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What Was Fascism?

In response to:

What Was Fascism? from the March 3, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

I was surprised by Professor Istvan Deak’s remarks about the role of the Catholic clergy, notably the Franciscans, in wartime Croatia [NYR, March 3]. Professor Deak has no qualms about endorsing a flimsy article by Professor Yeshayahu Jelinek, whose “careful study,” as far as it applies to Croatia, is but a careless compilation of very contradictory evidence, mainly from secondary sources written by amateurs.

Professor Deak might not be expected to know that ex-friar Vjekoslav Filipovic (alias Miroslav Majstorovic), the only individual of Franciscan affiliation who was connected with the shedding of blood of “Orthodox, Communists, and Jews” by the Croatian Ustashas, was excommunicated by his bishop well before he became the commander of the Jasenovac concentration camp. On the other hand, historians are expected to do some homework before making grave statements that are not within their areas of expertise.

The Franciscans hold a special (and very positive) place in Croatian history. Interested American readers will learn a great deal about their true spirit from The Bosnian Story, written by Ivo Andric, the Yugoslav Nobel laureate. Their memory, and that of four hundred Croatian priests who were killed in the last war by Tito’s forces, Serbian Chetniks, Germans, and (yes!) Croatian Ustashas, should not be tarnished by uninformed allegations.

Dr. Matthew Mestrovic
Fairleigh Dickinson University
Teaneck, New Jersey

To the Editors:

Istvan Deak is to be congratulated for his exemplary and well-tempered “What Was Fascism?” Within the compass of a review-essay he has managed to convey the essential contents of two massive tomes (one of them collaborative and therefore especially difficult to assess), to criticize with generosity, and to raise a series of questions that almost amount to an agenda for further reflection.

Given the theme of both books under review, it is natural that Professor Deak should open with the problem of definition (“perhaps one day someone will formulate a universally acceptable definition of fascism and will clearly identify the fascists, but that day still seems far off”). Even less sanguine than he, I propose that a definition by consensus will never be achieved if, as in the Larsen volume, “fascism” is applied to movements and regimes ranging from Germany, Italy, and Spain, through Eastern Europe, all the way to Ireland “and even Iceland.” As with so many terms whose meaning, originally circumscribed, we once thought we knew, the acceleration of research and accumulation of comparative data on “fascism” yield, not distilled essences, but ever longer lists of criteria. As Professor Deak himself demonstrates, in effect these tend to subvert themselves when examined within different national or regional contexts. Little wonder, then, that he finds it “a relief, after all this comparative theorizing, to move on to the discussion of particular fascist movements.”

Still, theorizing is not only seductive but necessary, and not only for social scientists but for historians as well. The crucial question, however, is not the search for a global definition of fascism, but a far more urgent issue that Professor Deak formulates explicitly when he writes: “Payne and the other writers do not even mention the possibility of left-wing fascism; nor do they discuss the possibility that a ‘totalitarian’ model could apply to left and right regimes.” I find myself wishing that Professor Deak had pressed this further. Instead, in the very next sentence he seems to step back from it, stating that “this is a wise decision on their part, for if they imposed their definition of fascism on groups that proclaimed themselves antifascist, they would be guilty of the sort of obfuscation that they correctly impute to the dogmatic Marxists.” In the sequence of the two statements this is something of a non-sequitur. Reluctance to apply a fascist label to avowedly antifascist phenomena is certainly understandable, but it is irrelevant to the use of a larger totalitarian model” (Hannah Arendt’s is not the only one available) that might embrace both. For it is precisely totalitarianism of both the right and the left, admittedly with its own problems of definition, that looms as the ominous and overarching sign of our century. “Stalin and Hitler, after all, shared something in common, which we do not know how to name.” Indeed.

In the end Professor Deak rightly brings us back to a central fact of our historical experience, so easily lost in the “abstractions of social science,” to wit—that “there is a fundamental difference between German National Socialism and the other fascist ideologies. Nazism was undoubtedly the most monstrous form of fascism” (my italics). The latter phrase implies the outer edge of a continuum; the former suggests that there is a point along the scale of monstrosity beyond which one enters a new dimension.

