Are Today’s Populists Really Fascists? Paul Jankowski on 20th Century Extremism and Contemporary Unrest

By Benjamin Dombrowski
February 1, 2021

After four unprecedented years under the presidency of Donald Trump and weeks after a violent coup in the heart of the nation’s capital, many Americans have been left wondering how the Nation will move on. How damaged is American democracy? Are we witnessing a 21st century retelling of 1930s Europe, a time when democracy everywhere was on the defensive?

To help us make sense of these questions and anxieties, IGS turned to Brandeis’ own Raymond Ginger Professor of History, longtime IGS faculty member and expert on interwar Europe – Professor Paul Jankowski.

Professor Jankowski, soon to retire, shared with IGS his reflections on his career as a historian, his thoughts on current events, and insights he has for current Brandeis students.

What inspired you to become a professional historian, and specifically the history of France and 20th century Europe?

Jankowski: I chose to become a professional historian, because I was gripped, like my colleagues, by a furor historicus. I think it was the famous Edmund Hillary who when asked why he climbed Everest replied, because it’s there. Well, we gaze at the past too because it’s there. It’s the same reason astronomers gaze at outer space – because it’s there – and yet people don’t ask astronomers, why do you do that? But it really seems quite similar to me. And some of us who are naturally drawn to it are fortunate to have been able to make a career out of it.

As for France, I grew up in French speaking Switzerland. I have spent a lot of my life in France and many historians tend to develop an interest in some country or subjects or period with which they have some particular personal connection. So it was in my case. I started off working on Paris in the 1930s when I was a graduate student, because that was a city I like very much and a very interesting period for me. I was also particularly interested in the subject of political extremism. I’d been seeing quite a lot of that as an undergraduate.

You mention being influenced by political extremism as a student in France. I wonder, have moments of political extremism in recent history influenced your studies?

Jankowski: Well, the political extremism that I had encountered as an undergraduate was of a very different sort from today’s. It was more of a far left variety. It was more Marxist inspired. And then as it happened, when I started doing real graduate work in history, I was more interested in the right wing extremists of the 1930s, the kind of fascist sympathizers. And that’s really rather different from today

All Against All Book

The question about today is interesting. In my last book [All Against All: The Long Winter of 1933 and the Origins of the Second World War], I looked at the rise of populist nationalisms. I tried to show that world leaders were not just acting on their own. They were very much driven by what was happening at home. They were very susceptible to popular pressures and above all popular beliefs. And obviously that’s been happening around us, not only in the U.S., but in Latin America and in Europe for a good 10 years and more now.

What topic have you been focused on most recently?

Jankowski: Most of my published work was on France in the 20th century. And then I got into the First World War and started working on the German story, I began to broaden and widen my horizons.

In the past 15 years I’ve moved away from France itself to wider European subjects, but also the U.S. and some East Asia such as Japan and China, not as an expert on that region, but as a part of the increasingly connected world story.

How did you come to teach history at Brandeis?

Jankowski: I came to Brandeis in 1990 after a brief two year teaching appointment at Stanford. So I’ve been here a long time and I’m getting ready to retire. In 1990 I needed the job and it was a good opportunity for me. And, well, I ended up staying here.

I imagine the history department was very different in the 90s. How has it evolved since your first few years in the 90s?

Jankowski: The principle difference is that it’s become much more international. We have a lot of non-European and non-US historians. Maybe not as many as we could but we have more of them now than we did then. And we probably have more, among the US historians, more working on matters of race and minorities than we did when I first came here. The number of European historians has declined.

You have also been a longstanding member of the International Global Studies (IGS) faculty at Brandeis. As a historian moving into a more international sphere of study do you have any takeaways from your time with IGS?

Jankowski: Well, let me put it this way. I’ll take an example of what I mean about the importance of understanding countries other than your own from the 1930s.

The initial reaction to the advent of Hitler in the press or in diplomatic correspondence is quite revealing. Initially, among the various reactions, whether American, French, British or even Soviet, a common view held that either that this was not really anything very significant. In spite of this rather distasteful and unsavory, insane character, many who held this view saw it as the Germany of 1914 all over again, expansionist and dangerous but not really novel. Furthermore, they thought this man was contained by the conservatives and that they probably would make short work of him.

