Fascist Italy did not happen overtime. From the need for Mussolini to restore an order that he considered absent to the modern Italy that looked toward the future, many different steps were crossed with a certain hesitation in regard to how fascism should rally a population that was not entirely favourable to support its ideology. Ruth Ben-Ghiat details in the first chapter of Fascist Modernity: Italy (2004) how compromises have been made and how political propaganda used culture and art to disseminate ideas for both the sake of internal unity but also transnationally by comparing to other nations who in the eyes of the fascists captured a darker side of modernity.
The issue for Mussolini was to be
able to integrate the intellectuals in his ideology firstly at a national level
then at an international scale as his aspiration for expansion grew stronger.
The author navigates between these two goals by using references to culture and
art in general. Through control of the press and by carefully choosing members for
organizations that ensured that individualism was not detrimental to the
collectivity, censorship drew a model for fascist art and culture that very
much resembled the one that was taking place in Germany in the 1930s and which culminated
in 1937 with the “ Degenerate Art” exhibit in Munich. The term “degeneration”
was wildly used as well as “non-productive” to describe a society that relied
on too much individualism and not enough collective effort. Mussolini in his
1927 Ascension Day speech used medical terms to support his statement on the
necessity to regenerate the nation which resembles the Nazi ideology very much
without targeting a specific race at that time yet.
But with openness to other countries
come comparison and fear of the other. The author dedicates a sub-part of the
chapter to the experience that Italian travellers encountered in the USA, Soviet
Union or Germany. She greatly highlights the conflict that Italy faced especially
with the USA which has always been admired and an important emigration land for
many Italians and unfortunately how the mass-consumerist society perverted its
culture. In this passage, it is interesting to see how Italians perceived these
dystopian countries as a downfall to avoid. The strength of this chapter is to
explain how politics played a role in culture and art to disseminate an
ideology based on modernity whilst keeping it on a short leash. The distorted
ideas about the American society are the proof that Italy was struggling
between adopting a new attitude toward modernity and staying conservative with
the patriarchal traditions and national identity.
Ben-Ghiat, “Conquest and Collaboration” in Fascist Modernities: Italy,
1922-1945 (University of California Press, 2004), pp. 17-45.
Defining fascism has always been a difficulty as it is
connected to very dark moments in history. When it is used to describe present
events or personalities, one is confronted with the risk of mistaking it with
populism in the majority of the cases. Historians have been arguing about the
origins and the exact definition of fascism for years, but everyone agrees on
the fact that fascism is not a unique concept or an ideology but rather events that
happened at a certain time in Italy and Germany , and that these events started
as a reaction to modernity. Distinctive places are given to Mussolini’s fascism
and Hitler’s Nazi regime in Gilbert Allardyce’s article, who highlights the differences
in their respective goals in regard to military, stage in modernization and racial position. Corroborating these
variations between Italy and Germany, Robert Paxton describes how fascism was
manufactured in both countries and how historians interpreted them over the
years that followed their fall.
These distinctions are critical
to be able to unequivocally describe the rise of new populist movements in
today’s Europe and America. When one looks at the multiplication of right-wing
movements in the European landscape or the recent election of Donald Trump in
America, it has been pretty clear that people have been eager to describe them
as fascism. The Vox in an article from Dylan Matthews in May 2019, synthetized
the differences between fascism and populism with the example of Trump. By
using scholarly documentation such as Paxton’s book on The Anatomy of Fascism,
the emphasis is put on the individualistic personality of Trump whereas
fascism is about collective interest. However, ambiguity can be detected in the
violence that surrounds fascism and populism. As far-right movements take advantage
of populist leaders to demonstrate their ideas with violence, it could be easy
to assimilate populism and fascism. But, the web article and scholarly articles
explain that the violence present during fascist Italy or Nazi Germany had
underlined motives in a battle against capitalism and represented a proletarian
violence which is far from being the case in Trump’s America. Regardless, the public
promptly described such violent acts as part of fascism.
The choice of words is crucial in
politics as it may lead to the misuse and the misunderstanding of what a seemingly
emergent power can be. As explained by Allardyce, fascism is multi-faceted, but
it should not be confused with populism.
Gilbert Allardyce, “What
Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept,” American Historical
Review 84 (1979): 367-98.
Dylan Matthews, “I Asked 5
Fascism Experts if Trump whether Trump is a fascist. This is what they said” Vox
May 19, 2016 https://www.vox.com/policy-andpolitics/2015/12/10/9886152/donald-trump-fascism
Robert Paxton, The Anatomy
of Fascism (New York, 2004), pp 3-23