Authoritarian leaders have historically fear-mongered and exploited public panics in order to exert more control over their countries.
Sometimes it is okay to panic. Or at least, some situations demand radical solutions. But when you are up to your eyeballs in judgment against your neighbor for hoarding toilet paper or the government for jeopardizing your children’s future to sell another barrel of oil, keep in mind that, in interwar Europe at least, fascist politics emerged out of a climate of panic and constant talk of crises.
Benito Mussolini rode to power on the claim that anarchist and communist violence was out of the government’s control. The massacres of the White Terror in Hungary relied on fears that communists and Jews posed a genuine threat to law and order. Adolf Hitler staged the famous Beer Hall Putsch in the midst of a state of emergency in Bavaria, then used the Reichstag fire of 1933 to end civil liberties and suppress his enemies. Oswald Mosley launched the British Union of Fascists with one speech after another about the dire circumstances British workers found themselves in at the end of the Great Depression. Engelbert Dollfuss shut down Austria’s government in 1933 by over-exaggerating a political statement that gave him an excuse to attack the Social Democratic Party and launch the Austrian Civil War. Cries about judicial corruption in the case of the embezzler Alexandre Stavisky brought the right-wing Leagues out onto the streets of Paris in February 1934, bringing down Édouard Daladier’s government and almost resulting in a coup d’état.
In his influential 1972 book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, the sociologist Stanley Cohen analyzed what he called ‘moral panics’. These happen, he said, when the media irresponsibly exaggerates a social problem, demanding radical solutions that are often not even relevant to the problem at hand, and then exacerbates the problem by causing people to over-react to it. His book studied fights on the beaches of Brighton one summer that broke out between two youth subcultures – the Mods and the Rockers. But moral panics are far from being something only for the History books.
Panics about refugees and asylum seekers, teenage pregnancy, youth gangs, terrorism, sexual deviants, and stock prices generally work in the same way. The so-called ‘yellow journalism’ of the tabloid press was in full swing by the interwar period, and talk about crises was not just something done by the radical right. But whereas the mainstream liberal press spoke about threats to the proper functioning of the social order, the radical right used the language of warfare and religion to portray corruption scandals or economic disasters as existential threats to the nation.
Reporting only those facts which would generate the greatest possible emotional responses, right-wing newspapers and speakers whipped up an atmosphere of fear that helped people feel justified in taking radical steps to protect their communities. In normal times perhaps, it would be abhorrent to ban Jews from public swimming pools, but if Jews were known carriers of disease and parasites then that would be a different matter. Just think of the children!
Especially in its early years, it was not always clear what set fascists apart from the other political options on offer. There was certainly something left-wing about parts of their ideology, but at the same time, they managed to gain the support of prominent members of the aristocracy. They talked about nationalism, but so did almost every other political party of the day. They called themselves a party of the future, but few were eager to recreate the societies that had produced the Great War.
One thing that fascists did do exceedingly well though, was to make people panic. On street corners, in lecture halls, and in their newspapers, fascists worked hard to transform people’s fears – some of which were legitimate, others not – into full-blown moral panics. Moreover, fascists never pointed out problems that they believed could be fixed with a couple of band-aids and a nice cup of tea. Every problem mentioned by the radical right had to be a life-or-death issue that could only be resolved by an almost apocalyptic transformation; restoring order through revolution and democracy through authoritarianism. The fact that fascism emerged from moral panics should never be a reason not to take responsible, decisive action in the face of serious social problems, but as insipid as it seems today when printed on coffee mugs and internet memes, perhaps one of the most profoundly anti-fascist things anyone ever said was: ‘Keep calm and carry on!’
Dr Roland Clark is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool. See his profile here.
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