The Allure of Fascism
Some of the movements of the extreme, radical Right explicitly copied the methods, symbols and language used by the followers of Mussolini and Hitler, and proudly called themselves ‘fascist’ or ‘national socialist’. Others shared some, even most, of the ideas of the openly fascist movements while rejecting the label for themselves. The issue is largely one of definition – and trying to define ‘fascism’ is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. Each of the myriad movements of the extreme Right had its distinctive features and emphasis. And since each of them claimed to represent in ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘essential’ form a specific nation and based much of their hyper-nationalist appeal on the presumed uniqueness of that nation, there could be no genuine international organization representing the radical Right, equivalent to the Comintern on the Left. When an attempt was made, at a meeting of representatives of the extreme Right from thirteen countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Switzerland) in December 1934 on the shores of Lake Geneva, to establish a framework for collaborative action, the most important country, Nazi Germany, boycotted the gathering – which found itself unable to agree even on the basis of a common doctrine.
Some common ideological features of the extreme Right, whether or not a movement called itself ‘fascist’, nonetheless existed: hyper-nationalist emphasis on the unity of an integral nation, which gained its very identity through the ‘cleansing’ of all those deemed not to belong – foreigners, ethnic minorities, ‘undesirables’; racial exclusiveness (though not necessarily biological racism like Nazism’s variety) expressed through insistence on the ‘special’, ‘unique’ and ‘superior’ quality of the nation; radical, extreme and violent commitment to the utter destruction of political enemies – Marxists quite especially, but also liberals, democrats and ‘reactionaries’; stress upon discipline, ‘manliness’ and militarism (usually involving paramilitary organizations); and belief in authoritarian leadership. Other features were important, indeed sometimes central, to the ideology of a specific movement, but not omnipresent. Some movements directed their nationalism towards irredentist or imperialist goals, with devastating effect, but not all were intrinsically expansionist. Some, though not all, had a strong anti-capitalist tendency. Often, though not invariably, they favoured reorganizing the economy along ‘corporatist’ lines, abolishing independent trade unions and regulating economic policy by ‘corporations’ of interests directed by the state.
This amalgam of ideas, with varying emphasis, was generally consonant with the aim of establishing mass support for an authoritarian regime of an essentially reactionary, non-revolutionary kind. Some of the radical Right movements, those that were avowedly fascist, went further. They wanted more than just to overthrow or dismantle the existing state and replace it with a nationalist, authoritarian government. They sought total commitment to the collective will of a united nation. They demanded soul as well as body. They looked to create a ‘new man’ (the language was invariably macho), a new society, a national utopia. This total claim, more than anything else, was ultimately what made fascism revolutionary and distinguished it from related parts of the Right that were authoritarian and nationalist but looked essentially to conserve the existing social order. Fascism sought a revolution not in terms of social class, as Marxists advocated, but a revolution nonetheless – a revolution of mentalities, values and will.
Scholarly exactitude of terminology was a matter of supreme indifference to those who suffered at the hands of the extreme Right, and to those on the Left who mobilized resolute opposition to movements that they themselves had no hesitation in dubbing ‘fascist’. And, indeed, the finer points of definitional clarity should not obscure the broader issue of the shift to the Right – in one or other of its manifestations – during the Depression era.
Whether the shift was to the conservative or to the radical Right, it was advertised as essential to protect and regenerate the nation. As class conflict intensified – now no longer primarily economic but overtly political and ideological in nature – national unity was advanced as the essential bulwark to the threat of socialism. Where that threat was perceived as low, mild or seen to be distant, as in Britain, conservatism – wedded to upholding the existing political and social order – prevailed and the space for the breakthrough of the radical Right barely existed. At the opposite pole, as in Germany, where the threat was seen as high, conservatism – itself looking to overthrow the existing political and social order – splintered and its constituency was largely swallowed up by the fascist Right. Other countries fell somewhere between these polar opposites.
The allure of fascism was never greater than at this time. Fascism’s message of national renewal, powerfully linking fear and hope, was diverse enough to be capable of crossing social boundaries. Its message enveloped an appeal to the material vested interests of quite disparate social groups in a miasma of emotive rhetoric about the future of the nation. It touched the interests of those who felt threatened by the forces of modernizing social change. It mobilized those who believed they had something to lose – status, property, power, cultural tradition – through the presumed menace of internal enemies, and especially through the advance of socialism and its revolutionary promise of social revolution. However, it bound up these interests in a vision of a new society that would reward the strong, the fit, the meritorious – the deserving (in their own eyes).
