Fascism: The Career Of A Concept

Here are some highlights from this 2016 book by Paul Gottfried:

* I should mention an irritant without which this book would not have been conceived. While listening to TV and reading newspapers from both here and western Europe, I noticed that news reporter and news interpreter referred to what displeased them as “fascist” or “playing with fascism.” Most of these references had nothing to do with
the historic phenomenon known as fascism and were instead attempts to excite the audience by linking the speaker’s or the writer’s current peeve to some long-ago unpleasantness. This semantic abuse seemed to be so widespread that when a friend (who is now, unfortunately, deceased) suggested that I write about it, I proceeded to do exactly that. Although I doubt the appearance of this book will have any effect in lessening the abuse in question, my reaction to the misuse of the term fascism caused me to undertake an ambitious task that would not likely have been begun without the stimulant described.

* This study will examine the semantic twists and turns undergone by the word fascism since the 1930s. Like other terms that have changed their meaning, such as conservatism and liberalism, fascism has been applied so arbitrarily that it may be difficult to deduce what it means without knowing the mindset of the speaker. Fascism now stands for a host of iniquities that progressives, multiculturalists, and libertarians all oppose, even if they offer no single, coherent account of what they’re condemning. Some intellectuals and publicists may be demonstratively antifascist but feel no obligation to provide a historically and conceptually delimited definition of their object of hate.

Certain factors have contributed to this imprecision, perhaps most of all the equation of all fascisms with Nazism and Adolf Hitler’s efforts to exterminate European Jewry, subjugate Slavs, and conquer the Eurasian landmass. This equation has come from serious historians as well as partisan publicists. German intellectual and cultural historian Ernst Nolte famously characterized Nazism as “radical fascism” while insisting that German National Socialism resembled conceptually more generic forms of fascism. All fascisms, according to Nolte, have the same characteristics, which can be uncovered by selectively adapting the Marxist analysis of the revolutionary Right. Fascist movements were “counterrevolutionary imitations of leftist revolution” that developed as reactions to the danger of leftist upheavals.¹ In the German case, this counterrevolutionary development became particularly nasty since it was a reaction to Stalinist communism that took over the murderous policies of its adversary. It was the physical proximity of the Soviet communist experiment, the detailed knowledge of Stalin’s crimes in interwar Germany, and the disproportionate role of Jews in advancing the Soviet cause that contributed to the virulence of German “radical fascism.”²

Nolte, however, became a moving target for the academic and journalistic establishment in Germany when he denied the “uniqueness” (Einzigartigkeit) of Nazi tyranny. In his writings he compared Hitlerism to other brutal anticommunist dictatorships.

* I think the term fascist has a specific historical meaning and should not be hurled at anyone who holds what are now unpopular opinions. As a historic phenomenon, fascism has nothing to do with advocating an isolationist foreign policy, trying to restrict Third World immigration, or favoring significant income redistribution in order to achieve greater social equality. I mention these associations because all of them are characteristic of recent, divergent attempts to identify fascism with whatever the speaker happens to dislike—and then belaboring his or
her target with the accusation of sympathizing with Nazi atrocities. I also deny that I am trying to exculpate Muslim terrorists or European politicians who offend the media simply because I decline to call them fascists. Rather, I refuse to mislabel political actors as representing an ideology that has mostly come and gone.

* Examinations of fascism operate on two levels: a scholarly one that remains isolated from partisan causes, and a journalistic one that is less refined but may be gaining ground.

* Nazism was at least as murderous as Soviet communism but not as economically and culturally controlling.

* Christian Democratic German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Moscow several years ago on the occasion of a celebration of Russia’s victory in the Second World War to thank the Red Army for “liberating my country from fascism.”¹²

Although Merkel had supported the German Democratic Republic until shortly before its collapse, she later became the head of what is considered to be the center-right party in Germany. Her obeisance to East Germany’s former Soviet masters caused her no noticeable problems in gaining control over her party and rising to the political top
in the German Federal Republic. Merkel represents the now-dominant view in Germany that fascism equals Nazism and that Stalin “liberated” Germany in the Second World War. The mass rapes and murders committed by the Red Army and the subsequent despotism imposed on the eastern and central parts of Germany by the Soviets are no longer relevant. They have been airbrushed out of the anti­fascist account of modern history.

