Hitler & Company

Three Faces of Fascism: Action Francaise, Italian Fascism, National Socialism

by Ernst Nolte, translated by Leila Vennewitz
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 561 pp., $7.95

Unlike its Communist rival, European Fascism has not hitherto been made the theme of notable philosophical investigations. There are some excellent historical studies of both the Italian and the German experience, but the philosophers have on the whole tended to subsume the topic, when they have concerned themselves with it at all, under the more general heading of totalitarianism. The difficulty of dealing in rational terms with an irrationalist ideology may have something to do with it, but in the main this loss of interest must be due to the political misfortunes of the movement and the discredit which clings to its name. At its peak it did not lack defenders. The case of Heidegger—calling upon the students of Freiburg in 1933 to be loyal to Volk and Fuehrer—is only the most notorious. There were others, equally “engaged” and even more pertinacious, notably Carl Schmitt, already known during the Weimar period for his championship of authoritarianism. A decade earlier the signal had been given in Italy by Giovanni Gentle, for many years Croce’s rival in the exposition of neo-Hegelianism. Gentile had once represented the Italian version of liberalism (always a delicate plant) and he was still officially a liberal when in 1922 he entered Mussolini’s first government as Minister of Education. He soon went over to Fascism, and his educational reform achieved the dual purpose of handing the elementary schools over to the Church, while reserving secondary teaching to the Party: a typically Italian compromise, much appreciated by the Vatican. It is odd to think that this destruction of the Risorgimento tradition was accomplished by a liberal philosopher, but then it was an odd period altogether.

Since the philosophers have in recent years tumbled off the bandwagon, one cannot blame the politicians for being coy. Who today wants to be known as a Fascist? There are at least a dozen regimes among the newly independent states of Asia and Africa which could in good conscience lay claim to the title, but their leaders would sooner be called Communists, even at the not very considerable risk of losing some of their American subsidies. So far none but the titular head of the Saigon military government has publicly invoked the example of Hitler. The others keep mum or content themselves with an eclectic hotch-potch of nationalism, populism, and pseudo-socialism. The clearest case perhaps is that of Nasser. If anyone has the right to claim direct descent from the original fountainhead it is the Egyptian dictator, yet no one is more frantic in asserting the uniqueness and originality of his “Arab socialism.” Are the Baath clique in Damascus authentic Fascists? Well, yes (their friends in Baghdad, during their brief rule, massacred the Communists with a fervor reminiscent of the good old days), but one does not hear them proclaiming the fact in public. Few aspiring politicians these days care to be associated with the memory of the Duce, let alone the Fuehrer. Is Dr. Nkrumah a Fascist? He would be shocked if you suggested such a thing to him. I am going to suggest it, and I am also going to suggest that it is a great pity Mr. Conor Cruise O’Brien has not seen fit to state the fact. There is of course a vast difference between African and European Fascism. African dictators operate in different contexts, and their nation-building techniques are not uniformly regressive. Much depends on the actual circumstances of the case. A totalitarian state which breaks down a primitive tribal structure may simply be doing the job of what used to be called the “bourgeois revolution,” except that in this age it has to substitute itself for the bourgeoisie. But then even Italian Fascism was not wholly reactionary—it made a small beginning towards the post-war industrialization boom. There were also some interesting experiments with economic planning and state control which have been quietly taken over (and expanded) by the various Italian governments since 1945. Conversely, the Spanish and Portuguese regimes are in a much older tradition of Catholic authoritarianism. They lack the Fascist dynamic, though Franco tried, without success, to incorporate the few authentic Spanish Fascists in his regime. In the end he gave up and handed his administration over to the Opus Dei, an organization representing the Catholic haute bourgeoisie. Spain today is no longer Fascist, if it ever was. It is simply an old-fashioned police state which safeguards the privileges of the well-to-do.

The fact is that people have forgotten what Fascism was originally about. All they remember is Hitler and the extermination camps. But the bestiality of the Third Reich was rooted in attitudes peculiar to Germany, and the “intellectual” content of the Nazi cloaca cannot simply be equated with the heritage of European authoritarianism. As an ideology, Fascism antedated Hitler and has survived his fall. Its origins are complex, going back at least to the mid-nineteenth century. And in its modern form it includes one element which has retained its relevance for aspiring dictators: the attempt to fuse nationalism with socialism. It is true that the Communists have by now learned to play this particular game and indeed are proving quite adept at it: vide Castro’s success in mobilizing Cuban nationalism, not to mention China and the various “liberation movements.” Stalin could claim some pioneering efforts in this field, but Mussolini got there first. Yet on the whole Fascism has been a failure, while Communism (even in its Stalinist form: itself an amalgam of primitive Bolshevism and Fascism) has become a world movement. Why?

