A few hundred people came out to the SIFF Egyptian Cinema in Seattle on Tuesday night to be among the first to see Rick Steves’ new documentary, The Story of Fascism in Europe. Steves, the author of dozens of lauded travel guides and host of both radio and television travel shows, was there to introduce the special set to premier on PBS next week and take a few questions from the audience.
The event was hosted by KCTS 9, and Steves began his remarks by expressing his belief in the importance of public media. He then said that when he first traveled in Germany, you couldn’t talk about fascism or the Holocaust, but as time went on, that changed. He said that now the country has a “real, inspirational interest in learning from history and educating their electorate.” He contrasted this with our country where some people “seem to be invested in dumbing down our electorate.”
With this film, Steves said he wanted to help share lessons from history, explain the concepts of fascism, and what happened in a step-by-step narrative. He said that the “playbook for an autocrat” includes capitalizing on fear and hatred, scapegoating, and destabilizing the media, among other things. He also stressed that the rise of fascism is incremental, and with each increment, we can resist.
Regarding learning from and about history, Steves finished his introduction of the film by saying, “History may not repeat itself perfectly, but it rhymes.”
The one hour film is a good mix of historical footage narrated over by Steves, the travel expert at historic sites and memorials, and commentary by expert historians, journalists, and travel guides in Germany and Italy.
First the challenges faced by post-World War I Germany are discussed, and how the loss of faith in government led to a vacuum of power into which Hitler and the Nazi Party stepped, with compelling messages about wanting to restore national pride. But Hitler was sent to jail after his calls for revolution led to the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. While in jail he wrote “Mein Kampf”, and decided that when he got out he would try to take power politically rather than by force.
The film then switches to discussing postwar Italy and how, despite being on the winning side in World War I (originally known as the Great War), the country was struggling and on the verge of a Communist revolt.
Mussolini then used the anger and nationalism of the moment to launch a movement. The fascist party initially won a few seats in government, then went on a campaign of physical intimidation. Here Steves notes that fascism often starts with violence. In 1922, after a large show of force with the March on Rome of over thirty-thousand people, Mussolini was granted power.
He loved making regular speeches from his balcony to masses of people, using strong gestures and facial expressions that engaged the crowds.
He promised that he would make Italy “great.” He famously had a large ego, and thought of himself like a new Roman Emperor. Mussolini used the expression “many enemies, much honor” and the belligerence was celebrated.
Is any of this sounding uncomfortably familiar?
Anyway, back to the film…
After his time in jail, Hitler was able to basically follow Mussolini’s playbook in his second attempt to take power, and saw his opportunity after the start of the Great Depression. He promised jobs and a bright future.
He was a powerful speaker, expressed anger well, and used a lot of repetitive rhetoric. He also told big lies and kept repeating them, and also dumbed things down as much as possible. He offered simple answers to complicated problems, and scapegoated Jews and communists for Germany’s problems.
“Germany above the world” was an expression that was used by Hitler and the Nazis, not unlike Trump’s current mantra of “America First”.
His party won a few seats in parliament in 1930, and after the suspicious fire that destroyed the Reichstag, he preyed on people’s fears to seize more power, and became Chancellor in 1933. We all know the horrors that were perpetrated over the next dozen years. Throughout the 1930s, propaganda was very important to the Nazis’ ability to maintain power, including large rallies which utilized a lot of symbolism and were broadcast across the country by radio.
In a fascist state, individualism does not exist and must be stopped. In Italy, it was expressed as “everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” In Germany, “one people, one empire, one leader.”
Intellectualism and the free press were repressed, many books were banned and burned, and only one style of art was accepted.
Italy and German eventually made a “pact of steel” and at the height of Germany’s power during World War II, most of continental Europe was under the control of fascist dictators. Eventually, Allied troops landed in Italy and frustrated Italians overthrew Mussolini and started fighting with the Allies against Germany.
Mussolini was ultimately executed by his own countrymen.
Germans, however, continued to support Hitler even as it was becoming more and more clear that Germany’s defeat was inevitable.
After it became clear Berlin would fall to the Soviets, Hitler killed himself in a bunker.
Spain is touched on briefly in the film, as Franco took power and created a fascist state after a bloody civil war he incited by attempting a coup d’état.
For the most part, Spain managed to stay on the sidelines in World War II (avoiding direct involvement), and Franco maintained power long after Hitler and Mussolini died violent deaths, but Spain suffered by being isolated and behind the times. Fascism always brings great suffering, and then eventually fails.
Much of Europe was left devastated after the war’s end.
There are now many memorials at sites significant to the war and the Holocaust, many of them declaring “never again.” But, the film observes, societies are now facing many of the same challenges that led to fascism in the last century.
While showing clips of European politicians that have gained support in the last few years such as Marine Le Pen, Steves notes the wave of strong leaders who know how to take advantage of fear and a weak press, and states “it can happen anywhere.” The local experts featured throughout the film then give their prescriptions for fighting back against fascism and neofascism.
In Germany, as mentioned before, the importance of a well-educated electorate is acknowledged. They educate people so that something similar cannot happen again; if people see the steps of what happened before they can know how to prevent it from happening again. They want people to be “citizens, not consumers.”
A strong, free press is also critically important, as are people having independent critical thinking. “Don’t trust people that promise easy answers to complicated problems,” one of the experts said.
They all also emphasized that democracy is fragile, and that freedom and democracy are not free. But we are all participants, we are all responsible.
So we all can, and must, fight to save our democracy.
After the film, Steves took a few minutes to thank some of the crew and have them stand up to be acknowledged. He then took a couple of questions from the audience, during which he did an amazing job of never referring directly to Donald Trump but still managing to make it clear where he stood while remaining officially neutral. He expressed that with the midterm elections coming up, it is critical to inspire people to vote. He also noted that fascism is easier to be “nipped in the bud” during its earlier stages than to be defeated later. He says all norms are threatened, and that once something becomes normalized, it is too late.
While this documentary covers a lot of history that may be familiar, it does so through the frame of examining fascism, and so it’s an interesting and valuable film, especially considering what is happening here in U.S. politics and abroad.
In the Puget Sound, the special will be premiering on KCTS 9 at 7 PM on Tuesday, October 23rd. In other areas, check the listings for your local PBS station.
The film is also available to view on Steves’ website.