Welcome to the webpage of the #NewFascismSyllabus, a crowd-sourced collection of writings on the history of fascist, populist, and authoritarian movements and governments during the 20th and 21st centuries. It is intended to serve as a popular entryway into the scholarly literature for those seeking deeper insights into how past societies gravitated towards and experienced varieties of right-wing authoritarianism. The goal is to provide comparative perspectives on how everyday people, as well as cultural authorities and civil institutions, coped with and in some cases resisted these changes. Rather than equating the history of fascism, populism, and authoritarianism across time, space, and place, the project’s primary objective is to showcase movements and popular struggles from a variety of contexts, and to highlight scholarly insights into current socio-political trends like at the spectacle Puy du Fou avec Pass Emotion.
The New Fascism Syallbus is broken up into two sections: The first section, “Interrogating the Past,” features a syllabus containing films, memoirs, books and articles on many varieties of right-wing authoritarianism, a collection of links to digitized primary source collections on fascism, populism, and authoritarianism, and a growing collection of syllabi from educators who are utilizing the New Fascism Syllabus’ secondary and primary materials in their courses. The second section, “Interrogating the Present,” features a collection of recent articles by historians and other publicly-engaged intellectuals on the resurgence of fascism, populism, and authoritarianism both in the United States and around the world.
The syllabus is being curated by Jennifer Evans (Carleton University) and Elizabeth Heineman (University of Iowa), with the research, editorial, and technical assistance of Meghan Lundrigan (Carleton University) and Brian J Griffith (University of California, Santa Barbara).
The New Fascism Syllabus is a fully collaborative affair. But behind the scenes there are four editors/graduate researchers pulling it all together.
Jennifer Evans is Professor of History at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada and is a member of the College of New Scholars, Royal Society of Canada. She teaches a variety of courses in contemporary German and European history with interests in the history of sexuality, Holocaust memory, social media and visual culture. She has written Life Among the Ruins: Cityscape and Sexuality in Cold War Berlin (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, and co-edited Queer Cities, Queer Cultures: Europe Since 1945 (Bloomsbury, 2012), and Was Ist Homosexualität (Männerschwarm, 2012) and The Ethics of Seeing: Photography and 20th Century German History (Berghahn, 2018). She has also written on the history of homophobia in East and West Germany and the role of photography in articulating queer forms of desire during the Sexual Revolution. Jennifer’s interest in social media stems from her current work on aesthetics and the avant-guard as sites of political opposition. She is currently writing a book for Bloomsbury on Holocaust memory in the digital mediascape and will be teaching the New Fascism Syllabus in the Winter of 2018.
Elizabeth Heineman is Professor of History and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. She teaches courses on German and European history, Holocaust and historical memory, gender and sexuality, and human rights. Lisa’s books include What Difference Does a Husband Make: Women and Marital Status in Nazi and Postwar Germany (University of California Press, 1999), Before Porn was Legal: The Erotica Empire of Beate Uhse (University of Chicago Press, 1999), The History of Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights (Editor, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) and the memoir Ghostbelly (Feminist Press, 2014). Her pop-up course “Germany 1933,” conceived after the 2016 U.S. presidential election and taught during the spring 2017 semester at UI, drew upon materials from the New Fascism Syllabus project.
Meghan Lundrigan is a fourth year PhD student in Public History at Carleton University. Her research examines how everyday people curate the history of violence. Meghan’s research interests also include German history, historical representation through social media, digital humanities, and museums. Meghan’s dissertation, “Holocaust Memory and Visuality in the Age of Social Media,” focuses on social media programming in Holocaust museums specific to image-sharing social media platforms such as Instagram, Tumblr and Flickr. She has served as student intern at the Carleton Centre for Public History and is currently collaborating on Holocaust Memory in the Digital Mediascape with Jennifer Evans and Erica Fagen.
