The Age of Anxiety: Europe in the 1920s (2)
---Benito Mussolini, The Doctrine of Fascism, 1932
While most of the lost and troubled generation found newness in their unconsciousness or in the efforts to twist the rules of "rational" art, there was also something real and vital which would become their experience. Not just the backdrop to their experience, but their experience itself. In the 1920s and 30s, liberal democracy was faced with a grave crisis and its greatest challenge. A new political theory emerged -- one which drew its inspiration from Caligula, Nero and Commodus. It was Benito Mussolini who proclaimed that universal suffrage was the greatest of lies. And it was Lenin who proved Russian bourgeois democracy to have been both decadent and impotent. In THE REVOLT OF THE MASSES (1930), the Spanish philosopher Jos� Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) remarked that:
The German OSWALD SPENGLER (1880-1936), believed that liberalism led to democracy which in the end would lead to caesarism. This development he outlined in his massive philosophy of history, The Decline of the West, which he published in 1919. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) believed that democracy substituted the rule of the incompetent many for that of the corrupt few. Shaw admired Lenin -- Shaw admired Mussolini. Why? Well, it was quite simply, really: any enemy of democracy was a friend to Shaw.
It seemed as if perhaps Plato was right after all. His Republic, written as the classical age of Greece came to a close, was a dialogue about the education required for a perfect society. Democracy had no place in such a society: Plato merely called it "a charming form of government." In its place, Plato believed that a special breed of man, a Philosopher-King, ought to govern. One man -- endowed with the mind of a philosopher and body of a general. The Romans understood Plato -- so too did the moderns. Lenin believed he was that man -- so too did Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Mussolini (on Stalin and Hitler, see Lecture 10). Perhaps the rule of superior beings was required for the 20th century. Perhaps democracy and parliamentary government, and socialism and communism, had run their course. After all, none of them had brought about peace. Instead, they had brought about the Great War.
Although many intellectuals toyed with fascism, their general sympathies were stated in a more negative fashion. That is, they may have become fascists, but only because fascism contained no democratic principles. H. G. Wells (1866-1946), the author of The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, called for a class of governing experts or technocrats. So too did the American critic, Walter Lippmann (1894-1974). D. H. Lawrence believed that democracy was spent force -- a new Caesar was needed. Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), author of Brideshead Revisited, accepted both Mussolini's Fascists and Franco's right wing dictatorship. A new ideology, Italian fascism appeared after World War One in a country which had clearly been demoralized by war. The nation found itself frustrated and basically left out of the peace negotiations in 1919.
Italian Fascism was not a consistent doctrine but rather a fusion of different ideas. It was successful, temporarily at least, because Italy was near total collapse. The collapse was precipitated by war but there were other elements as well. There was, for instance, conflict between socialist trade unions and industrial capitalists. On top of that, there was the general failure of parliamentary democracy. The key to these crises was fascism with its aim, the end of class conflict. The Fascists, like the Marxists, recognized the existence of class conflict, a class war which had existed, according to Karl Marx, throughout history. The Marxist solution was a world-wide proletarian revolution in which workers would rise up, break free their fetters and seize and then control the means of production. This great event would usher in the historical stage of production known as socialism. With time, Marx argued, the state controlled economy would whither away and the perfect form of social organization, communism, would take its place.
Mussolini had nothing to do with such a scenario. To believe that the proletariat would rise up on their own was idealist fantasy. Mussolini's fascism attempted to remove class antagonisms through nationalism and corporatism. The economy was organized and all producers -- from peasants and factory workers to intellectuals and industrialists -- were situated into twenty-two corporations to improve productivity and avoid industrial disputes. It all sounded good on paper but as the Italians and the world later discovered, it didn't work. So Mussolini found himself having to make compromises with big business, the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church. The Italian economy experienced no appreciable growth. The corporate state was never fully implemented and the expansionist and militaristic nature of fascism contributed to imperialist adventures in Ethiopia and the Balkans, and ultimately, World War Two. What fascism became was a nightmare world come true -- a nightmare feared by mean like Ortega, Spengler, Lawrence and Aldous Huxley (1894-1963). It was the revolt of the dehumanized masses enslaved by a totalitarian state.
Fascism's leader was BENITO MUSSOLINI. Born in 1883, the son of an anti-clerical, socialist blacksmith, Mussolini was an unruly child. He shared his father's views and added to them ideas he picked up from his wide reading of revolutionary writers. He read Louis Blanqui (1805-1881), a French revolutionary leader during the Paris Commune of 1871 and master of insurrection. Mussolini absorbed the writings of Georges Sorel (1847-1922), a French syndicalist philosopher who argued that true socialism could only appear after a period of violent revolution at the hands of a disciplined proletariat. In his LETTER TO DANIEL HALEVY (1907), Sorel introduced his doctrine of the "social myth." A true myth, said Sorel, does not aim to provide a rational conception of a future society but is a vision, a dream, a great emotional force that can inspire violent revolutionary activity. Such myths cannot be subjected to rational discussion. The function of a myth, above all, is mass inspiration: "the myths are not descriptions of things," Sorel wrote, "but determinations to act." Mussolini was also familiar with our old friend Friedrich Nietzsche.
