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Best Books to Understand Fascism and How It Works

For a long time, anyone who tried to label people they disagreed with politically as fascists were seen as having crossed a line. Fascism, it was held, had been the product of a particular historical moment. Furthermore, countries that had adopted fascism as the basis of their governments had not had strong histories of democratic principles and structures that would have enabled them to withstand fascist demagoguery. There was even a certain school of history that argued that Germany was the “only” place where National Socialism could have flourished because Germany’s history revealed that Germans had “always” had fascist tendencies, even back during the Reformation. That school of history has been thoroughly discredited, although one still sees the occasional book that argues that there is something fundamentally wrong with Germans that makes them susceptible to being Nazis.

It’s easy to see why Americans might believe that fascism was both a bad moment in history and something that could never have succeeded in a country that prides itself on its democratic ideals. By making it a problem that happens in other places, Americans have taken great pride in having “defeated fascism” with our Allies during World War II. But what happens when ideas connected with fascist ideology become popular among a large segment of American voters? Does the belief that fascism could never happen here prevent people from identifying fascism as fascism? Does a long history of dismissing those who throw the term “fascist” around make Americans oblivious to when the cry of “fascism” really should grab their attention?

But further studies of fascism — and the different forms of fascism that came to power in Italy, Germany, Spain, Hungary, China, Croatia, Vichy France, Japan, Portugal, Brazil, Chile and others — have allowed political scientists, philosophers, historians, and sociologists to identify common elements of fascist regimes. These characteristics vary in number, depending on which thinker is identifying them, but many of the same traits show up on all theorists’ lists. These include: the heralding of a mythic past when the nation was in harmony with its ideals; a reliance on propaganda to disseminate government information that is often a refutation of facts; anti-intellectualism that attacks rational thought as being out of touch with genuine emotional knowledge; hierarchy; a sense of victimhood that sees enemies both internal and external; an emphasis on law and order to protect citizens from undesirable elements; the control of language; sexual anxiety that the group at the top of the hierarchy is being weakened by “abnormal” sexuality and low birth rates; fear of homosexuality and of women; and a belief that hard work is the key to success.

In the works collected here, authors approach fascism from a variety of perspectives. Further elucidation of the elements of fascism are contained in the first five works listed here. The lived experiences of those who experienced life in fascist regimes; an experience of how knowledge is attacked by fascists in order to replace truth with fascist truth; how to resist fascism; the emphasis on physical perfection and its connections to attitudes toward women and sexuality; and the fascist emphasis on spectacle, or the performative aspects of fascism as shown in film and athletic competitions are also included in the nonfiction section. Included in the fiction list are novels that were written by Germans living during the Nazi years, while others speculate on what American fascism might expect of its citizens. These novels set against a fascist background increase the reader’s knowledge about how fascism operates on multiple levels in those countries where fascists have taken power.
  1. 1

    How Fascism Works

    Jason Stanley is a philosophy professor at Yale who is also son of European Jewish refugees. In How Fascism Works, Stanley identifies the defining characteristics of fascist regimes. He illustrates how those foundational ideas are implemented and enacted in regimes. Fascism goes after those institutions within democracy that may present a source of opposition. Thus the fascist demagogue will attack the university system, the press, even knowledge itself as they seek to establish their possession of state power.

    In language that is approachable and does not require knowledge of a special vocabulary, Stanley points to situations in our current state that are fascist. Whether it is the division of the population by fanning hatred against immigrants, people of color, or gay people; or attacking the free press as the “enemy of the people,” fascism seeks to delegitimate any potential source of resistance by destabilizing it. It offers its own form of truth that to supplant facts; it propagates conspiracy theories that see insiders plotting against their country; it seeks to replace a loyalty to the government with a loyalty to the “nation,” an entity that it defines; it builds itself on the back of the patriarchal family in which men are both the breadwinners and the head of the household in order to prevent women having access to power. Fascism uses misogyny, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia to peel away unity, but more importantly, to emphasize that whiteness and masculinity are the sources of all legitimate power.

    Jason Stanley has written an invaluable guide to understanding the ways that fascism spreads like cancer, and how much of that growth takes place in secrecy. By convincing its believers that fascism is the only true way for white men to maintain their hold on power, it seeks to both emphasize to white men how they are being emasculated in multicultural and feminist societies, while also providing them with the violent means for them to take their power back.