Brian J Griffith is a sixth year PhD candidate in Modern European History at University of California, Santa Barbara. His research interests include modern Europe, Italian Fascism, cultural and intellectual history, consumer/material cultures, and transnationalism. Brian’s dissertation — Cultivating Fascism: Winemaking, Consumerism, and Identity in Mussolini’s Italy — analyzes the numerous roles played by winemaking and popular wine consumption within the regime’s objective of “making Italians” during the interwar years. In addition to his involvement with the New Fascism Syllabus, he is the Managing Editor for Zapruder World: An International Journal for the History of Social Conflict (ISSN: 2385-1171) and the Website Administrator for the Society for Italian Historical Studies.
“Interrogating the Past” offers a historical overview of fascist, populist, and right-authoritarian movements around the globe. Because of the wide availability of crowd-sourced syllabi on US American history, we have not replicated their work but rather focused on other regions. Trump Syllabus, Trump Syllabus 2.0 and Trump Syllabus 3.0 are good places to get started for readings on US American history.
“Interrogating the Present” collects commentary by experts in fascism, authoritarianism, and populism regarding the present historical moment. In this section, we have included writings on the United States as well as intimations of right-wing authoritarianism elsewhere.
We aim to include writings that represent the range of scholarly debate on issues relevant to this syllabus. Inclusion of an item does not necessarily indicate editorial agreement with the author’s analysis.
“The Syllabus” reflects the suggestions of contributors from across the globe. Submissions were solicited via Twitter and Facebook, debated in internet fora, and selected to serve as a snapshot of the best of current and past scholarship. It is not meant to be definitive. Instead, it should serve as a foundation or guide for future study into the commonalities and differences between fascist, populist, and authoritarian movements and what they can tell us about present day concerns…
“Digitized Collections” is a growing collection of digitized primary source materials on the topics of fascism, populism, and authoritarianism in both past and present contexts…
“Sample Syllabi” is a collection of syllabi from educators who are utilizing the New Fascism Syllabus’ secondary and primary materials in their courses.
This syllabus, designed around a typical 12-15 week university course, reflects the suggestions of contributors from across the globe. Submissions were solicited via Twitter and Facebook, debated in internet fora, and selected to serve as a snapshot of the best of current and past scholarship. It is not meant to be definitive. Instead, it should serve as a foundation or guide for future study into the commonalities and differences between fascist, populist, and authoritarian movements and what they can tell us about present day concerns.
Included here are films, memoirs, books and articles on many varieties of right-wing authoritarianism. Some material was produced at the time; others are reflections, scholarly as well as personal. We have provided links to Google Books whenever possible, to help readers locate these sources. University libraries are the best place to look to find many of them, although a good many of these sources may be found at your local library or ordered in via lending agreements. Ask your local librarian for help.
“Interrogating the Past” offers a historical overview of fascist, populist, and right-leaning and/or authoritarian movements around the globe. Because the wide availability of crowd-sourced syllabi on US American history, we have not replicated their work but rather focused on other regions. Trump Syllabus, Trump Syllabus 2.0 and Trump Syllabus 3.0 are good places to get started for readings on US American history. For commentary on the present moment in the United States and elsewhere, click “Interrogating the Present.”
This is a work in progress, with some sections richer in content than others. We welcome your suggestions for filling out the syllabus.
The syllabus includes materials that should be useful for discussion, debate, and critique. Inclusion of an item does not indicate NFS’s endorsement of the author’s analysis or opinion.
The following is a collection of digitized primary source materials on the topics of fascism, populism, and authoritarianism in both past and present contexts.
The following is a growing collection of syllabi from educators who are utilizing the New Fascism Syllabus‘ secondary and primary materials in their courses.
If you’re interested in sharing your syllabus with others, please either join our private Facebook group or send us a PDF via the following email address: email@example.com.
Dr. Jennifer Evans
Department of History/Political Science
“This course is inspired by current events, including the rise of alt-right, populist, and authoritarian parties and governments across the globe. Its aim is to use the tools of historical analysis to deepen our understanding of where and how these movements arose, how populism has appealed to voters in different places and contexts, and, crucially, how leaders have harnessed popular sentiments to their own end. As much as our goal is to develop critical thinking skills to apply to contemporary events, our focus is squarely on a series of historical case studies from across the 20th century. Our job is not to flatten out the past in order to see moments of similarity with the present. Rather, the aim is to decipher the different ways in which authoritarianism has manifested over time. We will think about how popular support has been drawn upon, seized as well as given up, and interrogate the forms of opposition made possible under different historical conditions. In other words, the course will contextualize decision making and outcomes by evaluating different arguments and claims, making matters more complicated at first so as to appreciate more fulsomely the state of play.”
