“Let us not lose ourselves in the systems: let us listen to the voice of history.” De Maistre’s advice can still be heeded with profit, as a recently published symposium amply demonstrates. Its theme was “the nature of fascism”: more than two dozen scholars, mainly either historians or sociologists, assembled in Reading, England, in the spring of 1967 to discuss this “nature.” The difficulty about discussing any such vague generalization as “fascism” is that it is a term which has been abstracted from concrete, historical situations.

Certain regimes or movements, in imitation of Mussolini’s Italy where the term first became popular, have called themselves or have been called by others “fascist.” But this description can be used in many ways: as a term of mere abuse, or as an inaccuracy based on inadequate knowledge of the facts of the history of the country concerned, or as a political device used for propaganda purposes. Therefore if you set up a conference of this type the first essential would seem to be to specify the particular regimes and movements to which alone the term “fascist” is, by definition, to be applied. The alternative (the one apparently adopted at Reading) was to treat “fascism” as some kind of a vague abstraction to which everyone could give what meaning he chose, just occasionally glancing at Germany, or Italy, or Argentina, or Roumania: if the facts did not appear to fit the model, then other countries—Japan, Spain—could be brought in to rescue it. As Dr. Woolf, the promoter of the Reading exercise, points out in his Introduction, the “qualification of fascism expanded or contracted according to the conceptual approach adopted.” (Naturally, what did he expect?). The conference discussions showed that if rapid economic and social transformation is the real touchstone of fascism, then the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have to be excluded; analysis of “fascist economic systems” lets in Japan, but cuts out Argentina; but viewed as a “potentially revolutionary movement,” “fascism” applies to Roumania, but not to Japan. And so forth. The result in this volume is a series of vague generalizations by the sociologists—with the historians occasionally putting them right on the facts.

The argument in discussion tended to be circular. For example, one criterion offered in order to discover “fascism” was to see who benefited from it. But what do you do about Soviet Russia, says a critic, where the labor movement has been destroyed and both workers and peasants have been drained of their savings (as much as under “fascism”) to build up development? Oh, but “fascism” does not always destroy the labor movement, says another participant: Look at Argentina, where it in fact created such a movement. And so it goes on. Are we any wiser at the end?

The fault does not lie with the contributors, many of whom had perceptive things to say. The approach of studying an abstraction without first deciding what one is abstracting from is itself vitiated from the start. Nor is argument about an abstraction improved when it is based on inadequate knowledge of the facts. (Marx and Weber could produce brilliant abstractions, but there were no Marxes or Webers at this Conference.) Thus Dr. Woolf sets out to prove that there was, or is, such a thing as a fascist economic system. The closed economies of Italy, Germany, and Japan, he says, differed radically from that of Soviet Russia, first, because in the fascist countries no attempt was made to nationalize the means of production, and secondly because the “brutally authoritarian” control over labor in fascist countries “cannot be compared to the Russian experience.” Indeed, Dr. Woolf sees fascist economies as “typical of a type [sic] of development of capitalism in its ‘final phase.’ ”

It is difficult to know where to begin to deal with all the absurdities contained in Dr. Woolf’s remarks. What does the abstraction about “nationalizing the means of production” mean in reality? Is there so very much difference between Nazi control over the means of production and Communist control over the means of production, except that in the one case the benefits go to both the proprietors (unless they happen to be Jews or personal enemies of Hitler or Goering) and the Nazi bosses, while in the other the main benefits go to the Communist party bosses? The population has no say in either case. Was Stalin less “brutally authoritarian” to workers than Hitler—let alone Mussolini? And in what sense is fascism capitalism in its final phase? Soviet writers keep on saying so—no doubt in order to stress the difference between left and right dictatorship. But in what sense is it true? Certainly not in the sense that the German capitalists ever had any power over the policy of the Nazi regime, which they helped to create, and from which, of course, they drew all the profits they could. For as Mr. T. W. Mason clearly shows (in what is one of the best contributions in the book):


the collective interest of the capitalistic economic system dissolved progressively from 1936 to 1939 into a mere agglomeration of short-term interests of individual firms… The needs of the economy were determined by political reasons…and the satisfaction of these needs was provided for by military victories. The fact that numerous industrialists not only passively cooperated in the “Aryan path” of the economy, in the confiscation of firms in occupied territory, in the enslavement of many million people from Eastern Europe and in the employment of concentration camp prisoners, but indeed often took the initiative in these actions, constitutes a damaging judgment on the economic system whose essential organizing principle (capitalism) gave rise to such conduct. But it cannot be maintained that even these actions had an important formative influence on the history of the “Third Reich”; they rather filled out in a barbaric manner a framework which was already given…their desire for profit and expansion, which was fully met by the political system,…did however bind them to a government on whose aims…they had virtually no influence.

Perhaps Nazism was the “final phase” in the sense that all this was the last Bacchanalia of the German industrialists before the final collapse. If Hitler had won the war he would not have been likely to spare their interests in the pursuit of his grandiose plans of world conquest. But if so, this was a peculiar German situation of no possible universal validity.

But is fascism perhaps the final phase of capitalism in the sense that all capitalist systems must ultimately become like Nazi Germany (or Italy, or Japan)? Switzerland? Sweden? Let us suppose that France, or Britain, or the United States should develop into a dictatorship for fear of the threat that worker or other anarchy poses to capitalism, or to the standard of living of the middle class. No doubt such a dictatorship would have the backing of the capitalists, and no doubt they would try to make as much money under it as they could. But what would this prove? Is it not obvious that any of these countries under dictatorship with a different history, with a different social structure, with the experience of Nazism in mind, and with different political and national traditions, would resemble Hitler’s Germany in no more precise sense than that it would be pretty beastly? To talk of “the final phase of capitalism” may be useful for demagogues, but adds little to the discourse of scholars.

