(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Until the Great War of 1914-1918, it seemed to most observers as if all the countries of Europe were marching, slowly but surely, toward greater and greater political democracy. In the economically troubled years after the war, however, antidemocratic movements arose in almost every European state. In the Kingdom of Italy, a liberal Parliamentary regime was replaced, in 1933, by the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. In Germany, the peace-loving liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic was replaced, in 1933, by the brutal and warlike regime of Adolf Hitler. By the 1930’s, it seemed to many anxious liberals that a new plague was sweeping Europe, a plague of movements and governments that they called Fascist. A period of worldwide economic depression and of growing disrespect for international law culminated in a second, and far more disastrous, Great War, that of 1939-1945, one that witnessed atrocities and persecutions once thought to be part of a dead medieval past.

Given the economic troubles that afflict the advanced industrial countries of the world today, given the present-day instability in international relations, could such a universal catastrophe happen once again? Could a Fascist plague once again sweep the Western world? Is fascism merely part of a dead past, or a very real and living danger?

Much of the answer to this question depends on how one defines the word fascism. In his new book, Fascism: Comparison and Definition, Stanley G. Payne, a Professor of Spanish history at the University of Wisconsin, tries to arrive at a definition of a political bogey-word that still haunts us today. Making use not only of the results of his own many years of research on Spanish politics in the 1930’s, but also of the works of other scholars on a score of movements and governments around the world, Payne gives the reader a rigorous analysis of this twentieth century political phenomenon.

Bertram Gross alleges that the United States is moving toward a form of Friendly Fascism. Penny Lernoux, in her book, Cry of the People, accuses the United States government of having given aid to Fascist regimes in Latin America. More than thirty-five years after the end of World War II, the term “fascism” still has the power to arouse passion. Payne tries to discuss the whole subject of fascism in a dispassionate, objective, and impartial fashion. He wants to take the word out of the realm of partisan polemics and into the sphere of historical scholarship.

Payne’s approach is topical rather than chronological. There is no attempt to give a blow-by-blow account of the rise to power of the two most famous European Fascists, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Instead, the author tries, throughout the various chapters, to answer a series of questions about the phenomenon of fascism. He uses comparisons of different allegedly Fascist movements and regimes as part of his search for a meaningful definition. Again and again, he points out how difficult it is to find a common content of fascism. The differences among the various so-called Fascist movements and regimes, the author finds, were almost as great, if not greater than, the similarities.

The use of the term fascism, Payne believes, has been far too broad. It cannot, he argues, be applied to every authoritarian political movement or government which happens to be both anti-liberal and anti-Marxist. Among the various forces opposed to both liberalism and Marxism, Payne sharply distinguishes between the conservative right and the radical right, on the one hand, and the Fascists, on the other. He provides the reader with a table illustrating this threefold distinction for various countries of the world.

Although all three forces were united in their opposition to Parliamentary democracy, they differed, Payne contends, over questions of politics, economics, and culture. The conservative right generally wished to bring about only a partial transformation of the system in an authoritarian direction, avoiding radical breaks in legal continuity if at all possible. The radical right, like the Fascists, wanted to destroy the whole liberal political system root and branch; unlike the Fascists, however, it was willing to accept a complete takeover of the government by an existing elite group, the military, in order to accomplish this goal. While the Fascists were willing to consider changes in class and status relationships in society, both the conservative right and the radical right wished to freeze the social status quo. The conservative right espoused the economic doctrines of corporatism; the economic doctrines of the Fascists, however, were not so explicit or systematic. While all Fascists adhered to the new philosophies of vitalism, nonrationalism, or secular neoidealism, all of the conservative rightists, and some groups on the radical right, looked to the doctrines of traditional religion for their model of the “new man.”

The tendency among both contemporary observers and present-day scholars to lump these three groups together as Fascist stems, Payne contends, from the fact that the era when fascism flourished, was a time in which political authoritarianism of all three varieties was on the rise. The majority of European countries, the author asserts, fell under the sway of authoritarian regimes of one form or another during the period between the two World Wars; only in Germany and Italy, however, did recognizably Fascist movements play a crucial role in this transition.

The upsurge of authoritarian nationalism of all three stripes during the interwar period, Payne argues, had its roots in the years prior to World War I, in what he calls the “cultural crisis of 1890-1914.” During these years, a new generation of intellectuals rejected the rationalism, pragmatism, and materialism of the preceding generation in favor of neoidealism and the new theories of vitalism. While neoidealism did stress the value of ethics, vitalism affirmed the values of direct action, force, and subjective practical experience rather than those of conventional morality. Yet both views, the author argues, helped reinforce the organic theories of nationalism. So also did the version of Social Darwinism propagated by such leading scientists as the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel: it stressed race, elitism, and hierarchy while glorifying war and violence.

