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 basic statements regarding fascism. What, for instance, does the social composition of the Hitler electorate tell us about the fascist vote in Europe as a whole? Very little, since those who voted for the Nazi ticket in Germany might not have voted for a fascist leader elsewhere. After reading Hamilton’s voluminous work, and learning about voting patterns in nearly every conceivable German rural, semi-rural, and large-town setting, one must conclude that the Nazi voter could be one of many persons—an industrial worker, a peasant, a bureaucrat, someone rich, educated, and cosmopolitan, or a petty bourgeois.* We can say confidently, however, that the average Nazi voter in the early 1930s was a Lutheran. Indeed, if anything is characteristic of Germany at the end of the Weimar period, it is that in those years the Protestant north and center embraced the cause of Hitler, while the Catholic Rhineland and south did not. So much for the accepted view of Bavaria as the homeland of National Socialism.

Yet all of this information is of little help in understanding fascist voting patterns in the rest of Europe, for there were very few Protestants in Italy, Spain, or Romania, all centers of fascist activity, while fascism failed dismally in the almost exclusively Lutheran Scandinavian countries. The right-wing political radicalism of Protestant Germany and the relative moderation and conservatism of German Catholics must therefore be seen as a peculiarly German phenomenon. The steadfastness of the German Catholic minority in opposing the Protestant majority may even help to explain why the political boundaries run approximately along the same lines today, although now the Protestant north and center tend to vote for the Social Democrats and the Catholic provinces to vote for Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists.

Hamilton’s fundamental distinction between the Protestant vote and the Catholic vote is not new, but his minute examination of voting data proves it valid. Far more controversial is his argument that, in the major cities, the upper and upper-middle classes gave more support to Hitler than the lower bourgeoisie. As other critics of Hamilton have pointed out, he does not always take into account the fact that in well-to-do German suburbs, lower-class servants as well as other lower-class people often lived at the same address as people with higher social status, the poor being relegated to the drabber sections of the buildings. So it is difficult to know exactly who voted for the Nazis in those districts. Domestic servants did—they were among Hitler’s most fervent followers.


Both of the books under review suggest many other conclusions, both firm and tentative, and they raise countless controversial issues. In fact, Who Were the Fascists is almost unmanageable because of its size and the abundance of material it contains. Originating from papers presented at an international conference on comparative European fascism held in Bergen, Norway, in June 1974, Larsen’s book contains some fifty essays by forty-four contributors. They deal with fascism in Austria, Germany, Italy, Slovakia, Croatia, Romania, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Ireland, Greece, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and even Iceland. We find essays about the triumph of fascism, fascism as a major but not dominant force, fascism as a refuge for lunatics and outcasts. Each movement and party is treated with the same solemnity and scholarly detachment. There is no outrage or moralizing but much analysis of social class, age cohorts, peer groups, occupational categories, and status. Virtually every fascist movement is carefully dissected by the methods of modern social science.

Wisely, the contributors concentrate on the less well-known fascist movements: the generally minuscule Scandinavian parties receive 165 pages, Germany and Italy together only 91. Five articles deal with the Nasjonal Samling, the Norwegian Nazi Party. The result is to make the reader familiar, or so it seems, with practically every regional and professional subgroup in a party that consisted of only a few thousand Norwegians.

Ideologically and methodologically, the contributions range from the modified neo-Marxism of Reinhard Kühnl (from Marburg, West Germany) to the broad multicausal analysis of Juan J. Linz of Yale. Two Norwegian scholars have contributed a “geoeconomic-geopolitical model for the explanation of violent breakdowns of competitive mass politics,” but if this contains an explanation of fascism, it is hard to find it among the authors’ schematic charts and tables on “semi-peripheralized territories,” “seaward empire-nations” (as distinct from “seaward peripheries” and “landward empire-nations”), “consociational formations,” and “frustrated empire-building.”

