To understand fascism, it was necessary to begin with the Romantic Movement, otherwise one will not have a solid familiarity with the ideas that fascism sought to emulate, restore, and implement, as well as distort. In the history of fascism, especially in the 20th century, there are three key specters to examine: Italian fascism, German fascism, and National Falangism (as specific subcurrent of Spanish Nationalist thought before being diluted by Franco after the Spanish Civil War). French “proto-fascism” is important as well, but we already explored that issue in Part I; while we will examine the case of Vichy no serious scholar considers Vichy France to have been fascist and we’ll address this as to why.
Fascism is many things to many people. The term is brandished around so frequently, much like racist, that the term has lost much palpable meaning. It is merely an epithet hurled at someone whom who disagree with, seems boorish, or might otherwise be considered obnoxious. The frequent brandishing of the term has given cloak to real fascists, who are all but willing to have rightwing populists and nationalists of a non-fascist stripe to be pilloried as they fly under the radar.
As already stated, fascism’s roots lay within Romanticism. But Romanticism, per se, is not a fascist movement or philosophy as we already discussed in the second part of this series. The themes of Romanticism serve as the foundation for an explicit fascism to emerge. It is now time to examine the historical cases of fascism in the 20thcentury.
There is debate where the “first” fascist movement emerged. This essay does not attempt to enter that discussion by placing Italian Fascism first on a chronological basis. It is just the starting point for our examination of the historical cases of fascist movements.
Fascism in Italy was born, not in the trenches of World War I, but in the romantic Italian unification movement and pan-Italian nationalism or pan-Italianism. (Though the war was also important and we’ll get into that in a bit.) The mythology and history that the Italian fascists drew upon, of course, was the Roman Empire. But fascism’s revisionist nationalism arises in pan-Italianism and not pan-Romanism. The mythology of the Roman Empire inspired Italians to re-achieve what had been lost but Romanism was insufficient for a nationalist foundation since not all Italians identified as “Roman” (in fact, few did).
Why Italian nationalism and not the terrible bloodletting of World War I as the nexus of the birth of Italian fascism? While World War I gives fascism the engine to jump, and while the disaster of World War I certainly aided the rise of fascism in Italy, the ideas of fascism are not found in the trenches of the war. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, ca. 476 C.E., the Italian Peninsula went through 1400 years of being divided. Culturally important, it was not politically important. The nexus of political power in Europe slowly transitioned away from Rome, toward Paris, Vienna, London, Madrid, and Amsterdam, and eventually Berlin. This was a far cry from the status of Rome as the center of the world, during the political apogee of the Roman Empire, and the symbolic importance of Rome as the seat of the Roman Catholic Curia.
Pan-Italianism was a revisionist movement within Italian nationalism. Whereas Italian nationalism could be described as Risorgimento, as its goal was to establish a unified and independent Italy, pan-Italianism was integral and revisionist. Not only did it see the Italian Peninsula, Sicily, and Sardinia as proper Italian homelands, it also saw the Balkan coast along the Adriatic as proper Italian homeland too. At the time of Italy’s unification and independence, these territories belonged to the ancient Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire—a bitter enemy to Italian nationalism and unification. It was also home to various smaller Balkan nations.
Like the German claims for Lebensraum, pan-Italianism was a distinctive and militant form of nationalism that extended Italian claims to regions where substantive Italian-speaking minorities lived. Under the foreign rule of impure rulers, it was seen as a collective duty for Italians to “liberate” their brothers and sisters from foreign yoke. In the process, Italy would claim her rightful place among the great powers of the world.
It is this backdrop that is important for understanding Italian disappointment—leading to the rise of fascism—during World War I. Italy was initially an ally with Austria and Germany, forming the so-called Central Powers. Italy had a close relationship with Germany but distrusted Austria (a historical enemy and rival going back to the Medieval Era and Renaissance). Austria, after all, had long dominated Italy and controlled much of the Adriatic coastline which was viewed as rightfully being Italian. Austria also still controlled a section of northern Italy at the time.
When war broke out Italy remained neutral. Italy had arranged an agreement with the Entente Alliance: Britain, France, and Russia, that Italy would join the war on their side, and gain the territories desired by pan-Italian nationalists in the resulting peace settlement. In 1915, to help break the stalemate, Italy entered the war against its nominal allies—Germany and Austria (and also the Ottoman Empire which had joined with the Germans and Austrians). Italy threw its forces against a weakened Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was fighting a two-front war against Russia in the east, and various Balkan powers in the south.
