Madeleine Albright served as US ambassador to the United Nations during the mid-1990s, and later as Secretary of State during the Clinton administration.
Now in her 80s, she is a professor of International Relations and teaches at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington DC.
Co-written with Bill Woodward, her latest book, Fascism: A Warning, is a concise history of fascism, tracing the rise and fall and rise of the ideology over the space of a century.
It is also part memoir, drawing on the author’s childhood experiences as a refugee fleeing Prague after World War II. Like Albright herself, her father was a diplomat.
During WWII he worked in London as part of the Czechoslovak government in exile. Eventually, fearing persecution by the newly installed Communist regime, the family made its way to the United States.
The overall narrative thrust and motivation of this book is made clear from a phrase that appears in the opening chapter:
“If we think of fascism as a wound from the past that had almost healed, putting Trump in the White House was like ripping off the bandage and picking at the scab.”
She discusses Benito Mussolini, the Italian founder of the fascist movement. One of his rallying cries was drenare la palude, which translates directly as “drain the swamp”, a rallying cry borrowed and used extensively in the electoral campaign of the current US president.
“He was a poor listener who disliked hearing other people talk,” Albright tells us of Mussolini. He also routinely denigrated members of the international press, and like Trump, was a germaphobe who didn’t drink or smoke.
The book moves forward chronologically, making short case studies of other fascist dictators, or leaders who have emulated their tactics and methods. Hitler gets his own chapter (choosing to end it himself just two days after Mussolini’s assassination) as does Spain’s Francisco Franco and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was re-elected since this book was written, comes under Albright’s microscope too. She castigates him for proposing lowering the minimum age for marriage to 15 and recommending that accused rapists be permitted to avoid prosecution by consenting to marry their victims.
Erdogan cemented his power with a brutal crackdown on the education system, closing 15 universities across Turkey, and purging 6,300 schoolteachers. Turkey’s press also came under scrutiny, with more than 2,500 journalists sacked, and 180 media outlets permanently silenced, effectively only leaving room for sympathetic or state-controlled media.
In describing Russian president Vladimir Putin, Albright quotes her notes after her first meeting with him: “Putin is small and pale, so cold as to be almost reptilian.”
She then goes on to say: “Russia’s pioneering use of social media as a weapon reflects not any unusual cultural aptitude for hacking, but rather Putin’s experiences in the KGB where spreading disinformation was both a way of life and an art.”
When questioning Russia’s motives she suggests: “A good guess would be to discredit democracy, divide Europe, weaken the transatlantic partnership, and punish governments that dare stand up to Moscow.”
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban (whose description, like so many of the men in this book, generally includes the modifier “strongman”) ticks a lot of the boxes on the fascist checklist. The mutual admiration between him and Trump is something both leaders openly boast about.
“It would be an exaggeration to suggest that he (Orban) has forced Hungary into a fascist straightjacket,” says Albright, “but he is encouraging his country to feel comfortable in a loose fitting ultra-nationalist shirt.”
The chapter on North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is topical but already dated by recent events. Other countries and their leaders – including the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte – are mentioned, but get less attention.
Despite being very readable, Albright’s potted history of fascism is not without its flaws. When describing the historic meeting between Franco and Hitler in 1940 she sloppily moves the French town of Hendaye across the border into Spain. She also insinuates that former president of Iraq Saddam Hussein really did possess weapons of mass destruction, despite history showing otherwise.
As well as playing a little fast and loose with the facts, there is Albright’s own problematic political trajectory. This includes her hardline stance on the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, her justification of the murder of half a million Iraqi children (yes, you read that correctly), and her role in withdrawing troops from Rwanda at a crucial juncture before the 1994 genocide, despite being aware that a “final solution to eliminate all Tutsis” was planned.
While the foundation of Albright’s moral high ground may be unstable, her inside knowledge and experiences make her warnings all the more poignant.
Sadly, having diagnosed and described the problem, she is markedly short on solutions, prescribing only the homeopathic bromide that: “Caring about others and the proposition that we are all created equal is the single most effective antidote to the self-centered moral numbness that allows fascism to thrive.”
Fascism: A Warning
Author: Madeleine Albright
Publisher: Harper, politics