Antifascism and Historical Memory

I am not here to discuss political strategy but historical memory. I grew up in that European country that had the dubious historical distinction of having invented fascism. Since the end of the Second World War the country’s national holiday has been dedicated to the Antifascist Resistance, on that day of the year when, in 1945, the partisan militias liberated some of the major industrial cities of the time from the nazi-fascist army of the Salo Republic. I hate all nations and national holidays, but if you really ought to have one, I’ll surely take one that is dedicated to the memory of the Antifascist Resistance. After all, both my parents, who were in their early teens in 1944-45, got directly involved with the Resistance and did their share of fighting against fascists and nazi, while my grandfather was interned in a nazi concentration camp.

Historical memory matters and countries with a lived experience of fascism have lots of it.

One thing that was always clear at the time when I grew up, some decades after the end of the war, was that antifascism can never stop and can never rest because fascism is never truly vanquished. It exists in pockets of society as a latent state of mind: a glorification of violence as an end in itself, mixed into a cocktail of nationalism, misogyny, and racism. Fascism thrives on a nostalgia of some nebulous past grandeur (the Roman Empire, the mythical Aryan invasion, the Caliphate) combined with a gut-wrenching fear of what is seen as the menacing other: the immigrant, the feminist, the gender non-conforming, the cosmopolitan (the Jew!).

Fascism continued to exist all throughout the history of the postwar world. What kept it in check, for most of those years, was a solid culture of anti-fascism shared by the population. My mother kept the rifles of the partisan brigade buried in the backyard of an old country shed for decades. So did many others. They all knew that fascism would attempt to gain access to power again, either by gaming the democratic system (as both Italian Fascism and German Nazism did on their original ascent to power) or by the direct violence of a military putsch. There were attempts at violent takeover. They failed, mostly because people were ready to fight and fascism did not have the numbers to succeed in an open fight against a substantial part of the population. These attempts were followed by many more subtle attempts at discrediting the memory of the Antifascist Resistance. The fascists made endless claims that the antifascists too had committed atrocities during the civil war and that their use of violence was no different than the fascist violence they fought. This is the same usual false argument attempting to equate fascism and antifascism into mirror images of one another. These have always been maneuvers conceived to the purpose of weakening a broad and extremely strong antifascist front, and open cracks and divisions that could be used by fascists to creep their way back towards power.

I came to the US from Europe as a scientist. As such, I could not help thinking of all the European scientists that had fled to America in the 1930s and 1940s to escape a continent ravaged by fascism. They made the US into a geopolitical power in an epoch where primacy in science and technology largely determined political supremacy. The Cold War benefited (on both fronts) from the profound incompatibility between science and fascism, or for that matter the incompatibility of fascism with any kind of intellectual activity. Having worked for years for some of the major players in the science scene in the US, I have seen first hand all the benefits and privilege that this country has reaped from the devastation of Europe brought over by fascism.

Now it is the US that is on a path towards fascism, and that path is a familiar one: a fake adherence to the rules of democracy, while simultaneously undermining them from within. Questionable elections, disregard for separations of powers and rule of law, free hand to police brutality and repression, while at the same time gaming the ideals of free speech and freedom of expression to create a platform for the propaganda of genocidal ideas, with the concept of speech stretched to include provocations that go hand in hand with overt violence, brutality and general intimidation. Our historical memory has seen all of this before. We surely know fascism when we see it: we got a whole twenty years of it.

Now I have become the scientist who is escaping the fascism ravaged country, packing and leaving for Canada in a rushed attempt to get the hell out of here as fast as I can. Now that I am living that situation, I cannot help thinking of all those who did not have the privilege of a highly sought for profession, the privilege to pack and leave and be instantly welcomed with open arms by another country ready to offer an equally comfortable employment. Science confers a lot of privilege in a technology ruled world. The prominence of the US in the Cold War was largely due to having reaped off the best science and technology from Europe: the scientists of the Manhattan project were in the majority refugees from Europe escaping fascism. It is not only in science and technology though: many of the most prominent intellectuals of the Weimer Republic went into exile in Los Angeles when Hitler got to power, so many other aspects of culture in the US benefited just as much. My parents did not have the choice to leave. They were born at the beginning of the 1930s in a country that had already been fascist for nearly a decade. They grew up there. Their only choice was to accept it or to fight it. To flee was never an option that could become part of their horizon. So was the destiny of many others, in Italy and Germany (and in many other European countries of the time when fascism spread like wildfire): to stay and fight and more often than not to stay and die. Those scientists who left, and who came to power the Cold War era, were the few privileged ones for whom escape and relocation were possible.

Antifascism is more needed now than ever. There is an imminent existential danger of a massive return of fascism to power, both in the US and in several countries in Europe. This would be a tragedy of unprecedented proportions, in a world whose potential for destructive force is so much more advanced than it was at the time of the historical fascisms of the 20th century. I am talking here about historical memory, but I am inevitably talking also about political strategy. A broad, solid and well organized antifascist front is crucially needed now. American liberals who look down on antifascist organizations and preach mild and peaceful disagreement with fascists, to be played out as a respectful debate, strictly bound by the rules of free expression and democracy, risk forgetting that fascists will never accept those rules and can at best play them to their advantage, with the ultimate goal of dismantling them. History tells us how the Jewish authorities who attempted to negotiate with the nazis, hoping to mitigate their violence and de-escalate it towards some kind of peaceful compromise, ended up unwillingly becoming a cog in the wheel of the holocaust machine, which relentlessly pressed on, turning any attempt at negotiation into an advantage and a step forward into an escalation of atrocities. History speaks very loudly, so loudly that it has been constantly screaming in our ears over the span of the last several months. Is anyone listening?  

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