The best class I have ever taken: HIST143, the History of Fascism and Nazism

Posted on July 31, 2010


In the spring of 1994, I was a junior studying electrical engineering at Penn State. I had two general education credits left if I was going to graduate in four years, but I figured that it was time to try and sign up for HIST143, The History of Fascism and Nazism, taught by Jackson J. Spielvogel. It was one of the most popular classes on campus, taught by a professor whom I’d heard literally brought Fascism and Nazisim to life in the classroom. But because it was so popular, it was hard to get into, and upperclassmen always had the advantage.

I got lucky, and as a result my life was changed in ways that I am still discovering 16 years later.

I didn’t know what to expect my first day of class, but I was about five minutes early and yet about half the seats were already full. Not only that, but the professor had filled four of the six blackboards in the classroom with notes and was working on the fifth. Over the course of the semester, I found that Spielvogel was nearly always 15 minutes early to class so he could write the day’s notes on the board, and it was unusual to have a class when even one of the boards was empty. I remember when a student asked why he took the effort, and Spielvogel responded that he had so much information to give that wanted to be able to focus on the lecture and not be distracted by writing down notes while he was lecturing. This ultimately meant that the students had to scramble to take down his notes AND take notes on all the extra stuff he was telling us in the lecture too, but it also made for a much more interesting class. My handwriting was bad enough before taking this class – after taking it, my handwriting became truly hopeless.

After a few weeks, however, I found that I had started showing up early myself for two reasons. The first was to copy down those six blackboards full of notes so I could sit and really listen to Spielvogel’s lecture without the distraction of copying the notes. The second was because Spielvogel would engage the few students who came early in conversation as he was writing his notes, and many of those conversations were fascinating and provide even more insight to the lectures than I was already getting. On-topic discussions of limited duration were OK during class, but Spielvogel was always swamped with students asking questions after the class was over, so if you really wanted a more-or-less one-on-one chat, you had to come early. There was a small group of maybe 15 students who made the effort most days to come early, and I was one of them.

The first few weeks of the class were devoted to the Italian Fascists, and they were interesting enough. But the class really took off once we transitioned into the history of Nazism, starting post-World War I and going through the end of World War II. I remember Spielvogel saying that what the Fascists dabbled in, the Nazis perfected – a jingoistic machine based on media propaganda, racial purity, violence, and fear.

There were a few lessons that I’ll probably never forget, and the first was one of the seminar sections for the class. We’d been assigned to read the book “Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945”, and it was disturbing how easily the local Nazis had taken over the town even though they (and the Nazis in general) never commanded more than 40% of the vote in any election. One day, our section was divided up by the TA into groups with each group role-playing one of the political parties. In the course of role-playing, the election when the Nazis took control of the town, it dawned on me that some of the methods being role-played were things I was reading about in the news. Not everything, mind you, but some of the tactics being used by Newt Gingrich, the “Contract with America”, and the things being done and said by conservative politicians and pundits were yanking on the same the strands of nationalism and jingoism that the Nazis had used to take control of Germany in the 1930s. After the class, I mentioned my realization to my TA, and his response was that he was glad I’d noticed the parallels, because that was pretty much the whole point of the class – learning from history so we didn’t repeat it.

The second lesson was the day that I showed up early and found that there was nothing on any of the six blackboards. No notes to scribble down as fast as I could, just a reel-to-reel projector set up in the middle of the center aisle and the lecture hall’s screen pulled down. That was the day we watched “The Triumph of the Will”. It was awful, in the truest sense of the word – it made me full of awe. Here I was, someone who knew what the Nazis would do over the next decade, and I was still sucked in while I watched it. I knew that the small man with the weird mustache was going to spark a world war and slaughter millions of people, and I still found myself watching Hitler speak with my jaw dropped, sucked in by his charisma. And we watched it in German without subtitles. After the class was over, I actually hung around to say something to Spielvogel. I told him that I was amazed that I got sucked in, even though I didn’t understand the language and knew what the Nazis had done later. Spielvogel’s response (paraphrased): “It’s even more powerful if you understand the German. Now imagine how you would feel if you were a German living in 1935.”

