The biggest danger we face is not a straightforward revival of fascism, but rather a creeping shift in traditional conservatism towards the extreme populist right, says
Throughout 2018, analogies between today and the 1930s became alarmingly commonplace.
Hortatory books such as former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning and Yale University historian Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny are proliferating, and there certainly does seem to be a menacing odour of racism, violence, and despotic intrigue in the air.
In the US, anti-Semites now march openly in the streets, and pipe bombs have targeted former president Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and the financier George Soros, and eight other prominent people singled out for attack by current president Donald Trump.
In Germany, leaders of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) think that Germans should be “proud” of the Wehrmacht’s service in both world wars. In Britain, the far-right thug Stephen Yaxley-Lennon has been canonised as a ‘martyr’, and a supposedly reputable Sunday newspaper recently published talk of Tory Brexiteers “knifing” British prime minister Theresa May in the “killing zone” — having seemingly forgotten the knife-and-gun assassination of anti-Brexit Labour MP Jo Cox by a member of a far-right group in June 2016. The list goes on.
Moreover, insurgent populists are not just marching. They are organising a pan-European movement in the run-up to the May 2019 EU parliamentary elections. Rivals to lead this effort include Hungarian prime minister
Viktor Orbán and Italian Deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini. Its would-be co-ordinator, though, is Steve Bannon, the burly US agitator who, together with the obscure Belgian politician Mischael Modrikamen, has formed ‘The Movement.
Bannon has had a mixed reception in nationalist and neo-fascist circles. As an American, he “has no place in a European political party”, complained Jerome Riviere of France’s National Rally (formerly the National Front). Others, such as Flemish nationalists in Vlaams Belang, suspect that Bannon is merely trying to create jobs for his friends, not least the Brexiteer Nigel Farage.
History does not augur well for Bannon’s efforts to divide and rule Europe on behalf of Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Comitati d’Azione per l’Universalità di Roma (CAUR), founded in 1933 to co-ordinate Europe’s fascist movements, collapsed just two years later. The CAUR ended up being boycotted both by the Nazis and by the Italian fascists who created it.
Once Hitler had overtaken Mussolini as the world’s premier fascist, he was no longer interested in anything other than acquiring clients and satraps. Moreover, he preferred to deal with “respectable” old elites such as Admiral Miklos Horthy of Hungary or Marshal Philippe Pétain of Vichy France.
In Europe today, the nationalist resurgence owes something to the proliferation of hysterical and inaccurate rhetoric comparing the EU to 20th-century totalitarian regimes (a particular favourite of certain newspaper columnists who have blundered into politics). And, of course, the term “globalism” has become a serviceably sly synonym for Jews, just as “cosmopolitanism” was in the past.
But let’s not get hung up on the ‘F’ word. Today’s Europe has not just emerged from a devastating world war that destroyed four empires; and today’s politics are not dominated by paramilitary armies of demobilised veterans and students. The biggest danger that we face is not a straightforward revival of fascism, but rather a creeping shift in traditional conservatism towards the extreme nationalist/populist right.
From a historical perspective, then, we would do better to focus less on the threat of fascism, and more on the degeneration of conservatism before and after the First World War. That is when the traditional conservative right became infected by authoritarian and corporatist ideas, as well as a hatred of the left, Jews, and teeming cosmopolitan metropolises such as Berlin, Madrid, and Vienna. At the time, those cities were red spots of modernism in a green sea of agrarian provincialism.
A decade before the First World War, the Dreyfus Affair had already offered a striking preview of the deep-seated hatreds that would be mobilised 30 years later. By the time fascism had arrived, so too had Bolshevism.
And that was enough for the traditional conservatives to hold their noses and throw in with the fascists, even if they were sniffy about the latter’s shrill plebian tone. To understand what such an alliance might look like today, consider that Malcolm Pearson of Ukip recently hosted Yaxley-Lennon for lunch in the House of Lords.
This is not to say that conservativism and fascism are interchangeable concepts. In 1934, the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar alluded to some important distinctions when he banned the National Syndicalist organisation. Specifically, he objected to the group’s “exaltation of youth, the cult of force through so-called direct action, the principle of the superiority of the state political power in social life, the propensity for organising masses behind a single leader”. Classical conservatives, after all, tend to favour demobilisation and deference to authority and tradition, not mass-movement agitation in the streets.
Were he alive today, the great conservative thinker Eric Voegelin would cast a baleful eye over the conservatives who are now embracing “mobocracy”, just as he did in the case of interwar German elites.
And he would have been particularly scornful of AfD deputy leader Beatrix von Storch of the royal house of Oldenburg, the multi-millionaire Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, and other members of the upper class who claim to be tribunes of the ordinary folk in “flyover” country.
Likewise, Voegelin’s acidic contemporary Karl Kraus would have had much to say about the debasement of language by right-wing British tabloids that now smear civil servants and judges as “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people”. And he would have skewered millionaire newspaper columnists who imagine that they know the mind of ‘Everyman’ just because they call taxi drivers “mate”. Liberal democracy is not experiencing an existential crisis. Though the political pendulum has been swinging towards “identity”, it will soon swing back towards “the economy” as we start to feel the full impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Fundamental questions about the future of work and wages will reassert themselves with a vengeance.
Furthermore, one gathers that the educated middle classes are growing tired of being hectored by the self-appointed upper-class spokespeople of provincial ignorance. This would certainly explain the massive pro-EU demonstrations in London last October, as well as the recent electoral successes of the Greens in Germany.
It is time for liberals to stop twittering away about fascism and tyranny, and start exposing the con artists and hucksters who have captured our politics. The conversation we should be having would focus squarely on the decay of modern conservatism, the crisis of social democracy, and the dawning age of technological disruption.
- Michael Burleigh is a historian and author. His books include Small Wars, Faraway Places: The Genesis of the Modern World, Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism, The Third Reich: A New History, and The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: A History of Now.