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date: 15 September 2019


Abstract and Keywords

Of all political concepts of relatively recent times, fascism, along with the name of the Nazi chief, Adolf Hitler, elicits the most automatically negative reaction in most minds. Its mention at once conjures images of marching automatons, extreme violence, war, and genocide. The fascists, along with Hitler, it is widely assumed, were virtuously beaten in the Second World War, when liberals, democrats and socialists, capitalists and communists, came together, at least from 1941, to resist, to produce, to conquer, and to save humankind. Even though it is now more than sixty years since Hitler and his Italian ally, Benito Mussolini, died at the end of the Second World War, the history of fascism, it seems, retains contemporary menace.

Keywords: Adolf Hitler, Nazi, genocide, fascism, Second World War, Benito Mussolini, Italy, Germany

The word ‘fascism’ continues to launch a thousand books. Indeed, of all political concepts of relatively recent times, it, along with the name of the Nazi chief, Adolf Hitler, elicits the most automatically negative reaction in most minds. Its mention at once conjures images of marching automatons, extreme violence, war, and ‘genocide’, all at the behest of some dictator, armed for a while with a fascinating charisma but, in reality, perverse, brutal, deluded, and, almost certainly, crazed. The fascists, along with Hitler, it is widely assumed, were virtuously beaten in the Second World War, when liberals, democrats and socialists, capitalists and communists, came together, at least from 1941, to resist, to produce, to conquer, and to save humankind. Thereafter, one task of virtue has been to ensure that fascism would not revive. ‘Never again’ is a slogan to which the vast majority subscribe.

To be sure, almost immediately after 1945 (and even before that), complications surfaced. The wartime alliance did not last long. Very likely, it quickly seemed in the West, communists, with their own ‘totalitarian’ ambitions, had quite a lot in common with their enemies (whom they called fascists rather than Nazis) and in turn needed to be vanquished in the successive Cold Wars. They were. By the year 2000, the age of statist ideologies seemed over for good. In the new millennium of globalization and the ‘end of history’, liberal democracy, of some definition, and the market possess hegemony in most places; they therefore ought to be unchallenged.

Yet ours is also an age of fear. And at least part of current trepidation is nourished by the spectre that, with malevolent purposes, ‘fundamentalist’ rogue states, headed (p. 2) by new ‘Hitlers’,1 may toy with again unleashing an updated fascist beast from its lair. Even though it is now more than sixty years since Hitler and his Italian ally, Benito Mussolini, died at the end of the Second World War, the history of fascism, it seems, retains contemporary menace.

There is much that is paradoxical in this situation. After all, the first fascist dictator, in office a decade before Hitler, was Mussolini. The word ‘fascism’ originated in Italy, as did ‘totalitarian’; each term spread from Italian into other languages, with plenty of risks of (mis-)translation. No doubt the two regimes eventually fought the war in an Axis (of evil). Yet, under every conceivable index, the Italians were by 1940 second- or third-rate allies, their nation state in practice already relegated from its accustomed posture as the ‘least of the Great Powers’. Just to provide one set of statistics, between 1942 and 1944,Italy produced 6 percentofthe machine guns of its Tripartite alliance with Germany and Japan, 7.8 per cent of its aircraft, 5 per cent of its tanks, and less than 5 per cent of its steel (these tallies ran at about 40 percentorlessofwhatthe United Nationsmanufactured).2 Moreover, even if a count of premature deaths caused by the Fascist dictatorship in Italy is expanded to embrace the casualties of its aggressive wars, they still ‘only’ tally around a million, scarcely competition with the Nazis or the Stalinists or with quite a few liberal imperialists. In seeming scholarly response to this reality, Italian history has rarely won the profile accorded to the German (Russian, British, or even French) past. Italians, for good or bad, seem too lightweight to bear the moral imprint of fascist horror.

Nor in the framing of its series of Handbooks, designed to sum up the latest scholarship on a set of major issues, has Oxford University Press discountenanced this situation. A Handbook of Modern German History is in preparation along with this one. What academic space is therefore left to a Handbook of Fascism?The answer is doubtless in the pages that follow and the (varied) contributions that they contain from thirty-one historians from three continents and with a number of first languages other than English. But perhaps there is an argument that extremity makes for bad history. Peter Novick has emphasized that there are dangers as well as advantages in focusing on the ‘uniqueness’ of the Holocaust.3 Maybe in reviewing the history and histories of European fascisms, it is as helpful to note inadequacy (p. 3) and failure, along with the horror. A fascism that is not automatically treated as an absolute ‘other’ may be worth study and may better purvey those uncertain and treacherous ‘lessons’ that the discipline of history can offer.

