The 'thrill' of fascism: Explaining the brutality, hatred and powerful appeal of the radical right

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A recent report published by the UK-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right listed 2,185 separate protest events – everything from demonstrations and petitions to brawls and firebomb attacks – staged by far right groups throughout the United Kingdom in the decade between 2009 and 2019.

Characterized by nationalism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism, far right movements are an all too common feature of twenty-first century societies. Such groups look back to, and are inspired by, interwar fascism, movements that paved the way for the wartime fascist regimes that at their most extensive point ruled most of Europe. Studying the fascist movements of the past helps us understand how extremist movements work today.

This is clearly demonstrated in The Wiener Holocaust Library’s new exhibition, 'This Fascist Life: Radical Right Movements in Interwar Europe.' Whereas many books, documentaries, and exhibits on fascism focus on the famous fascist regimes of Italy and Germany, the focus here is on social movements that associated themselves with the fascist label through their propaganda, marches, violence, structure, and ideology.

Fascism only took power in a handful of countries, but every country in Europe had at least one, and usually several, fascist movements in the years between the two world wars. From the Blackshirts in the United Kingdom to the Croix de Feu (Fire Cross) in France and the Arrow Cross in Hungary, fascists denounced liberal democracies and attacked communists and Jews on the streets of Europe.

Fascist movements were products of their time and place. They thrived in the disruptive wake of the First World War. The collapse of political systems and the economic, financial and political chaos that followed the First World War were fertile conditions for the development of fascist movements.

The flags of fascist Europe: Radical right organizations in interwar and WWII Europe, an illustration from The Wiener Holocaust Library’s new exhibition, This Fascist LifeCredit: The Wiener Holocaust Library

The war had engendered in Europe a culture of masculine brutality, militarism and violence that fascist movements embraced. When veterans who had fought for king and empire found themselves living in liberal democracies they often turned to fascism in an attempt to recapture the ‘values of the trenches’ such as discipline, male camaraderie, hierarchy, and monarchism.

The 'This Fascist Life' exhibition focuses primarily on the experiences of rank-and-file activists rather than on the actions of their leaders. Beyond just voting for fascists, these were people who took the extra step and committed themselves to working for the party.

Whereas becoming a fascist was relatively respectable within certain circles in places like Austria and Germany, in countries such as Poland (for Ukrainians) and Romania, fascism was often illegal and could get you arrested or even killed. In Ireland, the Blueshirts functioned as a legal organization but police barricaded roads and fought pitched battles with fascists any time they tried to stage a rally during the elections of 1934.

Nazi election poster: 'Women! Save the German family - Vote for Adolf Hitler,' 1932. Wiener Library CollectionsCredit: Wiener Library Collections

Once someone had joined, fascist movements demanded complete obedience from their members, priding themselves on strict discipline and constantly asking members to dedicate more and more of their time to its work. The wives of men involved in the British Union of Fascists complained that they had become ‘fascist widows’ because their husbands were spending so much time with the movement and so little at home.

Most groups held regular meetings, required members to take place in sporting and training activities, as well as representing the movement at marches, public meetings, and rallies. Sport, usually gymnastics, was a key element of fascist training in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere, as fascists believed that the ‘new men’ who were to become the leaders of tomorrow should be distinguished first and foremost by their physical fitness.

In Britain, fascists focused particularly on boxing for men and jiu-jitsu for women, preparing their members to act as stewards who could fight any communists and anti-fascists that tried to disrupt their rallies.

Romanian fascist students working a a brickworks as part of their summer camp activities,1924. Kampf und Sieg ('Struggle and Victory') photo album, CNSAS archives (National Archives of Romania)Credit: National Archives of Romania

Fascists were usually easily distinguished by their uniforms, and banning the wearing of uniforms was one way that governments in Britain, the Netherlands, and elsewhere tried to prevent them from disturbing the peace. By 1937, in Romania, so many movements had colored shirts as part of their uniforms that the government forbade anyone from wearing shirts that were black, blue, green, white, yellow, brown, violet, cherry, or red.

