Entertainment Books

Wednesday 12 December 2018

'Fascism: A Warning' review: 'An addictive and widely informative read for anyone with a thirst for 20th century history'

Politics: Fascism: A Warning, Madeleine Albright, Harper Collins, €13.99

Madeleine Albright lost three of her four grandparents and numerous aunts and uncles in the Holocaust during World War II
Madeleine Albright lost three of her four grandparents and numerous aunts and uncles in the Holocaust during World War II

JP O'Malley

The word fascist is so widely misused in the lexicon of modern political ideals that it has come to represent - for both left and right - a loaded histrionic label used predominately for the purpose of identity politics.

Given the implications actual fascism can have on society, we ought to de-construct the term with rigorous analysis. Fascism: A Warning attempts to do just that. In the opening pages of a fascinating part biography, part history, part candid political memoir, former US Secretary of State and US ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright asks a series of fundamental questions.

Do fascists, Albright asks: "Cater to our prejudices? Encourage us to have contempt for the electoral process? Seek to destroy our faith in an independent press and a professional judiciary? Exploit the symbols of patriotism in an effort to turn us against each other?" If the answer is yes, Albright suggests we may not be dealing with a fully converted fascist society, just yet, but fascism is readily approaching in the distance at the very least.

Albright gives a more succinct definition. A fascist "is someone who identifies strongly with, and claims to speak for the whole nation or a group, is unconcerned with the rights of others and willing to use any means necessary, including violence, to achieve their goals."

As Albright continually demonstrates, the early warning signs of fascism are visible in a select number of relatively new EU states, most mere rookies in the art of democratic accountability. Notably, Hungary and Poland. Both countries' governments are contemptuous of the checks-and- balances EU approach to making civil society work.

This conservative, isolationist and illiberal one-nation-only approach, adopted by a select few central European states, includes the elimination of opposing voices in the press; contempt for the judicial system and the rule of law; anti-immigrant rhetoric that has made racism normalised in the public sphere; and purposely creating public enemies to stir up anxiety and hatred within the minds of its voters.

Hungary, for instance, recently won an election campaign in which government-backed media printed 'blacklists' of journalists challenging any dissenting view. Hungarian taxpayers, meanwhile, paid the equivalent of millions of euros to fund a billboard campaign against both the EU and billionaire pro- democracy advocate George Soros. The propaganda literature claimed both were conspiring to denigrate Western Christian values and replace Hungary with a "migrant haven".

Albright - correctly, in my view - points out this is where fascism begins: in the colourful, emotive and hate-fuelled language of hardcore nationalism, where outsiders are depicted as either dark-skinned violent beggars, or cynical cosmopolitan financiers.

Elsewhere, Albright points to various polities around the globe where contempt for democracy has become par for the course, from Trump's one-man authoritarian approach to the US, to Erdogan's anti-secular pro-Islamist policies in Turkey, to Putin's new authoritarian vision of modern Russia.

Albright seeks to analyse fascism from its roots here too, beginning in post-World War I Europe, first in Italy with the rise of Mussolini and subsequently in Hitler's Germany.

Much of the early chapters are standard history lessons, but the book is at its most compelling when Albright casually recollects personal details of diplomatic missions.

Highlights include face-to-face talks with Slobodan Milosevic during the Balkan crisis of the 1990s (he was subsequently charged for genocide in the Hague); welcoming into NATO in 1999 a then charming and seemingly optimistic and pro-European Viktor Orban; a slightly awkward meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2000 as Russia sought to solidify a new global image; and being unimpressed and heavily insulted by Recep Tayyip Erdogan's lack of tact and charm in the realm of public diplomatic meetings.

The book's overall tone eschews lofty academic definitions, reaching instead for stories from Albright's own personal life - and she certainly has many of those. Albright's father was a diplomat in the Czechoslovak government during World War II and so quickly transferred his family to England, where many European governments set up in exile. Some of her earliest memories, vividly recalled here, include hiding out in London during the Blitz as Hitler's fascist regime rained bombs on the city.

Until the 1940s her family were firmly rooted in central Europe. And she would only come to learn years later, when she migrated from European refugee to American citizen, that three of her grandparents, numerous aunts, uncles and cousins were among the millions of Jews who died in the ultimate act of fascism: the Holocaust.

The narrative is chaotic at times and if you are looking for an objective view of 20th century history, you won't find it here. Albright admits her political allegiances were formed in the Cold War, when the West saw the world in a moral black and white crusade of good and evil. Consequently, she treats the US as moral saviour and global policeman in a world she believes desperately needs leadership.

A quick analysis of history, from the atom bombs in 1945 onwards, however, shows the US has been just as violent and self-interested as most regimes. It just has a slicker PR system when it rains down bombs and bullets.

But political and personal bias aside, Fascism: A Warning is an addictive and widely informative read for anyone with a thirst for 20th century history, the art of political diplomacy and the strange and intriguing world of international relations. Its warnings are not tabloid-grabbing headlines, but they should be scrupulously discussed at length as Europe - and, indeed, the wider global world order - heads towards an uncertain and disunified future.

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