A century ago, the nations of the world were at each other’s throats. Though peace and normalcy eventually regained a footing for a time, less than two decades would pass before the whole thing collapsed again into violent chaos. The first World War provided the conditions in which ideology metastasized into intolerance which, in turn, was institutionalized in the Second World War. In the present day, the hallmarks of that age-old intolerance are not only visible, but loudly ascendant. The trappings of any coherent or structured ideology, on the other hand, seem conspicuously absent. Anger, Fear, Paranoia, and Prejudice are not the sound basis of any rational philosophy of government, but history routinely demonstrates their unmatched utility in the toolboxes of tyrants looking for popular sanction in pursuit of absolute power.
The funny thing about absolute power is that it does not require an ideology to guide it, nor does it often permit an ideology to constrain it. Such power is called Fascism. Because it is conceptually antithetical to the philosophy of democracy, it is ironic to observe the fact that evidence of a successful democracy must by necessity permit, to some degree, some free expression of the fascist point of view. As a natural result, every liberalized political system has a fascist, pseudo-fascist, or a proto-fascist fringe which has served to confound the most enlightened of jurists’ grasp of the extent of political freedom. What separates the homebody from the hate group is a simple matter of organization. Identity, being the operative component of every organisation, typically provides the foundation upon which a fascist ideology hardens and transitions from a complex of perceptions and attitudes to a catastrophic procession of brutal and ignoble events. White skin, black shirt, stupid hat...in reality, identity can be any old thing at all that makes a weak and immoral person believe he or she is among the strong and righteous.
It follows, unfortunately, that the burden of any free society is the certainty that it carries inside of it at all times the capacity for terror and degradation; that lying in wait at every moment is a silent army of callous and bitter malcontents, ready in the shadows and waiting for the dog whistle. The rest of the world at large is often quite shocked by the rapidity and intensity of crises which accompany a Mussolini or a Hitler through time and space, but a careful examination of history in hindsight never fails to enumerate and elucidate the determining factors which, had anyone alive bothered to discover, were obvious and evident from the start. In the events, many people who were alive were quite aware of what was happening, and spoke quite candidly to progressively less and less disinterested audiences about the dangers ahead.
The Noel Memorial Library in Louisiana retains a number of works by such authors in its third floor special collection, published primarily in New York between 1933 and 1945. It is a service to these voices to revisit their testimony, and it is a service to mankind that contemporary scholars and the free citizens of the world remember their admonitions and see through their eyes the warnings in our own society. I want to study the subject of fascism through these works in order to demonstrate a knowledgeable overview of its history and development in the years between World War I and II. I want to establish a foundation of concepts and language upon which to evaluate the influence of fascism in its historical context upon the political and cultural systems exposed to it. Having accomplished these things, I hope to be able to identify elements of fascism in contemporary society, be they ubiquitous or obscure, and draw attention to them as one would shine a light in a dark place.
The work will also provide a point of entry into a more advanced discussion about the impact of technology on the human need for administration. My doctoral ambition is an examination of the commodification of information, which I believe will enable (or perhaps, has enabled) a kind of techno-fascism that combines all the worst toxic potentialities for abuse and corruption with the executive efficiency of artificial intelligence. In Spycatcher, former British Intelligence Chief Peter Wright quotes antebellum abolitionist John Breckenridge when describing the the core problem of government, as Breckenridge puts it: “the malady of all administration” is imperfection. Fascism, in its purest hypothetical form, is nothing more or less than perfect administration. It is the ability to maintain a Utopian order by automating the distribution of consequence, swift, effective, precise, and cold, across any distance with the least possible effort or error.
The point sharpens in the age of Artificial Intelligence, Hyper-sonic Weapons, and Fusion energy. Sharper still, decades into a global oil war between nuclear powers, during an historic climate crisis. But the razor’s edge would be all of this occurring during a complete and total breakdown of the international diplomatic order, preceded by the social, political, economic and environmental equivalent of biblical signs and wonders. The millennial in the secular, digital age is apparently still just as susceptible to the violent impulse and the toxic mentality as were his or her forebears. Still just as vulnerable to emotional and material manipulation. Then, as now, education plays the critical role in allowing the species to confront the worst of its many faces and to assure the possibility of a better future. There can therefore be no question of the relevance of the exploration of the history of fascism, nor of a provocative and thoughtful attempt at raising awareness and contributing to the dialogue which, so long as it endures, assures us that though darkness often falls, the sun also rises.
Introduction: The Donald and the Doves
Madeleine Albright, Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, and Carl Bernstein have each stated publicly their shared view that the sitting president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, is indeed a fascist. It is an assertion held to be controversial, at this point, only by his radicalized base, who in turn point to the “left” as the traditional origin of fascist policies and attitudes in contemporary society. They do not bother to distinguish between the American “left,” and the European conservatism which funded the rise of Fascism in 19th Century Europe. Right-wing mouth-pieces like Dinesh D’souza perpetuate this distortion, effectively advancing the development of fascism in America by obscuring its meaning, blurring its historical context, and condemning those who oppose or criticize these outcomes, absurdly, as fascists. The target audience, in recent experience, has tended to be the low-income, white, protestant male with little or no college education-in other words: the most abundant demographic in America.
