E. 6. National Socialism in International Comparison
No doubt that many characteristics of the Nazi movement and regime are not uniquely German. The Nazis initially were often called fascists, and they looked favorably on Mussolini’s Italy. Hitler’s hope to seize power in Berlin by launching a putsch in Munich and marching on Berlin in 1923 was inspired by Mussolini’s successful march on Rome in October 1922. Italian fascism inspired a host of movements all over Europe (even in France, Belgium, and Britain). The aftermath of World War I saw a broad range of fascist or quasi-fascist organizations arise, which makes the line between radical and authoritarian nationalists on the one side and fascists proper on the other side difficult to draw.
All of these movements shared some characteristics that were also typical of National Socialism: they espoused a radical nationalism, militaristic hierarchies, violence, the cult of a charismatic leader, contempt for individual liberties and civil rights, an anti-democratic and anti-socialist orientation, and a refusal to socialize industries. These movements, as reveal particularly their military organization and proneness to violence, were postwar phenomena, inspired by the seemingly relentless bloodshed of the war and the dissolution of moral values. Not all of these movements came to power, but some were supported by the Nazis after the occupation of their countries and played a role in German satellites (such as the Croatian and the Hungarian fascists; not, however, the French fascists to the right of Pétain, whom Hitler kept at arms’ length because he believed France was too degenerate for fascism).
Mussolini, a former socialist, tried to build up a fascist international in 1933-34 (following the model of the Socialist International), but the insistence on nationalism made this alignment contradictory and illusive from the start. It would, in any case, have served Italian power politics more than a presumed “fascist” cause, which did not exist. Nazi Germany did not bother to help Mussolini’s efforts.
The interpretation of Nazism as fascism initially came from communist critics. They saw fascism as the most radical form of capitalism. Stressing that fascists were intent on destroying the socialist labor movement while leaving the capitalist order intact, communist intellectuals already in the 1930s interpreted the fascists as executioners of the industrial bourgeoisie’s will. That leading industrialists had funded both the Italian and German fascists seemed to corroborate that argument, which remained the staple of communist critique after 1945.
Communists continued to claim that fascism had merely been the most unmasked form of capitalism, showing the cruelty and repression inherent even in democratic and capitalist Western Europe after 1945 (in this sense, for example, the Berlin wall built in 1961 was called “anti-fascist protection wall” by the communist East German government). Western historians repudiated the communist “agent theory” as simplistic and pointed out that industrial support of the Fascists and Nazis was more of an “insurance policy” to make sure that the movement, once in power, would not act on the socialist elements in its program. Western critics have also questioned the existence of fascism as a generic movement and claimed that extreme anti-Semitism and racism were a distinctively Nazi phenomenon and not present in Italian Fascism. The racist ideology mattered so much to Hitler and the Nazi elite that one cannot dismiss that difference.
I agree that anti-Semitism and extreme racism (which was made official state policy and highest priority in Germany) cannot be found in Italian Fascism; Mussolini adopted a more outspoken anti-Semitism in his last years mostly at the behest of his ally, Hitler, but Italian cooperation in the Holocaust was marginal and inconsistent. Nevertheless, I think we cannot simply dismiss the similarities between many movements arising after 1918. The Nazis, who initially were only one of many German movements of more or less fascist character, clearly belong into that spectrum. Even if their radical anti-Semitism distinguishes them from the fascists in Italy, one needs to consider that fascist movements in many other countries did share anti-Semitism or other forms of racism.
Except for the Nazis’ and Fascists’ unwillingness to destroy capitalism by sozializing industries, it is hard to overlook some similarities between the Stalinist Soviet Union on the one side and fascist Germany and Italy on the other. Looking at the workings of these regimes (as supposed to the ideas and practices of the movements before they came to power), historians have claimed that Stalin established a cult of his personality, that Soviet Russia also was a repressive, anti-democratic police state with camps for political prisoners, and that Stalin espoused a strong Russian nationalism under the mantle of socialist internationalism. Strong anti-Semitism can be found in the Stalinist Soviet Union, and one can certainly speak about a militarization of society, lacking respect for civil liberties, proneness to violence, a monopoly on the media and propaganda, and persecution of minorities or dissenters.
Like the fascism argument, totalitarianism has been used for political purposes after 1945. For the ideology of the West during the Cold War it was convenient to put the Soviet Union into the same light as Nazism. The confrontation of the United States with an erstwhile ally, Soviet Russia, was thus easier to justify. After having defeated Nazi Germany, the United States now claimed to oppose a kindred regime.
Undoubtedly, similarities exist between Soviet communism (particularly but not exclusively under Stalin), but one must admit that socialization of the means of production under communism made a great difference. Nazism’s aim was to recast German society according to racial categories, not to restructure society by socializing the means of production. Some historians have also stressed that communism, however distorted in Stalinism, held open a universal promise of liberation, whereas Nazism was an extremely selfish and inherently murderous ideology for a select race – to the detriment of all other humans. Finally, it has been argued that the totalitarianism approach mistakes the claims of the regimes — to organize society totally and to totally represent it — for reality and that no total control of society ever existed under either system.
A variant of the totalitarianism interpretation has been the theory of “developing dictatorships.” This works best for comparing Italy and Russia, two industrial latecomers that already before 1922 or 1917, respectively, relied on heavy state intervention in industrialization. Italian Fascism and Soviet communism under Stalin are supposed to have sparked a leap in industrialization and internal development that may have been difficult to achieve without firm central leadership. But this interpretation overrates the achievements at least of Fascist Italy and does not apply to Nazi Germany. Germany, although maybe an industrial latecomer in the middle of the nineteenth century, was already a highly developed industrial society when the Nazis took over. Finally, it would be difficult to show that Italy and Russia would have been worse off economically without a dictatorship. Neither Mussolini nor Stalin solved the structural problems of their countries’ economies.
Nazism as a German Peculiarity:
Some historians have downplayed the similarities between Nazi Germany and fascist or communist regimes and placed Nazism squarely within the Prussian-German tradition. These historians, foremost Wehler and his school, see the strength of pre-modern, pre-industrial forces as responsible for the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. They put much emphasis on the missing revolution argument discussed at the beginning of this text (A.1.).
Although this argument is based on sophisticated social history, it may downplay the mass appeal of Nazism and overrate the manipulative potential of the old elites. After all, there was a genuine popular movement from different layers of society that wanted the Nazis in power around 1933. The look across Germany’s borders, moreover, reveals that authoritarian systems of different shadings became predominant after 1918 in many countries, particularly among the loosers of the Great War (Germany, Russia, Hungary) and countries, like Italy, that felt to be a looser. Of course the Nazis related to German history and molded a new synthesis of existing German patterns. But that does not mean that Nazism was the logical outcome of German history before 1945. Historians have sometimes seen almost everything in German history before 1933 as indicative of Nazism. But this ignores that the traditions of other countries have racist, violent, nationalistic, and authoritarian prophets as well.
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