Listen to this article
The historian Fritz Stern fled the Nazis and helped pioneer the study of German history in the US. Before his death this year, he had been warning for some time of the signs of a resurgent fascism. He was not talking about the land of his birth.
Fascism in the US? The fear is surely overblown. Before we write it off, though, we might ponder what we have learnt about fascism in general, thanks to the work of Stern and others.
In some ways, it is hard to see any parallel between the Weimar Republic or Mussolini’s Italy and the world we live in. No one is calling for a single party state. There are no serried ranks of black- or brownshirts marching through the streets. There are no royalists who will embrace anyone rather than fall into the abyss of Bolshevism. If one thing lay behind the rise of the far right in the 1920s it was the shadow of the Russian Revolution and fear that it would spread. Vladimir Putin’s shadow may be long but it is not that long. Russia is a member of international society in a way that Lenin’s Soviet Union never was.
So things are quite different? Not so fast. Stern was worried about the corruption of public discourse and a world in which everything has become opinion. He would have been doubly alarmed by the impact of Twitter and the spread into mainstream media of conspiracy theories once found only on the margins.
We have tended to pathologise fascism and that makes its rise harder to understand. Faced with the triumph of the right in Europe between the two world wars, not just in Germany but right across the continent from Spain to Lithuania, historians talk about popular irrationality, about the mysterious charisma of the dictator, even of personality types that explain why swaths of population apparently wanted to be led. One thing that all these interpretations have in common is that they emphasise how different such people were from “us”.
Perhaps “they” had been traumatised by front-line experience in the first world war; perhaps they had lost all their money in the Great Depression. One way or another, so the story goes, there was something exceptional behind the shift to the right. It was, implicitly, a reassuring message. With Nazism defeated, fascism need never arise again. The beast had been slain.
And probably fascism will not return because it was after all a product of its times. But the racism and anti-immigrant feeling at its heart never went away. They became less acceptable to voice for a while, a trend which may now be going into reverse.
There is at least one other crucial respect in which the interwar years and ours mirror one another uncomfortably. What we should probably be thinking about is not so much who became a fascist as who lost faith in parliamentary government, in its checks and balances and basic freedoms.
Underpinning the rise of fascism was a profound crisis of liberal democracy. The real lesson waiting to be learned is from this interwar crisis of democratic institutions.
Before the first world war, people fought hard to expand the powers of parliaments and enshrine constitutions. Afterwards, with startling speed, these things lost their allure.
Across Europe, many blamed the power of the legislature for society’s woes and wanted to see more power in the hands of a single leader. Parliaments were written off as façades that rubber-stamped what unaccountable lobbies and elites demanded.
The most striking parallel of all: political parties moved to the extremes and spoke about one another as if they were fundamentally illegitimate. Judiciary and police became politicised. It is this crisis of institutions that provides the most striking parallel between Weimar and the US today.
Dictatorship never went away and may even be coming back. The latest example is in Turkey where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s assault on the media and the universities marks a new low for basic freedoms in his country.
But fascism was always about more than the dictators. Indeed, as the conservative political thinker Michael Oakeshott wrote decades ago, it is a kind of liberal illusion to focus on the figure of the dictator, as though one person was the only problem.
The real problems lie in the dictator’s shadow, in the conditions that enable the leader’s rise. The hollowing out of those basic institutions without which no modern state or society can govern itself, the extremism of political
discourse — these things are already with us. And seem set to persist in
The writer is professor of history at Columbia University