High School Teacher & Holocaust Expert Suspended for Drawing Parallels Between Trump & Hitler’s Rhetoric

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Image by Bahn Mi, via Wikimedia Commons

Frank Navarro has taught history at Mountain View High School for 40 years. He’s an expert on the Holocaust, having been named a Mandel Fellow for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1997, and studied at the International Center for the Study of the Holocaust in Jerusalem. Until last week, Navarro was co-teaching a “World Studies” course built around this lesson plan:

The purpose of this course is to develop an understanding of the historical, geographical, political, economic and cultural contexts that together create the modern world…. [Students will] focus on the major turning points and dynamics that shaped global history from the late eighteenth century to the outbreak of WWII. We will follow the State Curriculum Standards for World Studies for our subject matter including: Foundations of Global Civilizations, Enlightenment Revolutions, the Industrial Revolutions, New Imperialism, WWI, and the Rise of Totalitarianism through the Holocaust…

It was in this context that Navarro drew parallels between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump, citing how both political figures, as candidates, promised to expel foreigners and make their countries “great again.” What Hitler said about Jews has “remarkable parallels” to Trump’s comments on Latinos, Blacks and Muslims, Navarro told The San Jose Mercury News.

He’s also very quick to add one important caveat: He’s not saying Trump is the same as–or equivalent to–Hitler. Or that he’d govern like Hitler and commit the same atrocities. That would be “sloppy historical thinking,” says Navarro. But there are parallels in the racist political rhetoric, which is worrisome and worth comment alone.

Apparently nuance doesn’t go very far in Navarro’s school. When a parent emailed a complaint to Associate Superintendent Eric Goddard, he and David Grissom (the school’s principal) reportedly met with Navarro and decided to place him on paid administrative leave. In a letter to parents, Grissom apparently wrote: “Regardless of their political affiliation, many of our students show signs of emotional stress,” and the school has a responsibility to provide an “emotionally safe environment.” We’re not sure if coloring books and companion dogs were provided too.

Kids in my neighborhood will attend this high school. And I’m left wondering, what does Mountain View High School value? Indulging students and appeasing parents? Or giving students a facts-based education and grappling, when necessary, with uncomfortable questions? (History and elections aren’t always pretty. But they’re important to consider. Those who fail to learn from history, as they say, are doomed to repeat it.) And how about a commitment to academic freedom and a teacher who has given his entire career to the school? If Navarro feels thrown under the bus, you could hardly blame him.

In case there’s any doubt, Navarro is working in the world of facts. He sees the same parallels between Trump’s and Hitler’s political rhetoric as does Robert Paxton, America’s leading scholar on fascism. Although Paxton (like Navarro) takes pains not to establish an equivalence between Trump and Hitler, he does see parallels, or what he calls “echoes” of Hitler and other fascist leaders in Trump. Paxton told Slate earlier this year:

The echoes you can deal with on two levels. First of all, there are the kinds of themes Trump uses. The use of ethnic stereotypes and exploitation of fear of foreigners is directly out of a fascist’s recipe book. “Making the country great again” sounds exactly like the fascist movements. Concern about national decline, that was one of the most prominent emotional states evoked in fascist discourse, and Trump is using that full-blast, quite illegitimately, because the country isn’t in serious decline, but he’s able to persuade them that it is. That is a fascist stroke. An aggressive foreign policy to arrest the supposed decline. That’s another one. Then, there’s a second level, which is a level of style and technique. He even looks like Mussolini in the way he sticks his lower jaw out, and also the bluster, the skill at sensing the mood of the crowd, the skillful use of media.

I read an absolutely astonishing account of Trump arriving for a political speech, somewhere out West I think, and his audience was gathered in an airplane hangar, and he landed his plane at the field and taxied up to the hangar and got out. That is exactly what they did in 1932 for Hitler’s first election victory. No one had ever seen a candidate arrive by plane before; it was absolutely dazzling, the impression given, the decisiveness of power, of authority, of modernity. I suppose it was accidental, but wow, that is an almost letter-perfect replay of a Hitler election tactic. And the capacity of Trump to enlist working-class voters against the left is exactly what Hitler and Mussolini were able to do. There are definitely echoes.

Paxton has been teaching European history at Columbia University since 1969–a little longer than Navarro has been teaching at Mountain View High School. Presumably, Columbia’s administrators have given Paxton the freedom to write and teach history without regard for whether he’s drawing “emotionally safe” conclusions. And there’s no reason a high school history teacher shouldn’t enjoy the same privilege.

If the administrators at Mountain View High School think that we have the facts wrong, they can tell us in the comments below, and we will update this post accordingly. If the facts are essentially right, then Goddard, Grissom and the Mountain View Whisman School District owe Navarro an apology and immediate reinstatement. And they owe their students the chance to consider historical conclusions seconded by our nation’s leading historians.

Update:  Navarro was originally suspended from teaching on Thursday and told that he couldn’t return to the classroom until Wednesday, November 16th. According to reports we’re now reading, he was allowed to resume teaching this morning (11/14).