The first general essay, “The Concept of Fascism” by Stanley G. Payne of the University of Wisconsin, is also one of the most interesting. It begins with an analytical list of the main theories of fascism, from the classical Marxist theory of “fascism as a violent, dictatorial agent of bourgeois capitalism,” to the view of Benedetto Croce and Friedrich Meinecke that fascism was a “product of a cultural and moral breakdown.” Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, and Theodor Adorno believed that fascism was “the result of neurotic or pathological psychosocial impulses.” Payne also considers Hannah Arendt’s view that fascism was “a typical manifestation of twentieth-century totalitarianism” as well as theories holding that fascism represented “resistance to modernization” or that it was “a unique radicalism of the middle class.” To these Payne adds the views of such authors as Renzo de Felice and Karl D. Bracher who deny any fundamental coherence to the concept of fascism.

Payne argues that a systematic definition of generic fascism is both necessary and possible, and he proposes a rather complex system of classification made up of both positive and negative characteristics. True fascism, he explains, is in opposition to liberalism, communism, and—less violently—conservatism. It advocates the creation of a new, nationalist, authoritarian state and an integrated social structure, and the building of an empire. Fascism, he writes, espouses an idealist creed calling on its followers to participate by an act of will. More important, it develops a very special style and organization, characterized by an emphasis on patriotic symbols and visible political “choreography,” romantic and mystical rhetoric, attempts at mass mobilization, the cult and practice of violence, heavy emphasis on the masculine principle and male dominance, an organic view of society, an exaltation of youth, an emphasis on the conflict of generations, and, of course, a charismatic, personal style of leadership. Does Payne leave anything out? He could, in my view, have said more about imperialistic expansion and war, about the militarization of society, and about the fascists’ mania for demonstrations and marching.

Payne, like Juan J. Linz, another perceptive analyst of fascism, maintains that true fascism must be distinguished from right-wing authoritarianism—which tended to be monarchist rather than dictatorial, rationalist and religious rather than irrationalist. The conservative “new right” forces in Europe after World War I were based on traditional elites rather than on newly formed groups or organizations; they affirmed the existing social hierarchy and, most important, they relied on the army. The right-wing authoritarians, Payne notes, rejected the fascist principles of party militia and mass party militarization.


Payne leaves it to the reader to decide who among the interwar right-wing political leaders was a fascist and who was merely a right-wing authoritarian. And yet no sooner does one agree to play this game than one is assailed by doubts. If, according to his definition, Franco, Perón, Antonescu of Romania, or Father Tiso of Slovakia qualify as new rightists, and not as fascists, then why not put Mussolini himself in this category? The Duce, after all, failed to abolish the monarchy, and his social and political radicalism was largely posturing. And why not Hitler himself, who, on June 30, 1934, in the Great Blood Purge, annihilated his own party militia at the bidding of the German Army?

Finally, the most vexing question: if fascism implies an integrated social structure, nationalism, violence, mass mobilization, charismatic leadership, quasi-religious political symbols, and the elaborate staging of political events, accompanied by incessant demonstrations and marching, then why not consider such systems as those of Stalin, Mao, Kim II Sung, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, or other modern dictatorships to be fascist as well?

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 both left and right regimes. 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 who described social democrats, for example, as “objectively” social-fascist. But the question remains: does the use of antifascist slogans rule out fascist characteristics? Stalin and Hitler, after all, share something fundamental, which we do not know how to name, but which brings the two dictators closer to each other than Hitler is to, let us say, Hungary’s Admiral Horthy, or than Stalin is to Hungary’s János Kádár.

