Part biography and part astute analysis of traditional fascism (1920s and 1940s) and of today’s version, US politician Madeleine Albright clarifies not just what fascism is but she also outlines the differences between it as a time-bound political movement and populism. Albright was the first female Secretary of State in US history, serving from 1997 to 2001 under Bill Clinton. Prague-born Albright opens her book with a quote by Italian Jewish chemist, partisan, Holocaust survivor, writer and philosopher Primo Levi. Levi writes that every age has its own fascism. In other words, modern day fascism might not need marching black shirts (Italy) or brown shirts (Germany) and violent street thugs to come into existence. Modern right-wing thuggery might look rather different from traditional images of fascism.
Albright knows fascism first hand. She tells us,three of our grandparents and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins were among the millions of Jews who had died in the ultimate act of Fascism—the Holocaust. Born in 1937 in Czechoslovakia, the likelihood that invading Germans forces, its Einsatzgruppen and the SS, would have killed her as an innocent child is extremely high – as they murdered so many. But before all that happened, Italian Fascism and German Nazismfirst had to come into power.
Albright says,fear is why Fascism’s emotional reach can extend to all levels of society. During Albright’s youth, it was a well-engineered irrational fear of Jews. Today, it is the well-engineered fear of refugees, migrants, Muslims, the other, especially the non-white and the non-Aryan.Then as today, the more painful the grounds for resentment, the easier it is for a Fascist leader to gain followers. Fascism, then and now, operates with a strict them-vs.-us ideology. To loyalists, they offer the prize of membership in a club from which others, often the objects of ridicule, are kept out. For the American white-power follower, it is the myth of racial whiteness; while for the German Neo-Nazi, it is the Volksgemeinschaft that keeps the non-Aryan out.
Overall, one might say that a Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary—including violence—to achieve his or her goals. The idea of speaking for a whole group or a nation constitutes the populist element in fascism. Fascism and populism thus contain some very similar elements yet both are by no means the same. Populism’s rather simpleraison d’être is to position the so-called pure people against the corrupt elite. Fascism goes far beyond that, however. For example, Fascism offeredsocial-bonding signified in the old Roman symbolic bundle of rods that holds an Italian axe together.
The other striking difference between populism and fascism emerges in the following statement:Asked by a reporter to summarize his program, Mussolini replied, It is to break the bones of the democrats… and the sooner the better. Populism is not interested in breaking the bones of democrats – but fascism certainly is. While traditional Fascists and Nazis,and also Hitler himself , weren’t particularly well-educated, today’s fascist often (but not always) comes well-dressed and slick-tongued. Before becoming prime minister, Mussolini had never worn formal clothes. He had not learned which spoon or fork to use at a social dinner. Today’s populists and fascists are rather different. They have learned their lesson. They appear nattily dressed and look rather well on TV and in their important internet chat rooms and echo chambers, public spaces where deception, misinformation and fake news are ripe telling their faithful followers and the unsuspecting public that all is fine – nothing to worry about, provided, of course, that everyone agrees with them and gets rid of the nasty intruders and devious swamp-dwellers.
Characteristically, then, Adolf Hitler assured his listeners that they had nothing to worry about; his party had no intention of undermining German institutions. Today, Germany’s right-wing extremists – the Alternative for Deutschland or AfD– will say the very same thing, even in the same words. Just listen to what the leaders of AfD and others say, whether they are a right-wing extremist party or a Nazi Party with antisemitic undertones,according to CDU hardliner Friedrich Merz.
Perhaps a second difference is that populism uses and perhaps even abuses democracy from within, while fascism destroys democracy by manipulating the ideal concepts and language of liberalism.Many will be aware of Goebbels statement that it will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed. The cunningness of Fascist, Nazis and Neo-Nazi also takes on other forms. In order to seduce the left, the movement changed its name to National Socialist German Workers Party – or Nazis. Today’s fascists hardly ever call themselves fascist. Today, instead, we have rather innocent sounding names like the League in Italy, the National Rally in France, and the Alternative in Germany. All of them disingenuously claim not to be fascists and promise to work with the legal means of democracy.
