How Does America Get Its Dictator?

American Butterfly 19: How People Let Hitler Happen

J. Andrew Shelley
3 min readApr 29, 2022


Image licensed by author from Shutterstock. Gabriele Maltinti.

My schoolmates and I were spoiled with a fantastic history teacher in seventh grade.

A college professor from a Midwest university, he had supported his wife when she found her dream job in Memphis. Dr. Turner had bitten the bullet. He was certain he could find a university position in the Mid-South, but it might take a while. For a couple of years we had him at Academy School of Memphis.

Dr. Turner’s social studies/history class was one of the first to begin delivering real depth in our study of the past. Something more than the history of great men, great wars, and great countries:

The endless cause and effect of history and real people.

We were finishing a unit on America and Europe after World War I. Dr. Turner had covered the broader economic, social, and political trends. He brushed up just a little against the National Socialist German Workers Party (the Nazis) in Weimar Germany and was, I think, stopping before taking us into a totally different place next week.

It was towards the end of the day, maybe even a Friday. Most of us were a little asleep when a usually quiet student asked,

Dr. Turner, why did people let Hitler happen?

We woke up. It was the kind of question that we didn’t usually get away with.

Children in good families in the Eighties were supposed to be more sophisticated than to ask something like, “Why do bad things happen sometimes?”

The fact that it assigned some personal blame with the “let it happen” phrasing took it out of the abstract realm, too. I was interested.

Dr. Turner stopped, stared at us, walked around for a bit, and sat on his desk. He shook his head and said, “We don’t know for sure, but it is an important question.”

He paused further before rallying with an answer:

We see it at many places in history.

Maybe people are afraid for their future and angry about the recent past.



J. Andrew Shelley

People first. Ideas next. Top author in culture. More listening, more understanding, less outrage. Book: American Butterfly