Wartime fascism, it turns out, had very few absolute tenets.
Even the idea of racial supremacy – perhaps the first, infamous, element that will come to the mind of most asked about fascism – was warped to fit the needs of the regime. From one side of the mouth, the fascist State spouted racist tropes to manipulate its population towards the New Men and the New Women it desired; from the other, it sought to arouse collective consciousness amongst, and bolster the position of, those very groups it denigrated.
That isn’t to say, of course, that the entirety of fascist bigotry was a psychological game; to put it quite coldly, the sheer scale of the Holocaust – and the documented ways in which it detracted from Germany’s war effort – make it clear that fascist rhetoric on race was more than just a populist flourish.
At the same time as the systematic extermination of Jews was taking place, though, Nazi Berlin was backing ethnic separatists seeking to free their homelands in the Global South from European imperialists. As elaborated upon by Motadel, Germany offered a sort of asylum to political dissidents from British India, French Africa, and Russian Central Asia, and amplified their voices as it saw fit – not unlike the way in which the Second Reich had steered Communist dissidents to tsarist Russia to destabilize its foe during the First World War.
As Motadel continues in an unrelated New York Times column, there is room for ‘international nationalism’: “global cooperation among supposedly homogeneous, organically grown, closed national communities – call it ‘reactionary cosmopolitanism’.” The driving force behind these ‘supposedly homogeneous’ communities, and the tenet on which fascism could not compromise, was sexism.
Ben-Ghiat illustrates this most clearly by describing the punishment for miscegenation – sexual relations between races – in the Ethiopian colony of fascist Italy. From 1937 onwards, an Italian man found guilty of sexual relations with an African woman would be sentenced to five years in prison. An Italian woman in the same situation would be publicly whipped and sent to a concentration camp.
Despite this humiliation of the individual, state media endeavored to emphasize the virtue of the Italian Man and Woman as a whole, by actively painting the other partner – African men and women, whether or not they participated in miscegenation – as aggressively hypersexual creatures and thus blaming them for this ‘transgression’. Ben-Ghiat cites the case of one contemporary Italian movie, where an African warchief is shown kidnapping a European woman to force her into marriage. In the English dubbing, the accusation is mistranslated, instead making an even more blunt accusation that he is kidnapping her to rape her.
This ‘crime’ of ‘stealing’ a woman ‘from’ ‘her race’ (with, yes, scare quotes around every word in that phrase) is a recurring theme in fascist media, presented as an aggression against the purity of the race and the chastity of the woman, and depriving a New fascist Man of the wife and virility he was promised in exchange for his allegiance to this new State.
Racism is an instrument of fascism, but it is only an instrument. It can be retooled and redefined to fit the geopolitical needs of the State at the time.
Sexism, on the other hand, is an immutable part of the social contract of fascism. The woman is a tool of the state, used to grow the population and traded to buy the allegiance of men; anything that threatens that grand bargain is an existential threat, and the fascist State must – as it did – exert considerable effort to reinstall its authority.
Motadel, D. (2019, July 3). The Far Right Says There’s Nothing Dirtier Than Internationalism – But They Depend on It. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/03/opinion/the-surprising-history-of-nationalist-internationalism.html
Motadel, D. (2019). The Global Authoritarian Moment and the Revolt against Empire. American Historical Review, 124(3), 843-877.
Ben-Ghiat, R. (2015, April 9). Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema. New York University. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbFFLXVvtXc&ab_channel=CasaItalianaNYU
Ben-Ghiat, R. (2001). Conquest and Collaboration. In R. Ben-Ghiat, Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922-1945 (pp. 123-170). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.