As we complete our tour and analysis of “historical fascism,” or what German scholar Ernst Nolte called “fascism in its epoch” (Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche, 1963), we turn to the more contentious historical movements that have sometimes been associated with fascism but scholars have generally regarded as not having been fascist (though certainly benefiting from fascist politics and alliances). Ernst Nolte considered German fascism (or national socialism) as the final synthesis of the fascist progression of thought, and historian Robert Paxton (perhaps the greatest living English-speaking historian of fascism) has repeatedly repudiated the claim that Vichy was fascist. While “National Falangism” was certainly fascist, after the Spanish Civil War Franco diluted the fascist content of the ideology. Likewise, the odd circumstances that led to Vichy is a point of embarrassment for many French people, but we should never let facts get in the way of sentimentality.
The problem that most scholars have noted with “Fascism in Spain” is that such a statement paints a universal brush over the “nationalist” forces that came together against the republicans during the Spanish Civil War. At the same time the republican forces were equally eclectic and diversified, to the point that intra-alliance fighting did break out between the more syndicalist oriented republicans and the Marxist inspired pro-Stalinist forces. The Spanish Civil War was a historical mess because the war brought diverse and often antagonist coalitions together to fight a mutual enemy.
The nationalists could count on Italy and Germany for foreign support, and also counted tens of thousands of Catholic nationalists (mainly from Ireland, but also Portugal and France) among their international allies as well. The concentration of German and Italian involvement often masks, and therefore paints a cloudy picture, of the reality of the nationalist cause. The Spanish military had always been Catholic and conservative – in fact, it remains so to this day – but can hardly be counted as being “fascist.” Likewise, the militantly anti-religious turn within some wings of the republican cause also stirred up a hornet’s nest among devote Catholics in Spain (and elsewhere) which brought Catholic conservatives and traditionalists into the nationalist fold as well. Anti-communists, middle-class business owners, and agrarian-oriented ruralists also joined the nationalist cause for various reasons.
Within this diversified alliance to counter the republicans were the Falangists. Of all the various groups within the Spanish nationalist alliance, the Falangists were the only group that can genuinely considered to be fascist. But Falangism had its own unique quirks that separated it from Italy and Germany.
First, in terms of political economy, Falangism was explicitly anti-capitalist. It was syndicalist and labor-oriented, but, per a running theme in fascism, is best described as national syndicalism and national laborism moreover than the decentralized and internationalist syndicalism and laborism commonly found among “left-wing” political movements during the 1930s. Falangism, moreover than fascism in Italy and Germany, was the most explicitly anti-bourgeois, anti-middleclass, and anti-big industry. It did not seek any compromises or “containment” of big capital as occurred in Italy and Germany.
But what makes Falangism fascist was its celebration of violent struggle, the cult of death and the hero, idealization of Spain’s “pagan” past, and call for national unity (the unity of nation and state as we saw in Part IV when examining the ideas of Carl Schmitt). Falangism, like fascist thought more generally, did understand the world as harsh and in terms of struggle between opposing forces seeking to dominate, or sublate, one another from existence. As a result the cult of death, as embodied in heroic struggle, became a focal point of Falangist thought. To be human was to struggle. To be human was to fight. To be human was to eventually die in struggle. To die in struggle was the greatest honor a human could have.
But of all the fascist movements which idolized and idealized its pagan past, Falangism was the least explicitly neo-Pagan and anti-Christian. While Falangism claimed that the Spanish tradition and inheritance came from the Visigoths, the Visigoths were Christians by the time they had settled the Iberian Peninsula – so while Falangism did identify a “golden moment” of the past, Falangism’s identification of this Visigothic inheritance was precisely that, more inheritance and need to preserve this inheritance moreover than actualizing anew some Visigothic imperium in the present. (Falangism, instead, sought a restoration of Hispanic unionism instead, which is far more modern than romantic or pagan.) Initially Arian, the Visigoths would eventually become Catholic; so while Italian and German fascists generally scoffed at and held Christianity in contempt, Spanish Falangists successfully blended Christianity with the pagan ideal of heroic struggle. (Part of this success was due to the anti-republican sentiments among Catholics in Spain during the anti-religious campaigns during the Civil War.)