The traditional Communist explanation—that Fascism was merely “the tool of the reactionary bourgeoisie”—is too silly to merit attention. Besides, the Communists themselves no longer believe in it. Painful experience has taught them that the Fascist movement is quite autonomous and can be extremely dangerous to them. Pseudo-revolutionary it may be, but that does not make it “bourgeois.” It is in fact anti-bourgeois, and this is just what gives it an appeal to the intelligentsia (no other stratum of society takes ideas seriously anyhow). The “national-socialist” agitation, which is the key element of every genuine Fascist movement, can turn its edge against the bourgeoisie as well as against the working class. All true Fascists are demagogues and modernizers; even Hitler fancied himself some sort of revolutionary. What distinguishes them from the Left is their frenzied nationalism and their rejection of the entire corpus of liberal-democratic values.

Some, though not all, of these themes are explored, with great learning and considerable intellectual penetration, in Dr. Ernst Nolte’s important study, now translated from the German. A product of the post-war generation of German academic scholarship, Dr. Nolte is not weighed down by the bad conscience which afflicts so many of his senior colleagues. His treatment of the subject indeed displays a freedom from conventional preconceptions rare among German historians. That even he is not quite unaffected by the spiritual climate of his native country appears from his inclination (understandable in the circumstances, but nonetheless regrettable) to demonize Hitler, instead of treating him as the residuary legatee of Pan-Germanism. There is too much about the Fuehrer’s private manias, and not enough about the collective obsessions of the German middle class. But no attempt is made to obscure the gulf which separated the monstrosities of the Third Reich from the comicopera frenzy of Mussolini’s New Rome. Dr. Nolte has no doubt at all what a German victory would have portended: the physical extermination not merely of the Jews but of all those East Europeans who could not be made to serve the purposes of the “master race.” As he puts it (a trifle portentously perhaps, but then he is a philosopher as well as an historian): “The world was to be cured of the Jewish-Christian-Marxist doctrine of world redemption, and converted to that absolute sovereignty which was to bind the slaves forever to their slave fate.” Hitler and the other Nazi leaders (notably the SS, the core of the whole movement) really had taken Nietzsche seriously. So had large strata of the German educated class in general. For it is a myth that the Nazi movement represented only “the mob.” It had conquered the universities before it triumphed over society. The SS leaders were for the most part academically trained, and at least one notorious concentration camp commander held a doctorate in philosophy.

How could a movement of this sort have gained power in a major European country? Dreadful though it is, the answer must be: largely by accident. For there can be little doubt that an early successful attempt on Hitler’s person would have caused his party to collapse. Whether the Weimar Republic could have survived the economic crisis of 1930-33 is a subsidiary question. Had it given way to a military dictatorship of the conservative Right, as seems quite probable, there would at any rate have been no terrorism, no Second World War, no “final solution”…for Auschwitz was Hitler’s personal idea. None of the other Nazi leaders (not to mention the Conservatives who helped him to power) were capable of conceiving such a project, let alone carrying it through. The Third Reich was a one-man show. From start to finish Hitler alone exercised supreme authority, and when in April 1945 he pulled the pillars of Valhalla down upon his head, there was no one who could have entered a claim to the succession.

Yet there is also a sense in which Germany was ripe for Hitler, if not precisely for all his lunacies. Millions of Germans had not got over their longing for a return to the primitive racial community of the folk which would rid them at one blow of all the perplexities afflicting the modern world: capitalism, communism, liberalism, democracy, plutocracy, newspapers, elections, big-city life…the whole complex rigmarole of contemporary urban civilization. And there were national hatreds and racial animosities to be assuaged, military plans to be translated into reality, space to be conquered (at the expense of “inferior races”), ancient gods to be restored to their vacant thrones. This last was more than the crackpot idea of a few fanatics. It responded to ancestral longings in the German soul: the old pre-Christian gods were to be resurrected. This was truly a novel and startling idea. Neither Mussolini nor his French forerunners had ever dreamed of such a thing.

