The following is a transcript of from a lecture entitled "A STORY OF FASCISM" that my father, the esteemed writer Val Coleman did about a month ago at the Sandisfield Arts Center in the Berkshires.
As my dad grew up seeing it develop during World War II and beyond, he gives a unique dissection of Fascism's inner mechanics and origins. Not to mention, what it means for us as Human Beings today. It's a bit of a read. (About 20 pages worth). But if you are a lover of Humanity and a pursuer of Peace and Freedom throughout the world, then this is a must!
A STORY OF FASCISM by Val Coleman
Although I am talking in late September….I am writing this intervention on August 13 2017. I must say something about Charlottesville, Virginia where, yesterday a passel of haters, all decked out in the usual paraphernalia of fascism…. masks, nazi flags, sticks and chains, brazenly attacked some folks on the streets of the city where my dearest friend, the civil rights leader James Farmer lived and died. It wiped me out…..I can’t sleep….here I am, at 86, unable to lace up my boots, put on my CORE button (I still have it) and do something…anything. I mean DO something, beyond talk….beyond pounding my fist at Villa Mia…..or in the gallery room at the Sandisfield Arts Center. What is really on my mind is the degree to which fascism has penetrated my country once again. Silence….the “wicked permission”….won’t do.
Well, I’ve got to start somewhere.
Fascism. There is so much….acres of books, acres of pain, miles of history. Vast graveyards and old dark ovens. Fascism has shouldered its way through history like cancer in the body politic, leaving behind (always leaving behind) empty shattered fields and long sad parades of homeless people. More than fifty five million people were killed in the World War II….a war cradled in fascism….probably the most unspeakable interval in all history.
It is a deadly disease….that comes from everywhere….its symptoms are always with us……but until the early 20th Century it appeared usually as an anomalous Nero, a Caligula, the 11th Century “assassins”, a couple of the Borgian popes. Modern fascism, with its annihilating agenda, required the teeth of the instruments of mass murder and destruction…..dynamite, machine guns and the mechanics of voice amplification….to claim its proper place in history.
The word “fascism” is rooted in the Italian word “fascio”…a bundle, and the Latin “fasces” which is an ax wrapped in a cradle of rods which was carried before the magistrates of Rome to celebrate their authority.
The “fasces” are ubiquitous….even with what might be innocent placings….showing up once on the Lincoln Memorial….I swear I once saw them in the US Senate chamber, and it’s a fact that they appeared on the 1932 minted American quarter. In the late 19th Century Italian revolutionaries used the term “fascio” The word has always moved in all directions….Sicilian peasants rose against their landlords in 1893 and called themselves Fasci Siciliani……in l914 a peculiar mixture of left wing nationalists and outcast socialists like Benito Mussolini brought Italy into the First World War using the name Fascio Rivoluzionaro ‘dAzione interventista. More about Mussolini and the onset of “fascism” later.
But the greatest spawning of fascism as a fixed political system began a very few years later…in the snarl and chaos between the two great wars of the 20th Century. Much of the vocabulary, the undergirding characteristics were already in place as the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919. Anti-Semitism, for instance, had already grown to unthinkable levels in the darkness of the Dreyfus Affair, which caused a paroxysm of hatred surrounding the arrest and conviction of an innocent Jewish officer in the French army…..Scapegoating, sexism, disdain for intellectuals and the arts, cronyism, bizarre uniformed narcissism was commonplace. There were some who saw it coming, and some did not. According to Frederick Engels, Marx’ partner, the “rosy cheeks of socialism” would never wain….but one generation later, socialism was falling…. the casting call for fascism was in place and the principals chosen. Using socialism as a temptation….In Germany fascism was called “national socialism” (Nazism) in Russia it morphed from democratic socialism through Martov’s Menshevism to Lenin’s Bolshevism and ultimately to a fascist Stalinism.
What happened? When? And to whom?
“L’etat, c’est, moi” The ringing statement that the state is ME, the state is everything…..peopled by a brutal chauvinism which projected an almost zoological hatred of other people, other nations.
Fascism as a political philosophy is difficult to describe because of its irrational character. It comes from ancient and modern thinkers….a mess of doctrine makes it difficult to present as a coherent point of view.
Machiavelli, Hobbes and Nietzsche, for example, are among its sources despite the fact that none of them were what we now know as fascists. Machiavelli was a 15th and 16th Century Italian intellectual who was a practical man and a patriot with noble ideals, but who believed (and convinced many since) in the vigorous and ruthless rule of a strong man…the Prince…who often used cruelty, bad faith and deception as essential to the prosperity of his reign. Hobbes, also in the 16th Century believed in the “royal prerogative” as the only means of avoiding what he considered the principal of flaw of collective and democratic systems….avoiding what he called the “the war of each against all”. And Nietzsche, in the 19th Century, believed the fundamental reality is the will to power. He despised a morality based on pity, humility and altruism…a morality written by the Jews to revenge themselves upon their “Aryan” conquerors. Sound familiar?
People think they know what fascism is. That’s because it is a vivid and constant mix of images….a demagogue yelling at an ecstatic crowd, marching youths in colored shirts, soldiers slashing, the ovens at Auschwitz….Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini. But it’s not enough. We can’t understand Nazi Germany with a just a fierce biography of Hitler. Mussolini actually started out as a fairly humanitarian socialist.
