Gale Cengage’s Political Extremism Archive is important, as it is a major step forward in how people like me can teach, and research, the history of fascism. But why do we need to study this history? Why should universities invest in teaching students about fascism? I want to set out five key reasons why I think teaching fascism is important.
The first reason for studying fascism is that, in one form or another, fascists have had a major impact on shaping the history of the twentieth century. I have taught modules covering the history of fascism for over ten years now, introducing students to the innumerable fascist organisations that have emerged over the years. The first ones emerged from traumatised Europe after the First World War, they then rose and fell from grace in the middle of the twentieth century, and have continued to reinvent themselves right up to the present day.
As well as the well-known regimes in Italy and Germany, throughout interwar Europe a bewildering array of fascist movements were formed, from the British Union of Fascists to the Spanish Falange, groups that fantasised about creating ‘purified’ versions of their nations by overthrowing democracies they saw as decadent and weak. Historians of fascism such as George Mosse, and more recently Roger Griffin, have explored the intellectual richness of such fascist ideologies, as well as their racist dynamics, highlighting how fascists were ultra-nationalist revolutionaries, people who sought to create ‘alternative modernities’. Such historians highlight that fascists were not stupid, nor should we underestimate their abilities.
The history of fascism, and especially how the Nazi regime wanted to ‘purify’ Germany and Europe, explains to us how the Second World War broke out, why Germany wanted to carry out the Holocaust and the ways many others collaborated in trying to eliminate Jewish people. Furthermore, without understanding the responses to fascists by those who fought against the Axis powers, you cannot really understand why, during the 1940s, the United Nations emerged, and produced seminal documents such as the Declaration of Universal Human Rights. The responses to Nazi-led genocide across Europe during the Second World War have fundamentally shaped the world order that emerged after 1945.
The second reason to study fascism is that, despite this, it has not gone away. Of course, in the 1930s fascist organisations were able to come to power in places like Italy and Germany, while during the Second World War yet more fascist parties helped run countries, such as briefly the Iron Guard in Romania in 1940, or the Arrow Cross Hungary in 1944 or the Ustaša in Croatia from 1941. After 1945, though, true fascists have been on the fringes, not in charge of countries. However, there is a rich history of fascism to understand after 1945, and this is what I research.
For example, in Britain, new, anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi organisations developed from the 1940s onwards. In America by the 1960s, a younger generation of fascists also promoted neo-Nazism, such as George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party. British and American neo-Nazis in the 1960s even ran an organisation called the World Union of National Socialists, a clandestine network of neo-Nazis active in Canada, Australia, Western Europe and South America. In continental Europe, many new forms of fascism have developed since 1945, from terrorist groups in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s to intellectual movements such as the Nouvelle Droite. Analysing more recent forms of fascism helps us understand fringe political parties, as well as issues such as hate crimes and terrorism. Studying them also takes us into the cultic, clandestine worlds that more recent fascists have created for themselves, from the White Power music scene to the online realms of the alt-right.
The third reason to study fascism is that historians and others are increasingly realising that analysing fascists helps us understand anti-fascists as well. We are asking ever more questions about the people who reacted against fascism, and tried to stop its growth. The history of anti-fascism is not simply the history of another type of extremism, though some have used the anti-fascist label to justify violence. Rather studying the history of anti-fascism helps reveal the energies of a wide range of people who have tried to defend liberal democratic values in the face of fascist ideology. In Britain this has spanned revolutionary Communists to quite moderate Jewish organisations such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
In Britain, anti-fascist magazines such as Searchlight have also helped foster a culture where marginalised fascist and wider racist groups are identified and regularly called out. Part of the Gale Political Extremism Archive had digitised every edition of Searchlight magazine, from 1975 to the present day. It is a major element of British and international anti-fascist culture, and the digital resource allows future generations to study this important case study in anti-fascism.
Oral history of anti-fascists is also a growing area of interest, and the collection by Gale includes a wide range of oral history interviews with British anti-fascists carried out by the University of Northampton. By hearing their stories we learn that anti-fascists are people with rich, complex lives, people whose experiences in confronting intolerance and extremism offers many valuable lessons for today. Some of the most successful anti-fascists are not street-fighters, but rather include activists who promote community projects fostering inclusivity; or groups that document and create data forcing people in power, such as politicians and Governments, to act in order to defend human rights and counteract the influence of racist ideologues. The work of anti-fascists is often unrecognised, but they have played an important role in the growth of greater tolerance in the world.
The fourth reason to teach the history of fascism is that students often find it a really interesting, and relevant topic, in particular as it offers ways to reflect on many underlying moral issues. Teaching people about the Holocaust, from the perspective of perpetrators, eyewitnesses, victims and survivors, offers us important universal lessons on what happens when governments fail to defend the rights of minorities, and instead give licence to extreme reactions against them. Teaching the history of more recent fascist groups, such as Britain’s National Front or the British National Party, has also helped my students explore topics such as the rise of an increasingly multicultural Britain; the extent to which structural forms of racism in society have failed to tackle discrimination; and the ways such extremists have reinvented themselves by demonising migrants, or more recently Muslim people.
And the final of my five points is to highlight the central importance of primary sources for teaching the history of fascists and fascism. I have always taught fascism by getting students to read the writings of fascists. This is crucial to allow them to get into the mind-set of fascists, and understand how fascists themselves see the world. Even the most extreme fascists were real, three-dimensional people, not cartoon clichés of evil. Looking at the documents created by fascists helps us engage in what we might call ‘methodological empathy’, which is not the same as sympathy with fascist ideas of course.
Indeed, how can we think into the mind-set of Holocaust perpetrators, or neo-Nazis who promote terrorism? One way is to read their diaries; interpret their publications outlining how they wanted the world to be; reflect on their ideas on philosophy, art and architecture; and even listen to their music. These types of sources can be incredibly useful for understanding what fascism is, what fascists want, and why they see the world as deeply hostile to their interests. Critically interpreting the wide variety of sources created by fascists is a difficult skill set to teach, and is only really possible if we have access to the right primary sources to work from.
For several years now I have been using many of the primary sources related to British and American forms of fascism we have at the University of Northampton, such as publications from the American Nazi Party. Students have responded to this type of material in many different ways, interpreting for themselves links between historical forms of neo-Nazism and current extremism, such as the alt-right. One way or another, giving students hands-on access to such source material has led to some of the most complex and lively seminar discussions I have ever had. This is why I have been so keen to support the Political Extremism Archive, and why I think this is such an important and timely project.
Dr. Paul Jackson is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Senior Lecturer in History and looks after the renowned Searchlight Archive at the University of Northampton. See his profile here.
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