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The Uses of Fascism

If we want to understand how fascist movements made the compromises necessary for success, a chronological political narrative is bound to leave vital matters unexplored. If we attribute fascist success entirely to the leader’s flair, we give the Führerprinzip an unwarranted posthumous triumph. It seems more convincing to take a broader view and to point to the different kinds of conditions that have been necessary for the success of fascist movements. One such condition was the emergence in intellectual life of the new anti-bourgeois, anti-left nationalism already alluded to. A second condition was that conservatives had become fearful of revolution and were anxious to find some new way of converting the working class from socialism. A third was the tumultuous expansion of mass participation in politics in newly created democracies where traditional forms of social control based on deference no longer worked. A fourth was economic globalization that exposed weaker producers to worldwide competition and tempted them to try authoritarian and autarchic forms of market regulation. Both Payne and Laqueur mention some of these; and Payne, while avoiding any whiff of determinism, has put together a chart of social, cultural, and political preconditions for fascist success. But neither author really analyzes the processes by which fascist movements found allies and a place for themselves in certain national efforts to cope with these crises.

What enables some fascist movements to succeed in politics is less their having some innate property than the circumstances that offer them opportunity: the gravity of the crisis undermining the legitimacy of the existing democratic system, and the readiness of established elites—the army, the Church, big business leaders—to tolerate or assist the fascist upstarts. This means, paradoxically, that the study of fascist movements must concentrate at least as much on their surrounding circumstances and their accomplices as on the movements themselves. The genre to which the books under review belong—a kind of bestiary of all the world’s fascist movements, portrayed in all their specificity—usually fails to compare in sufficient depth the various national situations in which fascist movements succeeded.


Fascist parties have only exceptionally managed to reach power, and in each case allies and accomplices counted as much as the shrewdness of the leaders’ tactics and timing. Both Hitler and Mussolini helped to create a constitutional deadlock, and their movements then emerged as part of the only possible majority capable of resolving it that did not include socialists. In both cases the legitimate heads of state, Field Marshal von Hindenburg and King Victor Emmanuel III, turned to the fascists on the advice of established conservative forces, which were looking desperately for some way to stabilize their faltering rule.

In both Germany and Italy the fascist leaders seeking power had a moment of agonized waiting when events were out of their hands. Mussolini did not actually march into Rome in October 1922. By threatening to do so, he forced King Victor Emmanuel III to choose between using force to stop him and buying him off with a place in government. Then he sat in his newspaper offices in Milan on October 28, waiting for the centrist leader Giovanni Giolitti and the center-right-wing leader Antonio Salandra to fail yet again to form a coalition without Fascist participation. He gambled that the King would call on him to form a government, and he won.

In November and December 1932, Hitler was nearly broke and his movement was declining in the polls. He staved off the impatience of his militants, and waited for Franz von Papen and General Kurt von Schleicher to exhaust their efforts to form conservative governments without the mass electoral base that only Hitler could provide. Only then was President von Hindenburg ready to ask Hitler to form his own government. In every case we know of, fascists have arrived at power by inside deals.

As Hitler learned in Munich in 1923 and as the Romanian Iron Guard discovered in December 1941, fascist coups, if they are unsupported by powerful elements of the political establishment, are likely to be crushed by the army. Payne even argues that military dictatorship and conservative authoritarian regimes were, historically, the best defense against fascist take-overs. Astute fascists—like Hitler, after he emerged from Landsberg Prison in 1925—have concluded that taking to the streets will succeed only in turning against them the very elements whose support they will need to rule and pursue a policy of national expansion: the army, industry, and the conservative political establishment. Attempting a coup also risked conceding a tactical advantage to socialists and Communists, who were likely to be stronger than fascists in the streets. Hence fascists have so far reached power only by arrangement with forces clearly in power or close to it.

The fascist method of governing deserves to be analyzed on its own terms, as a distinct stage of successful fascism. In each case fascist governments were shaped by the way the fascist movements came to power. Fascist leaders have had to govern in collaboration with the existing elites who brought them into office, while also trying not to alienate the members of the party who had made them powerful enough to attract the elites’ attention in the first place.

