Is there a definition and historical understanding of fascism that can be used in political analysis today (beyond being a smear word)? Put differently, can a fair-minded person discuss the existence of fascism in global politics today? Or, as an American newspaper put it in 1921, is fascism “a transitory phenomenon”?¹ Many reference books begin, as the Oxford English Dictionary does, with simple historical definitions such as “A nationalist political movement that controlled the government of Italy from 1922 to 1943…” In a second definition, the OED opens possibilities for current politics: “An authoritarian and nationalistic system of government and social organization which emerged after the end of the First World War.”² For those who favor newer, electronic resources, Wikipedia suggests “Fascism is a form of radical authoritarian ultranationalism, characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition and control of industry and commerce …”³
Reference works, in short, examine the doctrines of fascism and propose two key elements of fascism: (1) a doctrine somewhere between a “nationalistic system of government” and “ultranationalism,” with (2) governance somewhere between “authoritarian” and “radical authoritarian.” Such doctrines stand in sharp contrast to the dominant trends of the post-1945 western world. For more than half of a century, the west has seemed to be building a multi-national world, a world of international agreements and organizations and a world with democratic governments, gradually accepted outsiders and restricted the power of the state. In this post-1945 view, fascism did indeed seem “a transitory phenomenon.” But no one drove a stake through its heart; ardent nationalism and questioning of democratic government have unmistakably been on the rise. Is any contemporary politics close enough to ultranationalism and authoritarianism to be called fascism, or proto-fascism? Or is the word still just a partisan political smear?
It is a book of remarkable clarity, partly because it is, as Paxton writes in opening, “an essay, not an encyclopedia.”
The Wall Street Journal cautioned readers against over-stating the meaning of today’s nationalism, while agreeing that vigorous nationalism is on the rise around the world—in the United States, the United Kingdom, in Italy, Austria, India, Japan, Israel, Russia, and Turkey as prominent examples. Yoram Hazony made a forceful defense of nationalism: “It is a mistake to think of nationalism as an inherently regressive or destructive political force.” Instead, he argued, nationalism was “the engine that established modern political liberty.”⁴ There is strength to this argument, if nationalism is remembered as a central element in the battle against the authoritarianism of monarchy, empire, or colonialism.
To seek a more cautious understanding of fascism through scholarly literature, there is probably no place to start more respected than Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism, now more than a decade old. Paxton, professor emeritus at Columbia University after a long career teaching undergraduate and graduate seminars on fascism there, has been hailed as the father of fascism studies and called to testify in European courts (chiefly in France) as an expert witness on fascism when Europeans shied away from close examination of their recent past.
The Anatomy of Fascism is a book of surprisingly manageable length (217 pages of text) combined with impressive erudition (a 29-page bibliographic essay and 57 pages of endnotes to a dazzling array of global scholarship). The scholarship of Anatomy is especially impressive in bringing the monographic literature on fascism into the mainstream—such as case studies of the success of fascism in the Po Valley in Italy or in the Land of Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany. It is a book of remarkable clarity, partly because it is, as Paxton writes in opening, “an essay, not an encyclopedia.” (xi)
Paxton achieves this by sharply narrowing his focus on fascism. Anatomy is an attempt to understand the doctrines of fascism, as the OED and Wikipedia do, but Paxton prefers a focus away from doctrine (he “focuses more closely on the actions of fascists than on their words.” (xi) Thus, he chiefly discusses how fascism came to power and how it obtained dictatorial power. This puts the focus on the 1920s and 1930s; Anatomy is not an analysis of the Second World War or the Holocaust. Nor are the topics of prewar diplomacy such as the Anschluss or the Munich Conference central to this view of the twenties and thirties.
Instead of studying the ideas and doctrines of the political movement, he studies the actions of fascists. That is, he tries to explain what fascist movements did to grow, obtain office, and then to seize absolute power.
Instead, Paxton proposes a quite striking framework for his explanation of fascism. Instead of studying the ideas and doctrines of the political movement, he studies the actions of fascists. That is, he tries to explain what fascist movements did to grow, obtain office, and then to seize absolute power. What were the steps by which Mussolini became prime minister or Hitler became Chancellor? What were the steps by which they became dictators? What does this teach us about “the anatomy of fascism”? (And does it have especial utility for today’s politics?)
