Is the rise of strong populist men in democracies around the world comparable to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini?
Updated 12 Apr, 2020 07:07am

As an increasing number of right-wing governments occupy the world stage, the use of the word ‘fascism’ to denote their actions is also becoming increasingly common. But some argue that this is a false equivalence. Where is the genocide, they ask. But can fascism only be categorised after the killing of millions of your own people? Or are there gradations and trends that we need to look out for, the small steps that can cumulatively put a society on to the path of fascism?

On 27 January 1996, I remember being in the city of Krakow in Poland, less than 40 miles away from Auschwitz. That was the day Germany officially began observing the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was to commemorate the date in 1945 when the largest Nazi death camp in Poland, Auschwitz-Birkenau, had been liberated by the Soviet Army. By that time, Nazis had exterminated around six million Jews and more than two million gypsies, homosexual individuals and political dissidents across the European continent during their reign of absolute terror.

I felt a piercing chill in my spine while lighting a candle at a vigil outside a former concentration camp. The event also brought back the dreadful images of the — then recent — genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda. But can such candlelight vigils outside help human beings find that inner light which could brighten their souls forever? After slavery and colonialism, Nazism and fascism were the worst manifestations of the darkness that broods inside the hearts of humanity.

Jewish prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland | Via Reuters
Jewish prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland | Via Reuters

Today, when the global community is overwhelmed by a new biological pandemic, costing us precious lives, I can’t help think about another contagion re-emerging and spreading through the world, a political contagion the world has suffered through before — the contagion of fascism.

Similar to almost 90 years ago, right-wing governments that have captured the world stage are increasingly clamping down on political dissent and gagging free media. Meanwhile, their critics face outright condemnation by the supporters of these regimes. The supporters, in their respective countries, are either oblivious to or celebrate a return to racism and misogyny.

In the US, President Donald Trump calls Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” — a dog-whistle racist term — and cherishes humiliating journalists who come to his pressers. The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a champion of exclusionary politics himself, initially wanted most people to catch the coronavirus in the name of creating ‘herd immunity’, displaying an utter disregard for the lives of the weak and the elderly. Luckily, Johnson was pressured by circumstances to revise his decision. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has made no attempt to conceal its contempt for its rural poor population and its migrant labour.

In the case of Pakistan, the supporters of Prime Minister Imran Khan get agitated when the media questions his vision and clarity in dealing with the current health emergency and its economic fallout. At the same time, his government’s actions against political opponents and the independent press continue unabated. When it should be focused on meeting the challenge posed by the pandemic, his government, instead, is re-arresting a former prime minister and incarcerating a newspaper owner.

But am I exaggerating?

Followers of right-wing populist leaders across the world vociferously object to the use of the word ‘fascism’ to characterise the actions of the regimes they support. According to them, any comparison with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany or that of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy is unjustified and smacks of inherent prejudice against their contemporary leaders’ messianic leadership. They ask if there has been a genocide or a totalitarian control of citizens anywhere in recent years that can be compared with what happened in the early 20th-century Europe. I am sure that some in Pakistan will also raise that how could this very piece be published if there is no freedom of expression in the country.

For any populist leader, consumed by his own charisma, and his constituency contentedly living in denial, it is hard not to consider political opponents as personal adversaries. Nevertheless, it would be grossly unfair to bracket Khan with either Modi or Netanyahu. But his demonstrated disrespect for any political opposition or critical voices has cultivated among his followers a habit of treating any difference of opinion with derision and contempt.

But fascism does not arrive all of a sudden and the real questions are these: Should we bury our heads in the sand until the complete elimination of critical voices before accepting that we live under authoritarianism? Should we silently wait for the genocide of millions of people to take place across the world before we are convinced that fascism has arrived? Should we conveniently leave it to the history textbooks of the future to categorise our age as another age of totalitarianism? Or are there tendencies that we can recognise and stages that we can identify which incrementally put societies on to the path of fascism? I am tempted to explore the last question in order to understand contemporary times and evaluate the present human condition.