The Polish poet Kazimierz Brandys, reflecting on the experience of Poland under German occupation, recalled witnessing pedestrian violence against Jews in his own streets, and observed: “the word ‘pogrom’ came to mind, and it was probably then that I first realized how the pogroms in Russia had worked, how they work in general. The populace doesn’t have to take part in them. A mass of hired lowlife is sufficient.” What Brandys describes is chillingly familiar. In Poland under the administration of the Soviet Union in the 1970’s, the policies of state censorship of education and the press were carried on by gangs of thugs who used violence and intimidation to suppress criticism, effectively driving higher education underground. The attempt in our time to delegitimize open and valid criticism by discrediting higher learning in general is as alarming as it is deplorable, but it is not novel. It is stark evidence of a malignant latency thriving just beneath the surface of American culture, passive at the moment, but lethal, like so much gasoline awaiting a lighted match.
It is folly, though, to lay responsibility for the emergence of American fascism at the feet of angry, poor-white-trash. The pawns in the great game may be provincial, prejudiced, and preliterate, but they are being manipulated and mobilized by a massive and sophisticated campaign of disinformation and populist rhetoric. This campaign is shockingly overt, with dialogue which falls short of (but only just so) outright appeals to violence, racism, and tribalism entering the mainstream. Billionaires, government officials, and massive media conglomerates have all played a role in normalizing the kind of hate-speech upon which discriminatory and destructive policies flourish. Nor is it entirely appropriate to indemnify the “left” against the proposition that it has contributed to this outcome.
Joseph P. Kennedy, as late as 1937, spoke candidly of the likelihood that some form of fascism would be necessary to protect American wealth. He was the American Ambassador to London during the period of German appeasement, a policy which he himself advocated. He went on become the first chairman and principal architect of the Securities Exchange Commission, while using his wealth and influence to seat his own sons in the White House and the Attorney General’s Office. Not since Romulus and Remus have two siblings possessed such control over a country, as had Jack and Bobby wielding the Executive and Judiciary branches.
Enter Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Posh, privileged, and petty New York socialites with exactly zero governing experience, thrust into positions of immense power by mere nepotism, with Jared assuming the preeminent (and de facto) role of senior White House diplomat, and Ivanka apparently being seriously (if briefly) suggested to lead the World Bank, in abject defiance of all credulity! It is helpful, however confusing, to recall that Donald Trump, like Louisiana Senators Bill Cassidy and Mike Kennedy, was a Democrat for most of his life. It is also necessary to keep in mind the fact that no Republican in American history has equaled the tenacity of Democrats for making massive and sweeping changes to the structure of the American economy.
With the Federal Reserve Act, Woodrow Wilson created more wealth by fiat than had existed in the whole American economy since its inception. Franklin Roosevelt effectively subordinated the nation’s financial sector with the passage of the Banking Reform Act of 1934. Barack Obama added $10 Trillion to the gross national public debt, doubling in eight years what had taken nearly seventy years to borrow. To further complicate matters, each of these presidents presided over interventionist policies which accompanied massive, record-breaking defense budgets which seem, in retrospect, quite contradictory when contrasted with their thematically progressive domestic legacies.
It is important to note that all of these examples were book-ended on either side by decidedly conservative administrations underwritten by decidedly conservative American majorities. Herein lies the major problem with the discussion of fascism, and to a larger extent, the practice of democracy. It is based on identity. When an electorate shifts wildly from one party to another in a fair election, political scientists call it a protest vote, meaning somewhere along the way, the party in power failed someone somehow. Young people, black people, the Ohio rust belt, etc. The disaffected group is the one in the position to seek redress of grievances from the position in power. The tricky part is that it is not (or, perhaps more accurately, it is no longer) necessary for the group affected to identify a genuine causal relationship between the social or economic outcome and the policy maker of the day. The one tends to be the accumulated product of decades of various circumstances which have no common antagonist, while the other may have only just recently entered politics.
The operative force is the combined effects of two tribal instincts: to self-identify, and to simplify. The outcome is the tendency for the ruling class to fail to perceive the sincerity or merit of the redressing party, and to instead perceive the redress itself as a direct threat to their own security, values, and way of life. The conclusion is that everyone thinks they know what democracy means, and no one really does. And so, conversely, the internet is littered with YouTube videos and Wikipedia entries and Twitter posts and collegiate term papers drenched with sticky, broken, and pointed assertions of who is and is not a fascist. Historically, the Italians and Germans were briefly, nominally, authentic fascists. But they were actually just appropriating an old Italian word from the days of Imperial Rome. In any case, the Allied forces, including the American soldiers who landed on Normandy beach, could rightfully and respectfully be called Anti-Fascist. Of course, no one called them this. Antifa is a modern word which, in the contemporary discussion, also has a quite ambiguous relationship with reality. It does not refer to any standing organization. It only exists in a fitful state of conflagration, having no discernible center of gravity or observable mass en cours, but is observed on all the major continents.
