“To help navigate these incredibly dark times and put them into historical perspective, you should definitely read Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism. I meet people all the time who want to learn more about fascism, but don’t know where to begin. The pile of books that have been published on the subject could form its own mountain, and the sheer range of options can be overwhelming. I’ve had to take a big bite out of this mountain for my own research, and I can say that if you have time to read just one book on the subject, it should be this one.
I like it because of its accessibility and avoidance of jargon, its broad scope, and because it is attuned to the contemporary relevance of his subject. As such, he’s not afraid to say that fascism lives on in present day. Published in 2004, Anatomy of Fascism was not conceived with the current crisis in mind, which makes it less topical and more powerful in my view. But I like it most of all because it’s argument is solid. Paxton doesn’t pull any cheap shots to make his subject topical. Instead, like a good historian, he honors the specificity of pre-WWII European politics and culture, and lets his readers draw their own conclusions.
Paxton, now retired from Columbia University, argues that fascist movements can’t be defined by their political platforms – these change as values change, and fascist states shifted their policies quite often anyway. A steadier indicator of a fascist movement is its “mobilizing passions” – that is, the emotional triggers and underlying desires that fire up its political base (you’ll have to read the book to find out what these triggers are). Further, he argues that fascist movements rely on the enablement of traditional conservatives: if an aging conservative establishment had not given Hitler and Mussolini the keys to the kingdom, their movements would have likely died on the vine. With an eye to the present, Paxton writes, “Fascists are close to power when conservatives begin to borrow their techniques, appeal to their ‘mobilizing passions,’ and try to co-opt the fascist following.”
Associate Professor of English & Director of American Studies
University of Connecticut