Umberto Eco, in his important essay on fascism, lists its 14 typical features, which include selective populism, an appeal to a frustrated middle class, a cult of tradition and considering any disagreement as treason. His primary argument is that if even one of these 14 features is present, it is enough for fascism to grow around it. Can we really say none of these elements are present in contemporary times?


Winston Churchill famously said that the longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward. But I come from a political tradition where it is taught that history never repeats itself and only moves forward. However, some contemporary social scientists find patterns in history that reveal an uncanny resemblance of present trends with those from the past. Perhaps, these patterns emerge owing to the consistency in human behaviour over centuries.

Two books I have recently read have helped me understand the tendencies and stages that characterise fascism — Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45 and Daniel Siemens’ Stormtroopers: A New History of Hitler’s Brownshirts. These two books, written some 60 years apart from each other, chronicle in their own unique ways the social origins and structural development of Nazism — the German form of classic fascism. The word Nazism comes from abbreviating the term ‘National Socialism’ in the German language. In addition, the books look at the psycho-social bases for the rapid growth of Nazism and its impact on society and individuals, both in terms of their subscription or rejection of this ideology.

Mayer’s book was first published in 1955. The book helps us appreciate how hyper-nationalist and populist slogans raised by a demagogue at a particular period in history, and under certain material circumstances, have the ability to charm otherwise reasonable people. This includes both ‘common folk’ and those who are considered highly educated. Hyper-nationalism and populism gain enormous strength by disarming the critical ability of a wide segment of the majority community in any state or society. In 2017, the University of Chicago Press published a fresh edition of Mayer’s book.

Mayer, an American journalist of German-Jewish descent, visited Kronenberg in Germany and met 10 nondescript men who had supported Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP). The journalist recorded their otherwise ordinary personal histories and simplistic thoughts on life and politics. In the process, he traced the rise of fascism, its frightful grip over the minds of people and its tight embrace of the soul of German society. The 10 people he met, interviewed, spent time with and documented, included a tailor, a cabinet-maker, a baker, a policeman, a student, a bill collector, three who were unemployed — a tailor’s apprentice, a salesman and a bank clerk — and a teacher.

The teacher, named Hildebrandt, was the only one among the 10 to have harboured some doubts about the overall ideology of Nazism, albeit still supporting the supposedly inclusive and democratic nature of the Nazi party. According to Mayer, “The other nine, decent, hard-working, ordinarily intelligent and honest men, did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil.” Mayer’s most poignant sentences come later: “And they do not know it now. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we knew and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made it.”

Here, it is important to recall that Mayer’s book first came out just a few years after the end of Nazism and was written even before that. It would take Germany many further decades of collective introspection for the state and society to come to terms with the fact that wrongs were committed on such a large scale. The 2017 edition of Mayer’s book includes an afterword by leading British historian Richard J. Evans. Evans, in his otherwise favourable afterword, does object to some sweeping generalisations of German psyche in Mayer’s book. There is also an absence of women from the list of the 10 individuals Mayer chooses as his subjects. Evans questions that, even if Mayer thought of Nazism as a masculine movement par excellence, how could the author ignore the fact that millions of female voters were a key feature in Nazi electoral successes. In recent years, across many countries, we find the same pattern among women who vote for the populist leaders, unmoved by the misogyny these men exude.

Mayer discusses the Nazi Party structures within his accounts of the lives of his subjects. But it is Siemens, currently a professor of European history in the UK, who provides the scholarly inquiry into understanding the emergence and ascendancy of the earliest Nazi Party paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung (SA) — literally meaning ‘Storm Detachment’ in English and commonly known as ‘Stormtroopers’.


Siemens’ book was published by Yale University Press in 2017, the year when the fresh edition of Mayer’s book also appeared.

