‘Summer camps … helped to integrate enthusiastic young people more firmly into the movement, shaping their lives by giving them an unforgettable summer and convincing them that by becoming fascists they were helping both themselves and others.’
Too often we think of fascism only in terms of its oppressive, violent aspects. But few people join movements just to express their hate. Movements also attract people when they offer friendship, identity, job opportunities, or possibilities to participate in new activities. In 1930s Europe, leisure activities both attracted people to fascist movements and kept them wanting to come back for more.
As well as introducing new, distinctly Nazi, public holidays, Hitler’s ‘Strength through Joy’ program built entire holiday resorts, ran cruises and ski trips for ordinary Germans, and promoted organized hikes and beach vacations to help people make the most of the summer months. These sorts of programs were more successful in Nazi Germany than in Fascist Italy.
As Victoria de Grazia argues, Mussolini’s use of sport, theatre, and film was met with resistance from peasants and workers, and did not always manage to create a united fascist culture’ that transcended class. Leisure activities continued even during wartime, aimed both at providing places where soldiers could rejuvenate while on leave and at inspiring a generation too young to take part in the war themselves. In Croatia, wartime Ustasha Youth summer camps were modeled on the Italian example, and in Slovakia, the Hlinka Youth hosted young fascists from Germany, Italy, and Croatia at their summer camps.
Summer leisure activities were important for fascist movements as well as regimes. In Britain, the range of options available – from bike riding, to boxing, camping, fencing, football, drumming, and flying light aircraft – was so extensive that the wives of fascist men complained about being ‘fascist widows’ in the same way that golfers leave behind ‘golf widows’ when they spend all day on the green. The British Union of Fascists held one of its largest summer camps at Selsey, inviting 14- to 15-year old boys together with their fathers, where they played in the sea, enjoyed organized games, and learned fascist doctrine and saluting.
Ethnic Germans in Transylvania were the first to run summer camps in Romania, but it was the Legion of the Archangel Michael that turned it into a political art form. In 1935-37 the Legion ran hundreds of summer camps all over the country, most of them work camps in which legionaries volunteered to build wells, roads, and restore churches, providing much-needed assistance to rural communities that government officials had been too disinterested to bother with. As might be expected, legionaries were sure to install their symbols on wells and buildings they erected. As well as gaining the sympathies of rural voters and priests, the work camps allowed the Legion to rebrand itself.
Despite having previously been known as a movement of violent thugs, by 1937 they were seen as an organization that promoted Christian virtues and good works. When police occasionally stepped in to close these camps down because they were doing unauthorized public works, it consistently ended in a public relations disaster for the authorities. In addition to physical labor, volunteers at these camps spent time doing target practice and studying the writings of their leader in small groups. The largest of these camps, held at Carmen Sylvia for three years running, involved hundred of legionaries building a seaside holiday resort where fascists would be able to relax after being injured by police or after a particularly exhausting propaganda campaign.
In France, it was the Croix de Feu, later known as the Parti Social Français (PSF), that ran the most spectacular summer camps. The Croix de Feu ran a wide variety of social programs during the 1930s, including its own basketball teams for teenage boys and physical education centers in Paris. Caroline Campbell writes that at its peak, the movement was working with up to 64,000 young people. PSF summer camps were popular with young people and parents alike.
In one exchange of letters from 1938 uncovered by Laura Lee Downs, a young woman named Camille Rogie wrote to the PSF asking for work as a camp counselor because she saw it as an opportunity to expand her work experience and believed it would help her to get a good job when she grew up. Her mother, who was also an active PSF supporter, worried about the influence of the working class children Camille would be working with:
“In our house everyone serves France by serving [Colonel de] La Rocque and my husband and I are happy to let our daughter devote her vacation time to the PSF colonies,” she wrote. “But she is just an enthusiastic child and knows nothing of evil and so I entrust her to you as a mother. … Last year I went to pick up a group of children from a [PSF] colonie and I found therein such a complete lack of discipline that I was truly dismayed to imagine what those who are not PSF must have thought. The directors were very pleasant and, I believe, very good with the children but discipline was utterly absent and I would be very sorry to see my daughter land in a similar milieu.”
Summer camps such as the ones Camille Rogie participated in were about sharing fascist values with a wider audience, and to prove that the PSF knew more than the government about how to best confront burning social problems. But they also helped to integrate enthusiastic young people more firmly into the movement, shaping their lives by giving them an unforgettable summer and convincing them that by becoming fascists they were helping both themselves and others.
Dr Roland Clark is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool. See full profile here.
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