Paxton answers with a distinctive (and potentially controversial) set of explanations. First, he reminds readers of some basic, but often muddled facts: (1) While the Nazis did win some impressive vote totals before seizing total power (37.2 percent in July 1932, 43.9 percent in March 1933), no fascist party ever reached power by winning a majority in a national vote. (2) Despite Mussolini’s loud propaganda to the contrary, neither he nor Hitler became head of government through a coup d’état. They certainly used and encouraged violence in the political process, but it did not put them in office. (3) Instead, we should remember that both Hitler and Mussolini were named head of government in a largely legal, largely constitutional process. The President of Germany and the King of Italy named them to office as specified by their constitutions.
Paxton’s explanation of how these extremist minority parties came to power is perhaps the most striking feature of his analysis. What persuades presidents or kings to select a fascist head of government? One might argue that they agreed with fascist ultra-nationalism and the rejection of outsiders who did not belong in the nation. One might argue that they shared fascist authoritarianism and rejected the historic emergence of liberal-democratic government. Paxton certainly discusses the importance of such doctrines. But he stresses instead upon the collaboration of traditional elites with fascist parties: “It took the decisions of powerful individuals to open the gates to fascism.” (86)
Upon detailed examination, this means that “The fascist route to power has always passed through cooperation with conservative elites. … conservative national leaders in both countries decided that what the fascists had to offer outweighed the disadvantages of allowing these ruffians to capture public space.” (98-99) The conservative elites, both inside government and outside it, believed that they could control such political neophytes and exploit their strengths to achieve important conservative goals that the left (trade unions, socialists, and communists) had blocked.
What persuades presidents or kings to select a fascist head of government? One might argue that they agreed with fascist ultra-nationalism and the rejection of outsiders who did not belong in the nation. … Paxton certainly discusses the importance of such doctrines. But he stresses instead upon the collaboration of traditional elites with fascist parties: “It took the decisions of powerful individuals to open the gates to fascism.”
Mussolini’s fascists participated in only one national election before entering the government. In May 1921 they won 35 seats in a legislature of 535. Those seats, however, attracted Italian conservatives who realized that the inclusion of the fascists in a governing coalition would create a majority blocking the left. Giovanni Giolitti (1842-1928), the senior statesman of Italian politics, a centrist-conservative who served five terms as prime minister of Italy, was the grand master of the Italian political art of trasformismo (“transformism”) by which outsiders brought into a governing coalition would become part of the governing system and collaborate.
Giolitti thought that Mussolini’s ardent nationalism would fit well in his new, anti-leftist government coalition, the National Bloc. Giolitti (who had once been a liberal) was now fighting against classical liberal economic doctrines such as free trade, and Mussolini would be a vigorous supporter of his proposed tariffs. So Giolitti accepted a thug as a partner in respectable politics, including him in his coalition and his government. More ominous, Giolitti looked aside when fascist squadristi were increasingly violent, attacking ethnic minorities (especially Slovenes) or sacking and burning the socialist party headquarters in Cremona. Even when the squadristi attacked the home of a prominent Catholic (who had organized farm laborers), conservatives did not demand their arrest and trial. Italian scholars refer to this conservative embrace of fascism and the decision to bring them into the government as the “compromesso autoritario” (a compromise for ruling).⁵
Mussolini, of course, preferred to tell the story of his heroic seizure of power in a coup known as “the march on Rome” in October 1922. In Paxton’s view, “The myth that Mussolini’s Fascists conquered power by their sole heroic exploits was propaganda—one of their most successful themes, evidently, for many people still believe it.” (87) Mussolini so enjoyed the idea that he had conquered impotent representative government that he named the anniversary (October 28th) a national holiday and later, the first day of the new year. In reality, Mussolini’s black-shirted demonstrators mostly failed to reach Rome. The Italian police stopped 20,000 of them travelling on trains. The 9,000 stragglers who approached Rome had to do it walking in the rain, with few arms and less food or water. The prime minister of the moment, Luigi Facta, had made preparations for the armed forces to block this less-than-operatic arrival. In Paxton’s words again, “In ancient and modern history, there was hardly any attempt on Rome that failed so miserably at its beginning.” (90)
How, then did Mussolini enter Rome and immediately become prime minister? At the last minute, King Victor Emmanuel III refused to sign Facta’s decree of martial law which would have called out the army. Instead, the king ordered the army to stand down and named Mussolini prime minister. The archival evidence to explain precisely what happened is still lacking. We know that conservative leaders met with Victor Emmanuel, but which ones (from the church? The army? Politicians?) persuaded him to give the government to the fascists, lawfully and constitutionally?
