On the night of 9 August 1932, five uniformed Nazis S.A. men broke into the apartment of a Communist trade unionist and brutally murdered him. This became known as the Potempa Murder. Hitler sent this telegram to the culprits:
My comrades! I am bound to you in unlimited loyalty in the face of this most hideous blood sentence. You have my picture hanging in your cells. How could I forsake you? Anyone who struggles, lives, fights, and, if need be, dies for Germany has the right on his side.
Hitler could hardly have disavowed his followers. Instead, he forthrightly approved their conduct. In 1934 his government passed legislation granting amnesty to anyone in prison who had committed a crime “for the good of the Reich during the Weimar Republic.” The five were promptly released from prison. I am not the first to make this comparison, but the earliest example I can find is not particularly persuasive to me, as it refers to Trump’s pardon of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.
On 6 January 2021 Donald Trump gave a speech to his followers in Washington that by any reasonable interpretation urged his supporters to do more than march to the Capitol and yell for a while. His supporters broke into the Capitol and caused considerable damage. One of the insurrectionists died and a number of people were injured.
Trump was faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, he could hardly publicly favor federal crimes (although reports are that he watched the proceedings on television with considerable satisfaction). On the other hand, he could not condemn his followers for following his advice.
He hesitated for hours before saying anything before finally mildly urging them: “So go home, we love you, you’re very special.”
He avoided criticizing his followers. Some of his supporters immediately began spreading fantasies that the damage had been done by leftist Antifa provocateurs.
There is speculation that before leaving office he may pardon everyone involved. We shall see what the next week brings.
Both Hitler and Trump faced a situation in which their followers had committed acts that most of their countries found despicable. Both chose to defend their followers. A propaganda movement depends on loyalty to the leader, and those leaders know that unless they stand by their supporters, come what may, they risk losing those supporters.
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