On the theoretical level, the concept of fascism ontologically implies a zero-sum game. It is sort of like drowning: one is either for it or against it. The natural majority tends to oppose drowning the way it opposes fascism, and thus all of humanity is subsumed by a binary abstraction, whether it chooses to be so or not so or is wholly unaware of and indifferent to the infallible math. The reason for this is the brutal history of Italy under Benito Mussolini or Germany under Adolph Hitler. For three quarters of what has been a very awkward century, the people who lived during these events rested comfortably with the confidence that after the holocaust, the general stock of humanity possessed such a deep and clear reservoir of common knowledge as to assure the moral and logical safety in regretting the event and cooperating to prevent its recurrence. The North American Treaty Organization exists, almost specifically, to prevent another Hitler. Its members contribute a percentage of their annual GDP in exchange for what essentially began as an effort to prevent any single power from obtaining complete and total dominance over the whole global system.
Therein lies the contradiction each generation must wrestle with. All the original members of the Organization are (presumably) dead, as are the delegates who negotiated the precipitating agreements, along with the representatives who debated and ratified them. But the massive structure remains, funded entirely by people who must, year after year, rest upon the assurances of ghosts their faith in its continuing necessity. All the nuclear weapons, missile systems, satellite communication and surveillance systems, drones, rockets, guns, bullets, body armor, vehicles, and all of the people responsible for purchasing, distributing, and operating, repairing, and replenishing these things amount to an immeasurable expenditure on the part of western civilization as a whole, renewable annually, though what influence the public may have on reducing this burden is purely hypothetical. The model is based on the same primitive theory of barbarism upon which Hitler and all the rest of the warmongers in history relied, that theory of Superior Force, the tired old gospel of testosterone and self-vindicating fear.
So why do we cling to it? Because Hitler. But what is it doing? No one cares. Few people bother to know, in the grand scheme of things. It is presently involved in the Afghan War. That is the only war it has ever been in. It entered the war after the terrorists bombed the World Trade Center buildings in New York City nearly twenty years prior to this writing. The US, conversely, went into Iraq, perhaps to confuse the Taliban as much as the American public, and subsequently tried (and failed) to leave early! Two decades of being the ultra-modern global force in action against an economy the size of Michigan, and the one damnable piece of evidence against the charge that NATO is in fact an absolute power is the complete lack of demonstrable success upon which to predicate such a claim. In fact, little exists to suggest that the US has “succeeded” in Iraq either, and the English pejorative commonly applied to western forces is often the word ‘fascist.’ The word most commonly hurled at the US armed forces by domestic critics (in the best of times) is ‘fascist.’ The US military retains the dubious distinction of being at once Anti-Fascist, and also fascist. Transient, like beauty, fascism exists in the eye of the beholder.
It is anti-fascist because it seeks to prevent another power from gaining supremacy. It is fascist because it seeks to possess that supremacy as a consequence of its obligation to the political ideology of the day, because of its obeisance to the cult of symbolism and pageantry, and for its willingness to conduct violence in order to maintain a status quo. And it is also not Fascist because it clearly has nothing to do with Germany or Italy (or ancient Imperial Rome, for that matter) during the period between 1922 and 1945, though at that time, the US military was decidedly Anti-Fascist. At this point, the word has been so deconstructed and saturated in vagary that it may seem to have no real meaning at all, and that’s the magic of the word. What it really means, of course, is violence. Violence is the physical expression of power. It is only related to identity as the ends are related to the means. The Italians and the Germans used the word Fascist in order to mobilize a sufficient force of violent followers under a single, simple, common theme, just long enough to persuade them to surrender their identities to the toxic super-organism at large.
With the nasty business of linguistics properly disposed of and out of mind, fascism is free to acquire the self-sustained, self-justified, self-perpetuating superstructure it was always meant to possess, so long as no one fools around and calls the thing fascist out loud within earshot of a sympathetic majority. Those who accept the doctrine of superior force as a valid basis of peace will never be persuaded to relinquish the physical means of maintaining that security by anyone on any philosophical or moral basis. Those who reject the doctrine will never possess the physical means of persuading those who do-an asymmetrical paradox in which the high-road inevitably leads nowhere. The only viable ways to control the military industrial complex are leadership and finance. Considering these are also the primary columns upon which the structure of the thing is founded, the common ideological pacifist finds he or she has a steep, uphill battle. Best just to accept the premise. If you can’t beat them, join them!
