The Future of Fascism

Fascism was an emergency response to an unimagined crisis—and it could all happen again.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by Thinkstock.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by Thinkstock.

This article supplements Fascism, a Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Fascism.

Adapted from The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton. Published by Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Although precursors to fascism can be identified before 1914, adequate space was not available for fascism until after World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. Fascist movements could first reach full development only in the outwash from those two tidal waves. The outer time limit to fascism, however, is harder to locate. Is fascism over? Is a Fourth Reich or some equivalent in the offing? More modestly, are there conditions under which some kind of neofascism might become a sufficiently powerful player in a political system to influence policy? There is no more insistent or haunting question posed to a world that still aches from wounds that fascisms inflicted on it during 1922–45.

Important scholars have argued that the fascist period ended in 1945. In 1963, the German philosopher Ernst Nolte wrote in a celebrated book about “fascism in its era” that although fascism still existed after 1945, it had been stripped of real significance.1 Many have agreed with him that fascism was a product of a particular and unique crisis growing out of the cultural pessimism of the 1890s, the turmoil of the first “nationalization of the masses,”2 the strains of World War I, and the incapacity of liberal Democratic regimes to cope with that war’s aftermath and in particular with the spread of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The greatest obstacle to the revival of classical fascism after 1945 was the repugnance it had come to inspire. Hitler aroused nausea as gruesome pictures of the liberated camps were released. Mussolini inspired derision. Devastated landscapes testified to the failure of both of them. Hitler’s charred body in the ruins of his Berlin bunker and Mussolini’s corpse strung up by the heels in a seedy Milan filling station marked the extinction by squalor of their charisma.3

A revival of fascism faced additional obstacles after 1945: the increasing prosperity and seemingly irreversible globalization of the world economy, the triumph of individualistic consumerism,4 the declining availability of war as an instrument of national policy for large nations in the nuclear age, the diminishing credibility of a revolutionary threat. All these postwar developments have suggested to many that fascism as it flourished in Europe between the two world wars could not exist after 1945, at least not in the same form.5

But the end of fascism was opened to doubt in the 1990s by a series of sobering developments: ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; the sharpening of exclusionary nationalisms in postcommunist Eastern Europe; spreading “skinhead” violence against immigrants in Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, and Italy; the first participation of a neofascist party in a European government in 1994, when the Italian Alleanza Nazionale, direct descendant of the principal Italian neofascist party, the Movimento Sociale Italiano, or MSI, joined the first government of Silvio Berlusconi;6 the entry of Jörg Haider’s Freiheitspartei, or Freedom Party, with its winks of approval at Nazi veterans, into the Austrian government in February 2000; the astonishing arrival of the leader of the French far right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the first round of the French presidential elections in May 2002; and the meteoric rise of an anti-immigrant but nonconformist outsider, Pim Fortuyn, in the Netherlands in the same month. Finally, a whole universe of fragmented radical right “grouplets” proliferated, keeping alive a great variety of far-right themes and practices.7 The far right in Europe after 1945 is loudly and regularly accused of reviving fascism; its leaders deny the charges no less adamantly. They have become adept at presenting a moderate face to the general public while privately welcoming outright fascist sympathizers with coded words about accepting one’s history, restoring national pride, or recognizing the valor of combatants on all sides.

Whether one believes that fascism can recur depends, of course, on one’s understanding of fascism. Those who warn that fascism is returning tend to present it rather loosely as overtly violent racism and nationalism.8 Nolte argues that its defining elements—unlimited particular sovereignty, a relish for war, and a society based on violent exclusion—simply have no place in the complex, interdependent post–World War II world.9 The most common position is that although fascists are still around, the conditions of interwar Europe that permitted them to found major movements and even take power no longer exist.10

But the inoculation of most Europeans against the original fascism by its public shaming in 1945 is inherently temporary. The taboos of 1945 have inevitably faded with the disappearance of the eyewitness generation. In any event, a fascism of the future—an emergency response to some still unimagined crisis—need not resemble classical fascism perfectly in its outward signs and symbols. Some future movement that would “give up free institutions”11 in order to perform the same functions of mass mobilization for the reunification, purification, and regeneration of some troubled group would undoubtedly call itself something else and draw on fresh symbols. That would not make it any less dangerous.

