Review By Rev. Karyn Packard, Authored By Madeleine Albright
As I reflect on the books that I have reviewed throughout these last months (just shy of 1 year), I find myself struggling not to wallow in depression. I wanted the reviews to inform people of both parties as to what was actually happening in Washington. I hope this would give each of us the impetus to make personal decisions that would support our democracy in the time ahead. It truly has been a depressing compilation of authors’ impressions of this presidency. We have watched, and for some of us participated in marches, tabling events, knocking on doors, etc. But reading Madeleine Albright’s chronicle of fascism gives all of us a new and frightening foe to combat.
Madeleine Albright is especially well prepared to write this book. She draws on her own experience: Born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, she fled the country twice with her family – first to England after the Nazi takeover in 1938 and then, permanently, to the U.S. following the rise of a Communist government in 1948. Following a career as a political staffer and academic, Albright served as former president Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the UN before becoming her country’s top diplomat, Secretary of State. Some of the book’s strongest sections are the ones drawn from Albright’s first-hand observations of the autocrats she dealt with while in office.
In her first chapters, she follows the careers of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in the 1920s and ‘30s. In the rest of the book, she melds her travels as Secretary of State. Fascism: A Warningtakes the reader through Kim Jong-un and raises the alarm about the current crop of authoritarian leaders – from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Hungary’s Viktor Orbban to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump often expresses admiration for them. She notes, “He sees himself above the law as they do.”
Talking with her students at Georgetown, there is an attempt to define Fascism. They identify three identifiers. First, fascism flourishes alongside economic, social and political chaos. In these conditions, citizens are susceptible to autocratic leaders who play on their fear and desperation. Chavez’s rise to power was fueled by deteriorating social and economic conditions growing in Venezuela; Viktor Orban came to power as Hungary experienced the fallout of a financial crisis; and Vladimir Putin emerged as Russia was in the midst of economic and national decline. However, in warning, Albright points out that problems only become opportunities for fascists and other antidemocrats if their opponents can’t or won’t address them.
A second factor from Albright’s cases is having weak and divided oppositions. While opponents fought among themselves and let their country’s troubles deepen, fascists offered voters simple explanations of their problems in the form of nefarious enemies. Never was honesty a prerequisite to these conversations. Hitler is quoted as saying, “I will tell you what has carried me to the position I have reached. Our political problems appeared complicated. The German people could make nothing of them…I, on the other hand…reduced them to the simplest terms. The masses realized this and followed me.”
Albright’s third warning factor revealed is the connivance of conservatives. In both interwar Italy and Germany, conservatives believed they could control fascism and use its popular support to achieve their own goals. Examples: King Victor Emmanuel III in Italy and Germany’s President Paul von Hindenburg. They were persuaded by conservative advisers to hand power over to Mussolini and Hitler.
So where does that leave us today? There are worrying parallels: our democracy faces challenges. Albright hopes antifascists will learn from history. Where she does not go so far as to call President Trump a fascist, she says that Donald Trump is the “first anti-democratic president in modern U.S. History”. She challenges both Republicans and Democrats to work together to solve our country’s problems and not be blind to what this danger to democracy represents. The danger is, “to close our eyes and wait for the worst to pass”.
I wish as I finished this book, I had a better idea of what our direction needs to be to stop this destruction of our democracy. Madeleine Albright knows what she is talking about. But there is lots of data without much direction. The parallels are drawn. The original rise of fascism offers lessons for today on fighting back. But, according to Albright, “We can’t normalize what’s going on…We should not accept leaders that think they are above the law”. She quotes Mussolini, who said, “If you pluck the chicken one feather at a time, then people won’t notice.” So our advice from Madeleine, “we have to speak up when the feathers are flying.”