Mein Kampf autobiographical manifesto book of Adolf Hitler

There were some people who knew Germany very well, including, for example, the French ambassador, and there were some very gifted correspondents, especially in the American press corps. But the fact that so few were really able to understand what was happening in Germany had consequences for the policy failures that followed. It is true, for example, that a couple of American diplomats grasped the new dangers. One in Munich had read Mein Kampf and Hitler’s autobiography and said that this was really dangerous stuff. But the State Department didn’t want to hear this. His was a minority voice.

All that is to say how much a country has to gain by having people who have acquired at a fairly young age the habit of studying and understanding countries other than their own. It’s not what you learn as an undergraduate about this or that country, about suddenly becoming an expert on it.

“It’s the actual practice, the mental and intellectual habit of understanding the situation of a country at a particular time in its own terms.”

And we’ve seen what can happen when the State Department is eviscerated, when it doesn’t have such people or when policy is run by people who don’t know anything.

Throughout the Trump presidency, there have been accusations of that happening to our own State Department. In your observations, have you seen any parallels to the events you described in the 1930s?

Jankowski: Well, from what I’ve read in the press, I gather the State Department has been eviscerated and demoralized. Now, I can’t demonstrate that this had any effect on the formulation of American foreign policy in the past four years, but it does not always seem to me to have been formulated in a very well informed manner, even if some of the intuitions and instincts might even have been right. They were acted on in a way that really could have benefited from expertise, knowledge, understanding. Now of course, all this is useless if the executive branch doesn’t want to pay any attention to it anyway.

Another example of this. I don’t know, speaking as a historian, if it’s really been demonstrated but it stands to reason. The purges in the State Department that occurred during the McCarthy years in the early 50s deprived it and other branches of governments of a lot of East Asian and Southeast Asian experts who might have been well placed to show that the domino theory on which the escalation in Vietnam was based in the mid-60s had no basis.

In the media, the word fascism has been thrown around a lot by a lot to describe the Trump administration’s politics. I’m curious about your perspective on that trend as an expert on historical fascism and Europe in the 1930s.

Jankowski: I think this question has divided historians. I am really hesitant to draw too many parallels between Trump and Hitler. There are just too many differences in the historical context. If we started drawing differences, we’d be here all day. It is true to my mind, at least, that Trump was and is an authoritarian autocrat, an authoritarian demagogue who checks every box on autocratic aspirations and instincts. However I don’t think there’s any doctrine there, not really. That would be one major difference between him and Hitler and Mussolini. […] But he does share many traits with a whole class of authoritarian demagogues. Graphic of hands raised with word cloud with words such as Demagogue, Populist, Dictator, Tyrant etc.He does belong in that broad family, certainly of 20th century demagogues who derive their power in part from an uncanny ability to understand what a large group of people want to hear. I’m not sure it helps us understand Trump to call him a fascist. I’m inclined to think ‘no’. I think you have to understand him first in his own terms. But there are parallels, let me put it that way, there are parallels, between him and other demagogic leaders of the 20th century, some of whom were fascists by their own description, and some of whom were not.

However, the parallel that I tried to get at in my book is not so much between today’s authoritarian leaders, whether they’re in the United States, Hungary, Turkey or Poland where there are these nationalist populist movements with leaders showing very pronounced authoritarian tendencies. The parallel I was more interested in that of everybody in the world drawing inwards, of a global every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost, of walls going up and an end to international cooperation. I think that parallel with the 1930s is a more fruitful one than trying to decide whether Viktor Orban or Donald Trump is a fascist.

In that case, to what extent are historical parallels useful in trying to make sense of isolationism and authoritarianism in our time?

Jankowski: Today we may forget that as recently as 10 or 15 years ago, the new millennium opened with a real hope for a new kind of globalism and internationalism. International organizations, international institutions and various kinds of agreements not only connected to the U.N. but independent of it had proliferated. Trade agreements, human rights agreements, the right to intercede in another country of human rights were envisioned. Much of that has really quite brutally been shelved.