    How Fascism Works Book Cover Picture
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    The Origins of Totalitarianism

    Arendt may have been the greatest thinker of the twentieth century. She was a German woman who fled Germany when her Judaism made her an undesirable there. She later taught at a number of American universities. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt examines with intellectual rigor and in deep detail the two major totalitarian movements of the twentieth century: Stalinism and Naziism. For Arendt, totalitarianism, as the name implies, interfered in all aspects of life. It rose to power through manipulation of the mob, but once in power, it broke apart those organizations that could have been mobilized to oppose it.

    Totalitarianism treated the mass of humanity within a country as if it could be controlled as just one person. It cemented its power by a sort of “permanent revolution” in which constant purges removed those individuals who might gain enough power to threaten the leader. It gave the illusion of stability while creating constant instability that disempowered those who might oppose it. This magisterial book is one of the ur-texts for understanding twentieth century politics.

    The Origins of Totalitarianism Book Cover Picture
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    The Anatomy of Fascism

    Many scholars have written intellectual histories of fascist movements. They have defined the ideals that fascists propagated or explained the texts that fascists used to identify their beliefs. The problem is that many of these ideals seem abstract, and it can be difficult to identify fascism when you don’t have access to the intellectual justification for certain actions.

    Paxton, Columbia University emeritus professor of political science, offers instead a history of the deeds of fascists. What is it that fascists do that identify them as fascists? What does a fascist government look like? And how do the actions of fascist governments in the past provide us with information by which we can prevent it happening again? He shows how fascism in Spain built its power by utilizing the Catholic Church, while Mussolini went after the trade unions. And while fascists had different behaviors in different contexts, Paxton provides readers with the background context that shows how these different behaviors still adhered to the ideology.

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    On Tyranny

    Timothy Snyder looked to the histories of various governments from the twentieth century in order to compile this compact list of everyday ways that people can resist tyranny and fascism. He encourages people to think for themselves, that is, to not accept the Facebook post that contains news. Before accepting it as truth, has it been reported by other news outlets? He also suggests that people hold onto the idea that there is truth. Don’t accept an idea because it makes you more comfortable than acknowledging the truthful, but less comfortable, fact. Be willing to stand out, that is to not go along with the crowd because it is easier to not make waves.

    Many of Snyder’s lessons remind readers that accepting tyranny is not something you wake up one morning and decide is okay. It is, rather, the erosion of the little actions that we perform that act as brakes when we’re asked to give up one of our rights. Resisting the conditions that allow tyranny to take over requires each of us to be brave. It also requires us to remain calm. Rather than allowing our fear to make us complacent, each of us is called upon to act with courage when we know that we must act to prevent freedom being taken away from any of us.

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    Diary of a Man in Despair

    By all accounts, Friedrich Reck would be the last person to resist the Nazis: he was born into a prosperous, conservative family in East Prussia. Reck was no fan of democracy and longed for Germany’s past system of hierarchy. But in 1936, he began keeping a diary of his observations of the fascist regime, and he was horrified by their brutishness, violence, and the power that they had over the German populace. His diary entries are full of contempt, but they also provide to modern readers a real sense of just how awful things were for everyday Germans. Reck is gobsmacked by the Nazi attempts to control knowledge and “truth,” and Reck keeps a diary in an effort to write down what was really happening, rather than what the Nazis told people had occurred.

    He saved special contempt for Adolf Hitler. Reck thought that Hitler was unintelligent, proud of his rejection of intellectualism, convinced he was right at all times. And Reck was flabbergasted by other Germans’ worship of the man they regarded as a savior. In 1939, he is present at a Hitler appearance. He writes:

    There he stood, the most glorious of all , in his usual pose with hands clasped over his belly, looking … like a tram conductor. [His face] waggled with unhealthy cushions of fat; it all hung, it was … shaggy, gelatinous, sick. There was no light in it, none of the shimmer and shining of a man sent by God. Instead, the face bore the stigma of sexual inadequacy, of the rancor of a half-man who had turned his fury at his impotence into brutalising others.

    Reck died in Dachau in 1945.

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    It Can’t Happen Here

    Nobel Literature Laureate Sinclair Lewis died in 1951, and yet in the months following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, his 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here was suddenly a bestseller again. Lewis wrote the book during the Great Depression, when mass unemployment, failing farms, and poverty made Americans vulnerable, Lewis thought, to the type of populist fascist demagogue that had seized control in Italy and Germany.

    In the novel, Buzz Windrip, real estate mogul who blames immigrants for joblessness, wins the Democratic nomination for president by promising voters that he will make America great again by restoring traditional values. He also vows to give each citizen $5,000 per year. He blames the press and “lazy” young people for the country’s decline. After he is elected, Windrip establishes a militia he calls the “Minute Men” who round up undesirables and suspected criminals, meting out immediate execution for some while putting others in camps. Opposing Windrip is newspaper editor Doremus Jessup. The resistance organized by Jessup and others try to save the country from a fascist government that declares more and more Americans enemies of the state.

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    Berlin Noir

    By writing a series of mysteries that begin in fascist Germany, Philip Kerr worked in his own way to debunk the mystique that surrounds Nazis. Rather than presenting them as cunning thinkers who nearly crushed all of Europe under their boot, Kerr presents those who were attracted to National Socialism as a collection of petty thieves, thugs, and psychopaths. Bernie Gunther is a member of the police force who often finds himself investigating crimes that lead to confrontations with Nazi officials. When Gunther isn’t battling vicious criminals who take far too much pleasure in inflicting pain on others, he’s enmeshed in the bureaucracy of the Nazi state that made accomplishing anything a matter of mountains of paperwork. Kerr presents readers with an ordinary German who found ways to avoid cooperating with a system that stripped the humanity of those who took part in its activities.

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    The Children of Men

    When novelists project the precepts by which their fictional dystopias are organized, it should not be surprising that many of them adhere to the ideas behind fascism. As Paxton, Eco, and others who have written about fascism’s foundations have pointed out, fascism thrives during times of crisis that are tied to a group’s identity. In the case of the Britain depicted by P.D. James, the crisis of group identity was generated by the threat of literal extinction. As the novel opens, readers are informed that no baby has been born in Great Britain since 1985. The immediate results have been a dying off of the population, but the side-effects of this imminent extinction is the accession to power of a totalitarian government. Immigrants are forbidden, crime is punished by immediate exile, and the elderly are encouraged to commit suicide. Each person’s worth is measured by what they contribute to the economy. When one man decides he has had “enough,” he joins the network of those willing to fight back against a government that has robbed lives of all human dignity.

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    The Handmaid’s Tale (Movie Tie-in)

    One of the primary ways that Atwood’s original version of The Handmaid’s Tale differed from the television series is on the issue of race. As Atwood notes, the people left in Gilead are white. People who are not white have been either sent to the Colonies or were killed. One of the tenets of fascism is an emphasis on notions of whiteness that are dependent on ideas of “purity of blood.” In these formulations, in order to preserve the white race, white women who had previously demonstrated their fertility by having children prior to the overthrow of the American government are now held captive in homes where they are expected to give birth to the children of the Commanders. In elaborately staged rape rituals, handmaids are held down by wives as their high-ranking husbands attempt to impregnate the handmaids. In 1935, the Nazis instituted a policy called lebensborn which provided shelter to unmarried pregnant women, many of whom had become pregnant by S.S. officers. The S.S. officers had been encouraged to “spread their seed” in order to produce Aryan children, even though many of the officers were married. The program was intended so that abortion would be eradicated and these children could be adopted into “good” German homes.

    The Handmaid's Tale (Movie Tie-in) Book Cover Picture
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    Harris envisions a world where Germany won the Second World War and the American government is dominated by the “America First” movement, whose 1930s supporters included Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy. Harris has written an alternative history as the basis for a murder mystery. But in so doing, he brings to light what Germany’s fascist government would have wrought in Europe had it not been stopped by the Allies in 1945. Using actual documents that discussed plans for how the Reich intended to take over the world, Harris brings readers into 1964, when Germany was making preparations to celebrate Hitler’s seventy-fifth birthday. The fly in the ointment for that celebration begins with the discovery of a corpse in a lake in Berlin; when Detective Xavier March begins his investigation, he discovers a conspiracy that will change everything. Fatherland is an intelligent mystery that forces readers to consider what a world run by fascists would look like.

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