A New Look at the History of Fascism

For decades, third-year undergraduate History students at Melbourne have taken the subject Hitler’s Germany (HIST 30010). From Semester Two 2020, the subject will be expanded to cover the history of European fascism more broadly, reflecting the expertise of the subject coordinator, Dr Ángel Alcalde, who joined the History program in 2019 as Lecturer in Twentieth-century European History. He explains here the reasoning behind the subject’s re-design, and what students taking the subject can expect.

What’s the subject about, and why is this a subject worth studying? 

The subject Hitler’s Germany and Fascism deals with the historical origins, development and impact of Fascism and Nazism as ideologies, movements and political regimes in Europe and the World between 1919 and 1945. It’s hard to overestimate the magnitude of the importance of this historical experience, which still dominates the popular historical imagination. Fascism and Nazism caused an unprecedented destruction of rights and liberties, and the loss of millions of human lives. In other words, the direct consequences of the rise of fascism were the destruction of democracy, war and genocide. Understanding how and why this happened is one of the big questions that have relevance for all humanity.

There are also important reasons why understanding fascism has special relevance and urgency today, in light of current political trends across the globe, with the rise of different forms of ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, racism, and neo-authoritarianism.

The history of fascism and Nazism is something that most students will know a bit about from secondary school and from films and other forms of popular culture. But in this subject, we go much more deeply and seriously into the topic. Students will be exposed to the rich historical literature on the field and will learn about what the world’s leading thinkers have had to say about where fascism came from, where its appeal lay, what impact it had across the globe, and how we might go about identifying and responding to the warning signs of its re-emergence.

In recent years we’ve seen analogies with the history of fascism popping up more and more often in the public debates over contemporary politics. Media commentary on the latest actions by politicians like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump often draws parallels with historical events like the burning of the Reichstag, for example. Many historians have weighed in on these debates; leading historians of fascism and the Third Reich such as Richard J. Evans, Federico Finchelstein, and Ruth Ben-Ghiat have been vocal in their warnings about current trends, and have flagged up the historical connections and continuities between current politics and the 1920s–1940s past. There is no doubt that studying the history of fascism and Nazism provides crucial analytical skills to scrutinise and tackle the political challenges facing society at the present moment.

What’s the rationale behind the new scope for the subject? 

The subject has been redesigned in line with the latest developments in historical research on the history of fascism and Nazism, and with a special emphasis on helping students to understand the present in more critical ways.

The new version of the subject broadens substantially the scope of the content, both spatially and chronologically. There are a number of reasons why we decided to make this change.

The classic approaches to the history of Hitler’s Germany were embedded in a tradition of national history writing, where the history of the Third Reich was usually examined in the context of German history specifically. The big historical debates about whether Nazism was ‘unique’; whether German history followed a Sonderweg (special path); or what the driving forces behind the Holocaust were ­– all of these debates tended to stay firmly within the interpretive paradigm of the nation-state. As a result, the explanatory key for the history of Nazi Germany was usually provided by specialists on German history.

This historical approach informed how history was taught, but it led to a twofold problem. First, it meant that the historical significance and the lessons provided by the history of Hitler’s Germany remained encapsulated in time and space. A self-contained and conventional narrative of the History of the Third Reich – usually starting with Hitler’s childhood or the foundation of the NSDAP and ending with the Holocaust or the German collapse of May 1945 – became a kind of laboratory for students to observe the human potential for evil. Especially for students located outside Germany, this nation-state-based approach set up a certain distance between students and the object being studied. It arguably became more difficult for students to imagine that these were things that might happen in their own society, too.

Second, the fact that the history of Hitler’s Germany became isolated in this way from its wider spatial and temporal context, was one of the factors leading to the emergence of a curious kind of banalisation of the subject matter. Hitler’s Germany often came to be treated as a kind of outlandish, monstrous anomaly – something that was interesting partly because it was so inconceivable and difficult to understand from today’s perspective.

In the last three decades, there have been important transformations in how historians have approached the history of Nazism and fascism. More and more, historians have been recognising the fact that Nazism and Italian Fascism, and other fascist movements and regimes, were in fact part of the same phenomenon of ‘generic fascism’. This is an insight that came out of the so-called ‘cultural turn’ of the 1990s and the work of influential scholars like George L. Mosse and Roger Griffin. Yet, from other historiographical perspectives, too, Hitler’s Germany was resituated as part of a much broader historical process affecting the entire European continent.

But, even so, the nation-state was rarely challenged as the basic unit of analysis. ‘Comparative fascist studies’ tended to compare the history of Fascist Italy to that of Nazi Germany; other historical fascist or authoritarian experiences of the same period (Franco’s Spain, Vichy France, the fascist movements of different European countries) were merely juxtaposed to the comparative histories of the Italian and the German fascists, who still were treated as the standard model and measuring tools to analyse the rest.