This sets up a four-way struggle for dominance within fascist regimes among the leader, his party (whose militants clamor for more jobs, perquisites, power, and expansionist adventures), the regular state functionaries ranging from police commanders to magistrates, and the traditional elites—particularly the army and big business. Such four-way tension is utterly unlike what occurs in either authoritarian dictatorships (which lack a militant party) or Stalinism (which lacked the traditional elites). Both Laqueur and Payne rightly dismiss the once common tendency to equate Hitler’s rule with Stalin’s as “totalitarian.” On the other hand, they have underrated some recent literature on the workings of fascist governments. Payne, it is true, acknowledges the early work of Ernst Fraenkel and others who described the fascist “dual state,” in which conventional agencies coexisted with parallel party organizations.8 The Nazis never abolished the old constitution, and the traditional law courts, for example, continued to function alongside party courts.

Payne and, even more so, Laqueur are unsympathetic, however, to the interpretation of fascist rule by such historians as Martin Broszat, who see Hitler’s government as a chaotic “polyocracy” in which major decisions were often taken by rival underlings who were competing for the ruler’s favor and trying to establish their own fiefdoms.9 The conventional image of Nazi Germany as a perfectly oiled machine, born of wartime propaganda, dies hard. But in matters of economic policy, in particular, there is much to be said for Broszat’s interpretation. One could cite the example of the clash between Albert Speer, who wanted to develop war production in the occupied territories, and Fritz Sauckel, who wanted to draft those territories’ workers for forced labor in Germany.

By encouraging terror and manipulating his competing officials, Hitler was increasingly able to subordinate both the state bureaucracy and the traditional elites to Nazi party rule, but he could not go all the way without endangering his own power. Even in Nazi Germany the party was never omnipotent. The SS fought with industrialists over the spoils in the occupied territories, and on the question of euthanasia of the mentally defective, the party had to back down after protests by the churches. Mussolini, fearful of competition from his own provincial bosses, the ras, protected himself from them by making deals with the longstanding Italian elites, particularly the leaders of industry and the Catholic Church, and by strengthening the power of the state bureaucracy to discipline local party officials. Despite the different weight each gave to the party, the Nazi and Fascist regimes remain recognizably two species of the same genus.

It is often unclear just who benefited most from fascist rule. Fascist leaders were deliberately ambiguous about the interests they served. Claiming to transcend political factions, they shifted their people’s attention to martial prowess and communal pageantry—what Walter Benjamin called fascism’s “aestheticization of politics.” If fascist governments were not monolithic dictatorships but were made up of competing forces with different social compositions, then it makes no sense to call them merely “agents of capitalism,” as was common among Marxist writers in the 1930s and 1940s. Payne, however, probably goes too far when he claims that the Nazi regime violated the clear preferences of the industrial leaders. In fact, companies like I.G. Farben and Daimler-Benz found Goering’s preparations for war under the Four-Year Plan, which started in 1936, something they could live with. It is true that they had to accept regulation and lose foreign markets; however, they compared Nazi Germany’s arrangements not to some capitalist utopia but to the real conditions they had faced since the revolution of 1918 and the depression of 1929 and they found ways to prosper.10


What eventually happens to fascist rule? Movements built on the promise of excitement, the prospect of creating a changed new society, tend to suffer one of two destinies: they may either decay into routine administration, as Laqueur perceptively emphasizes, or they may embark on a kind of “permanent revolution,” allowing party organizations to encroach on the powers of the bureaucracy and the army. The conquest by Nazi Germany of vast “no man’s lands” in what had been Poland and the USSR, outside the constraints of the contending bureaucracies at home, gave party fanatics such as Himmler more leeway, and elements of the earlier radical ideology came back into play. Nazi Germany was the classic instance of a fascist regime that became increasingly radical: the secret police became more powerful and brutal; paganism became an increasingly militant force; and experiments with euthanasia and racial hygiene were succeeded, finally, by the Holocaust. The conventional approach to fascism as an intellectual doctrine is particularly inadequate to account for such developments, for it has no way to account for a final demonic paroxysm of the kind that took place in Hitler’s last years.

