The Story of Fascism: Rick Steves’ Documentary Helps Us Learn from the Hard Lessons of the 20th Century

From Rick Steves comes a thought-provoking documentary that revisits the rise of fascism in Europe, reminding us of how charismatic figures like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler came to power by promising to create a better future for their frustrated, economically-depressed countries–a future that recaptured the glory of some mythologized past. Once in power, these fascist leaders replaced democracy with a cult of personality, steadily eroded democratic norms and truth, ratcheted up violence, and found scapegoats to victimize–something facilitated by the spread of conspiracy theories and propaganda through modern media. They would lead their nations into war, and ultimately ruin, but not before creating a playbook for other charismatic autocrats who entice voters with simplistic solutions to complex problems.

Originally aired on television, Steves has released the documentary on YouTube, hoping that 21st century citizens can “learn from the hard lessons of 20th-century Europe.” The text accompanying his documentary reads as follows:

In this one-hour special, Rick travels back a century to learn how fascism rose and then fell in Europe — taking millions of people with it. We’ll trace fascism’s history from its roots in the turbulent aftermath of World War I, when masses of angry people rose up, to the rise of charismatic leaders who manipulated that anger, the totalitarian societies they built, and the brutal measures they used to enforce their ideology. We’ll see the horrific consequences: genocide and total war. And we’ll be inspired by the stories of those who resisted. Along the way, we’ll visit poignant sights throughout Europe relating to fascism, and talk with Europeans whose families lived through those times. Our goal: to learn from the hard lessons of 20th-century Europe, and to recognize that ideology in the 21st century.

The Story of Fascism (which will be added to our list of Free Documentaries) is recommended for students and adults alike. With World War II fading from living memory, we could use a good reminder, says Steves, of how “nationalism can be channeled into evil, and how our freedoms and democracies are not indestructible…in fact, they are fragile.”

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Comments (12)
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  • Kamil Trzebiatowski says:

    Brilliant stuff.
    Now let’s add an equally terrifying ideology, Stalinism and related communism, an equal threat to today’s way of life in Western societies.

  • chrisare says:

    Communism is a greater threat because its not seen as a threat and in fact is viewed as tenable enough where people publicly admit to being communist without risk of excoriation.

  • Marc! says:

    In the 19th century there was an ever growing movement towards democracy in the West.
    But then came Marx c.s. with their ‘Communism’ and ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’.
    That was the first step AWAY from democracy towards left wing fascism!


    “Communism” collapsed- nearly a quarter century ago.

  • Vally Sharpe says:

    I agree with everything except your suggestion that “left-wing” is fascism, because fascism is always “right-wing.” Doesn’t matter what the name of the party in power is or the use of the word “democratic” in it. The drift toward fascism is in the Republican Party of today. Any drift toward communism is left-wing. Don’t be fooled by your own thinking.

  • Daniel Aquilina says:

    LOL at the fascist apologists and sympathizers in this comment section.

  • Victor G. says:

    Excoriate them! Excoriate them!

  • Dav says:

    We must remember what extremes these people would either commit or condone upon us, gleefully, when asked about inclusion and forgiveness. They repeatedly crossed boundaries common to Societies across time& geography. There need to be real, lasting punishments for Fascism or it will just come back again.

  • Peter Werner says:

    This is kind of a high school-level outline of the history of fascism. True in very broad brushstrokes, but too broad to get into some of the nuances of the subject that would be required if you want to make an accurate analysis of how 20th Century fascism relates to the politics of today.

    It has some occasionally quite foolish statements, like comparing the supposed intellectualism of Communism with the anti-intellectualism of fascism. Of course, the Nazis and fascists had their intellectual and artistic class too, some of whom are still read or viewed to this day – Carl Schmitt, Heidegger, and the Italian Futurists to name just a few examples. On the other hand, a typical Soviet worker or peasant probably didn’t have a bookshelf full of Communist theory and probably had a rudimentary understanding at best of dialectical materialism.

  • Granite Stater says:

    fascism and socialism are opposite sides of the same coin. Nazis and Communists are two biker gangs or two Mafia families at war. There isn’t a dimes worth of difference between them as evidenced by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact that divided up Poland between Germany and Russia. That was followed by a tong war between them. See PBS’ programs: The Soviet Story or World on Fire. We Poles hate National Socialists and Democratic Socialists both. They used the same methods. See PBS’ program series: The Dictators Playbook. Dictators are all the same. Ruling by decree, Whether they are named Hitler, Stalin, Castro, Saddam or Biden.

  • Anonymous says:

    You think that!!! Fascism and communism are both totalitarian. The Republican Party of today believes in a small government, free market, economy. It’s not like fascism is ever the goal of the Republican Party. The founder of the fascist ideology, Giovanni Gentile, thought of himself as a continuation of Marx.

  • pbrower2a says:

    Just a reminder: fascism is Western, and not simply European. As early as 1915 the second KKK arose in America, and it had many of the same characteristics that would mark Italian and German fascism. It differed from the old Klan that was strictly regional in appeal. It had gaudy symbolism and extreme bigotry. It aligned itself with economic elites who lusted for super-cheap, helpless labor in fields and factories. It shared the same bigotry and added anti-Catholic hatred while accentuating contempt for blacks asserting their humanity.

    By the 1920’s the Second KKK seemed far closer to power than some cranky fanatics who were still doing time for staging a coup in a beer hall. It had gotten politicians elected. I look at its ideology and I see torture chambers, slave-labor and murder camps, and aggressive warfare. I look at its failure and I can only breathe a sigh of relief.

    Fascism of any kind — Second and later Klans, the Nazis, the Italian fascists, the Arrow Cross (Hungary) and Iron Guard (Romania) — is tailor-made for sociopaths.

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