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Queue in front of the Croix-de-Feu soup kitchen, Paris, around 1935.

London is clearly never short of major exhibitions, but this autumn there is an opportunity to take in something very different. The University of Chester is proudly supporting a new exhibition on the history of fascism: ‘This Fascist Life: Radical Right Movements in Interwar Europe’. Housed in the Wiener Holocaust Library, one of the world’s leading institutions for the study of the Holocaust, the exhibition is free to visit during the Library’s opening hours.

The exhibition itself stems from a wider research project – ‘European Fascist Movements’ – that I have been collaborating on with Dr Roland Clark from the University of Liverpool. Over the past 18 months, we have worked together to produce this important public exhibition which has also benefited from funding from the Arts Humanities Research Council, the Wiener Holocaust Library and the German History Society.

The focus of both the exhibition and the project is on lesser-known aspects of the history of fascism. A lot of the work of historians chooses to explore what happened from the moment that fascists came to power. Therefore, we have seminal studies of Nazi Germany and the Third Reich or of Mussolini’s Italy. Yet, before establishing their fascist regimes, these movements had a long pre-history. In the case of the National Socialists, for example, the movement spent more years trying to get into power, than it did as an actual regime. One of the questions that the exhibition seeks to explore, therefore, is what fascists got up to in these pre-regime times. How did members pass their time and what drove them to join these small radical groups in the first place? Spending one’s days on group marches or fighting communists certainly didn’t appeal to everyone.

Another key theme of the exhibition is fascism’s transnational history. Alongside outlining the rise of fascists in Germany, Italy and other more familiar countries, the exhibition also explores smaller movements that spanned the continent from Belgium and the Netherlands in the West through to Latvia and Romania in the East. Closer to home, Oswald Mosely’s British Union of Fascists also take their place as another example of a fascist movement that emerged during the interwar years, but never managed to secure any real power. There were certainly national differences in the characteristics and working of each fascist movement. Nonetheless, looking at these movements across European borders is crucial, as it allows the exhibition to pull out commonalities of ideology and practice.

Chester’s final year History students played a key role in moving the exhibition from the drawing board to reality. Over the past year, students studying on my ‘special subject’ module on Weimar Germany (Culture of Defeat: Weimar Germany and the Legacies of the First World War) have worked with some of the exhibition’s sources. Indeed, the students’ discussion of these unique documents, whether about fascist violence in Leipzig or torchlit parades in Hamburg, helped to open new insights that filtered into the way we designed the final exhibition.

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