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Rehabilitating Fascism: How Would We Know It If We Saw It?

With his announcement that the war on terror is actually a war against "Islamo-fascism," President Bush has opened a fruitful debate. As is so common with Bush, however, his use of the term seeks to stigmatize more than characterize, to evoke glandular excretions more than intellectual reflections. 

But in one sense, the president has performed a useful service. By re-introducing fascism into legitimate public discourse - by "rehabilitating" it, as it were - the president may actually help inform the country about the real dangers it faces as the war on terror continues its relentless march. 

For the better part of sixty years, fascism was a term of intense odium, too heavily freighted with moral opprobrium to even be used in polite conversation. Even though earlier U.S-allied, right-wing regimes in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Chile, Argentina, Korea and other countries could legitimately be termed fascist, the remembrance of Nazis herding Jews into gas chambers was almost too painful to bear. Use of the term against political foes automatically removed its user from the realm of legitimate discussion. 

Yet it is precisely the power of fascism - at least to those who practice it - that has made it such a compelling and recurring form of national rule. The question we must confront with Bush's revival of the term is, "What exactly does it mean?" How would we recognize fascism today if, in fact, it was loose about the globe?

In classic terms, fascism is defined by five characteristics of governance: nationalist aggression; fusing of the state with corporate interests; single party rule; the suppression of civil liberties; and pervasive propaganda. All of these inhered in the Italian, German, and Japanese governments of the 1930s and '40s. All of them would have to be present before the label "fascism" could legitimately be applied to a modern regime. 

Nationalist aggression was a hallmark of Hitler's rule. He occupied Austria, the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, in each case declaring (falsely) that Germany's very existence was threatened by dark forces in those countries. Mussolini attacked Ethiopia and reasserted Italian control over Libya. Japan attacked Korea, Manchuria, China, Formosa (Taiwan), and much of southeast Asia. 

In all three countries, the leaders used nationalist aggression to whip their people into militaristic frenzies and to intimidate opposition movements. At the Nuremberg war trials, Herman Goering, head of the German Air Force, gave one of the most lucid explanations of how this process worked: 


"Naturally, the common people don't want war. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

The second classic characteristic of fascism is the fusing of the state with large corporations. It was the major industrialists who backed Mussolini's campaign to purge Italy of labor unions and leftists. In Germany, it was the Prussian aristocrats and corporate interests who funded Hitler's National Socialist party on his promise that he would eliminate liberal opposition. In Japan, it was the Zaibatsus - the industrial conglomerates - that underwrote the rise of the militarist state. 

As each of these fascist governments ramped up for war, large corporations reaped fabulous profits as monopoly suppliers of energy, weapons, construction services, chemicals, and industrial machinery. In the German case, they benefited as well from the use of slave labor in factories, mines, and concentration camps in Germany and throughout Eastern Europe. 


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The third classic characteristic of fascism is single party rule. At its core, fascism is profoundly anti-democratic. In none of the fascist countries were competing parties tolerated. In Italy, the fascists deployed "blackshirts" - bands of thugs - to intimidate and in some cases murder opposition figures. In Japan, militarist fervor allowed only loyalty to the Emperor. 

Germany adopted the model of Italy, employing "brownshirts" to harass and threaten opposition parties. Almost immediately after Hitler's assumption of power in 1933, the German parliament building, the Reichstag, was burned in a fire later attributed to the Nazis. Hitler used the event to outlaw all competing parties and consolidate political power in himself. 

The fourth classic indicator of fascism is the suppression of civil liberties. Immediately upon being appointed Chancellor, Hitler began a systematic campaign of dismantling protections of the individual that were part of the Weimar Constitution. Freedom of speech, press, and assembly were aggressively suppressed. 

Citizens could be arrested without charge, held without bail, transferred to remote prisons without notification of relatives, and executed on the flimsiest of pretexts. Spying on the people by the government became rampant. By August 1934, Hitler had effectively seized all power, leaving the national legislature as a mere rubber stamp and an echo chamber for his increasingly deranged rantings. 

The final characteristic that marks the existence of fascism is pervasive propaganda. It was in Mein Kampf, written in 1925, that Hitler first propounded the Big Lie as a technique for controlling the thoughts of the masses: lie; lie big; and lie often. Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" became the canonical film embodying the practice of pervasive state-driven propaganda. 

Germany, Italy, and Japan each used both state organs and state-influenced private media to saturate their people with state-approved militarist narratives, making it all but impossible to question state authority or state actions. That, of course, was their intent. All carried out lurid, slavish hagiography, adulation of the "leader" as resolute, infallible, even divine, and of the government as the only source of security, strength, and safety. Those who questioned the legitimacy or the efficacy of the fascist state or its leader were denounced as fools or, worse, traitors. 

Nationalist aggression. Fusing of the state with corporate interests. Single party rule. Suppression of civil liberties. Pervasive propaganda. 

By these criteria, it is doubtful that Muslims resisting military occupation of their lands, the massacre of their people, and the theft of their resources by western invaders can be considered "fascist." Still, President Bush has provided an undoubted public service in raising the issue, by rehabilitating the term for legitimate public debate. 


Fascism may, indeed, be resurgent today. Certainly the profound damage it wrought on the world in the last century is reason to be watchful of it, to be on guard against it. But it is not among the Islamists we need fear finding it. If Bush, in fact, wants to protect the U.S. against the very real dangers of fascism he so lustily decries, he will need to look for it elsewhere.

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman is the author of The Best One Hour History series, which includes World War I, The French Revolution, The Vietnam War, and other titles.  He is the founder of One Dollar For Life, a nonprofit that builds infrastructure projects in the developing world from donations as small as one dollar.

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