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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.

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