Category Archives: History in the news

How Fascist Is Trump? (Re)Considering Nazi History in an Age of Populism

This guest post is by Dr. Frank Uekötter, and is based on a talk he delivered at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History this week, in cooperation with the Institute for German Studies. A podcast is available here.


Image: Max Goldberg from USA, Trump Caucus, CCBY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons


The topic at hand allows two different perspectives, and I would like to make clear from the outset that I plan to explore both of them.

First, it is about an assessment of Donald Trump and his upcoming presidency: is this a return of fascism, or a twenty-first variety of fascism, a fascism 2.0? How far do we get when we read Donald Trump through the lens of fascism as it presents itself through the burgeoning historical literature?

But second, it is worthwhile to explore this connection in the opposite direction, too: how do recent trends in Nazi historiography and the literature on Italian fascism look in an effort to make sense of Trump?[1] Does existing scholarship provide proper guidance, or would a different literature offer deeper insights?

Of course, historical research has its own set of rules, and for good reasons, and nothing that I will say in the following shall be construed as to mean that political relevance is all that matters. However, the case for Nazi history has always been political as well as academic: it grew out of a conviction that the collapse of democracy during the inter-war years must never repeat itself. So when we see democracy under threat again all over the West, it pushes us to reflect on whether our historical literature, and our general style of engaging with the fascist past, provides the kind of help that it purports to offer.

Such an endeavour runs into two fundamental problems, one of a moral nature and one of a cognitive nature. In cognitive terms, it is perhaps obvious that any assessment of Trump’s rule is preliminary on day one of his presidency. We have an incoming administration that is fraught with tensions. It embraces isolationism and yet wants to go to war against what it calls “radical Islam”; it flirts with protectionism in an economy built on globalization; it wants to abolish Obamacare and protect entitlements; and it has yet to decide whether anthropogenic climate change is real or imagined. Nobody can possibly know how this will play out, and I will refrain from speculation as much as I can. Maybe Trump will have a great presidency, or an abysmal one, or one that is completely different from what we expect – we do not know, and we should not pretend otherwise.

This would be wise for moral reasons too. I am deeply disturbed by many things that Trump said on the campaign trail, and I am even more disturbed by the things that he did not say: I have yet to hear a serious commitment to democracy, the rule of law and human rights from Donald Trump. However, moral indignation has not kept Trump out of the White House, and I am not sure whether it will be helpful in the next four years either. The transition has already been a noisy one, and Trump’s presidency may be turbulent as well, with many statements and decisions that will provide fodder for cheap outrage. It may be amazingly simple to criticize Trump, and it may not even require a familiarity with current events: it may be sufficient to look at his hair, at his penchant for gold, or at Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live”.

I think we need to do better: we need a more sophisticated critique of Donald Trump, and such a critique needs a clear understanding of the potential and the limits of historical precedents. And when it comes to historical precedents, fascism is clearly the defining one for Donald Trump, the event in collective memory that resonates more than any other. Of course, historical precedents never work out in every detail, but they leave traces in our collective imagination and our political language. And so there are good reasons to read Trump through the experience of fascism.


The Nazis ruled Germany for twelve years, and Mussolini was in power for 21 or 23 (depending on whether you count the farcical Republic of Salò), but our historical imagination has not given equal attention to all these years. The Second World War and the holocaust have dominated collective memory since the 1990s, and that has left its mark on research and teaching, for instance in the special degrees on the holocaust that some universities offer (the University of Birmingham being one of them). Books and exhibits in this vein typically speed through the early years of Nazi rule and devote most of their attention to the years since 1938.

But if I look at these years with a view to what we can learn about Trump, I find it very difficult to distil meaningful insights. There are certain things that we take for granted as we search for ways to engage with Trump: the freedom of speech, the right to protest and organize, an economy with plenty of opportunities, many of which are not subservient to Trump, and the assumption that there will be another presidential election four years from now. None of these certainties existed in 1938 and thereafter: Nazi rule was firmly entrenched, a war economy left no part of German society untouched, and personal freedom was constrained in a way that left little if any room for collective action.

Does it make any sense to compare these societies, given that the United States of 2017 is so vastly different from Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1945? I will later suggest two ways in which we can learn from this time period if we look at it as part of the full history of National Socialism. But looking at the years between 1938 and 1945 in isolation, I doubt that we can learn very much beyond the idea that it should never come to this again, which does not strike me as a controversial point. Whatever drove American voters on 8 November, I am fairly confident that they did not mean to vote for genocide and another world war.

We can learn more when we look at the early years of fascist rule. The first months of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s reign resonate with our contemporary situation, as it was anything but clear at that time where they would lead their countries. They only had general goals, and goals that were remarkably similar to Trump’s “Make America Great Again”. In his book To Hell and Back, for example, Ian Kershaw described the guiding thoughts of the early fascists as follows: “Italy could never be great under the leadership of the old notables.”[2] However, Hitler and Mussolini had very little in the way of blueprints for the immediate first steps. In fact, it was anything but clear whether Hitler and Mussolini would stay in office for long: their rule did not stabilize for more than a year after they came to power. It was quite plausible in 1922 and 1933 that Mussolini and Hitler would turn into noisy but brief episodes with little in the way of lasting significance, and the same holds true for Trump in 2017: he may just flame out in a Twitter-based supernova.

Having noted these similarities, however, there are also a number of important differences.


  1. Trump operates in a completely different constitutional context. Both Mussolini and Hitler came to power in ways that were technically constitutional, but they swiftly moved beyond constitutional rule. The Nazi’s Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz), passed by parliament in March 1933, marked the end of the Weimar constitution. A lot has been said about how Trump is “breaking the rules”, but none of that means that he will be unaccountable under the rules of one of the world’s oldest democracies. Today, Donald Trump will swear to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” to the best of his ability, and this Constitution places great emphasis on checks and balances – far more than constitutions in other Western democracies. Trump will need to work with two elected houses of parliament, with an independent judiciary, and with a vibrant civil society that can challenge the Trump administration in many different ways. In short, Trump will need to engage with a set of institutions that impose significant limits on autocratic rule. Of course, checks and balances do not work automatically. The institutional scaffolding of America’s democracy is already facing a test, as we see in the Senate confirmation hearings, and wrestling with that scaffolding may emerge as a defining characteristic of Trump’s presidency – but I very much doubt that Trump can eliminate other powers to the extent that Hitler and Mussolini could.
  2. A second crucial difference lies in the state of the economy. When Hitler came to power, the economy had effectively collapsed, and that gave him a mandate to shift economic policy in a new direction with deficit spending and a mandatory labour service. He was in a situation that was as close to a clean slate as is possible in a modern economy, and nothing of that kind exists in today’s America. Trump takes over a growing economy with low unemployment, and a lot of people will suffer if America really turns its back to economic globalization. To be sure, I do not think that the American economy is free of problems, but any problems that exist pale in comparison with the problems that Trump may create. Trump can create a lot of problems with trade wars, a botched health care law, or infrastructure investments that do not pay (read: the wall to Mexico). No blizzard of Twitter messages will distract from his responsibility for these crises.

    In a way, Trump is a test for the power of globalization as an economic system. Unlike Trump, Hitler did not have to worry about the global economic context. World trade had already collapsed, and he could plot his economic recovery with a degree of autonomy that is unthinkable in the twenty-first century. Just think of the Mefo bills (MEFO-Wechsel), the clandestine financial tool that provided Nazi Germany with the fiscal resources for economic recovery: no government can pull off such a feat in today’s world economy. I also doubt that investments in infrastructure will have the same effect on unemployment as in the 1930s: building is a matter of expertise and technology rather than manual labour nowadays. And it is anyone’s guess how America’s growing debt burden will play out and how the Federal Reserve will react. Trump may squeeze some extra short-term economic growth out of infrastructure investments and expansion of fossil fuel production, but that leaves a long way to go towards an “economic miracle”. Or, to phrase it differently: a boost for Trump’s personal finances is more likely than a boost for America’s economy.

