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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, October 21st, 2018

Documentary Review: Rick Steves’ The Story of Fascism in Europe is critical viewing

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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3 Comments

  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!

    # by P A :: October 22nd, 2018 at 9:33 PM
  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.

    # by clara green :: October 24th, 2018 at 9:44 AM
  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.

    # by Carolyn Duncan :: October 24th, 2018 at 7:58 PM

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