That said, Falangists sought the division between Church and State, or more specifically, the subjugation of the Church to the interests of the State. Catholicism was part of Spanish identity, but religion should serve the interests of the State and the State’s struggles. What makes Falangism’s association with religion unique is that it blended revolutionary and progressive Christianity (something that was common in early 20th century religion) with a more traditional social outlook: the progressive social outlook of quasi-millenarian and apocalyptic Christianity that would usher in a new “heaven on earth,” which was actually far more Protestant than Catholic ironically, with Catholic social teaching which promoted the primacy of labor, the importance of the family as the foundation of society, and general condemnation of capitalism and usury in economics.
Another one of the more fascistic elements within Falangism was its state-nationalism. Spain had always been plagued by regionalism, even during the golden age of the “Spanish Empire.” This was especially true in the 1930s (and what also led to some rifts within the republican alliance where regionalist syndicalists eschewed what was perceived as the quasi-nationalism and pro-Stalinist “socialism in one country” mentality that was common among pro-Soviet republicans which hampered republican effectiveness in coordinating the fight against the nationalist). As a result, Falangism blended the nation-state unity through struggle with a new Hispania mythology that would successfully unite the fractured nation together – after all, if struggle was the essence of life, and of politics, then a divided Spain needed to be unified (nation with state) in order to successfully defend herself against all potential foes. Not only did Falangism seek the consummation of a state-oriented nationalism, it also dreamt the same dreams of a unitive imperium (imperium Hispania) that would unite all Hispanic peoples together as one race under one nation under one state.
Falangism, then, was arguably the most vitalistic and importance of the movements within the nationalist camp (minus the Spanish military). It was the most intellectual and devoted the most time to political thought. Nevertheless, after the nationalist victory much of Falangism became diluted by Franco over time – leading most historians and scholars to argue that Francoist Spain was more akin to what Hegel would have called the despotic Orient form of government: authoritarian-one man (rather than one party) rule, unitive, and nationalistic – but generally not embodying proper fascism. (We explored Hegel’s conception of the Orient in this post for those not familiar with Hegel’s view of political history.) While Falangism is definitely fascist, Falangism did not come to dominate Francoist Spain. If anything, Francoist Spain used Falangism to win the war, then “turned its back” on Falangism. This did lead to Falangist purging and separationism in which a new Falangist movement was born after Franco’s death which considers itself “anti-Franco” and “authentically Falange.” Because Falangism was but one of many movements within the nationalist camps, political philosophers, historians, and philosophers more generally, have been careful not to declare Francoist Spain as fascist because it simply never really qualified as fascist. While fascists did help the nationalists win the war, and while Falangism as a movement was fascist, Falangism never achieved the political success and eventual control of government as witness in Italy and Germany.
THE CASE OF VICHY
Vichy France is universally regarded by scholars as not having been a “fascist” regime. The issue of Vichy, however, is much more complex and complicated given the role of France in the Second World War. One of the initial allies, and possessing, on paper, the greatest army in the world, France was prepared for a redo of the First World War. Though possessing more men, ships, tanks, and guns, the French were surprised by the blitzkrieg and threw their forces into the battle with old First World War tactics which hampered their effectiveness. German accounts even state that the French tanks, for instance, were superior to their own, but scattered as they were, they were able to be picked off one by one.
The Fall of France is where the case of Vichy becomes problematic. The French government collapsed (the Third Republic was notoriously unstable, divided by royalists and monarchists on the Right, moderately nationalistic republicans on the center right, socialists, laborites, and anti-clericalists on the left, and communists on the far-left, not to mention a small but notorious faction of fascists on the far-right). But the democratically elected legislature was still in place despite the ruling government having fallen into ruin.
This is where the story of “Vichy” France gets murky. The democratically elected French legislature, which had 846 elected members, overwhelmingly voted to install Marshal Petain as the new head of government by a vote of 569-80. Within the 569 yes votes including a majority of French socialists and leftists – even communists voted in favor of Petain on “anti-war” sentiment since Petain was promising an end to the fighting and to maintain French sovereignty. The 80 who voted against the measure were remembered as the immortal 80 (all were either independents, socialists, and communists who were the minority within their own camps).