* According to Critical Theorists who, in interwar Germany, set out to combine a Marxist revolutionary alternative to bourgeois capitalist culture with a Freudian understanding of sexual repression, fascism was the outgrowth of an unreconstructed repressive society based on “authoritarianism.” In the anthology The Authoritarian Personality (1950), put together by two leading representatives of the Frankfurt School in exile in the United States, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, there is both a far-reaching commentary on American life and sweeping proposals for
addressing the fascist peril.¹³ It was not enough, according to these social theorists, to have parliamentary forms of government in order to avert psychic and political tyranny. It was also necessary to enact sweeping socioeconomic change, together with a reconstruction of family and gender relations, to stave off a fascist triumph. Wherever sexual repression, gender inequities, homophobia, and inequitable distribution of income are allowed to endure, there supposedly exists a fertile ground for fascism. This evil must be understood, or so the
Frankfurt School argued, as a planned reaction to the Left’s attempt to erect an erotically fulfilled, socialist society.

* The polar opposite view was expressed by Nolte, namely, that fascists were “escaping transcendence” as the form of history preached by the Left. In place of this secularized millenarianism, fascists offered the prospect of struggle that would culminate in a hardened human type and, in the near term, the defeat of an internationalist leftist adversary.²⁰ Fascism proposed a naturalistic explanation of human nature and politics, which was dictated by the historical situation that the fascists faced.²¹ They were opposing an ideology that was predicated on global transformation, and so fascists countered it with an anti-utopian anthropology that was intended to depict people as they actually were—that is, combative and in need of authority, as opposed to how the Left might have wished to see the human race.

* One perceptive reader of this text has noticed that my illustrations of fascism in political practice are extremely limited and center almost entirely on Mussolini’s regime. This was not an oversight. There are just no other examples of generic fascism in practice that this author and other researchers on my subject have been able to come up with. If one discounts clerical fascist regimes, such as the ones briefly tried by Engelbert Dollfuss in Austria during the interwar years and Antonio Salazar’s New Order in Portugal, which were essentially Catholic authoritarian governments, and the puppet governments imposed on conquered countries by Nazi Germany, it is hard to think of real examples of fascism in practice beyond interwar Italy.

The Nazis ran a highly eclectic totalitarian operation, which borrowed from fascism as well as Stalinism and, perhaps most of all, from Hitler’s feverish imagination. Although experiments such as Juan Peron’s rule in Argentina borrowed features of European fascist movements when fascism seemed in season, they also drew from other anti-American forces, often for decorative effect. Authoritarian military leaders like Francisco Franco and Ion Antonescu made expedient pacts with homegrown fascist movements but were delighted to dump these allies at the first opportunity. Nor should readers be swayed by efforts to tar governments that journalists disapprove of as “fascist.” Although certain regimes may not enjoy media approval, this hardly attests to their fascist pedigree.

As a young, impressionable person, I was told by a family friend that an opera singer whose voice I greatly admired had become a “fascist.” When I asked whether this singer was a devotee of Mussolini or José Antonio, I was told that the opera singer had recently converted to Catholicism. Our family friend, who was a militant atheist, equated a singer’s religious conversion with an affirmation of the most extreme form of fascist enthusiasm.

* The most prominent German historian of fascism, Ernst Nolte, has characterized the fascist movements of the interwar years as a “counterrevolutionary imitation of the revolutionary Left.” …According to this view, fascism had no autonomous existence apart from the critical situation that gave rise to it. It was inseparably related to the interwar period and to the threat to the bourgeois order that then existed… Unlike Marxism and Christianity, fascism was an essentially reactive movement, and its oppositional nature could be grasped most clearly by looking at its “escape from transcendence.”³

* [James] Gregor thought that fascism endangered liberal institutions precisely because it offered persuasive arguments about human nature, the economy, international relations, and the corruptness of parliamentary institutions. A prolific historian of fascism, Gregor has been criticized by the Left because he makes fascists look more reasonable and more ethically motivated than most intellectuals would like to believe… Gregor treats fascism as an infectious variation of Marxism. It is a revolutionary socialist movement in which the nation is substituted for the working class and in which socialist collectivism is preserved without the dream of an economically liberated humankind.

* This leads readers back to the question of whether we can determine a fascist essence in interwar Europe. If there is such an essence, then neither racism nor anti-Semitism necessarily belonged to it. There were fascist movements in which these characteristics were secondary or nonexistent. Moreover, not all fascists were Christian traditionalists or neo-pagans or secularists. The same movements sometimes contained all three. Nor would it be correct to say that all fascist movements admired Hitler or that all governments that cooperated with Hitler fit the fascist grid.

* Habsburg monarchist Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn viewed the Left as lurching from the French Revolution and Robespierre to Hitler and the Third Reich. According to Kuehnelt-Leddihn, modern democracy teems with totalitarian dangers, and only to the extent that we accept a traditional ruling order and nineteenth-century constitutional limits on popular rule can we avoid the Left’s assault on authority.

