The Fascist Challenge
Part 5: The Fascist Challenge
The 20th century gave rise to two new and unique forms of authoritarian culture that severely challenged the free-market capitalism and political democracy of the western world. .One was Communism. The other was Fascism.
Communists believed all humans were equal in nature but some classes of humans had oppressed some other classes all through history. The solution was to abolish all classes and to form a classless society. If necessary by force..
Fascists believed that people were not equal by nature and that the only way people could live together in peace and harmony was for the superior people, a well as the superior nations, to be in charge. If necessary by force.
In the 20th century both communist and fascist ideas led to totalitarian dictatorships that committed unspeakable crimes against humanity. In both cases, communist and fascist, the immediate cause was the devastation left by the First World War from 1914 to 1918. The communist challenge was addressed in Part 4 of this series. This program, Part 5, will deal with the fascist challenge.
In the immediate aftermath of the First World War one of the most industrially advanced countries of Europe, Germany, could have gone either way, communist or fascist.. After the war Germany with great difficulty formed the first real democratic government it had ever had. It was called the Weimar Republic.
Unfortunately the victorious allies imposed bitterly harsh and vengeful conditions on the defeated nation that made it virtually impossible for the fledgling democracy to govern effectively. Among the most destructive of the reparations were the forced removal of much of Germany’s industrial capacity, unrealistic financial reparations of over 100 billion marks, and then the occupation in 1923 of the industrial Ruhr Valley when Germany could no longer pay the reparations.
One result was an economically ruinous inflation in the early 1920s that impoverished many small farmers and businessmen, though it strengthened the hand of some large industrialists who profited in the runaway inflation by borrowing large sums from the state and then paying them back in marks now worth a fraction of the amounts they borrowed..
In the early days of the Weimar Republic the most dangerous political challenge to the new democracy came from the communists. In 1919, for instance, communist parties (encouraged by the newly communist and triumphant Soviet Union) succeeded in briefly establishing a communist state in Bavaria, and mounted other ill-fated revolutions in Saxony, in the Ruhr valley and in Berlin itself. Nearby a communist state led by Bela Kun was set up in Hungary.
Unlike the Soviet Union, none of these communist states lasted very long. In the German case, the Weimar Republic quickly crushed the communist insurgencies by unleashing a new police force of disgruntled soldiers, the Freikorps, who arrested and executed more than a thousand communists including two famous left-wing leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknacht.
The communists remained a serious threat in 1919 but the deathnell of the nascent German democracy was not rung by the communists, but by the fascists. In particular by the extraordinary leadership of one particular fascist, Adolph Hitler.
His odyssey began in 1913. A lonely young man, just arrived by train from Vienna, he walked past this beer hall, and down a nearby street in the student district of Munich, Germany looking for a place to stay. He knew no one in Munich, but he knew this was where he would begin.
Above a tailor shop here on Schleissheimerstrasse, he rented a dingy small room. Just big enough for a bed, a dresser, a single chair and a table. At this table Adolph Hitler began his remarkable career.
Shortly after he moved to Munich, World War I began, the war that traumatized European society. Hitler enlisted in the German army to fight France and Great Britain (with the United States joining the war in 1917). Adolph Hitler rose to corporal and fought bravely in the front lines in France. Like many other soldiers and civilians he felt betrayed and demoralized by Germany’s defeat. And when he returned to Munich he looked for reasons, for scapegoats. In his small room in Munich he found what he thought was the answer.
The Germans lost, said Hitler, because they were betrayed, stabbed in the back, by the Communists, by democratic politicians, and above all, by the Jews. To recover, Germany needed to destroy communism, abandon democracy, get rid of the Jews and build instead a disciplined new world order under the leadership of the most noble, the most pure, the most intelligent and capable human beings—pure Germans, pure Aryans.
This new world order would strike down the Communists, the compromising politicians and money-grubbing Jews. In their place would arise a new society, led by an Aryan Third Reich that would for once and all establish justice, harmony and love, first across Europe and finally around the whole world. If a few thousand or a few million non-Aryans, communists and reactionary capitalists got in the way, so much the worse for them. They would simply have to be eliminated, wiped off the face of the earth, for the good of the volk, for the good of the people, for the good of the world.
These ideas were not original with Hitler, although he did put his own virulently anti-Semitic stamp on them. Nor was his the only movement in these directions. Directions that have been loosely labeled Fascist.
Unlike Marxist-Leninist Communism, there is no easy way to define Fascism.
At about the same time Hitler was organizing to promote National Socialism, Nazism for short, another “strong man” named Benito Mussolini was challenging liberal democracy in Italy. It was Mussolini who coined the term “fascism” to describe his movement that took dictatorial power in Italy in 1922.
In the 1930s a short-lived republican government in Spain was overthrown in a bloody Civil War and an army general, Francisco Franco, took charge forming a fascist dictatorship in Spain that lasted well into the post World War II period.
Other “strong men” led similar fascist-like movements to power in the 1920s and 1930s in Portugal, in Brazil, in Slovakia, in Argentina, in Chile and other countries that had so far only flirted with liberal democracy and that had never really firmly emerged from agriculturally-based authoritarian societies.
