Review Essay of Modernism and Fascism
ROGER GRIFFIN, Professor in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University, is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on Fascism. In Modernism & Fascism, Griffin describes how modernisms’ roots lay in the human need to perceive a transcendent meaning—and to restore purpose in times of social breakdown.
"A product of enormous erudition and profound thought. I thought that nothing new and eye-opening can be said on the topic, and (Griffin) proved me wrong..." —Zygmunt Bauman
"This is an extraordinary book, the most important to appear on the history of fascism in a decade or more..." —Stanley G. Payne, author of A History of Fascism, 1914-1945'
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Read for free: Griffin's essay ”The Meaning of ‘Sacrifice’ in the First World War”
Based on research conveyed in numerous books and papers, Roger Griffin has developed a generic theory of fascism. He claims to have identified a core myth that lies at the root of various historical instances. One may say that at certain times in certain societies this myth is enacted.
Fascist ideology, Griffin finds, revolves around the vision of a nation being capable of “imminent phoenix like rebirth” from a crisis. The quest for rebirth gives rise to a revolutionary new political and cultural order that embraces “all of the ‘true’ members of the national community.” Fascism, in short, constitutes a radical form of nationalism growing out of the perception that one’s country is in imminent danger. Fascism seeks resurrection of one’s nation.
Griffin calls fascism an “identificatory ideology” encouraging “total symbiosis with the ideological community.” Rudolf Hess introduced his Fuhrer by declaring “Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler.” Within fascist ideology, however, it is expected that not only the leader, but that each and every individual will seek fusion or merger with the nation. Fascism encourages the individual, Griffin says, to “subsume his or her personality within the greater whole of the national community.” The creation of a “charismatic national community” is the ultimate goal of fascism.
Griffin observes that the enormous destructive power of fascism arises out of the “concept of the nation as an organic entity.” He cites the Italian National Association declaring in 1923 that the fundamental thesis of Nationalism is that various societies existing on earth are “true organisms endowed with a life which far transcends that of individuals.”
Nazism, similarly, grew out of this myth of the nation as an organic entity. Hitler explained that his movement encompassed every aspect of the entire Volk—conceiving of Germany as a “corporate body, a single organism.” Political theorist Gottfried Neese declared that in contrast to the state, the people “form a true organism—a being which leads its own life and follows its own laws.”
Griffin finds that the other side of the coin of the belief that the nation is an organic entity—and the desire to maintain the life of this organism—is belief that the nation is beset by forces that threaten to “extinguish the nation forever.” Without “drastic intervention by the forces of healthy nationalism,” the nation might fade away or die. Fascism is revolutionary nationalism—seeking to prevent the death of one’s country.
Hitler odyssey began with such a belief—that his nation was in mortal danger—on the verge of death. He claimed that the German people found itself in the midst of a “process of dissolution” and spoke of the “rapidly falling to pieces of the organic structure of the nation.” Fascism, one might say, seeks to put humpty dumpty back together again.
Fascism often is bound to racism, but what exactly does this mean? The Other is identified as the cause or source of the nation’s decline. If actions are not taken to thwart the destructive Other, the nation might die. Hitler wrote and spoke continually about the Jew as a “ferment of decomposition” and “disintegrator of peoples.” If Germany was to survive, it was necessary to “bar the spread of the process of disintegration” by establishing a “separation between the two races.” Only by overcoming the Jewish ferment of decomposition, Hitler said, could the nation “rise again.”
Hitler declared that the objective of National Socialism was to “maintain the life of the people,” that is, to “prevent our Germany from suffering, as Another did, the death upon the cross.” Hitler acknowledged that in order to achieve the tasks set before him, it might be necessary to engage in forms of behavior ordinarily considered immoral. But he did not flinch, proclaiming: “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany then we have achieved the greatest deed in the world.
This statement captures the essence of Fascism—allowing us to understand why Fascism and violence are inextricably linked. Fascism revolves around the struggle to rescue one nation from a demise that seems imminent. In order to save one’s nation from death, one must perform acts of violence whose purpose is to eliminate or destroy malignant Others identified as threatening the nation’s life. The resurrection of one’s nation requires eradication of these enemies.
What distinguishes Fascism from ordinary nationalism is the level of threat experienced and conveyed by the leaders of Fascist movements. Hitler identified an attack leveled “against the very substance of peoples, against their internal organization.” This attack, he said, was so embracing that it drew into the field of its action “almost all the functions of life, while no one can tell how long this fight may last.”
Only rarely, Hitler proclaimed, did peoples suffer from such convulsions that the “deepest foundations of the social order are shaken and threatened with destruction.” Out of perceptions or imaginings such as these, Fascist movements arise—seeking to confront and overcome threats to the nation—in order to rescue its life.