U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Hitler, Fascism, and Demagoguery

The following guest post by Mattie Fitch, an assistant professor of history at Tarleton State University, is the second in a series on the topic of demagogues. The first, by Michael Landis, was about Andrew Jackson.

fascismFascism as a field of study has always had a definition problem. Define fascism too broadly, and it becomes merely a political smear word. For example, in the recent American political context, fascism has been applied to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. (See this Fox News article from 2010 about a Tea Party billboard on which President Obama was simultaneously compared to Hitler, a fascist, and Lenin, a communist.) In such depictions, fascism as a political label is essentially meaningless, except as a term implying the opposite of everything good and American.

However, define fascism too narrowly, and leaders or regimes that are generally accepted as fascist no longer fit the label. Who do we recognize as fascist? Do we include only the first quintessential fascist regime, that of Mussolini and the Italian Fascists, and the most recognizable fascist regime, that of Hitler and the Nazis? What about Perón in Argentina or Pétain in France? How fascism is defined determines which regimes count as fascist and which don’t.

Following the lead of French historian Robert Paxton, the best way to understand fascism is as a collection of characteristics, and a set of regimes that are arranged on a sliding scale depending on how many of the characteristics of fascism they exhibited. Then the question becomes not IS a leader fascist, but rather HOW fascist is he? (See Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, published in paperback by Vintage Books in 2005. For a recent application of this method, see John McNeill’s article in the Washington Post. Thank you to Michael Landis for bringing this article to my attention.)

What are these characteristics defining fascism?

  1. Demagogue: The definition of fascism starts with the demagogue. He alone knew what was right for the nation, he alone would be capable of leading the nation to its historic destiny, and he alone embodied a mystical connection to the nation.
  2. Popular enthusiasm: What made a fascist regime fascist, and not simply authoritarian, was popular enthusiasm. Fascists had mass political appeal, and used the techniques of modern politics, such as speeches at mass rallies and radio addresses. They thrived on political pageantry that emphasized strength and belonging. Fascists would not have come to power without mass support, or at least acquiescence. The crowds cheering Hitler in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 film, Triumph of the Will, shot at the Nuremberg Nazi Party rally, are a good example of the joyful ardor a fascist demagogue could inspire.
  3. Virulent nationalism: Fascists mobilized this mass appeal through virulent nationalism. The nation had a destiny of greatness on the world stage, fascists argued, that involved fulfilling expansionist goals. In fact, the nation’s superiority over other peoples gave it a right to greater power, resources, and territory. This nationalism was explicitly exclusive; those who did not belong by virtue of their race or political views needed to be removed. Fascist nationalism was driven by a fear of national decline at the hands of external and internal enemies who wanted to prevent the nation from claiming its rightful place. Violence against these enemies was tolerated or even celebrated.
  4. Antidemocratic: Fascists rejected compromise and governmental deliberation as a sign of weakness. Political participation was no longer about exercising rights but about demonstrating one’s devotion to the nation and to the nation’s leader, especially in public at big nationalist ceremonies. The individual no longer had rights as an individual, but only as a member of the nation. If someone did not belong to that nation, s/he had no rights at all.
  5. Broad support gained by attacking socialists and communists: As a result of the concept of totalitarianism, many people in the United States have accepted the notion that fascism was closely related to socialism or communism. However, fascists came to power only because of their violent and explicit opposition to socialists and communists. Middle-class people in Italy and Germany supported the Fascists and the Nazis because they thought the fascists had the ability and the will to crush the socialists and communists when no one else would. Fascist regimes destroyed unions, made strikes illegal, and worked closely with certain business interests, all of which makes fascism distinctly different from socialism and communism.

Even with all of these elements in place, context is crucial. What brought fascists to power was a sense of crisis accompanied by a sense that previous solutions were no longer sufficient. In the 1920s and 30s, this sense of crisis was brought about by the First World War and the Great Depression, which together destabilized many countries’ economic and political systems. Fascists presented themselves as anti-political outsiders who would bring salvation, and promised a solution: national regeneration that would occur through national unity. However, fascists actually achieved positions of power in the government through compromise with political elites who believed they could use the emotional power and mass appeal of fascism to their own political ends. Hitler first attempted to come to power by force, and failed. Instead, he came to power through legal means.