In the far east, too, Japan was governed by a fascist-style government that brutally attacked Korea and China in the 1930s to expand its natural resource base and to carve out a “sphere of influence” over half a continent.
The common threads in all of these fascist movements were:
Leadership by a charismatic strong man, often a military general, supported often by rich industrialists, and sometimes by religious political groups.
Suppression of civil rights and civil liberties in the name of national patriotism and unity;
A huge build-up of military power;
Suppression of trade unions and other non-government sponsored groups;
Control of communication media;
Reducing representative assemblies and independent judiciaries to impotence;
Strong emotional appeals to the supposed superiority of one particular human ethnic, religious or national group, along with the alleged inferiority of other human ethnic, religious or national groups;
And lastly, heavy reliance on brute force to intimidate citizens and to enforce dictatorial decrees.
Notice that with a few exceptions these same characteristics apply to communist movements as well as fascist. As many scholars today claim, it is a not a very long step from the far-left communism to the far-right fascism.
In 1923 Hitler made his first public move to carry his fascist ideas into action. He led a small band of followers trying to overthrow the democratic government in Germany by a show of street force in Munich. The so-called Beer Hall Putsch failed, however. Hitler was tried, convicted and sentenced to five years in prison (with parole possible in 12 months).
Unlike the prisons and concentration camps he was to later set up in Nazi-controlled Germany, the Wiemar Republic prison he was confined to in Landsberg (near Munich) was more like a hotel. He was well treated and able to meet regularly with his followers, laying more careful plans for the eventual triumph of the revolution. In Landsberg prison he also wrote his soon-to-be-famous autobiography, “Mein Kamph” (“My Struggle”).
Hitler was released on parole after serving his 12 months. Meanwhile conditions in Germany were deteriorating. Unemployment was soaring and poverty increasing in the wake of a world-wide depression deepened by the New York Stock Exchange crash in 1929.
Crime and street fighting in German cities were particularly galling to the hard-working, order-loving German people. Both were increasing every week it seemed, instigated by either the Communists or the Nazis, each side trying to create the political chaos out of which they could take power.
The democratic politicians of the Wiemar Republic could not agree on ways to curb the violence and reduce the fear. The way was paved for a savior and Adolph Hitler had spent years rehearsing to fill that role.
The communists led by Lenin and Trotsky had little popular support in Russia when the came to power in a military coup in 1917. By contrast, Hitler had gained wide support in Germany by the time he made his move for absolute power. He made brilliant use of radio and of mass rallies in Nuremburg and other German cities to rally that support for his cause.
By 1930 his growingly popular National Socialism Party won 18.3% of the vote in Germany. In 1932 this increased to 37.3%. Shortly thereafter he was able to maneuver the politicians and get himself appointed Chancellor. Within a month he took advantage of a suspicious fire in the democratic assembly hall, the Reichstag, to decree emergency powers and become absolute dictator of the Third Reich.
Now the way was clear, and in short order he carried through on his promises. He shut down the democratic assembly, arrested many of the politicians as well as the communists, throwing most of them into jail and then into concentration camps. Unlike the Landsberg jail, none were later paroled, and few survived.
The new National Socialist government quickly moved to destroy all non-Nazi organizations. Even local sporting clubs and bridge clubs were shut down. unless they could be certified to be Nazi-directed. At the beginning he did not arrest many Jews. But he made it clear they could no longer vote or hold office. And he sponsored virulent anti-Semitic propaganda, ordering his police to look the other way when it resulted in Jews being beaten, robbed, their homes and synagogues destroyed.
In this anti-Semitic campaign he played upon centuries-old myths and prejudices that had been promoted in Germany (and other parts of Europe) by Christian leaders all the way back to Martin Luther and before. Among other charges, the myth had it that the Jews were an evil people who had killed Jesus and deserved the contempt of all pious Christians. They were also, Hitler preached incessantly, the money-bags of international finance conspiring to destroy traditional German culture and replace it with a godless liberal democracy.
At the beginning of his rule, the majority of the German people seemed to support his decisive actions. Street fighting came to an end. Petty crime was reduced. The unemployed were set to work building new parks, new high-speed highways, and a new kind of people’s automobile, the Volkswagon.
Children were enrolled in Hitler youth programs. Exercise, health, sports and smiling blond Aryan faces were the rule of the land.
If you had been walking the streets of the small city of Northeim in 1938, for instance, you would have been impressed by the cleanliness of the streets, the evidence of much construction, and the many street banners, flags and other hallmarks of civic pride. All of this in contrast to more gloomy sights in many western European and American small towns and cities mired in the worst economic depression in their history.
Some of the same sights could be seen in the capital, Berlin. Of course, if you had gone a few blocks out of your way on the night of Nov. 9, 1938 you might have had doubts about this brave new society. This was what remained of the largest Jewish synagogue in Berlin that night. It had been burned with the approval and help of the Nazi government on what came to be called “Kristallnacht” (“Crystal Night”), named for all the broken glass as hundreds of other Jewish synagogues, homes and shops throughout Germany went up in flames. The dreams of this totalitarian state were turning into nightmares.
