November 8, 2016
We are used to think that Fascism somehow belongs to the past, something that somehow is gone.
But I don’t think that this is appropriate anymore.
The last months have shown that Fascism seems to be very much alive, probably in a new way. Some of the typical characteristics of Fascism are having a very strong comeback in several countries.
You don’t believe me?
Then here are five typical aspects of Fascism and why I would say Fascism is very much back in our world and time. (They are also important differences to notice from the Fascism we know from the past. I will mention them and the end of the article).
1. The breeding ground for Fascism: real major crisis and collective trauma
Fascism needs a broad basis to come into political effect. It is some kind of major crisis and/or collective trauma.
In Germany, two major forces helped Hitler to come into power in 1933. First, it was the impact of the global economic crisis of 1929, the Great Depression, which led to a banking crisis, high unemployment, insecurity and political turmoil at that time in Germany. Second, it was the reparations from the Treaty of Versailles and its paragraph 231, the so called war guilt clause, stating that Germany and its allies bear the sole responsibility for WWI. It led to the impression in Germany that peace was unbalanced and unfair and fuelled revanchism across a whole generation in Germany.
In today’s world, the breeding ground for the new fascism is – first – the globalization which comes along with a lot of uncertainty for people’s lives and with a still increasing gap between winners and losers of that globalization. Second, it is the impact of the global financial and economic crisis in 2008, the “trauma” of today’s generations, which has its major root in the naïve Anglo-Saxon financial laissez-faire capitalism and which discredited political liberalism globally. And third, it is the migratory pressure on a lot of liberal democracies, – experienced especially last year with millions of migrants and refugees arriving at the boarder and shores of the European Union.
It is important to notice that not all of these factors are valid for all countries with current fascistic tendencies. There are national peculiarities, e.g. in Russia the trauma is much more about the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it is also important to notice that these circumstances – of course – do not automatically trigger political answers with fascistic characteristics. Otherwise Greece might have become fascistic by now. They just create the important breeding ground for Fascism.
2. The authoritarian leader
Fascism can be defined as a form of radical authoritarian nationalism. Based on the breeding ground mentioned above, an authoritarian leader comes into play. He bundles the energy of the frustrated, unsatisfied and disappointed people and transform it into political action. People with fascistic tendencies believe that the current political system is somehow broken, that especially liberal democracies are to weak to fix the problems and that the political class or even society in general is corrupt and morally wrong. Fascists think that there is a need for an authoritarian leader who can re-establish a stable and orderly society, fix the problems and forge national unity and national rejuvenation. It usually goes along with some kind of ethnical or racist discrimination.
Does that already ring a bell? How much do Donald Trump, Victor Orban, Vladimir Putin, Lech Kaczynski, Recep Erdogan fit into this category? Of course, all of these cases are very different.
And in Britain, for example, it is even more different: Nigel Farage does not seem to have ambitions to become Britain’s prime minister. He is just focusing on destroying Britain’s membership of the European Union.
3. Aggressive defamation used as tactics, sometimes maybe even as a strategy
Remember this Nigel Farage standing in front of his anti-migrant poster “Breaking Point” one week before the referendum on the day Jo Cox died? At that time the social networks immediately demonstrated how close his poster was to Nazi-rhetoric.
Or remember Boris Johnson’s defamation of the European Union by comparing the European Union’s intentions with those from Adolf Hitler? The irony in this: Hitler himself was a master of defamations. Many of the Nazis were too. Do you think Boris Johnson is aware of how much he followed into the footsteps of the Nazis by defaming the very common democratic institutions of all Europeans?
Or remember just a few days ago the Daily Mail calling the three judges of the High Court “Enemies of the people” – just because they did their job and ruled that British parliament has to have a say in triggering article 50? The Nazis used the term “Volksverräter” in these circumstances, which literally means “Traitor of the people”, but is basically the same here.
Or think of Farage now calling for a march of 100.000 people – others say ‘a mob’ – in order to put political pressure on Britain’s Supreme Court while treating the government’s appeal of the High Court decision? Organizing protests on the street and threatening with violence was a very effective tactic of the Nazis, too.
And think of Farage now speaking of a “betrayal” of the referendum result, when all what has happened is that three of Britain’s highest judges have interpreted the law and did their job.
