from the book
Past, Present and Future
a book by
Walter Laqueur, 1996
The Essence of Fascism
The question of what fascism is has been debated for many decades but
frequently has produced more heat than light. It has intensely preoccupied
political scientists in their search for a "generic model" covering
all varieties of fascism. For the wider public these exercises have not
been of much interest. One can endlessly discuss whether Nazism was the
highest, most accomplished form of fascism and Mussolini's regime was therefore
a mere halfway house, or whether Italian Fascism-perhaps because it was
the first on the scene-should be the yardstick by which all other fascisms
should be measured. In this case, Nazism seems in retrospect a hyper-radical,
exaggerated version of a new idea relentlessly pursued to its logical conclusions.
One can debate forever whether Nazism and Italian Fascism were modernizing
movements by intention or despite their intention or whether they were reactionary.
Fascism did not belong to the extreme Left, yet defining it as part of the
extreme Right is not very illuminating either. In many respects, fascism
was not conservative at all in inspiration but was aimed at creating a new
society with a new kind of human beings.
One would hope that there would be no need to define once again the
essence of fascism. But it is necessary because in popular parlance it is
used quite indiscriminately. Writers and speakers tend to denounce their
political foes as fascists (or at least semi- or para-fascists); that is,
it has become a synonym for a dozen or more phenomena, usually negative
in character. It therefore is easier to define what fascism is not. Twentieth-century
dictatorships may be detestable, but they are not necessarily fascist. Japan
in the 1930s was not a fascist country, nor was Ataturk's Turkey, nor Poland
under Pilsudski, nor Spain under Franco. Likewise, the military dictatorships
after World War II such as Chile under Pinochet and Greece under the colonels
were not fascist.
When fascism first appeared on the political scene, it should have been
clear that it contained certain essentially new factors, that it belonged
to a new breed. But this was not widely realized at the time. Everyone agreed
that Nazism and fascism were extremely nationalistic in orientation and
that they were antidemocratic. Beyond this, however, there was no unanimity,
and since it is only natural to interpret new phenomena in the light of
old ones, some analysts referred to the Bonapartist model (the great Napoleon
as well as his descendant Napoleon 111). Others saw fascism in the tradition
of the extreme right-wing, anti-liberal groups of the late nineteenth century.
Defining fascism was difficult because only two countries ever became fascist.
During World War 11, the Vichy-style regimes under Axis tutelage cannot
truly be considered fully fledged fascist, even though some, such as Croatia,
tried hard to move in that direction.
Fascism was also not a static phenomenon. During its early period, Italian
Fascism was radical in it orientation, but once it seized power it became
more moderate in essential respects. Then in its last stage, it again returned
to its radical beginnings.
Italian Fascism meant something different in the cities and in the countryside.
Only six years passed from the time the Nazi regime came into power until
it unleashed the war, when all domestic concerns were subordinated to the
war effort. We can only speculate what Nazi policy would have been if Germany
had won the war, whether, for instance, the economic system would have been
changed, whether it would have turned against the church, whether those
people considered racially inferior would have been killed or expelled,
whether the regime would have moderated its policies, or whether, in sociological
terms, routinization and normalization would have taken over.
One of the few issues on which there was a consensus at the time was
the assumption that fascism was a European phenomenon. This seems true even
now in regard to "historical" fascism. At that time, fascism in
very backward countries was technically impossible because the masses could
not be mobilized and propaganda and terror were not yet sufficiently effective.
Whether this is still true today is less certain, because with the spread
of modern technologies the preconditions for non-European varieties of fascism
do exist now in many parts of the world.
What made fascism different from earlier dictatorships was the presence
of a mass party that monopolized power through its security services and
the army and that eliminated all other parties, using considerable violence
in the process. This new style of party was headed by a leader who had virtually
unlimited power, was adulated by his followers, and was the focus of a quasi-religious
cult. The party's doctrine became an obligatory article of faith for not
only its members but all other citizens and was constantly projected by
means of a powerful propaganda machinery. Such a party-and, later, a state
apparatus-would not have been feasible earlier in history because it would
have been impossible to impose similar political, social, and cultural controls
and to influence masses of people so intensively.
What we have said so far also applies to the Communist regimes True,
the interference of the fascist state in the economy was much less far reaching
than under Communism. Soviet ideology stressed the class character of the
regime or, rather, the gradual abolition of (antagonistic) classes. Conversely,
in fascist doctrine, solidarity of the classes was the supreme aim. Communism
was strictly atheistic, whereas fascism was vaguely deistic, condition that
the church accept the state as its political overlord and support it. Whereas
fascism was overtly nationalistic, militaristic, and expansionist, Communism
was theoretically internationalist and anti-militarist and had no dreams
of territorial expansion. But in reality the differences, especially from
the 1930s onward, were not always visible "naked eye. "
The two systems were quite similar, almost identical, in some respects
but different in others, so they were bound to collide once fascism prevailed
in Germany. Hitler had persuaded himself that unless Germany acquired new
Lebensraum in his lifetime, it would collapse, because it did not have sufficient
raw materials to provide a decent standard of living for its citizens and
also to maintain its status as a great power.
The Soviet regime was under no such immediate pressure, although in
the long term it could feel secure only if Soviet-style Communism prevailed
at least in Europe and contingent parts of Asia. But Stalin did not have
the same desperate urgency to expand right away.