At long last we come safely and logically to the conclusion that society neither can nor will be rid of a fascist fringe, nor will it ever disarm itself because society does not believe, at its core, that peace is protected by any other means. If everything that can go wrong will go wrong, as the saying goes, then eventually the fascist fringe-those who believe it is ok to punch people at rallies, to mock the disabled, to disrespect the public servant, to disenfranchise the other, and to view the world as a battlefield in which a single, embattled, group must prevail at the expense of the rest- will suddenly find themselves holding the reins of power, to the exasperation of sober and civil-minded citizens everywhere. And what then? NATO may have planned every contingency for a Vladimir Putin, but it had no plan in place for a Donald Trump. There can be no rational operational model in which the Leader of the Free World despises a majority of the people in it.
As a result, America faces two possible paths forward. Repudiate this rize of fascist fetishism and work to restore its own dignity and regain the trust of the national community, or double down and destroy what remains of American credibility. The latter course is sure to embolden fascist elements throughout Europe and beyond, as has already been seen. The global arsenal in the hands of a violent xenophobic homogeneity is a surefire ticket to hell for the species. The former course, that of repudiation, requires a massive international crash course in what fascism is and what it is not, as well as why it is bad, and not good. America, especially, must again demonstrate the benevolent capacity of an informed electorate to affect a positive change. If it is unable to do so, then it can no longer be called a democracy. If the Great Experiment fails here, what chance has it anywhere going forward? Woe to the meek, for they will be driven from the earth.
Fascism, the Foundation
Christianity, in western civilization, refers to many things. It is a collection of people. It has a geographical history. It is a complex of ideas, desires, mythology, and identity. But none of these subjects have any value if not for the deeds of Christianity, that is the role it played in the many sequences of events which defined western civilization. So too it is with Fascism. Fascism has faces, places, and a historicity loaded by the deeds of Fascists and the roles they played in the course of events. Therefore, the process of understanding Fascism must arrive at an understanding of what Fascism is by placing the critical events of its lifespan in order, each presenting their respective characters in their settings in time. However, Fascism happens to be one of those rare topics which works the other way. Each new student of history arrives at the subject already knowing something about its consequences. The inexplicable murder of millions of innocent people. The destruction of continental economies. The delusional anarchy of dirty crumb-snatching imperialism run amok. It is the discovery of the consequences of Fascism that demand an account of its adherents’ deeds in time and space. This chapter will prepare the reader for a dramatis personae and a timeline of related geopolitical events, roughly spanning the first half of the twentieth century, by establishing what Fascism was, from the perspectives of people who wrote critically during the era and afterwards.
In Social Philosophies in Conflict, Joseph Leighton (1937) wrote that “The Nazi Philosophy is a philosophy of racial tribalism.” Describing Benito Mussolini’s own interpretation of Fascism, Leighton writes of a society in which “the State guarantees the internal and external safety of the country, but it also safeguards and transmits the spirit of the people, elaborated down the ages in its language, its customs, and its faith. The state is not only the present, it is also the past and above all the future.” Describing the disposition of the German people in 1925, H.G. Wells is less adoring in his prescient critique of Fascism, then only in its infancy: “Instead of a cult of brotherhood...there is substituted, more or less completely, an idiot adulation of the crowned head...the flag becomes the carpet beneath the feet of their deities.” In these contemporary descriptions, many fuzzy threads intertwine. There is tribalism, conspicuous for its anachronistic presence on the modern end of the sociological continuum. There is racism, which is perhaps the universally consistent theme in all discussions of Fascism. There is religion, statehood, and monarchy, There is morality, mythology, and identity. Fascism behaves like a virus. Once it has infected one part of the body-social, it tends to pervade all of its internal systems.
The bothersome thing about Fascism, apart from all of the horrible consequences of course, is that it always seeks to assume and assert the image of legitimacy, in spite of the most obvious and vulgar evidence to the contrary. Only when sanctioned by some tangible legal authority does Fascism manifest in its true form, what Wells called “ultra-legal tyrannies.” To the outside world, these “ultra-legal” tyrannies appeared, like the World War before them, to spontaneously erupt into being. In truth, they were the political result of violent forces in action, which themselves took decades to foment. In A History of Italian Fascism, Federico Chabod observes that “the Fascist Party has a distinct military component,” In Italy, Germany, and elsewhere, Chabod says “the method was always the same: reliance on force against public opinion, and force always won.” According to Chabod’s history, Mussolini gained control of the Italian Parliament and the Chamber of deputies through “widespread violence against non-fascists throughout the country.” Though they possessed control of the government, and though by their calloused destructiveness they clearly had no deference for any form of moral restraint, nor any abiding humanity whatsoever, the Fascists required the mythology of legality, the illusion of patriotic imperative, and at least the most fragile straw of moral justification, to inoculate themselves against the emotional and psychological burdens of accountability. Chabod concludes that “violence was undoubtedly the origin of Fascism’s success…”
With Fascism, violence is merely the means to a greater end. In the context of postwar Europe, violence was an expression of rage and contempt for the poor and dissociated, but Fascism as a political agent, in the words of John Weiss, was reactionary: “an ultra-conservative counter-challenge to the threat from the left which followed the turmoil of the war...Industrialists used Mussolini’s legions to break the rising wave of postwar strikes and factory seizures.” Once in power, Fascists tended towards conflict because conflict was at the very core of their organizing principles, and also because the high-drama helped compensate for their often childish and simplistic grasp of policy. Alice Hamilton wrote in 1933 on the visible contrast between the expectation of government and the Fascist reality:
“The measures on which the government was then concentrating its attention were distinctly adolescent in character. It seemed more important to recognize all the sports clubs so that Jews and Social Democrats should be debarred than it was to plan a program of lessening unemployment...The pubic speeches, the radio talks, the leading articles in the “cleansed” papers, all were directed to youthful minds, not to adult[s]...Hitler made each insignificant, poverty-stricken jobless youth of the slums feel himself one of the great [heroes] of the earth.”
