Fascist Commodification of Leisure, and the Purchasing of Popular Consent

By Absalom Sink

In 1926, shortly before his arrest by Mussolini’s Fascists, the Italian Marxist politician and philosopher Antonio Gramsci laid out his theory of hegemony, that is, the ruling class’ domination and imposition of its worldview onto a society. This domination depended in part on coercive means (ie. violence), but to an even greater extent on the consent of the ruled. Without sufficient buy-in from the non-ruling classes, the hegemonic class would be unable to maintain its control over the state. All four sources this week deal with the ways in which the ruling parties in a trio of fascist states—Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Falangist Spain—manufactured or purchased the consent of their nations’ populaces.

Maiken Umbach’s “Selfhood, Place, and Ideology in German Photo Albums, 1933-1945” describes a particular socio-cultural discourse between hegemon and subaltern in Nazi Germany: the “appropriations and reappropriations of visual templates” between state propaganda and amateur photography in the Third Reich. On the one hand, Hitler’s photographer Heinrich Hoffman mimicked the snapshot form of amateur photographers as a means of creating an artificial intimacy between the Fuhrer and the viewer, “as a counterpoint to the calm composedness of more obviously staged propaganda imagery that usually documented official occasions.” On the other, Hitler’s pensive, nature-bound poses were adopted by the German masses in their own snapshots, subconsciously buying in to Nazi propaganda of the Germans’ connection to the land (contrasted with the “rootlessness” of diasporic Jews and Roma). Combined with Germany’s position at the forefront of camera technology—typified by Leica, Zeiss, Rolleiflex—Umbach concludes that the interplay between state and private photography “did not turn people into Nazis per se, but it did prove conducive to the ambitions of totalitarianism: as a form of affective and performative political behavior that transcended that which had traditionally been defined as the business of politics.”

Shelly Baranowski’s Strength through Joy, by contrast, is much more direct, as it investigates the titular organization within the Third Reich, the Kraft durch Freude (KdF). The KdF was, in essence, an attempt by the Reich to weaponize the leisure time of the working- and middle-classes, both to “prove” the extent to which the regime had improved the lives of its workers, and to inculcate in ethnic Germans a sense of racial superiority. Its primary method of achieving those goals was the organization of heavily subsidized and heavily regimented tourist travel, both within Germany and throughout Southern Europe and North Africa. And in spite of some persistent problems in the program—inter-class and inter-regional strife, for instance—the KdF was largely successful in its aims. AAs Baranowski explains, “the images of smiling tourists traveling to previously inaccessible places became a metaphor for the regime’s ‘achievements’.”

Both Crumbaugh and de Grazia’s pieces examine similar methods by which Francoist Spain and Mussolini’s Italy, respectively, attempted to buy the consent of their people. In de Grazia’s it was through state appropriation, reorganization, and codification of traditional Italian pastimes, while in Crumbaugh’s it was through Spain’s opening to foreign and domestic tourism. Both states were less effective than the Third Reich in coopting leisure in such a manner; the Italians simply never received the same level of buy-in from the ruled classes, particularly the working class, while in the case of Spain, Crumbaugh argues that the state’s attempt to dupe the people into a sense of freedom actually did lead to gradual economic and even political liberalization, wholly contrary to the state’s goals.

If we can accept the premise that these three fascist states resorted to means other than the coercive power of state terror to rule—specifically, by purchasing the consent of the masses—we’re left with an important question: to what extent were they successful in actually being granted that consent, as opposed to taking it by force? In the case of the so-called “Good Germans,” for instance, were those who claimed after the war to have opposed the Reich but been too afraid resist telling the truth? Or had they willingly sold their consent?

Works Cited:

Baranowski, Shelly. Strength through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism in the Third Reich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Crumbaugh, Justin. “Prosperity and Freedom Under Franco: the Grand Invention of Tourism” in Destination Dictatorship: the Spectacle of Spain’s Tourist Boom and the Reinvention of Difference, 15-41. New York: SUNY Press, 2009.

de Grazia, Victoria. The Culture of Consent: Mass Organisation of Leisure in Fascist Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Ramos, Valeriano, Jr. “The Concepts of Ideology, Hegemony, and Organic Intellectuals in Gramsci’s Marxism.” In Theoretical Review 27 (March-April 1982). https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-7/tr-gramsci.htm

Umbach, Maiken. “Selfhood, Place, and Ideology in German Photo Albums, 1933-1945.” In Central European History 48, 3 (2015): 335-365.

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