What Was Fascism?

Who Were the Fascists: Social Roots of European Fascism

edited by Stein Ugelvik Larsen, edited by Bernt Hagtvet, edited by Jan Petter Myklebust
Universitetsforlaget (Oslo), distributed by Columbia University Press, 816 pp., $48.00

Who Voted for Hitler?

by Richard F. Hamilton
Princeton University Press, 664 pp., $16.50 (paper)

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. Who Were the Fascists, edited by Stein Ugelvik Larsen and others and containing contributions by some of the world’s foremost specialists on fascism, shows—if it still needs to be demonstrated—that fascism was not a monolith. But Larsen and his colleagues also show that a few characteristics were shared by the many varieties of fascism and that we can speak of typically fascist tendencies. Moreover, even if we are unable to tell precisely who the fascists were, we can state with some confidence who was not a fascist. To do the latter, we must rid ourselves, at last, of the communist-inspired habit of characterizing as a fascist anyone who is to our right and, occasionally, even to the far left.

Among other general conclusions, Who Were the Fascists succeeds in identifying those social groups and occupations which were most likely to support the European fascist movements of the interwar period. For example, small farmers and civil servants were consistently overrepresented; the participation of workers, on the other hand, varied from country to country, though in some places, such as Eastern Europe, it was enormous. The lower-middle class, composed of petty shopkeepers, craftsmen, clerks, and middle-level farmers, the authors demonstrate, was far less important in the development of fascism than is commonly assumed. Fascism was not simply the political manifestation of petty bourgeois discontent.

The study also concludes that the social composition of fascist membership changed over time, generally moving from a lower-class constituency to all social classes. Fascism was a movement of young people, but only in its early stages, and one wonders whether the fascist systems would not have eventually followed the pattern of communist regimes in becoming gerontocracies. Fascists were not the willing tools of monopoly capital, but rather acted on the whole autonomously. Finally, Larsen’s collection of essays shows that fascism had extraordinary regional variations: in Eastern Europe it tended to be both radical socially and murderously anti-Semitic; in Italy and the Iberian peninsula it tended to be neither.

Richard Hamilton’s Who Voted for Hitler? confirms, with a vast amount of data, what the perceptive essays in Larsen’s book suggest, namely that research on fascism has, after innumerable false starts, reached a point where some categorical statements can be made. Hamilton shows, for instance, that those who voted for Hitler were not necessarily Nazis. In fact, only a small proportion of those who cast their votes for the Führer, or even of those who wore Nazi uniforms, cared to know what National Socialism was all about or what its program was. Hamilton’s findings support the conclusions of the essays in Larsen’s collection that careful distinctions must be made among fascist party leaders, members, sympathizers, and electoral supporters.

But Hamilton’s excellent book also confirms that it is extremely difficult to make more than a few …

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Letters

What Was Fascism? June 2, 1983