Recounting his own perspectives as a resident in one of the Fascist youth labor camps, G.S. Cox reiterates Hamilton’s view the following year in 1934, “Their attitude was one rather of personal faith in Hitler than of devotion to the details of his policy...Their faith in Hitler was, unfortunately, not supported by a very sound knowledge of international affairs.” Violent philosophy depends on a degree of superficiality in its adherents, and is generally accommodated. But in this case, these labor camps were critical in deliberately shaping the culture of a generation of German boys toward such predispositions. They were also instrumental in mobilizing scarcity as structural reinforcement of centralized power. Completion of the program determined career opportunity. Cox reports that “employers [were] required, in granting work, to give preference to applicants with a work pass showing that they [had] served the required period in a camp.” If the brainwashing failed to do the trick, starvation just might succeed. In any case, by the time it mattered, any sense of the value of one’s own opinion on the real world was lost in a convoluted storm of toxic, anti-social persuasion.
Fascism is also compulsively vain. It functions best on the pomp and circumstance of manufactured public opinion. Having gathered and brainwashed their violent hordes and conquered the bastions of legitimacy, the Fascist intelligentsia were not content to simply ignore their critics as an alternative to murdering them. It was unfailingly necessary to publish and promote the alternative versions of truth as a buttress against a cognitive backslide on the part of the population. In simplest terms, the Fascist strategies for getting away with murder fell among these lines: deny it happened; deny that it happening would have mattered; or deny that it should not have happened in the first place. But above all, be damned sure it happened in public in broad daylight.
The spotlight and the spectacle are both the tools of the Fascists. Their leaders seized the attention of the press, then seized their means of production, and in short order set out only to discredit the whole apparatus, rather than destroy it. Junius B. Wood described the state of German media in 1936, “The editors often directed their wrath at the newspapers, often referring to them as the “Hetze-Presse” (baiting press) [read: “Fake News”]...Yet the German press itself almost always seems to have a “Hetze” on about happenings in one foreign land or another...Press sermonizing, it seemed, was sometimes more important than the facts.” The media was used to train and indoctrinate the German “forces” (i.e. the population at large, expendable, under Fascist governance) while disparate in their static lives.
The massive rally, then, was where those messages and premises were internalized emotionally. These too were designed to manipulate the average German's relationship with the truth, by Adolph Hitler’s own admission. Otto Tolischus described Hitler’s method in 1936 this way:
“The big mass meeting [Hitler explained] is necessary because in it an individual feels safe and courageous; the crowd produces its own spirit, which feeds the individual along. In the evening...everybody’s resistance is lowest and the mass succumbs all the more easily to the suggestive power of a stronger will. Finally, [says Hitler] he learned in a Catholic Church that twilight cathedrals in which incense is burned amid solemn ceremonies created an atmosphere which made the words of the priests most effective; he determined to employ an equally appropriate atmosphere for the propagation of his own doctrine.”
Albion Ross reports that “Huge meetings, parades, and demonstrations of all sorts [remained] the staple diet of the German masses. In 1936 [there were] seventy-two major propaganda events in Berlin or the Reich.” These demonstrations helped to foster the many crucial elements of cult-hood: a common identity and purpose, confidence of numbers, and that orgiastic intensity which helps to imbibe the message, not to mention the increasing incentive to conceal any reservations, doubts, questions, or criticisms, for the risk of ostracism. These events contributed toward a homogenization of the national narrative. As Ross puts it, “The fundamental idea of the modern totalitarian state is to achieve complete national unity and maximum force by creating complete uniformity of opinion upon all essential issues in life and politics.” Weiss explains that
“In Power, Fascism was totalitarian, not merely despotic. Both Mussolini and Hitler attempted to reshape society in order to remove for all time the threat from the left...The S.S. ran death-camps, supervised slave labor and extermination programs in the occupied territories, and destroyed potential opposition within the Third Reich by terror, torture, and murder...Fascist nations, in short, do not merely outlaw disapproval; they manufacture approval.”
In Social Philosophies, Leighton concurs with this view: “A very important part of the policies of the Fascists and Nazis is, by a completely controlled press and radio broadcasting, to tell their people what to believe. So they concentrate now on one public enemy, and now on another.” Control of the press and of the education system enabled the Fascists to dictate what information the average German or Italian received. With the ability to fire critics and hire obedient propagandists, the Fascists succeeded in shaping the German attitudes toward the government, perceptions of the progress of the second world war, and opinions of the other European nations.
By carrot or stick, the Fascists could elicit compliance from the German intelligentsia, as the following passage from a New York Times article in October of 1937, commenting on the torpid condition of intellectual freedom in Germany, succinctly demonstrates: “And how many teachers and journalists must not only check their tongues but chose daily between writing in praise of what they blame, or in detraction of what they admire, or, if they will not, having a family without sustenance on their hands?” The ultimate message so much effort is expended to convey, a “soap-box anthropology, providing pseudo-scientific reassurance of the essential superiority of Germans in spite of their defeat,” in the words of Harold Callender in 1933, was “based upon showmanship, rather than…[upon] definite ideas.”
For Mussolini, as for the Germans, the philosophy of Fascism did not require so much in the way of ideas, it simply demanded obedience to the cause on either faith in its merit or fear of its entourage. What government existed, in either country, existed only to facilitate the will of the innermost circle of the tyrants over the ways of some 100 million unwitting citizens. By Mussolini’s own candid admission, the role of government was subordinate, in the grand scheme of things, to the Caesarian leader’s will: “ I do not want, so long as I can avoid it, to rule against the Chamber [of Deputies]; but the chamber must feel its own position...the possibility that it may be dissolved in two days or two years.” Having amassed hundreds of thousands of fanatical supporters into a pseudo-military gang of armed thugs and hitmen, Mussolini had little to fear from the politicians.
Having branded that violent regime in ancient Italian mythology and mysticism, Mussolini enshrouded it with a layer of credibility and legitimacy that discouraged rational criticism, or at least preemptively associated the critics themselves with the hostile and treacherous outsiders seeking to subvert and destroy the Italian heritage. “I made a scheme of political and military organization on the model of the old Roman Legions. We created...a slogan, a uniform, and a watchword.” Hitler was no less forthright in his dismissal of a fact-based reality in favor of one tailor-made for the wounded German ego and underwritten by old-fashioned brutality. Miriam Beard captures this antipathy in a 1931 commentary in which Hitler is confronted by economic specialists who disagree with his premises and plans: “...he challenges the “Ink Knights,” the theorizers, to combat. When four leading economists sent him a letter disputing his financial schemes, he replied only “where are your storm troops?” ”
The manufactured German line quickly achieved ubiquity in ways that were simply not possible in more backward Italy. The advanced industrialism and imperial wealth of Germany had no corollary among dirt-poor, backwoods mountain men. Joseph Goebbels receives the lion’s share of historical credit for carrying this propaganda to the German people, and the ubiquity of German Fascist propaganda is as much a testament to his energy and genius as to Hitler’s passionate cruelty. Albion Ross described the
“Thought control, which in 1937, “[pervaded] the atmosphere. It stares out of every printed page. It accounts for the music that you hear on the radio. It crops out in every conversation. It is like the fixed idea that torments the neurotic. Even while you are resting, the propagandists are exercising their influence.”
Thought control was effective, to be sure, but it could never rival violence as a means of persuasion. Walter Duranty put it this way in 1936: “...as the Bolsheviki found in July, 1917, no demonstration, however numerically impressive, is much good against machine guns handled by determined men.” These determined men, in the case of Germany, were often soldiers who had out-served the twelve-year enlistment maximums, as mandated by the Treaty of Versailles. They had extensive military training and command experience. They sought to regain their prewar status, sense of belonging, and class entitlements by any means necessary. “The Nazis,” says Harold Callender, “wanted a military, dictatorial regime backed by a Fascist militia...to do away with parliamentary government.”
As we have seen, implementing Fascism requires establishing control over many areas of society. A charismatic leader exploits a perceived social grievance in a way that galvanizes the disaffected. That much can be done cheaply, provided the right conditions align. The leader then mobilizes that disaffected populous with uniforms, equipment, and weapons and begins terrorizing citizens, confiscating communication and education facilities, and targeting the impressionable youth with weaponized scarcity and group-think. Soon, he or she has amassed enough power to overthrow the existing regime and gain control of the military and political mechanisms upon which a society depends for survival. While distribution of charisma and circumstance is beyond human control, what the majority of these activities require is money, and an endless supply of it.
To this end, Fascism, once in power, seeks to sustain itself by acquiring control over the principle means of wealth creation. What results is something called the corporative state. It is “...a new structure in western political and economic society,” according to Mussolini. “Although retaining the principle of private initiative…[it] has abandoned laissez-faire. Capital, as well as labor, is regulated in its actions and policies in the interest of the whole organism by its ruling organization.” Private initiative, in this case, is a hollow phrase. There can be no private initiative when capital and labor receive their marching orders from a “ruling organization.” In democratic nations such as the United States, the pursuit of happiness is the fundamental political and economic axiom. By contrast, as Mussolini, with his usual candor, confesses: “Fascism denies the materialistic conception of happiness as a possibility.” Instead, the Fascist lives and breathes for armed struggle, as though war itself was the pinnacle of human achievement. “War alone keys up all human energies to their maximum tension and sets a seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it.” Thus, the Fascist government would expend considerable energy nurturing the budding martial elements of its society. Arnaldo Cortes wrote late in 1935
There is no other country in the world, with the possible exception of Germany, which dedicates so much time, money, and effort as Italy does to the creation of suitable human material for the army. Boys step out of the cradle into the Balilla organization, which teaches them to march almost before they can walk. From that moment, up to the age of 55, every able bodied Italian male is virtually a soldier, in accordance with the Fascist maxim that soldier and citizen are synonymous terms.”
For such a state of perpetual and inevitable war, if such be the desired outcome necessary to fulfill the violent ideological and cultural aspirations of a fascist people, the role of the corporative state is to guarantee an inexhaustible bankroll. The leading German industrialists would prosper at the expense, while simultaneously contributing to the proliferation, of millions of bereaved German families. As Delbert Clark notes, “Poison gases manufactured by [I.G. Farben, a German Dyestuff consortium, later tried at Nuremberg] and supplied by Farben to officials of the SS were used for experimentation upon and extermination of enslaved persons throughout Europe.”
Alfred Hugenberg, the German Minister of Economy, Agriculture, and Food, was a significant figure in the Industrialist sanctioning of the rise of the Nazi Party. One commentator, speaking early in 1933, suggested that Hugenberg would eclipse even Hitler himself! “It is predicted,” says Emil Lengyel, “that long after Hitler’s name recalls merely a passing phrase, the name of his minister of economy will be remembered as a significant product of the age.” Lengyel says of Hugenberg “He had all the qualities demanded of a first class dictator, except the power to fascinate a country.” Hugenberg’s legacy in the public eye, however, was destined to be subsumed by the taller shadows cast by his more determined peers. Goebbels, is remembered for his masterful role in manipulating public opinion to support the Nazi movement. And in 1930, Hugenberg hitched his National Socialist Party to the Nazi cause, “with the result that the Nazi’s scored a a spectacular victory.”
Fritz Thyssan was another wealthy industrialist figure instrumental in the development of Fascism in Germany but lost to the pages of popular history. In 1941, George Shuster listed among Thyssan’s contributions that he personally “paid off the debts outstanding on Hitler’s Brown House, ...gave the Nazis millions of marks, …[and] was rewarded with a seat in the new Reichstag and a promise from Hitler that the corporative system was to be established within eight days.” Instead, Shuster says, after Hitler began targeting Catholics in Germany, “with war threatening and his son-in-law dead in a concentration camp, Thyssan left Germany...and was fated to witness the crushing defeat of France and to be left with his back to a wall somewhere in region combed by the Gestapo.”
Thyssan, like Hugenberg, and like many obscenely wealthy, ultra-conservative movers and shakers of the day, believed they were too big to be eaten by their own progeny. They believed they could use the Fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany to subdue the labor strikes on the domestic front, while also unwinding the economic consequences of the first world war by rearming and reneging on the terms of the Versailles Treaty. Edvard Heimann wrote in 1938 “The reason why the rise of Fascism was financially supported by big business as a measure of defense against labor was that big business planned to resume power...as soon as Fascism would prove incapable of solving the problems of a complex industrial society.”
However, once the realities of Hitler’s deprivations began to set in, the dynamics of control shifted dramatically. Heimann described the process in 1939, by which the greater consequences of Fascism tended to reduce the role of the citizen, big or small, until only consent remained: “As people watched the decomposition of a system based on civil liberties and the paralysis of the vital functions under the impact of permanent conflict, they learned to fear for their bare existence and were accordingly prepared to surrender liberties which appeared to serve no good end.”
In seeking its ends, Fascism must dominate every aspect of the individual’s life, but the individual must participate in order for Fascism to obtain complete domination of the self. Thus, Fascism’s goals and objectives are always couched in terms of a mutually beneficial relationship between the citizen and society. In Mussolini’s words “The Citizen of the Fascist state is no longer a selfish individual who has the anti-social right of rebelling against any law of the Collectivity…It puts men and their possibilities into productive work and interprets for them the duties they have to fulfill.” In more concise (and Orwellian) terms, Mussolini says “...today the State is not an abstract and unknowing entity; the government is present everywhere, every day.”
