If we are to maintain our vigilance in the face of the possibility of the return of fascism, it is important to understand some of the structural causes that facilitated its and allowed it to gain such a hold of the populations in continental Europe. One of these is philosophical, and another is simply how it spreads as an ideology.
European fascism first became a potent force through the rise to power of Mussolini in Italy in the early 1920s. While some reference will be made here to his version of the doctrine where relevant, my focus will lie more heavily on the German manifestation, carried through to its brutal conclusion through the Holocaust.
It has been argued that the theoretical basis for fascism had already been provided at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. This period marked the emergence of several harsh philosophical critiques of Enlightenment thinking. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on the individual’s inherent rational nature, and therefore right to freedom of thought and action, embodied through political liberalism, was attacked by several thinkers.
Gustave Le Bon argued that individuals are irrational and destructive, citing their behavior as members of crowds. He ultimately called on great leaders who can organize them by calling upon the soul of the nation, as any appeal to its voice of reason is doomed to failure. Georges Sorel posited that the emotional, irrational drives of individuals are equal to their rational faculties, and went further to conclude that the former is what spurs direct revolutionary action. Finally, there was Friedrich Nietzsche, who outlined his philosophy of the “will to power” as the drive of a biologically-determined elite of great men (“Übermenschen”), which pursues its destiny at the expense of the weaker masses (“the herd”) if necessary.
None of these writers, with the possible exception of Sorel in his later years, could have been described as fascists. All had their work greatly twisted by fascist movements, especially when it came to Nietzche and the Nazis. In addition, Charles Darwin‘s evolutionary theory of “survival of the fittest” laid the grounds for “Social Darwinism,” which is the extension of his theory to cover civilizations competing for finite resources in violent conflict. This thinking helped justify the fascists’ open glorification of violence and war.
The battered and bruised post-World War I Europe, especially in a Germany humiliated by defeat and financially squeezed by the Treaty of Versailles, provided a fine breeding ground for radical thought on both right and left. For a time, and to the horror of many in middle and upper classes, it seemed highly possible that the waves of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia would sweep over much of Europe. In Italy, the violent determination of Mussolini, aided by the widespread support of predominantly conservative police, army, church and corporate concerns, based an entire regime on that possibility.
Meanwhile, in Germany, the shaky democracy of the Weimar Republic remained in place despite Communist electoral gains and several attempted coups, including a failed putsch by the Nazis in 1923. However, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 reignited the flames of popular discontent, and allowed the Nazis to make unexpected gains in the 1930 election. Further victories followed in late 1932, and Hitler was declared Chancellor in January 1933. From then on, he and his party used all manner of nefarious means to consolidate their power, and eventually do away with the constitution and democratic system altogether, beginning years of fascist dictatorship that only ended with Germany’s defeat in World War II.
Musollini is quoted as saying that “fascism is reaction.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Fascism is an essentialist rejection of Enlightenment forms and values, which in the fascist view had created both capitalism, and the cold materialism of Marxist alternatives. Fascists claimed that liberalism was predicated on invalid assumptions of equality and individual rationality, which they responded to by emphasizing the passionate and irrational elements of individual character.
They presented an alternative to the liberal conception of freedom, which discussed one’s part in the collective “Being” of the state. The ultimate goal of fascism was the creation of a powerful nation. Rights of the individual only existed in as much as they were willing and able to work towards that ultimate goal. The fascist conception of freedom exists only through obedience to laws and a framework of order, as laid down by the ruling elite. The intention is of complete state control, with no part of life remaining politically neutral.
Fascism’s nationalistic character is infused with this thinking. The nation has a particularly virulent racial character. By scapegoating and dehumanizing the Jews, and other racialized populations, they managed to manufacture a feeling of moral uprightness and superiority in the “us,” while evil resided with “them.”
Importantly, though, anti-Semitism was primarily a feature of German fascism. It only became more overtly stated in Italy when ties with Germany deepened as World War II began. Regardless, these attitudes paved the way for atrocities to come, as political opponents of the national state were simply exterminated.
Additionally, the recognition of corporate elites’ usefulness meant that, with the exception of Jews, industry leaders were left largely in place. Many of these corporate heads, like Hugo Boss, were more than happy to join the Nazi ride once they saw new markets and opportunities for profit in military production, imperial expansion, slave labor, and the appropriation of Jewish assets.
As the fascist powers were quick to point out, they weren’t unique for this. Rather, the use of imperialism, repression, and racism to chase power and profit had already been done by the imperial powers of Britain, France et al. Indeed, the fascists often expressed the virtue of being comparatively honest about it! After all, the only real difference is that the fascists did away with liberal hypocrisy by nakedly celebrating domination itself.
While these were all philosophical conditions that allowed German fascism to emerge, one other question to be considered is how the wider population could have allowed the system to continue. Especially given the erosion of their own liberty and the ever-greater horrors being perpetrated.
In part, the answer lies in the fact that for many Germans, Nazism brought about drastic improvements in their quality of life. The hunger and unemployment of the Depression were left behind, as new prosperity flooded the land. The consideration of where all this prosperity was coming from, namely from the removal of Jews and other undesirables from their social positions, and later the fruits of imperial conquest, could be ignored. The new German sense of community had earned social trust.
The fact that the Führer was its charismatic protector and father figure didn’t actually matter that much to many Germans. Hitler had earned the loyalty and quasi-religious adoration of many Germans through his appeals to their passionate souls. Wilhelm Reich writes in great detail about this aspect of fascist leadership, as well as about his belief in sexual liberation as the means for defeating totalitarianism, in his 1933 book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism.
One other factor that must be considered, which was investigated by Milton Mayer, an American journalist of German-Jewish origin, in his seminal work, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.
In a particularly powerful passage detailing his interview with a former professor, the interviewee explains how the structures of National Socialist society arrived in a slow drip-feed, never quite providing the one incident that would create the spark of popular unrest, and never quite revealing just how corrupt and immoral the regime had been become. It was only apparent that fascism had occurred when all avenues of effective resistance had been crushed, minimized, or exhausted.
He describes how people were slowly habituated to the idea of a government operating in secret. Many Germans were made accustomed to the daily reality of elites processing information that ordinary people allegedly couldn’t understand. This was especially heinous when the information was described as being too dangerous to be released or discussed. This paralleled the ever increasing demands of bureaucratic paperwork and “expected” community work, finally reaching the point where “dictatorship provided an excuse not to think for people who didn’t want to think anyway.”
According to the professor, hindsight came too late; “… one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings… Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves.” By the time he had become truly aware of the extent of what was going on, the torture and imprisonment of dissenters, as well as talk of a post-war “’victory orgy” to “take care of” those who thought their “treasonable attitude” had escaped notice”, was enough to convince any remaining dissenters to keep their thoughts to themselves.
In the end, he was ashamed at his inability to see and act earlier; “Men like me, who were (against National Socialism in principle), are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better.”
And how much has truly changed, particularly when it comes to the United States? Wikileaks and Edward Snowden security state revelations have been taken in stride by many Americans, who go so far as to say that there are some matters that only the government should think about. The lifestyle of suburbia itself, which was deliberately cultivated to resist Communism, is just one example of a wider culture that provides people an excuse not to think and engage critically with the world around them. It isn’t just America: we see elements of this worldwide.
It is important to remember that fascism’s victory predicated on the fact that by the time people noticed what was happening, the totalitarian regime had already spread its tentacles through the entirety of society, and completed the forced subordination of individual will to the dictates of the state. We are kidding ourselves if we think that it could never happen again.