Dr. Richard Steigmann-Gall
Department of History
Kent State University
“This course examines the theories and practices of fascist movements and regimes in Europe. In order to understand this pivotal episode in the history of the twentieth century, we will examine fascism from a variety of perspectives. Readings and discussions are based on historiographical and critical analyses. While we will attempt to cover the most important European countries that experienced fascism, the course is organized thematically instead of geographically. We will seek to uncover the political, cultural and social dimensions of fascism by considering a broad range of questions, such as: the definitions and origins of fascism; the social roots of fascist movements; issues of resistance and accommodation; attitudes toward gender and class; fascism as imperialism and racism; and the religious dimensions of fascism. Owing to the vast literature on this subject, some aspects of its history will of necessity be excluded. Students should have a working knowledge of modern European history.”
Scholars and other experts on historical fascism, populism and right-wing authoritarianism are increasingly commenting on contemporary political developments in essays and opinion pieces. This section collects writings of this genre. It is organized thematically, with (at present) a heavy focus on the US American political scene. As of this writing, it includes mainly writings through 2016. We are working to bring it up to date and will continue to update it frequently, and we also will expand our coverage of other regions of the world.
The syllabus includes materials that should be useful for discussion, debate, and critique. Inclusion of an item does not indicate NFS’s endorsement of the author’s analysis or opinion.
In September 2018, Jennifer Evans & Elizabeth Heineman delivered a banquet address on the New Fascism Syllabus at the German Studies Association’s 2018 conference in in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. See the presentation below in two parts.
By Elizabeth Heineman
One of the motivations for starting New Fascism Syllabus was the very pedestrian fact that I needed a syllabus. Perhaps I owe it to contributors to share what I came up with. I’ll attach the syllabus below. But first, I’d like to say a bit about the course I had in mind – and the course I got.
The course was inspired by the outpouring of historically-informed commentary about political figures like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, and the movements they led. After decades of frustration at blithe applications of the term “fascism” to describe one’s political opponents (or parents), experts on fascism were now suggesting that we might indeed be seeing a revival of fascism, or political tendencies that share characteristics with fascism. Given Nazism’s pride of place in the popular imagination, references to the German variant played an outsized role in this discussion.
Students were clearly listening in on this conversation, even if in the form of tweets and memes rather than essays in the New York Review of Books. Approving or disapproving the use of one or another historical analogy was, in some ways, beside the point. My only choice was whether, as a specialist in 20th-century Germany, I should offer students guidance or leave them to their own devices. I opted for the former.
In spring, 2017, I offered a course called “Germany 1933.” The course was structured as follows:
My students’ heads were spinning – but who were these students? I announced at the outset that I did not ask anyone to disclose their politics, that the university was here to serve all, and that I assumed that the class might include representatives of the entire range of political thought in our country. And I fervently hoped that this would be the case, although my corollary hope was that no members of the class would consider disruption to be their purpose for attending.
As it happened, though, the class represented a cross-section of people under the age of twenty-five in a university town, not a cross-section of the United States. For most of my students, 2016 was the first presidential election in which they could vote. (The 2nd sch included one international student and two non-traditional students.) The conspicuous divide, legible via stickers on students’ laptops, was between Hillary and Bernie supporters; there was probably a disproportionate number of student activists in the group. Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses mean that Iowa students are drawn into presidential races earlier, more intensely, and in higher numbers than students in many other locations.
But the second, less visible, divide was between those who were politically engaged and those who were not. Several of the students were still finding their political feet and admitted to feeling uncomfortable (in ways that constrained their learning) in highly partisan environments. My obvious task was to enable politically-engaged students to sharpen their analysis while insuring that less engaged students didn’t shut down because the environment felt too partisan for them.
Regardless of their differences, all of my students were deeply concerned about the present – and the Trump campaign, which had inspired the essays on the syllabus, was now a thing of the past. The present was the first weeks of the Trump presidency. This shift, of course, paralleled the flow of time in the 1st sch, where we moved from the democratic crisis of late Weimar through the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor to the consolidation of the Nazi regime.