* From this perspective all attacks on traditional authorities are necessarily leftist because the true Right is coterminous with responsible, hereditary sovereigns and a nineteenth-century parliamentary system. The scholar of international relations George F. Kennan made the same distinction and viewed revolutionary governments, no matter what they called themselves, as belonging on
the Left.

* From the standpoint of the pre–World War I ruling class, Fascists, Nazis, Social Democrats, and Bolsheviks all came out of the Left.

* Fascists rose to prominence and often power as the adversaries of leftist internationalism, equality, and any form of capitalism that worked against the organic unity of the nation. If fascists were against the free flow of capital and unregulated economic growth, they took these positions as anticapitalists of the Right.

* The Catholic authoritarian Carl Schmitt considered democratic constitutions to “represent the dynamic emergence of political unity and the ever renewable development of this unity springing from an underlying source of energy. The state should be regarded not as something enduring or static but as an entity that remained in a situation of becoming. Out of conflicting interests, opinions, and aspiration, political unity must constitute itself daily.

Schmitt’s association of popular rule with “homogeneity” and a “unified will” is not a call for social engineering from the Left. It is a veiled plea for a plebiscitary reconstruction of an organic community led, preferably, by a dynamic executive embodying the will and energy of a unified people. Schmitt sets apart this regime from a monarchy, in which the popular will is incidental to rule, and from a “nineteenth century liberal order,” in which legal norms, not cohesive peoples, hold sway. Schmitt, whose authoritarian ideas often leaned toward Latin fascism, regarded the continuity of national communities as the “existential ground” for democratic constitutions. This kind of state would not likely favor a free market economy or be primarily concerned with individual rights. But it would value service and solidarity and reflect an already formed nation, as opposed to an aggregation of individuals or the international proletariat.

* fascists did not carry out, or in most cases even try to incite, a socioeconomic revolution.

* Hitler was a revolutionary modernizer, but it is significant that he appointed as his first economic minister the very pro-capitalist economist Hjalmar Schacht (1877–1970). Schacht warned against the policy of subsidizing farms and business enterprises that other countries hit by the Depression were pursuing. Because of Schacht’s advice, the Nazi state eschewed the payment of such staples of the American New Deal as farm subsidies. Schacht, who mocked Nazi ideology and leaned
heavily toward the free market, would have been inconceivable in Stalin’s Russia.⁷² The reason is certainly not that the Nazis were nice people. They were simply not as concerned as Stalin or Mao with collectivizing the economy and, although equally murderous, were less ideologically programmed.

* Fascism and the revolutionary Left that it faced between the two wars are not eternally present forces but came to oppose each other in a particular time and place.

* Treating any Right or any nationalism as identical to the one that engaged in the ideological battle of interwar Europe opens the door to methodological abuses. Among these abuses, and indeed the most conspicuous one, has been the supposed discovery of a ubiquitous fascist danger. Emotional predispositions are imagined to furnish a sufficient cause for why fascist movements arise and flourish.

* An incisive article by two representatives of the New Left, Les K. Adler and T. G. Paterson, “Red Fascism: The Merger of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the American Image of Totalitarianism (1930s to 1950s),” documents how the view of fascism established in the United States during the Second World War was later transferred to the Soviets.¹³ A preconstructed image of an anti-American, or anti-Western, adversary was made to apply to a former ally that, contrary to wartime propaganda, proved to be far less benevolent than the Western powers had once chosen to view it.

* Perhaps Arendt’s most original perception, beyond her description of how totalitarian states function, is found in her comments about how totalitarians approach “science” and “factualness.” They feel no compunctions about distorting reality, because making their subjects believe in what is patently false increases the state’s power. The Nazi and Soviet governments cynically presented lies as scholarship, and they mixed partial truths with glaring falsehoods (about class enemies or about those who were racially compatible or incompatible) in order to establish total power over their subjects’ minds. Here all ideological distinctions broke down before the exercise of might and terror without regard for truth or traditional authority.

[Luke: All societies sanction the open stating of truths, not just totalitarian societies.]

* People sometimes equate the ghastly mass murders and territorial aggressiveness of the Nazi regime with a high degree of internal control. But the two conditions did not necessarily go together. Hitler killed tens of millions of people and overran other countries, but internally his government was nowhere as controlling as Stalin’s Russia. Up until World War II, Germans, including German Jews, were allowed to leave the Third Reich. The economy, if we exclude such crimes as the confiscation of Jewish property and property and assets belonging to opponents of the Nazi state, was far more open than the economy in Soviet Russia. Equally noteworthy is that the Nazi government became increasingly indifferent to what went on in German universities.²⁷ The earlier enthusiasm displayed by Nazi officials who were hoping to make academic centers into showcases of party propaganda eventually fizzled out.

