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.” No doubt, the inva­sion of Ukraine by Putin’s author­i­tar­i­an regime also offers anoth­er harsh reminder. With some luck, resolve and sac­ri­fice, the demo­c­ra­t­ic order will pre­vail, and may Putin suf­fer the Mus­soli­ni fate.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2019.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why Rus­sia Invad­ed Ukraine: A Use­ful Primer

Free Online His­to­ry Cours­es

20 Lessons from the 20th Cen­tu­ry About How to Defend Democ­ra­cy from Author­i­tar­i­an­ism, Accord­ing to Yale His­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

Yale Pro­fes­sor Jason Stan­ley Iden­ti­fies 3 Essen­tial Fea­tures of Fas­cism: Invok­ing a Myth­ic Past, Sow­ing Divi­sion & Attack­ing Truth

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

20,000 Amer­i­cans Hold a Pro-Nazi Ral­ly in Madi­son Square Gar­den in 1939: Chill­ing Video Re-Cap­tures a Lost Chap­ter in US His­to­ry

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