Thus, the “election” of Petain was considered legitimate in the eyes of the French body politic and military establishment. France agreed to peace to Germany. The issue of “Vichy France” is, admittedly, the result of pro-De Gaulle and Allied propaganda. “Free French” forces were like the Free Polish and Free Dutch and Free Belgian forces. Renegade military officers and soldiers who fled to Britain or other parts of the British realm to continue fighting against the Germans. “Vichy” France was actually just France. French commanders and governors through the territorial empire (in Africa and Asia) considered Petain to the be new, and legitimate, head of government. The distinction between “Vichy” and “Free” France was made purely on Allied propaganda lines which equally confuses the picture when discussing the role and relationship of Vichy to fascism – and it is particularly sensitive among the French. (On this note, the “French Resistance” has also been overplayed by De Gaulle, Allied propaganda, and the French themselves – you can read the great book Fighters in the Shadows on this topic; principally, as Robert Paxton has noted, the importance of the French Resistance was emotional recovery for the humiliation of France in 1940 moreover than the myth of a titanic underground movement in France that played an essential role in toppling the Nazis in Western Europe.)
So if Petain’s “Vichy Regime” was a legitimate political force established by the democratically elected French legislature, the issue of its relationship with fascism begins immediately after Petain’s election by the French legislature. Petain dissolved the legislature after his election. The result was the creation of a one-man strong state that still had the political apparatus and logistics of a normal political state in the 20th century (ministers, deputies, etc.). The Vichy Regime, in its politics and policies, moved decidedly to the political right, promoting: social traditionalism, Catholicism, and agrarianism against capitalism and social progressivism (against liberalism), and also against laborism, socialism, and Atheism (against Marxism). There was also a bit of Anglophobia being worked into policy and politics as well.
Unlike all the other movements we have explored, “Vichy France” never embarked on policies, politics, or had intellectuals, that can be considered fascist in any meaningful sense. Yes, there were some fascists in France who did support the Petain government and thousands more who volunteered to fight for the Germans (especially against the Soviets). But almost all historians and philosophers agree that the “Vichy” government was really the embodiment of an old-school autocratic, conservative, and sovereignist regime. It blended elements of the ancien regime (principally Social and Political Catholicism) with modernism (integralist sovereignty and French nationalism).
The power of Vichy was broken when the French Fleet scuttled itself at Toulon to prevent it from being captured by the Germans in late 1942. Operation Torch, which followed afterward, also broke the power of Petain’s government when French North Africa opted to join the Allied war effort. It is at this point that “French Resistance” grew, even among conservatives and traditionalists in France who joined with communists and socialists who had formed underground movements only after the Germans attacked Russia however. The reality was that “Vichy France” (which was actually just France) was never really fascist to begin with.
Another issue that is popular is the idea that the Catholic Church was allied with fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. This is demonstrably false and only peddled by people with an axe to grade against religion (and the Catholic Church in particular). It is true that many Catholics, including Catholic clergy, supported fascism – but the Church magisterium condemned fascism repeatedly and most scholars note that fascism was, at its core, a non-Christian movement with nothing but animosity toward Christianity (as we explored in Parts III and IV).
That said the issue of “clerical fascism” is the phenomenon of Slovakia and Croatia, in particular, where these satellite states of Germany were dominated by a Catholo-Fascist politics. Josef Tiso, the head of state of the Slovak Republic, was a clergyman. In Croatia, the Pavelić regime received warm support from the Catholic Church infrastructure in the state. Clerical fascism is really a small phenomenon which occurred within small circles of Catholicism where there was a close relationship between Catholic leadership and nominally fascist or authoritarian satellite regimes during the 1940s. These Catholic leaders were hardly “fascist” by any intellectual or philosophical standard. Their relationship to fascism was more-or-less the fact that they tended to support the puppet governments installed by Berlin, or in the case of Tiso, was actually a member of the clergy. It is important to remember, however, that in Germany there was an orchestrated effort to de-Catholicize Germany to make way for the new Germanic embodied Paganism. In Italy, Mussolini’s regime curtailed Church power (but never waged a war against it as happened in Nazi Germany). “Clerical Fascism,” as one scholar has said, is really better understood as “Fascist collaboration” by small elements within the Catholic Church which saw fascism – rightly or wrongly – as a means to confront mutual enemies.
In Part VI we will begin our examination of the “ghosts of fascism” in the so-called Alt-Right, Identitarian, and Pan-European movements. We will principally focus on the themes that these groups inherit or embrace from classical fascism, but also look at where they augment classical fascist thought. We’ll end by addressing whether such movements can actually be considered fascist (by standards of academic honesty and intellectual and historical lineage and tradition) or if they are something new altogether.
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