“Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”
Fascism is a surprising difficult word to define. The term itself has been reduced to a mere insult which obscures our ability to identify the dangerous trends in society that allow fascists to thrive. Rather than name calling, we should understand such trends and work at solutions to overcome and guard against them. These societal conditions are particularly insidious as they develop slowly, often unnoticed for many years, until by the right combination of events and party politics, a monster steps into the breach. It takes a society to create a dictator.
In looking at fascism as a movement, where do we start searching for lessons? Do we look at Russian Stalinism, German Nazism, or Italian Fascism? Do we mean totalitarianism or authoritarianism? What about czarist Russia? The argument quickly gets lost in terminology. In On Politics, Alan Ryan considers the essential elements of fascism to be “…racism, nationalism, irrationalism and antiliberalism.” We certainly see these elements in American politics from time-to-time.
Ryan also considers the existence of cults, namely the Cult of Leadership and the Cult of the Party. The Clintons, Bushes and even Obama have strong cult followings. And the current incumbent has added the Cult of Celebrity to the list. Certainly, the Cult of the Party is strong among Democrats and Republicans whose use of the word “patriotism” often seems a demand for loyalty. When does adoration transform into an obsessive following that we should worry about? Richard Evans, in The Third Reich in Power, explains that “[of] all things that made the Third Reich a modern dictatorship, its incessant demand for popular legitimization was one of the most striking” – another familiar note that can be heard in American politics.
This is not to say that America is on the road to fascism. The world is far different from that of the 1930s. But we have been passing some of the same sign posts. The Nazis “…always held the letter of the law and the institutions of the state in contempt” (Evans). There was a “…division of the world into friends and enemies,” and liberal democracy was regarded “…as a fraud perpetrated on them by the victorious Allies at Versailles” (Ryan). Intellectuals were scorned – another American trait. The Third Reich also benefited from the spread of radio as a means of mass communication. Oppressive regimes always seem to be early adopters of new technology. Mythology also played an important part. Goebbels’ propaganda machine (the Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, to give its full name) explained the murderous rampage of the Night of the Long Knives as a sort-of “Make Germany Great Again” moment which saved the country from ruin.
The development of European Fascism in the 1930s was the result of at least sixty years of tumultuous history. Longer if you include the Napoleonic Wars**. Go back to 1870 when Bismark provoked the French into attacking the German states, precipitating the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent unification of Germany in 1871. The defeat of the French armies created a vacuum into which the Paris Commune stepped and briefly ruled. Karl Marx got some good ideas from the Commune and obtained some fame from his analysis of those events.
But the new German state’s acquisition of Alsace-Lorraine was to rankle the French for some time. Intellectuals considered it to be “…war in perpetuity under the mask of peace” (Edgar Quinet as quoted in Alistair Horne’s The Fall of Paris). Also remember that the American Civil War had just ended in 1865, with President Lincoln’s assassination shortly thereafter. The world was in a fragile state in 1871, and the stage was set for the First World War to follow when old divisions and grievances would be aired.
The American entry into the First World War resulted in the unconditional surrender of Germany by breaking the stalemate on the Western Front. The French were quick to take their vengeance in the punitive Treaty of Versailles. Had America not entered the war, the terms of an armistice might not have been as harsh. Add to this, the failure of democracy in Weimar Germany, crushing inflation, and finally the Great Depression, and you had conditions in Germany under which it would have been surprising had a dictator not risen from the ashes. Resentment and mythology were such driving forces behind nationalism at the time, that when Hitler accepted the French surrender in June 1940, he used the same railway car in which Germany had surrendered to France in 1918.
In “The Concentration Camps,” Hannah Arendt observed that “[t]he next decisive step in the preparation of living corpses is the murder of the moral person in man.” So what is to be done? “If we are keenly aware of the weakness of human reason, we can guard against that weakness. If we understand the extent to which we are governed by mythical forms of thinking, we can assist reason to exercise a proper control over our conduct” (Ryan).
We must beware of leaders, and of party politics. It is time for civil discourse. Time for reconciliation.
* Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, otherwise known as Lenin, felt the Paris Commune made three mistakes: banks were not seized; the proletariat was unnecessarily magnanimous; and “instead of annihilating its enemies, it endeavored to exercise moral influence on them” (Horne).
**It is interesting to consider that for a time, England’s King William IV was also the King of Hanover (later annexed by Prussia). William died in 1837, and his niece Victoria assumed the English throne. But Hanover subscribed to Salic Law which meant that only a male could succeed to the throne. But because of an accident of birth, how might history have changed?
Henry V also used Salic Law to justify his invasion of France – according to Shakespeare:
My learned lord, we pray you to proceed
And justly and religiously unfold
Why the law Salic that they have in France
Or Should, or should not, bar us in our claim.
See Alan Ryan, On Politics; Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power; and Alistair Horne, The Fall of Paris.