Vermin

Sue Coe, Vermin, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Art by Sue Coe. Text by Stephen F. Eisenman

Trump and Hitler

Over Thanksgiving dinner, my sister and I argued about which of us first called Donald Trump “Hitler.” I finally conceded she did (way back in 2016) but that I deserved credit for making the point in a little book featuring art by Sue Coe.* I wrote there that Trump, like Hitler endorsed “palingenetic nationalism,” the idea that the nation is suffering from racial and political degeneracy and needed a man of iron will to effect a rebirth. Trump claimed, like Hitler, to be that man. He would: “Make America great again.”

Recently, the former president and attested sex abuser announced his plans if he is elected; they are brazen. He would undermine the impartiality of the Justice Department and destroy the independence of the civil service (the “deep state”). He’d make all education patriotic education; restrict abortion; police gender identity; and challenge the rules of post-election succession. We can expect Trump to continue to embrace a Republican culture of death: He consistently denies the facts of climate change (pledging to increase U.S. production of fossil fuels) and opposes any kind of gun control. He would invade or bomb Mexico to stop drug trafficking.

Trump recently announced his intention to use the Justice Department to indict political opponents. He also discussed plans to invoke the Insurrection Act on the first day of his term to enable him to round up thousands of undocumented immigrants and bar public protest. To help him accomplish this, he would appoint a team of lawyers whose allegiance was to him alone. No more of those old-fashioned pledges to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States”!

Using the German, World War II term for a lightning-fast military strike, Stephen Miller, Trump’s chief advisor on immigration, told The New York Times that the president’s attack on migrants would constitute a “blitz”. He added “Any activists who doubt President Trump’s resolve in the slightest are making a drastic error: Trump will unleash the vast arsenal of federal powers to implement the most spectacular migration crackdown.”

Trump’s post-election plans – broadly endorsed by Ron DeSantis and other Republican presidential candidates– can be summarized with a second German term: gleichschaltung. The word was coined by Nazi party officials and is translated as “bringing into line.” The Nazis devised a program to control both government and non-government organizations and eliminate all political opposition. The German artist George Grosz illustrated the concept in 1935 with a drawing that showed stormtroopers brutally rousting and corralling a pair of men. Coordination would occur at every level, from the heights of industry to quotidian life. (Even as he was attacking Nazism, Grosz relied upon caricature to represent a Jew in his drawing; that’s how far antisemitic ideology had penetrated national consciousness.)

George Grosz, “Bringing into Conformity,” Thirty Drawings and Watercolors, New York: Paul L. Baruch, 1948.

Das Ungeziefer” (vermin)

Until recently, one thing was conspicuously absent from Trump’s plans: details about how he would implement gleichschaltung. Now we have a better idea what he has in mind, and it’s positively Hitlerian: The establishment of vast concentration camps, as Miller proposes, for migrants and undocumented workers who have lived in the U.S. for years, even decades; exclusion or deportation of non-citizens with undesirable political beliefs; and “retribution” against political enemies, meaning prosecution and imprisonment. At a Veterans Day rally in New Hampshire, Trump vowed to “root out…the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”

The word “vermin” – in German “das Ungeziefer” – was frequently used by Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, and other Nazis to refer to Jews, Roma, queers, communists, socialists, and others considered undesirable. They picked up the term from, among others, the late 19th C. Italian criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, and the German/Hungarian physician Max Nordau who used it to describe the scourge of delinquency and the supposed degeneracy of contemporary literature and art. From them, and from the writings of Frederick Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler, the Nazis developed the idea that Jews, socialists and other proscribed persons were parasites, vampires, and vermin. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf: “[The Jew] remains the eternal parasite, a sponger who, like a terrible bacillus, spreads out more and more as soon as a favorable medium invites him to do so.”

When questioned about the Nazi resonance of “vermin”, Trump’s spokesman Steven Cheung both denied it and doubled down: “[T]hose who try to make that ridiculous assertion are clearly snowflakes grasping for anything because they are suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome and their entire existence will be crushed when President Trump returns to the White House.” Realizing that the phrase “entire existence will be crushed” sounded Nazi, Cheung amended his statement. He was only referencing his opponents’ “sad, miserable existence” he said, not their “entire existence.”

Here’s a longer excerpt from Trump’s now infamous “vermin speech,” posted by the ex-president on his Truth Social site:

In honor of our great Veterans on Veteran’s Day, we pledge to you that we will root out the Communists, Marxists, Fascists, and Radical Left Thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our Country, lie, steal, and cheat on Elections, and will do anything possible, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America, and the American Dream. The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous, and grave, than the threat from within. Despite the hatred and anger of the Radical Left Lunatics who want to destroy our Country, we will MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!

Compare Hitler in Mein Kampf, also commemorating fallen soldiers and demanding the expulsion from Germany of foreign elements, especially Jews and socialists:

[Following World War I] it ought to have been the duty of any Government which had the care of the people in its keeping, to take this opportunity of mercilessly rooting out everything that was opposed to the national spirit.

While the flower of the nation’s manhood was dying at the front, there was time enough at home at least to exterminate this vermin. But, instead of doing so, His Majesty the Kaiser held out his hand to these hoary criminals, thus assuring them his protection and allowing them to regain their mental composure. And so the viper could begin his work again.

