Fascism Then and Now? Or Why History Matters

Photograph: Sam Garcia / The Hill Times.
The articles published on the New Fascism Syllabus website are intended to foster scholarly inquiry and enrich discussions and debates of topics thematically related to our project. The views expressed in the articles published here do not necessarily represent the views of the Editorial Board or its individual members.

This full version of this article originally appeared in The Hill Times.


Everywhere we turn, people are talking about history. And not just any historical event, our eyes are trained on the rise of fascism in the 1930s and whether we are living through a similar historical moment today. There can be no doubt about a sea change in how the United States is being governed in the short weeks since the inauguration of President Trump. But can this be likened to Germany in 1933 and to the crisis in liberal democracy that ultimately brought Hitler to power? This question lies at the heart of the New Fascism Syllabus Project I have created together with Lisa Heineman, professor and chair of the History Department at the University of Iowa.  This crowd-sourced compendium of news articles will serve as the basis of a course I’m designing at Carleton University next winter on populism as a global phenomenon. It asks students to consider how we might use the tools of history to think through the challenges of today? Is fascism the best term for the job?

The parallels between then and now are unmistakable. Yet there are important differences between how past populist-leaning governments on the left as well as the right have sought out the support of the people. Historians of Europe and Germany have been swift to take up the pen and lend our expertise to nuance the current debate. The New Fascism Syllabus curates the best of these articles from practitioners at the height of the craft and brings them to a wider public.

What we have shown is that history does matter, especially now, and that it is important that we get it right. Instead of simply labeling Trump a fascist (is he or isn’t he, and here one might easily substitute Wilders, Le Pen, members of the AfD in Germany etc), historians draw attention to the methods by which authoritarian governments take shape, taking note of the differing conditions of the day. Context matters. How, when, and to what extent populist ideas inform policy can shed light on the precariousness of our current times, while also hinting at ways to navigate through the abyss.

One thing is certain, authoritarianism thrives on the perception of crisis and chaos. Democratic nations are not exempt. History has taught us of our own country’s susceptibility to xenophobia and fear, when Canada alongside the United States turned back the ill-fated St. Louis filled with Europe’s Jewish refugees. It is not insignificant that the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum and several prominent Holocaust historians have criticized the Muslim Ban as similarly myopic, with dangerous consequences for us all.

In addition to polarizing debate over matters of immigration, historians have pointed to the dangerous precedent of chastising the media in the hope of sedimenting a particular version of the truth. Already in the 1930s, the Dresden philology professor Victor Klemperer noted in his diaries how the Third Reich had given birth to a new vernacular to promote it’s aggrandized sense of purpose and destiny. Language is important, and how governments, the press, and civil society create and reinforce the terms of political reference has bearing over how justly and humanely we navigate difficult times.  One major difference – and an important one – is that there remains in the United States a robust, free press. This certainly does not fit the mold of authoritarian regimes past and present. The question then becomes, how do we understand the appeal of false news to constituencies with equal access to good, solid facts? What does this tell us about the challenges we all face going forward if we can’t agree on the basic terms of debate?

The readings on the New Fascism Syllabus are not filled with doom and gloom. Some point to the role of civic opposition in bringing about tangible shifts in policy. Today too, we see ample evidence of the significance of public opinion, as people have taken to the streets and put in calls to their representatives to vocalize their concern. History tells us that an active, engaged citizenry is also a vigilant one. Perhaps this is the most important lesson of all.

Read more at The Hill Times‘ website: http://www.hilltimes.com/2017/02/06/fascism-now-history-matters/94574/

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