* At least at the journalistic and hortatory level, fascism is further defined with reference to its most vicious (but not particularly mainstream) manifestation. All fascism is now habitually explained with reference to its Nazi embodiment, which combined mass murder with ethnic cleansing and a stubborn resistance to human progress. This identification of all varieties of fascism and, finally, all rightist or non- leftist authoritarian governments with Nazism came less from critical assessments than from other, less scholarly considerations. As the political culture began to change drastically in the 1960s, older
interpretive perspectives were replaced by an approach to the recent past that focused exclusively on victims of the Right.

This sea change was aided by the rise of the New Left, which interpreted fascism as anything that opposed social transformation. The New Left drew support from another development that was occurring simultaneously—the elevation of the Holocaust to the most decisive event in all of Jewish history. The memory of Nazi persecution served to unify Jews at a time when their religious cohesion was eroding. Although those who expressed this overriding concern with fascism both past and present might not have agreed on other issues, e.g., Middle Eastern politics, they did share an interest in combating fascism, which became, in their minds, indistinguishable from Nazi atrocities and the fear that such outrages could be repeated.

It was thereafter widely assumed that fascism, however one might define it, was a far worse threat to humanity than communism, and certain changes on the international scene hastened the acceptance of this belief. Soviet tyranny had already begun to thaw, and although there were other communist regimes that were engaging in mass murder, they were mostly in the Third World. The failings of these oppressive governments were blamed either on the birth pangs of postcolonial governments trying to shake off the effects of Western imperialism or else on supposedly right wing American administrations that pursued a neocolonial war in what had been Indochina. The birthing hour had struck for a new form of antifascism, and the largely post-Marxist Left from whence this antifascism came was correct about one critical detail: historical fascism was indeed a creation of the Right, although, contrary to what the New Left believed, a Right that had once existed but which now only survived in vestigial form.

* Rather than following Freud by acknowledging that the repression and redirection of primal urges was necessary for human civilization, some members of the Frankfurt School, most famously Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), and Erich Fromm (1900–1980), imagined that there could be a future in which sexual fantasies and social needs were both satisfied. This erotically and materially satisfying world could only be achieved, however, by putting an end to advanced capitalism. According to the Frankfurt School, this “irrational” economy perpetuated unfair human inequalities and forced its victims to repress and pervert their natural desires in order to survive in a system of domination over which they had no control.

* Adorno’s longtime preoccupation with twelve-tone music and his war on what was merely “beautiful” reflected his quest for art forms that nurtured the revolutionary spirit. Adorno regarded culture as an instrument for radical change, and those antiquarian forms of it that soothed or carried snob value he judged to be, in the customary Marxist phrase, objectively reactionary. Adorno, who founded the original Frankfurt School with his lifetime collaborator Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), not only commented on music from his iconoclastic stance but also produced what he deemed suitably atonal compositions for piano.

* The main ideas of TAP [The Authoritarian Personality] had an equally dramatic effect on Germans, who were then being reeducated by their conquerors. In postwar Germany a linkage between antifascism and antinationalism would be established that endures down to the present… This German preoccupation with ridding society of the historic Right, compounded with the need to apologize for the German past, including phases of that past going back well before the Nazi takeover, testifies to the success story of postwar German reeducation. In the Allied occupation zones, particularly in the American and British ones, persistent, organized efforts were made to identify not only hard-core Nazis and Nazi collaborators but those who were thought to be predisposed to fascist thinking. Germans were required to answer detailed questionnaires (Fragebogen) in order to determine not only their possible association with the defeated regime but their social and political attitudes.²³ Licenses to publish newspapers and books were issued on the basis of the same considerations, and those who were suspected of being anticommunist or harboring nationalist sentiments usually had their requests summarily turned down. The Allied authorities heavily censored teaching materials and scheduled public lessons about the evils of the recent German past. Thus the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals were staged to advance public reeducation inside and outside of Germany. This process of changing German minds through foreign control went on longer than is usually recognized. Although the non–Soviet-controlled parts of what remained of Germany were allowed to form a constitutional state under Allied supervision by 1949, the Allied High Commission oversaw the Germans until 1955.²⁴ And even after this point, full sovereignty was not internationally recognized until after the unification of Germany in 1991.

Beginning with the occupation and with increasing diligence since the late 1960s, an extensive plan has been put into effect in Germany for helping its population “overcome their past.” This process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung has assumed different forms, from critically reassessing German national heroes and cultural achievements to finding Hitler’s tyranny and murders foreshadowed in the national past. Integral to this ritualized self-examination has been a concern with the psychic aspects of fascism and any disposition that might betray a fascist mentality.

