In Conversation

Challenge and warning: The threat of incremental fascism, then and now

Lauren Young with Hitler’s Girls book cover
Lauren Young (Photo by Joshua Kessler)

The age-old adage that “history repeats itself” can pertain to everything from bad habits to global politics. But for Lauren Young, a political scientist in Yale's Faculty of Arts and Sciences who specializes in security and defense issues, the lessons from the past are far more than a pithy one-liner.

In her new book, “Hitler’s Girl: The British Aristocracy and the Third Reich on the Eve of WWII” (Harper Collins), she explores how a fascist undercurrent among the aristocracy of 1930s Great Britain nearly allowed authoritarianism to take root in the U.K. as it did in Italy and Germany. (The title refers to Unity Mitford, a British socialite who became part of Hitler’s inner circle.) Drawing from newly declassified documents, Young shows how various supposedly minor events and figures built up into a serious threat to democratic stability.

The events of the pre-World War II Europe, she says, offer critical lessons today as tense challenges globally demonstrate the fragility of our modern political order.

In an interview with Yale News, Young discusses the lessons of that era and why they are relevant today. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Where did you get the idea of this book project?

Lauren Young: We debated extensively about Britain’s policy of appeasement at the London School of Economics where I taught before coming to Yale. It was generally regarded as positive in many respects, preventing Britain [from entering World War II]; the British population writ large had no appetite for war — they had lost a generation of young men in the First World War, and militarily they were ill-equipped to enter another war.

When Hitler became chancellor in 1933 and his aggressiveness started to accelerate, [Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain's policy of appeasement to keep Britain out of conflict at any cost on the surface made a lot of sense. However, from the vantage point of today's world, there seemed to be more to the story. I went back to the archives and realized that this story of the positivity of the policy of appeasement [was not complete]. Documents from and about this period had been classified and reclassified — and the classifications were beginning to roll off. There was a lot more to the story. 

I found a different narrative about an underside to appeasement that played out in Britain and in stories that were largely suppressed because of these classifications. This archival research formed a different picture of Britain during this period, challenging the familiar characterization of Britain as the cornerstone of our democratic traditions. And what I identified through my research was that there were serious challenges to democracy during this period. And they were not met with sufficient resistance to the point where I do believe that democracy could have gone either way.

There was a groundswell of support for Hitler amongst the British ruling class, and the future of democracy during the 1930s turned on the head of a pin. The potential for Britain to succumb to Nazi Germany was a real possibility and a probability that was advanced and nurtured by the country's elite and systematically covered up by the government as too dangerous to reveal even decades later.

Why did you frame the book around Unity Mitford, the namesake of your book’s title, “Hitler’s Girl”?

Young: The phrase “Hitler's Girl” was an actual headline in the British press. I think it is arresting, even today. Unity’s story united many different strands of the argument about democratic backsliding and packaged them into one unsavory bundle. Although an extreme, her fascination with Hitler was shared by many other influential British citizens. There were many Anglo-German initiatives formed at the time. For example, big delegations of influential Britons attended the 1936 Olympics and were entertained by Nazis at the highest level, wined and dined at elaborate parties in their honor.

There was a fairly broad movement of people, from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to the influential members of secret pro-German organizations that I describe in the book, who supported the Reich. And there are puzzling elements of Unity’s story that raise many questions.

For example, combing through her intelligence files, it became clear how little the British government intervened in her activities, which were likely treasonous. We do know that she met with Hitler at least 160 times, and that no other Briton had that kind of access to Hitler. It was puzzling to me that the British government never tried to recruit her as an intelligence asset, never tried to debrief her, and never spoke to her about Hitler, who was clearly an adversary during the period that Unity knew him. The government knew about her relationship and never took advantage of it. Instead, they hid it and they classified it.

What are the most relevant takeaways for readers as they look at our modern politics?

Young: The question I hope readers will recognize is that we are faced with many similar challenges today. Democracy eventually succeeded in Britain during this period. Will today's world require a similarly cataclysmic event like the Second World War in order to reassess and ensure its survival?

The political debate today about the demise of the liberal world order that has characterized the post-war era has become an increasingly urgent topic. And there are challenges to democracy that we see today, not only in the U.S. but across Europe and in the developing world. I hope that this book will serve both as a challenge and a warning to inform a similarly treacherous moment in history. We have always assumed that democracy is our heritage and our birthright, but I’m not so sure of that anymore. And I think we should be thinking about that more.

The book makes clear that some of the plans the Nazis had for Great Britain could have worked if certain things went differently. Part of this was due to people like Unity Mitford, who used her networks, both personal and professional, to spread information and influence so many people. What is an effective way to sort of counteract this in today’s world?

Young: In today’s world, the challenges to our democracy are amplified by social media and the echo chambers of political division and distrust. So, in some ways the world is very similar to 1930s Britain but with an overlay of technology and globalization that makes it even more problematic, I would argue. As Hannah Arendt wrote so presciently in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” each chink in our democracy is notable and has the potential to amplify into a maelstrom of evil. 

I think the main course of action is to combat democratic erosion by exercising our democratic rights mindfully and with purpose. And first and foremost, it is to vote. Each instance of democratic erosion in our world today matters, and the U.S. is exhibiting troubling trends.

Last year, 19 states enacted voter suppression laws. Election deniers are winning primary races this season. Partisan election officials are being installed in battleground states. And complacency to what is happening enables authoritarians to flourish. There's a lot to learn from this period because the [likelihood] of Britain taking an authoritarian turn during the 1930s, from everything that my research revealed, seemed as unlikely then as [a new shift toward authoritarianism seems from] where we sit today.

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,