I’ve spent a lot of this year thinking about fascism. (I even wrote a novel about what happens when it takes power.)
Not just on the immediate scale (which I have, because duh), but because it’s my training. I completed enough credits to have a double major in History and Central European Studies, for all my university only could award the former. I speak Polish and German (though I’m rusty), and I spent a year and a half in Kraków, Poland in the mid-aughties predominantly studying WWII and post-war Polish history with a particular focus on the structures that moulded it. Namely, fascism, authoritarianism, and the particular Polish “wild card” (relative to the other Eastern bloc countries) that was uh, to quote Monty Python, “an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.”
Pre-Second World War, Poland was an ethnically and religiously diverse country, boasting the largest population of European Jews (most of whom lived lives outsiders would probably call “assimilated”). Poland was home to Jewish folks, Ukrainians, Russians, Lithuanians, Roma, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, and more. Today Poland is a picture of ethnic and religious homogeneity.
I had a professor at Uniwersytet Jagielloński who used to make a crack about the old adage that you can’t sum up Polish history in two words. He’d shake his head and wink and say, “Można.” (It’s possible.) Then he’d wink again and say, “Była fatalna.” (If I tell you “była” means “it was”, I bet you can parse out the rest of that one.)
Technically his joke is three words in English, but in the end, he’s right. I mean, starting in the early modern period, the larger powers to Poland’s east and west (Russia and Germany–somebody drew the short straw when they were picking places to country) divided Poland up like a big field-y cake over and over again. Poland would vanish from the map for a hundred or so years, then pop back up when the tides shifted, but throughout that, the people still existed. Polish as a language remained. The Catholic church has been one of the biggest contributing variables to the continued existence of a country caught between an eventually Protestant power to the west and an Orthodox/secular power to the east.
So. Fascism. It swept in from the west with the Third Reich and gobbled up chunks of Poland. Hitler hated Slavs just about as much as he hated Jews and Roma and queers and disabled folks, so when he invaded, the chunk of Poland that Russia didn’t get from drawing that Ribbentrop-Molotov line got front row seats to the Holocaust. Anyone found guilty of being “too educated” got shipped off to Auschwitz, which, as we all know, became the eventual hub for the mass extermination of Europe’s Jews. Poles could be shot on sight if they were caught aiding Jewish folks (though many, many, many of them risked it anyway–Poland had the largest resistance movement in all of Europe). In Third Reich-occupied Poland, it was illegal for any Pole to obtain higher than a basic education (about a second grade equivalent). Something like 60% of Poland’s intelligentsia ended up dead. Nearly all of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews did.
The effect the Second World War had on Poland was to effectively homogenise it. The remaining 300,000ish Jews mostly left (and who could blame them…like for real for real). The rearranging of borders after Russia stomped in and stomped on what was left of Poland with the “liberation” resulted in the map we see today, with Poland moved significantly westward and populated by a group of people that is around 97% ethnically Polish and also Catholic. Hold that in your head while we move on.
Fascist movements tend to have several things in common:
(I’m obviously simplifying for the sake of brevity here — don’t necessarily consider this a “How to Fascism” guide and also ew, no.)
So anyway. America.
America is anything but homogeneous. It was decidedly populated when white folks “discovered” it, then white folks brought over a shit tonne of enslaved human beings for a long ass time, the people in power decided that racism would keep the poor whites from fraternising with enslaved black folks, so that idea took off like a greased pig on a slide in July, there was an entire continent and a third to the south which Europe also decided to meddle with and create murderous, colonial mayhem, and fast forward a few hundred years and you get us, now, with a vibrant and diverse population of people who have a lot of snazzy rights most of us didn’t have back then (get your ass to the polls and say thanks for that when you vote in a couple weeks). America is not homogeneous. But it is made of many groups that generally mix most in cities, least in rural areas.
There’s a saying (if you know the source, do share) that when one is accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
Hold that in your mind with the previous bit about Poland, will ya?
Let’s get SUPER simple.
Say you live in a very small town. You know everybody. When you’re fifteen, a new family moves in. You don’t know them, so at first everybody is sort of a-buzz because they’re New, but life goes on. The kids go to school with you, you hang out with them. Then another New family comes in, and the same sort of thing happens. The town, though, is kind of struggling. The roads need work, a couple of the businesses went under, one burns down, income is low and the price of food is up. When you’re eighteen, a third New family moves in. Your parents can’t quite pay their bills. You start skipping meals. Mom’s got an abscessed tooth and Dad really needs knee surgery, so he’s out of work. One of the school’s seven teachers moves away, and there’s talk that someone from the same town as those New families is responsible for the feed shop catching fire.
One of your buddies’ older brothers shows up at a town meeting, and he’s stern faced and not happy. He says he knows who was responsible for the feed shop fire and the town needs to do something about it before it happens again. The next week, somebody’s shed burns down, and the town goes into an uproar. The shed owner got a broken arm trying to get his dog out. Your buddy’s brother starts talking about how it’s gotta be someone from one of those New families because they’re from the same place as the person who burned the feed shop and three entire families from that place have moved into town, and this town used to be a safe place where everyone knew each other and now it’s….dangerous.