  1. A third difference lies in the demographics that underpin the regimes’ policies. Publications by Michael Wildt and others have shown the extent to which Nazi rule relied on support from a new generation of relatively young people, the “uncompromising generation” (Generation des Unbedingten).[3] Born in the years after 1900 and often academically trained, these people moved into powerful positions with unprecedented speed and contributed greatly to the dynamism of Nazi rule. Nothing of this kind exists today, and all evidence suggests that Trump gained a lot of support from older people. While the Nazis were to a significant extent a youth revolt, Trump thrived electorally on people in retirement or close to retirement – a political constituency that did not exist in the inter-war years because people lived shorter lives at that time. Dealing with bitter old people is an important challenge for ageing Western societies, and on this issue, the past does not provide, and cannot provide, very much by way of orientation.
  2. Mussolini and Hitler rose against the spectre of another revolutionary threat, namely a communist revolution, and effectively sold themselves to the bourgeoisie as the lesser evil. No such spectre exists in the United States: Bernie Sanders’ socialism is not revolutionary, if it is socialism at all, and “radical Islam”, the other spectre doing the rounds in recent years, does not stand a chance to win the next election. Of course, Trump railed against “the establishment” during his campaign, but I doubt that fear of the establishment can serve as the equivalent to fear of a socialist or Communist revolution in the inter-war years. After all, the majority of American people know what establishment rule is like. They know that America’s establishment never sent people to Siberia (though it did intern Japanese-Americans), never seized their land and property (though it did so to indigenous Americans), or set up collectives of a Soviet scale or type.
  3. Finally, Mussolini and Hitler had command over paramilitary units. Mussolini’s Blackshirts and the Nazis’ SA units were serious challenges for the powers of the state, and they played a significant role in their leaders’ rise to power from the street and their subsequent rule. To the best of my knowledge, Trump has never sought to build his own cadre of men under arms, and it would be rather odd to set up paramilitary units if you are in command of the U.S. security apparatus. When it comes to the use of violence, Trump will need to work with the institutions that exist.

But despite these five major differences, maybe we should not overstate the difference between the inter-war years and today’s society on this point. Today’s political parties no longer maintain paramilitary units, but they do operate in societies that bear the marks of brutalization. In the inter-war years, those who stood up for democracy faced a serious risk of getting killed, and we are slowly inching towards a similar situation in our own time: just think of Jo Cox, Gabrielle Giffords, or Trump’s casual talk about gun violence against Hillary Clinton. Furthermore, we should keep in mind that during the inter-war years, the threat came not just from the use of violence but also from the imagination of violence. Anger and guns make for a dangerous mix, and the imagination of armed struggle is a standing theme in America’s political discourse. Just listen to a right-wing media outlet of your choice.

Violence is typically the last resort in politics, an act of desperation after everything else has failed. In a way, it is odd that Trump focuses so much on brute force: after all, the president of the United States has plenty of other means at his disposal. But then, does Trump think this way? His rhetoric suggests an America on the verge of collapse, with all sorts of threats around and within it – and a desperate situation calls for desperate measures. As Trump said when he pitched his candidacy to black voters in August, “what the hell do you have to lose?” It is a slogan that resembles the famous 1932 election poster of the Nazis that called Hitler “our last hope” (Unsere letzte Hoffnung: Hitler). If the situation is desperate, everything looks legitimate.

The difference is that this perception made far more sense in late Weimar Germany than in today’s United States. In 1932, Germany really was at the nadir of the Great Depression, and it did not have a military that could defend the country. Today’s United States has the world’s most powerful military, it has top credit ratings from Moody’s and Fitch, and it can pay pensions for a huge baby boomer generation – it has a lot to lose. However, we know from the history of fascism how even imagined crises can linger and have consequences in the real world: think of “Jewish capitalism” or “Jewish Bolshevism” or Italy’s “wasted victory” in World War One. It is not that these notions were hard to disprove  – to “fact check” – but few people had an interest in speaking out on behalf of the Jews or Italy’s gains in the Great War, and it is an interesting question whether that is different today.

We may soon observe a stark imbalance of political representation. There are a lot of multinational corporations that stand to lose from protectionism, and these corporations can pay for large hordes of lobbyists. Capital will put its finger on the scale as much as it can. But is there a powerful group that is interested in speaking up on behalf of those without lobbyists: illegal immigrants, or Muslims, or poor people who lose their health insurance? And even if there are powerful voices pointing out realities, it remains to be seen whether it will gradually dawn on the Trump administration that the perceived crisis is more imagined than real.

Crisis in the Institutions: the Key Similarity

In a famous book of 1955, the recently deceased political scientist Karl Dietrich Bracher spoke of a “dissolution” of the Republic of Weimar.[4] Bracher argued that Germany’s first parliamentary democracy did not collapse suddenly on January 30, 1933. It suffered from a gradual and escalating crisis that sucked the lifeblood out of the democratic system. It is a precedent that has haunted Western democracies ever since, and one that makes for the most powerful connection between the experience of fascism and the events of 2016. America’s democracy is in crisis, and its decline began long before Trump launched his bid for the Republican nomination. For those who know the pre-1933 critique of Weimar democracy, a lot sounds terribly familiar: the obsession with scandals (real and imagined), charges of corruption and weakness, an obsession with nationalism that depicts opponents as unpatriotic (rather than people with other goals), and a disregard for institutions and the rule of law.

I am particularly eager to stress the last point. I have mentioned the permanence of the Constitution as one of the defining differences between Hitler and Trump, and that makes it particularly worrying that Republicans did not appear too much concerned about the Constitution in recent years. I do not think that it is an overstatement to speak of a silent crisis of the American Constitution. The Republicans refused to hold a hearing on Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, they held up confirmation hearings for many of his top officials for long periods without a clear rationale, they risked default on America’s federal debt in their quest to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and they did not raise their voice when Trump suggested mass election fraud after the election without providing a trace of evidence. In short, they have met the rules and procedures of democracy with contempt unless it played out to their advantage, and that is a deeply disturbing thing. After all, rules and procedures are not some kind of addendum in a democracy – they are the soul of democracy, an essential feature that distinguishes democratic rule from the law of the jungle.

In some respects, today’s crisis of democracy is even more dramatic than the crisis of the Weimar Republic. I am thinking of the media here. Weimar Germany had plenty of news outlets and legions of journalists while today’s media outlets have suffered from declining readerships and declining revenues for years on end, and they are now faced with a “Teflon president” who seems strangely immune to scrutiny and criticism: nothing sticks. Years of right-wing criticism of the “mainstream media”, along with a citizenry that thinks quality news comes for free, have taken their toll.

The fabric of America’s democracy is eroding, therefore, and there can be no doubt about who is at fault. As the German chancellor Joseph Wirth declared after the murder of the German secretary of state Walter Rathenau in 1922, “dieser Feind steht rechts” – the enemy is a right-wing enemy. And yet it would be short sighted to focus only on the ranks of the enemies in the defence of democracy. We can also read Weimar democracy as a lesson on how the democratic camp changes in the face of a mortal threat. If the Republic of Weimar looked weak and indecisive more often than not, this had a lot to do with how the forces of democracy were locked into unloved coalition governments for lack of a choice. Democracy changes if there is no viable alternative, and so do the democrats themselves: their discipline inevitably languishes if they see themselves as beyond serious competition. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which always presented her as the inevitable candidate, should be a warning to democrats everywhere: if candidates think that they are the only thing that can forestall a disaster, they may learn that the voters actually prefer the disaster.

Scholars have long recognized that fascism did not come to power in an instant: it rose against the background of long-standing weaknesses in the political system. We can make a similar statement about Trump: he is not only the cause of America’s political crisis but also the symptom of a fundamental crisis of American democracy. However, the experience of fascism is not just about long-term trends – it also teaches lessons about the significance of random events. Hitler’s rule took an unexpected turn when the Reichstag burned and another turn when he arrested and killed the leaders of his SA in order to forestall a presumed putsch. Mussolini’s rule changed irrevocably after the murder of Giacomo Matteotti. Contingent events of this kind are difficult to anticipate by nature, but they matter enormously: a fundamental crisis can suspend the rules that usually govern an administration, and they can put a ruler and his reign on a new trajectory. Carl Schmitt famously argued that “sovereign is he who decides on the exception”.[5] Having read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, I am inclined to agree with Schmitt’s assessment.[6] In a society with plenty of rules and entrenched interests, emergency situations provide a kind of leverage that goes beyond politics as usual. (However, unlike Carl Schmitt, I do not think that authoritarian rule is a good thing.)