Given an appeal that self-consciously attempted to transcend the conventional sectoral boundaries of interest politics (which intensified as crisis conditions increased political fragmentation), it is not surprising that the social base of fascist movements was quite heterogeneous. Some sectors of society were, it is true, more prone than others to succumb to the allure of fascism. The emotional, romanticized, idealistic side of fascism, its violent, adventurous activism, held disproportionate appeal for young males who had been exposed to such values in middle-class youth movements – if they were not already bound up in left-wing or Catholic youth organizations. Anti-establishment ‘generational revolt’ could easily be channelled into fascist hyper-nationalism and paramilitary racist and anti-Left violence. The membership of fascist parties was predominantly male, though in Germany, where it can be measured, women came increasingly to vote for the Nazi Party as it approached the threshold of power, and probably for the same reasons that men supported it.
The disaffected middle classes were generally drawn to fascism out of proportion to their numbers in society. White-collar workers, businessmen, those in the professions, former officers or NCOs, state employees, shopkeepers, craftsmen, owners of small workshops, farmers and students (usually from middle-class backgrounds) were normally overrepresented in fascism’s base support. But, though middle-class recruits tended to dominate among party functionaries and in leadership positions, fascism cannot be defined (as used to be the case) as simply a middle-class movement, or, indeed, in unequivocal class terms at all. Workers, skilled and unskilled, supported fascism in far greater numbers than once thought. Around 40 per cent of new recruits to the Nazi Party between 1925 and 1932 came from the working class. More than a quarter of Nazi voters were workers – possibly as high as 30–40 per cent if working-class households as a whole are taken into consideration – and more workers probably voted Nazi than either Socialist or Communist by 1932. Among the paramilitary stormtroopers, a macho street-fighter organization, young working-class males were the majority, forming well over half of the membership between 1925 and 1932, and an even higher proportion once the Nazi Party had come to power.
Not many of these workers had been won over from the Socialist or Communist parties. Some had indeed switched allegiance, but the vast majority had not previously belonged to the institutionalized working-class milieux of the parties of the Left. The Nazi Party, not least in its huge size (even by the beginning of 1933 it was well over three times as big as the Fascist Party had been in Italy before Mussolini’s ‘March on Rome’ eleven years earlier), was in many respects atypical of the radical Right as a whole. But the structure of support in smaller fascist movements – with a middle-class core, but a sizeable component of workers not previously attached to the parties of the Left – was often broadly similar. This was the case, for example, in France, Spain, Austria, Switzerland and Britain (as well as Italy before Mussolini’s ‘seizure of power’).
There was no direct correlation between the Depression and the chances of success of the radical Right. The Depression crisis had, it is true, led to Hitler’s triumph. But Mussolini had come to power in Italy almost a decade before the slump, while in some countries fascism only emerged when the Depression was subsiding. Furthermore, other countries (notably Britain and, outside Europe, the USA), although suffering severely from the Depression, still did not produce any significant fascist movement. Only where the social and political tensions created by the Depression interacted with other prevailing factors – resentment about lost national territory, paranoid fear of the Left, visceral dislike of Jews and other ‘outsider’ groups, and lack of faith in the ability of fragmented party politics to begin to ‘put things right’ – did a systemic collapse occur, paving the way for fascism..
Italy and Germany turned out to be, in fact, the only countries where home-grown fascist movements became so strong that – helped into office by weak conservative elites – they could reshape the state in their image. More commonly (as in eastern Europe), fascist movements were kept in check by repressive authoritarian regimes, or (as in north-western Europe) offered a violent disturbance to public order without the capacity to threaten the authority of the state.
Fascism’s triumph depended upon the complete discrediting of state authority, weak political elites who could no longer ensure that a system would operate in their interests, the fragmentation of party politics, and the freedom to build a movement that promised a radical alternative. These preconditions were present in post-war Italy between 1919 and 1922 and in Depression-ridden Germany between 1930 and 1933. They hardly existed anywhere else, other than Spain, where the increasingly violent confrontation of Left and Right (each factionalized) led eventually to civil war in 1936–9 followed by military dictatorship, not to a fascist ‘seizure of power’. Where, in contrast, a democratic state retained the broad allegiance both of the dominant elites and the mass of the population, as was the case in north-western Europe, or where authoritarian elites could rigorously control a state system that operated in their interests, curtailing civil liberties and organizational freedom, as in much of eastern and southern Europe, fascist movements were not strong enough to gain power.
—Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
This is the best definition/explanation of fascism I’ve ever read. Please buy this book; it’s worth your time.