’ve been thrown into by his persistent undermining not only of what is considered true or factual but the value of facts altogether—a situation born also from the bodyless conditions of social media. This is a predicament that feels much more confounding than the context in which claims like the stab-in-the-back myth took hold.

EuropeNow How are contemporary worries about links between state institutions, especially the military and police forces, and right-wing groups playing out in the German and American contexts?  Are German politicians’ responses to present threats informed by historical memories of the political chaos and murderous violence instigated by right-wing/shadow militias in the Weimar Republic?  How do you explain government officials’ consistent minimization of the threat posed by right-wing extremism in comparison to threats from the left and/or “foreign” terrorists?

Esther Adaire What strikes me as most immediately distinctive is that it is precisely Germany’s culture of historical consciousness which tends to drag such threats and scandals concerning right-wing extremism into the light of public and political scrutiny, whereas in the US a lack of historical reckoning means that the problem remains rooted deep within institutional structures.[10] This notwithstanding, it is becoming increasingly clear that extreme-right actors exist within the German police, security services, and armed forces in far greater numbers than German politicians have wanted to face up to over the last couple of decades. Journalists covering the recent scandal surrounding the Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK), an elite division of the German special forces which has been found to have close ties with Nordkreuz, a neo-Nazi veterans’ group, have been quick to comment on how often such cases are brushed aside as “isolated incidents” by members of the Defense Ministry and the Federal Government.[11] Moreover, at least as far back as the 2011 revelations concerning the National Socialist Underground,[12] activist groups have been lobbying for a full investigation into the presence of neo-Nazi sympathizers within the security services.[13] However, there has been resistance, predominantly from CDU politicians, when it comes to tackling the related issue of structural racism and extreme-right sympathizing within the police.[14]

Something I have learned from my research into extreme-right paramilitary groups in recent German history is that even in the 1990s, when German commemoration culture was really growing, there often occurred a dissonance between the commitment to historical consciousness professed by CDU politicians, on the one hand, and on the other hand the manner in which the CDU-led government minimized and dismissed evidence of extreme-right activity whenever it was brought to their attention by left-wing political groups such as the Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus (PDS, now known as Die Linke) or Alliance 90/The Greens. What the political left were already beginning to observe by the late 1990s—and this is even more visible today in the language and insignia of groups like PEGIDA and the AfD—is that the extreme-right has its own historical counter-memory which involves commemorating the fallen soldiers of the Wehrmacht in WWII, as well as viewing 1945 as a year of national defeat rather than liberation from fascism. While the shadow militias of the Weimar Republic resented the loss of WWI and the sanctions put on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, demanding the “revocation of the extorted acknowledgement of war guilt,”[15] present-day neo-Nazi paramilitia—along with the ideologues and politicians of the extreme-right—express resentment for the burden of guilt that Germany must still bear for the crimes of National Socialism. This was potently demonstrated by AfD politician Björn Höcke’s 2017 comment that “German history is handled as rotten and made to look ridiculous.”[16] This is a major challenge to the culture of lesson-learning and historical consciousness that has shaped so much of post-war (West) German politics.

Government officials’ minimization of the early concerns raised by left-wing politicians can be partly explained by the CDU’s contentious relations with the PDS, who, as the immediate successor party to the East German SED, were viewed by the CDU-led government of the 1990s as troublesome Ossi instigators (and were even briefly investigated for possible leftist extremism). The bigger and much more complicated picture, however, has to do with the ways in which Germany’s politics of historical lesson-learning is thrown into chaos by accusations that a culture of nationalistic militarism is alive and well within institutions which have ostensibly been molded out of commitment to democratic principles and civic responsibility. In Germany, militarism, uncritical deference to authority, and nationalist pride remain taboo—but taboo is precisely the point; AfD leader Alexander Gauland takes great enjoyment in rehabilitating Nazi-tinged terms such as Volk and Vaterland. In the US context it is far easier to trace normative paradigms between cultures of heroism and national pride within the military and its extreme expression in paramilitary groups of a neo-Nazi or white supremacist nature.[17]In Germany it is precisely these kinds of pre-political notions—which create a powerful affective bond amongst the extreme-right—that are supposed to have already been overcome, thus an unwillingness from government officials to fully confront organized extreme-right terror in the present.

