Patterns of History | Opinion

If you think the United States can't descend into another civil war, think again.

People sometimes wonder how a sophisticated, urbane country like Germany devolved into murderous chaos in the 1930s. Germany, home of Ludwig van Beethoven and Friedrich Schiller, cradle of European academic excellence and philosophy, was not a typical European colonial marauder.

But there are reasons that Germany, and not its neighbors such as France or Poland, succumbed to genocidal fascism. And while history doesn't repeat itself, there are recognizable patterns and signals.

One pattern is that losers fight back. After World War I, Germany was severely chastised by its European neighbors. Ordinary Germans felt punished, cut off, shamed. And the more Germans felt shunned, the more they needed to prove themselves. The Nazi Party was founded in 1919 by a small group of disenfranchised veterans; Adolf Hitler joined as the party's 55th member in 1919. To give themselves a feeling of strength, the party needed a destiny. They also needed someone to blame. And so they scapegoated the communists and the Jews. As Hitler himself said, he needed "one strong new idea to carry new strength to make Germany great again." His "strong new idea" had clear resonance: In 1932, nearly 12 million Germans voted for Hitler in a democratic election.

Another pattern is that democracy is not guaranteed, nor is it a right. It is a privilege, and it requires commitment. Germany became a democracy for the first time in 1919, the same year Hitler joined the fledgling Nazi party. But the Weimar Republic was unstable, with eight elections called in 13 years. Burdened by post-WWI restrictions, Weimar Germany became more polarized. Then it became more extreme. It was a slow, step-by-step process, but over the course of a decade, the extremists took power. Finally, they turned to violence.

Weimar Germany reminds us that polarized societies are weak societies, only a step away from becoming extreme. And a democracy is only successful when its voters are committed to it.

Another pattern is that crisis fuels extremism. In 1929, the Black Tuesday crash shook the global economy. It hit Germany harder than most, after ailing American banks withdrew the loans that were propping up Germany's postwar economy. The Nazis blamed the capitalists. As unemployment soared toward 30 percent, strong leaders claiming to have answers to the crisis grew more appealing. It was a perfect combination: An economic crisis imposed by outsiders, and a promised nationalist utopia to fight back against those outside enemies. It was what people wanted to hear.

Washington, D.C. Prepares For Potential Unrest Ahead
Weapons are distributed to members of the National Guard outside the U.S. Capitol on January 13, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

In America today, we are living in a time of crisis layered upon crisis. We are fighting the coronavirus pandemic—which ultranationalists call "the China virus." We have a crisis of identity, as seen through last summer's Black Lives Matter protests and tensions that have yet to heal. We are in an economic crisis, with millions still unemployed. If it gets worse—and the more political tensions rise, the greater the chance of economic collapse—we will have our own perfect storm.

And, as in Nazi Germany, conspiracy theories are flourishing in America. The insurrection in Washington last week was built upon them—theories of stolen votes and pedophile cabals. Conspiracy theories were the foundation of German National Socialism: Jews were deemed to be capitalists aligned with the American banks that left Germany's economy reeling. They were considered Communists, out for world domination. And the more the lie grew, the more people believed it.

We're seeing the same patterns and signals today, repeated in kind, if not in exact detail. Make no mistake: We could be well on the path to a civil war. If you do not think that's possible, remember that in the wake of WWI, a second World War, let alone a Holocaust—an event that scarred humanity for all time—was unimaginable. German Jews who happily vacationed in the mountains in the summer of 1939 were months later behind ghetto walls—and eventually perished in the crematoria of Auschwitz.

We in America have everything we need to resolve our present crisis peacefully. We have economic resources, a Constitution that protects us and a judiciary that is fair and independent. We have more opportunity per capita than most people in most countries could ever imagine. We have everything to lose and nothing to gain through violence.

Next week, when America inaugurates a new president, we have a chance to make a decisive shift. But the course we are on today will not end with a leadership change. It will only end when our society makes clear that Americans do not settle disputes with violence. It is why we have the ballot box.

But if you think we are not in an ideological war fueled by white supremacy, anti-Semitism, anti-Black racism, homophobia and conspiracy theories that undermine our government and society, you are no different from those Jews vacationing in the Tatra Mountains in 1939.

Stephen D. Smith is the Finci-Viterbi executive director of USC Shoah Foundation. He also holds the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education. He is a founder of the U.K. National Holocaust Centre and the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Rwanda and patron of the South Africa Holocaust & Genocide Foundation.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.