Financial Crisis Crash of 2008The 2008 financial crisis helped draw the parallel with the 30s. More than that, in the 20s there was considerable hope. Maybe the hope was ill founded and maybe it wasn’t one that was widely shared, as some believed. It was hoped that in the wake of the First World War, some better foundation for international relations could be found, linked to the League of Nations and linked to collective security, linked to world conferences and to international trade agreements and so on.

But in the early thirties all of that had gone up in smoke to put it bluntly. There was a real reaction against it. So in that parallel, there’s something worth talking about. Now, that doesn’t mean that the world today is not a very, very different place from what it was in the 1930s […] today, for example, there are any number of international organizations and there’s an international infrastructure within which all countries can work that was simply not there in the 20s and 30s.

There are also all kinds of new challenges and new global problems that didn’t exist then, or rather they were different then from what they are now. The rising fear is now environmental catastrophe, the cyber jungle, the possibility of nuclear terrorism. These are global threats, which didn’t exist then.

You mentioned pivoting your studies to East Asia. As a historian, what do you make of the rise of China? Many have characterized that as the great global challenge of our time.

Cartoon people raising a United States and a China flagJankowski: I know that the question you’ve raised is occupying the attention of a lot of China experts and commentators and political scientists today […] The parallel I see more often is the possibility of a new Cold War. I think the differences are quite important. The fear aroused by the Soviet Union, right from the very beginnings of the Bolshevik state, was partly an ideological challenge, that it was seeking to spread its subversive ideology around Europe, around Asia, around the world. That certainly helped define the Cold War. The Cold War was an ideological struggle, an ideological rift, among other things. I don’t see that happening with the Chinese. China is not endeavoring to spread any ideological message around the world. It was briefly at one point under Mao, but that does not seem to be its intention in its dealings with the rest of the world. It’s certainly spreading its influence, its clout, but it’s not really doing so as the harbinger of a revolutionary or some other ideology.

The second difference I would see is that, with respect to the Cold War, the Soviet Union was indeed a nuclear and military rival. However it was never even close to being an economic rival. Well, China is very different. China is a major economic rival and it represents a real growing and durable economic challenge to the United States. That the Soviet Union never did all that.

What issue do you think the United States, fragmented by domestic politics, might face in trying to step up to a revival like China?

Jankowski: The sense of domestic crisis and domestic disintegration in this country could certainly be a challenge. To come back to the theme we were talking about, we might have preferred that the United States in the 1930s had assumed a much bigger role in challenging the rising fascist dictatorships, Germany, Japan and Italy. But it was wracked by internal crisis, economic crisis. It was very, very difficult for the US to get out of that.

The same was true of other countries at the time. The French were deeply divided. The British were not, but they had problems within their empire that divided them increasingly preoccupied them . So all of these can limit or cripple a country’s foreign policy, assuming it has the will to pursue one. If it is domestically in crisis, it’s difficult for it to do so. So I think the concern you raise is an entirely legitimate one.

What advice do you have for Brandeis students as they go out to face the many challenges of the 21st century?

Jankowski: I suppose my first thought is look beyond the confines of your own country. It’s not even possible not to now. And yet I have never seen the American media as parochial as it is today. And this is media of all sorts. You would hardly know that there is a world beyond the shores of the United States by listening even to sometimes very good radio and television.

The second, and this is speaking as an historian, is the habit of suspending judgment until you have adequate knowledge. Not just of your own country, but of others. It is a discipline that is central to everything that liberal arts is all about. We’ve heard a lot about evidence-based thinking recently because one half the country seems to be living in a hallucinatory universe.

I would also suggest, in the effort to widen horizons by knowing more about the world just a few miles beyond the shores, to ask a lot of questions.

And finally, I would urge another virtue of the historian, which is empathy. If history is the art of making the dead live, of understanding them, that takes effort. Again, these are all intrinsic to a liberal arts education.

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