EuropeNow How do you think about historical continuities in the context of January 6 and the continued strength of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), “Lateral Thinkers” or Querdenker, and the “Corona Rebels” who stormed the Reichstag in August 2020?

Esther Adaire I think it is important to be careful when measuring the valence of historical continuities, especially if one wants to understand the extent to which ideology motivates extreme-right actors. On the one hand, when delving into the conspiracy theories espoused by Querdenker or their US counterpart QAnon, one inevitably encounters many of the modern antisemitic tropes that have been recycled again and again since the interwar period.[18] On the other hand, the same things which motivated people then are not the same things which motivate people today, and key words and concepts have since taken on new meanings.

In the case of the AfD, rather than tracing an unbroken line of continuity from Weimar to the present, it is more to the point to recognize this party’s determined rehabilitation of terms and concepts which are taboo in Germany because of their associations with Nazism. Michael Wildt has recently analyzed the AfD’s use of the notions Volk and Volksgemeinschaft, building upon his previous writings on this as a fantasy about Germanic ethnicity, or “blood affinity” (Blutsverbundenheit).[19] The same concept, Wildt argues, is at the heart of the AfD’s understanding of German national identity; as much is clear from reading the party’s manifesto, especially the sections on immigration and family policy.[20] While once the notion of a racially homogenous Germany excluded—and eventually eliminated—Jews, Poles, Slavs, Roma and Sinti, as well as the disabled, homosexual men, and so-called ‘asocial’ subsets of society, today the AfD’s imagined Volksgemeinschaft opposes multicultural Europe, Islam, social welfare (for non-Germans), hetero-divergent family structures, and what is referred to as political correctness, trends that Samuel Salzborn and several others have also identified in their studies of the AfD.[21]

However—and Wildt notes this also— “Volk” has undergone a discursive transformation since the end of WWII. To give a recent example, something I noticed during regional elections in the eastern states in the summer of 2019 (which coincided with the build-up to the thirty-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989) is that the term Volk can now also serve as a potent reminder of the pro-democratic protest chants of 1989—i.e., “Wir sind das Volk”—a slogan the AfD adopted for their campaign posters that summer. (Another was “1989/2019: Vollende die Wende”). This is to say that when AfD spokespeople such as Gauland and Höcke relish their use of Nazi-tinged terms, they are also tapping into much more recent historical resentments—especially amongst Germans in the eastern states, many of whom are ambivalent in varying ways about the disappointments of unification.[22] This adds new layers of meaning to the Nazis definition of Volk.  In fact, with the emergence of groups like Querdenker and those “Corona Rebels” we have witnessed the rapid growth of a highly decentralized and at times incoherent movement which attracts some unlikely demographics to its base. Ideology has become merely instrumental.

Looking at the 38,000 person horde of anti-lockdown protestors who stormed the Reichstag in August 2020, who were characterized by journalist Anna Sauerbrey as “a strange mix of conspiracy theorists, far-right extremists and ordinary citizens,”[23] there were many familiar symbols and insignia that extreme-right protest groups have been utilizing for a few years already, such as the Imperial War Flag (which harkens back to a lost, great past, expressing nationalist fervor while circumnavigating Germany’s laws against the display of overtly Nazi symbols).[24] Yet there were also some new protest slogans, most prominently the overwhelming cry of frustration at COVID restrictions such as lockdowns and mask-wearing (which was insultingly compared both to slavery and to the Holocaust), and some confounding ones, such as the claim that Trump and Putin are working together to free Germany from an illegitimate democracy. And, again, there was the cry of “Wir sind das Volk” —in actuality a very select Volk increasingly comprised of elements as disparate as typical extreme-right thugs, anti-vaxxers from various age groups, and vegans.[25] The Querdenker (“Lateral Thinkers”) movement, as well as QAnon, undeniably belong to the vast constellation of groups and organizations that are considered an extreme-right threat to democratic norms. As their name suggests, Querdenker aim to challenge what they perceive to be dominant, mainstream narratives shaped by an increasingly liberal democratic order, which they hope to reclaim control of. Querdenker’s repeated challenges to the validity of the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz), viewed inaccurately as a relic from the era of Allied occupation, echoes the ever-growing Reichsbürger movement, which rejects entirely the legitimacy of the Federal Republic.[26] (The US counterpart to this might be the Sovereign Citizens, who are also considered an extreme-right terror group).[27] What these groups have been incredibly adept at is rousing popular fervor amongst demographics of people who have no personal history of right-extremism—“ordinary citizens”—and taking advantage of the fear and instability created by the pandemic, something also reflected in the crowds who took part in the January 6 storming of the Capitol building in DC.