Somehow this “betrayal” narrative is quite similar to the US where Donald Trump has refused so far to accept a potential defeat in the election. It would be no wonder if he brands the outcome of the elections as “betrayal” if the result will not be in his favour today.
And I don’t have one in my mind, but I am pretty sure we could also find some kind of “betrayal” narrative from Hitler as well.
And how often has Donald Trump insulted other people or the procedures of the American democracy? How much has he called Hillary Clinton or the political class in total as “corrupt”? And the media as “dishonest”?
And I am sure someone could also find a lot of examples from Orban, Kaczynski, Erdogan or Putin under this headline.
Defamations and aggressive rhetoric is a strong weapon of those kind of leaders. It also makes them appear somehow strong in the eye of many people because they often cross boarders. They cross boarders already rhetorically, normal people are reluctant to cross for good reasons. And let’s see what they do when they come to power.
4. Enforced political conformity – “Gleichschaltung” – as a poltical strategy
Authoritarian leaders want to rule on their own. They do not like participation and co-determination. It limits their power. And for them it is a sign of weakness. Of course. it also delays political procedures. That’s why they are – by nature – opponents of democratic checks and balances.
Once in power many of them are trying to change the politically system completely. Look at what Hitler did in Germany after he became “Reichskanzler”. Look at what happened to Russia under Putin. Look what happened to Hungary under Orban. Look at what is currently happening in Turkey or in Poland. Of course, all these cases are very different, especially in the tactics, the brutality and the scope of repression, but the point here is, there is one common pattern: the removal of precious checks and balances of a liberal democracy.
That is why, for example, Donald Trump has said to limit the free press in the United States when he becomes President.
This is why Nigel Farage in the UK does not really like the idea that parliament has a real vote about his country leaving the European Union. He thinks the executive branch should just execute the will of the people – articulated in the referendum on 23 June. And that parliament has to second this execution, not really having a thorough debate and especially not a different opinion on it. He does not seem to be in favour of a parliamentarian democracy at all. He seem to be more in favour of a direct democracy with referendums having a right of way before parliament. At least that is what he seems to prefer based on his discussion with Gina Miller in the Andrew Marr Show last Sunday. But that’s not Britain’s current constitutional system. And it is somehow an irony in it: could there be anything less British than that? Not honouring the great tradition of British parliamentarianism?
And that’s is also why Lech Kaczinsky in Poland does not have respect for an independent constitutional court in his country. And that’s why his party, PiS, is trying to “nationalize” and get control over Polish media. That is why PiS is filling public offices which have been traditionally above party lines with people from PiS. In the 19th century in the US, something similar was called a “spoiled system”, but what is happening today in Poland is even more than that.
And all this is more or less valid for Victor Orban in Hungary as well. Needless to say that’s why the biggest newspaper of the opposition was closed in Hungary only recently.
That’s also why Recep Erdogan is now using the coup against him for a countercoup against his political opponents, the free press, the judiciary and the universities in Turkey.
In Putin terms it is called a “guided democracy”. There is another detail here in it: Authoritarian, fascistic leaders like to use euphemism. They like to pretend that they are nicer than they are. Fogging and masking is part of their strategy. Hitler, for example, used to speak about peace and even Christianity over years – while he already killed political opponents brutally and when all he had in mind was war.
5. Pretending to represent the will of the people
Authoritarian leader pretend they represent the will of the people. They are suggesting that they represent the will of all people. Or they call it the “real will” of the people. Often they gather some real democratic legitimization in the first place. But then they usually abuse their legitimization and change the whole political system. But the important thing to notice is, that they do not stand for all people. They are just representing a part (!) of the people – which usually does not give them authorization to eliminate checks and balances of the liberal democracy.
For example, what do you think how clear is the mandate for PiS in Poland – the party which won the last election and is currently trying to eliminate the checks and balances of the young Polish democracy? Nearly 50% (!) of all Poles who were eligible to vote in the last election in October 2015 stayed home. (It should be mentioned that there was a huge political scandal only a few weeks before election day which might have let to the fact that people became even more disgusted with Politics and kept them restrained from voting). Only six million of nearly 39 million Poles really voted for PiS, so basically only 15% of the whole Polish population. PiS won the election under democratic principles, this is for sure, but does it give them the right to change the very nature of the young Polish democracy?