Trump could use a crisis to his advantage: a major terrorist attack, or a riot. In fact, I am inclined to say that he does not stand much of a chance without a major crisis: politics as usual may grind him and his revolutionary ambitions to pieces. But would it really work? A major terrorist attack may trigger memories of 9/11 and George W. Bush and all the lies and deceptions that he used to drag America into a disastrous war. But Bush II seems to have disappeared from America’s collective memory in mysterious ways. It began during his second term when he was slowly sliding towards insignificance, and now it is almost as if his presidency had never happened. Could a President Trump use an existential crisis in the way that Bush did? Even after 9/11, Bush had to fight hard to gain Congressional approval for war against Iraq – now imagine Trump requesting Congressional approval for war against North Korea or Iran! As it stands, this is an open question, and one with broader significance. When it comes to the future of democracy in the twenty-first century, one of the crucial questions is whether we still learn from experience.

In sum, we can and should reflect our current predicament in light of the experience of the inter-war years and the rise of fascism. Democracy and the rule of law was ascendant in the decades before 1914, it was remarkably stable all over the West after 1945 – but something happened in the inter-war years that made democracy unstable and unattractive.

Beyond this, however, the return of a crisis situation does not explain one crucial thing: why Trump? There were quite a few dictators who came to power in the inter-war years, but to the best of my knowledge, none of them was a real state mogul with bad hair. As a billionaire investor with a penchant for gold, Trump looks unique among the rulers of Western democracies. But is he?


Trumped Up?


Image: Trump Tower and Hotel Chicago, under construction September 2006. By Bonfire24k, via CC BY 2.5 Wikimedia.

I think there is a fascist template for Trump, a political profile that matches his personal CV and that few critics have spotted: the builder. Fascism thrived on large building projects that showed national determination and strength: land reclamation in the Pontine Marshes in Italy, the autostrada and the Autobahn projects, monumentalist urban construction programs. To be sure, the builder was not only a fascist figure: the link between political charisma and charismatic building projects worked in the United States as well. Just think of Eisenhower and the interstate system or Franklin D. Roosevelt and the programs of the New Deal: they provided concrete evidence that government made a difference, and they left an impression with voters.

After 1960, infrastructure programs were more of a source of troubles for political leaders: think Khrushchev and his Virgin Lands campaign, China and the Three Gorges dam, Berlin and its defunct new airport. But in the 1930s, politicians could build their careers on the quick and successful completion of large construction projects, and Donald Trump shows that the charisma of someone who “gets things built” is not dead. In fact, it may come back as a result of the opaque nature of today’s economy. In the twenty-first century world, a large building is one of the few achievements that everyone can grasp. When it comes to post-2008 bankers or corporate executives “failing upwards”  we struggle to understand the system connecting their achievements and their personal wealth. But if you have a large down town building with your name on it, everybody understands that you have made it.

Trump gives us a lens for the historiography here. It is rewarding to look at the scholarly literature on the Nazi era in this light, for the builder is a notable gap in our body of publications. We have a number of good works on the Nazi’s Autobahn project that have smoked out many of the project’s lingering myths – but we know surprisingly little about Fritz Todt, the man who built the Autobahn as Generalinspektor für das deutsche Straßenwesen (General Inspector of German Highway Engineering). Todt is perhaps the last “big Nazi” for whom we lack a decent book-length biography.[7] The same holds true for the institution that carried his name, the “Organisation Todt“, in spite of the fact that it is one of only two large organizations of the Nazi era that was named after an individual (the other was the Hitler Youth).

The Organisation Todt was a mushrooming institution that grew from small beginnings into a distinct political empire. It was a new creation of the Nazi regime, it stood outside the existing bureaucracy, and the standing of the Organisation Todt hinged on the quick realization of construction projects. These mushrooming administrative bodies were a key feature of the Nazi regime – the SS with its huge business empire was another example – and they contributed greatly to the dynamism of Nazi rule. They were not classic bureaucracies with rules and traditions – they were, in the words of Reinhard Heydrich, “kämpfende Verwaltungen” – “administrations in fighting mode”: government bodies beyond traditional modes of accountability that strived to “get things done” irrespective of costs. And as we know today, these bodies turned into monsters that did not stop until the end of Nazi rule, and their toll in monetary and human terms was obscene.

We should keep memory of these runaway institutions alive because Trump may soon face an important choice. Should he entrust his pet projects like infrastructure spending and deportation of illegal immigrants to existing institutions that are bound to the rule of law? Or should he create new institutions with weak oversight where everything depends on speed and “getting things done”? The Nazi experience suggests that the latter could make a world of difference. A new deportation task force would strive to achieve ever higher numbers of deportations and care about little else. More specifically, it would see government oversight and legal challenges as mere obstacles to its core mission – rather than the natural obligation of every agency of the U.S. government – and a deportation task force would compel the Trump administration to give it as much leeway as possible. In short, a new deportation task force may put the U.S. government on a path to a humanitarian disaster that could tarnish America’s international reputation beyond recall.

You may have noticed that so far I have not made a connection that seems to offer itself: Hitler was a racist, and so is Trump. I think the verdict is still out on this point. Of course, there can be no doubt that he has said racist things about Latinos and Muslims and that he depicted African Americans with stereotypes that are inherently racist (typical codewords: inner-city, lack of education). There is no excuse for these statements. But does he really mean these things? Nobody can doubt that Hitler hated Jews, and he swiftly had them eliminated from the payroll of government institutions after he came to power. I do not see a similar rush towards action in Trump’s administration. The Muslim travel ban seems to have disappeared from his agenda, and in a CBS interview just days after his election, Trump reduced the target number for deportations to two or three million. It is clear that many of Trump’s voters hate Latinos and Muslims but whether Trump himself hates them remains to be seen. It may just be the case that he simply does not care about them. Don’t get me wrong: I do think that this careless contempt would be outrageous, too. It would mean that millions of American residents have to live with existential uncertainties for years on end, and that would inevitably claim a toll in people’s lives. A government that does not care about the people within its realm is shameful. But it is different from a government that seeks to get rid of these people.

President Business?

Trump may not care about Latinos and Muslims, but he does care about his business interests. This deserves reflection in the present context because the link between fascism and capitalism has been a perennial discussion point. The Marxists famously argued that fascism was simply camouflage for the rule of capitalism, but the explanation never really worked: Hitler and Mussolini showed way too much agency along with their entourages, to be mere puppets of capitalists. Marxists also depicted fascism as a stage in history – while in fact, fascists made history not because of what they were but for how they developed. Now we have a real-life businessman in power, and for all the noise that he generates, I can hear an emerging refrain that may define his administration: don’t do anything that hurts business. But does that make him the embodiment of capitalist rule?

Just like Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump has published an autobiographical book that provides us with a window into his thinking. That is as far as this similarity goes, for Trump’s The Art of the Deal is rather different from Hitler’s Mein Kampf – it’s a business book, for one. The Art of the Deal shows how Trump does business. He sets high goals, then builds up pressure to the best of his ability, and then settles for a deal when the moment seems right. It is a revealing approach, not least for the things that it ignores. Trump does not seem to value research and development or creativity, two pillars of the American economy. His business case is also inherently sceptical of laws and institutions, as they may stand in the way of a deal. To put it more bluntly, Trump’s approach to business is about bending and breaking the rules, to an extent that is corrosive and deeply anti-social: if every businessman used the courts of law in the way that Trump did, America’s legal system would probably collapse. Now it seems that it has made (or kept) him rich, but I doubt that this is a good approach to economic policy.

After all, reliable rules are crucial for a modern economy. Investors rely on all sorts of rules when they make decisions: copyright law, contract law, property law, tax law, tariff law, etc. When a businessman signs a contract, he trusts that the other party cannot cancel it with a tweet. As we all know, Trump has sent tweets that suggest he can do exactly that, and I am sure that a lot of managers will follow closely what comes out of this. Is this the harbinger of a Trump administration where any rule can change at any moment? It would be a great opportunity for politically protected speculators and a nightmare for businesses that make long-term investments, and the latter are arguably more important for economic growth in the long term. Much has been made of the recent boom of the stock market, but in the long run, it’s the investments that count, and whether Trump can create a reliable framework for investments remains to be seen.

I mention all this not only to show that “capitalist rule” is a more ambiguous concept than orthodox Marxism suggests, since there are very different types of capitalists with divergent interests. The Nazi era also provides insights into what happens if a ruler is prone to erratic decisions and unexpected bursts of activism. For one thing, erratic rule relies on a second tier of decision makers who provide more stability and permanence, and Hitler was notably reluctant to fire people (it remains to be see how this will be the case with Trump, who built a media image on firing people). For another, unpredictability can create leverage, and some of Hitler’s successes were only possible because he was so hard to figure out. In other words, the jokes about Trump’s Twitter use are missing a much bigger question: what is the role of Twitter in his emerging style of governance? For those who know Nazi historiography, it may be a return of the “intentionalism versus functionalism debate” in a new disguise. Is Trump’s Twitter use a conscious strategy to draw attention away from other, more contentious issues? Is it camouflage for clever deals that are currently forged behind the scenes, deals that will emerge when the moment is right? Or is it just an obsession that incidentally generates noise that just happens to cloud people’s minds? Twitter is a new-ish medium, but it brings up questions that are anything but new, and the example shows that we can also learn from how historians of the Nazi era think (and not just from what they say).


Let me summarize my remarks in the following ten points.

  1. Trump will need to work with a rigid institutional framework and a responsive civil society for the foreseeable future, and that makes for a crucial difference to Mussolini and Hitler, who quickly moved beyond these constraints. What that means is that Trump’s rule will depend to a great extent on other policy makers and on society at large. Unlike what his rhetoric suggests, he can actually achieve very little without a population that is willing to go along. In other words, Trump’s rule may become a test for America’s political institutions and American society.
    Do checks and balances actually work? And how far do people go in pleasing a president who relishes in self-admiration? As you may know, Trump sent a self-congratulatory tweet after executives from the Sprint telecommunications company called him to say that they have created 5,000 jobs. The Obama administration blocked a merger of Sprint and T-Mobile in 2014, and when Sprint tries again, a lot of managers will watch to see whether that phone call was a clever strategy. Another place to look at will be Trump’s hotels and resorts in Washington and elsewhere: will this be the place that politicians and lobbyists go to in droves? Or will this be the place that every respectable person avoids because they know that this is where the cronies are? We may soon learn a lot (more) about the corporate ethics of America’s business world.
  2. Fascism in Italy and Germany had a clear set of goals and priorities. Whether Trump has clear priorities beyond his personal business interests is an open question. As it stands, there are stark tensions between his guiding thoughts and enormous tensions within his administration, and it remains to be seen how, and to what extent, these tensions will iron out. Trump has pledged to change the way Washington works, to “drain the swamp”, but maybe things are more complicated: maybe Trump just does not care about the swamp. Maybe America has elected a president that does not care for anything beyond his ego and his personal business interests. It is quite possible that we will need to criticize Trump not for what he does but for what he does not do. His administration may not repeal civil rights legislation, but it may not care about enforcing it. Trump may not deport millions of migrants, but he may not care about leaving them in a state of uncertainty. It will be important to criticize this negligence, but it will be a type of critique that is different from the critique of fascism. No one ever criticized Hitler for not enforcing the Nurnberg Laws.
  3. An erratic, unpredictable leader depends crucially on a second tier of policy makers and officials who “work towards the Führer”, to use the phrase made famous by Ian Kershaw. Hitler drew that second tier from the ranks of the Nazi movement, and he stuck with loyalists even if there proved incompetent or corrupt. Trump does not have anything of this kind. Hitler could trust in the loyalty of his inner circle because, first, they had been with him during the years of struggle (the Kampfzeit, in Nazi language), and, second, they were nothing without him. Trump’s inner circle is full of people who owe him very little – and certainly not their careers – and who know how loyalty has played out for Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani. (And I do not even mention the administrative rank and file that is unlikely to “work towards Trump” in the way German officials worked towards Hitler.) In other words, loyalty may emerge as a critical issue in the Trump administration very soon. For example, the designated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may soon wonder whether his commitment to Donald Trump, who selected him on the base of several recommendations and a two-hour interview, really matters more than his lifelong commitment to Exxon-Mobil.
  4. This discussion has focused overwhelmingly on the years before and just after the fascists came to power in Germany and Italy. It is in these years that we find similarities and inspiration for our current predicament. I have not completely ignored the latter years of Nazi rule: the cancerous growth of unaccountable institutions did not become a problem until after the consolidation of Nazi rule, and the intentionalism versus functionalism controversy is about the origins of the holocaust (though that reference was about analogous methodologies, not a comparison of actual events). In short, I find it very difficult to draw lessons from the last six or seven years of Nazi rule that would matter with a view to Trump, and maybe we should reflect on why this period figures so prominently in research, teaching, and collective memory. I say this specifically with a view to holocaust and genocide studies, an academic fields whose rationale has always been political as well as academic, and where it is customary to “fast-forward” until 1938 or so when things get “interesting”: this approach may not be as helpful for the challenges of the twenty-first century as we tend to assume. It is perhaps time to reflect on the political case for holocaust studies.
  5. I have stressed the similarities in the early years of fascism, but maybe I should be more specific about the nature of these similarities: they are about the threat to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and the social and cultural scaffolding of an open society. Similarities are less clear when it comes to the precise nature of the threat: the fascist movement was very different from Trump’s movement, he operates in an economic and political context that is vastly different, and treating Trump as fascism 2.0 may obscure more than it reveals. In short, the key story is about the erosion of democracy, and it is helpful to remember that this did not only occur in Italy and Germany: it was a pan-European phenomenon during the inter-war years, and the collapse of democracy did not inevitably lead to fascist rule. Authoritarian rule comes in different forms. Only some of them are fascist, but they are all despicable.
  6. Fascism was inherently unstable in Italy and Germany, and its trajectory was subject to intended and unintended oscillations.[8] We know from the historical record that these oscillations provoked dramatic fluctuations in contemporary assessments: few people made it through the twelve years of Nazi rule without a change of opinions – a point that is often lost on scholars who seek to identify previously unknown Nazi connections. We should not repeat this mistake in our critique of Trump and we should not criticise on the basis of “the stronger, the better” (or, in my case, the more fascist Trump looks, the more convincing my analysis). For example, if Trump brings China to end its blatant dumping through subsidies on steel production, why not give him his due?
  7. We would probably be more relaxed in our approach to Trump if the experience of fascism had not taught us to think in terms of moral absolutes. A powerful strand in our current political discourse treats Nazism as a form of evil. In fact, I would argue that moral clarity (or the illusion thereof) ranks among the attractions that Nazi history has to offer in the twenty-first century: in a contemporary society full of moral ambiguities, it is strangely reassuring to have one regime where everything is clear. However, a sense of moral clarity leaves no option beyond fierce resistance: you cannot negotiate with evil. The West went to war against fascism, but going to war against Trump is foolish politically and intellectually. When it comes to political commentary, we should value accuracy and sophistication over moral vigour, and maybe we should also rethink our narratives of the Nazi era accordingly: maybe we should give more room to the ambiguous stories, to the people who faced moral dilemmas where it is difficult to say even in retrospect who was right and who was wrong.[9]
  8. The political case for holocaust studies rests on teleology. The Nazi experience teaches us what racism, eugenics, nationalism, anti-Semitism and the like can lead to – namely to genocide. It is a powerful case, and I am gratified to see that it is part of the West’s political DNA: never again! But teleologies are tricky in that they focus attention on a potential upcoming disaster. In other words, it brings us to criticize racism for what it can produce in the long run, rather than to criticize racism in its own right. It is easy to see an infatuation with a great upcoming disaster in anti-Trump rhetoric, an anticipation of escalation – but what about the smaller, quotidian disasters: the sense of insecurity among Muslims and Latinos, the brutalization of society, the emptiness of the political discourse, the collusion of interests? The Trump presidency may not lead to mass incarceration, or a stock market crash, or another war, and yet it may still be a disastrous presidency.
  9. When it comes to the erosion of democracy and the slide towards authoritarian rule, fascism is the experience that defines our collective memory. However, it defines our collective memory only because we look at the history of democracy in such a narrow way: we look only at the West, and only at the big countries. Authoritarian rule in inter-war Poland and Hungary has not entered the collective memory of Western democracies, nor have the many collapses of democratic rule in the Global South. Failing non-Western democracies appear as “something completely different” – but why? For scholars of the Global South, Trump looks very familiar: a rich man who wins an election with dubious means. In 2014, the Economist proclaimed a new age of crony capitalism and launched an index to gauge the extent of crony capitalism in various countries.[10] It seems that the United States has joined the trend.
  10. What all this comes down to is that we should reflect critically on why we are so obsessed with fascism in our critique of Trump. We can learn something from the experience of fascism: it provides lessons on democracies in danger, the dynamisms of power, and erratic leaders. But we can also learn from the many other open societies that have faced an authoritarian challenge. Democracy and human rights are always under threat, and the threat can come from many sides: from racist prejudice, from capitalist interests, or from smart-phone users who think that reliable news come for free. In other words, our infatuation with fascism grows from a sense of Western exceptionalism: a lingering Western arrogance that this is the only challenge to democracy that matters. And our infatuation with fascism stems from the discreet charm of dialectical thinking: the neat all-inclusive package of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis that frames collective memory. It goes like this: at some point, the West committed itself to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law; then it failed to honour this commitment when it succumbed to fascism; and now we can make good on this failure by keeping memory of our past sins alive. It’s a popular tacking motion of thought, easy to understand and remember, and it’s a terribly incomplete history of modern democracy.

For a long time, America nourished a sense of moral exceptionalism: the city on the hill that committed itself to a higher standard than other countries. It has always been more convincing as a myth than as a description of reality, and the election of Donald Trump may well mark the end of the entire idea: neither Trump nor his voters seem to care about the idea of America as a moral example, or about the president as the leader of the free world. So if America no longer sees itself as exceptional, why should we treat it as such and compare it only to large advanced modern countries of the West? The story of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law is a global one, and we should situate the story of Trump accordingly. The story of fascism is an important part of this global story. But it is just one of many stories that are waiting to be told.


[1]    I will focus on Germany and Italy in the following, with more emphasis on the former. I am aware that Spain, Italy, Hungary, and Romania had fascist governments as well, but I doubt that they can contribute much to the question at hand.

[2]    Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back. Europe, 1914-1949 (London: Penguin, 2016), p. 135.

[3]    Michael Wildt, An Uncompromising Generation. The Nazi Leadership of the Reich Security Main Office (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).

[4]    Karl Dietrich Bracher, Die Auflösung der Weimarer Republik. Eine Studie zum Problem des Machtverfalls in der Demokratie (Stuttgart: Ring-Verlag, 1955).

[5]    Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985), p. 5.

[6]    Cf. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine. The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Henry Holt, 2007).

[7]    I am aware of Franz W. Seidler, Fritz Todt. Baumeister des Dritten Reiches (Schnellbach: Bublies, 2000 [originally Munich: Herbig, 1986). It is a book-length biography, but not decent.

[8]    It was different in Spain and Portugal – part of the reason why these countries are not discussed in this presentation.

[9]    For my own attempt to tell these ambiguous stories, see Frank Uekoetter, The Green and the Brown. A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[10]   The Economist of March 15th, 2014.

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How Fascist is Trump?

On Wednesday 18th January we will be co-hosting a special seminar with the Institute for German Studies, to be given by Dr. Frank Uekotter.



One week before his inauguration, a Google search for “Trump” and “Fascism” retrieves more than half a million results. When it comes to the collective memory of Western democracies, it is the experience of Fascism that resonates more strongly than any other with the American president-elect. But is this a precedent that holds up to scrutiny? How far do we get in understanding Trump when we look at him against the crisis years of Western democracy in the interwar years? And how does the literature on Fascism in Germany and Italy look against this contemporary challenge: do we have the kind of history of Fascism in our libraries and our collective memory that we need to confront Trump? By bringing history and contemporary politics into a dialogue, this presentation tries to make sense of a phenomenon that may not be quite as unprecedented.


Winter Round table: Critical Histories of Energy & Extraction

We round off the term on Thursday 8 December, 2-5 pm, with a round-table in association with the Birmingham Seminar for Environmental Humanities: all are welcome and our speakers are Dr. Marta Musso, Prof. Tait Keller & Dr. Frank Uekotter.



Dr. Marta Musso:

Taking Control: Sonatrach and the Algerian Decolonization Process

e role that hydrocarbons played in decolonisation processes has so far been overlooked by historians. However, the oil industry played a pivotal role in the history of decolonisation, both on an economic level, as basis for self-directed industrial development, and an ideological level, as “the weapon against the West” that Gamal Nasser theorised in 1952 in his pamphlet “Philosophy of the Revolution”.

This paper aims to analyse the specific case of Algeria. The Saharan hydrocarbon reserves were discovered in 1956, two years after the outbreak of the hostilities with France; for the French government, it was the occasion to cover its energy deficit and to become a producer country. For the Algerian nationalists, the struggle to gain control over the Sahara became the symbol of future wealth and economic independence. Foreign oil companies, on their part, immediately saw the war as an occasion to penetrate a new market and to seize promising resources.

After the independence, building a national oil industry that would directly manage the Saharan hydrocarbons became one of the main goals pursued by both Ahmed Ben Bella first and Houari Boumediénè later. This paper will reconstruct the establishment of the Algerian National Oil company Sonatrach and the entrepeneurs that founded, focusing on the relations between the people running the company and the Algerian establishment, on the one hand, and the relations with the foreign oil industry, namely French and American companies, on the other hand. In particular, the paper will focus on the problem of technological transfer and nationalization in the context of globalized enterprises such as oil companies in producer countries.

Prof. Tait Keller:

The Energy History of World War One

My paper focuses on how energy geopolitics linked the battle lines and home fronts with industry and agriculture in ways that fundamentally shaped the twentieth century. Few human endeavors have altered the natural world in the modern era as agriculture, industry, and warfare. In 1914, the three formed a violent triad geared for the production of destruction. While battlegrounds seemingly suffered devastation, the resulting damage to nature was normally short-lived. Paradoxically, major environmental change occurred behind the lines, away from the killing fields. Scholars have typically studied armies in the First World War as social entities, but I classify fighting forces as biological systems, which depended on a “military ecology” of energy extraction, production, and supply to function. To maintain the “biological welfare” of soldiers and power engines of war, belligerent countries commandeered energy resources throughout the biosphere. The duration and scale of the conflict altered military ecologies around the world and led to new “material flows” of foodstuffs and fossil fuels. Militarized material flows of energy transformed relationships from global geopolitics down to individual consumption patterns.

Dr. Frank Uekotter

‘The Men of Energy’

The presentation discusses the biographical dimension of large infrastructure projects. What are our historical experiences with the men leading these projects? How has the role of the “infrastructure czar” changed since the late nineteenth century? Can we identify distinct national styles of leadership? And what kind of leadership should we expect in the twenty-first century? The presentation provides some insights into a work-in-progress about a collective biography of what Tom Hughes called “system builders”.


Whose postcolonialism? The French and their colonial past.

Dr. Emile Chabal will be speaking in a joint event on Wednesday 7 October, co-sponsored by the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History. Here he blogs on some of the themes to be discussed at this week’s seminar, in the first of a series of occasional guest pieces by visiting speakers and contributing historians around the world.


Fagairolles 34, reproduced under Creative Commons via Wikimedia.

Memorial to French dead in Algerian War of Independence, Sète, France. Photo by Fagairolles 34, reproduced under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia.

Emile Chabal, University of Edinburgh

In my recent book, I place postcolonial questions at the heart of contemporary French politics. I argue that apparently insular debates about citizenship and the nation are, in fact, closely tied to France’s colonial past and its postcolonial present. I also argue that it is impossible to analyse the key dividing lines in French politics without understanding the attitudes of political actors to France’s colonial project.

Yet, over the course of my research, I have discovered just how nationally – and linguistically – bounded postcolonialism really is. There is a common misconception that France has not “dealt with” its colonial past and that French academia has been extremely hostile to postcolonial theory. To some extent this is true. Postcolonial studies courses, for instance, are still a rarity in university literature departments in France.

But this is hardly the whole story. In fact, one could easily argue that France has had a much more vigorous debate about its colonial past than almost any other country in Europe, especially the UK. Since the late 1990s, issues like colonial violence, torture and the relationship between Islam and the French colonial project have been at the forefront of public debate. Even if we go further back into the 1970s and 80s, postcolonial questions were clearly visible in the identity politics of France’s substantial pied-noir community.

So what’s the problem? Why do British and American scholars of France maintain that France has failed to come to terms with its colonial past?

The difficulty, it seems to me, is one of definition. Most people would accept that, in North America, the UK and South Asia, discussions of postcolonialism emerged from the disciplines of literary criticism and social theory through the works of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and others.[1] By contrast, the genealogy of postcolonialism is quite distinct in France, where it has been local politicians, activists and non-governmental organisations who have grappled with colonialism and its legacy.

This means that, while much of the debate surrounding postcolonialism in the English-speaking world has focused on “texts” and “representations”, in France it has focused on street names, memorials, museums, parliamentary laws and issues of historical memory.

One of the consequences of this is that postcolonialism has had a much wider reach in France than elsewhere. Instead of being confined to university departments and research seminars, the question of how colonialism should be remembered, what its impact was and what sort of legacy it has left is one that is fought out in the public sphere.

There are few better examples of this than a 2005 legislative package which included a clause to ensure that French schools teach the “positive” aspects of colonisation. Predictably, this caused huge controversy. Pied-noir organisations, who had been the driving-force behind the legislation came out strongly in favour of it, while historians and left-wing political organisations lined up to criticise it. Eventually, the offending clause was removed from the legislation by presidential decree, but this did little to stop a far-reaching discussion of French colonialism in every major press and media outlet.

The whole affair was a stark reminder that, even though the development of postcolonial ‘theory’ was a distinctly Anglophone phenomenon, the French have been no less engaged with their colonial heritage. It is simply that, as with so many other things in France, the political and partisan aspects of postcolonialism have always been much more prominent than its academic manifestations.


[1] It is worth noting, however, that there have been many distinguished Francophone theorists of colonialism (including Édouard Glissant, Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon), and that many Anglophone postcolonial theorists were inspired by French thinkers like Jacques Derrida. So, even in this strictly theoretical definition of postcolonialism, the French are present.

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Cairo, Vienna, Athens: Empire and Class on Planet Bailout.

Aufruf (Anleihe), Vˆlkerbundanleihe, 1923.06.01
Aufruf (Anleihe), Völkerbundanleihe, 1923.06.01. (League of Nations Loan, Austrian tranche issue date: 1 June) Bildarchiv Austria, PLA16304352.

Nathan Marcus


HSE, St. Petersburg

The debates surrounding the Greek bailout have prompted a look at historical examples of foreign financial assistance. Writing on colonial bailouts and the Austrian financial reconstruction of the 1920s, Jamie Martin discerns continuities that boil down to curtailing a state’s sovereignty in order to ensure the servicing of foreign debt. Installing foreign commissions of control that curtailed fiscal policy and public spending, from the Ottoman Public Debt Administration or the bailout of Egypt’s Khedive to the League of Nations’ schemes during the interwar period, prevented default or allowed for the provision of new foreign loans.[1]

Martin concludes by criticizing the League’s interwar interventions for introducing semi-colonial methods to Europe, noting the dangers such a precedent created for the future sovereignty of European states. Of course sovereign states are never completely free to do as they please. Nor does it seem unreasonable that creditors of bankrupt states link the supply of new capital, or the partial forgiveness of existing debt, to certain conditions. This is particularly true in cases where public funds or state guarantees are involved because private institutions refuse to lend money at reasonable interest rates. What is reminiscent of colonialism then, is not the partial curtailing of sovereignty itself, but rather the kind and the extent of conditions that are imposed and they way they get realized, sometimes against the explicit will of voters.

Key to Martin’s argument is that the League’s financial assistance programmes, foremost the Austrian reconstruction scheme of the 1920s, were extensive creditor-imposed infringements of sovereignty not unlike their colonial precedents in Egypt and elsewhere, and that they went on to inspire IMF Structural Adjustment Programs in the post-WWII era. The Austrian intervention is, on this account, an important pivot from disciplining the Khedive to disciplining Alexis Tsipras. And while it is indeed helpful to look at these programmes through the wide-angled lens of financial imperialism across the twentieth century, we must not neglect the transnational and domestic class relations and specific social histories that underpinned such interventions. The League assistance provided to Austria did provoke loud outcries about the alleged “Ottomanization” of the country, both from the Socialist left and the Pan-German right, but it was also welcomed by Austria’s industrial and administrative elites. Upon League General Commissioner Alfred Zimmerman’s arrival in Vienna, the liberal Neue Freie Presse hailed him as a “friend of Austria” and wrote:

The General Commissioner will not act like a Tyrant, he will only strengthen the government’s backbone, he will give it the moral authority to do what it itself desires to do and what it must do in order to live up to its commitments and prevent a relapse into the economics of stagnation and bankruptcy.[2]

Installing a form of foreign control in Austria was thus not a measure all its citizens were equally opposed to. There is every reason to believe that the conservative Chancellor and former Prelate Ignaz Seipel himself pushed for the idea, which was coupled to a so-called Empowerment-law that would allow him to rule by decree and outflank the strong socialist opposition. But local elites welcomed the League and its measures not just as a bastion against socialism, but also as a guarantor for what they considered sound economic policy, budgetary transparency and important socioeconomic change. At the core of Austria’s predicament were its enormous budget deficit and the destructive hyperinflation it entailed, both of which required heavy and unpopular cut-backs in fiscal spending. The League’s involvement provided the government with a tool to overcome a disastrous political and budgetary stalemate and, more importantly, with a scapegoat to blame for unpopular measures and thereby safeguard political peace in the country.[3]

The truth is that Mr Zimmerman hardly played any meaningful role beyond that of a useful scapegoat. Even before the League loan for Austria had been floated on foreign capital markets, Austrian Chancellor Seipel and his government mocked Zimmerman, ignored his inquires and circumvented his control whenever possible. Zimmerman himself became increasingly frustrated and disillusioned (he blamed the fact that the empowerment law had not been implemented as agreed), but the League of Nations was too invested (perhaps much like the European leaders in Greece today) to announce the project a failure – and so it kept up public impression that it was coming along as planned. The reconstruction scheme still proved an initial success, with foreign confidence in Austria rebounding and foreign capital flowing into the country, contributing to a boom on the Vienna stock-exchange, the flow of foreign loans to its banks and industries and short-term financing of its foreign trade.

The main reason for the temporary success of the League ‘s intervention lay not in foreign control of Austria’s budget, the pledging of revenues to foreign creditors and an infringement of Austrian sovereignty. Much like Greece today, the country’s economy was in dire need of hugely unpopular reforms, but the country’s political parties were too divided or lacked the necessary trust to find common ground and agree on changes. While politicians believed cutbacks were necessary, they were unwilling to take the blame and pay the political cost of implementing them. Meanwhile industrialists and bankers knew that only foreign loans could help rebuild the Austrian economy.[4] The most important contribution of the League was hence to give the government and the opposition the necessary moral and political cover to implement unpopular, but necessary changes, while blaming the cost in unemployment on Zimmerman, foreign financial interests, the League of Nations in Geneva, or even the Bank of England. The result was a balanced budget, a stable currency and economic recovery.

As charges of financial imperialism continue to be raised, its relationship to domestic class conflict should not be overlooked, even if the specifics of the latter are harder to grasp from case to case. Debt restructuring or financial reconstruction like in 1920s Austria inevitably required the balancing of public accounts through the curtailment of government expenditures and an increase in taxation. Given the existing balance of power between capitalists, industrialists, and the army on one hand and workers and unions on the other, supporting local elites’ self-allocated “right” to determine the nature of “their country’s” economic policies might have been the easiest way to lower borrowing costs. Where European intervention in nineteenth century Egypt, the League in 1920s Austria and the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs after WWII invariably failed was to protect those weakest in society from the costs of economic reform. Serving as a scapegoat, such interventions helped and sometimes encouraged entrenched national elites to impose measures in ways that disproportionately hurt the economically weak or politically powerless. It is this seeming disregard for the plain human suffering incurred by foreign bailouts that continues to evoke connotations of colonialism.

Importantly, after the League left Austria in 1926, the political polarization and blame-game returned and very quickly made Austria ungovernable. Political and economic elites squandered the opportunities League control had provided them with and instead led the country from one financial crisis to another. The fact that in Greece it is the left-wing Syriza that has negotiated reforms to supposedly heal the country’s economy might therefore present an important break in the continuity of economic government. If Syriza indeed gets re-elected and manages to form a coalition it will be a left-wing led government that will be forced to implement creditor demands in Greece, a fact that might or might not bode well for the future political stability of the country. Either way, observers of the situation will be well advised to pay close attention not just to creditor colonialism but also to internal Greek politics and class relations, which will significantly determine how it ends up exiting the current imbroglio.


[1] Mauro Megliani, Sovereign Debt: Genesis- Restructuring-Litigation (Springer, 2015), pp. 68-71.

[2] “Ankunft des Generalkomissärs in Wien“ in Neue Freie Presse, 15 Dec. 1922, p. 1. The original text reads as follows: „Der Generakomissär wird nicht den Tyrannen spielen, er wird nur der Regierung das Rückgrat stärken, er wird ihr die moralische Autorität geben das zu tun, was sie selber tun will und was sie tun muss, um ihren Pflichten zu genügen und den Rückfall in die Versumpfung und Bankerottiererwirtschaft zu verhindern.“ True to its political orientation, the socialist Arbeiterzeitung ignored Zimmerman’s arrival and the following day chose to mock the Neue Freie Presse’s adulations, commenting that with the General Commissioner’s appearance, Austria had ceased to be a “free and independent state.” “Die Ankunft” in Arbeiterzeitung, 16 Dec. 1922, p. 3.

[3] Tony Judt has argued similarly that it were domestic goals of change and reform that motivated most European statesmen to embrace the rhetoric of a united continent after 1945. See, Tony Judt, A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe (New York: NYU Press, 2011), p. 4.

[4] “Es ist ja auch Ihnen, hochverehrter Herr Minister bekannt, dass die wirtschaftliche Lage unseres Landes es unbedingt erforderlich erscheinen lässt, unseren heimischen Unternehmungen fremdes, wenn möglich westländisches Kapital zuzuführen. Nur mit Hilfe der billiger verzinslichen ausländischen Gelder wird es möglich sein, durch Investitionen die Productionsfähigkeit unserer Industrie auf eine konkurrenzfähige Höhe zu bringen.“ Vienna Chamber of Commerce to Minister Franckenstein, 26 Jun. 1924. Archiv der Republik, 01/9, Box 102.

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Spring 2015 Week 10 Seminar: Matthew Francis: Mrs Thatcher’s Peacock Blue Sari: Ethnic Minorities, Electoral Politics, and the Conservative Party, c.1951-1986.

The Week 10 Modern and Contemporary History Research Seminar is on Wednesday 18 March 2015, at 17:15h in the Rodney Hilton Library (note change from usual time). It will be delivered by:

Matthew Francis (Birmingham)

Aperçu de « Microsoft Word - Francis.M&C.Poster.docx »All are welcome and there will be drinks.

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What Should Universities Be?

What are universities becoming? A plea from the future

By John-Erik Hansson, European University Institute; Nguyen Vu Thuc Linh, European University Institute, and Ola Innset, European University Institute

The role of the university as a place of education and research, as an employer, and as an important part of the social landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade.

As PhD students from various European and North American academic backgrounds, we are keenly aware of these developments and have been involved within or against them – often both at the same time. One of the most pressing issues from our perspective is that of the workforce in universities, especially the collapse of working conditions for many academic and non-academic staff.

Professors, who once enjoyed excellent working conditions in Europe and North America, are now being subjected to stricter, stranger, and more noxious standards. They are pressured into constant external grant applications, and are threatened with severe sanctions if the administration considers the results of this search inadequate. The case of Stefan Grimm, a professor at Imperial College London who was found dead in September 2014 shortly after a distressing email exchange about funding, is one tragic example.

Professors are increasingly being judged according to various forms of ranking, both state sponsored (such as the Research Excellence Framework in the UK) and international ones such as the Shanghai ranking and the Times Higher Education ranking of global reputation. These rankings, as Cambridge historian Stefan Collini argues, do not actually reflect the excellence of the research, or the quality of the university. And yet, they matter tremendously to university administrators, students, and state officials.

Working conditions under strain

Of course, professors are not the only academic workers at a university. There are throngs of other individuals involved in the production of knowledge. These include temporary teaching staff, “research assistants”, or graduate students who often combine their own thesis-related work with teaching and with non-thesis related “research assistance”. It has been argued that some of these schemes provide valuable experience for graduate students, allowing them to be more competitive in the clogged-up academic labour market.

But this experience can come with unpleasant strings attached, such as less than adequate working conditions. Or teaching opportunities without pay, as recently proposed by our own institution, the European University Institute.

Temporary teaching staff are frequently employed in dire conditions, as in the United States, but also in the “social-democratic paradises” of Scandinavia. High competition, low pay, few to no benefits and very unstable contracts have become the rule, rather than the exception. In Norway, for example, as much as 20% of all university and college employees are hired on temporary contracts.

Such harsh conditions make it particularly difficult for members of historically disadvantaged groups, such as women, people from lower social classes, and those with a migrant background to succeed, as they are the ones most affected by the low pay and lack of benefits. The result is a less socially and intellectually diverse university.

Labour issues boil over

We should not forget that an often neglected but huge part of the university-employed labour force consists of non-academic staff. As an institution, the university does not simply produce knowledge – it also consumes a vast amount of services. These run from university administration to cleaning and catering.

The workers who perform these tasks are to a significant extent, the life-blood of the university. And yet their important contribution often remains unnoticed even when their working conditions, and therefore their livelihoods, are being attacked, as has happened in recent years. As with young academics, those who are overwhelmingly affected by these degrading labour conditions come from underprivileged backgrounds. They are often women, migrants or both and do not usually have ready access to the media to fight back.

Protests at McGill University, Montreal, in 2011.
shahk, CC BY-ND

In late 2011, in Montreal, members of the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association went on strike for almost four months. They did so in opposition to a new contract proposed by the administration. The university wanted wage cuts in real terms, and negative (or dangerous) changes to benefit schemes including pensions.

Across the Atlantic in 2013, students and staff at the University of Sussex, occupied a medical school lecture theatre, protesting against the university’s continued privatisation of services that threatened working conditions of staff including porters, caterers and security workers.

State-led privatisation

The responsibility of national governments for “marketisation” and the drive for privatisation in higher education is sometimes underestimated, both within and outside academia. Reforms aimed at privatisation are very often the result of government intervention in the management of universities, and have been imposed from the top down. This has been done by governments of both the centre-right and the centre-left.

Similarly, resistance to these trends comes from both a diverse alliance of the radical-left, who draw on theories of financialisation and neo-liberalism to explain our current economic situation, and from more conservative scholars who see themselves as the protectors of ancient academic tradition.

As young scholars, we are part of the university’s future. It seems evident to us that we should ask questions about what universities are for. But in so doing, we must not forget to ask another, bolder question: “what should universities be?”

There is no “going back” to any perceived golden age, but it is beyond doubt that there are aspects both of the academic tradition and of the post-war ideal of affordable or free higher education that are worth defending. As institutions charged with the important task of producing new knowledge, universities should not be desperately mimicking already outdated forms of corporate organisation, but rather be leading the way towards something better.

This article was written with the assistance of Tiago Matos, Kimon Markatos, Hannah Elsisi and Tommaso Giordani. It is part of a series on Universities at the crossroads.

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Harvard, Harvard, Harvard?

Why the US liberal arts tradition failed to take hold in Europe

By Andrea Mariuzzo, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa

Parasites, pedants and superfluous men and women. Those are some of the accusations that have been levelled against historians and humanities scholars, according to Anthony Grafton, former president of the American Historical Association. He argues in favour of a general education, rooted in the humanities, that can make students independent and analytic thinkers. This is something that, he says:

Matters more than ever in the current media world, in which lies about the past, like lies about the present, move faster than ever before.

Academics around the world widely share these views. Some European educators, such as the founder of the New College of the Humanities in London, A C Grayling, claim a broader agenda of learning through the reference to the value of the humanities in “rendering people fit to deal with unpredictable … challenges”.

Yet while the liberal arts tradition of “general education” remains embedded into American higher education, in Europe, it has been left aside.

The Harvard model

The US inherited the “liberal education” pattern from Britain, originally designed for the education of privileged youngsters. It was based on a complete and well-organised introduction to human knowledge in art, literature, science, and social life, through an overview of classical studies and the knowledge of western intellectual tradition.

In the 20th century, facing an increase in student numbers in secondary and tertiary education as populations expanded, several US reformers argued that the extension of access to a common body of information and ideas was more important than splitting curricula up into different vocations. It would be better for the democratisation of tertiary education rolled out to the masses, they argued.

Their most influential document was the report General Education in a Free Society, prepared between 1943-45 by a group of Harvard faculty members and inspired by their president James Bryant Conant, an advocate for equal opportunity and meritocracy in intellectual careers.

