Exposing the Hypocrisy of the Faux Populists: Ruth Ben-Ghiat On How We Can Defend Democracy
Heidi Siegmund Cuda and the Byline team were joined by the noted historian and author of 'Strongmen' for a fascinating and revealing conversation
Ruth Ben-Ghiat had some strong words on how media can do better as a first line of defence against fascism. Also participating — Hardeep Matharu, Adam Bienkov, and Peter Jukes. The conversation — which was both personal and profound — has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
“Attacking the press is like insurance for strongmen while they're on their way up. Because when something comes out about their corruption or crimes, whatever it's going to be — they need the public to already feel that the press is biased and to already have turned against the press, and at the very least, feel that the press is discredited or not reliable.”—Ruth Ben-Ghiat
Heidi Siegmund Cuda: I am honored to introduce my friend Ruth Ben-Ghiat — she wrote the pivotal book Strongmen: Mussolini To the Present, (published in the UK as Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall) which looked at 100 years of fascism, totalitarianism, and the fascinating relationship between Mussolini and Hitler. She is a professor of Italian studies at New York University. But what many people might not know is she's actually originally a Southern California girl. And I wouldn't mind starting there, because some of the people that you were raised near, were exiled during the rise of Nazism and that had an influence on why you chose this path. So if you wouldn't mind, please share a snapshot of that.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Thank you for having me. And thank you, Heidi. It's funny when we all think about how we got started with what we do today, it was kind of improbable because my mother's from Scotland, and lives in England. And my father's originally from Jerusalem, Sephardic Jews — my grandfather's from Yemen.
So I was first generation, and they settled in Southern California, in a beautiful little town near Malibu, called Pacific Palisades, and this was where many exiles from Nazism settled, and a lot of famous ones — Thomas Mann, Otto Klemperer, Arnold Schoenberg.
So their kids and grandkids were around, and my father would take me library book sales and there'd be first editions of Weimar Germany authors. Their books were like having the ghosts of these people around. And Shoenberg’s son was briefly my teacher in high school.
I started thinking about, what did it mean when a dictator comes in — because of my background, I grew up with Holocaust stories. But what did it mean to have to uproot yourself? And so I started being interested in Nazism and talking to people whose families had been exiled. And from there I decided to work on Italian fascism, because there was less scholarship done on that and it lasted twice as long. So that's how I got started. And I didn't know then it would be so relevant today.