Taling to Your Kids About Fascism

I have two wonderful, beautiful teenage kids. We talk pretty frankly about those things all parents need to chat with their children about: drugs and sex, personal safety and all. Lately I’ve felt it necessary to talk with them aboutwell, you know, the f-word. Fascism. Not at the dinner table, where my lovely wife would much prefer to confine the conversation to classical music or the new car. But to them one-on-one, quietly, in their rooms, with the music turned down. I’m probably more comfortable doing this than many parents. I teach Japanese history for a living, and every spring semester, when I get around to discussing the 1930s, I have to address this topic. The students are typically from 18 to 22, thus not that much older than my kids, so I’ve more or less worked out how to discuss, in what schoolteachers call “age-appropriate” fashion, the obscenity which is fascism. The following is offered as a suggested model for fellow parents, who following events in this country, may likewise feel it might finally be time to have this talk.

[Note for teachers/parents: The following would be suitable for 12 year olds; you can appropriately adjust it for older children and adolescents.]

“‘Fascism’ comes from the Latin word fasces, a bundle of rods with an axe blade stuck out of it. In Rome, about 2000 years ago (you know, when Jesus was alive), it meant power. Having fasces was a way to scare and impress people. People disagree about what fascism is, exactly. But pretty much everybody agrees that Germany and Italy were fascist by the 1930s, and many think Japan was too, from the ’30s up to the end of World War II, and that there was fascism in Spain and Portugal and Greece and Hungary and other places. A guy named Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy and started cracking down on people’s freedoms to say and write stuff, to organize, to protest, and then Adolph Hitler (you’ve heard of him) took charge in Germany and did the same thing. Mussolini’s the one who started using this term “fascism.” Then a guy named Francisco Franco overthrew the democratic government in Spain with German and Italian help. There were differences between these thugs, and it wasn’t really clear to a lot of people, at the beginning, that they were all somehow connected and that they made up a new system, like a new disease or something.

“One thing that linked them was the way they tried to scare people into supporting war—endless war, a culture of war. Italy invaded Ethiopia, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, Japan took control of Manchuria as the first step in its invasion of China. The fascist governments told their peoples that they were under attack, and had to fight back. And lots of people believed them. One of Hitler’s top officials, Hermann Goering, said before he was sentenced to death after World War II that ‘Naturally the common people don’t want war But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.’ Goering was a pretty sharp guy, actually; that’s the scary thing. When these vicious guys are in power they can sometimes win over millions of people who just don’t think.

“Like I said, there were some differences among these war-mongering jerks, in Europe and Japan, but people in the Soviet Union, and people friendly to the Soviet Union (people called Marxists) started saying all these governments and movements supporting them were in fact connected, and were something new and worse than anything the world had seen in a long time. So they started to use the word ‘fascist’ a lot, and tried to explain why fascism was really, really bad.”

[Note for teachers/parents: In 1928 the Communist International warned that “in a more or less developed form, fascist tendencies and the germs of a fascist movement are to be found almost everywhere.” Most of the early critical analysis of fascism was done by Marxist scholars such as Otto Bauer, Franz Neumann, Leon Trotsky, and Karl Radek.]

“The Soviet Union was led by communists—-people who were trying to create a society in which people were equal, and where there wouldn’t be rich and poor. (The fascists hated the communists; they were actually their main target. Hitler thought Jews and communists were pretty much the same, and he planned early on to invade the Soviet Union and get rid of them.) The Soviets thought the governments in the U.S. and Britain and other countries that called themselves ‘democracies’ weren’t really democratic, because the rich people, the big companies, basically controlled them. The Soviets thought people in those countries should do what they themselves had done in 1917—overthrow their governments in revolutions. But as they saw fascism getting stronger, the Soviets started thinking that to protect the world from this horrible thing, they should work with anybody and everybody who could be organized to fight it, including Western governments, whom they wanted to ‘just say no’ to fascism.

“So communist parties all over the world, who got leadership from the Soviet Union, tried to create a ‘United Front Against Fascism’ including everybody disgusted by Hitler, Mussolini and their allies. As part of this, almost three thousand Americans, including the famous writer Ernest Hemingway, went to Spain to fight fascism in a group called the ‘Lincoln Brigade.’ Too bad that lots of powerful people in the so-called “democratic” countries actually liked Hitler and Mussolini and thought that the Soviets were the real problem. So they didn’t really try to stop fascism. At least not very hard.”

[Note for teachers/parents: Both Joseph Kennedy, U.S. Ambassador to the U.K., and King Edward VIII were sympathetic to Nazi Germany until full-scale world war broke out in 1939. (Following discussions with Kennedy in May 1938, the German Ambassador to the U.K., Herbert von Dirksen, told Berlin that the anti-Semitic Kennedy was “Germany’s best friend” in London.) The great American aviator Charles Lindburgh accepted the German Eagle award from Hermann Goering, the Nazis’ second in command, in 1938.]

