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What’s Wrong with ‘Fascism’?

In response to:

The Uses of Fascism from the November 28, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

I am grateful for Professor Paxton’s knowledgeable review of my Fascism [NYR, November 28, 1996] and apologies are indeed called for if the book is marred by some misstatements and imprecisions. But the two examples he gives I find unconvincing. What is wrong with stating that Hitler scored very high in elections after arriving in power? Why do I have to add that the vote for the Nazis still fell short of 50 percent? This is a fact well known to every student of modern Germany and just as an author is under no obligation to note that the Second World War broke out in 1939 and ended in 1945, the obvious does not always have to be repeated. Equally, Professor Paxton mentions that I mistakenly wrote that the Hermann Goering Werke was set up by “individual Nazi leaders.” But all works of reference known to me note that they were established in July 1937 by Hermann Goering in his capacity as the most senior official responsible for the Four Year Plan, and I don’t think it is seriously disputed that Goering was a Nazi leader. Incidentally, these works were not primarily a steel mill as Professor Paxton says but engaged in a great many activities including machine-tool engineering and shipping. The main purpose of the concern was to lessen Germany’s dependence on iron ore imported from abroad.

Walter Laqueur
Center for Strategic and
International Studies
Washington, D.C.

Robert O Paxton replies:

Walter Laqueur has responded so courteously to my rather testy comment that I wish to underline how many lively and suggestive observations his Fascism: Past, Present, Future contains. His sections on the present and the future still seem to me more reliable, however, than the brisk ninety pages he devotes to the past of fascism. The problems are of two sorts: imprecisions and errors. An “imprecision” is, of course, not “wrong.” In the example I chose, the German parliamentary election of March 5, 1933 (date omitted in Laqueur’s text), the Nazi score of 44 percent (number omitted in Laqueur’s text) is crucial because so many authorities claim nowadays that Hitler was voted into power. I have seen that assertion made recently in the pages of The New York Times, and by a former president of the American Historical Association.

Laqueur knows better, but writing imprecisely that the Nazis “scored very high in honest elections” lends credence to that error. It really matters that the reader be made to understand that Hitler, whose party was slipping in late 1932, was brought into power not by the voters but by what Alan Bullock called, in his great biography of Hitler, “a backstairs conspiracy,” involving the German President, Marshal von Hindenburg, and the two leading conservative political leaders, Franz von Papen and General Schleicher. The point has just been made authoritatively again by Henry A. Turner in Hitler’s Thirty Days: January 1933 (Addison-Wesley, 1996).

As for outright error, the example I chose concerns the famous industrial conglomerate, the Reichswerke Hermann Goering. Its activities are not at issue; as Laqueur rightly observes, they included a wide range of manufacturing and transport in addition to its original purpose, making steel from low-grade domestic coal and iron ore in an attempt to achieve autarky. Laqueur’s statement that “individual Nazi leaders established major corporations, such as the Hermann Goering Werke” (p. 152) seems to present Goering as a private entrepreneur, a sort of Nazi Henry Ford, something unthinkable in German economic arrangements by 1937. The Four-Year-Plan authority, which Goering indeed headed, set up the Reichswerke Hermann Goering as a state corporation, financed in part by the public treasury and in part by more or less obligatory contributions of capital by German steel barons.

One could extend the list. Hitler did not become president when Hindenburg died in August 1934 (p. 37), but assumed those powers under his existing titles of Führer and Chancellor. It is incorrect to say that agrarian discontent “did not play a significant role in the rise of Nazism and Fascism” (p. 47). Carlo Levi’s autobiographical Christ Stopped at Eboli is not a novel (p. 66), and the Vichy French leader Pétain was not an admiral (p. 226). Some of these are, of course, mere lapses. Walter Laqueur produces books at a prodigious rate, on a wide variety of subjects in contemporary history and politics. In this case, I fear, speed has served him badly.

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