As a young man in my early twenties I was privileged to visit the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. It is about an hour’s bus journey north of Berlin. In that place there was an icy cold atmosphere and an eerie silence, almost as if the very buildings were determined to remind people of its horrific past, a place where so many people were put to death by the Nazis. A moving display of well-worn shoes belonging to victims affected me greatly. They were all sizes, from small children to adults, thousands of them, piled high to the ceiling behind a roped off section in one of the rooms. There was a chilling and gruesome display of medical instruments that were used by the camps ‘doctors’ to conduct medical ‘experiments’ on those whom they later exterminated – a shocking reminder of the horrors suffered by the people who died there. My visit to Sachsenhausen was a disturbing experience that was to leave an indelible mark on me for the rest of my life.
What is Fascism?
Relatively few people will ever get the opportunity to be reminded of the horrors of fascism through such an experience, and it is societal complacency about the rise of fascism today that worries me. I get the sense that for many people fascism is something they feel has been dealt with, receding further into history as the years pass. However, I believe that nothing could be further from the truth.
Writing in an article ‘What is Fascism?’ published in The Tribune of March 1944, George Orwell said:
“It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, foxhunting, bull-ﬁghting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs, and I do not know what else”. He goes on to ask “Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it?”
Webster’s dictionary defines fascism as ‘a political philosophy, movement, or régime that exalts nation and often race, above the individual and that stands for a centralised autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader or leaders, severe economic and social regiment, and forcible suppression of opposition’, and that seems pretty unequivocal but, as Orwell identified, popular usage has loosened its definition and application.
I believe that the ambiguity over the meaning of fascism presents several challenges when exploring its insidious rise during the epoch of this terrible pandemic. Firstly, the label ‘fascist’ has become so universally used to describe right-wing and ultra-right politics, that its very meaning risks becoming devalued. People who hear warnings about the rise of fascism will say they have heard it all before, a bit like the boy who cried wolf too often. Secondly, for many people fascism conjures up an image of marching jack-booted Nazi types on the streets, and in relation to present day society, they have not seen much of this – yet. And thirdly, most people seem to think that if fascism is present in our society, it is more than likely limited to a small group of fanatics who will never gain any mass support, so it does not really affect them. But fascism has never gone away and it has raised its ugly head on many occasions and in many different guises since the era of Mussolini and Hitler.
From the time of Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists in 1932, Britain has never had a shortage of parties and groups that subscribe to far right and fascistic ideologies. Down through the years these have included (but not limited to) the National Front, the League of Empire Loyalists, the British National Party, the Racial Preservation Society, and the neo-Nazi Greater Britain Movement. More recently, groups that have played a part in whipping up xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment have included Britain First, Patriotic Alternative, The Football Lads Association, The English Defence League, UKIP, the British Brexit Party, and the ERG.
However, British far-right movements have in the main replaced their tactics of public demonstrations, such as marches and public protests, with a more insidious online propaganda war. They use an age-old tactic of ultra-right and fascist groups – they attract ordinary people as recruits and supporters by capitalising on their legitimate grievances arising from societal inequality. They then recast these grievances as hostility towards ‘the outsider’ and ‘the different’. Instead of dealing with grievances politically, fascist groups offer their supporters a different form of satisfaction, by highlighting the importance of the aggrieved being the ones to decide who in society should be included and who should be excluded.
Capitalising on COVID-19
Attracting groups of anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and various conspiracy theorists, these groups are now capitalising on the crisis brought on by the pandemic to push their racist and xenophobic views and win new recruits. With the advent of the pandemic we have seen the attacks on expertise, science, and truth that are the lifeblood of these fascist groups. They are using the anguish and turmoil surrounding Covid-19 to push their dangerous propaganda, claiming that immigrants are responsible for spreading the virus, and that right wing governments around the world are more successful in dealing with the pandemic than ‘liberal democracies’. More sinisterly, British far-right groups such as Britain First and Patriotic Alternative, have used the crisis of Covid-19 to present themselves as champions of the community during lockdowns and restrictions on movement. But the language of such groups belies their fascist ideologies. They refer to the “native British” who they claim are being subjugated, and propose ways to safeguard “the indigenous peoples of the United Kingdom”, including an end to all immigration and a forceful repatriation of immigrants to “their ancestral homelands.” Such language echoes that of Hitler’s supporters during the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s.
Of course, a hotchpotch of fascist and ultra-right organisations and individuals does not in itself have the power to bring about a totalitarian fascist state. However, we have seen what happened in America on 6 January of this year when a group of right-wing extremists tried and failed to stage a fascist coup by storming the Capitol building in Washington, at the behest of a right-wing demagogue. History has shown that the type of ultra-right and fascist groups that exist in the UK today have the potential to be used as storm troopers and propagandists by a suitably minded government. With a Conservative government that is arguably the most right wing since the second world war, and that has shown it is intent on limiting the right to protest, fascism finds fertile ground for growth.
In his book How Fascism Works – The Politics Of Us And Them, Jason Stanley makes the point: “Many people are not familiar with the ideological structure of fascism, that each mechanism of fascist politics tends to build on others. They do not recognise the interconnectedness of the political slogans they are asked to repeat. Our citizens need to have the critical tools to recognise the difference between legitimate tactics in liberal democratic politics on the one hand, and invidious tactics in fascist politics on the other.”
Until we can convince ordinary people who might fall under the influence of fascistic ideologies that, ultimately, fascism will come for them too, it will remain difficult to effectively challenge fascistic thinking. For now, fascist and ultra-right groups will continue to wage war on immigrants, minorities and the ‘different’, while testing the limits of what they can get away with. They increasingly feel emboldened operating in a society led by a right-wing Conservative Party government. We will be complacent about creeping fascism at our peril.
Never Again Fascism
At the end of my visit to Sachsenhausen, almost forty years ago now, one of the custodians of that hallowed place, an elderly woman, a survivor, said to our small group in a feeble but clear voice ‘nie wieder Faschismus.’ Little did I realise then that I would have occasion to reiterate, so much closer to home and in the year 2021, the words of that brave woman: “never again fascism.”