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Remember “The End of History?” Elizabeth Drummond, who spent the 1990s studying at Georgetown University, recalls Francis Fukuyama’s groundbreaking essay well, which announced “an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.” The Soviet Union had just collapsed in a peaceful devolution, Germany was reunified as Champagne popped alongside the crumbling Berlin Wall and democracy seemed to be inevitably settling across the globe like a gentle rain. Politicians in the U.S. talked about a smooth and comfortable “third way” between Left and Right.
“There was a lot of optimism,” Drummond remembered. The topic of her studies — European Fascism of the 1920s and 1930s — seemed distant in both time and place.
But a quarter-century later, things look a bit different. Around the world, democracy appears to be losing ground to authoritarian populism in places like Hungary, Poland and the Philippines. Neo-Fascist, anti-immigrant movements brew in much of Europe and the United States. American politics is polarized in a way it’s not been in a century. And whatever’s going on in Venezuela, Turkey, Russia and North Korea, it’s hard to describe them as democracies.
Today, the subject of Drummond’s research no longer feels like a black-and-white film from decades ago.
“When I was a grad student, I didn’t think the link between past and present would be this strong,” says Drummond, now a professor at Loyola Marymount University. “One of the challenges of teaching history is to make it relevant. But I’m not sure modern European historians ever wanted to be this relevant.”
One of the challenges of teaching history is to make it relevant. But I’m not sure modern European historians ever wanted to be this relevant.
Drummond is not alone in seeing these connections. College students, book buyers and newspaper columnists are taking a renewed interest in the bad old days of interwar authoritarianism, as well as books about threats to the present. Several scholars have even started a crowd-sourced website called The New Fascism Syllabus.
The last few years have not been great for democracy around the world. But they have been, for people who write about or teach the subject, good for business. As a book review from the Washington Post put it, “Fascism is back in fashion.”
Despite parallels like attacks on the press, racial scapegoating, demonization of opposition parties, or the constant sense of alarm dictators rely on, no credible observer says that Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the leaders of Brexit or Vladimir Putin are replays of Hitler or Mussolini.
But some in the literary world are taking more direct looks at authoritarian regimes of the past and present, while trying to imagine the future.
In the immediate aftermath of the election of President Donald Trump, a number of novels about authoritarian states — George Orwell’s “1984,” Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 book “It Can’t Happen Here,” Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” in which the demagogue Charles Lindbergh defeats President Roosevelt – saw their profiles rise. Some even returned to the bestseller list. Readers continue to consume authoritarian fiction – British author John Lanchester has a new dystopian novel called “The Wall,” inspired by American insularity and the Brexit vote.
Other writers have been perceptive to the global political shifts. Recent books — Pankaj Mishra’s “Age of Anger,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s “How Democracies Die” — have become steady sellers and regular references for political commentators.
We never fall twice into the same abyss. But we always fall the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread.
Charles Hauther, head buyer for Los Feliz’s Skylight Books, says globally focused books like these sell better than anti-Trump tomes, and some old texts about authoritarianism are returning. “‘Anatomy of Fascism’ is back in style,” Hauther says of the Robert Paxton title from 15 years ago.
Some books — like Madeleine Albright’s ”Fascism: A Warning” from 2018, informed by her family’s flight from Nazi-occupied Central Europe — have a personal angle. Some aim for a mass audience, like 2017’s “On Tyranny,” by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. Others — “Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany,” by Claremont McKenna College historian Jonathan Petropoulos, or this year’s “Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism,” by political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart — are scholarly but also readable for a general public.
Authors are also searching for root causes, like Jonathan Weiler, a political scientist and YouTube star interested in the “authoritarian personality” and co-author (with Marc Hetherington) of “Prius or Pickup?” Even more broadly, London economist William Davies writes in the new “Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason” that these shifts are caused by that fact that truth and rationality itself are now under assault.
Ziblatt cites income inequality, the lack of civics education and the disappearing of public spaces as potentially increasing the erosion of democratic norms. “The main way democracies die used to be military coups,” says Ziblatt. “Now it’s elections.”
Teachings on totalitarianism
Students have been intrigued by Nazis and Fascism for decades, but their interest has surged alongside global changes taking place from Beijing to Brazil. Ziblatt offered a Harvard class on the subject last autumn: 150 students applied for 12 spaces. When he originally offered the course, in the wake of George W. Bush’s wars in the Middle East, he called it, “Is Democracy Possible Everywhere?” Now, after the failure of democratic nation-building in the region and the widespread eruption of authoritarianism, he jokingly refers to it as, “Is Democracy Possible Anywhere?”
Students are not only enrolling, they are making connections between what they study and what they read in the news. It was exactly those parallels that drove Eva Baudler, an LMU junior whose grandparents were German resistance fighters, to take Drummond’s course on Nazi Germany. The first day involved watching a short film about the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va.
This is not just an American phenomenon but a worldwide problem.
Still, the resurgence of racism and strongman nostalgia is not limited to the English-speaking world. “This is not just an American phenomenon,” Baudler says, “but a worldwide problem.”
Some publishers are pivoting toward fascism-related books as well. For almost two decades Judith Gurewich has served as publisher of Other Press, a literary house that puts out a wide range of books. But as the illiberalism around the world has gotten starker, her mission has changed. “I don’t want to be casual,” she says of the books she acquires these days. “I can no longer indulge in sheer good literature.”
In recent years, Other Press has published books like “Not I,” the memoir of German historian Joachim Fest, whose childhood was shadowed by the Nazis; “What You Did Not Tell,” British historian Mark Mazower’s family story; and “The Order of the Day,” French filmmaker Éric Vuillard’s lightly fictionalized account of the ’30s.
Gurewich, whose Hungarian family experienced fascism close-up, emphasizes the importance of good storytelling and sharp intelligence, and searches for books set in any time or place – she’s not just looking for polemic. But now she aims to find books with a “message that is resonant today.”
After the “end of history”
These books and classes seem to ask an underlying question: Is what the world is experiencing today a replay of the Nazis and Italian Fascists? Probably not. But the parallels these writers see are difficult to deny. Even Fukuyama’s latest books have re-examined democracy in our current age.
Mishra’s “Age of Anger,” one the first of these recent books on fascist tendencies, was conceived five years ago, in response to the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, but came out soon after Trump took office and Britain voted to leave the E.U. Mishra, an Indian-educated, London-based novelist, takes the long view here, recognizing the seeds of the current global extremism in the French Enlightenment of the 18th century.
Mishra’s book stands out from the others in one important way: The author is a literary mind rather than social scientist, and concentrates on individual novelists and philosophers. He looked at the way modern life became indecipherable even to those charged with interpreting it. Mishra also traces the rise of populism with what what he calls the “Romantic myth of the rebel-hero.” By looking at modernity itself, he glimpses beyond political thought and our waking lives, into our unconscious motivations, showing that the current crisis – and maybe its eventual solution – may be deep inside us.
As Vuillard writes in “The Order of the Day,”: “We never fall twice into the same abyss. But we always fall the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread.”