I have explored the actual intellectual currents and heritage of fascism in a series of posts here. The fact is, most of the people whom are called “fascist” are not fascist. The degradation of language is pernicious and indicative of the moral degeneracy of our current culture – though this is not a new phenomenon and has been commented on by the likes of Thucydides, Machiavelli, and George Orwell. One of the core features of historical fascism was its historicist undercurrent and revelatory revolutionary that war (struggle) was the defining feature of existence and that societies needed to be mobilized for this reality of perpetual struggle (rather than perpetual peace). Within the development of fascism, however, included the movement remembered as existentialism. Here we shall explore why existentialism was an integral element to fascist thought and development.
I am not going to go over again what I have already written upon in over 20,000 words and in some great detail examining the intellectual currents of fascism. Instead, I am just going to restate what I said above: fascism is a philosophy premised on historicism, that life is defined by perpetual struggle (war), and that societies are uniting with the organization called the State in assembling the necessity of perpetual struggle (the mobilization of all sectors of societal life for the purpose of war: civil society, education, child groups (e.g. scouting organizations or the Hitler Youth), and economy are all brought together in union to perpetuate the philosophy of agonism inherent to fascism. But within this movement to militarize society for the end of struggle lay existentialism – a philosophical movement that highlighted the crisis of individualism and the corruption of power structures and meaninglessness of life. Generally associated with the Political Left, why was a certain undercurrent of existentialism prominent within fascism?
Georg W.F. Hegel factors prominently (though erroneously, like Friedrich Nietzsche) in this development. For Hegel, individuals are purposeless unless attached to a greater organic whole. For Hegel this wholeness was found in the nation-state. The individual qua individual doesn’t really matter. What matters is the individual “finding his purpose” within the totality of the whole and within the world. This is where existentialism lent itself to the fascist movements of the early 20th century.
Existentialism did not necessarily celebrate the individual as individual. In many ways it was a lamentation of the absurdity of our social and relational natures which sought meaningful associations and relationships with others but always fell short. For Sartre, for instance, the individual must come to realize despite his wants for relationship he must reject this since relationships do not provide the meaning he is seeking: he must make meaning for himself. The individual, weak and without purpose in life, must create his own meaning and purpose in the world. Within fascist thought this meant that the individual embrace his role as soldier. As soldier the individual was fitting himself into the greater whole: the nation-state, for the actual end of the world and purpose of life, which was struggle, and in this struggle the individual as soldier would ascend greatness. In war the individual would find his meaning fitting against the enemy and serving his nation. His individual glory was also the collective glory of the nation.
The “victim” or “last man” lifestyle of hedonistic consumption and otherwise meaningless work (which leaves no legacy) was at the root of our existential dread according to Hegel and Nietzsche. The embrace of the dream of universal consumption and universal peace would bring about the destruction of man – leading a meaningless, purposeless, and unexciting life. War, by contrast, would allow for man to create his meaning in struggle, give him purpose in striving to survive, and fill him with the exhilaration of combat, breakthrough, and life-and-death confrontation. Within fascist historicism, this is what History had revealed to us. Within fascist historicism, the combination of technology, economic development, and new advances in social and economic organization and planning, all pointed to the possibility of organizing society for the reality of perpetual war. The true man, the “superman,” the “citizen,” would come to know this realization and embrace his nature.
This is where fascism differed from actual existentialism. Actual existentialism asserted the cold meaninglessness of life. We created our meaning perpetually even though we know this to be false. As Camus said, “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Fascism and its quasi-existentialist correlative did not assert meaninglessness or that we had to deceive ourselves in order to live a meaningful life. Existence did have purpose. And a meaningful life could be consummated. This life was the life of the agon – the struggle inherent to fascist philosophy.
Robert Shaw’s fictional panzer character, Colonel Martin Hessler (based off the real life Joachim Peiper), in the film Battle of the Bulge (1965), captures the fascist existentialist mentality when he speaks to his friend Conrad after having been congratulated for his exploits in the battle. “There are many kinds of victory. For the German Army to survive, for us to remain in uniform – that is our victory. Conrad, the world is not going to get rid of us after all.” In uniform the individual has meaning and purpose. In uniform the individual has guidance and direction. In uniform the individual is a larger-than-life figure, a hero, decorated and showered with adoration and praise from others. His ego grows and grows in exploitation, praise, and victory. Without war he is nothing. He is another bland face in a tower of corrupt account. Without war he lives a meaningless life where he will not be showered with praise and decorations for his daring and exploits. In war he is something. Apart from war he is nothing.
It is precisely the reality of perpetual struggle inherent to war why Nietzsche, in particular, was so misappropriated for the fascist cause. The soldier, in war, had the possibility of becoming the superman who was never content with what he has. For if the soldier was content he would cease being a good soldier. It was only in the reality of war that perpetual struggle was a concrete reality. In war the “last man” is avoided because one either dies (the world conquers you) or you become the superman in conquering the world (man thus ascending to the top of the pyramid of life as Arnold Gehlen elaborated on in Man, His Nature and Place in the World). Only war could give this possibility to man.
The military unit was the concretized and particularized reality of the whole. In a military unit the individual has significance purpose, but only within the unit is his self magnified. The military unit has a filial nature to it but it serves the purpose of war.
Where existentialism met fascism was in the anxiety of the meaninglessness of the world and the struggle to do good and act well within the plane of impossibility. This feeling of meaninglessness magnified the potency and seduction of fascism which offered something greater than death and resignation and deliberate self-deception as per genuine existentialism which asserted our lives were defined by uncertainty and anxiety over the growing recognition of the failure to live meaningful and purposeful lives. But the full embrace of existentialism was the embrace of falsity. For fascism asserted that the meaning of life was to be found in the eternal struggle and ascent of man over nature through will, technology, and power. And it was the reality of war which offered this possibility.
War provided the meaning of life. War allowed man to demonstrate his genius, power, and cunning. War provided the plane for which life and death was an always present reality. War provided the outlet for the individual to be something greater than himself and win the adorations and praises of others. And through war man would showcase himself the god-man he truly was.