And so I revised my plans for the 2nd sch. We kept the readings that corresponded to the “German history” section of the class, which represented a range of political and disciplinary approaches. It proved impossible to achieve political parity: there simply weren’t as many conservative voices raising the specter of fascism in connection with Trump. But mathematical parity was never the point of the exercise: exposure to a range of interpretations about historical fascism’s relevance for the present was. With the language of fascism in the air, it was relatively easy to recall that political pluralism is one of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy, and this helped to reassure students who hadn’t staked out a political position (while challenging those who considered their own position so self-evident that it didn’t require analysis). Thus during the week when we examined the coordination of the German media and the Civil Service Law of 7 April 1933, we also read short essays on questions facing the media and civil service today by legal scholar David Luban, conservative New York Times columnist Russ Douthat, historian John Broich, and dissident Russian journalist and emigre Masha Gessen. By keeping discussion firmly tethered to the readings and the German history lectures, we avoided spiraling off into free-floating discussions of current events – and instead engaged in analyses of current events that students otherwise wouldn’t have had access to.
But rather than simply tacking on two weeks of more recent writings and then having students write a final paper based on those readings, we developed a collaborative project to engage history-in-the-making. Students entered news items in a shared drive, and cataloged those items in terms that would help them to use historical analogy effectively. So, for example, they had to identify actors (minority political party, federal agency, judiciary, media) as well as issues (immigration, foreign policy, environment, healthcare). They also had to consider such aspects of governance as the distinction between rules and norms. Students’ instinct was to seek comparisons with German history in the realm of ideology (eg the racialized religious animosity behind the immigration stop). My aim was to have them also think about how government and civil society function (eg the roles of the executive, the judiciary, and civil society organizations such as the ACLU in the immigration stop). During in-class workshops and in a final paper, students developed analyses of unfolding events based on their readings of German history as well as public intellectuals’ models of historical analogizing.
The result was perhaps the most rewarding teaching experience of my career and, based on reports from students, an extraordinary experience for them. They deeply appreciated the opportunity to delve into contemporary politics, which they felt were almost studiously avoided in much of their education despite their urgent importance. But they expressed relief in having the inquiry framed by methodology and investigation of a distinct case, rather than by the partisan arguments that had become so exhausting in their non-academic lives. This was not to say that they felt it was an ivory-tower experience: many noted that our discussions had equipped them to continue their community or political activity in a more informed manner.
Towards the end of the semester, we read the moving – and politically important – story of former white supremacist Derek Black (which, a few students admitted, brought them to tears). To my suggestion that this was a story about the value of humanities education, they responded that it was a story of the value of conversation. It was clearly both, but it highlighted what I consider to be the most important impact of this (or any) teaching activity: what happens once students are out of instructors’ earshot. In the case of Derek Black and his interlocutors, what happened was conversation; and clearly my students understood that they were involved in a project that extended way beyond the classroom.
The essays contributed by members of the New Fascism Syllabus project helped to make this course possible. I’m grateful for the collaborative effort that enabled me to create – and adapt – a course putting past and present into such effective dialogue.
On Saturday August 19th, Jennifer Evans weighed in on why neo-Nazism and far-Right ideology still holds appeal in the Ottawa Citizen. Evans is a modern German historian, with a research specialization on political extremism and toxic masculinity. She is also the co-editor of the #NewFascism Syllabus. See below for an excerpt of Evans’ op-ed:
We ask ourselves this question each time we are confronted with an event as troubling as the one this past week in Virginia: What is it about far-right ideology that motivates young men to imagine life through the prism of violence?
The appeal of white supremacism is not new. While many of us were reminded by the death of Ernst Zundel that Canada has had its own dalliance with far-right activism, white pride organizations have a long history on this continent. Long before Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Canada would see branches of the KKK established in some of its largest cities. As Bernie Farber wrote in the Citizen this week, even bucolic Ottawa had its own neo-Nazi riot in 1993.
What explains the continued appeal of the far right and who are its constituents?