And one cold Pennsylvania spring day, we took a field trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. We were told when the bus was going to head back, but besides that we were free to take our time going through the museum, and it took me a long time to get through it. It was so much more horrible than I had prepared myself for it to be. Reading about the Holocaust and being lectured to about it didn’t even compare to facing thousands of photographs of families that were slaughtered, or looking at actual examples of ghetto life, or realizing how small the camp barracks cots were to fit five or six people on a single cot. I’m not ashamed to admit that I collapsed and wept, surrounded by my fellow students and strangers, at the end of the permanent exhibit as I listened to survivor interviews in the Testimony Theater.

There are two things from that visit that remain burned into my memory. The first thing was the rail car. It was tiny, and you almost had to walk through it to get from the first half of the exhibit to the second half (there was a semi-hidden bypass for anyone who couldn’t go through it, either emotionally or physically). The rail car marked the transition from the first half of the exhibit about Jewish life in Germany before the camps to the second half about the concentration camps, the Final Solution, and liberation. What I remember most about that rail car is that it contained a cold that leeched the energy from my limbs and heart. Maybe it was kept cold by the museum on purpose – I don’t know – but it felt almost as if the car still contained some of the energy of all the terrified Jews that it had carried away from their homes to their deaths.

The second thing was actually a temporary exhibit of photographs along the brick walls of the Hall of Witness and in the lower level. The photographs contained black and white images of concentration camps taken during the Yugoslav civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. If the photos hadn’t been captioned with dates and locations, I’m not sure that I would have been able to otherwise tell that they weren’t from somewhere in Poland in 1945.

There are so many things I took away from this class that it’s impossible for me to identify them all. Spielvogel’s class changed me, fundamentally, in a way that almost no other class or teacher ever has. For example, I wonder if my ability to distance myself from politicians, even ones I agree with almost completely, is partly a result of HIST143. During the 2008 Democratic National Convention, I couldn’t experience the same emotional release that people around me were experiencing, because I couldn’t let myself be sucked in by a charismatic leader, and I think that this distance came partly from remembering how I’d been sucked in while watching “The Triumph of the Will.”

Another change is that, before taking HIST143, had a sense of humor about “Nazi” references, a la “the Soup Nazi” or “parking Nazis.” But ever since I learned just what the Nazis really were and how they really worked, I can’t do joke about Nazis anymore. Not only that, but I get offended by people making bullshit Nazi references. Because in 99% of the cases, the Nazi references are bullshit. I don’t care how authoritarian you are, merely being authoritarian doesn’t make you a Nazi. I don’t care how nationalistic you are, merely believing in “my nation right or wrong” doesn’t make you a Nazi. I don’t care how much you try to manipulate the public with propaganda, merely using propaganda doesn’t make you a Nazi. Put them all together, add a major dose of racism, a ruthless belief in efficiency, a decade or more of ideological indoctrination, and a willingness to use violence to achieve your ends, plus a few environmental factors like high long-term unemployment, a crummy economy, and a willingness to blame everyone else but yourself for your own problems and that’s when you start getting close to being a Nazi.

This class taught me that some things are just so bad, so legitimately evil, that making bullshit comparisons cheapens that evil. And I cannot stand by and let true, legitimate evil be cheapened. As a result, if I ever use the word “Nazi,” you know I mean it and I’m not joking.

And finally, this class taught me what to look for in case something like the Nazis ever reappeared in the world. Similar things have popped up here and there since the Nazis were defeated, like what happened in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s. But thankfully, the instances have been relatively rare and short lived (although still brutal and horrible for the people involved). But I worry that there are elements of society in the US that are developing along similar lines as the early years of the Nazis. Some elements were there in 1994, and while those elements have ebbed and flowed over the years since, they’re cropping up again. Where and how is a different post, however.

Spielvogel was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, and he made the horror that was Fascism and Nazism come alive in my class. I’m especially glad that Spielvogel taught me and thousands of other students in his HIST143 classes over the years what to look for, so that we’ll collectively be less likely to repeat that horrible period of history.

Image Credits
Penn State College of the Liberal Arts
Unites States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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