Understanding the stages of fascism can offer further help with deciding whether fascism is still possible. It is relatively easy to admit the widespread continuation of Stage One—the founding stage—of radical right movements with some explicit or implicit link to fascism. Examples have existed since World War II in every industrial, urbanized society with mass politics. Stage Two, however, where such movements become rooted in political systems as significant players and the bearers of important interests, imposes a much more stringent historical test. The test does not require us, however, to find exact replicas of the rhetoric, the programs, or the aesthetic preferences of the first fascist movements of the 1920s. The historic fascisms were shaped by the political space into which they grew and by the alliances that were essential for growth into Stages Two or Three—gaining power. New versions will be similarly affected. Carbon copies of classical fascism have usually seemed too exotic or too shocking since 1945 to win allies. The skinheads, for example, would become functional equivalents of Hitler’s SA and Mussolini’s squadristi only if they aroused support instead of revulsion. If important elements of the conservative elite begin to cultivate or even tolerate them as weapons against some internal enemy, such as immigrants, we are approaching Stage Two.

By every evidence, Stage Two has been reached since 1945, if only by those radical right movements and parties that have taken pains to “normalize” themselves into outwardly moderate parties distinguishable from the center right only by their tolerance for some awkward friends and occasional verbal excesses. If we understand the revival of an updated fascism as the appearance of some functional equivalent and not as an exact repetition, recurrence is possible.

For example, while a new fascism would necessarily diabolize some enemy, both internal and external, the enemy would not necessarily be Jews. An authentically popular American fascism would be pious, anti-black, and anti-Islamic as well; in Western Europe, secular and, these days, more likely anti-Islamic than anti-Semitic; in Russia and Eastern Europe, religious, anti-Semitic, Slavophile, and anti-Western. New fascisms would prefer the mainstream patriotic dress of their own place and time to alien swastikas or fasces. The British moralist George Orwell noted in the 1930s that an authentic British fascism would come reassuringly clad in sober English dress.12 There is no sartorial litmus test for fascism. Hitler and Mussolini, after all, had not tried to seem exotic to their fellow citizens.

In fact, the United States has never been exempt from fascism itself. Indeed, antidemocratic and xenophobic movements have flourished in America since the Native American party of 1845 and the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s.13 In the crisis-ridden 1930s, as in other democracies, derivative fascist movements were conspicuous in the United States: the Protestant evangelist Gerald B. Winrod’s openly pro-Hitler Defenders of the Christian Faith with their Black Legion; William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts (the initials “SS” were intentional);14 the veteran-based Khaki Shirts (whose leader, one Art J. Smith, vanished after a heckler was killed at one of his rallies); and a host of others. Movements with an exotic foreign look won few followers, however. George Lincoln Rockwell, flamboyant head of the American Nazi Party from 1959 until his assassination by a disgruntled follower in 1967,15 seemed even more “un-American” after the great anti-Nazi war.

Much more dangerous are movements that employ authentically American themes in ways that resemble fascism functionally. The Klan revived in the 1920s, took on virulent anti-Semitism, and spread to cities and the Middle West. In the 1930s, Father Charles E. Coughlin gathered a radio audience estimated at 40 million around an anticommunist, anti–Wall Street, pro–soft money, and—after 1938—anti-Semitic message broadcast from his church in the outskirts of Detroit. For a moment in early 1936, it looked as if his Union Party and its presidential candidate, North Dakota Rep. William Lemke, might overwhelm Roosevelt.16 Today a “politics of resentment” rooted in authentic American piety and nativism sometimes leads to violence against some of the very same “internal enemies” once targeted by the Nazis, such as homosexuals and defenders of abortion rights.17

Would the United States have to suffer catastrophic setbacks and polarization for these fringe groups to dominate the mainstream? I half-expected to see emerge after 1968 a movement of national reunification, regeneration, and purification directed against hirsute antiwar protesters, black radicals, and “degenerate” artists. Fortunately, I was wrong, though the question has gained new salience after the 2016 election. On one hand, the Republican project of radical deregulation is quite contrary to fascist social and economic regimentation, with its color-shirted action squads and four-year plans. The term populist plutocracy might more accurately describe American politics today. But Donald Trump’s accusations of decline, which he blamed on internal and external enemies and which he promised to remedy by forceful action without much concern for due process; his dramatic arrivals by plane (Hitler invented this tactic); and his dialogues with excited crowds (“Lock her up!”) all undeniably echo fascism.