What conditions favored the rise of these new types of mass parties,
and in what circumstances did fascism find it impossible to progress? Although
"conditions" are only one of the factors in this equation, they
are an important one. "Conditions" alone, however, would not have
brought about the triumph of Hitler and Mussolini. On the other hand, in
the absence of a favorable political constellation, even the greatest political
genius would have failed to make headway.
In both Germany and Italy, the Nazi and Fascist seizure of power was
greatly facilitated by the leading figures of the old order in Germany by
the Conservatives and Hindenburg's entourage and in Italy by the Conservatives
and the monarchy. Hitler was the leader of the strongest parliamentary faction,
and based on the constitution, a case could be made in favor of inviting
him to be the next chancellor. Aware of their own weakness, the Conservatives
assumed that it would be possible to rein in the Nazis and make them behave
"reasonably." The pressures in Italy eleven years earlier that
had brought about the Fascist takeover had been similar.
It is impossible, even with the benefit of hindsight, to say with any
certainty whether Hitler and Mussolini would have dared to seize power without
such legal sanction. And even if they had dared it, there is no certainty
that they would have been successful. Elsewhere, violent fascist coups did
fail, but this is not conclusive evidence, since Nazism and Italian Fascism
were stronger than those who were defeated, and the resistance against them
Why did strong fascist movements develop in some countries but not in
others, and what attracted men and women and generated an enthusiasm much
greater than that among the democratic parties? Observers from Britain and
France visiting Germany and Italy in the 1930s expressed admiration and
even envy when reporting the new spirit of optimism in the fascist regimes.
Fascism prevailed in countries in which the old order seemed no longer to
work, in which democracy was not deeply rooted, in which the waves of nationalist
resentment were running high, and which felt threatened by economic breakdown
and social disorder. Without World War I and the postwar crises, fascism
would have remained a small sect if it had emerged at all. Therefore, large
segments of the population in these countries were ready to support a movement
that, unlike other parties, professed not to pursue narrow partisan or class
interests but, rather, announced that it stood for the values of the whole
community, that it strove for unity and order, and that this was the only
way to save the country from chaos.
Such explanations can be contested on various grounds. One could argue,
for instance, that the postwar crisis in Italy had been more acute in 1920
than in 1921, and more acute in 1921 than in 1922 when the march on Rome
took place. By 1922 the immediate crisis was passing and the revolutionary
challenge had been defeated. Mussolini's assessment, in any case, was unambiguous
"To maintain that the Bolshevik danger still exists in Italy is to
mistake fear for reality" (Popolo d'ltalia, July 2,1921).
Or one could argue that the German economic crisis of 1923 was as grave
as that in 1933 but that in 1923 Nazism was a mere local phenomenon that
was easily defeated. The German crisis reached its nadir in 1932, and so
if the center-right government had been able to stay in power for one more
year, the situation might have improved. Indeed, some of the "chains
of Versailles" (referring to the hated World War I peace treaty) had
been broken even before Hitler became chancellor. But the economic recovery
and the concessions by the Allies came too late The crisis had a cumulative
effect, and too many people in Germany had lost h~. The system was not corrupt,
however, even though Nazis and Communists were forever claiming that it
was. If anything, the regime was too honest-and too devoid of imagination.
The German people saw only too clearly that the government was baffled by
the depth of the crisis and the failure of the medicines it had administered.
For its part, the government made no secret of the fact that it was at the
end of its tether, that it did not know how to cope. Such governments are
bound to fall in the face of a determined challenger.
Whereas Germany had been the great loser of World War 1, Italy had been
among the victors. But Italy had not come close to receiving the spoils
of victory it had hoped for. Furthermore, nationalist passions were running
as high as they were in Germany; only two generations had passed since the
nation had unified, and the people did not yet feel that their country was
secure, a self-evident fact.
The depth of the economic crisis cannot serve as the only clue to the
advent of Nazism or Fascism. The United States and Britain were as much
affected as Germany was by the Great Depression. Indeed, the impact on America
was probably even greater, simply because Americans were altogether unprepared
for the disaster; they had taken constant progress for granted. Germans
on the other hand, had already had such traumatic experiences. Despite major
unemployment and economic decline, fascism in England remained a marginal
phenomenon, even though its leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, had at least as much
popular appeal as the continental fascist leaders did. In the United States
there were all kinds of fascist or para-fascist organizations, but they
never achieved a political breakthrough. Spanish fascism had attractive
popular leaders, and Jacques Doriot, a Communist, had been one of the most
popular figures in France before he became a fascist. But in neither Spain
nor France was personal popularity of decisive importance.
Instead, the postwar crisis was a moral and cultural crisis. Before
1914, European societies had been far from democratic in many respects,
but despite all their imperfections, they were more civilized than ever
before. Human rights were increasingly respected and few dared dismiss them
as of no consequence. Moreover, the false accusations against an obscure
French officer of Jewish origin had turned into a major European scandal.
World War I, with its hecatombs of victims and its enormous destruction,
changed all this and had lasting consequences. The chauvinist orgies led
to a brutalization of public life. The sanctity of human life no longer
counted after millions had been killed. Although there had been cases of
political murder in the world before 1914, in civilized countries it would
have been unthinkable to advocate or justify it, let alone establish extermination
camps for whole groups of people. Tsarist Russia had been the most backward
and cruel regime in Europe, but the murder of its victims was only a microscopic
fraction of the millions put to death by its successor regime. In addition,
the moral breakdown after World War I was more profound even than the economic
The cultural crisis coincided with the eclipse of state power, the increasing
lack of confidence among the ruling stratum, and the reluctance to deal
forcefully with fascist street violence. The forces of order could have
stamped out armed attacks (as they had in Munich in 1923), but instead they
took only halfhearted measures, too few and too late. As the result of such
hesitation and weakness, the fascist paramilitary units received fresh impetus.
