Erstwhile: A History Blog

Historicizing Fascism, Part 2: Origins


The word “fascist” has been used as an epithet rather casually in the last two years, especially in commentary on US politics. In the hope of bringing clarity to this slippery term, Erstwhile editor Graeme Pente sat down with Dr. Mike Ortiz (Ph.D., CU Boulder, 2017), whose dissertation focused on global anti-fascism in the interwar period, and Alex Langer (Ph.D. candidate, CU Boulder), whose dissertation examines US relations with Italy during the Cold War. Due to the length of the conversation, the transcript has been divided into three parts of approximately equal length with an eye to thematic cohesion. The first part attempts to define fascism, the second explores the phenomenon’s origins, and the third examines fascism in the period from 1945 to the present. You can read the first part here or you can listen to the full audio here. The transcripts have been edited for clarity and length.


Graeme Pente: When and where does fascism emerge? Are there particular historical conditions that it needs in order to develop? Or, what’s the context in which it arises? If these terms are being thrown around in the 1890s, why is it that it appears in the 1920s? Or are there comparable movements from the nineteenth century that I just don’t know about?

Mike Ortiz: This is a huge debate. Zeev Sternhell is the biggest proponent of the position that all the elements of fascism existed before World War One (WWI). He makes the argument that France had almost a fully functioning fascist party before the war. And then you have Hannah Arendt on the opposite end of the spectrum saying that it’s this complete political, cultural, and ideological aberration. She’s talking primarily about the Nazi case. But it owes nothing to European culture or tradition in her view. Whereas Sternhell’s saying that it evolved over the course of the nineteenth century.

Pente: I lean more toward the Arendtian view that WWI is so catastrophic that it wipes away the intellectual world that came before it, that the psychological trauma creates this crisis of belief in positivism and truth.

Ortiz: There are historians who believe that the First World War alone is enough to explain the rise and origins of fascism.

Alex Langer: Italian fascism emerges out of WWI, but it emerges differently in the sense that there is this Italian belief that they didn’t get their share of the victory. There’s a sense of failure on the part of the Italian national government to claim what Italy deserved. Italy is one of the Allied powers and the only one that doesn’t really get a share of the victory purse. There’s this sense that Italians are being taken advantage of, and Mussolini is able to take that up. Italy doesn’t suffer quite as much as the rest of Europe during the Great Depression, which is part of why so many people are drawn to Italian fascism as a model in the 1930s. There are so many distinct elements to the emergence of these authoritarian regimes in different national contexts, but I think a lot of the elements of fascism are always around: a sense of traditionalism, a sense of lost values, a sense of xenophobia, fear of loss. These are all elements that are particularly present after WWI, but they aren’t elements that simply disappear in 1945.

Pente: Do they exist before industrialization or before the spread of the market economy? I’m thinking of the way that capitalism and the spread of markets tend to uproot and destroy traditional values and patterns of attachment.

Ortiz: Industrialization needs to happen. This gets toward an argument that is more my field, which is: is there fascism outside of Europe? That’s a very big question. I would say “yes.” But a lot of people would say “no” because you need the crises brought about by industrialization, specifically the social relations, class conflict—these types of issues need to exist for fascism to emerge. Industrialization and fascism go hand in hand. I don’t know what the context would be like prior to industrialization.

Pente: And in some ways, fascism needs the growth of a centralized state.

Ortiz: Yeah. I lean more toward the Zeev Sternhell argument. Other preconditions that are all present before the war—and Alex touched on a bunch of these—include, critically, the fear of revolution. The Bolshevik Revolution, the Spartacist Revolution in Germany, revolutions in Hungary—all of these militant attempts to overthrow the capitalist democratic system of governance really terrified a lot of people. And it’s important to mention that this fear can be real or imagined. In places like Germany, this actually happened. In places like Italy, especially the south, less so. There’s no threat of a revolution there. I think that’s why the fascists have almost no support in the south of Italy.

Langer: Right. The fascists don’t represent an alternative to anything. There isn’t very much industry in Italy, especially in the south, so there aren’t many socialists or communists. It’s still agrarian during the 1920s, relying on these almost feudal structures that make it hard to create class consciousness.

