Anatomy of Fascism
In today's globalising consumer culture some people are worrying about the loss of their national identity. Life might be easier and more fun now but there are those who feel that they are losing something that they could have felt proud of. It is a fact that international developments are undermining the power of nation-states. For many people who are happy just to carry on shopping this is not much of an issue. For others it is something disturbing.
This issue of nations losing their power and identity is not a new one, and as we consider how best to respond to the challenges posed by today's globalising culture it is important not to repeat the mistakes of the past. This is one reason why it is worth having some familiarity with one of the most forceful and ultimately catastrophic movements for national revival: the German national socialist movement led by Hitler (1889 - 1945) which began just after World War I.
Hitler set out his ideas in a book called "My Struggle" (Mein Kampf) published first in 1933. It was an immensely popular book and with the proceeds its author could have taken early retirement and enjoyed a long and peaceful life in a cottage in the German countryside, but he would have despised such a life.
The Germany that Hitler saw around him in the late 1920's and early 30's was a decadent place. The monarchy and aristocracy were more concerned with wealth than with the state of the nation. There was a huge disparity between the riches of the aristocracy and the poverty of those working on the land or in the cities. Embittered and discontented, the working class and the unemployed were persuaded to follow a Marxist movement which called all the workers of the world to join forces against those who were exploiting them. No one seemed to be much interested in anything distinctively German.
Behind both of these movements Hitler was convinced he saw a single enemy. The world of international finance that had seduced the aristocracy was apparently dominated by Jews, and Jews could be found among the leaders of the Marxist movement that had seduced the workers. (Although Karl Marx himself had been born into a Jewish family there is nothing in his political philosophy that is specifically Jewish.)
Hitler called for everything to be reorganised to revitalise the German nation so that it could fulfil its historical mission. Germany was not just another nation. It was destined to be the next in a line of Aryan nations that would advance the course of human civilisation. The Hellenes of ancient Greece, the Romans and the Germanic tribes were all Aryans - a race said to be unique in its ability to found culture. The fall of those older glorious civilisations was attributed to a fatal mixing of blood in intermarriage as Aryan conquerors blended with the original inhabitants of newly acquired territories.
As steps towards national regeneration the Nazi movement called for:
According to Hitler, German supremacy could only be achieved if the race united behind the leadership of the strongest individual. Along with Marxism, democracy was rejected. For Hitler any political system that refused to give undisputed authority to the strongest individual was by definition Jewish. His historical analysis was that the parliamentary principle of rule by the majority only appeared for brief periods in human history - periods which were always decadent.
In a similar vein, the national socialist movement was not supposed to increase its strength by winning allies abroad. The greatness of the movement, Hitler wrote, "lies in the spirit of fanaticism and intolerance with which it attacks all others, being fanatically convinced that it alone is right."
Hitler also had firm views on education. The education system had succeeded in producing civil servants, engineers, lawyers, and men of letters, but it had singularly failed to produce strong German citizens inflamed with the spirit of patriotism. The idea of education as primarily a means of acquiring knowledge had to go: "The youthful brain must not be burdened with subjects ninety percent of which it does not need and promptly forgets." The new priority had to be the cultivation of character - inculcating willpower, the joy of responsibility, national pride, and a spirit of self-sacrifice. Education must train the youthful body and fight against the poisoning of the soul by modern life.
In Germany in the late 1920's sex seemed to be everywhere: in the cinemas and theatres and in advertisements. This was a corrupting influence that had to be stamped out. "The life of the people must be freed from the asphyxiating perfume of our modern eroticism." For the youth this required a rigorous programme of physical and moral education.
"A man of moderate education, but sound in body, firm in character and filled with joyous self-confidence and power of will is of more value to the nation than a highly educated weakling."
It was the responsibility of the state to see that young bodies received the hardening they would require in later life. Every schoolday had to include at least an hour of corporal training, with the ideal sport being boxing. "There is no sport which encourages the spirit of attack as this one does; it demands lightning decision and hardens the body while making it more supple."