They became more aggressive; and once their number had swollen, dealing
with them became more risky.
The historical record shows that fascism (like terrorism) could succeed
only in a liberal democratic system. It had a chance only where it could
freely agitate. When competing with a military dictatorship (Romania or
Spain)-let alone a Communist regime-it invariably suffered defeat. Even
in a mildly authoritarian regime such as that in Austria, it failed in 1934.
Fascists despised, rather than hated, the democratic institutions They regarded
the parliament as a Schwatzbule, a place where unending inconclusive debates
took place and where politicians were held in contempt because of their
weakness. This mood could be found not only in the extreme Left and Right
but also among many who did not consider themselves radicals. In the end,
democracy collapsed because not enough democrats were willing to defend
What sections of the population were attracted to fascism They varied
from country to country, according to political tradition and social conditions.
In general, the lower middle class showed the greatest affinity to fascism,
particularly those who had suffered the most from the Great Depression.
The Nazis made inroads among the peasantry, which was hard hit, and also
among the middle class, which had lost its savings during the inflation
and now faced further losses. Italian Fascism found support among war veterans
who could not be reintegrated into civilian life and among students who
were unable to find employment upon graduation.
A closer examination shows that there was no rigid pro-Nazi pattern
according to class, generation, or gender. Before 1933 there was no significant
difference in Germany between male and female voters or among voters of
different age groups. Although the Nazi leaders were younger than their
rivals, their voters were not. Up to 193 t the Nazis were, to a significant
extent, a part of the lower middle class, but after 1931 they gained support
from both the lower and upper social classes.
All that can be said with certainty is that the Nazis were stronger
in Protestant than in Catholic regions; they did not make significant inroads
on the positions of the Catholic Center Party. Fascism faced similar difficulties
in other countries, except in Croatia and Slovakia, where the church supported
the local fascists.
There was an interesting difference between the votes in big cities
and small towns. If the Nazi vote was 37 percent on average; nationwide,
in the July 1932 elections, the small town vote was 42 percent, whereas
in the big cities such as Berlin and Hamburg it was closer to 33 percent.
The working class was not immune to the Nazi upsurge; in fact, more workers
and unemployed voted for the Nazis in 1932 than for the Social Democrats
and Communists together. Both Nazism and Italian Fascism mobilized sections
of the population that had previously been inactive.
The situation in Italy was different inasmuch as the fascists originally
appeared in northern Italy and only gradually spread to the south. Subsequently,
however, the south became a stronger bulwark of Fascism than the north,
and this is true also with regard to neofascism in the postwar era. Agrarian
fascism was also a significant factor in Italy-a reaction of the big landholders
in the Po Valley and also of the smallholders in Emilia Romagna against
the growing strength of the landless farm workers. In Western Europe, fascism
did not gain a foothold in the countryside in either France or the Netherlands,
and in Britain it was hardly found outside London.
In Romania and Hungary, on the other hand, the fascists had support
in the countryside, and the Finnish Lapua was predominantly agrarian. White-collar
workers were fairly strongly represented in most fascist movements, whereas
working-class representation varied greatly It was initially strong in France
and relatively strong in Spain, but less so in Eastern Europe, except in
Hungary. The reason was largely accidental-a popular local leader who joined
the fascists would bring with him his followers.
Students were strong supporters of the fascist movements in Spain and
Romania, and so in these countries fascism was in the early years a phenomenon
confined mainly to particular universities. Likewise, the Nazis emerged
victorious in Germany's university elections well before they became a major
political factor nationwide. Nonetheless, there were few university graduates
in the higher echelons of the Nazi Party; Goebbels, Hans Frank, and Ley
were rare exceptions. Whereas the last Weimar governments were made up largely
of members of the free professions, there were considerably fewer such persons
in the Nazi and Fascist governments. Only five of the Nazi Gauleiter were
university or technical school graduates; the seventeen Reichsleiter had
a more elitist background. Primary school teachers were strongly represented
in the Nazi elite, even though on various occasions Hitler expressed contempt
for a profession that, he claimed, attracted only people of limited intelligence.
The general mood in the Nazi and Fascist leaderships was anti-intellectual.
Academics were regarded with distrust, suspected of conceit, of Stanlesdünkel,
for which there was no room in the Nazi community. In the Third Reich, the
number of students graduating declined markedly, and as a matter of principle,
Hitler refused to accept honorary doctorates.
Fascists believed in hierarchical structures but aimed at transcending
class divisions. Nazism and fascism preached that the class struggle had
to be replaced by national unity, that ideals and values were more important
than material possessions and that the Fuhrer, the party, and the state
were the supreme arbiter. This message was quite effective, as reflected
in the enthusiasm generated by fascism. Even his enemies acknowledged Hitler's
personal popularity. After the Nazis seized power, they scored very high
in honest elections. Indeed, Hitler gave instructions not to interfere with
the voting, and no documentary evidence has ever been found that the results
were forged. The Nazi leaders were certain that they had popular backing.
Although fascism had, of course, a monopoly on the media after the Nazis
seized power, this was not so before 1933. They had no access to the radio,
and before their electoral breakthrough in 1930, they had fewer newspapers
than the other parties did. The written word played a minor role in the
spectacular rise of the Nazis between 1930 and 1933, and it is doubtful
whether anyone ever became a Nazi because of having read Mein Kampf. The
situation in Italy was different, inasmuch as Mussolini was an accomplished
journalist and had an influential newspaper at his disposal.