Ortiz: The First World War really electrifies and catalyzes this threat. Coming off the most destructive war in European history to that point, everyone’s terrified. Countries are incorporating new ethnicities and the traditional political order is collapsing: the Austrians, the Ottomans, the Germans. I think that pushes people to hold onto a more traditional order. Alex mentioned this, but there are historians who argue that we should divide up postwar Europe not by states who won militarily but based on their reactions to the Treaty of Versailles. So you have satisfied powers like Britain and France but then you have vengeful loser states, like Italy, who won militarily but were angered by not getting the land at Austria’s expense that was promised to them in the Treaty of London. They embark on this irredentist foreign policy where they’re desperate to expand their territorial control.

Langer: We also can’t overlook, in part, the “newness” of Italy. In WWI, the country is less than fifty years old.

Pente: That came to my mind, too, and maybe this goes along with the rise of centralized states, but you don’t really have nationalism before the early nineteenth century.

Ortiz: Right, but it depends on what type. The French Revolution is typically seen as the beginning of nationalism, but that’s often defined as a “civic nationalism.” It’s not until the late nineteenth century that it gets warped into ethnic nationalism.

Pente: Right, the nation-state.

Ortiz: Civic is encompassing; ethnic is exclusionary. The second critical condition after fear of revolution is class conflict. After the First World War, you have all these demobilized soldiers returning amidst an economic depression. The last condition is the government’s inability to address these issues. The fact that the government appeared unwilling to address the class conflict, the seeming chaos, and the threat—again, real or imagined—of a Bolshevik Revolution really pushed people to look for an alternative. A movement that pitched itself as a panacea to all these issues. And they’re actually in the streets fighting revolutionaries; they’re fighting leftists. For people feeling insecure about the future, the fascists represent stability.

Pente: I’m wondering what you think of arguments that some of the countries that resisted fascism had longer national traditions or more entrenched political cultures of parliamentary democracy. And I say “political culture” as distinct from making any sort of ethnic national argument. Say, in the longer established democracies of the Anglo-American world, people aren’t frustrated quite as quickly or the loss of faith in a democratic system does not come so soon.

Langer: There’s something to be said for that. Obviously, Italy’s system was not that democratic. It limited the franchise pretty heavily. It was new. But at the same time, some of the first republics in the world were in Italy: Florence, Venice. There’s an argument that they were sort of “ahead” in developing democratic culture and then behind.

Pente: They had an alternative political tradition from which they could have drawn.

Ortiz: I’d say you can only make that case for national political cultures for Britain, which is pretty well locked in after the Glorious Revolution [of 1688]. Even there, you have Chartism, the Reform Acts of the 1830s and 1860s. But there is more of a tradition, while Italy and Germany are created so late in the nineteenth century. France, outside of the third republic, is seesawing back and forth from tyrant to republic. I think there’s something there. Many people in Germany lacked confidence in Weimar, particularly during the inflation crisis. But I would be hesitant to pin that as one of the major contributing factors.

The absolute destruction of World War One.

Pente: Popular memory in the wake of World War Two (WWII) tends to cast liberal democracies against the fascist regimes, but there were many fascist sympathizers in those democracies. What does the level of support look like in Britain, France, and the United States?

Langer: There is a fairly prominent fascist sympathy in the United States. A lot of it begins with Italy and the feeling that American democracy was not nimble enough to negotiate the economic crisis. It would be difficult to get an exactly accurate picture of fascist support, but there are certainly people in the US government telling Roosevelt “you might need to take more power than the president traditionally has to get us out of this crisis.”

Pente: Right. I’ve just remembered that the Canadian prime minister during the Depression and WWII—I think he goes to Germany and to Italy—and he’s stunned at how they’ve drawn the people together, and they’re dealing with the economic crisis, and he’s sort of impressed by the degree of order.

Ortiz: That’s what happens when you give up individual rights for the collective.

Langer: There’s a persistent fascination in those democracies that fascism seems to be working. But they’ve given up their individual rights.

Ortiz: Italy seemed to have weathered the Depression fairly well, at least on the surface, so a lot of people were going there to see how.

Pente: But no one is going to see the Soviet Union.

Langer: There are many American intellectuals who are enamored of Soviet central planning in the 1920s and the 1930s, seeing it as an alternative. There is a sense in this period that democracy and capitalism can’t work together anymore because of the increasing frequency of economic downturns and the severity of the Great Depression. There is a sense of a pending choice that “maybe we’ll have to choose capitalism and give up individual rights, or choose democracy and give up capitalism.”