Dan Colman, founder/editor of Open Culture, has a Ph.D. in European History from Stanford University. He’s currently the director of Stanford’s Continuing Studies program.

via The Mercury News/SF Gate

Related Content:

Noam Chomsky on Whether the Rise of Trump Resembles the Rise of Fascism in 1930s Germany

How Did Hitler Rise to Power? : New TED-ED Animation Provides a Case Study in How Fascists Get Democratically Elected

Watch “Don’t Be a Sucker!,” the 1947 US Government Anti-Hatred Film That’s Relevant Again in 2016


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  • A says:

    How can this guy get suspended for presenting facts? I mean when you have the KKK openly supporting & celebrating a presidential elect you know there is a problem. We would be foolish not to speak out against this.

  • Michael D. says:

    We need to pay attention to the parallels, not to ignore them. In 1922, The New York Times reported that knowledgable sources thought Hitler used these tactics just to incite his supporters, but was not serious about them. Never again! But here we are…

    http://www.nytimes.com/times-insider/2015/02/10/1922-hitler-in-bavaria/

  • Jeremy M. says:

    Yet, just a few months ago, anyone citing “facts” to someone that was uncomfortable needed to allow them “safe space” to retreat to. In SA questing the voracity of black magic is met with derision these days. We have done an about face, get used to it.

  • Kathy says:

    Please keep us up to date on how this plays out. I agree the school owes Navarro an apology and immediate reinstatement.

  • Bernadette says:

    Trump’s hatred of Mexicans, Blacks, and Muslims is the same hatred Hitler had for the Jews. There is a parallel and it should be learned and never repeated again. Navarro should have never been suspended for teaching the facts. I also agree that the school owes him an apology and that he should be reinstated immediatedly.

  • Patricia says:

    Santayana is still correct: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We frown on book burning in a free society. We should also frown on free speech suppression on the part of those who don’t adhere to the principles of the first amendment, especially in academic circles. This school showed an unsettling lack of backbone in not supporting an expert’s right to teach critical thinking skills.

  • Daniel Marsili says:

    Thank you for this balanced and well written article. I now feel much better informed on a sensitive topic.

  • Maya says:

    It is important that students learn to be critical as well as analytical thinkers, being informed is part of that process. Parallels and comparisons have been made with regard to many politicians. Why now is it not okay? I would say now it is more important than ever.

  • azteclady says:

    It if frankly terrifying, to see how quickly institutions are bowing to pressure to appease Trump and his supporters, at all levels.

    I hope there is someone in the school district who pays attention to history, more than s/he pays attention to Trump supporters, parents or not.

  • Brad Dorr says:

    “The teacher was absent from his classroom for only a portion of one afternoon, and with full pay, while the situation was investigated. He was reinstated as soon as we were confident that the environment was safe for students and is back in class this morning.” – School website

  • Dan Colman says:

    According to the news reports I cited in the post, Navarro was asked to leave the school on Thursday, and he was originally told that he could not return until Wednesday, November 16th. I’m glad to hear that they apparently let him come back this morning.

    Dan

  • Randy says:

    “He’s not saying Trump is the same as–or equivalent to–Hitler”

    How convenient for him. But really anytime you compare anyone to Hitler, that’s EXACTLY what you’re saying, because there’s no other reason to do it.

    Until Trump says that some race is lesser than another, and should be exterminated, this comparison is disgusting, and insults both the victims of the Holocaust, and the American voters.

  • Randy says:

    “the capacity of Trump to enlist working-class voters against the left”

    This is only possible because the left was unable to nominate a candidate in a major party, and the only viable alternative to Trump was a center-right person called Hillary, who didn’t care about poor people, especially if they were white, straight, or male (God help them if they were all at the same time). Her support for lawbreakers, queue-jumpers, and the promoters of this century’s most significant terrorist ideology added insult to injury.

    The analysis I’ve seen shows that Trump was elected by an increase in non-white voters for Republicans, while Clinton lost white Democrat voters who chose to stay home. You’d never know it from the spin.

  • John says:

    To high school students everywhere: read Randy’s comments above to understand what a fascist apologist looks like.

    First, a few facts. Even Hitler was careful not to announce the extermination of Jews to the whole nation as part of his election. Indeed, he put himself forward as a statesmen for all of Germany, while making a lot of headlines about borders and revenge on good old nationalist principles. He was also careful to drop a lot of hints to his racist supporters that he would do what it takes to solve “the problem” of foreigners, and to make sure that Germans felt that most of their problems were caused by foreign groups within Germany and their supporters. There was also in Hitler’s campaign a profound lack of respect for the law combined with a feeding of fantasies of using the state as a tool for revenge against lawbreakers for which he already had a list and the power to decide. On Trump’s campaign, I think any objective observer can check all these boxes.

    Trump’s reckless rhetoric about the law (see instructing crowds to chant: “lock her up”; or his attempt to insinuate fraud in case he didn’t win) actually got very little analysis in comparison to their danger, and the degree to which they overthrow much of what is decent about the United States political tradition.

