What We Don’t Understand About Fascism

Using the Word Incorrectly Oversimplifies History—And Won't Help Us Address Our Current Political Crisis

What We Don’t Understand About Fascism | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

American painter, printmaker, and educator Harry Sternberg’s 1947 visualization of fascism as a “hree-headed monster in armor trampling on religion, literature, and culture amid death and devastation.” Courtesy of Harry Sternberg/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

At the moment, fascism has to be the most sloppily used term in the American political vocabulary. If you think fascists are buffoonish, racist, misogynist despots, the people who support them are deplorable, and a political leader who incites paramilitary forces against protestors is not much different from Mussolini unleashing his black-shirted thugs against unarmed workers, you may be tempted to call the current president of the U.S. a fascist. But then the president, too, has taken to labelling his enemies fascists. And who wants to argue about semantics in that company?

Make no mistake: Understanding what fascism meant in its time, 1920 to 1945, is absolutely crucial to understanding the gravity of our own current national political crisis—as well as to summoning up the huge political creativity we will need to address it. But we won’t get close to that understanding if we keep confusing fascism, the historical phenomenon, with fascism, the political label.

If you grew up as I did, in the United States after the Second World War, everyone seemed to be an anti-fascist, at least at first. America had fought the good fight, and triumphed. I ached at my father’s war stories about the misery of the newly liberated Italians, studied army snapshots of him in front of a mound of corpses at Dachau, and suffered nightmares at learning what the Nazis and the Fascists did to the Jews.

But the picture grew complicated. From my Jewish American mother, a New Dealer and later a communist fellow traveler, I learned that McCarthyism was the form fascism took in America. After my study abroad in Italy during the 1960s, where I had joined student and worker demonstrations against the country’s still-vivid authoritarian streak, I came home rhetorically armed to denounce fascists. America seemed riddled with them—starting with those “fascist pigs” in the Princeton, New Jersey, police force who hauled the Black kids (and my little brothers) into custody for Halloween pranks and held them indefinitely, as if habeas corpus didn’t apply to juveniles. My Smith College dorm mother was a fascist for enforcing fascistic-patriarchal rules in loco parentis, as were a couple of professors who argued that fascism and communism were opposite sides of the same coin. The ranks of the fascists included LBJ for Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger for many reasons, and even my father (who also supported the Vietnam war) for his haywire libertarian politics.

Calling people “fascists” has been as American as apple pie for as long as I can remember. But, after becoming a scholar of fascism, I came to see the phenomenon of fascist labeling very differently.

This is especially true now, 20 years into the 21st century, heading up to the 2022 centenary of Mussolini’s March on Rome.

It’s been 75 years since the coalition of armies—spearheaded by the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Great Britain—crushed the Axis belligerents, Germany, Italy, and Japan. And it’s been 30 years since 1990, when the relatively stable Cold War world order, ruled by the two superpowers, broke up with the dissolution of the Soviet bloc.

I now see the fascist phenomenon with new context—the crumbling of the liberal norms that were constructed to save the world from a recurrence of authoritarianism after World War II; the social inequities and financial crises arising from globalization; the failures of American unilateralism; and the obsolescence of domestic and international institutions in the face of new challenges, from climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic, that are posed to wreak even greater global disorder.

In this 21st-century light, fascism and its horrific trajectory in the second quarter of the 20th century look at once inexorable and global, awful and attractive, even understandable. Fascism, its early 20th-century proponents claimed, had all of the answers to the political, material, and existential crises of the British-led imperialist world order in the wake of World War I: It would mobilize the militarism generated by World War I to reorder civilian life. It signaled a third way between capitalism and socialism by imposing harmony between labor and capital. And fascism would establish new racial hierarchies to defend the West against soulless American materialism, Judeo-Bolshevism, and the inexorable advance of Asia’s “yellow masses.” It would knock the hypocritical British Empire off its plutocratic pedestal, destroy the puppet League of Nations, and carve out new colonial empires to let the proletarian nations of the world get their just desserts.

It makes sense that Italy was home to the first fascist takeover. After surviving well enough as a second-order power through the end of the 19th century, the country’s retrograde monarchy eschewed undertaking needed social reforms and instead got swept up in the competition for colonies, empowering a flamboyant young nationalist right. These activists dominated debates in the piazzas and ultimately pushed the country to enter World War I believing it would be richly rewarded with new lands.

But that vision was not to be. Mobilizing at a grand scale to fight the Austrians and Germans unhinged Italy’s political system. The country divided into interventionist and anti-war camps. After fighting ended, the old political class secured a few new territories out of the Versailles Peace Conference, but not enough to satisfy the imperialist expectations of the pro-war factions. Nor could elites deliver a substantial program of reforms that would have made war sacrifices seem worthwhile to the ever-larger, ever-more-exasperated movements of workers and peasants spearheaded by socialist and Catholic opposition parties.

