Agency and Complicity in Fascist Regimes

By Absalom Sink

There is a decades-long discourse on the extent to which populations under the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s—Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Romania, Francoist Spain on the right, and the Stalinist USSR on the left—were complicit in the atrocities committed by their states. It is a question we have touched on somewhat tangentially in previous weeks, but which becomes the central question of this week’s readings.

We have read of Fascists’ conception of gender roles, with masculinity rooted in stoicism and martial prowess in contrast to the feminine role as nurturer and reproducer, roles which were designed to constrain the agency of women and ensure ‘racial purity.’ And we have read of the victimization of women who refused to confine themselves to the rigid gender dynamics imposed upon them, women like Ilse Totzke in Laurie Marhoefer’s “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State.” But as becomes clear in reading Wendy Lower’s book Hitler’s Furies and Lopez and Sanchez’s “Blue Angels”, historians and lay people alike have been all too willing to accept stories women’s victimization by Fascist regimes while ignoring the crucial roles that a staggering number of other women played in the administration of those regimes, and in the violence they wrought.

Lower traces the war-time trajectory of a handful of women in Nazi Germany. Some, like the Nazi-loathing nurse Annette Schücking, are rather sympathetic figures, especially when contrasted with others like Johanna Altvater, a secretary who moonlit as a murderer of Jewish children. But Lower also muddies the waters by making clear that participation in a regime totally committed to war and genocide means complicity in those crimes. Though the Nuremberg Tribunal exempted the clerks, the secretaries, the stenographers who staffed the SS and Gestapo offices, the Holocaust could not have been carried out without them.

Likewise, as Lopez and Sanchez make clear, Republicans were not the only women who took up arms in the Spanish Civil War. Many Nationalist women were involved in espionage and sabotage. But Nationalist writers, unable to square these women combatants with the Fascist feminine ideals—the “excellent virtues as loving mothers, selfless wives, the tenderness of the sister, the fidelity of the fiancée”—whitewashed history. The fighters were ignored, and the official account of Nationalist women had them “help[ing] the war effort by carrying out traditional feminine roles: nursing, charity and social services, sewing clothes, writing loving yet chaste letters to the soldiers, keeping the home warm and orderly for moment that the men should return victorious, and so on.”

In effect, by ignoring the part that women played in the Nationalist fight against the Republicans in Spain and in the machinery of genocide in the Third Reich, we are accepting at face value decades old Fascist propaganda; we are accepting the notion that men alone are the perpetrators of Fascist violence and that women are passive, wholly lacking in agency. Lower would disabuse us of that notion:

“Genocide is also women’s business. When given the ‘opportunity,’ women too will engage in it […] minimizing women’s culpability to a few thousand brainwashed and misguided camp guards does not accurately represent the idea of the Holocaust.”

Works Cited:

Kühne, Thomas. “Protean masculinity, Hegemonic Masculinity: Soldiers in the Third Reich.” In Central European History 51, Issue 3 (September 2018): 390-418.

Lower, Wendy. Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013.

Rodríguez López, Sofia; and Cazorla Sánchez, Antonio. “Blue Angels: Female Fascist Resisters, Spies and Intelligence Officials in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–9.” In Journal of Contemporary History 53, no. 4, (Oct. 2018), pp. 692–713.

Marhoefer, Laurie. “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State: a Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939-1943.” In The American Historical Review 121, 4 (2016): 1167-1195.

Masculinity and Demographic Anxiety in Totalitarian Regimes

By Absalom Sink

Previous weeks’ readings have already investigated the cult of heroism, the glorification of violence, and the rejection of the “outsider” common to fascist movements. Here, we see those themes coalesce in a number of totalitarian regimes’ conceptions of masculinity. But for all the trumpeting of masculine values by these totalitarian ideologies, the particular gender constructs in question prove remarkably nebulous.

In Thomas Kühne’s “Protean masculinity, Hegemonic masculinity,” the author investigates the Nazi regime’s ideal of soldierly masculinity—”hegemonic masculinity” predicated on “physical, emotional and moral hardness”—as a component of the broader Nazi ideal of “collective will”. Kühne notes that men who met the “hardness” requirement were afforded greater leeway in participating in activities seen as typically un-masculine; at core, “emotional hardness meant decisiveness, aggression, brutality, discipline, and control over others: over women and weaker men, but also over oneself, one’s own body, impulses, and fears.”

It’s not much of a logical leap to recognize that the Nazi regime’s abhorrence of male homosexuality—to the point of criminalization—was grounded both in the view that homosexuality was an affront against the masculine ideal, but also in broader demographic anxieties. Male homosexuality was a threat to the reproduction of the “master race”. As Laurie Marhoefer explains in “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State,” female homosexuality, by contrast, did not present the same threat and thus was not explicitly criminalized in the same way. Underlining this point, Marhoefer quotes a Nazi jurist who points out that “while homosexuality wasted a man’s potency […] ‘the woman who is inclined to lesbianism’ was ‘nevertheless capable of reproducing.’” That is not to say that female homosexuality was ignored; as Marhoefer makes clear, many in the regime viewed it as an outward indicator of additional “deviation”, and the Gestapo kept tabs on a number of women known or suspected to be lesbians. But by and large, as long as the ideal of man’s domination of woman was upheld, female homosexuality did not represent the reproductive threat of male homosexuality.