Social psychologists entered wartime discussions by explaining how Germans and others could be relieved of their fascist psychic burden. The father of Gestalt psychology, Kurt Lewin, who came to the United States as a Jewish refugee, went about lecturing on how the Germans had to be psychically recoded in order to overcome their fascist-prone dispositions. In 1943 New York psychology professor Richard Brickner published a best-selling book introduced by anthropologist Margaret Mead in response to the question “Can the Germans be cured?” If healing was possible, Brickner told his readers, it would take massive effort on the part of the eventually victorious democratic side to make it happen.²⁵ The political activist and poet Archibald MacLeish prevailed on the Organization of Strategic Services (OSS), then still in its early stages, to allow him and a team of experts that MacLeish had assembled to come up with a plan to reeducate the Germans once the Allies won the war.²⁶
The ones who came to lead this psychic crusade against fascism were the Frankfurt School exiles who were already in the United States.

* As an interpreter of German history, Habermas has stressed what is “pedagogically helpful” in enabling Germans to reconstruct their society. He is less concerned with the factual content of what should be studied than with providing moral edification. It was in this spirit that Habermas approached his widely publicized dispute with Nolte in the late 1980s about “comparing the unique evil of [the] Nazi regime” to Stalin’s tyranny.³⁰ Habermas’s assault on Nolte and his later unwillingness to debate his opponent underscored his single-minded dedication to “democratic instruction.” Germany’s self-appointed preceptor was indignant that Nolte was ignoring “democratic” concerns by placing recent German history in a broader European context. In his rejoinder to Nolte, Habermas deals only peripherally with the factual or structural validity of his adversary’s comparisons. For him and other Germans who share his outlook, history is a behavioral tool—and only secondarily about trying to understand the past objectively.

Habermas has also undertaken to arrange for “nonhegemonic” discourse around rules that he provides without reference to a German, Christian, or classical cultural inheritance. In this discourse the best argument is supposed to win, and all participants should be given an equal chance to test their assertions. According to one canny German commentator, however, “the leftist reality in Habermas’s real world turns out to be exactly the opposite. Nowhere as under the current German Left is an open discussion so severely hindered. Particularly through censorship that rages in leftist forums. Dissenting opinions and those who hold them are excoriated with charges of racism and fascism at the drop of a hat. Participants are allowed into the arranged discourse only if they hold the right opinion. Any heretic is unceremoniously banned.”

* Well-funded sociology departments in German universities were seen as tools for combating the reactionary tendencies of an older German society that had supposedly contributed to the Nazi disaster. A study by German historian Stefan Scheil documents the extent to which this development came out of the recommendations of refugee advisors who were attached to the American military command and, later, to the Allied High Commission.
The reestablishment of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt in 1950 was not an isolated happening, as Scheil proves. It fit into a plan for German reeducation that was vigorously promoted by the American occupation, which privileged a particular concept of sociology.³⁶ A concerted effort was made to redefine the discipline, which had once been dominated in Germany by conservative nationalists like Hans Freyer or by Austrian defender of organic social relations Othmar Spann. The Allied occupational forces planned to place sociology into the hands of those who shared their goal of social transformation.

* Jean Marie Le Pen was no more of a Nazi for characterizing the killing or deporting of Jews in France during the German occupation as “a detail” of the war than Lionel Jospin was a Stalinist for refusing to acknowledge Stalin’s crime in the French Assembly when asked about them there in November 1998. Indeed, Le Pen never denied the Nazi genocide but tried to minimize its importance for French history. As even his journalistic adversaries admit, this eighty-five-year-old senior citizen who is perpetually trying to grab headlines in retirement after handing over his party to his daughter, Marine, has no documentable Nazi past. His family supported the Resistance, and until the general’s abandonment of the Algerian French, Le Pen was an admirer of de Gaulle.

* The publication of the The Black Book of Communism in 1997 by Stéphan Courtois was a well-calculated attempt to call the Left’s bluff. This exposé made it appear that it was the Left that suffered from amnesia about genocide if the crimes in question were committed by Marxist-Leninists. Indeed the “war against fascism” was a diversion from the Left’s unwillingness to “overcome its past” as apologists for Stalin, Mao, and other murderous dictators. This challenge set off a row, but given the
greater firepower of the antifascist Left, the outcome may have been foreordained. The offensive against neofascism would continue to advance.

* The NDP’s understating of Nazi atrocities understandably offends those who were the victims of Nazi tyranny (my own family included). And this practice has reinforced the party’s negative image while turning off potential voters. But measured analysis is different from antifascist grandstanding. Despite the harping of the German press and the official German parties on the dangers posed by the NDP, the party’s rhetorical disasters should not be equated with an attempt to resurrect the Third
Reich.⁵⁰ Nolte was right when he underlined the absurdity of comparing a party that is trying to rid Germany of American military bases and limit immigration to the aggressively expansionist, genocidal politics of the Third Reich.