They also carried flags, and sometimes torches for night-time rallies. The German Nazis had a particular problem with torches, because they frequently burned out before the rally was over and the party could not afford to keep replacing them.

Fascists attracted a wide variety of people, but young men were lured into fascism as a result of the excitement of a rumble in the streets, or because friends or family had been injured or arrested by police after fighting anti-fascists or engaging in illegal activities. Fascists used weddings and sporting events to recruit new members usually through face to face discussions and by appealing to deeply held beliefs about religion, community, and nation.

They offered members a supportive, exclusive group to which they could be proud of belonging, and relied on marches and parades to generate exciting collective experiences out in the open air in an era before television and computers provided entertainment at home.

Even though fascism is most associated with the interwar and wartime years, the question of why someone might join an extremist movement is one that is all too relevant in our own day and age.

Students at the University of Vienna saluting in a torchlit parade together with the Rector, Hans Unsberger, in 1931. ONB Bildarchiv. H780 BCredit: ONB Bildarchiv

In many ways, belonging to a fascist movement in the 1930s had a lot in common with joining an extremist movement such as National Action, a British neo-Nazi terror group, or Al Qa’ida today. In context world of social, economic and political dislocation, the camaraderie, sense of purpose and opportunity for violence that being a member of a radical movement provided were powerful motivators for those who joined fascist movements.

Brutality was and is core to the fascist enterprise. And it was fascist activism that popularized antisemitism among a wider public and which helped make it into a respectable political platform in the 1920s and 1930s. Perpetrators of the Holocaust, whether they were soldiers, policemen, or ‘ordinary killers,’ had been influenced by fascist ideas and propaganda.

Many fascists also signed up to fight alongside Nazi Germany in the Second World War even against their own countries, joining the Waffen SS or military units in Croatia or Romania that then engaged in mass murder.

We can only hope to combat the radical right when we understand it properly, but that poses a challenge for educators.

When translating fascist texts, should we restrict ourselves to reproducing the words themselves, or should historians try to convey something of the excitement and thrill that a fascist speech gave to its original audience by choosing words and phrases that trigger us as twenty-first century readers? If we don’t communicate the passion then we are missing something key that drove people into fascism, but if we do, then we risk converting uncritical readers to an abhorrent ideology.

Members of the Nazi Party in Coburg, Bavaria celebrating 'German Day.' Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv, Bold 119-5519Credit: Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv, Bold 119-5519

Fascists often relied on half-truths and emotive language to get their points across, and historians need to unpack how words like ‘the nation’ were being manipulated by fascists in their speeches, pamphlets, and songs. They were also experts at making themselves look like victims and it is only when we put their claims into context that we see how fatuous they were.

Is it even ethical to reproduce fascist books, pamphlets and speeches at all, or are those ideas better forgotten? 'This Fascist Life' maintains that understanding extremist positions is key to opposing them, but at the same time it is careful to avoid separating the words of fascist speeches from their consequences.

A brutal, hateful form of politics, fascism needs to be understood urgently lest we allow similar movements to gain a foothold in our own societies. Education involves not just teaching individuals who are at risk of being radicalized, about the horrific legacies of fascism in the Holocaust, but also teaching police and public policy makers how to minimize systemic issues such as feelings of political alienation and despair that cause people to turn to fascism in the first place.  

Dr Roland Clark is a Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Liverpool, a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, and President of the Society for Romanian Studies. He is the author of 'Holy Legionary Youth: Fascist Activism in Interwar Romania' (2015) and 'Sectarianism and Renewal in 1920s Romania: The Limits of Orthodoxy and Nation-Building' (2021). Twitter: @roloclark

The Wiener Holocaust Library’s new exhibition, This Fascist Life: Radical Right Movements in Interwar Europe, runs in London until February 2022

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