All of them promise to pursue power through what is called a policy of legality. Like Benito Mussolini, Italy’s Duce, who arrived at his nation’s highest office without having won a majority, his ally Adolf Hitler was made chancellor without ever received 50.1% of the popular vote. Hitler came to power through a coalition government with the backing of German conservatives – a fact that conservatives like to camouflage, hiding behind the Nazi propaganda of Machtergreifung – the German word for taking power.
Before their Machtergreifung, the National Socialists pretended to offer the voters two options.Hitler claimed there are only two possibilities either the victory of the Aryan side or its annihilation and the victory of the Jews. Germany’s AfD also seems to offer two possibilities. The party gives Germans a choice between Muslim migration and Volkstod – the death of the Germans. There is no real choice offered because the suppressed alternative is a liberal, inclusive, democratic state. Hitler felt that his countrymen were looking for a man who spoke to their anger, understood their fears, and sought their participation in a stirring and righteous cause. Just like then, today Germany’s AfD speaks to the popular fear and anger about refugees.Leaders of the AfD understand the people’s fears and promise to stir Germany towards a righteous cause. They press all the old right-wing buttons and remain silent on real democratic alternatives. Similar specious arguments can be found in other countries, essentially promising a confused and frightened public what Hitler once promised.
Then as today, propaganda remains important. Albright writes that citizens of the Reich were fed a steady diet of propaganda at the workplace, in public rallies, and over the rapidly evolving medium of radio…radio was the Internet of the 1930s…Hitler lied shamelessly about himself and about his enemies. Again the parallels are striking. Once againtoday, German citizens – and many others in other countries – are fed a steady diet of alternative facts, mostly through the Internet, Facebook pages, Twitter, YouTube, etc. These work as echo chambers where fake news is propagated and conspiracy theories (read: conspiracy fantasies) are invented and broadcast. The Internet has indeed become the radio of today for fascists and populists everywhere. Inside suchself-enclosed arguments, populist and fascist parties lie shamelessly about themselves and about their – often invented – enemies. Many do this so well, inside the party as well as outside,creating the misconception that the party is just another legitimate political groupingand so incapable of using and spreading violence and brutality.They are dupes to their own propaganda.
Traditional fascism means:
- the reliance on violent gangs,
- the intimidation of parliament,
- the strengthening and subsequent abuse of authority,
- the subjugation of the civil service,
- the affinity for spectacle, and
- the insistence that the leader, whether Der Führer or Il Duce, could do no wrong.
Today, unlike the old Brown Shirts, Germany’s AfD has no violent gangs. It has out-sourced violence to Pegida, its street fighting movement of hooligans and Neo-Nazis. This gives the AfD the ability to distance itselfpubliclyfrom thugs and violence. The party can even condemn violence – which almost always comes with the qualifier of on the right and on the left. How this operates may be seen in the case of the AfD’s combined Neo-Nazi-AfD rallies in Chemnitz in August and September 2018. Those AfD-Neo-Nazi rallies that had all the traditional Neo-Nazi trimmings one could imagine: taunting foreigners, Hitler salutes, mob violence and an attack on a Jewish restaurant.
What we also see in the case of the AfD is not so much a direct intimidation of parliament but an intimidation of opposing candidates and of democratic parties. By the end of 2019, suddenly AfD seemed to be in power in some parts of Germany. What the AfD can do as an opposition party is to demand the elimination of funding for Holocaust sites. It can start to inch its way towards realizing its own agenda. So far, the AfD has used its limited authority to intimidate journalists and infiltrate other democratic institutions. Unlike its counterpart in Austria, the AfD has not (yet) subjugated Germany’s civil service. The basic structures of the state stand strong…so far.
Like all populist and fascist parties, the AfD has a great affinity for public spectacle and personal abuse. The party sees the abuse of individuals who oppose it and attacks on the media as part and parcel of the democratic process. Often, these actions just border on hate speech. And with this pretence of legitimacy, the heated rhetoric gives the AfD access to the mass media. As of 2019, the AfD still does not have a leader on a par with Der Führer or Il Duce – apart from Thuringia’s AfD boss Björn Höcke. More than anyone else inside the AfD,Höcke receives standing ovations and Höcke, Höcke, Höcke shouts.