In Britain, nearly 13 million people stayed home on 23 June. Of course, ‘Vote Leave’ won the referendum under the given democratic procedures. But the referendum was obviously in a formal sense ‘advisory’ and Britain is still a parliamentarian democracy. So, it is clear that Parliament will have to have a say in the final withdrawal from the European Union and has to ratify any final withdrawal agreement under Article 50. At that time it will have to take also into consideration the future of the 13 million which decided not to vote for some reason and – even more importantly – the future of another nearly 17 million Brits who were to young or for some other reasons not eligible to vote. And if there is a need of ratification by parliament, then there is a need to get involved at one point or the other for the parliamentarians. So, whether it is in the triggering of Article 50 or down the road, the much more important point here is that parliament has to get involved anyway. Otherwise, you are going to change nearly 1000 years of a great British tradition and the very constitutional system of Great Britain today. Or do you expect British parliamentarians just nodding on any ratification agreement the British government is going to negotiate? So, it is completely politically irresponsible to talk about a “betrayal” and to threat with violence in the streets – which in fact basically means to foster violence in the street. Is this the way Nigel Farage is going to honour the remembrance of Jo Cox?
And again, I think someone would probably be able to find similar notifications pretending to represent the will of (all) the people from Orban, Erdogan, Trump or Putin.
And finally, it should be recalled that Hitler missed an absolute majority in the last free election in Germany in March 1933 – 5 weeks after his coup on January 30. Participation was very strong – 89% – and the NSDAP reached 43% – which is still awful in itself -, but – not unimportant to notice and even to the surprise of election observers – it was not even an absolute majority for the NSDAP. That was the last time when there was a free election in Germany for another 12 years or so… we all know the outcome.
And there is yet another important aspect to notice under this “representing the will of the people” – thing: the more authoritarian the authoritarian leader governs (and can govern), the less opposition is there to speak out and to articulate different opinions. That means in turn that more and more people get brainwashed by the government’s position. At the end it becomes some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: it looks like – and sometimes it is indeed the case – as if the authoritarian leader really represents the will of the people. This is, for example, what you can see in Russia these days (Or even in North Korea). And this is what is about to happen in Turkey now. And needless to say that this is what happened in Nazi-Germany during the 12 years of the regime. At the end nearly everyone in Germany was poisoned with Nazi-Propaganda. It even took people in Germany another four decades(!) to recover from it, before being able to see May 8 as “a day of liberation” – as it was stated by Bundespräsident Richard von Weizsäcker in his famous speech on May 8, 1985.
The differences from Fascism of today from Fascism of the past
Nevertheless there are also important differences between today’s new Fascism and the Fascism we know from the past.
First, there is no coherent ideology and conviction of Fascism in today’s world.
Second, none of the leaders mentioned above claim to implement a one-party state. I guess, that would be too similar to Fascism of the past which is still politically discredited in nearly all countries. In short, it would be openly and genuinely fascistic. And as I said, fogging and masking is usually an inherent part of Fascism.
Third, today’s generations are not militarized and/or traumatized by the experiences of war – as they were after WWI. The brutality, the abandon of violence and the use of paramilitary units was an important and quite decisive characteristic of the rise and persistence of Fascism in the 1920s and 1930s.
Fourth, today there is no biological argument based on race for Fascism – as it was the case in the Fascism of the past, for example displayed in the book “The foundation of the 19th century” by Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Today’s discrimination and xenophobia is more based on ethnic or religious identity.
Fifth – and probably the most important one -, none of the leaders mentioned above seem to have the evil brutality, the cruelty, the ruthlessness and the determination Hitler and the Nazis had.
Today’s new Fascism is benefiting from the same historical failures
However, it is also important to notice that the current new Fascism is benefiting from the same failures of the past: late recognition, underestimation, political indifference and engagement of too many people and appeasement.
I think it is time to see and to proof if liberal democracies, even if manhood has learned something from history…
A plea at the end
Please share this article if you want to defend the liberal democracy.
Of course, you do not have to agree to all what is written in the article, but I think it is necessary to have a broad discussion about its content. So, please share. Thank you! Looking forward to any serious contributions to the discussion.Oliver H. Schmidt