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To Make Fascism Great Again, Cleanse it of Associations with Jewish Genocide
“Everyone is sure they know what Fascism is,” wrote the historian Robert Paxton in his 2004 work The Anatomy of Fascism. I can vouch for that. Whenever I comment publicly on Fascism, my inbox and social media feeds populate with comments from people who repeat right-wing talking points and falsehoods about the regimes of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler for my edification.
This is the first of a series of posts in which I examine myths propagated by the global far right that seek to present Fascism in a positive light and minimize its atrocities. Some myths target extremists by presenting Fascist violence as justified; others seek to win over conservatives for far right politics by covering up or distorting Fascist violence. All of them rewrite history. In the information warfare age, control of the narrative is everything.
Fascism is inextricably linked for many people with its endpoint of genocide, which is why extremists have sought for many decades to cleanse its memory by perpetuating the Big Lie of Holocaust denial.
Countries with far-right governments needing to dissociate themselves from collaboration with genocide, such as Poland, have passed laws to try and silence this history of enabling Nazi extermination. The 2018 assertion by Polish lawmaker Kornel Morawiecki (father of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki) that Jews entered the Warsaw Ghetto voluntarily to get away from their Christian neighbors (thus erasing Polish police assistance in maintaining these zones of confinement) is a new classic of the genre.
In Italy, where the 1938 anti-Semitic laws opened a window that culminated in the deportation of Italian Jews to Nazi death camps during World War Two, neo-Fascists and their allies have sought to distance themselves from the specific anti-Semitic policies of Il Duce to more easily rehabilitate the rest of his Fascist agenda and legacy.
Silvio Berlusconi, who was the first European leader since 1945 to include neo-Fascists in government (in 1994, 2001-2006, 2008-2011), has worked hard to cement this narrative. "The racial laws were the worst fault of Mussolini as a leader, who in so many other ways did well," Berlusconi said in 2013 on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Almost every 21st century Italian neo-Fascist with aspirations to national power has made sure to condemn the country's collaboration with the Holocaust in order to rescue the rest of the Fascist image from infamy. In 2003, Gianfranco Fini, then the leader of Italy's extreme right party, National Alliance, visited Israel and condemned the Nazi puppet state Mussolini headed (the Republic of Salò, 1943-1945, which collaborated with the Nazis on Jewish extermination) as "shameful."
Italy's next prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, too, has criticized Fascism's "ignominious anti-Jewish laws" while retaining the xenophobia and conspiracy theories about White Christian extinction proper to Benito Mussolini's regime. Others in her far-right Brothers of Italy party are more candid: Co-founder Ignazio La Russa has a history of honoring the soldiers of the Republic of Salò --the very soldiers who served Nazism and carried out deportations of Jews on Italian soil.
This attempt to cleanse the far right by removing memory of its connections to Jewish genocide extended to the authoritarian presidency of Donald Trump, who cultivated neo-Nazis and other anti-Semitic extremists. His administration's January 2017 Holocaust Remembrance Day statement broke with White House precedent in failing to mention Jews explicitly in its commemoration of "victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust."
It is essential to see the Holocaust in a wider lens, recognizing its many Christian and other non-Jewish victims. Yet a far-right government that takes Jews out of the equation in favor of calling attention to "everyone's suffering in the Holocaust" (as Trump's Chief of Staff Reince Priebus argued was necessary) plays into this tradition of erasing Jewish genocide.
It also opens the door to the strategy of placing Jews and their murderers on even ground. Praising neo-Nazis who revere those original perpetrators as "very fine people," as Trump would do after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville later that year, is emblematic.
When "everyone's suffering" is emphasized, perpetrators can become victims, and victims can become the perpetrators who got what was coming to them. As a recent message I received from an anti-Semite puts it: "Let us never hear of Jewish suffering or victimhood ever again...it boggles the mind that people can be so evil. Seeing [the Jews'] behavior today, I can well understand how the Hollowcost [sic] happened, and I think Never say never again."