Nazi Germany and Vaccines

Nazis and Vaccine Passports and Mandates

Educated citizens are necessary for a healthy democracy.  It has become all too apparent that an increasing number of citizens have a very limited understanding of history and literature.  A lot of people like to invoke Nazi Germany or George Orwell in arguments opposing the government policies intended to combat the spread and effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.  It is not my intention to argue whether these policies are good or bad–it is my intention to get bad arguments out of the conversation.

The above image is an example of a bad argument.  The poster maker clearly has an extremely superficial and sentimental understanding of history.  The argument here is that the Nazis were primarily the sort of people who limited the freedoms of their citizens.  As a totalitarian regime, they certainly did restrict freedoms.  But this is not what National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s was all about.  And it’s not why they are still held up as among the greatest criminals in history.

Consider, which government besides the National Socialists, has put restrictions on the freedoms of its people?  Stalin?  Yes, Stalin’s Communists certainly did.  But, he is another guy you ought not to reference when you are objecting to vaccine passports, and for the same reasons as you shouldn’t reference Nazis.  While we are talking about Communism, let’s put China on the list.

OK, who else has restricted the freedom of its citizens?  How about every government that has ever existed?  It’s what governments do.  To advance the common good, governments restrict individual freedoms.  Every American and Canadian government has done it.  The best governments restrict freedoms; the worst governments restrict freedoms.

Thus, it is absurd to argue that our current government’s pandemic policies are like Nazi policies just because they limit individual freedom.  Arguably because they are designed to protect people, they are not like Nationalist Socialist policies that involved the systematic identification, humiliation, and murder of six million Jews.   To make such a comparison belittles the tremendous suffering of Hitler’s victims and it trivializes the heinous crimes of the Nazi regime.

“If You’ve Ever Wondered . . . “

I’ve read quite a few books about Germany in the 1930s and I have a sense as to how National Socialism got into power.  I have often wondered if such a thing could happen today.  I no longer wonder.  The last 10 years has convinced me that it could easily happen again.  The last months, with the vaccine kerfluffle, even more so.

The above poster targets compliance as the problem.  I suppose the logic goes something like this: Hitler came to power because freedom lovers refused to stand against him.  If you wear masks and get vaccinated, you are the same as the people who easily caved to the Nazis and let the Holocaust happen.

There are many problems with this comparison.

First, the Nazis didn’t get into power because of a compliant majority.  Hitler and the National Socialists never had more than 38% of the popular vote.   He got control of Germany with the support of a passionate minority.  What is instructional here is the nature of that passion.  Where did it come from?  In whom was it exploited?  How was it manipulated?  And to where was it directed?

So how did Hitler come to control Germany in 1933?

In the early 30s, The German people were living in “unprecedented times.”  They had high unemployment and had to line up for food.  Inflation wiped out the savings of the middle class, and then The Great Depression hit and everything that was bad, got worse. Combine all this with the bitter pill of the Treaty of Versaille and you’ve got a lot of turmoil.  Political demonstrations and counter-demonstrations and then violence.  The political parties had their own paramilitary units.  All this drove people from the centre to the right and to the left.  Hitler focused on the right.  Society was changing–people had to adjust from living under a monarchy to a democracy.  Add to that, women were working and they had won the right to vote.  New values were replacing old values.  In 1932, the right-wing, using methods similar to what we find on social media today, played upon the fear of the left and warned of an impending Communist Revolution in Germany.

Because there was no center, no government could ever achieve a majority.  Consequently, no one could govern for long and no one could govern effectively.

The conservatives, under President Hindenberg, brokered a coalition with the Nazis and offered Hitler the chancellorship.  Support for the National Socialists was waning and this offer from the conservatives was enthusiastically accepted.  The radical step could be taken only because the left had been demonized.   The conservatives thought they could control Hitler.   Just four weeks later, the Reichstag, the lower house of German democracy, was attacked by arsonists.   Hitler declared an emergency and Hindenberg was compelled to suspend all basic civil rights and constitutional protections.  Now he was free to deal with his enemies.  Hitler blamed the left and arrested trade unionists and Communist leaders, expelling even the legitimately elected Communist delegates from the parliament.  With the Communist delegates removed, the Nazi Party had a majority.  And the rest is, as they say, history.

“Now You Know”

So, there are significant misunderstandings of history in an attempt to equate government policies for dealing with Covid-19 and the rise of National Socialism.

The problem in Germany before 19330 was not those who obeyed the government.  But there was a problem–some people accepted lies and half-truths for truths.  They accepted the narrative that separated the US from THEM, and they abandoned the centre, where the truth was and went to the extremes.  They believed what Hitler said about his political opponents.  They believed that they could hitch their wagon to the Nazis in order to gain control over their political enemies.

But is there anything we can learn from history?  Does understanding the rise of the Nazis help us in our current situation?  I think so.

  1. Citizens need to be very aware that democracy is never in more danger than in “unprecedented times.”
  2. We need to understand that the threat is not who we are being told it is.  The threat is non THEM–the people on the other side of the political spectrum.  The threat is not the “enemy” before us, but the “friend” behind us.
  3. Do not allow the lies and half-truths spread by those “friends” to pull you from the centre.  Don’t listen to those we seek to inflame the fears and the conflict–the politicians who are only interested in votes or the media personalities only interested in subscribers.  You can find them all over social media.  Social media is emptying the centre.  This, and not “them,” is the true threat to our freedom.
  4. Conversations about things like vaccine passports and individual rights are very important.  Those on the extremes have no interest in such conversations.  They don’t want us to have them.  Reasonable discussions of complex issues will bring people toward understanding other perspectives and will end up with compromises and safeguards.  This sort of thing is a threat to the “ultras” who want others to join them on the fringes.    Consequently, they will ignore complexity and seek powerful emotions by invoking Hitler and the Holocaust.  Or Stalin and Communism.  Or whatever.

Some of the compliant people referred to in the poster above are people that have not yet been radicalized–they live in the centre.

If you are concerned with losing our rights and freedoms as did the German people in 1933, make a poster that says something like, “Don’t believe, the lies–join me in the center, and let’s talk about this.  I’ll bring the beer.”


  1. RK Henderson

    Excellent, Trent. I’ve always made essentially similar arguments: that intent is the difference between the policies of dictatorships and democracies (though the latter can delude themselves as to what they actually know and what they really want), and that peer pressure is the flywheel of totalitarianism.

    I’m going to share this post Out There. Cool heads are at a premium today.

    • Trent

      Thank you, Robin. As you are a historian, I hoped you’d stumble across this and find it agreeable.

  2. Chad brown

    You had me at beer.

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