Housed in The Academies’ complex at 17 Norton Hall, the History Department has been leading weekly discussions about contemporary debates since early February. Some of the previous weeks’ topics have included “Refugees, The Electoral College, and other Constitutional Mysteries Explained,” “It’s Complicated: Why the Obamacare Law Had to be One Thousand Pages Long,” and “Voting Rights and Civil Rights: Lessons from a Century of Resistance.” This week’s lecture and discussion was titled “Historical Fascism and the New Populist Right in Europe in America: Definition and Comparison.” It was led by professor Sasha Pack, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 2004 and has been studying the history of Modern Europe at the University at Buffalo since, especially Spain and the Mediterranean in the 1800s and 1900s. He has researched and written about different authoritarian regimes of the recent past, and how these regimes have affected international relations, which further influences travel, tourism, and international perspectives.
These research topics are particularly relevant to current debates surrounding President Donald Trump, as opposition groups have been linking his administration to classifications of right-wing populism and fascism, and their accompanying 20th century leaders such as Fransisco Franco, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. These concepts of populism and fascism have appeared a lot in the public discourse, and are particularly difficult to define. The working definition that was given by Professor Park during his talk was a quote from Roger Griffin: “Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism.” He admitted that this wasn’t a particularly helpful summation, which prompted chuckling throughout the audience.
The term fascism comes from Mussolini’s term fascio, meaning league or bundle. The idea was to unite different groups under a common nationalistic goal, meaning that fascism is a generic term and does not have one specific ideology. Its function is very much defined by the strong leader who is able to speak persuasively and mobilize support from many different groups. These types of movements are not possible without a leader who often takes advantage of fear, claims that he is the only person who can fix current problems, and does not offer a specific policy so much as a discourse of “we don’t like what has been happening, and we are going to do something different.”
Professor Pack’s talk addressed the history and evolution of populist and fascist movements, and the ways in which the current administration is similar to and different from these movements from the 20th century. He talked about how important context is for these movements: those of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini all accumulated power in the interwar climate of Europe, when people were devastated by the aftermath of the first world war and disillusioned with the capabilities of liberal democracy.
There were fifteen attendees, most of whom appeared to be graduate students. A few were professors in the history department, who led one of the previous discussions or would be leading one in the coming weeks. This was a good environment for people with an interest in current events to gain long-term perspective, which is often hard to come by through only consuming news reports. Especially considering that this may be only the first or second election process many undergraduate students have followed, these lectures are good way for students to put current debates and policies into context. Both history majors and those who are not currently enrolled in history courses can benefit from the talks, as they provide a concise background of related historical situations, a brief discussion of how current trends parallel past leaders and movements, and what the differences in context might mean for the future of the movements. The lecture lasted forty-five minutes, with an additional forty-five minutes allocated for questions and discussion. Professor Pack was careful to keep his lecture from being too politicized, focusing on objective facts and being careful to acknowledge when the answer to a question required opinion, and citing the evidence behind his thoughts. He invited differing opinions, and facilitated open discussion or benefits and problems with the movements.
As the often repeated cliche preaches, those who do not learn about the past are doomed to repeat it. People of all majors and interests would benefit from this access to extracurricular discussion of how analyzing historical precedents can help us better address the concerns of today.