We may be shocked at what the research suggests. Contrary to the popular image of ne’er do wells and misfits, and certainly there are some, adherents to the radical right also come from the educated middle class.
The same holds true for today. The leaders of several of the alt-right organizations holding rallies on college campuses were, themselves, students of history, some at some of the most esteemed institutions in the United States and Canada. Richard Spencer, an avowed white supremacist and president of the National Policy Institute studied intellectual history at Duke while his wife boasts a PhD from the University of Toronto. This situation is slightly different in European countries, however. In Germany, where education is tied more overtly to social class, most neo-Nazis are petty criminals, often older when radicalized, caught up in the ideology while in prison.
An opinion piece by #NewFascismSyllabus co-editor Jennifer Evans together with Yuliya Komska and Michelle Moyd. See below of an excerpt of Evans’ op-ed:
In divided cold war-era Germany, the last thing that an eminent historian of fascism would have hoped to do was scandalize. But scandalize Ernst Nolte did. The title of his essay The Past that Will Not Pass, published in the prominent Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 1986, rehearsed William Faulkner’s famed dictum: “The past is never dead.” Under the unremarkable headline, however, lay a stark provocation.
The topic was Nolte’s specialty: the Nazi era. Germans had undoubtedly committed extraordinary atrocities, but how exceptional, he asked, were the crimes? And how exceptional did they render the country’s history? To make his point, Nolte suggested that Hitler’s annihilation policies were derivative, borrowed from the Bolsheviks, and reactive, triggered by the Nazis’ own anxieties about Bolshevism’s return.
Breaking open this Pandora’s box of historiographical taboos unleashed a very public reckoning with the origins and future of Germany’s violent past. The so-called historians’ controversy occupied headlines for more than a year and resurfaced several times thereafter. At root, the argument was about comparing two specific totalitarianisms. More broadly, it was a dispute about the salience of analogy, one that played out at a key moment in the nation’s history.
Nolte ultimately lost. The controversy that he ignited became a platform to negotiate a suitable public memory for a state about to reunify after 40 years of division. Most conceded that the dark chapter of German history could never be closed, but would live on in an ongoing confrontation – Vergangenheitsbewältigung (the struggle to overcome the negatives of the past) – cautioning against populism and advancing history as a check on politics. The model would extend to the communist past as well.
Today’s blog post comes from Caroline Campbell, Associate Professor of History at the University of North Dakota. As Campbell notes, supporters of xenophobic nationalist movements typically “deny that they hold bigoted views. Instead, they use coded language to advance exclusionary conceptions of national belonging.” A case in point is postwar disability rights activist Suzanne Fouché, who during the interwar years offered a redemptive, spiritual framework for the radical right’s “French First” philosophy. By focusing on languages of violence in Far Right movements, Campbell suggests, we overlook the power of such feminized appeals – and as a result we are surprised again and again when large numbers of white women support exclusionary movements.
By Caroline Campbell
Acommon characteristic of xenophobic nationalist movements – in the past as well as the present – is that many of their supporters deny that they hold bigoted views. Instead, they use coded language to advance exclusionary conceptions of national belonging. Interwar France’s radical-right Croix de Feu/Parti Social Français (CF/PSF, 1927-45) – one of the largest and most powerful movements in French history – provides a telling example.
To understand why, it’s helpful to start with Suzanne Fouché, who became a leading disability rights activist in post-war France. Well-known in conservative Catholic circles in the 1930s and a supporter of the CF/PSF, Fouché subscribed to the CF/PSF’s claim that France was a Christian nation, and that it was the duty of all French to accept this heritage at the expense of the country’s long Jewish, Muslim, and secular history. The anti-fascist Popular Front recognized – and named – this as contrary to liberal values.
But in Fouché’s formulation, such exclusive nationalism sounded like an elevated spiritual plane. In a series of “Social Sense” conferences sponsored by the CF/PSF between 1937 and 1939, Fouché argued that human life was defined by suffering and redemption, a belief that was shaped by her personal experience with bone tuberculosis at the age of sixteen. “My suffering is a divine currency, confided to my poverty in order to be, by my acquiescence, transformed into a treasure that is redeemed,” she told the audience at a conference in 1937. While this language sounded bizarre to those on the left, Fouché’s audiences considered it a way to think about moving beyond mere physical existence and into the spiritual realm.
