Democracy is generally considered to be a form of government that opposes fascism. However, fascism has arisen before, and could arise again in new forms, through democratic processes. Is democracy really the ideal instrument to counter the current rise of right-wing political groups in western societies?
We have been taught by historians that the various forms of fascism that developed in the 20th century occurred due to the societal turmoil that began at the end of the 19th century. In the 1890s, a sense of economic pessimism was spreading throughout Europe, together with an increasing nationalization of the masses. These elements, intermingled with the growing technological and military competition among states, led to the First World War and the resulting interwar crisis that culminated in the 1929 Great Depression.
This economic and political scenario led to populist governments taking power: Mussolini became prime minister in Italy in 1922, and Hitler won the elections in Germany in 1933 with 43% of the votes.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany at the end of the Second World War in 1945, fascist movements were completely eradicated, with Mussolini’s corpse exposed in a public square in Milan and Hitler’s lifeless body remains found in a bunker in Berlin. 1945 therefore appears to represent the moment of the final defeat of these fascisms.
But did fascism really end? Can fascism resurge as of today?
Democracy is thought to be the form of government that best opposes fascism, and democratic governments enjoyed long-term success in Western countries after the end of the Second World War. However, their success can be mostly attributed to a fresh and powerful historical memory of the war, growing – often booming – economies between the ‘50s and the ‘90s, and a general sense of wellbeing circulating in the population.
However, the drastically worsening economic climate following the 2008 Great Financial Crisis has led to the resurgence and proliferation of radical right-wing groups and neo-fascist political movements, comparable to what happened after the 1929 Great Depression.
Many believe that these political movements share few characteristics with the fascist movements of the 20th century, especially if we consider their use of democratic tools to promote and share their ideas (for example, in pushing for the use of referenda).
But as history has shown, fascist movements can emerge from democratic processes, taking over political power like a cancer.
Democracy is the government of the people. Popular opinions are dynamic and ever-changing entities, that can be manipulated by inculcating the idea that a drastic change is needed to restore a previously established – and well-functioning – system. Jewish bankers, leftist intellectuals, European pen-pushers, migrants and terrorists become, one by one, the scapegoats of a financial and cultural crisis.
Democracy is not a perfect form of government, and its current structure may not be sufficient to prevent fascisms from arising again.
Historical memory, for instance, is likely to be a much stronger means for preventing fascism, but it is one that inevitably dissolves over time.
If democracy is not sufficient, how should fascisms be prevented?
One possible pessimistic scenario is that there is no way to prevent fascisms from cyclically arising. Human history is indeed a tapestry of hate, confrontation, and lost memories: being optimists may not therefore be rational.
However, democracy could still provide the tools to stop fascisms before they gain enough power to undermine the system. In this case, political confrontation and dialogue should be emphasized by a cohesive group of political parties, forming a united front that keeps politically dangerous members out of government, through legislative action if necessary. The greatest mistake is for well-established antifascist parties to fight amongst themselves, thus weakening the political system and paving the way for a fascist resurgence.
Nowadays, the dangerous intentions of extremists portraying themselves as spokespeople of the masses like Trump in the US, Salvini in Italy, Strache in Austria, or Le Pen in France, are often underestimated. Their actions, initially taking democratic form, could soon be transformed into undemocratic action, if the political and cultural background allows it.
At this critical point in history, we must ask ourselves if we would be able, as individuals and as citizens, to recognize a modern comeback of Hitler. He would have learnt that the world has changed, that his political party could not be called “Nazi” again. But by tempering and refining his political language and adapting it to our time, democracy would still offer him the possibility to access and influence the gut feelings of the masses.
Democracy could potentially be unable to prevent this from happening. To eradicate any possibility that a new, unforeseen, form of fascism could develop, we should think of how democracy could be improved and modified to make sure that past mistakes are not repeated in our modern world.