To drag the nation out of its abysmal lack of self-confidence, the education system had to ensure that the German youth acquired the conviction that they were superior to others. Through bodily strength, skill and a familiarity with the achievements of their national heroes, the youth would recover its faith in the supremacy of the nation.
To complete his education every boy must enter the army - "the highest school of national instruction." There "the boy shall be transformed into a man... He shall learn to be silent, not only when he is justly blamed, but to bear injustice in silence if necessary."
"Fortified by confidence in his own strength, filled with the fellow feeling of his regiment, the young man shall be convinced that his nation is unconquerable."
For girls, physical training was also of prime importance, not with a view to military service but to ensure that they would become a strong and healthy mothers.
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Hitler liked to think that he was picking up where the Romans had left off and advancing human civilisation. But Hitler reduced civilisation to power and a single principle: the principle of the unquestionable authority of the Fuhrer (i.e. of Hitler himself).
In ancient Greece and Rome - the most noteworthy Aryan predecessors - the political culture placed a high value on reasoned debate between educated members of the ruling classes. Hitler dispensed with debate entirely.
Instead Hitler sought to appeal as forcefully and directly as possible to the hearts of the masses. If Henry Ford was the man who brought the car into the age of mass production, Hitler was one of the first to bring politics into the age of mass production. In effect he produced the modern political mass. He was a gifted orator but he also saw how to organise huge rallies, produce the most effective propaganda and use the new medium of cinema to generate such a forceful political movement that few felt the need to stop and think about what was really going on (and those who did quickly realised their mistake).
Hitler learnt his earliest lessons in mass persuasion from Marxist demonstrations soon after World War I. He saw that a new party needed slogans, flags, badges, banners, emblems, uniforms and music. At a gathering of some 120,000 people he said he realised then how easily "the flock of silly sheep" was impressed by what was really a grandiose piece of street theatre.
A single-minded insistence upon the destiny of the German people would win the masses over to his cause and save them from the folly of internationalism. All he had to do was deliver what really moved the ordinary man in the street: the victory of the stronger and the destruction of the weaker.
No one with much respect for themselves as a critically minded individual can fail to be horrified by the image of millions ranked in militaristic fashion waiting impatiently to receive their orders from an leader whose ideas no one is allowed to question. The denial of the virtues of our intellectual life is horrific. To reduce the complexities of the political and economic situation into a struggle between one race and another is an insult to the intellect. It is still almost impossible to appreciate how millions of people could have beeen herded together, spurred on by hatred, and persuaded that the root cause of their problems was the Jews and that that required them to round up the little family living on the corner of the street that didn't celebrate Christmas and to send them off to a concentration camp where they would be gassed.
National feeling and a spirit of self-sacrifice are undoubtedly virtuous. But where is the virtue in eliminating all public debate and in identifying the nation with the will of a single individual? Germany was Hitler and Hitler was Germany. Anyone who had doubts about the Fuhrer was, by definition, an enemy of the state.
For Hitler the elimination of political opposition wasn't just a matter of political practicality, it was also a source of pleasure. At one point in his book he describes his joy at seeing his political opponents being beaten senseless by his stormtroops. With people screaming, bottles flying through the air like shells and chairs being smashed, he describes his pride at seeing his stormtroops, already bleeding from the attack, rushing like wolves again and again at the enemy until they were swept out of the hall. Looking back, he even took pleasure in someone's failed attempt to shoot him: "One's heart almost rejoiced at the revival of old war memories."
Fascism isn't just a matter of giving all authority to a single individual. It is also an identification of politics with war. The mass of the population must be mobilised in a struggle against an enemy, and it must seem that everything can be sacrificed to achieve that final victory. Like soldiers, citizens owe a duty of unquestioning loyalty, and political life becomes a thoughtless execution of the Fuhrer's will. Obviously in times of war certain liberties do need to be compromised, but for fascism this is not an unfortunate temporary measure, it is the way politics ought to be.
It would be a mistake to put all the blame on Hitler for the huge loss of life that followed his rise to power. He may have been pulling the strings, but he could have achieved nothing if an entire nation hadn't been prepared to sacrifice all other political values for the sake of national supremacy and military victory.