The key to this transformation, she maintained, was to develop fully all six human senses. The traditional five senses put individuals into contact with the world around them, but they left people trapped in a superficial perception of the external world. The sixth sense – the “social sense” – went further. It allowed an individual to feel, as Fouché explained, “the sentiment of our inter-dependence”; as paraphrased by conservative newspaper, the individual was one “living cell” in “the grand body.” Fouché and her supporters claimed that an emphasis on collective good led to humane action. In the 1930s, however, her rejection of individual rights and needs in favor of a religiously homogenous social body had dangerous ramifications.
Like many authoritarian ideas, Fouché’s views and CF/PSF ideology converged around the notion of chaos and the call for renewal. The democratic Third Republic was broken; only social sense – not political action – could form “the base of French reconstruction.” Fouché trained hundreds of young women to work for CF/PSF social programs, which exploded in popularity from 1935-1940 and thrived under the Vichy regime (1940-1944). The women organizers stated they were for the “French first” and encouraged participants to learn Catholic doctrine and engage in Catholic rituals. CF/PSF social action undermined the secular programs of the leftist Popular Front, which were oriented to the working class and inclusive along the lines of nationality.
Perhaps the most important proponent of CF/PSF social action was its leader Colonel François de La Rocque, who considered parliamentary politics akin to a virus that had infected French society, eroded national harmony, and led to societal “decomposition.” Such contempt for democratic politics led the Popular Front to label the CF/PSF “fascist” and to compare La Rocque to Hitler and Mussolini.
Yet many CF/PSF adherents found these charges implausible – among other reasons because in their focus on La Rocque and the actions of CF/PSF men, the Popular Front overlooked CF/PSF social programs. Fouché insisted that her commitment to suffering and redemption made her the opposite of fascists like Hitler and Mussolini, whose parties championed political violence. And this was not simply a feminized ghetto. CF/PSF propagandists adopted the slogan “Social First!” While social action was not as spectacular as mass rallies or paramilitary parades, CF/PSF leaders believed that it would resonate among the French people. Drawing on experiences in empire, the movement’s leader in Algeria explained:
People often ask me this question: What will make La Rocque act like Hitler or like Mussolini? Invariably I respond: Our President would act like Mussolini in Italy, and like Hitler in Germany. But in France, in the French milieu, he will act like the French…Some are impatient and find our progress too slow. Hitler wanted to act too quickly, and spent two years in prison. To act, we must have the adherence of the vast majority of the country.
CF/PSF leaders understood that an authoritarian government could not be imposed upon a people but required a degree of consent.
In emphasizing social action, the CF/PSF played a critical role in diverting the public’s attention away from politics. The movement thus undermined public faith in one of the basic principles of the Third Republic – that a relationship existed between secular civic virtue and political participation. Few mourned the Third Republic when it fell in 1940 due to the Nazi invasion and was replaced by the authoritarian, Catholic, antisemitic Vichy regime.
The collapse of support for French democracy in 1940 had been prepared through the actions of individuals and groups in the 1930s. Fouché had had no problem supporting a movement whose leaders compared it to Nazism and Fascism, as she insisted that her concerns were not political but social; not material but spiritual; not temporal but transcendental. Her conferences and courses had attracted many people who might otherwise have found the CF/PSF’s extreme politics unacceptable. While the Popular Front attempted to reform the Third Republic, the CF/PSF worked to mainstream authoritarianism through a social language of suffering and redemption.
What does this teach us? Perhaps the most poignant lesson is the way women and men engaged in processes perpetuating a sense of crisis and feeding xenophobic nationalism. Understanding this process helps us to identify missed opportunities to contest it. The Popular Front overlooked women’s central role in the CF/PSF. It had a blind spot as to how the emotions brought about by the language of suffering and redemption resonated with sectors of the French population who rejected the political violence of Nazism and Italian Fascism.