Ortiz: I would push back on the question, on the characterization of WWII as about liberal democracy vs. fascism. I think it ignores the imperial element of those liberal democracies. My research focuses on colonial anti-fascism, and one of the most compelling arguments of anti-imperialists is that fascism is just imperialism imported back into Europe. It’s imperialism practiced in Europe. To call Britain a liberal democracy… maybe in England, but it controls 25% of the world’s territory and 22% of the world’s people, largely without their consent. We should understand that the fascist governments and the British and French governments are more similar than we like to think. It’s an uncomfortable comparison, but one that I think is very important.

Pente: I’m using “liberal” as against these illiberal regimes—at the risk of separating their foreign from domestic political contexts.

Ortiz: In Britain, the British Union of Fascists had its high-water mark in 1934. They had rallies with tens of thousands of people.

Pente: Oh, right, is it Cable Street?

Ortiz: The Battle of Cable Street, right. That was in 1936, and it was basically the end of Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. It’s actually one of the few instances of anti-fascism meeting the challenge, and the British government outlawing fascist rallies and actually stepping up to the plate. But there was support for fascism. King Edward VIII who abdicated was a Nazi sympathizer. There was definitely sympathy among conservatives, as well. Winston Churchill went to Italy in 1927 and said that he would have been an avid supporter of Mussolini because he did such a good job of defending Italy from the revolutionary threat from the Left.

Pente: And some of this is surely elites seeing how well the fascists have their “lower orders” controlled.

Ortiz: Absolutely. France is an interesting case because Le Faisceau in the late 1920s had a moment of decision where it could compromise itself ideologically and seek the support of capitalists and the rich willing to fund Georges Valois’s movement, but they ultimately decided not to go with it and they just sort of fade away. And then the shift to Popular Front politics really helps to mobilize the fight against fascism. And France, until 1940, does a good job of minimizing pro-fascist sentiment. And in a sense it’s easier there because Germany is their mortal enemy, so they don’t necessarily want to be seen as being pro-German or pro-fascist.

Pente: In Britain and the U.S., is there an element of shared heritage with Germany, a sort of Teutonic/Saxon past, that they’re “all of the same people”?

Langer: Charles Lindbergh believes that, for sure.

Ortiz: Henry Ford.

Langer: Lindbergh and Ford both saw it as an appeal to Anglo-Saxon principles. Lindbergh writes this op-ed that the U.S. should join with Germany to fight the Soviet Union.

Pente: I guess there’s a conservative elite element that sees appeal in the ordering of society under fascism, and then there’s an element that buys into the kind of Volk argument [the Nazis’ racist, exclusionary ethno-nationalist vision of “the people”].

Ortiz: Peter Neville, who is Neville Chamberlain’s biographer, has this illuminating quote that Chamberlain would “sooner see Europe overrun by Germany than form an alliance with Russia.” That old British conservative elite were so devoutly anti-Communist that they were willing to wait until the very last minute to see what would happen with Germany.

Anti-fascists withstand police attacks in the Battle of Cable Street (1936).

Pente: What were some of the manifestations of fascism in different national contexts? You’ve mentioned Portugal in passing.

Ortiz: Paraguay and Portugal. Brazil had a movement that largely drew its inspiration from the Tupi Indigenous culture there. It was much more inclusive than you’d think. But, again, very corporatist. The movement kind of fell apart when Getúlio Vargas took over [in 1930], but at the same time there’s this big debate over anti-Semitism. Once Germany is the most powerful fascist country, anti-Semitism becomes a major topic of debate for a lot of these satellite movements.

Langer: It’s during the war itself that Italy passes a sort of token law—not to discount Italian participation in the Holocaust. But it was a belated gesture toward defining a “Master Race.”

Pente: A sense that “Germany expects us to do this.”

Langer: Yeah, it wasn’t particularly a part of Mussolini’s vision. Mussolini was drawing inspiration from Imperial Rome, which was such a cosmopolitan entity that as long as the Italians or the Romans were in charge they didn’t particularly care who was around. That distinguishes it in some ways from the Anglo-Saxon purity. There may be a book that entirely contradicts me, but that just came to mind as part of Mussolini’s thoughts, such as they were.

Pente: But there is an ultra-nationalist definition of the Italian people that might exclude Jews?

Langer: It does. But part of that is Mussolini compensating for the fact that most Italians at the time did not see themselves as Italians but by their local identity and many spoke local dialects over a standardized Italian language.