In Germany, the historical continuities that are present reside not only in the continuation of Nazi beliefs and attitudes but also in the frustrations that have arisen as a consequence of Nazi defeat, which have festered throughout the post-war period and been further complicated by unification. Understanding these increasingly international movements in their US iteration (QAnon; Trumpism) will entail a closer look at more recent history, in which the idea that “the West” as a whole is under attack—from without by immigration and so-called “Islamization,” and within by leftist politics—has united extreme-right movements on both sides of the Atlantic, in online spaces as well as in physical, subcultural scenes.[28]

EuropeNow What are the pitfalls and blind spots you see in the efforts of democratic nation-states like the United States and the German Federal Republic to combat right-wing extremism?  What needs to change?

Esther Adaire I’m going to speak closer to the investigative level, here, as that is my current purview. Two major blind spots have been, firstly, lack of understanding regarding the decentralized organizational structure of the extreme-right, and secondly underestimation of the link between mainstream political rhetoric and incitement of extreme-right violence. For many years the security services in both the US and Germany appear to have miscalculated the potential scale that extreme-right terror can reach, in part because they have relied upon far-left and Islamist terror as a model for what terrorism looks like in terms of planning and execution.[29] In contrast to the large-scale and ideologically motivated attacks of far-left and Islamist groups, right-extremist terror is often characterized by spontaneous, “lone wolf” actors—for example Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Roof in the US, or Anders Breivik in Norway—who leave behind writings which, while infused with extreme-right ideology and conspiracy theories, are also deeply personal, playing into public fascination with condemning a criminally disturbed mind rather than confronting a broader political movement. Another factor which has repeatedly thrown off investigators is the comparatively “small scale” nature of extreme-right terror, which is nevertheless increasing—such as the numerous arson attacks on asylum hostels and foreign-owned establishments in Germany.

These factors do not, however, mean that the extreme-right is not organized and that it does not pose a long-term threat – rather that it looks different from far-left and Islamist terror and is by design decentralized and therefore more difficult to trace. There is therefore a need for updated counterterrorism tactics when it comes to the extreme-right. Daniel Koehler of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies has argued as far back as 2016 the need for a finer understanding of a tactic he calls hive terrorism, which he defines as “terrorist acts or violent hate crimes committed by a spontaneously-formed crowd that quickly disbands after the incident.”[30] This does not mean that the extreme-right itself acts spontaneously—rather that its core followers plan in the long-term to capitalize upon moments of social and political unrest over issues such as immigration, xenophobia, and perceived government corruption in order to generate spontaneous aggression amongst those who might not typically find themselves in an extreme-right milieu. January 6 absolutely fits into this blueprint at a grand scale. Yet, another deeply pressing element to what we saw on January 6, as well as in Berlin during the summer of 2020—and what we continue to observe as the Republican party doubles down on its alternate understanding of what occurred during the November 2020 elections—is the role of technology in galvanizing this popular fervor. The issue, as noted by former CIA analyst Martin Gurri in his work on this topic, is not merely that online spaces provide a means for extreme-right movements to become global in their connectedness and their influence. The bigger problem is the information insurgency that has fueled Trumpism and movements like QAnon and Querdenker in the era of social media and encrypted messaging apps, which could be understood as the viral potential of the extreme-right.[31]


Steve Remy The far right is baked into the cultures of both the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany to a greater extent than most people have been able or willing to acknowledge. In my view, this is the most dangerous blind spot threatening liberal democracy in both countries. Despite very different historical contexts, the blind spots have been perpetrated in the US and Germany for a number of similar reasons. Many liberal and moderate conservatives have contented themselves with believing that “we have dealt with the past.” Or, as Esther Adaire points out, that far right terror is perpetrated by deranged “lone wolves.” Another has been the failure to acknowledge and root out the far right in the military and law enforcement. A related shared problem is the willingness of too many conservatives to―at best―downplay the threat of far right terrorism in favor of persecuting the left, people of color, or more recently Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and “Islamic extremists.” At worst, there is barely camouflaged encouragement of far right violence – in the case of the US by a sitting president. Or, in the case of Germany, as the New York Times reporter Katrin Bennhold explores in her superb new podcast series “Day X,” active complicity in counter intelligence, local police, and the military has made it possible for a dangerous far right culture to thrive in the very institutions created to defend the country’s constitution.

