They’re Back: Fascists on Campus

By | February 9, 2017 | 0 Comments


University of Vienna, 1933

University of California, 2017

Look at these two photos. At first glance, they seem quite different. But on closer inspection, they are remarkably similar:

● The demonstrators at the University of Vienna in 1933 wore neat brown shirts, military-style caps, and shiny boots. The demonstrators at the University of California, Berkeley in 2017 wore rumpled black clothes and ski masks, also called balaclavas in the military. But they both wore uniforms to distinguish themselves from ordinary people and enhance group cohesion.

● The demonstrators at the University of Vienna were unmasked. The demonstrators at the University of California covered their faces. But they both had the same purpose ‒ to intimidate their political opponents.

● The demonstrators at the University of Vienna formed a straight line. The demonstrators at the University of California moved erratically. But they both had the same objective ‒ to bully professors and students into silence and block access to classes.

● The demonstrators at the University of Vienna were called Nazis. The demonstrators at the University of California were called progressives or anarchists. But they both embraced a form of totalitarianism ‒ that is, control of all human activities by them.

● The demonstrators at the University of Vienna were unrestrained by police, who were forbidden to enter the campus by a medieval charter. The demonstrators at the University of California were unrestrained by police, who were ordered to do nothing by cowardly university officials. But the result was the same ‒ the rioters roamed free.

● The demonstrators at the University of Vienna built on preexisting anti-Semitism and yearning for strong leadership. The demonstrators at the University of California built on preexisting speech codes that prescribed what professors and students could say and hear ‒ and what they could not. But they both merely added violence to a situation that was already hostile to freedom.

Rather than comment further on current campus strife, let me tell you a story told to me by my mother. In 1933-1934, my parents were recently married and were able to spend time in Vienna for postgraduate study. At the time, Vienna was a world-renowned center of medical research. My father, a physician, studied at the General Hospital, while my mother took classes at the University of Vienna.

Regrettably, Nazism was on the rise in Austria as well as Germany. Medical facilities were still relatively immune, so my father’s studies were uninterrupted. But then as now, universities were hotbeds of political extremism. The academic environment was no guarantee against totalitarian ideology. On the contrary, universities can serve as efficient incubators of totalitarian ideology. It is well that we remember this fact.

At first, my mother was able to continue her studies, although with growing concern. One of her memories of those days was sitting in a class with a Nazi on one side, wearing a swastika armband, and a social democrat on the other side, wearing a three-arrows armband. The two glared angrily at each other throughout the class, leaving my mother in the visual crossfire. Despite her studious nature, she was unable to concentrate on what the lecturer was saying.

Eventually campus demonstrations forced the library to close, making it impossible for my mother and other students to complete their course work. You think the same thing can’t happen here? Watch this video of demonstrators assaulting students in the Dartmouth library.

But worse was to come. One day my mother shouldered her way through a crowd of demonstrators – which was no mean accomplishment, considering her four-foot, eleven-inch height. But the crowd wasn’t demonstrating at the moment. People were watching a young Jewish student being kicked down the stairs by two men with Nazi armbands. The crowd watched in either apathy or approval – my mother couldn’t tell which, but as a practical matter it made no difference.

Dante once said that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality. − John F. Kennedy

The young Jewish student tried to crawl to the university gates. Austrian police – on foot, in cars, and mounted on horses – were arrayed outside the gates. But because of an ancient law, they were forbidden to enter the campus. My mother was unclear whether the young student reached safety before being kicked to death, because she got out of there as quickly as possible. Like my father, she wore an American-flag pin in her lapel, which usually assured that she would be exempt from local political strife. But if the crowd discovered she was Jewish, things might rapidly turn ugly.

This painful memory stayed with her all her life. When campus demonstrations broke out in America, and student agitators shouted “Pigs off the campus,” my mother was sure to remind me of what could happen when police really were removed from the campus. And I never forgot her hard-earned lesson:

Crowds can turn ugly.

Crowds motivated by ideas of perceived victimhood can turn really ugly.

Crowds obsessed with notions of race, class, and gender can turn terribly ugly.

Crowds composed of young people devoid of self-control, but filled with unearned self-esteem, can turn rapidly ugly.

Crowds composed of young people who are absolutely convinced that they are more brilliant than anyone who came before them can turn irrationally ugly.

Crowds unrestrained by cowardly university and police authorities can turn dangerously ugly.

Crowds containing thugs clad in uniforms are already dangerously ugly.

As John O’Sullivan observed, “In Germany the fascists goose-stepped – in America they jog.” Fascists don’t always wear brown shirts – they may wear black clothes and ski masks. Fascists don’t always give the closed-fist salute – although many current “student” activists do exactly that.

But you can tell fascists by their threats to use violence if their demands aren’t met, by their disruption of classes, by their intimidation of students and professors, and by their ruthless suppression of dissenting ideas. And if they are not prosecuted and stopped, their bullying tactics will endanger not only academic freedom, but freedom itself.

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