* The famed legal theorist Carl Schmitt also stressed the advantage to the Germans and other Europeans of maintaining the Soviet-American “bipolarity” for as long as possible. Schmitt underlined the danger to a weakened Europe posed by American hegemony, and he lost no opportunity to point out the imperialist nature of American claims to represent “democratic ideas” thoughout the world.⁶⁰ Anti-Americanism was once more common within the postwar European Right than is now generally believed. It contributed to a growing skepticism about the concept of totalitarianism, which was seen as justifying an unwanted American military presence in Europe.
On the Left, however, there was also a third and even more compelling reason to reject the moral equation of Nazi and Soviet tyrannies. Already in the 1970s one found what Helmut Schelsky characterized as “the politics of moral indignation.” In his critical responses to Habermas as a social philosopher, Schelsky underscored the danger of privileging subjective conscience. It would lead to academic and constitutional suicide, according to Schelsky, if Habermas’s selective anger against thinking what he considered potentially fascistic or insufficiently critical of the German past were allowed to “didactically” shape our concepts of legality and social scientific inquiry.⁶¹
What Schelsky feared eventually came to pass, but the antifascism that dominated German political culture was based on guilt as well as moral anger.

* Having been present at the Nuremberg Trials, the authors [ German psychologists, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich] were permanently marked by this experience and devoted much of the remainder of their lives to combating the unresolved fascistic pathology that they ascribed to their people. Alexander would rage at any mention of the fate of those ethnic Germans who had been brutally expelled from eastern Europe after the war. Although the number of these refugees may have numbered as many as fifteen million, the Mitscherlichs deemed it “obscene” and “morally perverted” to bring up their ordeal.

* Even without quoting the remark attributed to Adorno that “writing poetry after the Holocaust is barbaric,” it is clear that both the fury directed against neofascism and the benign neglect of communist atrocities have some connection to the murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime. This is not even to take into account the slaying of Polish and Russian prisoners and other victims of the Third Reich, atrocities that have often been neglected in order to focus on Hitler’s “war against the Jews.” All these crimes are real enough but do not obviate the need to raise certain questions, which antifascists
willfully ignore. Do Nazi crimes make any less real the crimes committed by other totalitarian regimes, say Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China? Why are Germans not allowed to “mourn” their co-ethnics who were murdered or brutalized by postwar communist regimes or indiscriminately vengeful eastern Europeans?⁶⁴ Is it reprehensible for Germans to notice the firebombing of German civilian targets and the laying waste of entire inner cities by the Royal Air Force during the last year of World War II, when close to 600,000 mostly defenseless German civilians were incinerated?⁶⁵

German antifascists and kindred spirits in neighboring countries do not wish to call attention to such atrocities primarily for two reasons: they divert attention from German responsibility for the Holocaust, and even noticing inhumanities that should be overlooked, according to the arbiters of political culture, betokens “moral perversion.” It is therefore essential for analytic purposes to look at the Holocaust less as a grim historical event (although it was that) than as a flexible ideological symbol.⁶⁶

An insightful analyst of this subject, Peter Novick, dwells on the changing perception of the Holocaust among American Jews and
American Christians in The Holocaust in American Life.⁶⁷ After the Second World War, American Jews found no reason to dwell on Hitler’s genocidal policies. Those who had suffered under the Nazis generally avoided discussing their agonizing experiences, and Jewish nationalists were generally ashamed that Hitler’s victims had not resisted their enemies more forcefully. By the 1960s, however, interest in the Holocaust was growing perceptibly among both Jews and Christians. Jews began looking at their suffering as a kind of cement that could be used to hold together their already assimilating community. Zionists treated the
Holocaust as a justification of Israel’s existence and a bitter memory of persecution that might solidify support for Israel among American Jews. Moreover, while most historians previously (and rightly) viewed the Nazis as anti-Christian as well as anti-Jewish, since the 1960s the public has been awash in polemics blaming Christianity for the Holocaust.

* the belief that any rejection of the antifascist consensus indicates mental illness. The two often go together—that is, by
highlighting the historic guilt of one’s nation for Nazi crimes, one exhibits mental and emotional well-being. Mounting plaques
commémoratives on buildings in Paris, from whence Jews were rounded up under the Vichy regime, is seen to serve two purposes: making French mindful of a past that should not be psychologically repressed while highlighting the still polluting guilt of the historic French people for being entangled in Nazi misdeeds.