The Nazis relied on the speeches of their key leaders and many party
orators of the second and third rank. But this does not offer a satisfactory
clue to their rise to power, because only Hitler and Goebbels (and Mussolini)
were gifted speakers. Since these two were not omnipresent, this leads to
the conclusion that the message rather than the medium must have been of
decisive importance. The Nazis' propaganda was always intense, but so was
the Communists'. Yet the latter was not remotely as successful. Although
the Nazi propaganda was too crude to command great respect among the intelligentsia,
it was gradually accepted after the seizure of power. There had been associations
of Nazi lawyers and physicians even before 1933, but they did not amount
to much. Leading thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and the jurist Carl Schmitt
paid their tribute; Giovanni Gentile was a pillar of Mussolini's regime.
The reasoning of these pro-fascist intellectuals was that genius and success
in politics could not be measured by normal ethical (and aesthetic) standards.
Hitler, as they saw it, was an enormous improvement over their previous
impotent leaders. The Nazis succeeded where others had failed, and despite
their imperfections- considered transitory-they were Germany's great and
only hope. This positive assessment was also shared at one time or another
by leading writers and thinkers outside Germany. Even most of the leading
foreign statesmen had some good words for Mussolini in the early days, whereas
Hitler never found the same acclaim outside his own country.
Few Western intellectuals became full-fledged fascists. Nonetheless,
many thought that although fascism was unsuitable for their own country,
it might well be suitable for Germany and Italy, just as Communism was for
the Soviet Union. From time to time, they even argued that a dynamic leader
such as Mussolini could do some good in France or Britain, by abolishing
the excesses of parliamentarism and getting things done.
Fascism meant various things to various people, and likewise, it attracted
them for a variety of reasons. To discuss all of them would, however, lead
to a definition both vague and unhelpful. Looking back fifty years after
the demise of fascism, the oldest explanation still has much to recommend
it Fascism was the manifestation of a moral and cultural crisis, in which
traditional values, religious as well as humanist, no longer counted for
much. Fascism developed out of the delirium generated by World War 1, out
of insecurity and political immaturity, and out of a revolt against reason
and a reaction against the atomization of society.
These moods had existed to some extent well before the war, in all European
countries Nationalism was turning into imperialism, corporationist and racialist
theories, social Darwinism, the revolt against reason, and the cult of youth.
It needed however a major political, social, and economic upheaval to open
the floodgates. For the apostles of extreme nationalism, of "life"
and "power" (in contrast to reason and peace), to obtain a mass
following it was not sufficient that peopIe be spiritually uprooted, they
also had to be socially and economically uprooted. Like pathogenic bacilli,
fascism could be found in every organism. But it could prevail only if the
organism was weakened or in some other way predisposed.
Fascism in Europe rose and spread quickly because of the ravages of
World War I and the political and spiritual vacuum they had left behind.
The Continent had been shaken by violent political and economic convulsions
and in half of Europe the old conservative order had disappeared but a new
one had not been accepted. The moral certainties of the world of yesterday
had vanished, and the middle classes had become impoverished. To some, the
last vestiges of civilization seemed threatened by a new, mysterious, highly
contagious phenomenon - Bolshevism. Those who believed that a strong leadership
and a new order were needed but who found Communism unacceptable in view
of its internationalism and egalitarianism (the main pillars of Communist
ideology in those early days) craved E political alternative.
Many basic tenets of fascism were not new, as their antecedents can
be traced back well before World War I. No serious study of fascism can
ignore them, but it is also true that the search for precursors is not without
danger. Such a search should not ignore or belittle the important differences
between the ideas of the prewar apostles preaching an anti-liberal and antidemocratic
gospel and the novel elements inherent in postwar fascism. References to
Nietzsche or Sorel are of only limited help in understanding fascist politics,
just as the debates of the Second International in the 1890s between the
reformists and the revolutionaries are not sufficient to explain events
in the Soviet Union after 1917. The prewar writings were expressions of
a cultural and also a political malaise, of dissatisfaction with the heritage
of the Enlightenment; they were manifestations of a new irrationalism.
No direct thread, however, leads from the nineteenth-century thinkers
to fascism. At all times, all kinds of ideas-good, bad, indifferent, sensible,
and lunatic-emanate from the studies of professors and from literary coffeehouses,
but they tend to influence politics only in certain constellations. For
instance, much has been written about the reactionary tradition in German
intellectual life from Luther to the late-nineteenth-century chauvinist
and racialist thinkers. There is no denying that this tradition existed
and that it contributed to a climate of opinion in which Nazism developed
and prospered. But even though there also was such an intellectual heritage
in Britain and France, its political impact remained marginal. In Italy,
on the other hand, the anti-liberal, antidemocratic impulses were quite
strong after the turn of the century, and it was precisely there that fascism
Fascism was, above all, nationalist, elitist, and anti-liberal. It was
militarist, and whenever the country it occupied was sufficiently strong,
it advocated imperialism and territorial expansion. Nationalism, however,
was a dominant force in many countries before 1914, and its appeal was by
no means limited to the Right and the Center. Nor was elitism an innovation.
Few political parties admitted to subscribing to it, though all practiced
it. Anti-liberalism was rampant among the Catholic Church and the right
wing. Advocates of imperialism could be found among liberals as well as
conservatives, and sometimes even among socialists.