Ortiz: There’s also South Africa, which has two fascist movements. One inclusive of all white European ancestry and one that is entirely that Dutch Calvinist, Boer/Afrikaner heritage. There are movements everywhere. Japan. I don’t think the Japanese regime is fascist, but there were secret societies like the Cherry Blossom Society, the Blood Pledge Corps, that are all bottom-up fascist movements. And even in India, there are accusations that the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang] is fascist. It’s actually an RSS member who assassinates Gandhi in 1948 for not being nationalist enough and not condemning Muslim Pakistan.

So there are articulations all over the world. And then in Europe you have the Rexists in Belgium, the Arrow Cross in Hungary, and the Legion of the Archangel Michael in Romania. Austria had two major fascist movements that comprised almost a majority of the population. They’re everywhere.

Langer: That’s one of the reasons we use the word “fascism” over “Nazism” or “Falangism.” It’s fuzzy enough that it can incorporate all these different movements. It can be a pagan anti-Semitic movement, a Catholic movement, a social revolution that goes hand-in-hand with the monarchy in Italy. We ascribe fascism to a lot of things that aren’t, but that’s indicative of it as a fuzzy intellectual concept.

Ortiz: It’s definitely a global phenomenon, and it’s important to remember that.

The cover of Manela’s 2007 book, which Mike Ortiz has found a useful pedagogical tool.

Pente: Before the war, there is also a global anti-fascist movement that forms the focus of your completed dissertation, Mike. In broad strokes, tell us more about the anti-fascist movement.

Ortiz: My research primarily focused on Indian anti-fascism and a series of conflicts or fascist crises that preceded the Second World War: the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, the Munich Agreement in 1938, and the invasion of Poland in 1939. I stop at Operation Barbarossa in 1941. The work is an attempt to globalize anti-fascism, since we tend to think of resistance to fascism as being primarily rooted in Europe. But when you look at fascism and anti-fascism from a colonial context, it really broadens our understanding of it. For example, when you analyze the Ethiopian conflict from the perspective of India, you get a sense of how proto-imperialist and racist a lot of European anti-fascists were, that they didn’t seem to care [about the Ethiopians]. Indians were very frustrated about the unwillingness of anti-fascists, not just in government positions but also on the ground, to do anything about these invasions. And we tend to think about British non-intervention in Spain and China as this profound problem, but it was also an opportunity for anti-colonialists to go to these places and show on a global stage that they were independent from the British Empire. So Indians send an ambulance, doctors, money, and food to Spain, and a bunch of them go to support the Republic, all in violation of official British policy.

Pente: This is a mode through which they can also resist British imperialism.

Ortiz: Yeah, it’s wedding anti-imperialism with anti-fascism and the opportunities therein. That being said, there isn’t a coherent global anti-fascist movement. This resistance was often haphazard. The leader of anti-fascism throughout the interwar period is the Soviet Union. You don’t really inhabit any moral high ground when Stalin is your leader.

Pente: Or when you’re shaking hands with Joachim von Ribbentrop [Nazi Germany’s foreign minister].

Ortiz: Right. It’s a really interesting movement. There was an AHA [American Historical Association] panel in Denver in 2017 about how anti-fascism is an ideal transnational movement, that it moves along all these pre-existing networks. Outside of the Soviet Union, there isn’t a centralized body that’s directing it. And anti-fascism can be subsumed under these larger causes: anti-fascism is also anti-imperialism.

Pente: Is your class on anti-fascism or fascism?

Ortiz: Both. The first six weeks we spend in Europe and then we branch out from there. For anti-fascism, we start with Erez Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (2007) because it creates a network of resistance to European hegemony. We start global with anti-fascism.

Pente: What assumptions about fascism do the students seem to come in with?

Ortiz: They’re majors, so they have a somewhat sophisticated understanding. I think a lot of them assume fascism is just authoritarianism. They have a lot of questions, too. Mostly, is Trump fascist? Or, is Mugabe fascist? Or, why don’t we use this term anymore? A lot of the things we’ve been talking about sort of go over their heads initially, so we spend the first two weeks discussing theory and trying to work on a definition. We talk a lot about the disparity between movement and practice. I want them to understand that fascism is, like Alex said, nebulous and slippery. The students get frustrated, as we all do.

Pente: Right, provisional definitions are probably a good way to think about it.

—End of Part Two—

Read Part Three here: