Several years ago a colleague began teaching a course on the Fascist period in Italy. There was nothing unusual about the content of the course in itself. It was to look at the rise of fascism in Italy, the reasons for Mussolini’s accession to power, and various aspects of Italian society during the period of the Fascist regime itself. Such a course is quite typical of the specialised options any undergraduate might expect to study in a university today. As a way of introducing the topic, the tutor decided to ask the students what type of regime Mussolini’s dictatorship was. Was it an authoritarian dictatorship, a Fascist regime or a totalitarian state? What do we mean by terms like ‘fascist’ or ‘totalitarian?’ he asked. How can we offer a definition of ‘fascism’ that can encompass all the movements and regimes characterised as ‘fascist’? Is the ‘totalitarianism’ concept a valid one? Is it right to bracket together regimes as different as Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia? These are, you might think, perfectly legitimate questions to begin such a course with. The students did not agree. One particularly vociferous member of the group complained that ‘this was not proper history, and it wasn’t what they came to university to study’. Other members of the group agreed with the dissident student, and the unfortunate tutor felt obliged to defend his introduction of conceptual issues into the course.
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Donald M. MacRaild
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