Omnipresent, Omnipotent, and Omniscient...whence cometh evil? Mussolini’s conceptualization of Fascism resembles early Judaism in its demand for primacy among the pantheon of more primitive belief systems. In keeping with this demand, Mussolini must walk a very delicate tightrope to elevate this new -ism above the Catholic church without alienating millions of zealous and devout Italian Christians. Interestingly, his strategy for doing so comes directly from the Christian playbook. Though he approaches the church in a friendly way, he makes clear the distinction between earthly and divine authority, as well as which higher power is to rule which roost:
“Today, with the highest loyalty, fascism understands and values the church and its strength; such is the duty of every Catholic citizen. But politics, the defense of national interests, the battles over ourselves and others, must be the work of the modern Fascist Italians who want to see the immortal and irreplaceable Church of Saint Peter is respected, and do not wish ever to confound themselves with any political force which has no disclosed outline and knows no patriotism.”
Once all the domestic resistance had been overcome, overwhelmed, assimilated, or executed, Fascism was emboldened and uninhibited, and could approach the world stage with the surety and confidence of a homegrown imperial superpower. While Mussolini’s Italy was not well positioned, militarily speaking, to assert itself beyond a certain point in its Fascist lifespan, Hitler’s Germany was poised to take on all comers. In 1939, Lyman Brysan summarized Hitler’s brazen disregard for the systems of alliances which had developed specifically to constrain German development, once the nation itself fell solidly under his command:
“Germany had signed a treaty not to put soldiers along the French border; Hitler put them there. Austria was about to vote on the question of joining with Germany in the empire. Hitler marched in with an army, stopped the election, and his army is still in possession. He has threatened the small countries on his borders over and over again. And now, by the threat of war, he has practically destroyed Czechoslovakia…”
Fascism, as a social phenomenon, throws into doubt all the altruistic certainties of the democratic experiment. As a series of historical events, it clearly demonstrates the destructive potential inherent in any popular/populist government with an ax to grind. As a pantheon of players and participants, Fascism illustrates the tragic consequences of cowardice, greed, vanity, wrath, and ignorance. As a complex of ideas and beliefs, Fascism is a disorganized and reactionary muddle of half-truths and absurd contradictions. The founders of the American political system, by seeming contrast, believed in such novel concepts as representative government, checks and balances, and the role of suffrage in shaping the future of a free society. The Declaration of Independence (US 1776) asserts in its opening paragraph that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The consent of the governed, it was apparently assumed, would not permit such atrocities as occurred at Auschwitz.
W.D. Herridge, in 1943, wrote of the impotence of Democracy in the face of Fascism: “[The vote] is only a symbol. For when people are not told the truth, when the real issues are not before them, they are as powerless as disenfranchised ghosts. The people vote in Germany, yet no one says Germany has a responsible government.” As individuals, those people played little to no role in the sequence of events which eventually stripped them of their hard-fought rights and privileges and subjected them to the horrors of anhilatory warfare. As individuals, for the most part, the Germans and Italians were spectators to the rise of Fascism. Mussolini did not raise an army capable of defeating even Italy. He only needed a sufficient force to dominate the cities themselves. It was enough to gain control of the militias, the banks, the presses, the schools, and the farms, of a few individual regions. The rest of the population did not have to fail to comprehend the significance of these events in order to fail to stand up, speak out, and strike back.
In The Specter or Friendly Fascism, Bertram Gross speculates that in the course of the development of Fascism, the population is ill-equipped to recognize Fascism in its modern forms, suggesting that instead of “spectacular seizures of power...many of the most important changes [from democracy to Fascism] would be subtle shifts, imperceptible to the majority of the population.” Some visible symptoms may be quite obvious, though, especially in martial societies, communities with strong military heritage, where “the spirit and viewpoint of militarism spreads a subtle poison that can permeate every aspect of life, erode civil liberties, and promote not only police repression, but also private terrorism in areas of tension among ethnic groups.” Remember, racism is a universal component of the Fascist identity. These tensions, according to Gross, “enable establishment leaders to deflect attention from social injustice and racism at home by stirring up imagined enemies abroad.”
Fascism began as an ideological political movement under charismatic leadership. Those leaders exploited existing social and economic tensions to mobilize a sufficient operational force of violent, obedient, and impressionable dissidents. With these, Fascist leadership acquired and maintained political authority via terrorism, intimidation, disinformation, and pageantry. Fascism received material support from the deposed class of wealthy conservative industrialists in exchange for suppressing liberal activism at home and, in the case of Hitler, for extracting the German military industrial complex from the burdens imposed by the Allied governments after the first world war. Then, in pursuit of a “corporative state,” Fascism turned kleptocracy and took control of the very industries and financial centers to which it was beholden. With all of these pieces in place, Fascism turned to the world stage, not to export the philosophy, like Communism, but to conquer and dominate the world according to its own twisted motives.
This work will continue over the course of 2019 and 2020 as part of the development of a master's thesis for a liberal arts program.