By Ali Yasin
As an ideology, Fascism is rooted in the unprecedented material and social change characteristic of modernity. Traditional boundaries and hierarchies across Europe had been greatly undermined by the spread of enlightenment philosophy, the cascade of revolutions it inspired, and the concurrent economic transition from locally based feudalism to an increasingly globalized capitalism. Fascism represents one of several reactions to this disorientating tendency of modernity, which attempts to secure an ostensibly necessary hierarchical order by reimagining the nation as a homogeneous ethnically bounded collective, with the totalitarian state as its guarantor. While this clearly explains Fascism’s protectionist tendencies both economic and otherwise, is fails to account for its perplexing and somewhat paradoxical relationship with internationalism.
Unlike the reactionary archconservatives of the 18th and 19th centuries whose political aims were largely confined within a national perspective, the fascists of the early 20th century understood the objectives and aspirations of their political agenda as being intrinsically international in scope. A common feature of the rhetoric and propaganda produced by the fascist regimes which came to power during interwar period, was the association of local anxieties to an international and transhistorical polemic narrative. Both Italy and Germany were dominated by atmospheres of pessimism and unrest during this period. The loss of national prestige that accompanied their disappointing fortunes during the First World War, was quickly followed by the rise of the radical labour movement in the aftermath of the Russian revolution and civil war. Rather than simply attributing these developments to “subversive” domestic elements as its predecessors had done for centuries, fascism extends this persecution narrative and its associated paranoia to the international arena.
As described by Ruth Ben-Ghiat in Fascist Modernities: Italy, the Italian public was gripped by fears that Italy risked being relegated to a subaltern position as it continued to face internal political and economic turmoil. In addition to ruthlessly suppressing the budding Italian socialist and labour movements as many of his conservative counterparts were also doing across Europe, Mussolini and his fascist cohort further argued that the national revival of Italy required the “Italian race” to reassert and redefine itself on the international stage. According to the regime’s propaganda, Italy found itself in a disadvantage position within the European community not because of its delayed industrialization or political unification, but rather because the Italian people had abandoned their status as the archetypal “race of hard edged conquerors” who commanded respect and authority. It was the desire to revive this international reputation more so than any concrete strategic or economic objectives that motivated the brutal Italian invasion and colonization of Ethiopia. Portraying the invasion as a crusade of modernization, the regimes propaganda described the Italian colonial project as a synthesis of natural ethnic hierarchy and the modern progression of technology. Through Italy’s colonial domination of Ethiopia and its native population, the fascist regime claimed that the Italians would not only bring out the regions full productive potential by integrating modern infrastructure and bureaucracy, but also simultaneously reinsert themselves within the transhistorical archetype of the civilizing conqueror that originated with the Roman empire.
How Fascism Links Loc Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Conquest and Collaboration” in Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922-1945 (University of California Press, 2004), pp. 17-45.
Paul Hanebrink, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism (Harvard University Press, 2018), pp. 1-10, 11-45.