An analogy is haunting the United States—the analogy of fascism. It is virtually impossible (outside certain parts of the Right-wing itself) to try to understand the resurgent Right without hearing it described as—or compared with—20th-century interwar fascism. Like fascism, the resurgent Right is irrational, close-minded, violent, and racist. So goes the analogy, and there’s truth to it. But fascism did not become powerful simply by appealing to citizens’ darkest instincts. Fascism also, crucially, spoke to the social and psychological needs of citizens to be protected from the ravages of capitalism at a time when other political actors were offering little help.
The origins of fascism lay in a promise to protect people. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a rush of globalization destroyed communities, professions, and cultural norms while generating a wave of immigration. Right-wing nationalist movements promising to protect people from the pernicious influence of foreigners and markets arose, and frightened, disoriented, and displaced people responded. These early fascist movements disrupted political life in some countries, but they percolated along at a relatively low simmer until the Second World War.
The First World War had devastated Europe, killing 16 million people, maiming another 20 million, crushing economies, and sowing turmoil. In Italy, for example, the postwar period saw high inflation and unemployment, as well as strikes, factory occupations, land seizures, and other forms of social unrest and violence. The Liberal Italian governments of the postwar era failed to adequately address these problems. The Liberals’ constituencies—businessmen, landowners, members of the middle class—abandoned them. The country’s two largest opposition parties—the socialist PSI and the Catholic PPI—also offered little effective redress to these basic social problems.
Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party (PNF) stepped into the breach, taking advantage of the failure or ineffectiveness of existing institutions, parties, and elites, and offering a mixture of “national” and “social” policies. Fascists promised to foster national unity, prioritize the interests of the nation above those of any particular group, and promote Italy’s stature internationally. The fascists also appealed to Italians’ desire for social security, solidarity, and protection from capitalist crises. They promised therefore to restore order, protect private property, and promote prosperity but also shield society from economic downturns and disruption. Fascists stressed that wealth entailed responsibilities as well as privileges, and should be administered for the benefits of the nation. ….Nazi Germany remained capitalist. But it had also undertaken state intervention in the economy unprecedented in capitalist societies. The Nazis also supported an extensive welfare state (of course, for “ethnically pure” Germans). It included free higher education, family and child support, pensions, health insurance, and an array of publicly supported entertainment and vacation options. All spheres of life, economy included, had to be subordinated to the “national interest” (Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz), and the fascist commitment to foster social equality and mobility. Radical meritocratic reforms are not usually thought of as signature Nazi measures, but, as Hitler once noted, the Third Reich has “opened the way for every qualified individual—whatever his origins—to reach the top if he is qualified, dynamic, industrious, and resolute.”
Largely for these reasons, up till 1939, most Germans’ experience with the Nazi regime was probably positive. The Nazis had seemingly conquered the Depression and restored economic and political stability. As long as they could prove their ethnic “purity” and stayed away from overt shows of disloyalty, Germans typically experienced National Socialism not as a tyranny and terror, but as a regime of social reform and warmth….
There can be no question that violence and racism were essential traits of fascism. But for most Italians, Germans and other European fascists, the appeal was based not on racism—much less ethnic cleansing—but on the fascists’ ability to respond effectively to crises of capitalism when other political actors were not. Fascists insisted that states could and should control capitalism, that the state should and could promote social welfare, and that national communities needed to be cultivated. The fascist solution ultimately was, of course, worse than the problem. In response to the horror of fascism, in part, New Deal Democrats in the United States, and social democratic parties in Europe, also moved to re-negotiate the social contract. They promised citizens that they would control capitalism and provide social welfare policies and undertake other measures to strengthen national solidarity—but without the loss of freedom and democracy that fascism entailed.
The lesson for the present is clear: you can’t beat something with nothing. If other political actors don’t come up with more compelling solutions to the problems of capitalism, the popular appeal of the resurgent Right-wing will continue. And then the analogy with fascism and democratic collapse of the interwar years might prove even more relevant than it is now.