Esther Adaire and others are certainly right in urging “updated counter terrorism tactics” to confront the far right. The accelerating reckoning with systemic racism taking place in the United States now is, in my view, essential to preserving and strengthening liberal democracy. The predictable backlash it has generated on the right means that this reckoning will be long, hard fought, and painful. In Germany, state agencies and countless individuals practicing what George Orwell called “common decency” have made the integration of thousands of refugees admitted in 2015 and 2016 a greater success story than many predicted, as Thomas Rogers described recently.

I also think about the response of some 65,000 Germans who in August 2018 attended an anti-racism concert in the AfD stronghold of Chemnitz put together only two days after thousands of far right activists briefly took over the city. The concert’s organizers publicized it on social media as #wirsindmehr—“there are more of us.”


Esther Adaire is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow in the department of History at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and an adjunct at The Cooper Union. Her doctoral research focuses on the relationship between memory politics and extreme-right terror in Germany since 1989, exploring the ways in which extreme-right terror has shaped, and been shaped by, differing cultures of memory in what was once East and West Germany, as well as the continuing social and political schisms that often still divide the western and eastern states. Esther also holds an MA and BA from Goldsmiths, University of London, where her research projects focused on Nazi Germany, antisemitism, and fascist aesthetics.


Steven P. Remy is a Professor of History at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center. He is the author of The Malmedy Massacre: The War Crimes Trial Controversy (2017), The Heidelberg Myth: The Nazification and Denazification of a German University (2003), and the forthcoming Adolf Hitler: A Reference Guide to his Life and Works (2021).


Elizabeth B. Jones is Professor Emerita of German history at Colorado State University.



[1] On Hitler analogies, see Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, “An American Führer? Nazi Analogies and the Struggle to Explain Donald Trump,” Central European History 52, no. 4 (2019): 554-587. On historical analogies generally, see Moshik Temkin, “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits,” New York Times, June 26, 2017 and Peter E. Gordon, “Why Historical Analogy Matters” and Samuel Moyn, “The Trouble with Comparisons,” The New York Review of Books January 7, 2020 and May 19, 2020, respectively.

[2] Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020). Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of illiberal Democracy.” Foreign Affairs 76, no. 6 (1997): 22-43. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democacies Die (New York: Broadway Books, 2018). Also see Anne Applebaum, The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (New York: Doubleday, 2020) and Yascha Mounk, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[3] Jeffrey Herf, “Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat mirrors the lie that fueled the Nazi rise,”

The Washington Post, November 23, 2020 and Benjamin C. Hett, “The Trump insurrection was America’s Beer Hall Putsch, Los Angeles Times, January 16, 2021.

[4] See David Leonhardt, “Why Liz Cheney Matters,” New York Times, May 13, 2021 and Joshua A. Douglas, “Republicans aren’t just making it harder to vote. They’re going after election officials, too,” The Washington Post, May 9, 2021.

[5] Joseph Goebbels, “Why Do We Want to Join the Reichstag?”, originally published in Der Angriff, April 30, 1928, and quoted in https://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/angrif06.htm.

[6] An important point made by Peter Fritzsche in Germans into Nazis (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999).

[7] See Jason Stanley’s analysis of the video played by Trump at his Ellipse Park rally on January 6, “Movie at the Ellipse: A Study in Fascist Propaganda” (https://www.justsecurity.org/74504/movie-at-the-ellipse-a-study-in-fascist-propaganda/).

[8] A point made by the American journalist Susan Glasser. See “Liz Cheney’s Thought Crime,” May 13, 2021 (https://www.newyorker.com/podcast/political-scene/liz-cheneys-thought-crime).

[9] Though we do have the precedent of a local successful coup by white supremacists, as David Zucchino reminds us in his recent book on the murderous take over of Wilmington, Delaware in November 1898, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020).

[10] See, for example, Linda Gordon, “What do we mean by Populism? The ‘Second’ Klan as a Case Study” Perspectives on History (September 1, 2017) https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2017/what-do-we-mean-by-populism-the-second-klan-as-a-case-study.