Siemens begins with a big picture analysis, situating the origins and formation of SA within the European context of the early 20th century, in the aftermath of the First World War. He discusses the circumstances that led to the consolidation of SA and investigates the reasons behind the development of its violent creed. Siemens meticulously explains the methods of mobilisation employed by SA in big and small towns, the creation of a fierce cult around Hitler among the youth, the ambitions and aspirations of these youth, and the use of brute force by SA to establish its might.

The ideal of the model Aryan man and the supremacy of the German race had to be forcibly translated into reality. This was done by the exercise of violence against anyone who dared disagree with the fascist ideology. Political rivals such as communists and social democrats, ethnic groups such as the Roma community of gypsies in Central and Eastern Europe, and religious minorities such as the Jews across the European continent under German influence were tortured and killed. Ideological inspiration and political stratagem worked hand in hand. Here, I am reminded of the birth of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, nee Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), in Pakistan, although it was on a much smaller scale compared to Germany. In the 1980s, MQM grew out of a students’ party and mobilised angry youth around the person of its leader Altaf Hussain. MQM employed fascist principles of organisation and conduct, wreaked havoc in Sindh and used brutal violence to establish its writ.

We have a range of hate groups and ideologies active across the world in current times - from the Atomwaffen Dividion to the ISIS to the proponents of the Great Replacement Theory in France. But what is truly alarming is not these dispersed hate movements but established states being electorally taken over by the ideologies similar to those found in neo-Nazi and religio-fascist groups.

Contrary to the generally held belief, Siemens argues that SA, as an organisation, was neither disbanded nor substantially weakened by what is termed in history as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ or the ‘Rohm purge’. In 1934, this purge of those who controlled SA was ordered by Hitler himself. He became nervous about the designs of SA which had been instrumental in bringing him to power and still remained strong. SA had galvanised youth around Hitler and the Nazi ideology not only before Hitler first got elected but also during the beginning of the Third Reich — the rule of the Nazi Party between 1933 and 1945 and regarded by the regime itself as the successor of the First Reich (the Roman Empire from the ninth to the 19th century) and the Second Reich (the German Empire between 1871 and 1918).

As Hitler consolidated power he decided to replace the ideologically motivated SA with a new ideological-cum-practical, overarching, paramilitary and intelligence force, the Schutzstaffel (SS) — literally meaning ‘Protection Squadron’. It was the SS that led the process of forced labour, extermination and genocides. SA, in the meanwhile, went through a transformation after its remaining leadership made a fresh pledge of allegiance to Hitler. Thereafter, SA continued to play a significant role in the atrocities committed during the Second World War and in war diplomacy in European countries alongside the SS and the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo.

In the South Asian context, what comes to mind is the structure of Hindu fundamentalist — Hindutva — organisations in India. Working under the umbrella of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Sangh Parivar [Family of Organisations] includes Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the political front, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) to look after issues of faith and society, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) working among students, and the militant wing, the Bajrang Dal. There are a few other affiliates as well. Like the Nazis, the Parivar continues to operate through a number of entities on multiple fronts and uses violence to further the cause of Hindutva.


The intermediate history between those times and the present day must not be ignored. The world has seen fascism raising its head in pockets and sometimes, if not always, in excessively brutal but relatively less malignant forms compared to Germany. The equally reprehensible apartheid and dictatorships over the years — from South Africa to Chile and from Indonesia to Myanmar — fall in a different category, because these forms of rule are never popular, even if they have some marginal support among groups of citizens.

Fascism, on the other hand, is popular among a large section of the population, if not the entire population, cutting across social classes. Both Hitler and Mussolini turned to becoming despots after being elected. Therefore, the rise of strong populist men in different democracies around the world in recent years — from Brazil to Turkey and from India to the Philippines — is somewhat comparable to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. The marked difference now from then is a wide horizontal spread across continents of the same tendencies of political governance that humanity witnessed in Europe in the early 20th century.

