Why Calling It Fascism Matters

I didn’t find out that my mother and Anne Frank were childhood playmates until I brought the Diary of Anne Frank home in seventh grade. On that day, she showed me a childhood photograph of herself, her cousin Ellen, and Anne and Margot Frank.

This was a rare glimpse into my mother’s past. She never talked about growing up in Germany and occupied Holland, the war, living in hiding, the Holocaust. She refused to speak German even to us, her 2 sons.

I found out later that in 1960, my mother became the first person of her generation to sue the German government for reparations. My mother’s lawyer was Robert Kempner, who survived a Nazi camp and became assistant U.S. chief counsel during the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. The trial went on for fourteen years before the case against the Germany government was thrown out due to lack of legal funds. Only after she died did I see the transcripts describing her physical and psychological scars and begin to understand why she never left the house, even when I won awards in high school.

Some have argued that the German people did not know or understand what was happening around them. Perhaps that was true, although the signs were there from the beginning. There was, essentially, a refusal to see what was happening in front of them, and a failure of moral leadership at key moments when the regime could have been stopped. Different political factions – communists, socialists, Jewish Bund, labor movement – failed to work together to stop the Nazi “Make Germany Whole Again” program even though they all, to some degree, recognized the danger. They did not realize there would come a time when the door slammed shut on any more chances to stop it.

Today we see the same spiral of events under Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” program of hate and bigotry, shredding the norms and rule of law while children such as Darlyn Cristabel Cordova-Valle die in concentration camps on the border or protesters are murdered in the streets of Kenosha, WI by white nationalist self-proclaimed militia. This has all taken a major leap in the last few months: Trump denying the science of the pandemic as over 181,000 people die; federal paramilitary troops without insignia going after protesters in unmarked vans, and similar forces now spreading to other cities; maneuvers to undermine or cancel the core of democracy: elections.

More pundits are now debating if Trump is a fascist, if what we are seeing now is fascism, if it is indeed time to use the F word. Political experts say Trump is performing fascism, using fascistic tactics, acting like a dictator, or playing to his base, but still refuse to openly say Trump is a fascist or call the regime he has assembled fascist. Some say this is not fascism because we still have a two-party state; because the Gestapo is not coming to everybody’s door; because there is still some semblance of freedom; because Trump has not started a new war despite his bellicose threats.

If this is the criteria for labeling a regime fascist, the Nazis were not fascist when they came to power either. Yet they were. You do not judge whether a regime is fascist by its setbacks or what it hasn’t done yet. You look at what Trump has done. You look at what he has said and promises to do. You look at the aims of his regime and the direction his regime is taking us.

Shortly before her death, my mother was interviewed by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. She described the advance – a change of law or edict here and there; suddenly she could no longer shop at her favorite bakery. Later she watched her school headmaster get shot for refusing to raise the Nazi flag. Then, the day came when she could no longer see her friend Anne Frank.

I think about my mother and Anne Frank being at the dinner table with our families celebrating their grandchildren’s successes if the German people had driven out the Nazis before it was too late.

Why is it so important to say this is fascism? Because if we, as a people, openly acknowledge that terrible truth, then we can begin to act in a way to stop this fascist regime from consolidating its power before it is too late. If the German people had known what we know, and had the chance to drive out Hitler and the Nazi party with sustained, non-violent protest, shouldn’t they have taken it? Shouldn’t they have refused to accept what was already happening?

This is the question facing us now. If we stop short of the truth, this is not a debate but a call to mass delusion. How many Anne Franks or Darlyn Cristabel Cordova-Valles or Joseph Rosenbaums are we allowing, how many lives are we sacrificing, if we do not break the delusion now?

Scott Gilbert is a clinician who works in the Boston area and is a regional spokesperson for the national organization RefuseFascism.org. He can be reached at scott.gilbert.pa@gmail.com