As technology made it possible to integrate the efforts of much larger numbers of people beginning in the 19th century, various proposals for how and why to harness this new possibility emerged: capitalism, communism, socialism and fascism all took a stab at it. Fascism, the explicit subsummation of individual wills within the unitary will of the state, and the will of the state in turn subsumed within the will of the singular leader, was first articulated and practiced at scale by Benito Mussolini in Italy, beginning in the early 1920s. Up north in Germany, Adolph Hitler was impressed, and created Version 2.0.
Until recently, referring to a political leader or wannabe as a fascist triggered a pretty negative reaction, because it seemed to diminish the unique horror and significance of The Holocaust—clearly modern-day authoritarians weren’t evil on the same scale as the Nazis, so calling them fascists seemed like indecent hyperbole.
Over the past few years however, there’s been a growing realization that it may be legitimate to describe certain latter-day authoritarians as fascists, because they may be following the precepts developed by Mussolini and followed by Hitler to rise to power, well before The Holocaust.
Italian author Antonio Scurati has written an epic novel on this topic, M: Son of the Century, published in 2018 in Italian and in 2021 in English. It is set in the period 1919-1925, and tells of Mussolini’s rise from nothing to become Il Duce, fascist ruler of Italy. It is a novel, but closely hews to the documentary record—the characters and events are not fictional, but the author fills in thoughts, feelings, motives and other emotional and intellectual components that are not available in the historical record.
The effect of reading the book, which is strictly chronological, is to put you in that time and place, as if you are watching events unfold from an extraordinarily omniscient viewpoint. The book is 750 pages in English, and simply cannot be absorbed in a day or two—you have to live in it for a while and process it over time. Consequently, it gives you a vivid feel for how fascism could indeed happen in a democracy, despite awareness by other politicians that it was dangerous.
Also vividly informative is Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel The Oppermanns, just out again in a new edition. Originally published in German in 1933, the very year Hitler came to power, the novel foretells the future with astonishing, heartbreaking accuracy. The protagonists are a comfortable Jewish family in Berlin, who simply cannot believe what is happening to them as they are destroyed by the Nazis and their fellow German citizens. It is hard to believe that Feuchtwanger wrote this before it happened, fleeing across Europe on his way to America. It’s a powerful story that also gets to the heart of how fascism could happen.
Turning to non-fiction, David I. Kertzer’s two revelatory and well-written books about the Catholic Church’s intimate dance with first Mussolini and then Hitler, based on his unparalleled research in the Vatican Archives, offer another view into how fascism happened, one that does not reflect well on two Popes in succession. The first, 2014’s The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, won the Pulitzer Prize, and documents how Mussolini and Pius XI negotiated accommodations to their mutual benefit.
Pius XI finally decided to break with Mussolini but died in early 1939, just before his decision would have taken effect. His successor, Pius XII, prevented the break and went on to an extensive collaboration with both Mussolini and Hitler, tautly documented in 2022’s The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler.
Benjamin Carter Hett’s succinct 2018 history The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic is the most straightforward accounting of all: just how the political leadership of Germany during the Weimar Republic failed to stop Hitler’s Nazis when they had so many chances. The echoes of today are unsubtle in this one: Hitler never “won the popular vote,” yet ended up forming a government, and quickly ended the possibility that he could be made to relinquish control politically.
If the menace of authoritarian populism across the democratic world concerns you, these authors offer insights into how fascism arose a century ago and could again.