For all of its references to fundamental characteristics, Payne’s definition cannot tell us everything about fascism, as becomes evident from Stanislav Andreski’s disturbing essay “Fascists as Moderates.” Andreski, a historian at the University of Reading, is of Polish origin, and hence one of several contributors who were driven into emigration by East European tyranny. Andreski’s point is that fascism, rather than being “the extremism of the center,” as S.M. Lipset wants us to believe, was “the centrism of the extremists.” The fascists, Andreski writes, strutted about in military costume and pretended to be radical in every respect, but in reality they inhabited a kind of halfway house between laissez-faire capitalism and Bolshevism. On this view, fascism, or at least fascist economic policy, foreshadowed Western European developments after World War II. Heavy bureaucratic control without wholesale expropriation, a strong dose of nationalization, price and wage controls, and huge state investment: all this would place the fascists slightly to the left of the British Labour Party, according to Andreski. Why to the left? Because fascist, particularly German fascist, centralism was far more efficient than the centralism of the British Labour Party, which is constantly undermined by the anarchism of the unions. This sounds less plausible when we remember the accounts by Speer and others describing the Nazi regime not as centralized but as composed of bitterly conflicting and often inefficient fiefdoms.

It is a relief, after all this comparative theorizing, to move on to the discussion of particular fascist movements. Here there is much new data, and a lot to learn. In Austria between the wars, Nazism won followers mainly from among the anticlerical urban petty bourgeoisie, but it was only one of several fascist movements. The fascist Heimwehr drew its followers from among the traditionalist rural Catholic population. Eastern European fascism was truly unique: very popular yet rarely successful. In such Eastern European countries as Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland, the established authoritarian regimes effectively preempted the platform of the genuine fascists and, for the most part, also won favor with Italy or Nazi Germany or both. Because the Eastern European fascists were rebellious, radical, and anarchic, Hitler favored the authoritarian right-wing governments and allowed the latter to crush local fascist movements.

Slovakia and Croatia, especially Croatia, provide us with the horrifying example of the Catholic clergy gone mad with missionary fervor. The Slovak priests did not shed blood—they let the state take care of that—but the Croat priests who took part in the fascist Ustasha, especially the Franciscans, did so. Their victims, as the careful study by Yeshayahu Jelinek shows, numbered thousands among the Orthodox, communists, and Jews. In Romania, the fascism of the Iron Guard group was rural, mystical, socially rebellious, and mainly xenophobic. The Iron Guard, or Legion of the Archangel Michael, murdered in a sort of religious frenzy—at one point four Iron Guardists fired 120 bullets into a renegade who was lying sick in a hospital bed; they then chopped up his body, danced, sang, and kissed each other. But more Iron Guardists were murdered by the Romanian royal dictatorship than any other group. In Hungary, the Arrow Cross was both a substitute for a left-wing radical party (the communists were an insignificant underground movement of mostly Jewish intellectuals) and a home for discontented members of the petty bourgeoisie, the urban middle class, the gentry, the officer corps, and the aristocracy. Arrow Cross membership fluctuated wildly, but working-class participation in it remained consistently high.

The collection concludes with an ambitious comparative analysis by Peter H. Merkl of the preconditions for the growth of fascism—cultural despair, social malaise, demobilized soldiers, civil war, the Red threat, the Great Depression, religious decline, etc. Merkl provides the most coherent explanation of the youthful character of the fascist movements, at least when they began, and of the importance of civil servants in them, for he connects the rise of fascist groups with the deep feelings of resentment against the old elites among young people and lower bureaucrats during the 1920s. But his conclusion that there were left-wing, center, and right-wing fascist movements, depending on the proportion of working-class members, assumes that workers are always socially progressive—a debatable view.

These are valuable books, serious, reliable, and objective, qualities that their subject did not share. Cast in the abstractions of social science, neither study can adequately reflect the color and excitement that made fascism attractive to millions of Europeans. Nor do the books fully convey its viciousness and horror. Further, because they are all-encompassing, they cannot make clear the fundamental difference between German National Socialism and the other fascist ideologies. Nazism was undoubtedly the most monstrous form of fascism. Unlike the others, the National Socialist system alone would not, and probably could not, have existed without mass murder and war.

This Issue

March 3, 1983