* antifascists have also shifted the burden of fascist guilt from the persecution of Jews under the Third Reich to more up-to-date
causes. Both the despisers and representatives of Muslim culture have been denounced as fascists, depending on the accuser’s purpose. Both Zionists and anti-Zionists have readily accused their antagonists of reviving Nazi programs and Nazi tactics in order to destroy newer and newer stand-ins for Hitler’s victims. In such exchanges for propagandistic effect, older distinctions and analyses have been thrown to the wind.

Terms like “totalitarianism” and “fascism,” for example, have no meaning at the political and journalistic level. They function as charges rather than as attempts to make sense of the history of Europe in the twentieth century. In this widening crusade against neofascism, all “insensitive” or unprogressive positions have been indiscriminately branded as fascistic. Be it opposition to Third World immigration, complaints about the high rate of crime among Muslim residents in European cities, or the drawing of cognitive distinctions among ethnic or social groups, anything deemed as politically offensive indicates a fascist recrudescence.

* Fascist movements could not move far enough away from their organic nationalist origins to become fundamentally different from how they began.

* Fascists were on the Right by virtue of having opposed the Left in theory and practice, but that was not the same as standing for a past that was already in decline. Fascists were not linked to any one social class and moved back and forth, as in Italy, when they tried to satisfy followers from varied social backgrounds. Finally, fascism was a situational rather than a theoretical movement. Unlike the Marxists, fascists did not claim to be teaching a scientific form of socialism held together by historical and economic laws.

* Fascists vigorously defended particularity and hierarchy, which rendered them theoretically and in practice the Left’s opponents.

* Common to all forms of fascism is a rejection of progress, or, more particularly, the kind of progress associated with the spread of equality and cultural and social homogenization. This does not mean that fascists shunned all change and wished to apply Luddite principles to industrial or medical developments. But they resisted the vision of human improvability preached by liberal democrats and revolutionary socialists and tried to put in its place an existential and social alternative.

* Nolte privileges… the vision of a biologically driven, continuing struggle among races and ethnicities. Although this vision took a disastrous turn under the Nazi regime, when used to justify genocidal policies, it assumed a more reflective, nonviolent form in such nineteenth-century writers as Count Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882) and Heinrich Gumplowicz (1838–1909). History, according to these thinkers, would lead not to a final happy age but to continuing ethnic struggle. The only interruption in this strife would come when one group won a decisive victory over another and could prolong its period of dominance. No victory was permanent, and each would give way in the end to a resumption of conflict.

What has been described as class war, noted Gumplowicz, typically reflected the hostility felt by warring sides who viewed themselves as ethnically opposed.²⁸ Gobineau had reached a similar conclusion when he interpreted the strife between the French aristocracy and the French Third Estate as masking an ethnic conflict between the noble descendants of Germanic warriors and the Celto-Roman population they had subdued… Without denying that the social conflicts stressed by the socialists were real, Gumplowicz subordinated them methodologically to the struggle between groups who viewed themselves as culturally and/or ethnically distinct. Although there is a journalistic and even academic tendency to draw straight lines between Gobineau and Gumplowicz and Nazi ideology, the distance between them is far greater. Focusing on ethnic conflict as the key to human history is not the same as advocating the mass murder of undesirable ethnic groups. Still, the view of history as determined by ethnic strife does mark a tradition of thought that influenced what Nolte defines as “radical fascism.”

* Fascism should interest readers not because it characterizes the present or is likely to dominate the future but because of what it once exemplified. It was a movement of the revolutionary Right, a force that now exists in the West as an isolated or only remotely approximated curiosity. The revolutionary Right does not belong in any way to conventional political discourse in Western countries. Today’s mainstream parties do not look like anything that could be described as “fascist” in any historic sense. Although this distancing from the fascist or quasi-fascist past may be ascribed to multiple causes, among these causes is undoubtedly a widespread horror of something that once bestrode the continental European stage. As a past to be avoided,
fascism still casts a long shadow, even if that term has been recklessly applied and even if it is increasingly hard to figure out how the current usages are related to the real past. But behind this bugaboo lies a semblance of reality in the sense that what is condemned once belonged to the Right in a way that the GOP or the German Christian Democrats definitely do not.

Fascism was not the only Right that existed in its time, and it is quite possible to recognize in someone like Charles de Gaulle, who fought the Nazi German invaders of his homeland, a truer conservative nationalist than those who rushed to collaborate with the Vichy government. Moreover, interwar political leaders like Horthy, Dollfuss, and Franco all came out of the non-fascist Right, and, as Payne observes, the authoritarian Right that claimed these personalities should not be confused with fascism. Although when push came to shove, authoritarian figures took on fascist trappings, they abandoned these
with relief as soon as the occasion presented itself.

