MK Tod recently posted the following review of Madeleine Albright’s book. I have copied it below because I think the message is critical.
I am reminded of George Orwell’s classic, ‘1984’ when she quotes Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levy: “the critical point can be reached not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned“.
In ‘1984’ the Ministry of Truth has as its slogan:
War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength
The USA seems on a perilous path where all of these traits are evident today. We are witnessing the destruction of meaning from words like ‘Democracy’ when Fox News claims that Trump is its defender.
A few weeks ago, someone recommended Madeleine Albright’s book Fascism: A Warning which draws on the former US Secretary of State’s examination of fascism in the 20th century and how it has shaped today’s world. It’s an insightful look at history featuring frightening autocrats and fascists like Mussolini, Hitler, Putin, North Korea’s Kim family, and Turkey’s Erdogan.
Not a lighthearted read but instructive for what it says about the past, the present, and the future. In the context of war in Ukraine, a terrorist attack on Israel, ongoing ballistic missile launches by North Korea, and increasing nationalism in Europe, Albright’s messages are compelling.
After opening remarks, Albright takes us back to the 1920s and 30s and speaks to the conditions that allowed Mussolini and Hitler to take over their respective countries.
“Fascism draws energy from men and women who are upset because of a lost war, a lost job, a memory of humiliation, or a sense that their country is in steep decline.”
“These secular evangelists [Hitler and Mussolini] exploit the near-universal human desire to be part of a meaningful quest.”
“[A] fascist who launches his career by being voted into office will have a claim to legitimacy that others do not.”
ITALY AND MUSSOLINI
In speaking of Mussolini’s rise, Madeleine Albright says: “This was how twentieth-century Fascism began: with a magnetic leader exploiting widespread dissatisfaction by promising all things.” And “He initiated a campaign to ‘drenare la palude‘ – drain the swamp – by firing more than 35,000 civil servants.”
GERMANY AND HITLER
Hitler told his followers that “Germany had been betrayed … by a treasonous cabal of greedy bureaucrats, Bolsheviks, bankers, and Jews.” He “was an undisciplined but mesmerizing orator” who “used simple words and did not hesitate to tell what he later described as ‘colossal untruths’ … sought to incite hatred toward those he considered traitors.” Antisemitism became the ideology of those who felt cheated.
Further cementing his hold on Germany, Hitler “lambasted mainstream politicians for ignoring the needs of the common people” and “heaped scorn on the Communists.” The Great Depression was a gift to Hitler because it worsened conditions for his base. “His countrymen were looking for a man who spoke to their anger, understood their fears, and sought their participation in a stirring and righteous cause.” “He convinced millions of men and women that he cared for them deeply when, in fact, he would have willingly sacrificed them all.” And did during WWII.
“Almost as soon as he took office, Hitler removed women from the bureaucracy, promising them ’emancipation from emancipation.’ Women were counselled to tend the hearth, mend, sew, make Apfelkucken, and give birth to the next generation.” [Present-day examples: The Chinese are currently urging their women to return to more traditional roles. The US Supreme Court struck down the federal right to abortion.]
Albright describes the working relationship of Hitler and Mussolini and says: “For all their dissimilarities, the two men spoke a common language: violence.” “Both despised the Jeffersonian ideals of popular governance, reasoned debate, freedom of expression, an independent judiciary, and fair electoral competition.”
VENEZUELA AND CHAVEZ
The judicial system is often attacked by authoritarian leaders. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is but one example. Madeleine Albright writes that “when the courts later ruled against him, Chavez suspended the judges and packed the courts with more compliant appointees.” “The Venezuelan experience shows that when economic and social conditions deteriorate and democratic politicians fail in their obligations to lead, the lure of a gifted pied piper can be hard to resist.”
Moving to current leaders, Madeleine Albright considers Turkey and Russia as well as other countries.
TURKEY AND ERDOGAN
After an attempted coup, Erdogan “set out to transform the institutions that posed a threat to his future.” He arrested and tried “hundreds of retired and active-duty military officers for coup planning, corruption and other violations”, “he tightened the AKPs grip on the press”, “he proposed legislation to expand the courts and thereby his ability to appoint judges.”