Dr. Nolte has organized his work around a comparative study of the two major European Fascisms—the Italian and the German—plus their unsuccessful French precursor, the Action Française. In principle this approach is sound. If the execution does not quite come off, the reason is that he places too much weight on ideas as distinct from political circumstances and social pressures. This is a traditional German failing—the counterpart of the admirable German concern with the history of thought. Dr. Nolte has read Marx, but cannot quite bring himself to apply Marxian (or even Weberian) criteria to the study of the three movements he investigates, though in dealing with Mussolini he does bring out the peculiarity of the Italian situation in the 1920s: a situation characterized by crude middle-class hysteria about Communism, at a time when the CPI was a hopeless sect. (Thanks to Mussolini it has now become the largest Communist party in Western Europe, and the second largest political force in its own country.) In general he is better on the filiation of ideas than on the interplay of social and political movements. His documentation is extremely good, but a little overweighted on the philosophical side. Moreover, he suffers from the modish neo-conservative disease of holding the Jacobins responsible for all our ills. He even sympathizes a little with Charles Maurras’s rant about Rousseau and the tradition of “revolutionary romanticism.” This is a theme made familiar by those eminent Anglo-American writers who have entered a genteel plea for royalism, classicism, Anglo-Catholicism, and similar academic nostrums. But the true propagators of the faith beyond the borders of France were noisy vulgarizers like Hilaire Belloc, Chesterton, and Pound. It was they who from 1900 onward tirelessly insisted that Dreyfus was guilty, that liberalism was a Jewish invention, and that Jewish bankers were conspiring to rule the world. In France and England they never got very far, but elsewhere the soil was less stony, and in the end a rich harvest was duly reaped.

It is this discontinuity between the abortive French proto-Fascism and its successful Italian and German offspring that presents Dr. Nolte with his most awkward problem. Since the Action Française after 1920 was overtaken by more up-to-date versions of the creed, he is obliged to confine himself, so far as France is concerned, to the pre-1914 era. This makes it difficult for him to identify the cause of French democracy’s relatively successful resistance to the disease: relatively, since in 1940 quite a number of Frenchmen showed themselves ready to mount the German bandwagon. The point he does not quite grasp (or as a German perhaps cannot quite see) is that national attitudes in the three countries were fundamentally different, and that the differences went back to the impact of the French Revolution. In France itself, it was clearly impossible even for an indigenous Fascism to come to terms with the republican tradition. In the final analysis the ordinary Frenchman was not prepared to throw the principles of 1789 overboard. In Italy the impact of these principles had been considerably weaker, since the liberal Risorgimento had not been a mass movement. (Dr. Nolte rather oddly contends that this was an advantage!) In Germany after 1848 liberalism counted for even less: by the later nineteenth century it was generally confused with Darwinism. That there were fundamental principles at stake, that to accept Fascism was to go back on the Enlightenment, was more easily perceived in an environment where popular attitudes had been moulded by the struggle to impose or preserve the Rights of Man: a phrase which in German translation somehow has a faintly comic ring, redolent of pacifism, vegetarianism, and similar fads. There was no Clemenceau in Germany; but then there had been no Robespierre either. Kant indeed had admired the French Revolution, but German schoolbooks took care not to mention the fact. Their heroes were the nationalist ranters of the anti-Napoleonic struggle: Fichte, Arndt, and Jahn—the last a savage Teutomaniac whose ravings already prefigured much of the Third Reich and its frenzy.

Notwithstanding his tenderness for some of the intellectual ancestors of Fascism (about the savagery of its political methods he has no illusions, and indeed exposes them with trenchant scorn), Dr. Nolte has made an important contribution to the understanding of the phenomenon. The further away he gets from politics the more clearly he is helped by his philosophical equipment. Thus one learns a great deal from him about the curious intellectual ambience in which the original Fascist, or proto-Fascist, doctrine took shape on the eve of the First World War. Its central locus was the Cercle Proudhon in Paris, where followers of Sorel met supporters of the Action Française to debate the coming fusion of nationalist and socialist ideas: on an anti-liberal and anti-democratic basis, of course. Sorel’s favorite student, Edouard Berth, later claimed that le fascisme avant la lettre was born in these encounters. Dr. Nolte disputes this, on the not very convincing grounds that the Cercle Proudhon failed to convert Maurras and the Action Française to its national-socialist doctrine. The fact itself is unquestionable: Maurras, an old-fashioned conservative, clung all his life to the paternalistic corporatism subsequently endorsed by Pétain and the Vichy regime. But does it matter? Surely what counts is the theoretical breakthrough, not the question who eventually made practical use of it. For Maurras indeed the struggle against the Republic and its anti-clerical philosophy was the overriding issue. It made possible his tactical alliance with the Church, notwithstanding his own proclaimed atheism (by 1910 he had influential friends in the Vatican, including Pius X himself). But some of his followers were more alive to the situation, and when they failed to convert him to national-socialism, they broke away to form the first genuinely proto-Fascist splinter groups in France, where the attempt was made to convert the workers to nationalism by adopting an anti-capitalist platform. This really is the beginning and the end of the whole thing. It does not “explain” Fascism, but it describes it.