* not all fascists or fascisants everywhere in Europe found themselves fighting on Hitler’s side. Some Poles, Belgians, French, and other Europeans who had been sympathetic to Italian or Spanish fascism fought Hitler’s armies when they invaded their countries. Those German rightists who wished to emulate Mussolini but distrusted Hitler were killed or scared into submission in 1934. But this did not help their reputations as nationalist enemies of the Third Reich. Anti-Nazi and non-Nazi fascists ended up in the same rogues’ gallery with Hitler and Himmler, just as the communists who had once served the Nazis during the period of the Soviet-Nazi Non-Aggression Pact were rehabilitated as the world’s most reliable antifascists.

* Nolte has asked, somewhat waggishly, whether Western readers would think differently about Nazism if readers ceased to believe in present values. It is doubtful that most Western peoples would. First of all, the Nazis were too unappetizing to come back as a popular rage (although this defect has not kept Western intellectuals from apologizing for murderous communist regimes), and, secondly, the ethnic mixing in Western countries would make the acceptance of Nazi ideology as a public philosophy unthinkable as well as unworkable. There may be no alternative to the ideology of diversity given the way Western societies have evolved or been pushed in the last seventy years.

* Finally, there is no reason to believe that people would abandon deeply ingrained patterns of thought or myth, even if they came into conflict with empirical reality. One obvious reason that Nazism lost its appeal so rapidly after the defeat of the Nazi government was its fundamental incompatibility with what were then widely held beliefs in the Western world.

* First, one should define the Right contextually. Although the Right is always opposed to the Left, the enemy it is resisting may differ depending on time and circumstance. In Italy after the First World War or in Spain in the 1930s, fascists fought revolutionary socialists or anarchists (of the Left); in American society the Right (to whatever extent such an entity operates) defends the rights of citizens to arm themselves against a leftist state or else it insists on dismantling a welfare state, which
advances leftist social policies.

The current Right no longer defends the “State” for a very simple reason. Unlike its associations in certain interwar European countries with traditional authorities and inherited hierarchies, the present form of public administration is no longer associated with the Right. Politicians and journalists now talk about expanding equality and even creating a universal nation while celebrating Third World immigration and “cultural diversity.” The administrative state that is intended to further these
purposes is a modern democratic creation. It has little or nothing to do with what Gentile apostrophized as a spiritualized “ethical will.” Neither Gentile nor Friedrich Stahl was acting as a forerunner of George W. Bush or Barack Obama when he spoke about “the State.”

Secondly, there is nothing inherently right-wing about glorifying individual rights and certainly not human appetites. European
conservatives have traditionally identified individualism with the Left, which is at war with inherited community. Since the early twentieth century, however, critics of the welfare state have turned to the language of individual rights as a remedy against the overreach of the centralized state. This is a weapon that is found in the American Bill of Rights and one that social traditionalists in the United States have tried to use to stave off undesirable change. Driven to desperation, they appeal defensively to what they don’t entirely believe in principle. Although used as a final recourse, the appeal to constitutionally
guaranteed individual rights does not belong to the historic Right.

* The history of fascism illustrates, among other things, the difficulties faced by a rightist movement in opposing the ascendancy of the modern Left. This remains the case even when taking into account the ineptitude and occasional brutality shown by fascist leaders. The sharp ideological disparity between fascism and a more successful modernity is also part of the reason that fascism faded so ignominiously. Its ideas stand in stark contrast to today’s dominant values, and it was entirely predictable that in an already rapidly changing European society, fascists failed to build significant mass movements outside of certain unevenly modernized countries. (Here again one must exclude the Nazi totalitarian outliers who were not, for the most part, generic fascists.) Fascism’s chances for becoming an overpowering historical force were, in fact, never very promising.

Even if the Nazis had not contributed to their destruction, fascists would not have attained the international power they tried
desperately to project in the interwar years. In the best of circumstances, they might have survived a bit longer among second- or third-rate powers, as an exotic authoritarian movement, before becoming a footnote in modern history. Fascism’s greatest recognition value since its high-water mark has been as a slur—or as an indiscriminately used synonym for Nazi genocide.

The great contest in the West during the second half of the twentieth century was waged without reference to a failed fascist experiment. The overshadowing confrontation featured two internationalist contenders: communism, which was identified with the Soviet Empire, and liberal democracy, which was championed by the United States. This is the way politics played out in the last century in what became the dominant power centers of the age. Even if some fascist enthusiasts had gone on ruling somewhere in Europe, this would not have put them in the same league with the United States or the Soviets. The existence of a fascist homeland would not have changed the major power alignments in the West extending from the end of the Second World War down to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is also unlikely that the survival of a fascist presence would have prevented a world culture that is distinctly American from becoming a cosmic force.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in Fascism. Bookmark the permalink.