Rick Steves' The Story of Fascism in Europe
Rick Steves' The Story of Fascism in Europe

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.

Rick Steves' The Story of Fascism in Europe
The Sto­ry of Fas­cism in Europe
Release Year: 2018
Host­ed by Rick Steves
Run­ning Time: 56 min­utes
Watch the film

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.

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4 replies on “Documentary Review: Rick Steves’ The Story of Fascism in Europe is critical viewing”

  1. I’ve always con­tend­ed that Rick Steves is a nation­al trea­sure, and his spe­cial on fas­cism, which I watched last night on my local PBS sta­tion, has only con­firmed my judg­ment, which I’m sure many share. Long live the ines­timable Rick Steves!

  2. Watched the pro­gram on PBS about Fas­cism in Europe. Won­der if Rick has read the book enti­tled GREY WOLF — Escape of Adolph Hitler by Simon Dun­stan & Ger­rard Williams. They have doc­u­ment­ed proof that Hitler died in Argenti­na. Rick fol­lows the com­mon belief that Hitler died in the Berlin bunker, but these authors state that those were two oth­er peo­ple who took his place. Their DNA did not match Hitler and Eva Braun. There was a Ger­man pop­u­la­tion in Argenti­na who aid­ed them for years.

  3. Yay, Steve. Thank you for the excel­lent pro­gram on the rise of Fas­cism in Europe. I was sur­prised, at first, that you were doing some­thing that is not a trav­el piece, but then it made com­plete sense. You’ve edu­cat­ed us about the coun­tries and their his­to­ries and now you’re edu­cat­ing us about their pol­i­tics too. Great lessons learned to remem­ber dur­ing the insid­i­ous assault on democ­ra­cy we are expe­ri­enc­ing from so many igno­rant peo­ple. The pro­gram was beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten and pro­duced. Excellent.

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