As an editor, I have not sought to impose a party line on my distinguished colleagues. In my editorial chair, I have been a self-consciously ‘weak dictator’, content to be ‘structured’ by my contributors and by the literature as much as by my own attitudes and understanding. After all, one of the most positive results of the Second World War and the defeat of Nazi-fascism was the lesson, preached with greater dedication by many historians in the war's aftermath than before, that the discipline of history is best viewed as an ‘argument without end’, posited on a doctrine of ‘criticism, criticism, again criticism and criticism once more’.4When they scan this Handbook of Fascism, readers will learn quickly enough that the assembled contributors come from different and even rival schools and by no means always or automatically agree with each other.

Yet, however sketchily delineated, certain assumptions do lie behind this book and should no doubt be spelled out in an introduction. Whether the work should be regarded as a ‘mere academic exercise’ or not, its first point is that this is indeed not a handbook on Nazism. Rather, a third of the chapters focus on Italy, while another third are comparative but with the Italian face of the fascist story taken as fundamental. Mention of Germany, by contrast, is mainly indirect, no more than might anyway be occasioned by Hitler's emphasis that events in Italy had been of major influence in conditioning his approach to power and that ‘the march on Rome in 1922 was one of the turning-points of history’.5 Here is a study where consideration of the finality of Nazism and the oddity of Hitler's behaviour as an executive is at best muted compared with what might be called more everyday fascisms. It is true that the other key interpretations that have threaded the scholarship, notably the arguments that ‘fascism’ was dreamed up in the fin de siècle and especially in pre-1914 France and that fascist totalitarianism was only conceivable after the Bolshevik seizure of power in the Russian empire, are treated where need be by this Handbook's contributors. Yet the thesis survives that, if the history of fascism throughout Europe and the wider world is to be reviewed, then detailed attention to events, achievements, failures, and contradictions in Italy from 1914 to 1945 (and beyond) is essential.

This cascade of nouns alerts readers to another of this book's premisses. Any person interested in comparative investigations of fascism that do not focus obsessively on Nazism is unlikely to go far before running into the important work of the Italian historian Emilio Gentile, and that of the British political scientist (p. 4) Roger Griffin. Over the last two decades they have established themselves as the best and most enduring students of the intellectual history of fascism. They speak clearly. On quite a few occasions, Griffin has preached that a ‘new consensus’ exists over the meaning of fascism. It can be viewed most succinctly, he is emphatic, as ‘palingenetic ultra-nationalism’, a force ‘ideologically driven’ to ‘create a new type of post-liberal national community that will be the vehicle for the comprehensive transformation of political, social and aesthetic culture, with the effect of creating an alternative modernity’.6 Mostly, Griffin's findings have been approved by Gentile with his detailed knowledge of the history of Italian ideas. For Gentile, fascism ‘originates from a revolutionary party with an extremist and palingenetic ideology craving a monopoly of power in order to conquer society and transform it according to its conception of men and politics’; its totalitarianism was by its very nature ‘a continuous experiment in political domination’. From its active ‘laboratory’ came an ever more radical ‘political religion’, aimed at an ‘anthropological revolution’ and limitless national or racial expansion.7

Such conclusions have assisted Griffin's efforts to provide a definition of fascism that will stand the test of time and space. From 1999, a journal entitled Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions has become the special vehicle of this intellectual alliance and its contributors have sometimes argued their cause with what might ironically seem semi-religious fervour and quasi-totalitarian intellectual purpose. Griffin may protest too much when he asserts that a vast array of scholars ranging from Ian Kershaw to the political scientist James Gregor, on to the sociologist Michael Mann, and including the historians Kevin Passmore and Robert Paxton among contributors to this Handbook, operate ‘a curious form of doublethink in the way that they distance themselves from the new consensus but apply theories plainly consonant with, and even indebted to, many of its tenets’.8 Gentile has been even more authoritative in writing off the work of any commentators recalcitrant to the view that ‘political religion’ is the key explanatory device of fascism.