War was undeniably the driving force in radicalizing fascist societies, yet even war did not save Mussolini’s Italy from stagnation. This difference has usually been attributed to the leaders’ personal qualities: the obsessed and determined Hitler as opposed to the more cautious, indolent, and perhaps sickly Mussolini. But it was not that simple, as is shown by some of the most interesting research on the different fascist regimes, which explores attitudes that prevailed among the middle levels of society: doctors, magistrates, and the like.11 Laqueur makes a pertinent comparison between the police forces in Fascist Italy, which were run by a career official, Arturo Bocchini, and in Nazi Germany, where they were increasingly captured by Himmler’s party zealots. In general the two authors say too little about how these regimes were able to get “ordinary” people to use poison gas against Libyan or Ethiopian villagers, or to sterilize or kill the mentally handicapped, or to exterminate Jews.12

The social composition of fascist movements changed radically through their different phases. Payne reminds us that, more than any other social group, students were drawn to early fascist movements. The fascist parties that reached power, however, risked becoming swamped by opportunists, since they became the chief dispenser of patronage. The early fascists promised to protect the groups that tended to be losers in a modernizing economy, such as farmers, artisans, and small shopkeepers, many of whom gave them strong support. But once fascist chiefs were in power, they wanted rapid economic development for military purposes and they largely ignored the claims of such people. It was not modernization in itself but only the social disorder resulting from rapid modernization that the fascists feared, and they had other solutions for dealing with that.

Any dictatorship that is both violent and popular is likely to be called fascist. But fascism can be clearly distinguished from authoritarianism, and Payne, having done first-rate schol-arly work on how Franco subordinated Spanish fascism to a traditional military-clerical dictatorship, makes discriminating comparisons among authoritarian regimes, military dictatorships, and authentic fascist systems. Authoritarian regimes (including those of Franco, Salazar, Pétain, and Horthy) may trample liberties and shed blood; but they govern through existing elites—armies, churches, traditional ruling classes—rather than through a single mass party. They prefer passive citizens to mobilized ones, and they offer no exciting prospect of creating a “new man” who will be part of a revivified community. If they depart from legal due process, they do so more by claiming there is a temporary emergency than by arguing for a total subordination of individual rights to group needs.

Laqueur and Payne are certainly correct that only movements and regimes that react against established democracies should be called fascist. Otherwise we find ourselves labeling as fascist all sorts of modernizing dictatorships and national liberation movements in settings where democracy has never been attempted. Authentic fascists deliberately reject existing (though often recent) regimes that have electoral politics, individual liberty, and due process. By that definition fascism began in Europe at the moment when deep disillusions with democracy first spread following World War I.

Is fascism still possible? For Stanley Payne, fascism simply had to end in 1945, since, in his view, one of its defining characteristics was that it derived from the national syndicalism of the 1890s, an ideology that could not be renewed in modern times. Laqueur thinks that something close to historic fascism (but not identical to it) can reappear.

At least two different contemporary trends might be called fascist: nostalgic revivals and functional equivalents. The nostalgic revivals of the old fascist parties, in which former Nazis and Fascists wear armbands and give stiff-armed salutes, are likely to die out with the generation of World War II, unless they refashion themselves into something different. For example, the old Italian Movimento sociale italiano (MSI) never again reached the 8.7 percent of the vote it won in 1972. When it was rebaptized last year as the Alleanza nazionale, its leader, Gianfranco Fini, successfully persuaded 16 percent of Italian voters that in a “postfascist” era his party’s past (including his own praise for Mussolini) should not prevent him from getting their support.

