Has Fascism returned to the West?
Written by Alfonso Elizondo
Created on Wednesday, July 27, 2016, 10:21
Almost one century after the rise of Fascism in the West there is talk again right now about that controversial social phenomenon, while thousands of small far-right political parties are managing to control a high percentage of seats in European parliaments, and in the United States people are beginning to ask whether Trump’s ideas can be considered fascist.
In reality there is no clear definition of fascism, therefore I have chosen Roger Griffin’s short definition: “Fascism is a type of political ideology whose mythic core is based on different interpretations of a resurgent ultra-nationalist populism.” The key term in the definition is the word ‘type’ and so the degrees of diversity, form and success, plus the lack of a theoretical basis comparable to socialism makes it easier to talk about a set of empirical political ideas rather than an actual ideology.
It is very difficult to explain this twentieth-century social phenomenon, although there are some common elements such as rejection of the democratic model because of its radical anti-liberalism, its visceral anti-communism, its exaltation of the youthful and manly military virtues of national identity, its advocacy of nationalist symbolism in a populist and slightly subversive discourse, the use of street violence to achieve political advancement and especially the use of twentieth-century narratives that cannot be explained outside the framework of mass society. Since fascism was more political than theoretical in nature and Europe between the two world wars it was not as clear an ideological movement as liberalism and Marxism.
As we know, fascism first emerged in Italy where a small political party founded by a former socialist journalist elected itself with an electoral minority as the only possible leader of Italy which was a stranger to the horrors of a revolution. Once he gained governmental power, Mussolini destroyed the liberal political model that had prevailed in Italy until World War I and established a dictatorship that lasted until his bloody fall in 1945.
Many historians view Hitler’s Germany as part of the same social phenomenon in Italy and see both countries as the two fascist regimes par excellence, although some try to distinguish between them because of the exceptional nature of Nazism and anti-Semitism. However, Hitler always claimed to have been inspired by Mussolini and like him he emerged from a political minority to seize control of the government of the Weimar Republic, constitutionally at first and then by a coup filled with horrors that ended with his own death in 1945.
In the rest of Europe there are historians who include under the umbrella of fascism the first phase of the Franco dictatorship and even the Horthy regime in Hungary and the Dollfuss government in Austria. It seems to be the case that these revolutionary paramilitary movements, emerging in response to the economic crisis and communism at that time were only a continuation of the historical authoritarian power of the traditional and ultraconservative ruling class.
Italian Fascism was the first to emerge, but paradoxically it had won and at the same time lost World War I because even when it was on the winning side its military performance was very poor, aimless and lacking in direction, its nationalism was wounded and it had no spoils of war, so Italy jumped into the classical liberal system. Despite the fact that the paramilitary Fascist movement was fiercely anti-communist and supported the traditional social order, it presented itself as an attractive solution for the middle classes and as a political tool for the leaders.
The extreme far right won because there was a decrepit state whose governance mechanisms did not work properly, a mass of disenchanted and unhappy citizens who did not know who to trust, strong mobilization by the socialists and nationalist resentment against the peace treaties of 1918- 1920. Consequently, the old leadership elites were tempted to turn to radical extremists. This is what liberal Italians did with Mussolini’s fascists from 1920 to 1922 and German conservatives with Hitler’s National Socialists from 1932 to1933.
Despite its initial success in Italy, Fascism did not find its way again till the social and economic upheaval of 1929. And also it was thanks to the severe German recession that Hitler was able to gain political power, first by constitutional parliamentary means and then by authoritarian means, and like Italy, fascism made use of ultra-nationalism, mobilization of the masses, an environment of instability, loss of the paramilitary arm and the tacit acceptance of the leaders.
So both in Italy and in Germany, the subversive and revolutionary sides of the fascists were quickly abandoned, thanks to support from traditional conservative powers. But once in power, both Fascists and Nazis eliminated all opposition and established totalitarian dictatorships until the end in 1945.
Addendum: Like the fascism of the 30’s, at present the National Front in France and other populist far-right parties in Europe present themselves as saviours in the face of a country and a European project in absolute decline because of the traditional elite, and their votes are coming from the most vulnerable sectors. In addition, all the far-right parties are taking advantage of the wave of immigration of the past two decades and the apparent failure of the European Union.
In Denmark, the UK, Finland and Austria there is a fusion of nationalism and xenophobia with the protection of the rights of native citizens and with the demand for national sovereignty against the euro and Brussels. It is a populist political discourse within the democratic framework that is already mobilizing all of Europe and it seems to be a new version of the fascism that emerged in the West almost a century ago.