[11] Katrin Bennhold, “Body Bags and Enemy Lists: How Far-Right Police Officers and Ex-Soldiers Planned for ‘Day X’” The New York Times (August 1, 2020).

[12] Jacob Kushner, “10 Murders, 3 Nazis, and Germany’s Moment of Reckoning” Foreign Policy (March 16th, 2017) https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/16/10-murders-3-nazis-and-germanys-moment-of-reckoning/.

[13] For example, NSU-Watch: https://www.nsu-watch.info/.

[14] Deutsche Welle, “Calls for police racism investigation in Germany despite Seehofer’s disapproval” (July 10, 2020).

[15] Berlin Stahlhelm Manifesto, first published in Stahlhelm und Staat (May 8, 1927), quoted here from Anton Kaes, Martin Kay, and Edward Dimendberg eds., The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 339-340 (p. 339).

[16] Höcke quoted in Amanda Taub and Max Fisher, “Germany’s Extreme Right Challenges Guilt Over Nazi Past” The New York Times (January 18, 2017).

[17] See Kathleen Belew, Bringing the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[18] Julia Carrie Wong, “QAnon explained: the antisemitic conspiracy theory gaining traction around the world” The Guardian (August 25, 2020) https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/25/qanon-conspiracy-theory-explained-trump-what-is. Within Querdenker, another trend has been the cheapening of historical experience and almost deliberate misrepresentation of the Holocaust, as the wearing of masks during the COVID pandemic is equated to Jews being forced to sew a yellow Star of David to their clothing.

[19] Michael Wildt, Volksgemeinschaft als Selbstermächtigung: Gewalt gegen Juden in der deutschen Provinz 1919 bis 1939 (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2007); Volk, Volksgemeinschaft, AfD (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition Press, 2017).

[20] Das Grundsatzprogramm der Alternative für Deutschland (2016).

[21] Samuel Salzborn, “Antisemitism in the ‘Alternative for Germany’ Party” German Politics and Society, vol. 36, no. 3 (Autumn 2018), pp. 74-93; Marcus Bensmann, Schwarzbuch AfD: Fakten, Figuren, Hintergründe (Essen: Correctiv Press, 2017); Stephan Grigat, ed., AfD & FPÖ: Antisemitismus, völkischer Nationalismus und Geschlechterbilder (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlag, 2017); Gerd Wiegel, Ein aufhaltsamer Aufstieg – Alternativen zu AfD & Co. (Cologne: PapyRossa Press, 2017).

[22] See Florian Gathmann, “DDR-Bürgerrechtler wehren sich gegen AfD-Vereinnahmung” Der Spiegel (August 7, 2019); Emily Schultheis, “AfD Lays Claim to East German Identity” Institute of Current World Affairs (October 22, 2019) https://www.icwa.org/afd-lays-claim-to-east-german-identity/.

[23] Anna Sauerbrey, “Meet Germany’s Bizarre Anti-Lockdown Protesters” The New York Times (August 31, 2020).

[24] See Jan-Werner Müller, “Behind the New German Right” New York Review of Books Daily (April 16, 2016) https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/04/14/behind-new-german-right-afd/.

[25] Specifically, celebrity vegan chef and ultra-rightist ideologue Attila Hildmann, whose family is of Turkish origin.

[26] “Report: Far-right Reichsbürger movement is growing, building army” Deutsche Welle (December 1, 2018) https://www.dw.com/en/report-far-right-reichsb%C3%BCrger-movement-is-growing-building-army/a-42123450.

[27] Southern Poverty Law Center, “Sovereign Citizens Movement” https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/sovereign-citizens-movement.

[28] For more on this, see Volker Weiß, Die autoritäre Revolte: Die Neue Rechte und der Untergang des Abendlandes(Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta Verlag, 2017); Ali Winston, “A Portrait of the Fascist as a Young Man” New York Review of Books (October 22, 2020).

[29] For discussions about this in relation to the US-based white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations, see Jonathan Stevenson, “Hatred on the March” New York Review of Books (November 21, 2019) and Arie Perliger, American Zealots: Inside Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).

[30] Daniel Koehler, “Right-Wing Extremism and Terrorism in Europe: Current Developments and Issues for the Future” PRISM, vol. 6, no. 2 (2016), pp. 84-105.

[31] Martin Gurri, The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (San Francisco: Stripe Press, 2018).






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