By 1921, the liberal political elite calculated that if it opened its electoral coalition to Benito Mussolini’s burgeoning fasci di combattimento movement, it could coopt this vigorous political upstart, punish the left and Catholic opposition, and shore up its own power.

Americans may think we know this history, but we have oversimplified its complexity. Boasting about defeating fascism, and declaring it our duty to police the world against any recurrence, we have lost sight of the global crises of the early 20th century, born of World War I and the Great Depression, that fascism was invented to address.

Who better than the brilliant, unscrupulous journalist Mussolini, a leading socialist turned radical nationalist, to offer a new way? Lover and tutee of brilliant cosmopolitan women, with a facile ear for big ideas and overweening self-confidence in his political intuition, Mussolini claimed to be both a revolutionary and a reactionary—and positioned his anti-party’s armed squads as the only bulwark against the Reds’ advance. Avowedly opportunistic, he seized every moment to bash the opposition, ingratiate himself with the old elites, stymie alternative solutions, and woo the military and the police by stressing their shared struggle to restore law and order against the Bolsheviks.

Called by the king to form a coalition government, Mussolini embarked on a restoration more than a revolution. He established an unshakable political majority by outlawing opposition parties. He revived the economy through austerity measures, outlawing non-fascist unions, and renegotiating war debts to prompt U.S. capital to pour into Italy. He restored national prestige by swagger and bluff, no longer a junior partner to Great Britain in the Mediterranean and East Africa, but a freebooting statesman with the ambition to reestablish Italy’s Roman empire.

Fascists spoke of the state as something alive, with a moral personality of its own, and justifiably predatory to survive in a Darwinian world. They celebrated people as energetic animals—New Men and Women who needed hierarchy and a true leader to harness their vigor. The males could become more virile breedstock, the women more fertile, all for the purposes of the State.

Between 1920 and 1930, as Mussolini turned his one-time radical-populist social movement into a giant party-militia, seized power, and transformed his government into totalitarian dictatorship—in his words, “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”—fascism established itself as an international reference point for a wide array of like-minded political entrepreneurs and collaborating movements. With the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany, and fascist Italy’s alliance with the Third Reich, fascism would transform into a multi-pronged global force. Militarily, Mussolini conquered Ethiopia and Hitler re-armed, both in defiance of the League of Nations. They intervened to help General Francisco Franco overthrow the Spanish Second Republic and formed their anti-Bolshevik Axis with Imperial Japan.

Economically, fascism appealed during a worldwide depression because it seemed to have found a winning model to confront it: closed economies, big state spending, and tightly controlled labor organizations and markets to control wages and inflation. Revved up by rearmament spending, Germany was becoming the new engine of Europe and the leading trade partner for most of its neighboring nations. Germany boasted that it had no unemployment, and Italy had at least suppressed the visibility of out-of-work citizens by recruiting them for its ever-growing volunteer militia, sending them back to their rural home towns, settling them in its new empire in Libya and Ethiopia, or offering them assistance through winter help funds. In both regimes, leaders claimed, capital and labor cooperated in the national interest.

Political enthusiasm displayed itself in whole peoples uniformed and integrated into mass organizations, their distinctions effaced, united in their cult of the leader. By 1938, propagandists were speaking of the Nazi-Fascist New Order as the true heir to European culture. It launched a counter-Hollywood in the form of UFA, the giant German-dominated film production and distribution cartel, and financed joint film productions with the Japanese as well as a dazzling film festival at Venice to counter the one at Cannes.

The Nazi-Fascist New Order championed the new sciences of demographics and race hygienics in scientific congresses and exchanges. It fostered debates over how to revive jurisprudence and political science by differentiating between friends and enemies in legal codes and in international law and how to build more totalizing welfare states by incorporating sports and healthy eating, in addition to eugenic measures to prevent “useless” lives from detracting from the social good. And it portrayed itself as a pioneer in geopolitics, striking a new balance so that all of the world’s great powers would have their so-called vital spaces or “lebensraum.” Just as the U.S. would rule Latin America through its Monroe Doctrine, fascist geopoliticians said, Italy would have Eur-Africa, Japan its Co-Prosperity Sphere in Asia, and Germany its Ost-Plan for colonizing eastern Europe and Russia. On that basis, fascism had a right to make war and for the winning regimes to re-distribute chunks of colonial empire to the “deserving.”