For Björn Höcke, just as much as for the AfD leadership and many others, it is necessary to spread an atmosphere of terror. And then, once this gets going, we must create an impression of mastery. Indeed, the AfD was successful in spreading an atmosphere of terror in one crucial instance. The AfD’s moment of terror came with a (never really existing) flood of refugees, and they used the occasion to hype up a wave of Islamophobia. Their trick worked. The fear of a migrant-led crime wave pushed up poll ratings for the AfD and led to electoral successes.
Simultaneously, the AfD fancies very much the buzz-words nation, culture and faith, focusing on the concepts of German nationalism and Germanic culture. The AfD sees this in the singularity and anti-pluralist Leitkultur, a leading culture. The AfD focuses less on the notion of faith, even though the protection of Christianity plays a minor role, much less so than in Hungary, for example. For Björn Höcke, it has always been the Nazi-sounding blood and instinct, as he seeks, but so far failed, to present himself and his friends asthe strong men that his followers will obey. Very much like Moseley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) in the 1930s, which sought the liberation of Britain from foreigners, the AfD promises the liberation Germany from the alien (non-Aryan) others. Hungary’s Victor Orban also promises the same in Hungary, as do Le Pen in France, Trump in the USA and Farage in the UK.
Apart from very isolated cases at the extreme fringe of the AfD, nobody has so far openly claimed that these people [e.g. AfD members and apparatchiks call themselves the Aryans…the noblemen. Hitler’s Aryans were, as we know, anything but noble: noblemen do not run concentration camps and kill millions of people. If a key goal of fascism is torestore greatness to the nation, traditional values to the community and optimism about the future, then the AfD has certainly shown itself to favour ultra-nationalism and old-fashioned (or outdated) values – as outlined in its party programme. The AfD has also adhered to nationalistic community values by seeking to revive the Nazi ideology of völkisch(Petry, AfD) and Volksgemeinschaft(Poggenburg, AfD) as reported by Germany’s most watched and most respected evening news, the Tagesschau. What the AfD is still lacking is a profile that claims to be optimistic about the future. For the AfD, the future of Germany is grim. In their apocalyptic nightmare, Germany will be run as a caliphate under Sharia law and Muslims will out-breed Germans. This is a pure hallucination!
What the AfD has shown rather publicly is a certain self-centred moral numbness that allows Fascism to thrive. One might recall, AfD-boss Gauland’s statement not to be moved by dying children at the borders of Europe; or Franke Petry and Beatrix von Storch’s demand to shoot refugees at German borders; or the party spokesmen’s frequent abuse of migrants, as well as excoriating chancellor Angela Merkel. All this might not quite turn the state into a fearsome killing machine but it certainly points in that direction.
We are not at such a stage yet. At the end of 2019, we are at a much earlier phase but may be about to cross into another more dangerous one. This is the point where the AfD is seeking to implement power. Many commentators suspect that the AfD seeks to achieve power by democratic means, then kill democracy. What can easily be identified is a distinct communication strategy of the AfD that runs under the heading of the more inflammatory the charge, the more coverage it receives. This has worked so far very well for the AfD and for other populist and fascist parties. What we have also seen throughout post-Nazi Germany is that it is easier to remove tyrants and destroy concentration camps than to kill the ideas that gave them birth. The Red Army liberated concentration camps located throughout Eastern Europe while the American forces did the same in Western parts of Europe. Nevertheless, Nazi ideology managed to live on in Germany inside political parties such as the SRP (1950s), the DVP (1980s) and the NPD (1970s right up until today). While the former two ceased to exist, the latter and strongest Neo-Nazi party has been replaced by the much more successful AfD.
If fascism means control over a country’s media, repressing political opposition and creating a paramilitary force to intimidate domestic rivals, then the AfD is still a long way from gaining such power over the press, television and other modes of social communication. So far, the AfD is still claiming to be surrounded by a lying press – a word Hitler’s ideological henchman Joseph Goebbels also used frequently. Today, the AfD attacks the media whenever it can, while its street-fighters and Neo-Nazi gangsattack journalists. Some reporters will only attend AfD rallies under police protection and when wearing armoured head-gear. The AfD has not created any sort of paramilitary force. As much as some inside Pegida claim we are the new SA, Pegida is far from being the next Brown Shirt brigades. Pegida neither has uniforms, nor arms. Instead, it is actually in decline. However, the AfD does intimidate domestic rivals. With the AfD entering state parliaments, intimidation has also swept into Länder and federal parliaments. The AfD uses these legislative openingsto abuse opposition parties. The party rarely contributes to real debates and solutions. In fact, the AfD the representatives areoften ill-prepared, narrow-focused on refugees while using – actually abusing – the parliament as a setting for farcical shouting matches. These well-choreographed skirmishes are later streamed on the Internet to show how great the AfD is. All this is designed to move the AfD closer to or – if possible – into power.