Similar concerns arise both in ideological fellow-travellers, like Italian Fascism, as well as in Nazism’s great illiberal ideological rival, Soviet communism. As Barbara Spackman explains, the Fascists inherited from Marinetti a paradox in which women are both bemoaned as vectors for feminization of males—“proximity of women turns boys into girls and heterosexuals into ‘pederasts’”—while simultaneously acting as the proving ground for masculinity via sexual conquest. Italy’s rebirth obviously requires reproduction, but bourgeois family values are held to sap the virility of the Italian man. For Marinetti—and given his philandering, one can assume for Mussolini as well—”Divorce, free love, and destruction of the bourgeois family” allow for the sporadic proximity that ensures masculinity, without leading to “effeminization.”

As Dan Healey explains in “Forging Gulag Sexualities,” in the Soviet Union it was actually the closure of the Gulag and the relative liberalization of the post-Stalin period that saw the crystallization of homophobia in the Eastern Bloc. While anti-homosexual laws had been on the books since the thirties, the regime’s tacit acceptance of homosexuality within the Gulag led to its proliferation; the closure of the Gulag actually saw an increase in the enforcement of anti-sodomy laws, and “both official and popular attitudes towards homosexuality hardened as a result of the reform of the Gulag and wider reforms of Soviet society under de-Stalinization.” Here again, a crucial component of the homophobia, and the implied Soviet value of masculinity, was the “demographic anxiety already [that] stalked all official deliberations touching on sexuality and gender relations.” Having lost some 26 million people during World War 2, the Soviet Union was yet another totalitarian state focused on a sort of rebirth.

Works Cited

Healey, Dan. “Forging Gulag Sexualities: Penal Homosexuality and the Reform of the Gulag after Stalin.” In Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2017).

Kühne, Thomas. “Protean masculinity, Hegemonic Masculinity: Soldiers in the Third Reich.” In Central European History 51, Issue 3 (September 2018): 390-418.

Marhoefer, Laurie. “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State: a Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939-1943.” In The American Historical Review 121, 4 (2016): 1167-1195.

Spackman, Barbara. Fascist Virilities: Rhetoric, Ideology, and Social Fantasy in Italy (Minneapolis, 1996)

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.

Consumerism as a Tool to Advance Fascist Movement: Contrast Between Italy and Germany

BY Vadzim Malatok

When Benito Mussolini ascended to power, Italy was in political turmoil. Although the fascist insurgency was gathering momentum, the Duce’s overriding objective was to form a national identity that hinged on the relations of various social classes and that of the citizens with the state. According to Victoria de Grazia, the totalitarian regime resorted to indoctrination by means of “expansion of a mass consumer market and growth of the mass media.” Conversely, Nazism’s solution to the social question lay in the regime’s need for public support and legitimization, which is reflected in the state’s policy intended “to deliver a high standard of living to working-class Germans.” The contrast in approaches between the two authoritarian regimes can be explained in terms of economic sustainability.

First off, the newly elected Nazi Party chiefly concerned itself with the eradication of the cultural diversity and reduction of unemployment, which were regarded as the by-product of the Weimar Republic. To accomplish this, the Nazi regime “aggressively promoted production over consumption”and according to Shelley Baranowski, “[honored] workers according to their ability to produce for nation and race.” In Italy, on the other hand, deep economic slump led to the government’s commitment to promote the “modern” approach to consumerism that would “supplement the inadequate social security coverage by the state pension” and provide “another source for government investment programs.”

Thus, the Italian government appraised its workingmen on the basis of their accessibility “to a slowly developing national mass market”as opposed to their relationship to production as was done in Germany. Moreover, the prolonged economic stagnation created a few obstacles for the Fascist Party to increase the consumer purchasing power and the authoritarian regime resorted to dissemination of propaganda through written publications and state-run radio that “taught” its citizens how to modestly spend and increase savings. Ultimately, the only beneficiary from this policy was the regime itself.

In Germany, on the other hand, the honoring of workers was done through Strength through Joy– the Nazi leisure-time organization. Baranowski elucidates that the organization’s primary goal was to “guide workers to purposeful and restorative leisure that stimulated productivity.” Tourism became one of the main distinctive features of the Nazi mode of consumption. Not only tourism allowed Germans to observe the dire economic conditions that foreigners lived in, it created positive images of Nazism, domestically and abroad, due to its perceived “accomplishments.”

