After Charlottesville clash, history professor heard echoes of an ugly era

Laurie Marhoefer researches and teaches about Germany from 1918 to 1945.

When Laurie Marhoefer was growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, the history of World War II was all around her.

Her parents shared memories of their childhoods during the war. Her father talked about food rationing; her mother lived on a base that housed German POWs. She also heard firsthand stories of Holocaust survivors who lived in her community. “And then the movie “Schindler’s List” came out and the Holocaust Memorial opened in Washington, D.C.,” Marhoefer recalls.

In college, she developed an interest in history, particularly European history of the 20th century. “It was such a dramatic time,” she says: World War I, the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, political extremism and weakened governments. “And the Nazis came out of nowhere, with a message that was completely different,” says Marhoefer. “At first, nobody took them seriously.”

A class on fascism inspired her to go on to earn a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Weimar and Nazi Germany. In 2016, she landed a faculty position in the UW History Department, where she teaches, conducts research and publishes about politics, race, gender and sexuality in Germany from 1918 to 1945.

But it was this summer’s violent events, particularly the demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, where neo-Nazis and white supremacists came seeking attention and conflict, that stirred her fears. The Charlottesville demonstration carried a resonance to a time in Germany before the Nazis took power, says Marhoefer.

Violent confrontations with anti-fascists gave the Nazis a chance to paint themselves as the victims of a pugnacious, lawless left. They seized it.

Laurie Marhoefer

So much so that she decided to write about the tactics the Nazis used in the 1920s to play into fear, gain media attention and build public support. Through violent encounters with their political opponents, they were able to portray themselves as advocates for free speech, she says. “Violent confrontations with anti-fascists gave the Nazis a chance to paint themselves as the victims of a pugnacious, lawless left. They seized it,” she wrote.

Marhoefer’s article, which was first published by an independent media outlet called The Conversation, was picked up by and was cited in the Washington Post. She was also interviewed on NPR. “The piece was republished in a number of places,” she says. “People wrote and said thank you, some wrote and didn’t agree. And there were people who are further to the left who thought I was wrong.”

Why did she speak up? “I think in this moment, people are scared,” she explains. “I think people are looking around trying to figure out what action to take.” Our understanding of what unfolded in Germany as the Nazis rose to power has changed in the past 15 years, affording us a deeper look into how it came to pass, what the violence really accomplished, and maybe a clearer view of what is happening today.”