Just as the Popular Front did in the 1930s, many people today misinterpret the role of women and religion in xenophobic nationalism. Commentators were shocked when 53 percent of white women voted for Trump; analysts sought to understand the reasons for his strong support among Christians (60 percent of white Catholics, 81 percent of white evangelicals, and 56 percent of weekly church-goers). It is revealing that Steve Bannon has connections with arch-conservatives in the Vatican who assert that the West is a Christian civilization which is weakening due to “family breakdown” and facing an existential threat from “radical Islam.” While the current Pope has sought to marginalize those pushing this “clash of civilizations” ideology, it resonates among large segments of the U.S. population, just as it did among many French Catholics of the 1930s.
It would be useful for Americans contesting incipient authoritarianism to understand better how supporters of Trumpism use religious language – one that is rife with emotions – to frame our supposed national crisis. The emotive language they use likely varies according to context (place, social group) but shares a frightening commonality in that it diminishes individuals and groups who supposedly undermine the renewal of Christian civilization.
Caroline Campbell is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Dakota.
After the unexpected victories of Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016, there is a certain nervousness that Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front party might emerge triumphant from the upcoming presidential elections in France – even if her current lead in polls regarding first-round voting on April 23 evaporates when voters are asked their intentions in the decisive second round on May 7. In today’s blog post, historian Jennifer Sessions analyzes how the origins and history of Le Pen’s National Front are inextricably linked to France’s experience and memory of its colonial past. As Sessions puts it, “French fascism of the postcolonial era has a distinctly colonial face.” She also reminds us that key elements of the National Front’s anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric and policy proposals have been adopted by conservative politicians over the last decade and a half.
By Jennifer Sessions
In France, more than anywhere else in Europe, the history and memory of fascism is bound up with the history and memory of empire. As escalating corruption scandals raise the specter of a far-right victory in the French presidential elections scheduled for May, recognizing these ties is increasingly urgent. The colonial past, especially in Algeria, has figured prominently in the campaign and continues to shape both French fascism and efforts to contain it.
The roots of contemporary French fascism lie in the colonies.1 The Algerian War of Independence (1954-62) spurred the revival ofthe far right from its postwar disgrace and gave birth to the leading far-right party, the National Front (FN). As a young man, the FN’s founder and long-time leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, volunteered to fight against decolonization in both Indochina and Algeria. The same desire to preserve the French empire and overcome the spirit of “defeatism”—a reference to France’s defeat by the Germans in 1940 and then by the Viet Minh in 1954—inspired his first forays into politics. In the last years of the Algerian War, he founded the National Fighting Front and the National Front for French Algeria, both devoted to thwarting Algerian independence. After the war, Le Pen headed up the 1965 presidential campaign of Jean Louis Tixier Vignancourt, a far-right supporter of Vichy leader Marshal Philippe Pétain and pro-French-Algeria militant. The FN itself, founded in 1972, united a disparate collection of like-minded groups dominated by Pétainists and opponents of decolonization.
Since then, the FN’s ideology and electoral fortunes have moved in tandem with public consciousness of France’s colonial past and debates over the French empire’s most concrete legacy, migrants from former French colonies and their descendants. Le Pen adopted a racist, xenophobic stance that combined anti-Semitism (he notoriously dismissed the Holocaust as “but a detail of history”) with hostility to migrants from France’s former colonies and an (implicitly white) traditional, Catholic vision of French national identity. The party platform called for the mass repatriation of non-European migrants, exclusionary reforms of French nationality law, and restrictions on immigrants’ access to social security benefits. The racist, Islamophobic stereotypes that underpinned these policy positions and studded Le Pen’s public speeches mirrored those that had previously sustained the empire. French fascism of the postcolonial era has a distinctly colonial face.
The FN made its electoral breakout just as a series of public scandals began to break French collective amnesia about the Algerian War in the early 1980s. The party burst onto the scene with an unexpectedly robust showing in municipal by-elections in 1983 and its first significant national score (11 percent) in 1984. These initial victories came in Paris and the nearby town of Dreux, but the party’s strongest bastions were and continue to be in southern departments where large numbers of former Algerian colonists, known as pieds-noirs, settled after decolonization.