On the whole, Dr. Nolte’s middle section on Italy is the best of the three. It deals succinctly with the complex of issues affecting Italian nationalism before and after the First World War, and manages to pull the political and the ideological strands together in a very satisfactory manner. One learns not only why Mussolini after 1914 gradually shifted from a primitive Marxism to an equally primitive anti-Marxism but also how and why this personal evolution enabled him to synthesize the bellicose national socialism of his original followers with the “pure” nationalism of conservative Fascists like Grandi, for whom the struggle against Bolshevism took precedence over everything else. (As late as 1919 Mussolini still saw himself as a rival of Lenin, and his recently founded Fascist party as a revolutionary force, though opposed to Communism.) As for France, the connecting link, not surprisingly, turns out to have been the pervasive influence of Georges Sorel: already a factor in the evolution of the Action Française (or at any rate its left wing) from straight conservative nationalism and anti-semitism towards national socialism. Sorel was probably a more important influence than Nietzsche, since the latter had no social-political doctrine, merely a generalized attitude towards life which was then quite popular among socialists (Bernard Shaw among them). The savage, anti-human, “blond-beast,” aspect of Nietzscheanism, which later became so important in Germany and supplied the SS with whatever ideology it possessed, made no appeal in civilized Mediterranean lands.

What Sorel and Mussolini (and Lenin, too, according to Plekhanov, though Dr. Nolte appears unaware of it) got out of Nietzsche was the Napoleonic formula cited by Lenin in his last published piece of writing: “On s’engage et puis on voit“: hardly a Marxist precept. Dr. Nolte regards both Lenin and Mussolini before 1914 as orthodox Marxists, and then speculates on the reasons which led Mussolini to revolt against Marxist determinism, once he had left the Italian Socialist party in 1914, on the issue of intervention in the war against the Central Powers. But Lenin was as much of an indeterminist as Mussolini (a fact noted by Plekhanov and the Mensheviks as early as 1905), though he continued to regard himself as a Marxist. Both men were temperamentally disposed towards a break with the Social-Democratic tradition, and for both the 1914-18 war represented a crucial watershed. The difference—not fully grasped by the author—is that Lenin was a genuine theorist, for whom Marxism remained important on account of its intellectual content, while Mussolini was never more than a half-educated publicist who could shift overnight from Marx to Sorel, and indeed did so when he found it convenient. The half-baked nonsense of Mussolini’s journalism—however superior to Hitler’s ravings—does not establish a critical counterpoint to Lenin’s writings. The two men are simply not on the same intellectual level, any more than were Marx and Sorel. When Lenin discussed theoretical economics or their practical application, he wrote with authority, while Mussolini knew no more about the subject than any other Italian journalist. This needs to be said as a corrective to the statement that both men departed in different directions from the same central tradition. Russian Communism had a genuine (though by now inadequate) intellectual structure, whereas the windy nonsense of Italian Fascism rested upon an amateurish misappropriation of eclectic ideas concocted by second-raters like Mosca and Pareto. That both movements were totalitarian is hardly an excuse for neglecting these crucial distinctions. They tend to get overlooked by Dr. Nolte because he takes Mussolini too seriously. He even (p. 181) speaks of his “duel with Lenin” and describes the latter as “his great opponent.” This, with all due respect, is nonsense. In Lenin’s eyes an ignorant windbag like Mussolini could never rank as more than a squalid nuisance.

