From the author of Vichy France, a fascinating, authoritative history of fascism in all its manifestations, and how and why it took hold in certain countries and not in others.
What is fascism? Many authors have proposed succinct but abstract definitions. Robert O. Paxton prefers to start with concrete historical experience. He focuses more on what fascists did than on what they said. Their first uniformed bands beat up "enemies of the nation," such as communists and foreign immigrants, during the tense days after 1918 when the liberal democracies of Europe were struggling with the aftershocks of World War I. Fascist parties could not approach power, however, without the complicity of conservatives willing to sacrifice the rule of law for security.
Paxton makes clear the sequence of steps by which fascists and conservatives together formed regimes in Italy and Germany, and why fascists remained out of power elsewhere. Fascist regimes were strained alliances. While fascist parties had broad political leeway, conservatives preserved many social and economic privileges. Goals of forced national unity, purity, and expansion, accompanied by propaganda-driven public excitement, held the mixture together. War opened opportunities for fascist extremists to pursue these goals to the point of genocide. Paxton shows how these opportunities manifested themselves differently in France, in Britain, in the Low Countries, and in Eastern Europe-and yet failed to achieve supreme power. He goes on to examine whether fascism can exist outside the specific early-twentieth-century European setting in which it emerged, and whether it can reappear today. This groundbreaking book, based on a lifetime of research, will have a lasting impact on our understanding of twentieth-century history.
Paxton, the author of seminal works on Vichy France, now sums up a lifelong reflection on fascism's myriad forms. Paxton writes in his introduction that fascism was "the most self-consciously visual of all political forms," yet many of those indelible images (Mussolini haranguing a crowd from a balcony; the perfect choreography of totalitarianism in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will) can "induce facile errors" about the omnipotent leader or the supposed unanimity of the crowd. Rather than begin with a definition of fascism, Paxton prefers to give concrete examples of it in action in various countries, from Italy and Germany to France, Holland and Eastern Europe; in particular, he examines its "mobilizing passions," such as a sense of overwhelming crisis and dread of a native group's decline. This study has several virtues (and few defects): the writing is free of some of the theoretical jargon that threatens our understanding of a defining political movement of the 20th century. This is a study of both the intellectual origins of fascism and how it played out in the streets of Berlin, Rome, Paris and other locales. In addition, Paxton examines such important topics as images of fascism and what we might call "the future of fascism" (in a quick aside on a current controversy, Paxton notes that Islamic fundamentalism is not fascist). Although Paxton doesn't address present or future forms of fascism, his list of its "mobilizing passions" will sound to some readers frighteningly similar to aspects of contemporary America. This is sure to take its place among classics in the field by Stanley Payne and Roger Griffith. (Mar. 26) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
March 07, 2005
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton
The Invention of Fascism
Fascism was the major political innovation of the twentieth century, and the source of much of its pain. The other major currents of modern Western political culture--conservatism, liberalism, socialism--all reached mature form between the late eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century. Fascism, however, was still unimagined as late as the 1890s. Friedrich Engels, writing a preface in 1895 for his new edition of Karl Marx's The Class Struggles in France, clearly believed that wider suffrage would inexorably deliver more votes to the Left. Both time and numbers, Engels was certain, were on the socialists' side. "If it [the growing socialist vote] continues in this fashion, by the end of this [nineteenth] century we [socialists] shall conquer the major part of the middle strata of society, petty bourgeois and peasants, and grow into the decisive power in the land." Conservatives, Engels wrote, had noticed that legality was work- ing against them. By contrast, "we [socialists], under this legality, get firm muscles and rosy cheeks and look like life eternal. There is nothing for them [the conservatives] to do but break through this legality themselves." While Engels thus expected that the Left's enemies would launch a preemptive attack, he could not imagine in 1895 that this might win mass approval. Dictatorship against the Left amidst popular enthusiasm--that was the unexpected combination that fascism would manage to put together one short generation later.
There were only a few glimmers of premonition. One came from an inquisitive young French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville. Although Tocqueville found much to admire on his visit to the United States in 1831, he was troubled by the majority's power in a democracy to impose conformity by social pressure, in the absence of an independent social elite.
The kind of oppression with which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing that had preceded it in the world; our contemporaries would not find its image in their memories. I myself seek in vain an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I form of it for myself and that contains it; the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable. The thing is new, therefore I must try to define it, since I can not name it.
Another premonition came at the eleventh hour from a French engineer turned social commentator, Georges Sorel. In 1908 Sorel criticized Marx for failing to notice that "a revolution accomplished in times of decadence" could "take a return to the past or even social conservation as its ideal."
The word fascism has its root in the Italian fascio, literally a bundle or sheaf. More remotely, the word recalled the Latin fasces, an axe encased in a bundle of rods that was carried before the magistrates in Roman public processions to signify the authority and unity of the state. Before 1914, the symbolism of the Roman fasces was usually appropriated by the Left. Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, was often portrayed in the nineteenth century carrying the fasces to represent the force of Republican solidarity against her aristocratic and clerical enemies. Fasces are prominently displayed on Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theater (1664-69) at Oxford University. They appeared on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington (1922) and on the United States quarter minted in 1932.
Italian revolutionaries used the term fascio in the late nineteenth century to evoke the solidarity of committed militants. The peasants who rose against their landlords in Sicily in 1893-94 called themselves the Fasci Siciliani. When in late 1914 a group of left-wing nationalists, soon joined by the socialist outcast Benito Mussolini,sought to bring Italy into World War I on the Allied side, they chose a name designed to communicate both the fervor and the solidarity of their campaign: the Fascio Rivoluzionario d'Azione