Italy’s performance in the war was less than exceptional. Despite having manpower and material advantages over the Austrians, the Italians were unable to gain any notable successes. Then, in 1917, disaster struck. During the Battle of Caporetto, in a single month, the Italians lost nearly 600,000 soldiers and civilians. The Austro-German offensive nearly broke the back of the Italians, who survived from the reserves sent from British and French forces and the Italian re-organization around Venice.
The disaster at Caporetto was blamed on many people and movements. General Luigi Cadorna was sacked and forced into retirement. Anti-war socialists and communists, who claimed the war was disastrous for working-class men (most of whom were drafted into the army to fight and die) were also scapegoated for sapping morale and fighting spirit. The battle also wounded Italian pride. The arrival of French and British soldiers to bolster the Italian war effort, who were already fighting a half-strength Austria-Hungary, stained Italy’s pretensions of being one of the great European powers. How could Italy, who was throwing all of her might against a weakened Austria-Hungary fighting on three fronts, be considered a great power if she was unable to fight effectively on a single front?
When the war ended in 1918, Italy expected to gain the territories promised and expected by pan-Italian nationalists. They didn’t. Italy received small war gains and reparations. There was a feeling of betrayal.
Italy had not performed up to expectations, and her pretensions of being one of the great powers of Europe had been shattered. The post-war environment was also terrible for Italy. The parliament was in gridlock. The economy was in ruins. Millions were displaced and wounded. A sense of shame, victimhood, and betrayal steeped the minds of many Italians. The fear of a socialist revolution was also on the horizon.
Here enters Benito Mussolini and the Italian fascists. Many of the leaders were soldiers in the war. They had joined to fight for Italy’s cause as a great power. They left the war disillusioned and angry. The rise of the fascists in Italy is multifaceted, and it begins the trends that are common within fascist uprisings during the 1930s. Italy’s parliamentary system was weak. The economy in shambles. National pride was severely maimed. There was a widespread feeling of victimization. And there remained the ever looming fear of a socialist revolution.
Mussolini and the fascists promised strong politics, a restored economy, the restoration of national pride, punishment brought unto the victimizers, and a squashing of the socialist movement. They accomplished every goal; at least superficially until it all came crashing down in the fires of the Second World War.
It is important to begin with Italian fascism, because it begins a trend in the political movements of fascism. Italian fascism was the first of the successful fascist movements and inspired others around Europe. However, it lacked a relatively strong intellectual foundation which was to arise in Germany in the late 1920s-1940s. (Though Julius Evola is one of the chief Italian fascist intellectuals, even though his affiliation with fascism was relatively brief; Giovanni Gentile was the more visible face of fascist philosophy but Evola left the enduring legacy in his works.)
To return to the six major points outlined earlier, we see Italian fascism fitting the mold in every category. First, Italian fascism took a revived interest in the past—promoting the glory of the Roman Empire as Italy’s once and future destiny. Second, the fascists promoted a sense of collective unity in the face of the threats that besieged her: socialists, communists, and the liberal peacemakers of Versailles. Third, this naturally produced the victimhood mentality that springs fascism to live. Italy had been betrayed in the First World War, both from the outside world and within. Fourth, the fascists reinvigorated nationalism. Pan-Italianism was the glue to which Italian fascism marched to.
Concerning the overthrow of the liberal constitutional order, however, is tricky (since, technically, that was a goal that socialist and communist revolutionaries also sought). Fascism, in its historical cases, overturned the liberal systems it emerged in (but again, so did other revolutionary movements). The fascists in Italy were political in nature and attempted to achieve precisely that—an overthrow of the effeminate liberal government in Rome. They failed. In response, they aimed at a “legitimate” victory at the ballot box, granted in 1924 when Mussolini achieved an overwhelming majority of the votes. He took up power and formed the government, and slowly erased the old liberal constitutional order under the monarchy. Italy was a de jure monarchy, but a de facto one-party dictatorship. Mussolini’s rule was absolute. The 1929 and 1934 elections were democratic in name only; Mussolini’s party was the only party that was legally allowed to exist.