These are merely spontaneous reactions and queries on reading Professor Deak’s article. I very much hope that he will see fit to develop his own leads in an independent essay, unfettered by the responsibilities of a reviewer, in which he will expand his views on both fascism and totalitarianism with the amplitude they deserve.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

Columbia University

New York City

Istvan Deak replies:

Professor Mestrovic is right: the Croatian massacre of the Orthodox Serbs and the Jews was only one of many massacres in that region during World War II. The Serbian massacre of Croats was also a terrible event, and so was the Yugoslav communist massacre of Serbian, Croatian, and other anticommunists. Between 1941 and 1945, Yugoslavia experienced not only German (and Hungarian, and Italian, and Bulgarian) atrocities, but also a devastating civil war fought simultaneously along ethnic, denominational, and ideological lines.

All this does not, however, excuse the Croatian Ustasha fascists, and even less the Catholic clergymen and monks in their ranks. Ustasha terror began practically the moment the victorious German forces set up an independent Croatian state on April 10, 1941; in other words, the terror was largely unprovoked. The Croatian fascists set their heart on spreading Catholicism among the Orthodox, which also meant changing Serbs into Croats. Those who did not like the change—or whose conversion was deemed undesirable—were thrown into concentration camps, or killed on the spot. Almost as an aside, the Ustashas also massacred Jews. Estimates of the number of victims range from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands.

There is indisputable evidence, by no means only secondary or biased, that Catholic clergymen, including many Franciscan monks, had a significant part in the forced conversions and in the atrocities. To quote one of Professor Mestrovic’s “amateurs,” Robert Lee Wolff, who is, incidentally, Archibald C. Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard: “It must also be recorded as a historic fact that certain members of the Croat Catholic hierarchy, notably Archbishop Sharich of Sarayevo, endorsed the butchery, and some members of the Franciscan order took an active part in the forced conversions of the Serbs and also in the massacres.”1

The German authorities neither ordered nor participated in the modern-day crusade of the Croatian fascists. The Nazis had no reason to want to see the Orthodox turned into Catholics; rather, they feared for the future of the German ethnic minority in Yugoslavia as a result of the turmoil, and, in general, they seemed exasperated by the atrocities. (As a rule, the Nazis disliked massacres other than their own.) Interestingly, the SS expressed the greatest indignation over the Ustasha terror, if for no other reason than to focus critical attention on their rival, Herr von Ribbentrop’s foreign ministry, which had helped to create Ante Pavelic’s Croatian state.

Thus, on February 17, 1942, the chief of the SS Security Police and Intelligence reported to Heinrich Himmler from Yugoslavia that the main reason for Serbian guerrilla activity was the acts of horror (Greueltaten) committed by Ustasha units against the Serbian Orthodox population. The SS report estimated that “300,000 Pravoslavs [Orthodox] have been massacred and sadistically tortured to death,” and added: “It should be noted that it was the Catholic Church, in the ultimate analysis, which forced [forciert hat] the Ustasha atrocities by its special conversion methods and its compulsory conversions [Bekehrungszwang].” I would prefer to believe that the Nazi report grossly exaggerated the number of victims, but I am unfortunately convinced that the SS was telling the truth when it emphasized, in the same report, that the victims “included not only males of military age, but also defenseless old people, women, and children.”2

Professor Mestrovic is also correct in suggesting that I had never heard of the episcopal excommunication of Father Filipovic/Majstorovic, the Franciscan commander of the Jasenovac concentration camp; in any case, excommunication does not seem to have deterred the friar from ordering the execution of what at least one source estimates to have been 40,000 victims. Incidentally, the same source claims that “of the twenty-two concentration camps in Croatia, nearly half of them had ecclesiastics as commanders.”3

Again, I would prefer to believe that these figures are grossly inflated, but our very uncertainty about the facts brings us to the crux of the problem. Why do we know so little of the Ustasha period? Because those best qualified to tell the story, namely Croatian and Catholic historians, either ignore the affair or mount the barricades in defense of the Croats and the Church. I am convinced that neither the thousand-year-old Croatian nation nor the two-thousand-year-old Church would suffer irreparable damage if the truth were to be told. The German people, at least in its West German variety, has been largely successful in creating a new identity through a process of honest, if painful, self-examination. Even the Soviets under Khrushchev have made an effort to repudiate the Stalinist crimes against national minorities in World War II. And yet most East European historical establishments continue to obfuscate the often terrible role their respective countries played in that war. As for the Catholic Church, it prefers, on the whole, to remain silent. Surely, a frank investigation would uncover not only some monsters but also a good number of heroes. Finally, is it really inconceivable for the order of St. Francis to admit that among the heirs and spiritual descendants of the Little Brother of the Birds, Flowers, and Lepers there were fanatics and assassins?