“In 1940, Italy, Germany and Japan signed the ‘Tripartite Pact,’ which said that they were all anticommunist and against the Soviet Union. Germany attacked the Soviet Union and England, and pretty much everybody in Europe who wasn’t already fascist, and World War II started. America stayed out of it at first, except for sending weapons and stuff to those fighting fascism. But then the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, so the U.S. entered the war big-time, in the Pacific and in Europe. The U.S. did most of the fighting against the Japanese; the Soviets did most of the fighting against the Germans, and in one of the greatest battles in history, turned the tide of the war at Stalingrad, and chased the Nazis all the way back to Berlin. The Russians still call World War II their Great Patriotic Anti-Fascist War. That’s how they see it, and it really makes sense to put it that way.

“But still after the war, there were fascists around, like in Portugal and Spain. The government of the U.S. made friends with them! That’s because the Soviets had gotten really powerful by defeating the Germans, and even though they lost, like, 20 million people in the war, they still came out of World War II with the second biggest economy in the world, and they kind of took charge in eastern Europe, while the U.S. took charge in western Europe. (During the war, the two governments had agreed to split the continent.) The Soviets were still saying that people should overthrow the rich, and that was very scary for the U.S. government. So the U.S. figured, well, now that we defeated Japan and Germany, and the only power that’s really big is the world is the Soviet Union, and it’s against rich people-like the people who run this country–what we gotta do is get together with the leftover fascists, or whoever, to OPPOSE those communist guys.”

[Note for teachers/parents: An official U.S. government report in 1948 noted that “the men who were most active in building up and running Japan’s war machine-militarily and industrially-were often the most successful business leaders of [Japan], and their services [will] in many instances contribute to the economic recovery of Japan” that had become so crucial to U.S. policy at that point, as the communists were winning in China. Failing to secure China as its big ally in Asia, and needing to strengthen occupied Japan as its ally, the U.S. “rehabilitated” many targeted by earlier anti-fascist purges, while they conducted a “Red Purge” against Japanese communists they had earlier freed from prison.

In 1953, the U.S. signed the Pact of Madrid with the Spanish dictator Franco, which allowed the U.S. to maintain military bases in fascist Spain. The U.S. supported the military dictatorship in Greece from 1967 to 1974-a fascist regime that suspended elections; banned all strikes, demonstrations and criticism of the regime; and all gatherings except for religious purposes in churches. During that period U.S. Vice-President Spiro Agnew visited Greece, and in 1972 the United States negotiated permanent access to Greek port facilities for its Sixth Fleet.]

“So they hooked up with some of the creepiest people in the world, people who learned from Hitler, and admired Hitler, people in Europe and Latin America and the Middle East and Asia, and said these were part of what they called the ‘Free World.’ Like this junta in Greece, and this guy Pinochet in Chile, and a group called the Phalangistas in Lebanon. Your teachers in school might not call these people fascists, and they might give you the impression that fascism was something that just happened, like, 50-60 years ago, and then ended. But actually, it continued. It’s still around.

“Like I said, people disagree on exactly what it is and why it happens. Some say fascism happens because there’s a crisis in the economy and a lot people who, say, invest in the stock market lose a lot of money really quick. They see rising poverty and crime, and they worry as they see working people getting organized to make real radical change—-especially if the working people include a lot of people who aren’t of their own ethnic group. So they lose faith in ‘democracy’-voting for the big political parties and stuff-and start supporting new groups that say, ‘Who cares about freedom and all-we just want order and stability!’ On the other hand, other people say, ‘We need a revolution, like happened in Russia.’ Meantime the so-called ‘moderate’ position, that just supports things as they are, loses influence. That’s what happened in Germany. It can happen here, too.

“I’m not saying our economy is all that bad right now, or there’s a crisis in it, even though the stock market’s been really weird. And the U.S. government is pretty different from the Nazi government. So I’m not saying you need to worry too much. Just be thinking about these things. There are some pretty crazy people in the government, and since September 11, they’ve chucked a lot of rights people thought they’d always have. They’ve pretty much killed the Bill of Rights. It could get worse. Somebody who’s supposed to be responsible for ‘human rights’ was actually talking about rounding up Arab-Americans the other day. They’re doing this thing called TIPS, too, and some people are saying it’s not really about catching terrorists, but messing with people who oppose attacking Iraq and going to war endlessly with random people for no good reason

“You’ve read the Bill of Rights, right? No? Gosh. They don’t teach that in your school? Well, here, I’ll bookmark it on your computer. And I’ll also download the ‘Patriot’ Act for you. This is your homework: Study them both, and figure out how they relate. Come on, it’s the weekend, and you’ve got nothing better to do.”

[Note for teachers/parents: Children may ask: “What should we do about all of this?” There are good answers, but given the current circumstances, it’s probably best not to discuss them on a website.]

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu