History Department hosts lecture on impacts of fascism

Tuesday, March 21, 2017 - 8:26pm

Johannes von Moltke, LSA Professor and Chair of German and Screen Arts & Cultures, discusses fascist cinema at the Fascism Teach-In in Hutchins Hall on Tuesday.

Johannes von Moltke, LSA Professor and Chair of German and Screen Arts & Cultures, discusses fascist cinema at the Fascism Teach-In in Hutchins Hall on Tuesday. Buy this photo
Haley McLaughlin/Daily

Organized by the University of Michigan History Department, a panel of professors connected their broad areas of expertise with fascism to lecture to about 50 students and faculty members Tuesday afternoon in Hutchins Hall. The lecture, co-sponsored by a component of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative, the LSA Democracy in Action Fund, covered the far-reaching impacts of fascism on government systems. 

Panelist Johannes von Moltke, a screen arts and cultures professor, said there was a greater interest in the subject after Donald Trump became president.

“Fascism for a long time was actually the number-one searched term on Merriam Webster,” he said. “At a recent event that the sociology department put on, our colleague, Liz Anderson, the chair of the Philosophy Department, spoke at length about authoritarian populism.”

He presented on the definition of fascism as a complex concept, often referred to as a system of authoritarian and nationalist belief. However, cinema often acts as propaganda that contributes to the sphere, as seen in the fascist films that were shown during the early 1900s. Von Moltke also used examples from popular culture to paint this picture, including George Orwell’s work.

Other presentations from the speaker concentrated more on fascism’s history and characteristics than current events.

History professors Kathleen Canning and Dario Gaggio discussed how Mussolini’s fascist party and the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution came to power. Later, during the Q&A session, the professors said they saw a similarity between this history and the Trump administration.

“We live in an age of anxiety … Western Europe is in the throes of enormous anxiety over Brexit, over the rise of right-wing populism in France,” he said later in an interview. “It was important to put this event in place now because fascism is on a lot of peoples’ minds, a lot of people’s protest signs and it’s one of the most searched terms on Google.”

Psychology Lecturer Joshua Rabinowitz detailed how a fascist leader can be more easily identified with in times of crisis, referring to Adolf Hitler’s own rise to power.  

“During stressful times, some of those macro-level indicators were more popular of an authoritarian response than in the less threatening times,” he explained.

At the end, questions were taken from the audience, who expressed concern over the similarities between the Trump administration and the fascist regimes that they had just learned about. Some wondered if Trump had the ability to start a widespread conflict as the president. The panel agreed while he had similar qualities to a fascist leader, they expressed optimism in the U.S. government to prevent this possibility.

Engineering sophomore Katie Corbett said her professor encouraged her entire class to come to the lecture.

“We are in a German 303 class," she said. "It’s a German history class on the Weimar Republic, which is between the two world wars, and so we’re learning about fascism, all that stuff. I did make the connection with Trump and how he wants to run the country and how people do make allusions to him and other fascist leaders but that’s just me connecting dots.”