Review: Fighting Fascism
I’m no scholar of history. Almost all of my reading of primary sources occurred in high school. This made reading Fighting Fascism both a challenge and a pleasure.
On the one hand, I was missing a lot of context. Author Clara Zetkin’s words are full of references to contemporary people and movements, and try as it might, this tiny collection doesn’t offer nearly enough background to elucidate it all. If I was more rigorous, I would have stopped and researched each person, organization, and treaty as they were mentioned. But my time is limited, and the Red Line is not exactly well-suited to academic research. Many of Zetkin’s finer points were subject to my inference and supposition. In other words: they were lost on me.
How did I take pleasure in fumbling through such a foreign book? Well, despite all my apologizing, Zetkin’s arguments didn’t fly completely over my head. In contrast to many primary sources, she was expressly speaking as the educator that I needed. Fascism was not yet well-understood when she was writing and speaking. Zetkin needed to define it in order to effectively fight it. Even though she was addressing an audience of her contemporaries, her efforts to identify patterns are also instructive to a modern-day and woefully-ignorant reader like myself. That’s why I can say that I now have a better handle on what the term came to mean in that moment in history.
This also makes the works in Fighting Fascism impressive achievements in political science. Recognizing trends seems to me like the hardest part of the job. I’m always skeptical of the confidence that writers have in their assessment of developing cultural shifts. History has validated Zetkin’s perspective, and it’s satisfying to revel in her good work. It doesn’t hurt that she was a total badass:
The Nazi press bristled with vile threats against her as a “Communist Jew,” a “slut” (Goebbels), and a “traitor.” The KPD received a Nazi threat to assault her on the floor of the Reichstag. But when her party’s Central Committee asked whether she could open the Reichstag session, she responded with characteristic defiance, “I’ll get there, dead or alive.” Driven incognito into Berlin, she slipped into a safe house. Her biographer Gilbert Badia describes the ensuing drama at the Reichstag as follows:
Clara Zetkin was very weak, subject to fainting fits, and almost blind. On August 30, before a Reichstag crammed with Nazi deputies in SA and SS uniforms, two Communist deputies helped the old woman to mount the speakers’ platform. She spoke at first with a barely audible voice, but little by little her voice strengthened and grew passionate.
Even though I missed out on the full depth of Zetkin’s ideas, her intelligence and conviction cut across decades and languages and cultures. In introducing the works, the editors claim that, “striving to understand fascism today is not merely a historical question.” I’m grateful for Zetkin’s writing because it’s helped me understand how that’s true.