Professor Karl Dietrich Bracher’s latest volume on Nazi Germany is the crowning achievement of a scholar whose contribution to this subject has been greater than that of anyone else. In an earlier essay,* he summed up his approach to the study of fascist Germany. He distinguishes two methods of explanation from his own: the historical, ideological, and cultural method; and the sociological. The former seeks the key in the traditions prevailing in German history. The latter stresses the importance of general conditions favorable to the rise of totalitarian movements, not exclusive to Germany. Both approaches, he says, make the appearance of the totalitarian state “predetermined by an iron chain of cause and effect.” His own method is that of political analysis: this studies the seizure of power not in isolation, but in the concrete reality of actual conditions, though with continual reference to the products of both historical and sociological study.

If results are anything to go by Bracher is right: there is more illumination of the totalitarian polity in the pages of his most recent book than in a whole library of more abstract and generalized analyses of “fascism.” The dominant theme is one which Bracher has already developed in his earlier works: the great value of the present work (which should urgently be made available in English translation) is that it provides a masterly synthesis of the documentary evidence and of the earlier researches both of Bracher himself, and of other historians.

Bracher’s theme is that the bluff of legality with which Hitler deliberately and painstakingly clothed his revolutionary seizure of power was only made possible by two other factors which were present. First, the fact that by 1933 this “legality” in Germany had already been sapped by the perversion of legality in the Weimar Republic as a result of which the bare form of the law was by 1933 little more than a fig leaf for arbitrariness: the continual employment of emergency measures, the misuse of Presidential powers under Article 48 of the Constitution (originally framed to protect democracy), the open bias of the courts in favor of the nationalist extremists, and the like. The power which was vested “legally” in Hitler was already a power to flout the law.


Secondly, that the bluff of the legal revolution was made possible only by the bluff of the national revolution, seemingly transcending party lines: the coalition with the right wing parties which brought Hitler to office gave him the patriotic and ostensibly constitutional power which he needed. Events were soon to show the substance of the confidence of Von Papen and the others that they would push Hitler “squealing into the corner.” The attitude of the army, which had never supported the Weimar regime, was of course a decisive factor in Hitler’s victory. The fact that the army tacitly accepted the mass murders which excluded the rival SA from the scene made it an accomplice of Hitler.

Until Bracher’s masterpiece becomes available in English, two new works must be particularly welcomed. The first volume of Orlow’s history of the Nazi party takes the story up to the seizure of power in 1933. A detailed study based on immense documentation, it will be of great value for students of totalitarian regimes. Its most striking contribution to the history of Nazism is to underline once again the predominant significance of Hitler not only in building up the party, but in ensuring with unerring skill two things. First, that the party’s impatience for power or for action did not endanger the long-term façade of legality which Hitler on the road to power was determined to maintain. Secondly, that the party should never acquire an institutional life of its own, but should always remain subordinated to Hitler through what Orlow very aptly calls his “derivative agents.” The parallel in this latter respect to Stalin is striking—and so is the contrast to Lenin. For all his dominance over the Bolsheviks, Lenin created a party which still preserved a life of its own, and one which Stalin labored hard to destroy. The Nazi party had no such pre-history.

Professor Peterson appears to be under the influence of the fashionable view that the personal power of the Hitlers and the Stalins has been exaggerated by the historians and will not stand up to detailed analysis. In pursuit of his search for the limits of Hitler’s power he has written a most original book, based on many years’ research, countless interviews, and a mass of documents. He is concerned not with power at the center but lower down the scale in ever descending order. For this purpose he describes first Bavaria, then the city level—Nuremberg, Eichstadt, Augsburg, and Friedberg—and finally the village level. (His book immediately brings to mind the parallel of Merle Fainsod’s analysis of the Smolensk documents, which threw completely new light on the “grass roots” Russia of Stalin.)

It is a very welcome, and a very necessary book. But what does it prove? Has anyone ever imagined that Hitler, or Stalin for that matter, ran a whole country alone, all the time, everywhere? If you lift the stone the crawling things appear, in the intrigues, the corruption, the local mafias—and also the occasional glimpses of decency, resistance, even heroism. None of this is surprising, though Peterson’s material is novel and illuminating in countless details. But what is quite clear from his analysis is that the moment the Führer chose to act, or even the moment his will on any subject became indirectly known, the local chaos was galvanized into a pattern which was in accordance with his will. This was indeed the essence of totalitarianism. Not a streamlined efficient dictatorship, but a chaos of conflicting authorities—party, state, army, industry, each independent in its own sphere, but each able to act only until the moment when the Leader chooses to declare his will, either himself or through his “derivative agents,” his apparat, the all-pervading cancer which eats into the legal order of the state and the fabric of society alike.

Once again we must turn to Bracher. As he shows, the friction, the inertia, the multiplications of conflicting authorities which became apparent after Hitler came to power, were not the teething troubles of the new system: they were the system itself. Above the confusion stood the Führer alone, the supreme, omnipotent arbiter who gained in strength from the rivalries between individual underlings, or from the conflict between party and state, and SA and the army, or the industrialists and the bureaucracy. This is what a personal tyranny means.

The more one “listens to the voice of history,” whether in the case of Nazi Germany or that of Stalin’s Russia, the more dominant and important the person and the style of the Leader appear to be. There is no room for such predominance of an individual in the more generalized and abstracted studies of the “systems,” of “fascism” or “Stalinism” as such—which probably explains why so many of these generalizations leave one unsatisfied and even confused. It is to the historians that we must turn first if we are ever to understand how the terrible things that have happened in our generation came about.

This Issue

February 12, 1970