ABSTRACT

In both cases, Collingwood and Croce, the presentism of this stance was profoundly informed by the dangerousness of the early twentieth century, above all by the successive catastrophes of World War I and the advent of fascism. In Walter

Benjamin’s words, and without over-literalizing the pertinence of the description, we might see ourselves as once again living through a “state of emergency.”7

“Truly, I live in dark times!” another contemporary, Bertolt Brecht, began one of his finest poems: “The person who laughs/Has simply not yet had/The terrible news.”8

In such times, an urgency is imparted to the historian’s labors, one that sharpens our perspective, jolts the sensibility, changes what we are able to see. “The true image of the past,” Benjamin wrote, is the one that “flits by,” catches our attention, calls us to knowledge: “To articulate the past historically … means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”9 The force of this aphorism is not to reduce history to a presentism of simplistic or exorbitant demands or to remove it from the historian’s rules of knowledge. Rather, it sharpens the historian’s sense of responsibility in exploring how and where those rules might fruitfully be applied. The urgency makes the historian’s craftful expertise all the more vital rather than less. That expertise becomes the best guide to what the past might tell us and what not. The historian picks a trail carefully through history’s landscape while surveying its resources and its ruins. I have spent the entirety of my career worrying the problem of fascism. This is

not the only set of questions I pursue. But it works as a persistent reminder, a recurring intention, a kind of default ground. My earliest work, Reshaping the German Right, was an attempt to understand what I called the conditions of possibility for a German fascism earlier in the twentieth century; The Peculiarities of German History, written concurrently, sought to disengage Germany’s past from the deep-cultural teleology of catastrophic exceptionalism that in my view obscured the more relevant conjunctures of immediate crisis where Nazism actually began; soon after I wrote directly about theories of fascism per se.10 In the meantime much has changed. When I first began thinking about the question it was barely two decades after fascism’s defeat, marking more or less the same distance between the first Iraq War or the end of Communism and today. But the ease of the fascist analogy, usually to indict one’s opponents, has not diminished. Nor has the gravity of the actually existing worlds of political conflict, political injustice, and collectively administered political violence. The new political circumstances of the twenty-first century make it urgently desirable to sort through the possible guidance that a concept of fascism might provide. I am moved by three impulses in that regard.