In the spring of 1938 Hitler ordered his Nazi followers in Austria to create chaos in the streets of Vienna that would be followed in short order by an invasion of the Germany Army to restore order.. Here is the way the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig described the chaotic and horrific scene the night before Germany invaded.
“Now there was no longer mere robbery and theft, but every private lust for revenge was given free rein. University professors were obliged to scrub the streets with their naked hands, pious white-bearded Jews were dragged into the synagogue by hooting youths and forced to do knee-exercises and to shout Heil Hitler. All the sickly, unclean fantasies of hate that had been conceived in many orgiastic nights found raging expression in bright daylight. Breaking into homes and tearing ear-rings from trembling women may well have happened hundreds of years ago—what was new, however, was the shameless delight in public tortures, in spiritual martyrization, in the refinement of humiliation.”
If still not convinced of the depravity of this new wave of fascism in Europe you might take a trip to Bergen-Belsen, or to Buchenwald, or Dachau .Beneath and supporting the glossy surface of German “progress,” the Nazi government had already imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people. In a few years these numbers would rise to over ten million people.
And before the Second World War put an end to the regime, over six million Jews--along with thousands of Poles, Russians, Serbs, Croatians, socialists, democrats, conservatives, priests, ministers, gypsies, geniuses, mental defectives, old people, children, and just plain average men and women -- were shot, hung, or gassed and then incinerated in furnaces constructed especially for this purpose. Hitler called it the Final Solution. The world knows it as the Holocaust.
Here is what the most deadly of the camps, Auschwitz in Poland, looks like today. In the final years of the Second World War, however, in this one camp along trains brought thousands of human beings a day ......
But you would never have known.
For, of course, no one, especially no reporter, tourist or scholar could take that trip. Like the gulags of communist dictatorships, there was only one way to find out what happened behind those walls. Become a prisoner yourself.
The same was true for most of the German people. Few of them knew, or wanted to know, any details about the concentration camps. Or what happened to the Jews or Communists or the Poles or Slavs unfortunate enough to have ended up there.
In this small city of Nordheim, for example, the only arrests and concentration camp sentences happened in the first few months of the Nazi rule. After that, for the next eight years, no one at all was taken from the city. And, of course, no knew very much about the camps, nor about the world outside Germany because there was no free press.
As in the Soviet Union, the free press did not last beyond the first months of totalitarian rule. Nor did freedom of speech. Even to talk to your best friend might be dangerous. So you did not talk of anything remotely political even to your family.
In fact, as in other totalitarian states, it was not enough to refrain from criticism. You had to lie. To pretend everything was perfect. And to demonstrate your support by voting, by enthusiastically participating in street demonstrations, attending political meetings, applauding and smiling at the impressive outdoor rallies where Hitler gave his long fiery speeches.
By such methods, for the most part, the people of Germany were kept in the dark about the torture, the killings, and unmitigated horror in the concentration camps. And amazingly enough, so was most of the rest of the world. In fact the full story did not really become well known until the bloodiest war in history had totally destroyed the Nazi totalitarian state.
Nazi Germany was the most horrific example of Fascist rule in the 20th century but not the only one. Like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s regime in Italy was destroyed in the Second World War as was the fascist military dictatorship in Japan.
Spain did not fight in the Second World War and its fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, survived in power for 12 years after the war ended. Surprisingly enough, after he died in 1958 Spain changed directions peacefully as the King was brought back to power as a constitutional monarch, democratic assemblies and judiciary were re-established and today in the 21st century Spain is a thriving democratic state with a free-market capitalist welfare-state economy.
After the war ended other semi-fascist states were founded that followed some of the same paths already pioneered by Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Hirohito, though none of them could match the depravity of Nazi Germany.
South Africa, for instance, was a semi-fascist state headed by a white racist minority who dominated by violence the majority black population with a policy called apartheid. In 1994 South Africa changed peacefully to a multi-racial liberal democracy under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, a man who had been imprisoned for 27 years by the former government.
Another notable example was the South American country of Chile. As in Spain, a floundering democratic government lurching toward chaos and communism in 1973 was overthrown by a military general, Augusto Pinochet, (probably with some help from the CIA of the United States). The semi-fascist dictatorship that followed established order, but in doing so, imprisoned and murdered hundreds, if not thousands of citizens. Like Spain and South Africa, the country was able to return to a democratic state in 1990 when Pinochet turned over the reins of power to a democratic assembly. Since that time the democracy in Chile has proven to be one of the most successful, enduring and progressive in Latin America.
In the beginning of the 21st century there are other areas of the world that still have semi-fascist regimes. Some analysts would include formerly communist Russia and China on this list. Most of the remaining semi-fascist regimes, however, are in the Islamic world of the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. We will discuss these in the last part of DEMOCRACY IN WORLD HISTORY where we bring the story up-to-date in the 21st century.