On the dialectic of the two great totalitarian movements Dr. Nolte is eloquent and trenchant, though excessively inclined towards metaphysics. (His final chapter carries the title “Fascism as a metapolitical phenomenon”.) There is a rather alarming suggestion to the effect that Marx, Nietzsche, Maurras, and Hitler were all somehow struggling with the same set of problems. Dr. Nolte is perhaps too close to the events he describes to perceive that what struck foreigners (and some Germans) about the Nazi movement was its cloacal aspect: the sheer indescribable swinishness of all its leading personalities and manifestations, from its ideologists to its hangmen. It is literally true to say that no such bestial phenomenon had ever before appeared in European history (and one hopes never will again). But with this important qualification he is right to stress the metapolitical aspect of the European crisis between the wars. Where he goes wrong, again like so many Germans, is in overrating Nietzsche: not as an influence (his effect on two generations of Europeans was indeed very great) but as a systematic thinker. This is a wearisome topic, chiefly because it commits one to the investigation of a non-existent theme: Nietzsche’s political thought. Instead of pursuing this red herring (very important to Dr. Nolte who indeed regards it as a whale), I am going to suggest that the true relationship between the two totalitarianisms can be discussed in terms of their common descent from a far more important thinker, namely Hegel. There is a sense in which both Communism and Fascism have been trying, with varying success, to make sense of Hegel’s ideas about history. The difference is that Fascism never produced a first-rate thinker, which is why it is nonsense to contrast its ideologists (Nietzsche included) with Marx. But it did produce something like a coherent attitude, and in the end it even gave rise to a political doctrine of sorts which could be made to rhyme with some of the realities of the modern age.

The point is best grasped by asking what either school made of the celebrated passage on the master-servant relationship in Hegel’s Phenomenology. So far as Marx is concerned we have the answer in his early writings, notably the Paris Manuscripts of 1844 (Dr. Nolte, needless to say, has a section on this theme: by now no German philosopher can afford to do without it). Briefly, the Marxian view can be summarized as suggesting that political conflict is a subordinate aspect of the historical process whereby Man creates himself through his own labor, thereby “objectifying” and “alienating” his “nature.” At the same time Marx, as it were, sides with the servant against the master (as a Jew, though an unbelieving one, he could hardly do anything else). For the conservative Hegelians and their Fascist successors, Hegel’s view of the master-servant relationship was equally important, except that they took the side of the master, or at most counseled a pacific compromise. This is the philosophical side of the matter, but it also has a practical aspect, for on the Marxian assumption the political struggle, though real enough, was predestined to end in the attainment of “true freedom.” This led to the notion that the State was somehow an epiphenomenon of the underlying socio-economic realm, that of the “servant.” To the authoritarians and their Fascist disciples, on the contrary, war was everything and the State was eternal. Moreover, they wanted it to be a slave State, with themselves on top. In this respect they went all the way back to Plato, and their animus against the Jews in general, and the Old Testament in particular, was the counterpart of their excessive veneration for the Greeks, or at any rate for the authoritarian strand in Greek thinking which prefigured their own philosophy.

The political relevance of this original divergence became evident in the inter-war period, when Communist and Fascist movements struggled for mastery in Europe, on the commonly held assumption that liberal democracy was finished (for a while indeed it looked as though it was). For it then turned out that each side to the dispute had got hold of one end of the stick and refused to let go: the Communists of the class struggle, the Fascists of the key role of political power. Since “politics” meant different things to them, there was no common ground until 1945, when the Stalinists—having absorbed the painful lesson Hitler had taught them—took over without public acknowledgment the Fascist idea of the State as the decisive factor in terminating the class struggle and instituting a new social order controlled from the top. The real theoretical discovery of Stalinism, after all, was not that one could lock up millions of forced laborers in concentration camps and still retain the loyalty of some half-witted liberals, but that in our age the political authority—the State—has become strong enough to reshape the social order, and even the economic “basis.” This was something Marx—writing at the peak of the liberal era—had not taken into account. Even Lenin, though he finally took the plunge, was not quite sure it could be done. The man who did it was Stalin. By now the original distinction between the Communist and the Fascist doctrine of the State has disappeared, though there remains a crucial difference in orientation. After all even the Stalinists, to do them justice, never thought the “lower races” should be exterminated and the workers held in permanent subjection, whereas most Fascists thought (and think) just that. In the end it is a question of Weltanschauung. In other respects the two totalitarianisms are now equipped with pretty much the same set of political concepts.

It is a tribute to Dr. Nolte’s work that it raises these issues, though to the reviewer’s mind they are not always dealt with in an entirely satisfactory manner. In any case this is an important and brilliant work, marred by a few minor flaws, such as an overestimation of the purely intellectual content of Fascism. It is also a very learned work, and its appearance in a more than adequate translation is to be welcomed. We shall not soon have a better account of the political and spiritual factors that went into the European catastrophe between the wars. Since the destruction of Germany as a nation was the principal outcome of this upheaval, it is fitting that a major study on the topic should have been written by a German.


Is He Is or Is He Ain’t? March 3, 1966