The difference between fascism and its predecessors is partly one of
degree, the consequence of the general radicalization caused by World War
I. Before 1914, political parties were dominated by small groups, but unlike
the fascist movement, they were not based theoretically and practically
on the Fubrerprinzip. Racialism was preached before 1914 by both German
conservatives and the Action francaise. But this was not an extreme racialism,
except perhaps in the writings of some exalted litterateurs and other outsiders
who did not count for much. Many conservatives felt unhappy about the growing
influence of the Left, and there was a great deal of muttering about firm
action to prevent this danger. Some young Italian intellectuals wrote about
the right of proletarian peoples to acquire new territories to obtain raw
materials and relieve the population pressure. But in fact there were no
coups d'etat and little expansion between 1890 and 1914.
There was, however, a basic difference between fascism and prewar parties
on the Right Whereas fascism stood for far-reaching, even revolutionary,
changes, the Conservatives-despite their criticism of parliamentary democracy-had
accepted the principle of power sharing. The fascists wanted absolute power,
and they knew that a wholly different, non-parliamentary approach was needed
to achieve this aim. The Conservatives were the party of the preservation
of the status quo and of order. Fascism wanted a new order and for this
reason it had to destroy the old one. Mussolini was certainly familiar with
the writings of the Action francaise and was influenced by them. But he
was even more influenced by Sorel, who was not a conservative. The break
between Hitler and the old German conservative, antidemocratic tradition
was even more pronounced, and it was not just a matter of a new tactical
approach. There is a link between the Nazi doctrine and the "ideas
of 1914" that in turn was a somewhat streamlined version of some of
the ideas of the 1890s. But we cannot stress too often that it was only
as a result of the world war, the political unrest, and the economic crisis
that these ideas-simplified and, popularized-acquired a power that they
had not possessed before.
These sentiments and ideas varied from country to country, but they
all originated in a feeling of discontent with the general state of affairs,
of the Kulturpessimismus that spread widely in the last quarter of the nineteenth
century. The enemy in France and Italy was "liberalism." In Wilhelmian
Germany, the reaction was primarily directed against "destructive rationalism"
and excessive individualism.
The German critics complained about the growth of materialism, as both
a philosophy and a way of life; about the decline of spiritual values; about
the effects of industrialization on one hand and of laissez-faire capitalism
on the other; and about the fragmentation of society and the breakdown of
old social ties. They noted with sorrow the growing cultural sterility and
predicted that without a revival of the national community (the Volk), the
general decadence that had already set in would continue inexorably, gather
momentum, and eventually lead to total ruin.
Such dire forebodings were exaggerated but not altogether baseless for
all these evils did in fact exist. They also were observed by Leftist writers,
who interpreted them as the inevitable consequences of the bankruptcy of
capitalism which would be overcome once the old social order had been overthrown.
They pointed as well to cultural decline, to the alienation and atomization
of society. But their cure-revolution-was not acceptable to the right-wing
critics of capitalism. Socialism, as the rightists saw it, was materialist,
had no higher ideals, and was totally preoccupied with restructuring the
economy. They could not share the hope that socialism would somehow lead
to a better society. In their eyes, socialism simply meant more of the same,
replacing the present elite by a new and even more inferior hierarchy. It
meant Vermassung, not the elevation of the standard of the masses but their
further moral and cultural decline, to the detriment of all the value that
had been established over many centuries.
' The cultural revolution envisaged by the right-wing precursors of
national socialism was to be based on a regeneration of the Volk. a return
to traditional values, and the restoration of a community in which a natural(hierarchy
would exist, an aristocracy of prophets and warriors. The German concept
of community (Gemeinschaft) was juxtaposed to the Western idea of society
High German culture was contrasted with inferior Western civilization. In
France and Italy, the emphasis was on the nation rather than the Volk and
although racialism was not absent from French right-wing thought, it was
in Germany that it found more fertile ground.
According to this doctrine, the German people, though inherently superior
to others, were in mortal danger of disintegration. Therefore, the purity
of their blood had to be preserved, which meant, above all, the elimination
of Jewish influence, of the protagonists of liberalism, of Marxist socialism,
and of all supernational forces. It also meant that to fulfill its historical
mission, the German race needed more Lebensraum These ideas were developed
and popularized by various thinkers, some of whom had originally been men
of the Left (Wilhelm Marr and Eugen Duehring), whereas others had come from
abroad (Houston Stewart Chamberlain). Not everyone believed that the superiority
of the German race could be scientifically proved. But in the end, it did
not really matter whether this conclusion was reached on the basis of pseudoscientific
reasoning or an article of faith of extreme nationalism.
The myth of the Volk and the emphasis on racialism were particularly
strong in Germany. Elsewhere, as in Italy, the stress was on the nation
and even more on the role of the state. D'Annunzio wrote that he gloried
in the fact that he was a Latin, and he considered every non-Latin a barbarian.
But D'Annunzio was not a representative of mainstream fascism. According
to Mussolini, it was not the nation that had given rise to the state; rather,
this was an antiquated "naturalistic concept" that afforded a
basis for nineteenth-century nationalism. Instead, it was the state that
had created the nation, conferring volition and therefore real life on a
people made aware of its moral unity. Or as a British fascist and admirer
of Mussolini wrote "Racism is a materialist illusion, contrary to natural
law and destructive of civilization, and truly logical application would
be farcical and impractical."
Thus on the philosophical level, there was a sharp conflict between
Nazi ideology and Fascist doctrine, but this was more apparent than real.