The movement’s success is attributable to its populism. The fascist movement was a populist movement of the right, although not all conservatives or rightists supported it. The People’s Party was originally the hub for center-right and pro-Catholic politics in Italy. Some left-leaning Catholics were also prominent in the Socialist Party. But aggrieved nationalists, sympathetic military men, and a weary middle-class all came to the banner of Italian fascism by 1924.
This produced a revisionist interpretation of fascism, primarily by anti-fascist Marxist scholars. In noting the middle-class flocking to fascist movements in Italy, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere—these Marxist scholars asserted fascism as a movement of reformed capitalism and the bourgeoisie. This is wholly motivated by political animosity than honest scholarship. (Or, more accurately, reflects the presuppositional bias of Marxist scholars that all things are reducible to economic epiphenomenon and therefore discounts the world of ideas and thought as having importance to fascist philosophy.)
The Italian middle-class initially rejected fascism, seeing it as another movement of an agitated working-class. And fascism was, for the most part, founded on working-class politics and ideology. It was anathema to bourgeois middle-class liberalism. That said, the fear of a socialist revolution and the middle-class losing their property and wealth, combined with what they saw as the inability of the liberal parties in power to control this prospective threat, pushed them into the arms of the fascists—who were always willing to gain their support.
The emergence of Italian fascism follows the basic trends of fascism as understood in philosophical and historical circles: It is hyper-nationalist and collectivistic. Fascism uses the rhetoric of victimhood and victimization—castigates blame on others which produces a mentality of fear and betrayal along with a “besieged” mentality. Renewed interest in some vague notion of the “past” becomes paramount. Mussolini, after all, promised a restoration of the Roman Empire. And most importantly, fascism overthrows the liberal constitutional order (or sitting constitutional order) once in power.
Fascism, then, celebrated violence for the sake of violence. It celebrated struggle for the sake of struggle. This is unique to fascist philosophy that the end of violence, the end of struggle, the end of the nation, and so on, is perpetual violence, struggle, and maintenance of the friend-enemy distinction. Fascism is not about “the good life,” “happiness,” or “virtue.” And most importantly, fascism was born out of the ashes of disaster and revolution. (And this was to influence the fascist ideal of the “new man,” a man who was the citizen soldier who was always willing to fight the revolutionary struggle that was to become the understanding of life itself.)
Now I will comment on the nature of the disasters of World War I and the economic depressions and their relationship to fascism which are often brought up. I preferred to call such disasters the engines to “jump” fascism into momentum. It is important to remember that the war and economic depressions that followed equally jump-started many revolutionary movements with the intention of overthrowing sitting liberal, or monarchial, constitutional orders: socialist and communist revolutionaries, social democrats (in Austria, for instance, the Social Democratic Party had its own paramilitary organization that attempted to seize power and overthrow the Austrian Republic in 1934 during the February Uprisings after political setbacks), and squabbling nationalists from the residues of old empires, all were vying for power and fighting with the political orders established in the aftermath of the Paris Peace Conference. In this manner “Fascism being born of the fires of World War I” does injustice to the ideas and motivating ideals of fascism itself, and also doesn’t do justice to the fact that many other movements can claim the same statement including the rise of militant and revolutionary Marxism. While the war and resulting economic depressions added to the fire, so to speak, the war and economic depressions only had minimal effect on the formation of fascist thought. (The war had more impact on the foundation of fascist thought in Germany than in Italy and I will address that issue in Part IV.)
Perhaps the most important of the philosophers associated with Italian fascism was the aforementioned Julius Evola, whose two works Pagan Imperialism and The Revolt Against the Modern World touch upon many of the themes I outlined in Part II of the essay. A series of essays, which has since been synthesized under the name The Metaphysics of War, also deals with the ideas of heroic struggle, sacrifice, and rebirth as essential to war but also human nature and what it means to be a living creature.