    But seriously, think about words before you use them. I have to wonder how in the world does the right-wing delusion machine get people to say things such as “[Hillary supported] the promoters of this century’s most significant terrorist ideology”? I have no idea what you are talking about and clearly you don’t either. But maybe you ought to look in the mirror and think about the use that fascists have made of that kind of vague, unfounded innuendo? Cure yourself, please, and maybe America can survive.

  • Tibor Sallai says:

    You can’t choose the people who support or like you. If you began to pick between the people who are like you and allow or forbid them to support you, then you are worse than KKK.

  • Tibor Sallai says:

    Nice try. Exclusion is a good weapon in the hands of a liberal thinker. He never allows it, but always uses it. I think I understand what Randy talks about. Think about those democracy export your country is doing in the past years. Thousands of American soldiers died in useless wars. The only result was ISIS. Think about the millions of dollars spent for war. And not for the rebuilt of your country. Health, education, industry is weak in many of the regions. You have great technologycal development, yet you use it for war and not for the benefit of people. Counties, cities which were industrial citadels, now are filled with unemployed people. You still pursuing oil, yet many of your greatest thinkers, artists, economists said, you have to change for the sake of humanity. Enough war. Time to build.

  • Ben Bergman says:

    I am considering going to Change.org to start a petition either to reinstate the teacher or to fire the Superintendent and Principal of this school. If firing the teacher is an appropriate response to one parent’s objection to him presenting facts as an acclaimed expert in this field, then firing the teacher is an appropriate response to, say, 2 million (?) registered voters objecting to his termination, right?

    I don’t think this is overreacting at all either. It’s now become incumbent upon us (unless and until the Electoral College votes “unfaithfully” on 12/19 to put HRC in office anyway) to be ultra-vigilant and fight exactly these kinds of signs of fascism and oppression of minorities and those who advocate for them, now that Trump is the presumptive President Elect.

    His apparent election, as projected by the news media outlets – despite HRC winning by 1.8mm votes, not even counting the International absentee ballots which are most likely uniformly in her favor since no one outside of the USA can fathom Trump’s suitability for the office – has shaken all of the nuts out of the tree. Swastikas are apparent all over major cities, so now we know what “Make America Great Again” intended to mean, as a secret code for White Supremacists.

    I don’t know exactly what the process of starting a petition on Change.org entails, but I’ll investigate it. If anyone has a better idea of how we can convince or compel the Mountain View Whisman School District to dismiss the Superintendent and Principal of Mountain View High School for this cowardly and egregious act, please post it here so we can rally as necessary in defense of this qualified expert veteran teacher.

  • Ben Bergman says:

    I just noticed the update that this teacher was allowed to resume teaching again this morning. That’s such a relief!

    He should never have been fired for doing his job anyway. The district is lucky to have such a specialized expert working there with such dedication for so long.

  • Amarylis Esquilin says:

    I’m a nobody compare to these professor or teachers of history, but when you compare something or someone to another is normally is to make a better sound decision, with that said, I’m a person who reads a lot and if I read or hear something said and I want to know more about it I research it read other material to get a more accurate picture and information. When our president elect Mr.Trump started his campaign I was one to immediately point out to my family how he sounded, in asking what I meant, I said pay attention to what he’s saying then read and make your own conclusions. Not only are my comparison of Trump to Mussolini and Hitler but also To Herbert Hoover. So if I a nobody come to this conclusion, a dedicated teacher like Navarro as well as a professor could do so to teach each and every one of us a thing or two about history, which by the way is not well covered in schools. Blessings y’all

  • Ted Brown says:

    I had the privilege of observing Mr. Navarro teach back in the spring of 1995, when I was preparing for a teaching credential–20 years later I’m still enjoying this career, and Frank, along with others, continues to provide inspiration. It does not surprise me one bit that he stepped up to the plate like this.

  • Ana Bastán says:

    It feels really sad to see americans discussing these topics. Really sad.
    Ana from Argentina.

  • Charlie says:

    And so, the repression of free thought begins.

  • Peacerunner says:

    The parallels between Trump and HItler are blatantly obvious. I am not an historian although I have participated in seminars about the Holocaust as well as research-based summer institutes for teachers. I had been planning to begin my WW2 literature unit a little early this year in light of the campaign and election situation. I guess I will have to be careful about how I teach but nothing will stop me from letting students uncover truths and parallels themselves.

  • Perks says:

    Thanks so much for this, Dan. We are all walking on eggshells in our classrooms these days, it is hard to do the right thing, especially when teachers suffer threats to their livelihoods as this gentleman has. We may have lost control of our national election, but there is still plenty of work to be done at the local level–sounds like Mountain Valley could use someone like you on their School Board!

  • F. Xavier says:

    As a fellow teacher, what I would do is to go teach elsewhere. Teaching at a high school is an obvious waste of knowledge and efforts. Why universities aren’t offering him a full time job?

  • Dan Colman says:

    It’s worth adding this as a footnote. It’s not only historians who see the similarity. It’s also the Jews (still living) who lived in Europe and managed to make it out.

    “This All Seems Very Familiar, Say Philly Holocaust Survivors”

    http://www.phillymag.com/news/2016/11/17/holocaust-survivors-hitler-trump/

    Dan

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