Mussolini was influenced by all these theorists but spent his early years as a traveling schoolteacher and journalist. In 1912, Mussolini became editor of the Milan Socialist Party newspaper, Avanti. When the Great War broke out in 1914, he at first opposed Italy's entry but soon reversed his position and called for Italy's entry on the side of the Allies. Expelled from the Socialist Party for this stance, he founded his own newspaper in Milan, Il popolo d'Italia, which later became the organ of his Fascist movement. He served in the army until he was wounded in 1917.
On March 23, 1919, Mussolini and other war veterans founded in Milan a revolutionary, nationalistic group called the Fasci di Combattimento, named for the ancient Roman symbol of power, the fasces. His fascist movement developed into a powerful "radicalism of the right," gaining the support of many landowners in the lower Po Valley, industrialists and army officers. Fascist blackshirt squads carried on local civil war against Socialists, Communists, Catholics and Liberals.
On October 28, 1922, after the Fascists had marched on Rome, Mussolini secured a mandate from King Victor Emmanuel III (1869-1947) to form a coalition government. In 1925-26, after a lengthy crisis with parliament following the assassination of the Socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti (1885-1924), he imposed a single-party, totalitarian dictatorship. His corporative state came to terms with Italian capitalism but abolished free trade unions.
Mussolini understood that there was a need for a complete revolution of values to replace those of decadent and bankrupt bourgeois civilization. These values were not socialist, they were not communist and they certainly were not liberal. Mussolini sought to move beyond contemporary political ideologies and his solution was fascism. Fascism stressed charismatic leadership, a dynamic leadership which would bring Italy away from the humiliation it had suffered since the late 19th century. In this manner, Fascism was both a species of revival and restoration. But, it was based on irrationality. There was no system or program, just action for the sake of action, violence for the sake of violence. Mussolini wanted to destroy the "lie of universal suffrage," he wanted to destroy parliamentary democracy by substituting for it a strong heroic elite. True, he broke the power of the trade unions but the result was near total economic collapse. As a new religion, fascism was stamped on the mind of youth through control of education but it soon ceased to interest anyone of even meager intelligence. It was almost laughable -- this theatrical performance for the sake of performance. Despite the performance, the myths, the ritual and the pretended charisma of Il Duce, it has been said that the only thing Mussolini managed to do was to make the trains run on time.
Fascism was a mass anti-liberal, anti-communist movement. It was radical in its acceptance of conflict. It was radical in its willingness to employ force whenever necessary. It held all upper class values in contempt. And, it attacked its enemies on both the left and the right. With a leader such as ADOLF HITLER (1889-1945), support tended to come from the lower middle class. The little men -- the clerks, the shopkeepers, the minor civil servants. These were the people whose ambitions had been frustrated by the wartime economy. These were the people who were self-taught but could not get ahead. Finally, these were the people who came out of the Great War demoralized by German defeat in 1918.
There's no doubt about it. Hitler borrowed from Mussolini. But Hitler also went beyond Il Duce. Mussolini had not been ruthless enough. Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks in Russia, had been ruthless, so Mussolini borrowed tactics from the Party for his own purposes. Hitler hated democracy and Marxism he regarded as Jewish poison. Of Marxism, Hitler wrote: "Either this racial poison, the mass tuberculosis, grows in our people, and Germany dies of an infected lung, or it is eliminated, and Germany can then thrive." He was fanatically nationalistic. Nazism thrived on the defeat of WWI as well as the national sense of humiliation shared by all Germans due to the Versailles Treaty's war guilt clause. There is little doubt that Nazism made its appeal to the emotions of a society devastated by war. Capitalism, communism, the Jews, the pacifists and liberals, the weak and the insane were all denounced. Hitler demanded a strong government capable of voicing the national will and leading Germany back to it place in the sun.