Yet doubters remain. As Martin Blinkhorn argued when he was asked to review contributions to a special issue of Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, ‘we continue to be struck more by the “limits of Mussolini's power” than by its extent but also because there had to be a suspicion (to put it mildly) that the limits were due more to factors intrinsic to, if not indeed representative of, Fascism than to extraneous ones which, given time, Fascism might yet have overcome’. The term political religion, Blinkhorn confessed, might be thought even more ‘awkward’ and unconvincing than totalitarianism. He, for one, remained unconvinced that (p. 5) ‘a secularisation-induced psychological need has much to do with the actual level of popular support achieved by individual fascist movements’. Maybe some fascists aimed at an ‘anthropological revolution’ wherein new men and women could be forged. But the purpose was not achieved and, for historians, he concluded, the failure was as interesting, as salutary, and as demanding of research and comment as were the attempt or hope.9 A year later, John Pollard, a contributor to this Handbook, summed up a further special issue of the journal, this time on clerical fascism, by suggesting that Grifffin and Gentile were seeing the tail and not the dog. ‘If Italian Fascism’, Pollard contended, ‘adopted the trappings of religion—credo, litanies, commandments, and rituals—it was not in order to fill a secular void in Italian society but because it made the movement and the regime more comprehensible and acceptable to the average Italian who was steeped in a living and vibrant Catholic culture.’10

This division of opinion, however lit up by present academic passion, is not especially new, nor is it confined to the history of fascism. Rather it evinces a variety of approach that has frequently marked historiography. One side is committed to reading (fascist) intellectuals intellectually; the books of fascist theorists are more instructive, it is maintained, than are the behaviour and motivation of a peasant. The other side is more given to reading between the lines and, in so doing, placing fascist thoughts into their social and intellectual context. In this approach, the peasants, being more numerous and perhaps more enduring or anyway possessed of longer and deeper histories than the intellectuals, may well matter the more.

To put the debate another way, for Griffin and Gentile and their supporters, the history of fascism is a single matter. The task of its historians is to assay the fascist past with the intention of unearthing a final pure lode that will identify fascism in a few words or paragraphs. By contrast, as far as their critics are concerned, fascist rule, for all its ambition at control, failed, by definition, to oust the very many histories that coursed through the lives of Italians and others who were living the inter-war crisis. There is no pure fascist history to be teased apart from the rest. Those who were citizens of the Fascist regime in Italy and those who belonged to fascist movements in other European states and societies bore a multitude of attitudes and ideas, and acted in complex and contradictory ways. Their fascisms can be studied but they are most tellingly examined at the interstices of life where individuals make fleeting choices that seem for a while ideal and may be given ideological explanation. Yet, like all ideas, fascism was merely one element in the dynamic functioning of human life. If theorists stop the machine, they may be able to see fascism more clearly and paint it more strikingly. But they simultaneously lose the context in which the fascism lived and upon which, in despite of itself, it was (p. 6) dependent. Even the most fundamentalist fascists were buffeted constantly by their national, local, class, gender, family, religious, and a host of other pasts, presents, and futures. Fundamentalists, too, take time off or, better, find that time takes them off. Not for nothing did most Italian Fascists only wear their uniforms on Saturdays (or when summoned to extra parades). All fascists were in some sense part-time ideological warriors and any serious historical understanding must reckon with that partiality. For those who remain sceptical of Griffin's ‘consensus’, Paul Corner's plaintive plea whatever happened to dictatorship?' (and so his demand for a recognition of the violence, corruption, and caprice, the patronage and clientship, the regional variation of the practice of ‘the Italian dictatorship’)11 should not be forgotten.

In sum, the editorial view has been that a Handbook of Fascism should cast its net widely. It should be ready to examine social history as much as the history of ideas. It should wonder whether fascism can be so rigorously separated from liberalism or ‘democracy’ or social Catholicism or socialism as its more ardent followers contended. It should admit that ‘events’ often condition theory. It should doubt that the past ever offers a single and ‘right’ answer.

Enough of editorial moralizing. Readers will find that this Handbook is structured in a clear manner. It commences with three chapters collectively devoted to a review of that pre-1914 Europe and, especially, that First World War when the aspiration to totality, and so what has been neatly termed the ‘totalitarian seduction’, began to afflict the world.12 A fourth contribution looks instead at the immediate post-war and notes the uneasiness of the Wilsonian solution proffered at the peacemaking with its too easy assumption that liberalism, parliamentary and capitalist, could work seamlessly with nationalism (or ‘self-determination’).