That’s all it takes. Woomf. That’s the sound of something igniting because there was something to ignite and it’s not the sound of a fictional building, but the sound of a populist movement. It takes in more people, not just the people who are upset and scared because they can’t get a bad tooth out or can’t get a job, but also the people who always looked sideways at the New families, who always resented their arrival, who never wanted them there in the first place. When enough of those people band together, it doesn’t matter if it was someone from another town, someone from one of the New families, an ill-timed lightning strike, or that loudmouth older brother himself who started the first fire or any of the others: it no longer matters really what is true, because now there is demonstrable damage. And now, regardless of whether there is outside danger or not, there are people in the town who are in danger. Those New families, anyone who sympathises with them–they can be caught in the crossfire.
We have two things I asked you to keep in your mind.
In 2007, I marched in a LGBTQ rally in Kraków. I’ve been to a lot of Pride parades in the States in my life. Until this year, I lived in the gap between a more violent past and now. In Kraków, there were Nazi counter-protesters. Riot police. Dogs. The far-right groups threw rocks and eggs at us. I don’t think anyone got seriously injured, but — that was a thing that happened.
Earlier in my time there, in 2006, I went to a counter-protest because there were actual fascist groups marching through Kraków, shouting slogans like “Poland for Poles!” and some nasty anti-Semitic rhetoric. Some Israeli students fell in with me, by chance. They were visiting Poland to see the camps. “Funny that we happen to be here for this,” one of them said to me. Funny. Yeah.
This year during Pride in Orlando, fifty of my queer family died and another fifty took bullets instead of rocks or eggs. I’ve seen news stories of Sikh men getting beaten because they’re presumed to be Muslim. An old man visiting his American family from India who got jumped in the South and ended up in hospital. And that’s just here — in post-Brexit England, Polish homes and stores have been petrol-bombed, Polish people have been jumped and beaten to death, brown folks whose families have lived in the UK for generations have been yelled at to go back home (or worse).
I’m mentioning Poland a lot because it’s personal for me, and it’s what I know. During the height of my studies in Kraków, between countless visits to concentration camps and hearing countless survivor stories from their own mouths, I used to have nightmares of waking up in 1941 in Kraków.
Trump stopped being funny a long time ago for me. Not only because of who I am, though yeah, I’m worried for my own skin in all this too.
But because this America, this UK, this world that is taking on a neo-fascist flavour lately — this feels all too like those nightmares.
Democracy works only because we trust it to. This year we are watching the erosion of that trust. Life will go on, no matter what, but…frankly, I don’t want to see a third world war. I don’t want to see an American version of Kristallnacht. I don’t want to get shot if someone sees me holding the “wrong” partner’s hand in public. I don’t want to see the news littered with Black bodies, their deaths shaped into some macabre viral phenomenon when those who died were human beings, human lives, who mattered. I thought better of America than to put forward a man for highest office in the land who would brag about committing sexual assault. I’ve lived through multiple sexual assaults. This year has been…unpleasant.
And yet? Crime is down. Violent crime is down. This world is safer than pretty much ever in our history (if we factor out the whole “we’re killing the planet” and “our antibiotics might stop working because superbugs” things). Far fewer people die from violence or disease these days, and far more live to a ripe old age.
Because you see, it doesn’t really necessitate actual danger for us to feel like the world around us is dangerous. The world isn’t crumbling. Almost everyone in it wants the same thing I do: to live a peaceful life with those I love, to provide for my needs and those of my loved ones, to do something meaningful. Those are simple things. It’s something almost all of us have in common.
Things could turn bad, and fast. They could. World wars have begun with a single bullet fired from one gun in a gaggle of really bumbling assassins.
If we don’t want them to though, I think we need to start looking to the basis of these issues. Not just that Trump happened, but why. Economic depression and social change — folks who wear privilege in their skin but who can’t feed their families. Recognising the intersectionality of the issues that sow seeds that germinate into fascist crops. Understanding that there are swaths of this country where the people have been categorically failed by their party and turned to Trump because he promised them something better and seeing that…the problems that started all that aren’t invalid, and they affect more than one demographic. And beyond that, to those who don’t face those issues but feel like they’re losing something. Standing, jobs, whatever it is — seeing a sweep of social change makes them feel small. This world is changing fast. Jobs are changing fast. Google is not the best source finder for research (unless you’re researching which pages have the best SEO). Systemic racism is real. Institutional sexism is real. Systemic poverty and classism are also real.
But empathy and diversity are so much stronger than all of those things. I believe that our fear creates the thing we are afraid of. I want to believe that we’re better than this. Clinton and Trump are emphatically not the same. That’s a false equivalency that has been making all too many rounds for the past year and a half.
We’re the only ones who can fix this.
Start by voting. We’ll go from there.
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