While both regimes strived for the indoctrination of its citizens, only one proved to be more effective than the other, and Baranowski succinctly summarizes it by indicating that a “greater opposition to fascism existed in Italy than in Germany.” However, is that a compelling enough measurement of effectiveness? 

On Fascism and Right-Wing Populism, By Absalom Sink✢

In years past, when I was a much younger man of more active politics, I, like many of my peers, had the habit of leaning on a particular word when describing those deemed far to my political right. Fascist, I called them. Relatively ignorant of history, and certainly ignorant of pre-World War II Italian history, I had picked the word up from my older friends, my political mentors. This was the term to be used against as much to describe police and conservatives as it was for racists and neo-Nazis. I was an anti-fascist, opposed to bigotry, fighter-for-what’s-right.

Essentially, I fell into the trap that Gilbert Allardyce was lamenting decades earlier, writing in 1979’s “What Fascism is Not”. Allardyce argues that the term is so nebulous, so open to interpretation by sociologists, historians, and political scientists—let alone the public—that it becomes both difficult to take seriously, and all-but-useless as a focus of scholarship. The crux of his argument could be summarized by a quote he borrows from an earlier article by Stanley Payne titled “Spanish Fascism in Comparative Perspective,” in which Payne concludes that “the term fascism can be applied to the entire broad genus only at the cost of depriving it of any specific content.” Fascism to Allardyce is a term whose use as a descriptor ought to be confined to political movements from the period of 1919-1945 or so; anything outside that timeframe ought not be classified as “fascism,” much as the term “romanticism” is reserved for the artistic movement temporally bound to the early 19th century.

In the past few years, the term “fascist” has seen increasingly widespread use, as right-wing populism gains both in popularity and political clout. Questions swirl as to whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist, to say nothing of arguably still further-right figures like Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński, and Marine Le Pen. Of course, even ignoring Allardyce’s exhortation to not apply the term “fascist” outside the early 20th century, there is a set of core characteristics of fascism, as Dylan Matthews argues*, few of which the above mentioned populists evince. For instance, none of them advocate an outright rejection of democracy, and few are fervent anti-individualists in the vein of Mussolini; indeed, as Matthews points out, Trump is fervently pro-individualist. And while today’s borderline mainstream populists may inspire violence, they rarely advocate for it directly. By contrast, as Zeev Sternhell explains, the early 20th century saw the proto-fascist Georges Sorel calling violence “something very beautiful and heroic,” not just a means to an end, but a worthy goal in itself. And Mussolini himself valorized violence while decrying pacifism, exhorting that “war alone maximizes to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it” in his 1932 essay “The Doctrine of Fascism.” Peace is “thus hostile to the spirit of Fascism”.

It is crucial to recognize that Fascism arose in response to a particular set of historical circumstances in Europe in the post-WWI years. By contrast, as Cas Mudde argues, today’s right-populist wave—what he and others describe as “illiberal democracy”—arose from its own set of historical circumstances; in particular, as a reaction to inequality and feelings of disenfranchisement brought on by the undemocratic, technocratic implementation of liberal economic and political doctrine. Mudde argues that the neoliberalism that emerged in the US and Western Europe in the 1980s and its attendant increase in financial inequality and instability has inculcated a popular reaction, which opponents of liberalism have stoked through charismatic leadership and effective propaganda in order to gain power and enact illiberal agendas. But unlike Mussolini or Franco, they gain that power through democratic means; thus, definitionally, they cannot be fascists.

With age and education, I am better able to reckon with the mistakes of my youth. We are clearly facing a right-wing populist “moment” today. But even a salty, battle-scarred old radical like me recognizes that those ascendant populists and would-be authoritarians should be fought and denounced on their own qualities; fascists they are not—at least not at present—and to call them otherwise not only undermines the damage caused by the real fascists of the early 20th century (ie. “cheapens the term”), but also risks any criticism not being taken seriously (a sort of “boy who cried wolf” syndrome). There certainly are still fascists to be “anti-“—as Dylan Matthews makes clear, Greece’s “Golden Dawn” would qualify, as might any number of homegrown, anti-democratic “Western” chauvinists—but as for the more mainstream, right-wing pop-authoritarians like Donald Trump, better to find terms with which to criticize them without resorting to ahistorical, imprecise name-calling.

✢ This author has used a pseudonym.

*For a still more in-depth read of the characteristics of fascism, Umberto Eco’s 1995 article Ur-Fascism is an exceptional resource.

Works Cited

Gilbert Allardyce, “What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept,” American Historical Review 84 (1979): 367-98

Cas Mudde, “Populism in the Twenty-First Century: an Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism” The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Pennsylvania, https://www.sas.upenn.edu/andrea-mitchell-center/casmudde-populism-twenty-first-century

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

Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine of Fascism.” Enciclopedia Italiana. 1932. http://facweb.furman.edu/~bensonlloyd/hst11/mussolinidoctrines.htm

Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1994).