It’s only in the twenty-first century that the transnational and global turn has led to a real transformation in the way historians understand fascism and Nazism. Instead of just comparing different national forms of fascism, historians have now started to investigate more complex questions about their mutual interrelation and interconnection. And as a result, we have started to uncover a European-wide phenomenon of interrelation, contact, and exchange between fascist movements, parties and regimes.

Today, historians are even venturing farther, charting the connection between European fascism and the world. It is now becoming clear that fascism was a global phenomenon, with deep impact in historical spaces like Japan, India, China, the United States, Australia and the Arab world. This transnational field of scholarship is where I position my own work. We are in an exciting and dynamic phase of scholarship, where we are beginning to understand how transnational the phenomenon of fascism really was.

Of course, when you think about it, you realise that history obviously does not stop at the borders of nation-states. And so there’s no reason to restrict the teaching of history to the self-contained framework of particular countries whose history is considered (unjustifiably) more important than others. Incorporating a transnational and global approach to history is more attuned to the urgent questions of today in a globalised world – and so this is what we want to encourage our students to do.

Along with this more critical approach to the historical space of fascism, there are also reasons to question the traditional chronology of the topic. Among historians there’s a growing interest in the history of neo-fascism, and the survival of Nazi ideology after 1945. Understanding the connections and traditions that link current extremist politics with the interwar past should be one of the key educational objectives of teaching about fascism and Nazism today.

L: “Mussolini” by Miguel Covarrubias, Vanity Fair, October 1932; R: Hitler, by Karl Arnold, Simplicissimus, 15 May 1932

All these reflections have informed the redesign of HIST 30010, Hitler’s Germany and Fascism. The subject places emphasis on Hitler’s Germany not because it was a ‘unique’ historical entity or because Germany is allegedly the crucial ‘piece of the puzzle’ for understanding twentieth-century European History. The focus is partially placed on Nazi Germany because the Third Reich became the main model (or counter-model) for new societal and political projects across Europe and the world, particularly during Hitler’s military domination of the European continent. But the subject also comes to terms with the fact that the actual roots of what became of Germany after 1933 were clearly located elsewhere, most importantly in Mussolini and Italian Fascism, itself another model for European fascists during the 1920s and for Hitler himself.

In general, the subject observes the transnational breeding-ground of ideologies and movements that preceded and outlasted both fascism and Nazism. Other historical experiences beyond the German case were more significant and influential for other societies. The subject, for this reason, includes modules on European fascisms, with particular attention to France, Spain and Britain, and on ‘global fascism’, which includes Australia. In this way, the subject becomes attractive not only to students interested in German History, but to those willing to understand a crucial experience in the history of Italy, France, Spain and the European continent and the world as a whole.

And this more complex understanding of historical space is accompanied by a wider chronological approach to the subject, with an examination of post-fascism after 1945. This enlargement of periodisation will give students skills to explore connections between the troubled interwar period and the societal troubles that they are witnessing today.

As in other third-level subjects in our program, there is a focus in this subject on historiographical debates. We’ll be looking at the numerous historiographical controversies that shape how Hitler’s Germany and fascism are understood today. Most of the debates among historians of Nazi Germany have been replicated in the historiographies of other countries affected by fascist experiences. By studying international historiographical debates and learning to establish connections across national ‘cases’, students will broaden substantially their interpretive horizon, their historical imagination, and their critical skills.

Do I need to be a History major to take this subject? 

No – the Subject is designed not only for experienced History students but also for those from any other discipline. All you need is a keen interest in the field; some very basic background knowledge about the twentieth century; and a disposition for critical reading, thoughtful discussion and writing.

How will the subject be delivered? 

In 2020, all teaching for this subject will be conducted online. Lectures will be made available on Canvas. Tutorials will take place synchronously by Zoom. We will meet virtually in Zoom tutorials to resolve questions that arise from the lectures, to dive into discussions of key readings in small groups, and to debate the different interpretations and findings of historians. Asynchronous options will be offered to students unable to join Zoom tutorials.

The subject assignments include writing a critical review of one of the many crucial books published by experts on the field (to choose from a number of options); three written tests to consolidate the learning of essential concepts and ideas; and a final research essay focused on investigating more closely and independently one of the multiple matters of past and current debate among historians in the field.

Dr Ángel Alcalde holds a PhD in History and Civilization from the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His latest monograph, War Veterans and Fascism in Interwar Europe was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. He has also published widely on the history of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) and the Franco regime, including two books. His research work on the history of fascism and Nazism has been published in leading academic journals such as the European History QuarterlyPolitics, Religion & Ideology, and Contemporary European History. He also specialises in the social and cultural history of modern warfare, with a special focus on war veterans, and in transnational, international and global history. He has been recently working and publishing on two research projects, one on war veterans’ international organisations, and another on sexual violence in the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime. He currently is co-editing a volume on the war-time ideological origins of Francoism and is broadly interested in exploring the relationships between war and globalisation, as well as war and genocide.

Feature image: Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana or del Lavoro (‘Palace of Italian Civilisation’ or ‘of Work’), EUR District, Rome. An example of Fascist architecture. Photographer: Ángel Alcalde