More interesting, and more dangerous, are the functional equivalents of fascism in which dictatorial movements use different symbols and rhetoric but still fulfill the fascist functions of purifying, uniting, and energizing a society fearful of division and decline. One such equivalent might build upon religious solidarity, like some fundamentalist forms of Islam and of Russian Orthodoxy. Fascism in both Italy and Germany was largely pagan, but that was probably because the Christian churches there were closely related to the status quo. Laqueur and Payne both doubt that an authentic fascism can be based on religious fundamentalism, arguing that a powerful clergy might more likely produce authoritarianism than fascism. But a religious group, or faith, that suffers decline or humiliation may exhibit all the qualities of authentic fascist mobilization, along with the fervor of a “chosen people” scorned.

Nor is there any reason why functional equivalents of fascism would be limited to Europe or to North and South America. Laqueur argues rightly that the attempts to imitate fascism in both Asia and Latin America in the 1930s lacked the mass mobilization that goes with authentic fascism; but the democratic experiments in those regions since 1945 might make fascism possible should they fail. The taboos that have inhibited imitations of Hitler in the West since 1945 have never existed elsewhere and are now weakening in any case. Non-Western forms of nationalism are easily channeled into a fierce rejection of Western values, including cosmopolitan tolerance, individual liberties, electoral democracy, and market economics. It is the circumstances that have changed, of course, more than fascism itself. The world contains many movements, mostly marginal, that resemble fascism in its first stages. Until recently, however, no postwar crisis of failed democracy was sufficiently acute to offer the kinds of opportunities to them that were opened to fascism in the 1920s and 1930s.

We might have expected the deflation of fascism’s traditional enemy, communism, to remove its last appeal. Instead, the failure of democracy and the market in the former Soviet Union has opened up the best opportunities for fascism since 1945. Some of the movements for national socialism and for purification and renewal that flourish in Russia today, whether their leaders claim to be post-Communists or anti-Communist nationalists, look like a functional equivalent of the historic fascist movements and not mere superficial imitators of their styles.

But are the ugly political tendencies that look like fascism in Russia, the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and even the United States really fascist, or are their enemies merely smearing them with a convenient dirty word? It is true that some references to fascism are mere name-calling; but the fascist analogy can be useful. It can help us to understand historic fascism not by its external trappings but by the particular functions it carried out; and it can turn our attention to the kinds of political opportunities, and the traditional potential allies, that have always been necessary to bring fascist movements to power. The fascist analogy may enable us not only to recognize the fringe movements being organized today but also to assess their chances of success in the years ahead.


What’s Wrong with ‘Fascism’? February 20, 1997

  1. 8

    See Ernst Fraenkel, The Dual State (Oxford University Press, 1941), and Franz Neumann, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism (Oxford University Press, 1942).

  2. 9

    The leading proponents of this view are Martin Broszat, The Hitler State: The Foundation and Development of the Internal Structure of the Third Reich (Longman, 1981), and Hans Mommsen in many works, including From Weimar to Auschwitz: Essays on German History, translated by Philip O’Conor (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991). Laqueur, for his part, misunderstands these interpretations; he sees analyses of the variety of conflicting middle-level Nazi agencies as attempts to trivialize the Holocaust.

  3. 10

    Recent studies of individual firms under Nazism show this well: Peter Hayes, Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era (Cambridge University Press, 1987), and Bernard P. Bellon, Mercedes in Peace and War: German Automobile Workers, 1903-1945 (Columbia University Press, 1990). More generally, Charles S. Maier, “The Economics of Fascism and Nazism,” in In Search of Stability: Explorations in Historical Political Economy (Cambridge University Press, 1987), is masterful. Bellon and Maier are missing from Payne’s immense bibliography.

  4. 11

    Good examples for the Nazi case are found in Childers and Caplan, Reevaluating the Third Reich, and David F. Crew, editor, Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945 (Routledge, 1994).

  5. 12

    See Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperCollins, 1992), another work cited by neither author. Exploring the mechanisms of social conditioning and professional solidarity in concrete cases, as Browning does, is much more revealing than blanket denunciations of national culture, as in Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Knopf, 1996).

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