The defeat in the First World War had been particularly devastating to Germany, and the emotional blow was all the greater because the German population had been continually told with great confidence up to the very end that Germany was sure to win. Many Germans found a kind of solace in the idea that their certain victory had somehow been stolen from them, turning a straight-forward military defeat into sabotage, with enemies who could be identified and punished. These enemies were primarily socialists, communists, and Jews, along with the victorious Allies who had inflicted the harsh Treaty of Versailles on a nation that believed it had not deserved such humiliation.

The Nazi Party began small, but the Depression offered Hitler and his followers the opportunity to convince a broader audience. In the context of high unemployment resulting from the crash, traditional parties were discredited by their inability to fix the resulting economic and social problems, and votes for the Nazi Party increased. By 1932, the Nazis were the largest political party in Germany, though they never won an absolute majority in any election. In 1933, in the midst of a government crisis, Hitler was appointed Chancellor. Once in power, he used the excuse of a fire in the Reichstag, or Parliament building, to transform this position into a dictatorship. Civil liberties were eliminated, such as habeas corpus and the freedoms of speech and assembly. Hitler was given the right to rule by decree. He used this power to abolish all other political parties. A concentration camp at Dachau was established for political enemies, following a massive wave of arrests.

A demagogue is never just one person; a successful demagogue always depends on the support of and the connection to the masses. Hitler carefully constructed his public image. His popularity was much greater than support for the Nazi Party ever was. People felt a personal loyalty to Hitler, even if they didn’t agree with all of the Nazi policies. The figure of the Führer that developed around Hitler has been analyzed in depth by German historian Ian Kershaw. (See Ian Kershaw, The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich, first published by Oxford University Press in 1987 and reissued in 2001.)

According to Kershaw, in Germany the desire for a Hero-Leader who would unify the nation had its roots in the 19th century. It was the crisis of the 1920s and 30s, which discredited the German democratic government, that allowed these beliefs to become mainstream. Hitler was able to portray himself as the Führer for whom Germany had been waiting.

In the constructed image of Hitler-as-Führer, he embodied the will of the German nation through a mystical connection between people and leader. He understood the inner essence of Germany and would have the strength to restore Germany to greatness. He had been designated by Providence for this task, and was a supreme gift to the German people. He would rescue Germany from its victimhood at the hands of the Allies, communists, and Jews. He belonged to Germany and Germany belonged to him.

His popularity also depended on his policy successes, as Kershaw makes clear. He put in place measures to improve the well-being of Germans, such as public works projects, employment programs, and poor relief. The state simultaneously dispossessed members of groups who were viewed as outsiders, especially Jews, who were deprived of their citizenship, property, and any legal protections. As the standard of living for so-called Aryan Germans improved, Hitler seemed to be fulfilling his promises to rescue Germany after the failure of the democratic government to do so. Following a period of political polarization and uncertainty (to which the Nazi Party had contributed), Hitler promised a return to order, and his mass arrests seemed to prove that he was delivering.

Hitler achieved great popularity by dismantling elements of the hated Versailles Treaty, which so many believed had wronged Germany. He was seen as restoring German honor and strength by rectifying a great injustice. By rearming the German military (which went against the limitations imposed by the treaty), he not only overturned an element of the detested agreement, but also expanded the armaments industry, which stimulated the economy and provided jobs. Such triumphs seemed to demonstrate Germany’s recovery of her international position. Each foreign policy triumph, such as the re-occupation of the Rhineland and the Anschluss with Austria, brought out new heights of adulation among the population.

Though the outbreak of war in 1939 brought fear and memories of the misery brought by the First World War, fervent support of Hitler continued through all of the German Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg successes. It persisted as long as the effects of the war were kept distant from the German population. Once Hitler’s successes gave way to defeats, basic supplies started running out, and Allied air bombardment of Germany brought the realities of war home to the Germans, Hitler’s popularity eroded, a change chronicled by Kershaw. He no longer was protecting Germany and restoring her honor, but rather had endangered the nation.

However, this change in attitude on the part of the Germans didn’t matter. It was too late. Hitler’s control of Europe through the advances of the Wehrmacht early in the war meant that he also had access to Europe’s Jewish population. By the time his popularity began to erode, the Holocaust had been underway for several years, and the majority of the 6 million Jews who would die in the Holocaust were already dead.

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