The book's next segment brings together nine historians of modern Italy, a place conceived as ‘the first Fascist nation’. Together these historians appraise what is currently known about a range of topics on Mussolini's dictatorship spanning from war and foreign affairs to local fascist squadrism to the more general role of the secret police, and from the regime's stance towards, and response from, women, youth, andpeasants to itsrelationshipwiththe Church andwithlay intellectuals.

Four historians join in the third part of the book, with their task being to think about some comparisons with the Nazi regime in regard to state and society, the position of the dictator, race, and war, but with the emphasis still being rather more on Italian primacy than on German. These contributions are followed by a further eleven chapters, each analysing the fate of fascism or fascisms in places where the relevant movements failed to achieve power, or achieved it, as in Spain, Japan, and, (p. 7) very briefly, in Romania, in intricate and paradoxical ways, or, in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, under Nazi occupation, in Austria before it, and in that British empire that was saved from it. The final part of the book has three varied chapters, one seeking comparisons and definitions in the fascist story, between the wars and, at least potentially, after. This piece is amplified by accounts of the fate of memory in Germany and Italy since 1945 and by a reckoning with the role of post-war neo-fascism.

A glittering array, then, has been assembled. Our purpose, given the restlessness of humankind and the democratic value of debate, has been not to proclaim a new consensus but instead to underline key evidence, especially when freshly unearthed, and to alert readers to some of the disputes that eddy around the history of fascism, broadly understood. This Handbook does not attempt the final solution to the fascist problem, but its contributors rather hope that, from its pages, newly fruitful debates can arise.

It only remains for me to thank my contributors for their promptness and their professionalism in writing and thought, to express my gratitude to my new colleagues at Reading University where much of the book was ‘workshopped’ in February 2007,and to acknowledgethatChristopher Wheeler of OUPwas the person who suggested this project and, with his efficient assistants, brought it to publication. My own debts to Michal and the rest of my family, and to that Italy which, mostly with good cheer, has put up with my fascination with it for so long, go without saying.


(1) See, for example, the view of one American scholar, before the invasion of Iraq by the United States and its ‘coalition of the willing’, that ‘there will probably never again be a reproduction of the Third Reich, but Saddam Hussein has come closer than any other dictator since 1945’. S. Payne, A History of Fascism 1914–1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 517. Maybe many would have endured less pain in the aftermath of this invasion had Payne urged instead that Saddam and his Baathists had something of Mussolini and his regime (but by no means everything) about them.

(2) In his recent brilliant survey of the global drive of the Nazis and their ambitions to achieve a double or triple genocide, Adam Tooze scarcely mentions the Italians. See A. Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (London: Allen Lane, 2006) (the figures are drawn from his table on 641).

(3) P. Novick, The Holcaust in American Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

(4) See the curious wartime career of Pieter Geyl, the author of these aphorisms, as narrated in R. J. B. Bosworth, Explaining Auschwitz and Hiroshima: History Writing and the Second World War 1945–1990 (London: Routledge, 1993), 11–15.

(5) A. Hitler, Table Talk 1941–1944, ed. H. R. Trevor-Roper (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1953), 10.

(6) R. Griffin, ‘Introduction: God's Counterfeiters? Investigating the Triad of Fascism, Totalitarianism and (Political) Religion’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 5 (2004), 299.

(7) E. Gentile, ‘Fascism, Totalitarianism and Political Religion: Definitions and Critical Reflections on Criticism of an Interpretation’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 5 (2004), 328, 352.

(8) Griffin, ‘Introduction: God's Counterfeiters?’, 300, 311.

(9) M. Blinkhorn, ‘Afterthoughts, Route Maps and Landscapes: Historians, “Fascist Studies” and the Study of Fascism’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 5 (2004), 508, 515–17.

(10) J. Pollard, ‘“Clerical Fascism”: Context, Overview and Conclusions’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 6 (2005), 444.

(11) P. Corner, ‘Italian Fascism: Whatever Happened to Dictatorship?’, Journal of Modern History, 74 (2002).

(12) A. Ventrone, La seduzione totalitaria: guerra, modernità, violenza politica (1914–1918) (Rome: Donzelli, 2003); in English, cf. O. Bartov, Mirrors of Destruction: War, Genocide and Modern Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).