The image of a violent seizure of power (as distinct from the use of violence in political action) is also untrue for Hitler. Nazi storm troopers had certainly used violence in the elections of the early 1930s, and that undoubtedly increased Nazi vote totals. But they did not make Hitler Reichskanzler. Hitler had already failed badly in an attempted coup, and he had changed his strategy. In his “Munich Beer Hall Putsch” of November 1923, Hitler had followed Mussolini’s script of the previous year and led his followers into the streets, with a national hero, General von Ludendorff, at his side. He intended to seize the government of Bavaria as the first step in a national coup. But his putsch met a heroic conservative, the minister-president of Bavaria, Gustav von Kahr, who ordered the police to stop the march and who authorized the use of force against the fascist marchers. The police followed von Kahr’s orders and fired on the marchers, killing fourteen Nazi supporters. Hitler was arrested, tried for treason, and sentenced to prison—as Mussolini could easily have been. (Von Kahr, himself an ardent nationalist, was subsequently murdered by Nazi thugs after Hitler became chancellor.)
After his release from prison, Hitler turned to electoral politics as his route to power. He had considerable success at working a mass electorate, at playing upon the fears and angers of ordinary citizens. As Paxton nicely puts it, he rejected “the long bookish speeches appropriate for a small, educated electorate” (66), instead offering a melodramatic attack on the failures of the democratic Weimar Republic, the demonized enemies who were not truly German, and the international agreements his predecessors had accepted. His authoritarian nationalism won Hitler an outright majority in only one free election, in a single Land: he won 51 percent of the vote (64 percent of the rural vote, far less among urban workers) in Schleswig-Holstein in 1932. But his 43 percent in national elections was enough to entice conservative leaders to collaborate with someone they certainly found distasteful. They made a deal with Hitler and put him in office.
The German record of which conservative leaders struck the bargain to support the devil is much clearer than the Italian case. After all, one of the most famous German conservatives, the wealthy industrialist Fritz Thyssen published a book with the blunt title I Paid Hitler.⁶ The bargain started, however, with Franz von Papen (1879-1969), a hereditary noble, an officer of the German general staff, the leader of the Roman Catholic party (the Zentrum) in Germany, and the husband of the richest industrial heiress of the Saar. Von Papen was a devoted sympathizer of the Hohenzollerns, convinced that Weimar democracy was a monstrosity imposed on defeated Germany. He was one of the leading conservatives upon whom President von Hindenburg relied for a series of minority governments (which were possible under the president’s constitutional emergency powers). Hindenburg named von Papen chancellor at the start of 1932. Von Papen, in concert with conservative leaders in politics, the army, the church, and the financial-industrial world, developed the theory that they could govern comfortably in a majority coalition with Hitler. Nazi votes would enable them to achieve conservative goals and defeat the leftist agenda, and Hitler’s inexperience would make it easy for the conservative elite to manage him.
The German record of which conservative leaders struck the bargain to support the devil is much clearer than the Italian case. After all, one of the most famous German conservatives, the wealthy industrialist Fritz Thyssen published a book with the blunt title I Paid Hitler.
As Paxton puts it, Nazism “might have ended as a footnote to history had it not been saved in the opening days of 1933 by conservative politicians who wanted to pilfer its following and use its political muscle for their own purposes.” (68) Two conservative chancellors, von Papen and General von Schleicher, met with the conservative President of Germany, General von Hindenburg, and developed this plan. Von Papen accepted the position of deputy chancellor in Hitler’s government, in order to steer it to their goals. Many of these, such as the continuing attack on Weimar democracy and on the parties of the left, were simply shared goals.
