The New Republic - June 3, 2019
The stigma of fascism today comes mainly, in fact, through its association with the Holocaust and Hitler. But fascism and Nazism are not synonymous: Mussolini, for example, doubted Hitler’s belief in a master, biological race, and hired Jews as advisors in his early leadership. Nazi Germany, meanwhile, never identified itself as fascist. It called itself “national socialist,” a distinct but related brand that incorporated fascist thought, but with both more agrarian and more explicitly racist aspects to its ideology.
When historians use the word “fascism,” they’re usually talking about these types of political movements and governments particular to Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. The violent, nationalist juncture was the product of circumstances, beginning in Italy in 1919, when European conservatives, weakened by the upheaval of World War I, wanted tough allies to fend off leftist uprisings—Communism in particular. Demagogue Benito Mussolini set out to convert the workers to nationalism, violently shutting down leftist opposition with paramilitaries that would roam the streets, beating up socialists. Italian fascists called for a national renewal, founded on physical strength, a fusing of tradition and modernism, higher birth rates, and industrial and military might as the antidote to economic woes.
A simple definition of fascism remains challenging even today. Rather than a foundational text like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, which communism could turn to, its markers were emotional—seen in its charisma, nostalgia and anger—or aesthetic, with enthusiastic crowds and goose-stepping soldiers cheering before a cultish leader, whose paramilitaries enforced loyalty through violence.
But various scholars have offered guidelines for understanding fascism’s essential features. Yale emeritus historian Robert Paxton’s classic 1998 identification of the “five stages of fascism” argued that we should look to processes, not cosmetic features like flags and uniforms, to understand fascism. Fascism was marked first by conservatives seeking to seduce farmers and industrial workers into the resistance against left-wing unions. The movement then escalated into militants being deployed to city streets to enforce the fascist ideology, eventually leading to total control. Specifically, it followed a particular progression: “(1) the initial creation of fascist movements; (2) their rooting as parties in a political system; (3) the acquisition of power; (4) the exercise of power, and finally, in the longer term, (5) radicalization or entropy.” In other words, mere fascist ideology on its own did not produce fascism.
Roger Griffin, political science professor at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom, zeroed in on a different defining feature of fascism in his 1991 book The Nature of Fascism: the fusion of “populist ultra-nationalism” with a “mythic core.” Fascists sought to return to the past, to strengthen the nation by resurrecting it. Fascist leaders everywhere convinced their early followers that their nation had descended from a glorious heritage, hijacked and destroyed by a corrupt elite. The fascists, the heroes, could strengthen themselves into what were called the “New Men,” channeling a mythical tradition of knight-like strength, protecting community and tradition, but often, paradoxically, through powerful, modern militaries. ...
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