This shift in the European mind was reflected in a growing criticism of traditional liberalism prior to 1914, even among those who did not totally accept the new philosophies. In Catholic circles, many thinkers, distrustful of liberalism’s individualism and tolerance of social conflict, began to espouse theories of corporatism, demanding that the state compel the organization of all the various sectors of society into guild-like corporations. In France, partisans of L’Action Française began, around 1900, to urge the replacement of the liberal Third Republic by a new, authoritarian monarchy. In Italy, a growing number of liberal politicians, fearful of democratization and the beginnings of mass politics, began to call for the transformation of the constitutional monarchy in an authoritarian direction. Prior to Italy’s entry into World War I, these men were not successful; but they did, the author implies, pave the way for the later success of Benito Mussolini.

In his comparison of the movements and regimes of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, Payne points out the many differences between the Italian and German experiences. Although the period from the founding of the party to the winning of the premiership was longer for Hitler than for Mussolini, the period from the winning of the premiership to achievement of dictatorial power was shorter for the former than the latter. Italian Fascism, the author asserts, was less radically anti-Christian than was German Nazism. In Germany, Adolf Hitler soon became Head of State as well as Head of Government; in Italy, King Victor Emmanuel III, and not Mussolini, remained Head of State. Mussolini’s new governmental system represented a compromise with the forces of traditional conservatism; it was these forces that were able, with the aid of moderate Fascists, to overthrow Mussolini in 1943. Such an overthrow of the dictator from within proved impossible in Nazi Germany.

There was also a divergence in policies between the two regimes. From 1933 to 1935, there was a definite rivalry between the two of them over the question of who should control Austria. Until 1938, Mussolini’s government was much less anti-Semitic than was Hitler’s, and Jews were well represented in the Italian Fascist Party.

It was only after 1936, when Mussolini sought a rapprochement with Hitler out of a combination of fear and envy, that Italian policies at home and abroad took a radical turn. Abroad, Mussolini fashioned a closer relationship with Nazi Germany; at home, he introduced the Nazi goose step and a policy of discrimination against Italian Jews. It was at this time that both governments proclaimed the essential community of interests and ideology between Germany and Italy. It was Mussolini’s decision, in 1940, to join Hitler’s war which doomed his regime.

Payne tries to answer the crucial question of why Adolf Hitler, the most successful of all European Fascist leaders, was able to gain power in Germany, despite the existence of competitors on the authoritarian right and the radical right as well as on the democratic left. Payne does not think that this was a mere accident, although conceding that such elements of luck as the sheer ineptitude of non-Nazi leadership did play a role. Hitler, the author insists, was not simply the tool of all-powerful German capitalists; if they had wanted such a tool, they would certainly have chosen a more pliable figure. The triumph of the Nazis cannot be ascribed simply to the harrowing effects of the worldwide Depression: other countries suffered much more than Germany, but remained democratic. Payne’s answer, not completely an original one, is the “mass mobilization of frustrated nationalism” theory. It was the weakness of democratic institutions with Germany, and the shock of having lost the war in 1918 and of having suffered indignities at the hands of foreign powers after that date, that caused Germans to turn to Hitler.

In Chapter Five, Payne makes a special effort to demonstrate exactly how weak most indigenous Fascist movements were, outside of Germany and Italy, during the interwar period. In such Eastern European countries as Hungary and Rumania, they were kept at bay by rightist authoritarian regimes: in such Northern European countries as Norway, they were easily kept out of power by well-functioning Parliamentary democracies. Between the overthrow of its democratic constitution in 1934 and its annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938, the German-speaking state of Austria was ruled, not by the true Fascists, the Austrian Nazis, but by a conservative right Christian Social regime. The German military victories of 1940-1941, Payne concedes, did see the formation of pro-German Fascist governments in various countries of occupied Europe, but these, he argues, were mere satellites of Germany.

Payne’s conclusions regarding French fascism were especially surprising. Although recognizing that the fear of fascism helped create the Popular Front of Socialist, Radical, and Communist Parties after 1934, Payne argues that the Fascist threat was never very serious in that country prior to World War II.

Two movements closely imitating Italian Fascism, the Faisceau (founded in 1925) and the Francistes (organized in 1933), enjoyed almost no success whatsoever. The largest Fascist group, the Parti Populaire Français, was founded in 1936 by Jacques Doriot, a renegade Communist who would become an enthusiastic pro-Nazi during the German occupation. Yet, it too never won mass support; the membership of 300,000 that it claimed in 1938 was, Payne pointedly remarks, “several times the real figure.”

If there were so few French Fascists, why were there so many self-proclaimed anti-Fascists? The Fascist...

(The entire section is 4970 words.)