The Rise of Fascism: Yesterday and Today

by Hero Aiken

Data indicate that violent action and rhetoric against marginalized groups is on the rise in almost every region of the world. A number of far-right leaders and governments are now in power – especially in Europe. Italy’s current prime minister Georgia Melon and her party the Brothers of Italy are widely viewed as the closest Italy has come to Mussolini’s fascist politics since World War II. The largest party in the Dutch parliament is now a far right party. Geert Wilders’ proposed policies include a net-zero immigration rate for the Netherlands, as well as a complete ban on mosques and the Quran. Moreover, right-wing populists currently hold the second most seats in the national parliaments of both Finland and Sweden (The Wire).

Many of the aforementioned countries have long been heralded as models for political moderation and democracy. It is therefore all the more alarming that they have not resisted the global trend towards fascist ideas. I have deliberately chosen the examples above in order to impress upon the reader that no state – no matter how democratic or tolerant – is free from the possibility of a return to dangerous or right-wing politics. In other words, the human rights that we now enjoy cannot be regarded as irrevocable.

The passing of time has meant that our knowledge of World War II’s horrors has largely become second hand, and has been relegated almost entirely to the history textbook. The rise of right-wing populism which swept Europe and led to the industrialization of genocide and mass displacement is often regarded as being of purely academic interest, allowing those of us who reside in wealthy democracies to feel as though we are immune to the danger of returning to nationalist or totalitarian rule.

Seventy-nine years after the supposed fall of fascism, barely more than 5% of American World War II veterans are still alive. Well over 100 of these individuals die every day (USA Today). Similarly, fewer than 250 000 Holocaust survivors are still alive in 2024, a miniscule number compared to the millions murdered in the concentration camps of Europe (Washington Post). This may begin to explain why over 10% of respondents to a recent American survey on Holocaust knowledge had never heard the word “Holocaust” before (NBC). Likewise, in a survey conducted on the 70th anniversary of the Normandy Landings (D-Day), 1 in 10 American college graduates admitted to believing that the landings occurred at Pearl Harbor, in Hawai’i (ACTA). It is clear from this information that we are losing our collective living memory of World War II and its associated atrocities.

Not only is this lack of knowledge profoundly embarrassing, it is also very dangerous. As the dictum goes: “those who do not learn history are destined to repeat it.” If education on past wars is not kept up, how will we know to adopt governments who won’t espouse fascist ideals? If knowledge of past genocides and past totalitarian regimes is not common knowledge, who will keep these institutions at bay? Unfortunately, I believe that we have already begun to witness the failures of education and memory in this area.

Although “[a]nnual data are still being compiled, […] police across Canada have been reporting marked increases in the number of crimes targeting Muslims and Jews alike” (CityNews). Along these same lines, attacks based on sexual orientation have risen 13.8% in the past year, in the United States (HRC). Europe is no exception to this alarming rule; almost half of Europeans of African descent face overt racism in their daily lives, and that number reaches 70% in some countries. This represents a marked increase from previous years.

From this, it is painfully clear that fascist sentiment is once more on the rise throughout Europe and the world, and this despite the purported safeguards of democracy. Because of this, it is more important than ever to remember that the fight for the maintenance of human rights is not one that admits complacency. Recent events such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the stripping of abortion rights in many American states ought to remind the reader that each human right that we now take for granted was won through the hardwork and sacrifice of real people, and can be lost if the ideals and practices which won it are abandoned. Resisting yesterday’s rise of fascism took a concerted international effort, how will we continue these efforts today?

Works Cited

Alacbay, A. (2014, May 7). On 70th Anniversary of D-Day, Survey Finds Many Americans Know Little About the Fateful Battle. American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Lagatta, E. (2023). 131 World War II vets die each day, on average; here is how their stories are being preserved. USA Today.

Luneau, D. (2023). FBI’s Annual Crime Report — Amid State of Emergency, Anti-LGBTQ+ Hate Crimes Hit Staggering Record Highs. Human Rights Campaign.

O’Flaherty, M. (2023, November 23). Europe’s shame: how to confront rising racism. The Parliament Magazine.

Ramgopal, K. (2020). Survey finds “shocking” lack of Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Gen Z. NBC News.

Robertson, D. (2024, January 27). Anti-Islamophobia envoy warns of chill on speaking out about Gaza, hate crimes. CityNews Toronto.

Timsit, A. (2024). 245,000 Jewish holocaust survivors are alive today. Where are they now?. Washington Post.

Whitehead, A. (2023). The Right Wing Is on the Rise Globally. The Wire.

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