Hitler's storm troopers specialized in brutal violence. His party borrowed heavily from the Russian Bolsheviks for its organization. And this was important for in such a party as the Nazis, organization was everything. And then there was Hitler's social Darwinism -- that life is struggle and that the weak will perish. Is this an idea that became new with Hitler? Certainly not. Richard Wagner (1813-1883), after all, was racist. So too were many of Hitler's teachers. Racism was not a creation of the early twentieth century. Not only that, the entire period from 1880-1920 was one in which the science of eugenics had become popular. This is true whether we consider developments in England, France, Russia, Germany or the United States. From Nietzsche, the Nazis borrowed slogans about the Superman, the blond beast, heroic leadership, the herd and the need to purge the old order. Unfortunately for poor Nietzsche -- a man who hated anti-Semites and nationalists -- Hitler made him the Reich's official philosopher. For Hitler, the Jew was the scapegoat, blamed for everything. Everything that had anything to do with capitalism, democracy, socialism, communism, modern art and modern literature and a hundred other things was all part of a Jewish conspiracy. Stalin shared a similar disposition. The Jew was identified with intellectualism, while the German or Aryan was identified with the cultural and national soil -- the "Volk," a nineteenth century concept pre-dating Hitler by almost 100 years. "Volk is a much more comprehensive term than people," the historian George Mosse wrote in The Crisis of German Ideology,
The Nazis talked of a pure Aryan Christianity, unblemished by Judaic influence. This idea went so far that Hitler asserted there was an Aryan science and that Albert Einstein was incorrect simply because he was a Jew. All this talk about Nordic supremacy or the Aryan race was quite common at the turn of the century -- although it certainly appeared in different forms. In the United States, for instance, there was consistent talk of "race suicide" and the "mongrelization" of native Americans (meaning white, Europeans) due to their intermarriage with inferior races of Slavs, Jews and Italians. Anti-Semitism, social Darwinism and eugenics were also a commonplace in England at the turn of the century, as were fears of racial suicide. But it was the Dreyfus Affair in France in the 1890s which exposed the modern appearance of anti-Semitism.
Hitler learned his anti-Semitism in Austria where he developed his ideas of pan-Germanism, Lebensraum and the master race. Anti-Semitism was common in Russia and Eastern Europe where pogroms against the Jews already had a lengthy history by the 1920s and 30s. In fact, anti-Semitism in various forms has an extremely long history. In Germany, as compared with other areas of eastern and central Europe, there was no Jewish problem. The Jewish problem only became real after Hitler and the Nazis invented it.
The Nazi and Fascist movements of the 1920s and 30s were profoundly anti-intellectual. "When I hear the world culture," said Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), "I reach for my gun." Fascism came to be led by the brutal, the ignorant and the criminal -- men who were clever at exploiting the irrationality of the masses. As keen students of modern propaganda, the Fascists and Nazis borrowed heavily from the great mass movements of the age (radio, film, print). The Fascists employed the language of religious conversion, freely using words like faith, salvation, miracle, rebirth and sacrifice. This was a tendency already apparent in 19th century nationalism, an ideology whose past extends backward to early 19th century German Romanticism.
The Fascists also borrowed heavily from the Bolsheviks and communists, from the Jesuits and Freemasons and from the army. It has been said that Fascism and Nazism also learned a great deal from American advertising. Hitler and the Nazis looked to the recent German past and borrowed whatever was useful to them. There was, in the case of Hitler, a deliberate use of myth and a general acceptance of the need to lead the masses by attention to their irrational impulses. The respect for truth -- truth as discerned by thinkers like Hegel, Goethe, Marx or Nietzsche -- was replaced by the systematic lying of the Nazis.
In general, the Fascists and Nazis elevated all that was horrific in pre-war and inter-war European culture. They were the evil spirits of western civilization. They did not create the evil -- they merely exploited it. They heightened it. They were intellectual parasites who borrowed the ideas of others to use as the new tools of power.
Fascism or Fascist ideology were not restricted to Italy or to Germany alone. Fascism was a European phenomenon which developed as a reaction to the perceived failure of western-style liberal democracies and industrial capitalism. From France, Belgium and Romania to Austria, England and the United States, Fascism did manage to receive some support. Fascism was a radicalism of the political right and as such, profoundly conservative. Its ideology glorified the country over the city, stressed blind patriotism, the family, traditional values and old customs. We see the same emphasis in the German "Volk." "The world between the wars was attracted to madness," wrote the British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). "Of this attraction Nazism was the most emphatic expression." Watching Hitler's chanting crowds, and mass meetings, one could only get the idea that some kind of madness had come over Germany. In actual fact, most Germans cared less for Fascist or Nazi propaganda. They like Hitler because he got things done, solved unemployment and restored the pride of all Germans.
It's been said that people, not being truly rational, have need of ritual, romance and religion. Perhaps these needs had been neglected in a rationalized, bureaucratic and mechanical society. Fascism reminded these people that twentieth century man is in search of religion and religious faith -- faith needed to replace a Christianity now hidden. In Fascism and Nazism, they found a new faith replete with rituals, symbols, sacraments, the good book as well as a Messiah. In the end, of course, this new faith turned out to be a disastrous one.
| The History Guide | |
copyright � 2000 Steven Kreis