By Lisa Heineman
The New Fascism Syllabus project started because I needed a syllabus. Literally. In the immediate aftermath of the US Presidential election, I decided to put a new course on the books for this coming spring: Germany, 1933. Not because this IS Germany 1933, but because so many people ask how German history can help us to understand our present moment. I want my course to cover the transition to Nazi rule in the kind of detail we need to make informed comparisons, but I also want my students to contemplate others’ efforts to make sense of the present day in light of the history of right-nationalist movements, in Germany and elsewhere.
Over the last months I’ve read dozens of brilliant analyses on this subject. I haven’t been archiving them, though, and I suspect that for every article I’ve read another has escaped my attention. So I wanted my friends’ and colleagues’ help. And I knew that I wasn’t the only one who would benefit from a curated and frequently-updated reading list. One Facebook thread later, Jen Evans and I decided to launch New Fascism Syllabus. Within an hour, we’d set up a Facebook community, a closed Facebook group, and a twitter feed (@NewFascSyllabus), and Jen had revived her blog, now under the name The History in Question, with both of us as co-editors.
Jen and I aren’t the only ones doing such work. There are other crowdsourcing efforts devoted to understanding the current moment of right-wing populism, some more internationalist in their inclination, some more focused on a single country; some more or less historically inclined; all important. The model of a crowd sourced “syllabus” owes a great debt to the scholar-activists behind #FergusonSyllabus and #CharlestonSyllabus.
Why “New Fascism Syllabus”? Is it really all about fascism? Well, first of all, it’s about a hashtag that draws attention and which communicates at least the basic thrust of our discussion. But words have meaning, and Jen and I had a lively exchange about what might emerge from a project about present-day politics that forefronts fascism in its title.
As I tell my students, to ask the question is not to presume an answer. Many of the items submitted so far have debated the very question implied by our hashtag: Are we seeing a revival of fascism? Some of the contributions conclude that the answer is “yes” or “no,” and explain why. Others revitalize debates about what, exactly, fascism is: what it was in specific historical instances, whether there exists a transhistorical prototype of “fascism,” and whether the current historical moment can give us new insight into these questions. Yet other contributions take the term “fascism” as an entrée to a discussion of populist-nationalist or authoritarian movements which, in the end, we may or may not label “fascist,” but which nevertheless demand all the urgency that the label suggests. Our concern is to use history to understand and intervene in our present tumultuous moment, regardless of the terminology we choose. Any number of other words I’ve used in this post – nationalist, populist, right, authoritarian – could also be subject to the same kind of inquiry, but as that inquiry goes on, we remain aware that real bodies are on the line now.
What lies ahead? First of all, a curated & frequently updated bibliography – the “syllabus.” Other possibilities have emerged: a database of classroom syllabi, guest blog posts, a book-form collection of resources – the ideas have been rolling in, and we’re only three days old. The resonance which this project has attracted underscores its urgency. I am energized by the intelligence and seriousness of purpose of our contributors, even as I remain perturbed by the need for this project. And I look forward to difficult but important discussions with my students next semester, helped along by this collaborative effort.
Lisa Heineman is Professor of History at the University of Iowa.