In Pagan Imperialism, Evola outlined the territoriality of a revisionist empire and Roman traditionality, and how the spirit of conquest, struggle, and myth were essential for the foundations of the Roman Empire (and ancient imperium more generally). When the spirit of conquest, struggle, and myth declined, surprise surprise, so did the Roman Empire. Thus, the task for the new Italy – if it was to rebirth the Roman ideal – would be reembrace the tenets of conquest, struggle, and myth and bring struggle and conquest into myth itself so as to allow the revivification of myth bring about the contingent revivification of conquest and struggle which are essential for striving and overcoming. While Pagan Imperialism was quickly translated into German in time for the rise of Hitler and was influential in important circles in Italy and Germany, his most important work was The Revolt Against the Modern World. (The issue of focusing on the Roman Empire was not necessarily “Romanness” but the highlighting of a past ideal that would be struggled for in the present – this is another running theme in fascist thought.)
Admittedly, Evola’s affiliation with fascism is sketchy due to his movement away from fascism and eventual critiques of it. His very early work, namely Pagan Imperialism, and some of his essays concerning the nature of war and struggle, clearly are part of his brief flirt with fascism. Revolt Against the Modern World represents his turn away from fascism and embrace of traditionalism (of a decidedly anti-Christian traditionalism rooted in the world of quasi-sacred Platonic paganism; note, Evola’s critique of Christianity has roundly been criticized because he clearly doesn’t understand Christianity but that’s part of impetus of the work and cannot be forgotten). But the work still has important thoughts that influenced fascist ideology and philosophy, or, perhaps more accurately, still shows the residue of fascist thought throughout the text; it also bridges the gulf between aspects of fascism which can clearly be empathized with by conservatives. Therefore, even though Revolt represents his shift away from fascism, it still contains seminal ideas and thoughts that permeated fascist thinking.
In Revolt, Evola argues that tradition – knowing hierarchy (including a caste system), divine kingship, and the “rites of initiation” – along with the importance of myth, literature, religion, poetry, and heroic struggle, completed (or embodied) the human spirit: namely the struggle of life in the phenomenological world to reach up and taste the transcendent. But this taste of the transcendent was not so much a union with Divinity, but the taking on of divinity as the hero in society destined to struggle like the pagan mythological heroes of old (the book is largely a treatment of ancient Greek mytho-poetic society and heroism). In the abolition of tradition, which is namely the abolition of hierarchy (and especially the caste system), authority, rites of initiation, the degradation of literary and mytho-poetic culture, the end result is the sterilization of humanity as it grows cynical, estranged, and “kills God” (i.e. the transcendent ideal that we struggle to become), and in all of this, devolves itself in the phenomenological world itself. The death of tradition is the embrace of death itself which leads to civilization collapse and extermination as a people no longer are willing to strive for something more than bodily pleasure and the brief “enjoyment” of temporal existence. It is simply too hard to struggle, to go through rites of initiation, to read literature, to build on the literature one has inherited, and so on. This leads to what Hegel called the “victim” lifestyle, or what Nietzsche called “the last man,” which we will explore in some more detail in Part IV and how these ideas influenced fascist thought in Germany.
Through this abolition into death, Evola argues, the estrangement of man begins as he becomes “an individual.” This is Evola’s critique of individualism as a celebration of rebellion and death (which mirrors man’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden where death entered the world). The cult of death and individualism destroys the sacredness of life, which is principally the sacred struggle for life which is to be found in the world of the transcendent. The struggle against death (which includes the death of culture: religion, literature, and the arts), is the precipice that man now finds himself. Man is completely unmoored, unsure of what to believe, and is therefore able to be snatched up by totalitarian, demagogic, and revolutionary movements where he becomes a cog in the engine for a promised utopia.
Central to Evola’s metaphysic of the world, and of man, is the spiritual nature of life, war, and death. War, for Evola, is the very embodiment of the spiritual life—of the old pagan martial virtues that were integral to pagan spirituality. This is something that the ancients understood but moderns had lost; as such, the degradation of man in the present was his spiritual malaise in forgetting what he is and what the sacred principle of life entailed (the martial virtues in spiritual form). When one forgets this one slips into the nihilist’s deathbed—simply seeking a warm blanket and food before dying instead of pouring his guts out on the battlefield and reaching up to his brethren and lovers beside him in the trenches. There is nothing more moral, more satisfying, and more exhilarating, nothing more sacred, than combat. More than “race,” more than “blood,” the heart of fascism was always a spiritual one; specifically, spiritual warfare.
In Part IV we will transition to look at the most notable, and notorious, of the fascist movements: German Fascism (or “National Socialism”) and what makes it distinct from Italian fascism or the general worldview of Evola.