Fifteen years later, at the Berlin Sportspalast on January 30, 1941, Hitler said: “Those nations who are still opposed to us will someday recognize the greater enemy within.” Extirpating this threat was the job of SS leader Heinrich Himmler. Addressing the mobile killing squads, euphemistically called einsatzgruppen — the “task force” tasked with killing the Jews of Eastern Europe–Himmler said:

You men of the einsatzgruppen are called upon to fulfil a repulsive duty. But you are soldiers who have to carry out every order unconditionally. You have a responsibility before God and Hitler for everything that is happening. I myself hate this bloody business and I have been moved to the depths of my soul. But I am obeying the highest law by doing my duty. Man must defend himself against bedbugs and rats, against vermin.

At the end of the war, Hitler looked back over the previous decades and summarized his aims: “To exterminate the vermin throughout Europe”, by which he principally meant Jews.

Artist unknown, “Vermin,” Der Stürmer, September 28, 1944.

An illustration on the front page of the Nazi weekly, Der Stürmer, published in the last months of the war, shows a giant centipede with bulbous nose, grasping hands, and eyes highlighted with a dollar sign (the capitalist) and hammer and sickle (the Bolshevik), the Jew’s two (contradictory) identities according to Nazi ideologists. “Jews are the source of our misfortune” says the text at the bottom of the page.

The unknown Nazi artist drew upon a long, visual tradition of human/animal hybrids. But whereas, the French Symbolist Odilon Redon’s Crying Spider looks at us imploringly – asking for kindness — the Nazi artist’s creature is both pathetic and pathogenic. He excites revulsion, not sympathy. Redon’s Symbolist art was specifically the type reviled by Nordau and later on the Nazis as “degenerate.”

Odilon Redon The crying spider Wandbild

Odilon Redon, Crying Spider, 1881, private collection (public domain).

When somebody – a Nazi or Donald Trump – calls Jews, Muslims, immigrants, Democrats, queers, Marxists or others, “vermin”, “parasites” or “vampires”, it means they consider them sub-human, diseased, and undeserving of life. In an October interview with The National Pulse, a far-right website, Trump might have been quoting Hitler verbatim: “Nobody has ever seen anything like we’re witnessing right now, it is a very sad thing for our country. It’s poisoning the blood of our country, it’s so bad and people are coming in with disease, people are coming in with every possible thing that you can have.” No Nazi ever spoke the blood libel more clearly.

No animals are vermin

To call someone or some group vermin, is also to malign animals considered vermin. In fact, just as no people are vermin, no animals are vermin. All animals are evolved to fit a given ecological niche; all are sentient (they avoid pain and seek pleasure); and many are both intelligent and empathetic, including rats, generally considered the ur-vermin. Recent research has shown rats’ capacity for “shared affective states” and concern for “the emotional condition of others.” If one rat sees another in distress, it will suppress its own upset to help the latter. Pigeons, chickens and other birds have the same capacities. It has recently been shown that roosters like dolphins, elephants, and chimpanzees, pass the “mirror test”, meaning they can distinguish between self and other, and are self-conscious beings.

The ascription “vermin” is solely based upon an animal’s impact on humans; Rats for example, can reduce or contaminate food stocks, if no precautions are taken. They can damage infrastructure by chewing holes in walls and floorboards or through the insulation of electrical wires. Rats may be disease vectors, most famously for bubonic plague, though in that case, it was the fleas transported by the rats that carried the disease.

But since bubonic plague is no longer a significant source of global disease and death, and since food stores and even most homes are easily secured against rats, why are they still the focus of so much obloquy? The reason is historical prejudice — and because rats are useful for racists and fascists to think with. Whenever they wants to stir hatred or deny moral consideration to a minority or migrant community, they invoke the bogey of rats as vectors of disease. That’s what the Nazis did in cartoons like the one above showing Germany sweeping itself clean of rats (with caricatural Jewish noses) while so-called “democratic countries” deny them entry. It’s what anti-migrant journalists and cartoonists in Europe and the UK still do, and what Trump and his Republican followers promote. In a grotesque inversion, the terms “vermin,” “animals” and “beasts” are now being deployed by some Israeli Jews against Palestinians. For them to speak like Nazis while deploring Hamas violence, undercuts their legitimacy.

Cartoon depicting Jewish refugees as rats, thrown out of Germany and Nazi occupied territories, denied entry to Europe, published in an Austrian newspaper Das Kleine Blatt in 1939.

Artist unknown, “Germany for the Germans,” Das Kleine Blatt, Vienna, Feb. 2, 1939.

Sue Coe’s drawing, published here for the first time, exposes the internal contradictions of the word “vermin” as applied to either humans or animals. It shows the former president squatting on a toadstool, throwing a tantrum, observed by thoughtful and sensitive animals (so-called vermin!) in a forest clearing. The rats, mice, rabbit, snail, and moth (holding a lantern) watch the performance with a combination of amusement and alarm. They know that the only creature acting like a beast – like vermin — is the bawling human. The phantom above who sternly presides over the scene is Hitler.

* American Fascism Still (Detroit: Rotland Press), 2022, p. 12. Also see American Fascism Now (Detroit: Rotland Press, 2020); and forthcoming: The Curious Child’s Guide to American Fascism, (New York: OR Books), 2024.

 

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. He can be reached at: s-eisenman@northwestern.edu