Protestors at a White Lives Matter rally in Shelbyville, United States | Reuters
Protestors at a White Lives Matter rally in Shelbyville, United States | Reuters

We have a range of hate groups active across the world in current times — from the Atomwaffen Division originating in the Southern US and expanding into other ‘white’ nations, to ISIS in West Asia and the Middle East. There are also the proponents of the racist Great Replacement Theory in France who argue that immigrants will make the French population extinct and, therefore, France must be cleansed of them. But what is truly alarming is not these dispersed hate movements but established states being electorally taken over by the ideologies similar to those found in neo-Nazi and religio-fascist groups.

Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Johnson in the UK, Sebastian Kurz in Austria, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines got themselves elected or re-elected by popular vote. All of them are self-obsessed, overbearing, suppressive and exclusionary to varying degrees — espousing all those elements that lead to fascism. They employ deceit, exclusion, hate and violence to perpetuate their narrative and fulfil their desire for absolute political and social domination. In Russia, we have Vladimir Putin who is elected through a questionable process according to some, but remains popular among a sizeable segment of the Russian population.

Some other important countries, such as China and Saudi Arabia, have shown similar tendencies but fall in a different category. Iran and North Korea also demonstrate varying degrees of the same trends but one is a constitutional theocracy and the other a dynastic dictatorship.


Let me quote from Mayer’s book where one of his subjects, the bill collector, comments on the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis: “Yes, that was wrong, unless they committed treason in wartime. And of course they did. If I had been a Jew, I would have myself. Still, it was wrong, but some say it happened and some say it didn’t. You can show me pictures of skulls or shoes, but that doesn’t prove it. But I will tell you this — it was Himmler. Hitler had nothing to do with it.” Heinrich Himmler was one of Hitler’s closest confidants and the architect of SS, who would act on Hitler’s behalf.

This even mix of confusion, obstinacy and denial, along with the deep-seated desire to absolve your key populist leader of any wrongdoing, is similar to how ordinary supporters of such men in our part of the world continue to think.

Ironically, many in India and Pakistan today maintain a similar opinion on the Jewish holocaust, which was held by the bill collector from Kronenberg in 1950. What is deeply regretted by Germans themselves as the worst criminal act committed by their fellow citizens is denied by so many around us. Even worse are those who find justifications for such heinous acts. However, a much greater paradox of our times is that the people of Israel who support Prime Minister Netanyahu, vividly remember the holocaust, but have clearly forgotten its lessons for humanity. The ghettoised and oppressed Palestinians appeal to the Israelis’ conscience but it is currently steeped in Netanyahu’s right-wing populism.

We see the same attitude of denial, obstinacy and confusion in Pakistan among a significant number of people when it comes to dealing with the events of 1971. Instead of accepting the right to rule of East Pakistan’s elected representatives, an ill-conceived and callous military operation was undertaken, aided by religious paramilitary groups and endorsed by many West Pakistani politicians. That provided a pretext to India, which aimed at the dismemberment of Pakistan, for a direct military intervention.

Similar is the case now with the issues faced by the people of Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan and the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), now merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The state of Pakistan struggles to understand them while the affluent urban middle class denies the existence of any issues at all. When it comes to religious minorities in Pakistan, a large part of the majority Muslim community either remains in denial of their plight or deliberately practises systematic exclusion.

Likewise, what the Indian state and its military do to the ethnic minorities living in the country’s north-east or the violence it has perpetuated in Kashmir for decades is either justified or denied by many. In India, the disdain for Kashmiris found in the mainstream Indian middle class — young and old alike — is sometimes overt and sometimes thinly veiled.


A few weeks ago I received a call from a Western country. From a place which one of my father’s cousins and his wife — who otherwise live in a North Indian town — were visiting. They had not called anyone in Pakistan for years because of the fear of being harassed by the authorities if their calls were traced.

