The pitfalls of underestimation

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A charlatan, the media said, a ranting clown, a demagogue. And who were they talking about?  Not Trump in 2016, as it happens, but Hitler in the early 1930s.

There are always parallels in history, and lessons if we care to look, and these observations from an article in the  Guardian in November 2007 by Sir Ian Kershaw, professor of modern German history at the University of Sheffield, are very apt for right now, in the aftermath of the US presidential election, though it was written almost a decade ago, long before Trump’s political ambition had asserted itself.

Because of that, the point being made in Kershaw’s article is prescient not because it compares Trump to Hitler, but because it considers how Hitler was perceived by mainstream media and how slow British newspapers, in this instance, were to recognize Hitler’s ascent to power.

On September 29,1930, Kershaw writes, the Guardian dismissed Hitler as “the ranting clown who bangs the drum outside the National Socialist circus”. Few things were less likely than that Hitler would gain sole power in Germany, the paper asserted.  But by 1932, as the crisis of German democracy deepened, British newspapers devoted far more attention to Nazism. Even so, Kershaw notes, underestimation of Hitler was commonplace.

On February 21 1932 the Observer described Hitler as no more than a demagogue propped up by financially powerful nationalists, Kershaw writes, but the paper reversed course following his candidacy for the Reich presidency in March, when it wrote (March 20 1932) that it would be wrong to regard him  “as a mere agitator and rank outsider”.

“Here, as in the Guardian (which still implied on March 30 1932 that Hitler was no more than a charlatan) the emerging view was that he was a ‘moderate’, who might possibly develop into a statesman, but could not control his own violent and unruly movement.”

Does of any this sound familiar in the light of the past 18 months?

In a more recent post-mortem, writer Richard Ford (a Clinton voter) struck a contrite note about his own sin of underestimation  in the Guardian today (November 11): –

“A famous American jurist, the tartly named Judge Learned Hand (1872-1961) wrote once that the spirit of liberty . . . is that ‘which is not too sure it’s right’.

“One thing I was wrong about, ” writes Ford, ” – one of several – was to violate Judge Hand’s injunction. By thinking I knew what was best for the other fellow – supposedly all those rural or rust-belt, under-educated, under-employed white guys, or Latinos or blacks who don’t feel sufficiently noticed by their elected officials – I was wrong by feeling so sure I was right.

“I most certainly publicly and unreservedly derided their candidate –  calling him a moron, an incompetent, a liar, a boob, a puerile charlatan, a huckster and a sexual lout, along the way to promising as many readers as I could that this man would never, ever be president. Which, it appears, is the second thing I was wrong about, but never for one moment doubted until sometime late on Tuesday night.”

The full text of Kershaw’s piece can be read here: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2007/nov/14/research.highereducation

And Richard Ford’s here:  https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/11/blame-me-i-voted-for-hillary-clinton-us-elections-richard-ford?CMP=share_btn_link

 

 

 

 

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