On getting and being in power, Italian master-fascist Benito Mussolini observed, it is wise to do so in the manner of one plucking a chicken—feather by feather—so each squawk is heard apart from every other and the whole process is kept as muted as possible. Perhaps present-day fascist activists have learned from this past master fascist. Most likely there will be no repeat of a 1920 Kapp Putschand no pre-devised march on Rome by Black Shirts. Instead, present-day fascism is infiltrating its way into democratic institutions using whatever means liberalism has to offer. If real power is achieved, God forbid! it will happen in accordance to the aforementioned statement by Goebbels. Democracy offers the means with which fascism will destroy democracy.
To achieve this, today’s fascists conceive…politics as a spectacle, a rollicking exhibition of good guy vs. bad guy entertainment. Everywhere the euphemistically-labelled populists operate in the way outlined by Mussolini. Politics has long been turned into spectacle,with perhaps Donald Trump being the unchallenged ringmaster of this approach – closely followed by Boris Johnson. All populists and all fascists live by positioning the good guys vs. the bad guys. These bad guys used to be Jews, the gypsies, the disabled, the marginalised, the communists. Today these scapegoats are combined with refugees (AfD, Germany), Mexican rapists (Trump, USA) and virtually anyone non-English and EU-bureaucrats (Johnson, UK). At the same time, populists and fascists pretend to protect the local population of white Americans, the jolly good English, the Aryan German, etc.Creating an internal and external enemy is of vital importance for fascism. It is just as Herman Goering said at Nüremberg:
Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That’s easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.
Of course, today’s populists don’t want war. Democracy or no democracy, the people can always be brought to do the bidding of the populists. That’s easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked by refugees, Muslims, Mexican rapists, etc. exposing the country to greater danger. After that, you present yourself as the protector and saviour of country, culture and race. It worked under Herman Goering and it still works today.
To get into power, the populists depend on some form of media to broadcast their ideology. For fascist and the populists alike, television networks are propaganda organs. For Trump it is Fox, for Boris Johnson it is The Sun and for Germany’s AfD it is Facebook and adjacent echo chambers.Their message is a nationalist one, patriotic in tone. Of course, all this is illiberal because it disregards the concerns of minorities. Not only that, fascism more than populism, plays off minorities against each other and then against the majority. This often-called silent majority is often presented as being a unified community, a base with a single mind – the Nazi ideal of the Volksgemeinschaft. Before this is established, fascists divide societies to gain power. Divide and conquer is a very old strategy. Fascism, by far more than simple populism, conceives of the whole notion of pure blood accompanying national mythologies.
Under the cover, and it is a rather flimsy cover, of populism, fascist deceit, fraud and persuasion occurs. It is just as Goebbels said, the most effective form of persuasion…is when you are not aware of being persuaded. In other words, what comes along as simple and harmless populism hides the ugly face of fascism. Decades ago, George Orwell suggested that the best one-word description of a Fascist was bully. While the populist might appear as an acceptable every man, the fascist is a bully – plain and simple. Under fascism more so than under simple populism, governments could murder, torture and otherwise brutalise their citizens. A populist government might perhaps do this. A fascist will definitely do this.
Today, we have a timely warning against the rise of populism and fascism on a global scale, ranging from Europe to the USA, Brazil and the Philippines, to name a few of the more significant places. While we have a reliable set of items that defined classical fascism, modern fascism takes on a very different shape. As Primo Levi said,every age has its own fascism. Consequently, modern day fascism will probably look very different from what we used to think about fascism. It might even come along asfriendly fascism. Still, there are several distinct similarities between the old fascisms of the 1920s and 1940s and the new fascisms of the 21st century just as there are similarities between fascism and populism. Albright’s book has outlined these to perfection. And we have been warned!
Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning is published by HarperCollins.
Thomas Klikauer is the author of The AfD to be published by Sussex Academic Press in 2020