Indian paramilitary soldiers question a citizen on a motorcycle during curfew in Srinagar | AP
Indian paramilitary soldiers question a citizen on a motorcycle during curfew in Srinagar | AP

My elderly uncle had a lump in his throat and eventually broke down when revealing the plight of our relations in Srinagar and the valley of Kashmir. For me, they are those distant cousins — separated by generations, language, rivers and land — who occupy little space in my imagination. But it hurts deeply, at some level, that they were hounded for years and their kin outside Kashmir were pestered by Indian police until they severed all contacts. So now we don’t know in these testing times if our relatives are dead or alive, famished or fed, sick or healthy, imprisoned or free. In the current and most brutal round of psychological and physical violence inflicted on Kashmiris, millions have been besieged for the last eight months. Under Modi, deceit, exclusion, hate and violence have come full circle in India.

Indian journalist Sankarshan Thakur writes in his moving piece on the recent Delhi violence against Muslims: “What [Modi] had begun to deliver on was his core, and often deceitfully unspoken, promise: Hindu Rashtra, a Hindu Reich. Inspired by the ideas and methods of the Reich of Adolf Hitler and criminal accomplices. From plans to radically reshape Delhi’s seats of power to plans for reordering the people of India, the march towards a Hindu Reich is resolutely afoot ... Dozens are brutally slaughtered in the capital, but there need be no expression of remorse, no regret, no assuaging.”


Pakistan has endured military dictatorships and civilian despotism far more than most other countries in South Asia. We have never reached that stage of political evolution where the colonially inherited and all-powerful permanent institutions of the state — bureaucracy, judiciary and the military — could accede to the inviolability of fundamental rights of citizens at large. In colonialism, what matters is protecting territory and exploiting resources. In an independent republic, safeguarding the interests of citizens by ensuring the realisation of their collective economic, social and civil rights, is equipoised with protecting the land and resources of the country.

Pakistan remains subservient to the impulses of its permanent institutions of the state. Therefore, currently, on the country’s political landscape, Imran Khan and his ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) populist rise — which is partly genuine and partly contrived — is not analogous to other democracies who elected right-wing populist leaders. But the commitment to absolve their leader from any mistake he makes remains the hallmark of Khan’s support base.

On top of it, many of his supporters still believe that all is well and that we are heading in the right direction. There is little recognition of the issues around a badly managed economy, suppressed civil and political society, and curbs on freedoms of expression and association.

An art exhibition being raided by state officials, a book of fiction being confiscated, an innocuous feature film being banned from showing, and newspaper reports and columns being censored is the order of the day. Such widespread and blatant attempts to muffle critical voices of the independent media and constrain artistic expressions of the cultural community have arguably not been made in the recent past under any elected government.

For any populist leader, consumed by his own charisma, and his constituency contentedly living in denial, it is hard not to consider political opponents as personal adversaries. Nevertheless, it would be grossly unfair to bracket Khan with either Modi or Netanyahu. But his demonstrated disrespect for any political opposition or critical voices has cultivated among his followers a habit of treating any difference of opinion with derision and contempt. They sacrifice facts at the altar of preconceived notions. Fascism eliminates political opposition and keeps its constituency animated by the possibility or actuality of conflict. The elements of fascism thus introduced in Pakistan’s social fabric, body politic, individual behaviour and collective consciousness will haunt us for a long time.


By reading Mayer and Siemens, there is another truth that gets validated. Everywhere in the world, the powers-that-be — populist leaders, military dictators, ruthless theocrats, oppressive monarchs — tend to forget that the worst of the oppressive regimes could not exist beyond 12 years, 1933 to 1945. And that too despite all its technological advancement, military prowess, blind following and inimitable discipline.

Some regimes may survive longer. But a system intrinsically inhuman in nature is overturned by larger humanity, sooner or later. What oppressors tend to forget is that their narrative lives on for only so long. There will always be someone left — an inconsequential clerk, a repentant accomplice, an indifferent bystander or a survivor of persecution — to relate the whole story. 

The writer is a poet, essayist and the secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

Header illustration by Samiah Bilal

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 5th, 2020