To Professor Yerushalmi I must reply that I cannot write an independent essay on fascism and totalitarianism because I am more than ever confused about the meaning of these terms. We have enough trouble trying to apply the concept of fascism to both Mussolini and Hitler; it is virtually impossible to accommodate under the same canopy those who resemble Mussolini and Hitler in their ideas and methods but who claim to be antifascists. Nor do we know how to apply the “totalitarian” model, simply because there has never been a truly totalitarian state. Hitler and Stalin ruled centralized states and ruthlessly disposed of their adversaries; Stalin systematically destroyed even his devoted followers. But neither Hitler nor Stalin knew how to transform permanently the minds of their subjects. Totalitarianism implies the voluntary and unconditional acceptance of ideas and directives emanating from above. Yet neither the Third Reich nor Stalin’s Russia reached such a state of perfection. Rather than being superbly organized and efficient organisms, these two Brave New Worlds left plenty of room for at least silent dissent, as well as for sloth, corruption, mutual rivalries, and bureaucratic anarchy. In other words, both systems were unable to suppress individualism in the best and worst senses of the term. Only the death machines functioned perfectly. Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union were criminal organizations, not unlike the Mafia, run for evil purposes and on the foundation of shifting loyalties. Their ultimate argument has always been the gun.

Such so-called totalitarian systems are not eternal. Nazism died with Hitler and, since then, the West Germans have become model liberals. In the Soviet bloc, Marxist-Leninist philosophy died a long time ago, and terror has been reduced enormously. Many former Stalinists in Eastern Europe (or, I understand, in China) are now in opposition as advocates of democracy; others have reembraced the bourgeois values of their families. Now that the Soviet leaders have proven themselves able to remain in power with only a limited use of direct indoctrination and physical violence, one might ask oneself whether the Nazi leaders would not have been able to do the same. This seems rather unlikely, however, because social confrontation and war were the essence of Nazism, although not of all fascist philosophies.

What did Stalin and Hitler have in common? Something that we do not know how to name but that we intuitively understand. In their world, the individual was dissolved in the abstract interest of the collectivity. They sat in judgment in the name of the “People,” a term they never bothered to define. Theirs were political systems that denied the humanity of men and women; that denied the value of individual dreams and aspirations, and that ascribed the darkest and most frightening human emotions to other human beings. For Stalin, the kulaks were the devil incarnate, so were the social democrats, or Trotsky, or his other fellow communists. For Hitler, the Slavs were scarcely human; the Jews were not only subhuman but actively evil. These subhumans were also all-powerful: they were the cause of all the injustice in the world; they were the incarnation of evil in the primal sense of the word. Destroy all Jews and destroy all evil; as everything Jewish is evil, therefore everything evil must be Jewish. Such was the essence of Nazism, and to call it “fascist” or “totalitarian” might blind us to this central and terrible fact of National Socialism.

  1. 1

    Robert Lee Wolff, The Balkans in Our Time (1956; revised ed., Norton, 1978), p. 205.

  2. 2

    Der Chef der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD” to “Reichsführer SS und Chef der Deutschen Polizei” (Berlin, February 17, 1942). Attached to it is a note to Ribbentrop from the Führerhauptquartier (February 23, 1942). I am indebted to Dr. Peter Black of the US Department of Justice for having sent me a copy of this document. The numerous German reports concerning the Ustasha atrocities are discussed, among others, by Ladislaus Hory and Martin Broszat, Der kroatische Ustascha-Staat 1941-1945 (“Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte,” no. 8; Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart, 1964).

  3. 3

    Edmond Paris, Genocide in Satellite Croatia, 1941-1945: A Record of Racial and Religious Persecutions and Massacres, translated from the French by Lois Perkins. (Chicago: American Institute for Balkan Affairs, n.d.), p. 137 and p. 137n. See also Carlo Falconi, The Silence of Pius XII, translated by Bernard Wall (Little, Brown, 1970), pp. 259-351; and Richard Paltee, The Case of Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac (Bruce Publishing Co., 1953).

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