Fascism and Analogies — British and American, Past and PresentRoundup
tags: colonialism, fascism, British Empire
Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University, focusing on the history of Britain and its empire. She is the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia (2008) and Empire of Guns (2018). Her new book, Time's Monster: How History Makes History, was published in 2020.
NAVIGATING UNCERTAIN TIMES, it is tempting, and helpful, to search the past for precedents that might help guide understanding and action — inevitably with the risk of drawing false equivalences. Comparing Trumpism to 1930s fascism, especially, has struck some historians and political theorists as likely to blind us to the longer trajectories of Trump’s reactionary politics — his quintessential Americanness.
The question of historical analogies has also defined the United Kingdom’s memory wars. With respect to Britain’s imperial past, Boris Johnson’s government has rejected all fascist implication. Britain’s schools, museums, and country houses, it insists, must not reflect on restitution, statue-removal, or the idea of white privilege; these worries are the province of nations that truly have something to apologize for — namely, Germany. As the Times explained last year, the moral case for returning colonial artifacts is unlike that of returning artworks stolen by the Nazis. After all, Britain, led by Johnson’s hero Churchill, defeated the Nazis — the finest hour of its proud past. The National Trust’s efforts to explore country houses’ ties to colonialism and slavery similarly outraged the Churchill biographer Andrew Roberts by implying a “moral equivalence between colonialism and slavery,” as if the empire was not founded on slavery and did not continue to depend on forms of bonded labor well after abolition in 1833.
Johnson’s government instead calls for unapologetic pride in Britain’s past to fortify the nation’s capacity to endure today’s political challenges, from lockdown to Brexit, when, the prime minister promises, the UK will once again emerge as “the greatest place on Earth.” The past must redeem the present, not the other way around. The leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg calls on the United Kingdom to “be proud to have spread overseas the liberty it so valued at home,” while the Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith celebrates the “prospects” Brexit creates for British youth “to be out there buccaneering, trading, dominating the world again.” Rather than redress the imperial past, Britons ought to revive it.
This nostalgia testifies to an urgent need to come to terms with the unpleasant reality of Britain’s imperial past. But the anxiety to distance that past from the moral abyss of Nazism and slavery frustrates efforts to do so. To urge Britain to reckon with its imperial past through reparations, school curriculum, restitution, memorialization, or other methods that Germany has also employed in confronting its Nazi past does not automatically imply an equation of British imperialism with Nazism. Different kinds of violent and racist pasts may yet share a common need for redress. We might also, for example, look to South African efforts to address the legacies of apartheid or American attempts to deal with slavery. American thinkers, too, such as Susan Neiman, enlighten conversations about healing American racial divisions by “Learning from the Germans” — the title of Neiman’s 2019 book. Others put these cases into conversation as counterpoints, for instance Joan Wallach Scott’s On the Judgment of History (2020).
That said, other thinkers, such as Isabel Wilkerson in Caste (2020), go beyond comparing forms of healing, analogizing America’s racial divides to Nazism itself; critics analogize Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories to apartheid. Kehinde Andrews’s The New Age of Empire (2021) likens the genocide of Australia’s Aborigines to the Holocaust. The British debate about colonial reparations intensified a decade ago also thanks in part to an effective historical analogy: the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins titled the UK version of her 2005 account of British concentration camps in 1950s Kenya “Britain’s Gulag,” a Pulitzer Prize–winning work that helped launch a spate of successful reparations suits by Kenyan survivors. In protesting the camps in the 1950s, the Labour MP Fenner Brockway went further, comparing the camps’ communal labor punishments to Nazi slave labor policies.
Historical and local specificities mean all analogies are ultimately inaccurate in ways that historians must always make clear. The point of such comparisons, however, is to uncover darker historical truths obscured by prevailing, more flattering comparisons. Historical analogies played a central role in the making of modern history, including its ugliest episodes; new comparisons allow us to shift the paradigms through which we have long understood the past so that we might make new history in the present.
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