In a country that used to pride itself as being secular, Erdogan now refers to Islam “as the fundamental source of Turkish unity” and “hurls abuse at secularists and liberals”.
As for his treatment of women, Erdogan “has proposed a ‘Turkish-style’ interpretation, condemning birth control, urging mothers to bear three or more children, and suggesting that women who work are ‘half people’. The failed coup also gave him the chance to change the constitution.
“It is the voice inside telling him [Erdogan] that he and only he knows what’s best for Turkey. That’s the siren’s song that transforms power into … tyranny.”
RUSSIA AND PUTIN
Albright has much to say about Putin, a man she dealt with in her role as US Secretary of State. According to her, “when guilty of aggression, (he) blames the victim.” She worries that his tactics and rule are “being watched carefully in other regions by leaders who are tempted to follow in his footsteps.” Putin is “embarrassed by what happened to his country [after the end of the Cold War] and determined to restore its greatness.” Hence the attack on Ukraine.
Putin discredits “democratic institutions and accuses Washington of trying to encircle his country.” Remember that adage about lying? “Putin refuses to admit that other countries have rights.” He “has stockpiled power at the expense of provincial governors, the legislature, the courts, the private sector, and the press.” Nationalism is Putin’s rallying cry. He also uses “social media as a weapon,” and destroys “political rivals through phony investigations.”
Albright discusses other autocratic/fascist leaders like Orban of Hungary, Milosevic of Serbia, and Kim Jung Un’s grandfather Kim Il-Sung. She also considers the presidency of Donald Trump, citing his support for autocrats like Putin, Duterte (Philippines), and el-Sisi (Egypt), his assertions that US courts are biased, the FBI corrupt, the press full of lies, and elections rigged. These attitudes discredit democracy. According to Madeleine Albright, such “arguments are designed to exploit insecurities and stir up resentments” among Americans. She cites further actions taken by Mr. Trump that undermined the leadership of the United States in the world community.
While “advances in technology have provided both the blessing of a more informed public and the curse of a misinformed one … technology has made is possible for extremist organizations to construct echo chambers of support for conspiracy theories, false narratives, and ignorant views of religion and race.” States like North Korea, China, Russia, Venezuela, and Turkey employ “squads of opinion-shapers to flood online sites” with falsehoods such that ‘democracy is being weakened by lies that come in waves and pound our senses.”
“When arguing that every age has its own Fascism, Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levy added that the critical point can be reached ‘not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned.“
“In a true democracy, leaders respect the will of the majority but also the rights of the minority.” [D]emocracy is a view of life, it requires a belief in human beings, in humanity.” “democracy is a discussion. But the real discussion is possible only if people trust each other and if they try fairly to find the truth.” While “the desire for liberty may be ingrained in every human breast” so too “is the potential for complacency, confusion, and cowardice.”
“There is, however, a tipping point where loyalty to one’s own tribe curdles into resentment and hatred, then aggression toward others.” Fascism feeds on such resentments, and “on social and economic grievances.” Unscrupulous leaders promise easy solutions, unfortunately, “despots rarely reveal their intentions … leaders who begin well frequently becomes more authoritarian the longer they hold power.” “Power is, as we know, an addiction prone to abuse.”
“In 2017, The Economist’s Democracy Index showed a decline in democratic health in seventy countries, using such criteria as respect for due process, religious liberty and the space given to civil society.” [The 2022 index shows that decline has stopped but also indicates that 37% of the world’s population lives under autocratic regimes.]
“The number of Americans who say that they have faith in their government ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’ dropped from above 70 percent in the early 1960s to below 20 percent in 2016.”
“History tells us that for freedom to survive, it must be defended, and that if lies are to stop, they must be exposed.”
Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning illuminates the urgent need for democracies to strengthen the elements maintaining this system of governance and to be vigilant about discovering flaws in its implementation while combatting any attacks from the enemies of freedom.