James Bryant Conant

The committee’s objective was a reform of Harvard’s curricula, but its conclusions involved the American education system as a whole and have had a lasting impact. In the struggle of American civilisation against the totalitarian threat of World War II, they said that a general introduction to western cultural heritage would help foster the necessary qualities for free and responsible citizenship.

They argued that reflection and dialogue on great ideas of the past were the bases for critical thinking and for the identification with common values. A “well-rounded” general preparation was important to acquire the flexibility of mind, self-knowledge, and understanding of the world needed to choose a profession. And college programmes based on common subjects rather than on elective choices would facilitate the academic integration of gifted students, regardless of their background.

The committee’s proposals centred on the connection between comprehensive high schools, designed for universal attendance, and post-secondary curricula. They wanted to integrate vocational programmes within a set of courses devoted to a dynamic presentation of the realisations of human knowledge.

The ‘Sputnik shock’

President Harry S Truman (centre) with Conant in 1948

The idea that general education was a tool for a truly democratic school system influenced post-war federal policy. A report called Higher Education in American Democracy, prepared in 1947 by a commission appointed by President Harry Truman, suggested all levels of education were aimed at “a fuller realisation of democracy”, “international understanding” and “the application of … trained intelligence to the solution of … problems”.

This was to be achieved through the administration of a broad and well-organised set of non-vocational subjects. After the 1957 “Sputnik shock” – major curricula reform sparked by the Russians being first to launch a satellite – funding programmes for the improvement of the US education system followed some of these guidelines.

Reformers across the Atlantic

In the same period, American public diplomats tried to influence education reforms in Western Europe, in view of the integration of North-Atlantic school systems and their cooperation in cold-war competition. Not by chance, in the 1950s Conant and his collaborators visited West Germany, Italy, Britain, and Switzerland as policy advisers.

They argued that European reformers needed to delay the choice between academic and vocational training – made when pupils were about 11. They also thought Europe’s education systems should reduce the strong distinction among traditionally academic and purely vocational secondary school curricula, still characterised by the presence of privileged subjects for admission to university and by the reference to the study of Latin and literature as an element of selection rather than inclusion.

Their advice to Europe was also to lessen the specialisation of university faculties, which were still designed for the advanced preparation of an elite group of professional intellectuals. Instead, higher education should be transformed into a moment to complete the cultural and personal development for a growing number of students.

Despite the extension of compulsory schooling, European education maintained a higher fragmentation of curricula. Reformers could not obtain the integration of all school cycles within a well-defined project of learning proposed by the US example. In fact, an agreement on further changes among political leaders proved to be hard to achieve. Reformers also faced the opposition of several conservative education professionals.

Today, two continents divided

These deep-rooted differences are still clear today. Even vocal critics of American universities say “liberal arts” programs “are still the best that higher education offers” and represent a wise investment, compared with “majors in fields like furniture design”.

As for Europe, some scholars now believe that the Bologna Process – an ongoing project to make higher education comparable across Europe – is inspired by a misconceived “American model”. They argue that it has been built around concepts of “employability” and the “student-as-customer”, and promotes further specialisation of training.

To counteract this, the education historian, Jesper Eckhardt Larsen, has argued that the American liberal arts tradition “facilitates a breadth of cultivation … [which] is relevant for life rather than just for work”. It may be a good starting point to re-orient European higher education policies.

This article is part of our series, Universities at the crossroads.

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Universities, Marketization and the State in Historical Perspective

In the context of current debates over free speech on campus and the privatization of the government’s student loan assets, here’s a piece – recently published at The Conversation, an excellent site co-sponsored by the University of Birmingham – which tries to set current events into historical and international perspective.


In the race to turn higher education into a market, we’re ignoring lessons from history

By Simon Jackson, University of Birmingham; Ann Thomson, European University Institute, and Stefan Nygard, University of Helsinki

Universities around the world today face pressure to conform to economic rationality and contribute to national innovation. Though often presented as a revolution, driven by “globalisation” or other vague buzzwords, this is nothing new. Research and teaching have never been free from external constraints and public universities have long been expected to justify the resources society devotes to them.

But universities feel threatened and increasingly incapable of fulfilling their primary functions. The question at the centre of most current debates on university reform is to what extent universities themselves should determine the goals, values and norms of pedagogical and scientific practice. For politicians and the general public, academic freedom – even as a noble principle honoured mainly in the breach – is becoming meaningless.

Debates on the freedom of higher education are as old as the university. But today’s ideologically imposed constraints are very different from the financial dependence of public universities on the state after 1945. The current international trend towards semi-private, semi-public universities poses new challenges to academic freedom. This is exemplified by the dominance of market-based vocabulary and principles for scientific conduct.

And the adoption of corporate management models is leading to the authoritarian concentration of power within universities. Critical voices opposed to current reforms argue that intellectual autonomy is being sacrificed to an unworkable vision of financial autonomy for public universities.

From Humboldt on…

These debates are at the heart of a collection of articles on The Conversation. The pieces shed much needed historical light on the current restructuring of higher education and research – in Europe and beyond. They emerge from a recent major conference on higher learning and politics.

The cross-national historical comparisons presented here illustrate the peculiarities of the current reform culture. They also demonstrate the historical complexity of the relationship between university and society, and warn against national parochialism. When told there is no alternative, we should look abroad for ready proof to the contrary.

Higher education, society, politics, and the market have had very different interconnections in different countries. As a result, despite the wide influence of marketisation ideology, there are real differences around the world reflected in public discussions on the future of the universities. We give a flavour of that variety here.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, founder of the modern university.
Lestat (Jan Mehlich). Wikimedia., CC BY-SA

The public universities of contemporary Europe date from 1945, yet they are based on the early 19th century Humboldtian ideal of academic freedom, and on the value of faculty members who both teach and conduct research. Spreading round the world, this model gave rise to numerous local variations, including in the Anglo-American sphere, which in the 20th century overtook the German-French universities.

Local variations to similar problems

Today, the dominance of English-language universities is evident in many different regions of the world. Yet as the article on Japan in this series on will illustrate, the mix of internationally circulating university models and national traditions of higher education has produced very different results. Despite pressure to homogenise, the introduction of marketising principles of university management has provoked very different reactions around the world.

As Italian historian Andrea Mariuzzo shows, idealisation of elite American universities is nothing new in global higher education. But nor is misrepresentation of the US system in order to justify various national projects. Mariuzzo examines Harvard reformers’ efforts in 1945 to define the balance between general liberal education designed to produce citizens, and specialised instruction supposedly aimed at economic success.

Meanwhile, Japanese historian Shigeru Okayama describes how European models of higher education influenced the Japanese approach from its inception. But he also exposes the failures of the private university system there, and the growing divide between English and Japanese language teaching.

A collective of doctoral researchers at the European University Institute have also provided a view “from below”, explaining how the marketised university is experienced by those who represent its future.

Learning from our history

It is undeniable that some of the current challenges to higher education are specific to our times. But others have a long history, despite being widely seen as new. We often hear that the university is globalising. In fact the nation state remains a key player, and global academia remains primarily a space for international competition.

Within this space, all kinds of international honours contribute to national prestige, and individual scholars mobilise international recognition for national purposes. Distinguishing between which reforms are truly new and which are merely presented as such, and grasping the interplay between global trends and national situations will help us think about how to react in the face of today’s challenges.

This is the first in our series, Universities at the crossroads.

The Conversation

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Spring 2015 Week 1 Seminar: Eirini Karamouzi: Crisis and Stabilisation in 1970s Greece and Southern Europe

The Week 1 Modern and Contemporary History Research Seminar is by

Dr. Eirini Karamouzi (Sheffield)

Aperçu de « Microsoft Word - Karamouzi.M&C.Poster.docx »

Abstract: The collapse of authoritarianism in Greece and Portugal in 1974, Franco’s eclipse in Spain in 1975 and the rise of the Communist’s appeal in Italy in 1975-6 drastically changed the political landscape in Western Europe. The sudden democratization of Southern Europe and the short-lived uncertainty that followed, rattled not only the USA which had come to view any changes towards democratic rule as a direct threat to détente but also the EC- Nine who realized that they had to step in to safeguard democracy in Southern Europe and ensure that political change in these countries would not be exploited by the Soviet Union.The paper highlights the rise of Southern Europe as a single political concept in the eyes of both the EEC and the USA, investigating how both sides across the Atlantic dealt with the region, and especially Greece in the turbulent years from 1974 to 1976.

All are welcome for this first session of 2015, and there will be drinks.

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