Conservatives have long fulminated over “left-wing indoctrination in our schools,” a charge that led former President Donald Trump to create a “pro-American curriculum” — the 1776 Commission. Groups like Turning Point USA have long targeted professors who supposedly “promote anti-American values and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom” — including, I presume, history professors like me. But what is it that I and my colleagues actually teach in the classroom?
In my modern European history courses, students learn about the rise of Benito Mussolini: That in the wake of the March on Rome in October 1922, King Victor Emmanuel III asked Mussolini, leader of Italy’s still small National fascist Party, to form a new government. That he convinced the legislature to grant him power to rule by decree for a year to restore order and to end the socialist threat in the country. That, thanks to his control of fascist newspapers and his intimidating militia forces, the Fascists, in coalition with other parties, gained a crushing majority in the elections of 1924. This majority was augmented by the Acerbo Law of 1923, which stated that the party with the largest share of the vote would automatically receive two-thirds of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Thus, Mussolini came to power in a legalistic fashion, undergirded by the threat of violence. Once in power, Mussolini used his control of Italy’s legislative bodies to legally bring an end to democracy.
They learn that Adolf Hitler, after the failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, served little time in jail, thanks to a sympathetic judge. Then he bided his time, building up the structures of the Nazi party. The despair of the Great Depression, coupled with violent clashes between the right and left in Germany, paved the way for the Nazi party’s rise. Hitler, like Mussolini, came to power legally when President Paul von Hindenburg invited him to assume the position of chancellor in January 1933. Hindenburg’s staff and family believed that they would be able to control Hitler, while enjoying the support of his rabid base. Also like Mussolini, Hitler used the legal measures available to him — including Article 48, which allowed the German president to rule by decree in times of civil disorder — to put an end to democratic institutions once he came to power.
As those on the political right bemoan how “left-wing” professors brainwash their students with “socialistic” ideas and pass laws to forbid the teaching of critical race theory, I wonder how far these struggles to control the study of history will go. I am bemused at the idea that we “indoctrinate” our students. While there are undoubtedly exceptions, most of us present our students with the facts of history. We ask them to read primary source documents and historical analyses, we train them to interpret documents and events, and we encourage students to tease out these ideas in classroom discussions.
Students are smart. If they sometimes develop new opinions as a result of their history classes, it is not because we push them in a particular direction. Students are perfectly capable of reading a bombastic nationalistic speech by Mussolini and hearing the echoes in modern political discourse. Those students who are aware of efforts in Georgia and elsewhere to restrict voting and to allow state legislatures to overturn electoral results they don’t like may very well connect those changes to the tightening grip of authoritarian parties in the 1920s and 1930s. And I have no doubt that when we study the Beer Hall Putsch the next time I teach my class on Hitler’s Germany, students will want to talk about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and wonder about its long-term implications. They will raise questions about ongoing GOP efforts to whitewash that history and to reject the label of “insurrection.”
Radically conservative politicians want to limit the ability of teachers to talk about structural racism because it may lead their sons and daughters to question the racism still embedded in the U.S. Will they also forbid teaching classes on the rise of 20th-century fascism and totalitarianism because the facts make them too uncomfortable?
History does not repeat, but we can certainly learn from the past. It offers us keys to understanding our present and future. We need to call out politicians who try to control the history we teach to cloak their own lack of commitment to democratic institutions. They may want to ask themselves why they fear the conclusions that those who study the past may draw.
Christine Adams (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a fellow at the American Council of Learned Societies and a Spring 2021 Newberry Library residential fellow.