The mythos of the Volk by no means excluded the mythos of the Reich. In
any case, the Nazis were at least as strongly committed as the Italians
were to the rehabilitation of strong state power, in contrast to the impotent
liberal state. As the Nazis envisaged it, the assignment of the state was
not to safeguard the greater happiness of the greatest number. On the contrary,
the interest of the state always took precedence over the right of the individual.
State power was to be based on leadership, and the legitimacy of this leadership
was provided by the very fact that the people followed the leaders. Seen
in this light, the leader embodied the will of the people and fascism was
According to Nazi and fascist doctrine, the supreme aim and value was
greatness, not equality and humanism, the false idols of the Age of Enlightenment.
Right is what helps the state and the nation. One nation is the others'
natural enemy, according to Mein Kampf, and those with the greatest willpower,
the most fanatic and brutal, will prevail. There is a racial hierarchy both
within each nation and among nations. The higher master races are called
to rule, the inferior to obey, and the progress of humankind will be achieved
by the preservation of pure blood (race). German imperial leadership answers
an universal need; it is the natural order of things. Thus any war led by
Germany is a just war. Germany and France are eternal enemies, and the Slavs
constitute an inferior race. Inside German power should be in the hands
of a leader, and a new nobility born from blood and soil But if the Fuhrer
and the new nobility are not up to their job, will there be a way to remove
them? In Nazi doctrine, this question was left unanswered.
Italian Fascism based its ideology on the central role of the nations
in the natural order of things. Fascists were indeed aware that the nation
was a myth, not a reality. As Mussolini put it shortly before the march
on Rome "We have created our myth. The myth is a faith, it is a passion,
in our myth is the nation, and to this myth, to this grandeur we subordinate
all the rest." Such a doctrine had no time for the niceties of democracy.
Humanitarianism was a mere irrelevancy. The main aim was to work for the
greatness of the nation. The instrument toward this end was the state which
should control all political, moral. and economic forces.
The state was not a mere arbiter, working to resolve conflicting interests.
Rather, it had a will of its own; outside the state no human or spiritual
values existed. This then was the ideal, and from a philosophical point
of view it is not important that fascist reality never really approximated
Fascism was rooted to a decisive extent in a pre-19 14 strand of thought
that was anti-liberal, antidemocratic, and anti-Enlightenment and went well
beyond the official nationalist ideology. This kind of ideological ambiance,
again, provided the breeding ground for fascism. It was bourgeois and at
the same time anti-bourgeois; it rejected the rationalism and individualism
of liberal society and the self-satisfaction of conservatism. Its supreme
value was not the pursuit of happiness but fighting and adventure; appropriately,
its slogan later became "To live dangerously." Fascism admired
nature (as it understood it), physical strength and barbarism. This was
a rebellion of youth against philistinism, a revolt against mediocrity,
caution, tolerance, big-city life. It wanted to create a new human being
and a new civilization (or, as the Germans put it, a new Kultur). Some of
fascism was not more than posturing and the effusions of minor philosophers
hoping to gain a wider audience by making extreme statements, or of decadent
writers who had turned into men of action- such as Barres or D'Annunzio.
But there was also a general feeling of dissatisfaction and boredom. The
old order had somehow functioned over the years, but it provided little
spiritual guidance and not much satisfaction. Young writers in various European
countries on the eve of World War I described a feeling of suffocation and
a feeling of deliverance when the war broke out At long last, everything
was bound to change!
If it had not been for the cataclysm that followed, this mood would
have remained no more than an interesting chapter in intellectual history,
like that of symbolism or naturalism. But a clear message was needed in
the uncertainties of the postwar period, as well as strong leadership to
cope with the many dangers engulfing countries such as Italy and Germany.
Liberal democracy often seemed-and indeed was-weak and irresolute. In such
conditions there was a growing readiness to support political movements,
however antidemocratic, provided only that they seemed capable to cope with
the crises. In addition, there was a new psychological readiness to accept
violence that had not existed before the war.
Two questions remain to be answered. It is a far cry from the longings
for a new closely knit community, from the dreams about greatness and heroism,
to the crimes committed by fascism. The discrepancy between the ideas of
the late-nineteenth-century Kultur Kritiker and the reality of fascism is
as great as the distance between the likes of a Hitler, a Goebbels, or a
Streicher and the aesthetic ideal of a Nordic race. An expansionist and
militarist doctrine was bound to lead to conflict. But it cannot be said
with certainty that the specific radicalism of fascism was foreordained
and, with it, its total debacle.
The ideas of the philosophical precursors of fascism were not wrong
in every detail. They appealed to both base instincts and strong idealist
elements, for they were based partly on noble dreams and visions. For this
reason, fascism attracted many young idealists, not just careerists, adventurers,
and the dregs of society. But to what extent did the fascist leaders believe
in their own doctrine, or did they use it cynically to manipulate the people
in order to seize power and to keep it. Even Hitler did not believe all
the obscurantist nonsense of the early racialist thinkers about blood and
soil, and he was often contemptuous of their fantasies. He had never read
Rosenberg's Myth of the Twentieth Century and once said in conversation
that "only our enemies have read this book." Fascists in power
had to compromise They achieved neither the total social revolution they
had promised nor even the "return to the soil" that had figured
so prominently in Nazi thought. Nazi "pragmatism" was equally
evident in its alliance with such non-Nordic nations as Italy and Japan,
which could hardly be justified with reference to the Nazis' race doctrine.