Of course, the language and symbols of an authentic American fascism would ultimately have little to do with the original European models. No swastikas in an American fascism but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute but mass recitations of the pledge of allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy. Around such reassuring language and symbols and in the event of some redoubtable setback to national prestige, Americans might support an enterprise of forcible national reunification, regeneration, and purification. Its targets would be the First Amendment, separation of church and state (crèches on the lawns, prayers in schools), efforts to place controls on gun ownership,18 desecrations of the flag, unassimilated minorities, artistic license, reproductive and LGBT rights, and “dissident” behavior of all sorts that could be labeled unpatriotic.

Adapted from The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton. Reprinted by arrangement with Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2004 by Robert O. Paxton.

1. Ernst Nolte, Der Fascismus in seiner Epoch (Munich: Piper, 1963), translated as Three Faces of Fascism (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), p. 4.

2. See Chapter 3, Note 70.

3. According to Ian Kershaw, The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 221–22, many Germans blamed Hitler personally by spring 1945 for their suffering.

4. R.J.B. Bosworth, The Italian Dictatorship (London: Arnold, 1998), pp. 28, 30, 61, 67–68, 147, 150, 159, 162, 179, and 235, lays more stress than most on an incompatibility between individualistic consumerism and the obligatory community of fascism. Victoria De Grazia, How Fascism Ruled Women (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 10, 15, and passim, shows convincingly how consumerist commercial culture helped subvert the Fascist ideal of submissively domesticated womanhood. See also Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism, 1919–1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), p. 496.

5. Payne, History, concluded that “specific historic fascism can never be recreated” though fascists remain, in reduced numbers, and “new and partially related forms of authoritarian nationalism” might appear (pp. 496, 520).

6. Mirko Tremaglia, who had been a junior official of Mussolini’s republic of Salò in 1943–45, was elected at this point chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Italian parliament. It is true that some officials of the Federal Republic of Ger- many, including Chancellor Hans-Georg Kiesinger, had been Nazi Party members in their youth, but they had not continued to belong to a neo-Nazi party after the war, and no neo-Nazi party has participated in either local or national government in Germany.

7. See the special issue of Patterns of Prejudice 36:3 (July 2002) on radical right groupuscules, put together by Roger Griffin.

8. Martin A. Lee, The Beast Reawakens (Boston: Little, Brown, 1997).

9. Nolte, Three Faces, pp. 421–23.

10. Diethelm Prowe, “‘Classic’ Fascism and the New Radical Right in Western Europe: Comparisons and Contrasts,” Contemporary European History 3:3 (1994); Piero Ignazi, L’estrema destra in Europa (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2000).

11. See Chapter 7, p. 191, and Chapter 8, p. 216.

12. The Road to Wigan Pier (New York: Berkeley Books, 1961), p. 176. See also The Lion and the Unicorn (1941), quoted in Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, eds., The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, vol. III: My Country Right or Left, 1940–43 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968), p. 93.

13. For bibliography see the bibliographical essay.

14. For Pelley, see Leo P. Ribuffo, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right From the Great Depression to the Cold War (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983).

15. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity (New York: New York University Press, 2002), pp. 7–15, 37–38.

16. Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (New York: Knopf, 1982) (radio figures, pp. 83, 92). Lemke got 800,000 votes.

17. Alan Crawford, Thunder on the Right: The “New Right” and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Pantheon, 1980).

18. For the importance of guns in the macho symbolism of both Mussolini and Hitler, see Chapter 8, Note 61.