Fascism was a Many Faceted Thing

Trapped inside their houses during April 2020, a team of eighteen historians from around the world passed their time discussing how to define and study fascism.

Fascism is famously difficult to define, although many eminent scholars have tried. As it turns out, it is even hard to work out how to tell its story. Trapped inside their houses during the first two weeks of April 2020, a team of eighteen historians from around the world participated in an online discussion on how to define and study fascism. Moderated by Tim Grady, the discussion used an unpublished essay by Roland Clark as its point of departure but it quickly took on a life of its own. The discussion was part of the European Fascist Movements, 1918-1941 project. Funded by an AHRC Research Network Grant, the project will eventually result in an exhibition at the Wiener Holocaust Library in London and a volume of translated sources on fascist movements from nineteen European countries during the interwar period, to be published by Routledge.

Clark’s essay represented a draft of the introduction to the source collection. It argued that we need to abandon the search for ‘generic fascism’ or a ‘fascist minimum’, and instead to treat fascism as an emergent concept that gained meaning and substance as it was used by its friends and foes over time. Advocating the idea that the term ‘fascism’ was an empty signifier at the beginning of the interwar period, Clark suggested that its power lay in the variety of ways activists used it to situate themselves vis-à-vis Fascism and National Socialism. He also argued that studying fascist movements separately from regimes allows us to draw on the methodologies that sociologists of social movements have developed. Among other things, this might mean rethinking the transnational aspect of fascism as a pan-European ‘cycle of protest’, in which movements in different countries imitated repertoires and languages that had been shown to work successfully in places, like Italy and Germany. Finally, Clark divided the interwar history of fascism into six transnational ‘waves’, each of which involved a spate of movements being formed or revitalized.

After expressing their sincere admiration for Clark’s work, the workshop participants set about systematically tearing it apart. Most remained unconvinced, for example, that social movement theory has a great deal to offer historians of fascism. Scholars trained in twenty-first century Cultural History instinctively focus on micro-mobilization contexts and discursive frames without needing sociologists to tell them that these things matter. The real value of group debate became apparent when questions of definition arose. Every historian views fascism through the national contexts that they know best, but each participant in this discussion knew about different countries. As soon became clear, what distinguished fascism in one country was not what distinguished it in another. Even within France, Chris Millington pointed out, not everyone agreed about what made fascism special: ‘Valois liked fascism because he saw in it a revolutionary force; Maurras liked it because of its reactionary stance, and its love of tradition.’ In Hungary, Rudolf Paksa noted, ‘right-wing radicals’ of the 1920s opposed the ‘National Socialists’ of the 1930s, even if today both might be lumped together as ‘fascists’. And in the Netherlands, Nathaniël Kunkeler said, ‘Mussert’s National Socialist Movement associated itself with both Italian Fascism and German Nazism, because it saw them in quite generic terms as bold social movements rooted in the people, seeking national unity and order. In reality, ideologically many members, and even leaders, stood far closer to liberal conservatism than we would perhaps normally expect from ‘fascists’ (Mussert himself was a former member of the Liberal Party).

The term ‘fascism’ was not completely ‘empty’ though, because as Matthew Feldman argued, ‘too many observers – then and since – recognised something different about fascism to existing politics within European countries, as well as to similarities between fascist movements (like at CAUR in 1933/34, or Barnes’s predecessor, CINEF, in the later 1920s).’ The question of whether something, whether that be an ideology, an aesthetic, or common grievances, united all fascists sits at the heart of how we approach fascism as a transnational phenomenon. Proceeding from Clark’s approach to fascist transnationalism as a cycle of protest, Paula Oppermann emphasized that ‘transnationalism was not solely parallel developments and imitations of (bigger) movements, but also real transnational cooperation.’ Adding to the conferences mentioned by Feldman, she reminded us of fascist ‘international brigades’ in the Spanish Civil War and the Finnish Winter War, as well as peace-time cooperation of Baltic-Nordic students. Fascists certainly thought that they had something in common with other fascists, even if no-one was quite sure what that was.

The broad narrative arc of the history of fascism is also ambiguous. The ideological roots of fascism coalesced during the second half of the nineteenth century, and intellectual history provides us with a ‘pre-history’ of the ideas that motived interwar fascists, allowing us to begin the real story around 1919, when the word fascism first gained popular currency. But in organizational terms, many groups that identified with fascism during the 1930s emerged out of local antisemitic movements (e.g., Austria, France, Germany, Romania) or national independence movements (e.g., Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine), often dating back to the nineteenth century. The First World War is also typically seen as a catalyst for early fascism, but that relationship becomes complicated when one looks at the Netherlands or Spain, where neutrality impacted domestic politics in different ways. Similarly, when did the story of fascist movements end? When Finland’s various fascist and national socialist movements joined the Finnish State Federation as an umbrella organization for right-wing movements in 1942, was this the intensification of the movement-phase of fascism in Finland, or was it an expression of their incorporation into the state’s hegemonic project? To what extent did Falangism continue to be a social movement after José Antonio Primo de Rivera’s death in 1936? And if one ends the story with Franco’s ‘Unification decree’ that merged Falangism with Carlism, what do we make of the Falangist factions in Spanish politics during the 1950s?

Listening to perspectives from right across the Continent brings out the awesome complexity of European fascism and the challenges any transnational history of the phenomenon faces. Not only was the fascist brand a bricolage of ideas, symbols, repertoires, and practices, its story was different in every place it appeared – suggesting that fascism was a many faceted thing.

Participants in the workshop included:

  • Marco Bresciani (Università degli Studi di Firenze)
  • Roland Clark (University of Liverpool)
  • Matthew Feldman (Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right)
  • Tim Grady (University of Chester)
  • Marja Jalava (University of Turku)
  • Judith Keene (University of Sydney)
  • Nathaniël Kunkeler (Cambridge University)
  • Fearghal McGarry (Queens University Belfast)
  • James Mace Ward (University of Rhode Island)
  • Goran Miljan (Uppsala University)
  • Chris Millington (Manchester Metropolitan University)
  • John Paul Newman (University of Maynooth)
  • Paula Oppermann (University of Glasgow)
  • Rudolf Paksa (Hungarian Academy of Sciences)
  • Per Anders Rudling (Lund University)
  • Janek Wasserman (University of Alabama)
  • Bruno de Wever (University of Gent)
  • Nancy Wingfield (Northern Illinois University)

 Dr Roland Clark is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool. See his profile here.


© Roland Clark. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).