In other respects the fascist leaders remained faithful to their principles
They acted according to the nationalist "sacro egoismo"; they
practiced the Fuhrer principle; and they certainly were not converted to
tolerance and humanism. They were not nihilists, as some believed. Nazi
and fascist policy cannot be understood unless one accepts that the fascist
leaders had a cause, however perverted, in which they firmly believed. Their
myths were both a propagandistic device and, as they saw it, part of a higher
order of reality, bound to come true. As one of the racialist thinkers once
disarmingly put it "Perhaps the higher race we constantly invoke does
not really exist. But we shall create it anyway." The fanaticism of
the true believers was more striking in German National Socialism than in
Italian Fascism, but it did exist to some extent in every fascist movement.
Fascism was possible only if based on genuine belief.
Terror has been used as a political instrument from time immemorial.
The terror of fascism differs from that of other dictatorships not just
because it applied terror on such a massive scale, but because it combined
the use of tenor with widespread, all-pervasive propaganda. Mussolini, Hitler,
and Goebbels were not, of course the first to use propaganda; the essential
works on the subject (and on mass psychology) had been written in the century
before. Hitler notes in Mein Kampf that he learned a great deal from British
propaganda in World War I (Viscount Northcliffe) and from the Social Democrats
who, in contrast to the bourgeois parties, used agitation on a massive scale
in their political activities. But Nazism and fascism as well as Soviet
and Chinese Communism used propaganda on an infinitely greater scale than
ever before, and this was made possible by the technical development in
the twentieth century of the means of mass communications.
Hitler correctly analyzed the failure of official German propaganda
before 1918 The authorities had underrated its importance and had also failed
to realize that effective propaganda was meant for the consumption of the
masses, not the intellectuals. Propaganda, as Hitler envisioned it, consisted
of making a few points exclusively for mass consumption and then endlessly
repeating them. The masses as Hitler and Goebbels his most gifted assistant,
saw it, were slow and lazy; their memories were weak; and they reacted only
to the thousand-fold repetition of the simplest ideas. Furthermore, they
were "feminine" in their activities and thought and were motivated
by emotion rather than by reason. There was no room for nuance or interpretation
Propaganda had to be positive or negative, based on love or hatred. There
could be only right or wrong; and so the ability to see two sides of a question
was the very antithesis of propaganda.
As Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf
Inasmuch as ones own propaganda recognized a shadow of right upon the
opponents side, the ground is prepared for questioning ones own right. The
masses are not in a position to distinguish where the opponents right ends
and ones own begins. In such a case they become uncertain and mistrustful.
. .: He who would win the masses must know the key that opens the door to
their hearts. It is not objectivity, which is a weakness, but will and power....
The people sees in unfailing ruthless attack upon an opponent the proof
of one's own right. Seen in this light hesitation leads to uncertainty,
weakness, and ultimately failure.
If we add to this the recognition that propaganda had to be loud in
form and extreme in content, we will have listed all the essentials of Nazi
(and fascist) propaganda. In their struggle for power, the Nazis tried
to create as much noise as possible in order to attract attention. Once
in power they established a monopoly of propaganda eliminating all potential
rivals. The emphasis in fascist propaganda was always much more on the spoken
than on the written word, on the assumption that only a minority was reading
the political and editorial columns of newspapers. The Volkische Beobachter,
the central organ of the Nazi party, had some 120,000 subscribers in t932;
that is, only every tenth party member was reading it, and its influence
outside the party's ranks was negligible. Goebbels and Mussolini devoted
much time and effort to the supervision and guidance of the press once their
parties were in power, and they also wrote articles for publication. These
articles were essentially guidelines stating the main themes of the party
line to be repeated orally by thousands of local speakers and agitators.
Common to Nazi and fascist propaganda were extremist slogans; the building
up of the Fuhrer mythos ("the leader is always right"); an aggressive,
bellicose approach; and an implacable hostility toward all enemies. Both
Goebbels and the Italian Fascists discovered the importance of the radio
as a vehicle of propaganda For the first time in history it was possible
to reach many millions of people at one time rather than a few thousand
at most. The use of the radio was more widespread in Nazi Germany, as the
number of wireless sets in Italy passed the I million mark only in 1938.
Furthermore, Mussolini preferred the immediate contact with the masses from
his balcony in Rome to the impersonal microphone.
Both Goebbels and Mussolini attached great importance to the cinema
as a means of propaganda. Mussolini built Cinecitta, thus paving the way
for the great resurgence of the Italian cinema after 1945; and Goebbels
gave greater freedom to German movie-makers and actors than to any other
mass medium. The main difference between Germany and Italy was that Germany
generally used the propaganda weapon more systematically and radically than
Germany's Ministry of Propaganda was in charge of all the major and
minor media, providing daily guidance down to small details. Indeed, by
1937 its budget exceeded that of the Foreign Ministry, which shows how much
importance was attached to these activities. In Italy such guidance was
sporadic and, in the main, negative (that is, censorship). In 1933 there
was a wholesale purge of journalists and radio broadcasters in Germany,
whereas after 1923 most Italian journalists were not dismissed but continued
in their old jobs. Thus, Gleichsaltung (purge) was far more extensive in
Germany than in Italy; the only difference in Germany was that there were
slightly fewer and more radical periodicals, such as the Stürmer or
the SS organ Das Swartze Korps.
