Sheri E. Berman is professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her main interests are European politics and political history, democracy and democratization, globalization, and the history of the left. Her two books have examined the role played by social democracy in determining political outcomes in 20th-century Europe.
Donald Trump and the rising populist tide in Europe has led some to question whether democracy is facing a threat akin to that posed by fascism and National Socialism during the interwar period. Although conflating populism and fascism/National Socialism is problematic, these movements do share some important similarities: they both claim to speak in the “name of the people”, they are both opposed to the “establishment” and traditional elites, and they are both illiberal. Alongside these similarities are also, however, crucial differences. Fascists and National Socialists were explicitly opposed to democracy and viewed violence as both a means and an end. Populists, on the other hand, often undermine democracy but are not explicitly anti-democratic and while often accepting violence, do not actively promote it. Moreover, fascists and National Socialists had a clear, if abhorrent, view of a new type of world and society they wanted to create. Populists are opposed to the reigning order but lack a clear vision of an alternative one. Equally important are the different contexts within which these movements arose: although the West is facing real problems today, we are not (yet at least) facing the type of crisis we did during the interwar years, and this shapes both the nature and impact of populism and fascism/National Socialism.
Keywords: Fascism, National Socialism, Great Depression, Populism, Democracy.
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