It’s scary to look at a map of the world in 1941: continental Europe conquered for the New Order, the Nazi war machine at the gates of Moscow; Italy in the Balkans, its armies in the field from Benghazi to British Somalia; Japan occupying much of East Asia. The war was a true crusade, driven by its dictators’ furies, as well as old-fashioned imperialism: for the fascists, winning meant not just territorial conquest, but population elimination including the global eradication of the Jews, wholesale pillage, and capturing prisoners for slave labor. The tyrants had few qualms about immolating their own peoples to salvage their lost cause. Rather than capitulate to the Allies in June 1943, Mussolini abandoned Italy to German military occupation and two more years of bombardment, invasion, and civil war. Refusing to capitulate as Soviet forces encircled Berlin, Hitler summoned his people to continue the “sacrifice” and “struggle,” then killed himself.

Americans may think we know this history, but we have oversimplified its complexity. Boasting about defeating fascism, and declaring it our duty to police the world against any recurrence, we have lost sight of the global crises of the early 20th century, born of World War I and the Great Depression, that fascism was invented to address.

Over time, we have become accustomed to political leaders of both parties turning the history of fascism into a set of political hobgoblins to legitimate new wars. Never again a Munich, where the great powers capitulated to Hitler, to justify intervention in Vietnam. Never again the Holocaust, to justify intervention in the Balkans and Libya. Never would we bow to an Arab Hitler, to justify invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

We also have gotten used to Hollywood turning the U.S. encounter with Nazi-Fascism into mawkish images of good and evil, and to facile evocations of the Holocaust making Antisemitism practically the sole measure of what it meant to be fascist. “Fascinating Fascism” is the term Susan Sontag, the literary critic, once used to call out American culture’s superficiality at being beguiled by fascism’s kitschy aesthetics and by the sadomasochistic pleasure of thinking of fascism as chains and shackles that, once shaken off, reinvigorate the meaning of being whole and free.

By cultivating such a jejune view of what fascism was historically, we have struggled to understand the highly relevant story of why it took two decades between the world wars to develop a coalition powerful enough to fight it. Fascism always had opponents, of course, but they—dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, old-fashioned liberals, Catholic centrists, social democrats, communists, and anarchists—were deeply divided. Mussolini got points from his men when, after outlawing the opposition, he brushed off its leaders as “anti-fascists,” meaning they had no program except to contest his.

It is no disrespect to the hard-fought struggles of anti-fascist forces to underscore how hard it was to win, much less sustain, electoral victories once the right in polarized political systems aligns itself with forces identifying with fascism. In Spain, the left-wing coalition known as the Popular Front won in February 1936, only to be overthrown by a military coup, backed by international fascism. In France, the May 1936 victory of the Popular Front was reversed in short order as capital took flight for fear of a Red revolution, the economy stalled, and the coalition dissolved.

Most places sought to immunize themselves from fascism by becoming more conservative. Nearly everywhere, the interwar years were a time of nationalism, red-baiting, and eugenics. Antisemitism and race-mongering were normal. There was only one place in Europe that fended off the fascist turn with substantial social reforms: the Kingdom of Sweden, where the Social Democratic party won the vote in 1932. Of course, this solid left regime only could thrive as a neutral power, as a niche at the edge of the New Order, supplying the German war machine with coal and steel.

Ultimately, it was the rising hegemons, the United States and the Soviet Union, which had the strongest interests in battling Nazi-Fascist hegemony: the Soviet Union because it was in the direct line of Nazi aggression; the United States because it opposed German and Italian, allied with Japanese expansionism around the global. But it still took years for New Deal America, the troglodyte British Empire, and Stalin’s walled-off USSR to overcome their differences and forge a functioning antifascist military alliance.

Fascism was not fully vanquished by the military victories of World War II alone. Preventing its revival required a big rethink of economic and political principles around the world. It called for big projects, for huge investments, and for government planning to bring about economic recovery. How could a nation’s subjects be citizens if they were excluded by their poverty, and by caste-like differences in their education, standards of living, and life prospects? How could enhanced productivity, and big profits from new mass-industrial technologies like cars and radios, be more equitably distributed? Capitalism had to accept regulation. Old-fashioned liberalism had to accept labor reform and state spending on social benefits. Europe, if it was to end its warring divisions, had to accept some kind of federalism. The Catholic Church had to resolve its theological ambivalence and champion human rights universally, not only for Christians. Socialism (and communism) had to become more patriotic and reformist. World government had to become stronger, fairer, and more universal.

The substance, then, of fascism, but also of anti-fascism, is what mattered about fascism—not the label of “fascism” that obsesses so many people and dominates our politics today. That focus on substance is what we need now in the U.S. as we face not fascism, but rather a crisis of a kind that historic fascism invented itself to address, in the most awful ways. In this crisis, we need to summon up the terrifying honesty to address our nation’s responsibility for the crumbling of the liberal international order, and, if history serves, to create Popular Front forms of collective action nationally and globally with the power to confront our many challenges—ideally, well short of new wars.


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