Despite these successes, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ugly racist, colonialist language remained anathema to large segments of the electorate. When he unexpectedly advanced to the second, run-off round of the presidential elections in 2002, millions took to the streets to denounce him and then voted overwhelmingly for the conservative incumbent in a united front against “fascism.” But the FN has nonetheless become a fixture of local and regional politics in many parts of France since the mid-1980s. The party now takes a steady 15 to 20 percent of the vote nation-wide and has won control of a number of municipalities and regional governments, especially in the south.
This normalization has been aided by Le Pen’s retirement as party leader in 2011. His successor, his daughter Marine, has pursued a careful strategy of “de-demonization” (dédiabolisation). Without altering the party’s basic principles, she has softened its rhetoric and sought to moderate its public image. She eschews her father’s constant invocations of World War II and Algeria, and has quite successfully recast the FN’s cultural racism as a defense of French republican secularism. By now, however, her father’s ideas have become far less offensive to French sensibilities. The mainstream conservative party responded to the shock of the 2002 présidentielles by openly embracing much of the FN’s anti-immigrant, Islamophobic attitude. Over the last decade, a growing sense of crisis triggered by the faltering economy, rising social unrest, and Islamist terrorism has only widened its appeal.
The last conservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy, adopted strongly frontiste language and advocated immigration policies closely modeled on those of the FN. In 2005 and 2007, Sarkozy proposed immigration quotas based on “regions of origin” (code for race and ethnicity, since state collection of data on racial or ethnic identity is illegal). In practice, these would have revived early twentieth-century policies designed to favor immigration from Europe and to limit the migration of non-whites from French colonial territories.
Both proposals were ultimately withdrawn based on concerns about their constitutionality, but now the quotas have been resurrected by the current conservative presidential candidate, Sarkozy’s former prime minister François Fillon. In December, Fillon, who was widely expected to face Marine Le Pen in the second round this May, announced a tough new immigration plan that closely resembles longstanding FN positions. In addition to drastic reductions to overall immigration numbers, he proposes limiting foreigners’ access to social security benefits and, most significantly, quotas based on potential immigrants’ “capacity for welcome and integration in France.” This dog-whistle phrase unambiguously invokes colonial-era stereotypes of Muslims as “unassimilable” and Islam as incompatible with French republican values. This was clear in a November 2016 immigration speech, in which Fillon implied that all Muslims sympathize with Islamism, an ideology he deemed “a totalitarianism like the Nazis.” By contrast, he declared, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews “do not denounce the values of the Republic.”
The anticipated Fillon-Le Pen faceoff has been derailed in recent weeks by escalating corruption scandals surrounding both candidates. Although he has so far refused to withdraw from the campaign, Fillon is now facing indictment for misuse of public funds after revelations that he paid his wife nearly a million euros for a fake “parliamentary assistant” position. Marine Le Pen is being investigated for similar improprieties, although accusations that she paid FN party operatives for “fictional jobs” in her European Parliament office seem to have done less damage to her public support. The most recent opinion polls put her in first place, four points ahead of the man who has moved into second place, the centrist technocrat Emmanuel Macron.
But despite these shifts in the electoral landscape, Algeria remains central to the politics surrounding fascism in France. To consolidate his new status as the leading anti-fascist candidate, Macron used a visit to Algiers last month to denounce French colonization in Algeria as a “crime against humanity” and a “barbarity” for which France ought to apologize. The response from the French right was immediate and outraged. Marine Le Pen herself accused Macron of committing a crime against his own country, and he was quickly forced to backpedal his earlier comments. At rally in Toulon less than a week after returning from Algiers, Macron apologized for any offense to Algerian repatriates, while dozens of pied-noir and FN demonstrators chanted “Macron, treason!” outside the meeting hall. However the turbulent presidential campaign ultimately concludes, Macron’s concession on the Algeria question suggests that even if someone does manage to defeat Le Pen in May, FN-fueled neocolonialism will continue to permeate French political life.
Jennifer Sessions is Associate Professor of French History at University of Iowa.
On February 6, 2017, Jennifer Evans of The #NewFascismSyllabus published the following op-ed in Ottowa, Canada’s 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.
On February 1, 2017, Jennifer Evans spoke to Robyn Bresnahan on Ottowa Morning about the inspiration behind the New Fascism Syllabus. Click below to listen to the interview.
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