As a historian of the Third Reich, I have found the comparisons made with increasing frequency between Trump’s America and Nazi Germany deeply disturbing. Even subtracting the Holocaust from the equation, it’s obvious that the Nazi dictatorship and American democracy in its Trumpian incarnation are utterly different animals. Congress has not been suspended. Paramilitary groups have not been given free rein on the streets. Concentration camps have not become an accepted part of law enforcement, however grim the conditions in detention centers on the border.
And yet, the many troubling challenges to democratic norms and the cruel treatment of immigrants in the last 2 ½ years have caused the Nazi past to come unbidden to the minds of many. Troubling, too, is the fact that so many elites — be they lawmakers, judicial figures or media conglomerates — are aiding such actions. Popular support for the administration’s policies can give rise to a feeling of paralysis and powerlessness.
It’s this sense of powerlessness, rather than structural similarities, that draws echoes for me from my research on the early 1930s and Germany. The speed with which basic principles of fairness have been degraded in our own time gave me a new appreciation of the shock and helplessness that anti-Nazis felt in 1933. Yet my research on the efforts of one such Nazi resistance group, called the League: Community for Socialist Life, or simply the Bund (or association) as its members referred to it, also gave me a feeling of hope.
Formed in the Ruhr region of western Germany in the 1920s, the Bund — part commune, part left-wing political party, with a couple of hundred members, plus many more occasional participants — aspired to create a new and better society with a strong ethical foundation. The arrival of the Nazi dictatorship turned their world upside down.
Rapidly declared illegal, its headquarters were surrounded by armed Stormtroopers, and several members spent weeks incarcerated in makeshift concentration camps. Yet for all the outright terror, what was most debilitating for them was the sense of isolation within a great deal of “normality.” In 1933 Germany, if you were not directly targeted by the regime as a racial “other” or a dissident, life went on much as before.
The indifference and cooperation of neighbors and even their own relatives were alarming to Bund members. How hard it was, in the face of general support for the regime, “not to lose one’s faith,” wrote the Bund’s leading figure, Artur Jacobs.
As the political situation became more deadly after the nationwide violence of Kristallnacht, Bund members resolved to “break out of their reserve” and “overcome the isolation” of the most vulnerable, namely the Jews. Initially, this meant small gestures of solidarity — bringing flowers to cheer a despondent family, reaching out to Jewish strangers, helping to clean up after the looting, or crossing the border into nearby Holland to deliver uncensored news and requests for assistance to relatives abroad.
When deportations intensified in the Ruhr region, Bund members assisted Jews in preparing for the unknown, provided rucksacks, bedding and other materials they believed might help them survive the brutal conditions into which they would be sent. Members and friends sent hundreds, probably thousands, of parcels to Jews deported to Poland, to the Theresienstadt camp and even to those sent to Auschwitz (though there is no chance the gifts were received). The group saved at least eight people from deportation by providing them with places to stay and organizing and sharing rations. The Bund also reached out to assist foreign forced laborers working in nearby factories with food, clothing and moral support.
As I was finishing my book on the Bund, acts of contemporary assistance and resistance abounded in the news. A new “underground railroad” was forming in the U.S. to help migrants seek asylum at the Canadian border. A range of groups, from the Border Angels to the Texas Civil Rights Project, were stepping up their actions on behalf of migrants on the southern border. Volunteers were launching local collection drives to gather hygiene and household necessities for migrants detained along the U.S.-Mexico border. Nonprofit shelters were providing accommodations for migrants released from the detention centers.
Of course, these activists don’t face the risk of death, as did helpers of Jews in Nazi Germany. (Some, however, are subject to significant legal threats. Scott Warren, for example, will face a second trial in November on two felony charges for assisting migrants who crossed into the Arizona desert illegally.)
But paradoxically, what’s inspiring about the Bund is not just that they behaved bravely, but that most members were neither fearless nor foolhardy. They did not post illegal leaflets in public places, for example, because such acts could be punished by concentration camp or death. Some men in the group were conscripted, and refusal would also have meant death. But they felt implicated by what the regime was doing and took a stand.
Critically, their pre-Nazi ethic of working toward the good society was always also about the politics of the personal. They were used to addressing individual ethical choices with the utmost seriousness. Women were strongly represented in the group from the beginning, and even more so during wartime. That also helped to camouflage the group’s resistance, since the regime did not view women as serious political actors.
The Bund wrote more than once that what it did was just “a drop of water on a hot stone,” to use the German phrase. Its followers knew that as much as helping others, they were lightening their own burden of conscience.
For decades, the group went unrecognized because its careful actions were not the stuff of legend. But it is precisely the attainability (with commitment, care and courage) of everyday virtue that makes it a worthy model. “You courageous woman,” wrote Isa Hermanns, a Theresienstadt survivor to a Bund member, Else Bramsefeld, after the war. “You must hear it from me again and again and allow me to tell you again and again that these parcels from outside gave me the will to survive, gave something so horribly meaningless some meaning, somehow held me steady; in short, they helped immeasurably.”
The lesson to be taken, even in the worst times, is that small steps make a difference.
Mark Roseman is a professor of history and the Pat M. Glazer chair of Jewish Studies at Indiana University. His latest book is “Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany.”