Conservative leaders of German big business and industry strongly supported Hitler after conservative politicians had struck this bargain: Thyssen and the banker Hjalmar Schacht urged President von Hindenburg to name Hitler chancellor; a few days after the president did so, twenty-five leading industrialists (led by the heads of Krupp and IG Farben) met with Hitler and pledged the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in today’s values, “to confirm the Nazi party in power.”⁷
German scholarship has presented the conservative role in the acceptance of fascist government much like the Italian compromesso autoritario. The term used by German scholars is the Herrschaftskompromiss.⁸ In both Germany and in Italy it was not an easy, or universal, bargain on either side. The commander of Nazi storm troops (the SA) in Berlin, for example, was so infuriated that Hitler had sold out to the old order that he ordered his forces occupy and then to trash the Nazi party headquarters in Berlin.
The Herrschaftskompromiss did not work out well for many participants. On the “Night of the Long Knives” (June 30, 1934) Hitler thanked German conservatives by having murdered Gustav von Kahr (who had blocked him in 1923), General von Schleicher (who had helped him become chancellor) and his wife, and several senior members of von Papen’s staff. Von Papen lingered on to witness the creation of the first concentration camp and the outlawing his Zentrum Party. A few years later, Franz von Papen would be one of the prominent conservatives who would be indicted at Nuremberg. He was found guilty of “political immoralities” but the court ruled they fell short of Crimes Against the Peace, by deadlocking 2-2, so von Papen was acquitted.⁹ Subsequently, a West German denazification court convicted him and sentenced him to eight years of hard labor. He was far from the only conservative of the Herrschaftkompromiss to be put on trial for his war crimes. The economic elite saw bankers such as Walter Funk and Hjalmar Schacht, industrialists such Gustav Krupp and Robert Ley, all of the directors of IG Farben, and many early supporters of Hitler from the Kommanditgesellschaft put on trial.
Paxton uses this understanding of a conservative-fascist compromise, based on shared authoritarian nationalism, in his examination of fascism in other countries. He argues that most other fascist parties (such as those in Britain, France, and Spain) never came close to seizing power. In France and Spain, conservatives certainly collaborated. But in Spain, Franco’s Catholic-military authoritarianism overpowered and used the fascists of the Falange, as von Papen had thought he could. In France, Colonel de La Rocque’s Croix de Feu was a participant in the dramatic violence of February 1934, and his Parti Social Français “was probably the largest party in France on the eve of the war” (70), but they never won any electoral power. The Vichy Regime, led by the hero of Verdun, Marshal Philippe Pétain (1856-1951), and three-time Premier Pierre Laval (1883-1945), and most of the collaborationist regime, were (like von Papen) members of “the traditional right, and not the Fascist right.” (71) Thus, Paxton is a critic of the scholarly argument proposed by Zeev Sternhell that France was the “true cradle of fascism” (69) due to the intellectual roots of fascist doctrines that he found in France.¹⁰ The disagreement is partly a consequence of Sternhell’s view of fascism through ideas and Paxton’s emphasis upon actions. (It is noteworthy that Paxton’s research expertise was on the Vichy regime and fascism in France.)¹¹
As Paxton puts it, Nazism “might have ended as a footnote to history had it not been saved in the opening days of 1933 by conservative politicians who wanted to pilfer its following and use its political muscle for their own purposes.”
Finally, Paxton’s ideas presented in The Anatomy of Fascism raise a different perspective on the opening question: is there an understanding of fascism that can be used in political analysis today? One direct answer was seen in opening: a focus on doctrines of extreme nationalism and an authoritarian clash with democratic traditions is one route. But Paxton’s answer, a focus on actions in seeking and expanding power, leads to an enlarged analysis: if one finds an ardent nationalism and authoritarianism of a putative fascism, does one also see the willingness of the established elites to collaborate and accept this? Paxton stated (in 2005) that he saw the first stages of fascism “within all democratic countries—not excluding the United States.” (220) He expanded upon this by asserting that “Giving up free institutions, especially the freedoms of unpopular groups is recurrently attractive to citizens of Western democracies, including some Americans.” (220)
A decade after Anatomy, are there cases that have moved beyond “the first stages”? Is there evidence of governing elites being willing to collaborate with proto-fascists? The European Union is certainly worried that this might be the case in Hungary, perhaps in other East European members. Italians seem willing to use the name “fascists” again. Scholars have begun to ask, “Is fascism back?”¹² Perhaps the next book on the reading list should be Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 satire, It Can’t Happen Here. Maybe Buzz Windrip and the Corpos would awaken more discussion than the memory of Franz von Papen and Fritz Thyssen have.