The techniques of propaganda under Nazism and Fascism have been widely
studied. Propaganda was always an instrument, but it was not an autonomous
factor in the shaping of policy. In isolation it could achieve nothing;
its success depended on physical power. It was Machtpropaganda, and it could
be said, somewhat crudely, that while the going was good- such as in Germany
up to the battle of Stalingrad-even a less accomplished and pervasive propaganda
would have succeeded. After the tide of war had turned, however, propaganda
did not make much difference to its outcome except helping prolong it The
main function of propaganda was to provide legitimacy to power and to project
its achievements and the victors. As such, it helped make Nazism and Fascism
popular for years. Nazi and Fascist propaganda outside Germany and Italy
never had a strong impact, mainly because it had no monopoly. To the extent
that the fascist regimes found admirers, it was for reasons other than the
Nazi and Fascist propaganda were successful before the seizure of power
when they had no monopoly and when the use of terror was limited. This can
be explained by the propaganda's specific virulence and mendacity and by
the fact that it appealed to popular sentiments and traditions (such as
nationalism). This is borne out by the fact that foreign propaganda hostile
to Nazism had little if any impact inside Germany up to the later war years.
In Italy, listening to foreign broadcasts was hardly ever punished, and
even Radio Moscow's broadcasting schedules were given in the Italian press
during much of the Fascist era.
Propaganda has also been used by other modern regimes, either on a massive
scale or in a more subtle way. But comparison between the use of propaganda
under fascism and that in democratic regimes is useless because a democratic
state lacks by definition, a monopoly on the dissemination of information.
The Communist regimes also attributed crucial importance to propaganda,
but their approach differed in certain aspects, such as the division of
labor under Communism and between agitation (presenting a few ideas to the
masses) and the systematic indoctrination of Marxism-Leninism. Soviet propaganda-appealing,
on the whole, less to emotion- depended somewhat less on the use of symbols
and rites than the Nazi propaganda did. But the difference was not overwhelming,
and they shared considerable similarities in style and content.
Fascist propaganda should be viewed not only as the exploitation of
the means of mass communication but also, in a wider framework, as the propagation
of political myths, of indoctrination through schools and after-work activities.
Once the discrepancy between slogans and reality during the last years of
the war became obvious, Hitler and Mussolini fell silent, and although the
propaganda apparatus continued to operate at peak capacity, its usefulness
rapidly decreased. Experience also shows that the effectiveness and attraction
of propaganda erode over time. Even though its very strength is repetition,
such repetition causes it to lose some of its impact and credibility. When
the mass audiences lose interest, they may still go through the motions
of "spontaneous ovations," but their true belief and enthusiasm
have dimmed. Fascism did not stay in power long enough to suffer the full
consequences of routinization in regard to its propaganda, but there clearly
were diminishing returns toward the end.
Liquidation of Fascism
Within a year, between 1946 and 1947, the rigorous Allied policy turned
to the other extreme Most of those who had been sentenced to jail in the
Nuremberg trials were released, or their sentences were substantially reduced.
Scandalous in particular was the rehabilitation of German judges Those who
had meted out political justice under the Nazis were readmitted, almost
without exception, to their old profession. When a group of major criminals
were put on trial in Landsberg (Bavaria) in 1950 and five of them were sentenced
to death, there was a storm of indignation in Germany, even though each
of those condemned had ordered the murder of tens of thousands of civilians,
crimes unprecedented in the history of Europe since the Middle Ages. But
by that time the belief in Befehlsnotstand prevailed in Germany-that every
criminal, however highly placed, had merely been obeying orders ("I
was only a simple field marshal-what could I possibly do?). According to
this logic, only Hitler was to blame, and since he was dead, there was no
point in charging his underlings, several times removed. Thus, after 1947
the persecution of Nazi crimes was gradually discontinued and, by 1957,
had virtually come to an end. In the French zone, where 669,000 files had
been opened, only 13 persons were found guilty of a major crime, and 958
more were considered implicated.
In the Soviet-occupied zone, the purge was, from the beginning, directed
only against major Nazis. It is estimated that one of every ten former Nazi
party members were affected, and if a teacher or policeman early on had
joined the Socialist Unity (Communist) Party, his previous aberrations were
forgiven. However, the higher echelons were more completely purged because
the Communists wanted to liquidate the old establishment and install their
own, younger cadres replacing the former leading officials. Thus, as a by-product
of the Communization of political and social life, the Nazis were cleaned
out more thoroughly in East Germany than in the West. The Communists did
not fail to stress this point Their state was truly antifascist, whereas
in West Germany the hold of Nazism had not been affected.
In fact, the record of West Germany was mixed. After a lull during the
1950s when the Allies were no longer looking for war criminals and the German
authorities were not yet ready to do so, a new wave of trials began. These
were mainly of former commanders and executioners in the concentration and
death camps. These investigations lasted for years and sometimes decades,
and in the meantime some of the main accused died and others fled abroad.
But the wheels of justice turned relentlessly, even forty years after the
The trials served a useful purpose, inasmuch as they made it difficult
to forget the enormity of the Nazi crimes. On the other hand, there was
a growing psychological resistance to being made constantly aware of a past
that many Germans wanted to forget. Many commiserated with the old men put
on trial in the Majdanek trial and other such cases Surely it made no sense
to start proceedings several decades after the event, when memories had
faded and witnesses could no longer be trusted. The German attitude toward
those who had actively resisted Hitlerism was complex Many argued that resistance,
especially during the war, was tantamount to treason. Even those bitterly
opposed to Hitler faced a conflict of conscience, as they feared not only
for their and their families' lives but also for their country, and sympathy
was due therefore to those who had not resisted.
All in all, the purge of Nazism was neither complete nor consistent.
But given the circumstances, the complexity of many issues, the unpreparedness
of the victors, and the reluctance of many Germans to sit in judgment on
their own kin, the purge went as well as could be reasonably expected.