The study of fascism in countries (like Italy, Germany, France, and Britain) has flourished to the extent of becoming a small cottage industry. Historians are fascinated by places where fascists took power or were able to sustain large, successful movements. By contrast, Nathaniël Kunkeler’s new book looks at two places where fascism was not particularly successful. Fascist movements in Sweden and the Netherlands had a small, committed following of people determined to emulate the successes of Mussolini and Hitler in places where parliamentary democracy was relatively stable. The efforts of fascist movements in the Netherlands and Sweden reveal something invaluable for historians of fascism: what fascists themselves thought fascism should look like. As Kunkeler notes, fascists in Sweden and the Netherlands were confronted with the question of “how did established international ideas of fascism put pressure on smaller national movements to conform in their myth-making, while their own liberal democracies forced them to adhere to the norms of political respectability?” (p.4) Kunkeler argues that during the 1920s and 1930s fascism was “an empty signifier” (p.3), a concept that was still gaining meaning as it was transplanted into different contexts and performed in the practice of day-to-day politics. Kunkeler focuses closely on the internal workings of two movements, but at the same time the book represents a contribution to the transnational history of fascism as the spectre of fascism – which, quite deliberately – is never clearly defined – is always in the background shaping the actions of local fascist leaders trying to live up to what they thought a fascist was supposed to be.
Sweden experienced democracy for the first time after the First World War and its political debates were characterised by “a conflict between socialism and political conservatism.” (p. 42) Various fascist movements struggled to find momentum during the 1920s, until Sven Olov Lindholm established the National Socialist Worker’s Party (Nationalsocialistiska Arbetarepartiet, or NSAP) in 1933. Imitating the symbols, rhetoric, and organisation of the German Nazi Party, Sweden’s NSAP never managed to attract more than 10,000 members. Dutch democracy also expanded significantly after the First World War, benefiting from a strong newspaper culture and a thriving public sphere. The Depression put an end to the brief economic recovery of the 1920s, but despite increasing voter dissatisfaction with the major parties, the radical right never managed to destablise democracy. In part the right’s failure was a result of strict government measures preventing fascist organising, which limited the opportunities for Anton Mussert’s relatively moderate National Socialist Movement (NationaalSocialistische Beweging, or NSB) to mobilise its membership. The NSB tried to attract a broad middle-class vote throughout most of the 1930s, ignoring the antisemitism and racism that was so typical of many other fascist groups.
Kunkeler approaches fascism as a spectacle and is interested in how fascists worked to create “a myth of a glorious army, led by a prophetic Leader, guiding his manly and disciplined troops to a predestined victory.” (p. 166) Their efforts were not always successful, however, and their failures reveal as much about what they thought fascism should look like as their successes did. The book argues that fascism was performed both for the activists themselves and for the wider public. In the two chapters dedicated to mass rallies held by the NSAP and the NSB, Kunkeler argues that “the very act of organising [a rally] was performative, a construction of the strength and will of the party.” (p.125) Rallies brought fascists together from isolated parts of the country, and allowed them to act out their vision of fascism and to portray an image of success and unity that was not always grounded in reality. Wearing uniforms that were explicitly modelled on those of foreign fascist movements, and wearing them publicly, as part of a group, helped contribute to the myth-making of what it meant to be ‘fascist’. Uniforms were a double-edged sword, however, as fascists who misbehaved while in uniform and failed to live up to the myths perpetuated by their leaders, did serious damage to the public reputations of the parties, making them look like groups of hooligans and thugs. Relying on uniforms and parades to project an image of success also made these movements susceptible to uniform bans, and both the NSAP and the NSB struggled when their governments made it illegal for them to wear uniforms in public.
The centrality of a charismatic leader to the fascist image caused problems for both Swedish and Dutch fascism as neither Lindholm nor Mussert appear to have been particularly enthusiastic about being portrayed as super-human figures. They nonetheless tried, wearing military-style uniforms and were spoken of in superlative terms in party newspapers. NSB members wrote poems glorifying Mussert, and NSAP members greeted Lindholm with cheers of “Hail!”. This was despite his preference that they mythologise the party, not its leader. Attempts to glorify political leaders also looked out of place in both Sweden and the Netherlands, exposing Lindholm and Mussert to accusations that they were “playing Hitler” and also to accusations within their own parties that they were not actually the leaders they were pretending to be.
Making Fascism in Sweden and the Netherlands thus opens up a range of interesting questions that shed light on what fascists thought that fascism was about in interwar Europe. If anything, the disappointing aspect of the book is that it stops when it does. Kunkeler explores party structure and organisation, charismatic leadership, uniforms, and rallies, but his approach to fascist mythologising within minor movements could helpfully be extended to questions about women’s involvement, interactions with other political parties, violence, religion, music, and other aspects of fascist subcultural organising. That he only touches upon these topics briefly is possibly a reflection on the availability of sources, but if appropriate sources exist there is certainly much more to be written about these two marginal but revealing movements, and on the topic of fascist myth-making more generally.
Dr Roland Clark is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Reader in History at the University of Liverpool. See his profile here.
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