No. Fascism is much of history itself.
It is the dark fog of history…penetrating, obscuring…outright blinding civilization. Although it is seductive with all its pomp and circumstances it is always born nourished by hatred and always dies in a spasm of death and destruction. According to most scholars, fascism has three principal streams of thought….absolutism (one powerful leader), organicism (the state as one unassailable organic unity (Hegel called the fascist state “the march of God”) and thirdly, a combination of the first two streams…with the will of the leader identified as the will of the state.
Hannah Arendt leads us through the dark fog with her “Origins of Totalitarianism” And in doing so leaves us with many of the signposts, the “cairns” of fascism: She starts by saying: “Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself, in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal us.”
We should study the signposts, the “cairns” that lead us to us some form of fascism. The piles of rocks on the horizon:
1. Anti-intellectualism. A distrust of reason in which the anti-intellectual presents himself as a “populist” representing “ordinary people” and manifests a hostility to education and he arts….dismissing art and literature as pointless exercises. The examples are legion. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39)there was a “white terror” in which some 200,000 teachers, artists and intellectuals such as the magnificent Federico Garcia-Lorca were murdered. Hitler, as we will see later, a failed artist himself, based his philosophy on cranks such as Huston Stewart Chamberlain who argued the superiority of the German race and created the academic vindication of Anti-Semitism. Thomas Mann, the novelist who escaped Nazi Germany, argued that “reason had disappeared”. The distrust of intellectuals has a long history which is currently dramatized in this country with the rise of email “chains” and conspiracy theories.
2. Suppression and control of the press. Fascists have always considered the press “an enemy” until it comes under their control. The best example is, of course, Hitler’s capture of Walter Hugenberg’s press empire, and Joseph Goebbels re-invention of “propaganda” that didn’t permit disagreement of any sort. The whole argument can be found in John Milton’s (at the beginning of the 18th Century) “Areopagitica”….a pamphlet which argued that each of us is capable of using reason and distinguishing right from wrong and therefore “the individual must have unlimited access to ideas of his fellow man in a free and open encounter.” Those who would destroy or demonize a free press might profit from hearing the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights when it says “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” A similar declaration (this one about racial equality) was proposed by the Japanese a the 1919 Versailles conference to be included in the manifestos of the League of Nations. It was demolished by a combination of Britain, Australia and Clemanceau’s France. It is a testament to America’s purchase on freedom that the magnificent Thomas Jefferson said “If I had to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I shall not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”
3. Rampant sexism. The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Divorce, abortion, homosexuality and transgenderism are suppressed. In Hitler’s Germany a bizarre and homicidal program of murdering “defectives” lasted for several years.
4. The cynical, manipulative use of religion. In its day, religion has tasted fascism, indeed re-invented it with the 15th and 16th Century popes. The long history of a gentle Jesus-focussed Christianity has often been manipulated by fascist regimes. Hitler’s 1933 “concordat” with the Catholic Church in which Pope Pius XI agreed to force his clergy to sign oaths of loyalty to the Führer and never engage in political activity, was a paradigm. And the terrifying drift of the Christian right in America with its “creationism”, “rapture” and spooky massive born-again book-shilling conventions. Hannah Arendt put it best in describing a Church-inspired fascism which produces, “the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world.” Walter Wink, our own theologian, in writing a seminal analysis of fascism, looked to the born-again Christian right and said “millions of Americans are under the spell of an extraordinarily dangerous mass psychoses.”
Since the gospel of John, Jews have been demonized, described as children of the devil, by both Christians and Muslims. Ritual killing, well-poisoning, deicide….malevolent characterizations, have been retailed for centuries. Did you know that the First Crusade in 1095 stopped over in the Balkans on it’s way to Jerusalem specifically to kill Jews? For our purposes in this diagnosis of fascism, anti-semitism must be considered one of its principal sources and outcomes. Hannah Arendt argues that anti-semitism “became the catalytic agent for the rise of the Nazi movement with unparalleled ferocity and ultimately genocide.”
Anti-semitism inexorably generates fascism. The intensity of European anti-semitism grew in the second half of the 19th Century…most powerfully in the Dreyfus Affair….. and inexorably in Nazi Germany the catastrophe of the Holocaust with it’s book burnings, “Kristallnacht” and the open murder of some 6 million Jews forever established what Arendt called “the banality of evil.”
6. Populism, Nationalism. Also known as anti-modernism has undergirded world-wide politics. Isolationism, autarky (self-sustaining), anti-immigration, the veneration of “ordinary people” and unleashed patriotism have all shown up regularly in pre-fascist states. The “state” remember is the key…the one and only state, and one and only leader. Huey Long, Charles Lindberg, Benito Mussolini, Oswald Mosley come to mind. Populism is a much misunderstood phenomenon… corny and shallow, even humane on its face, but mortal and devilish when it shows up… and wins.
7. Assailing the right to vote and assemble. Although the Nazi’s actually took power in 1933 by winning the popular vote overwhelmingly, once in office denied any further demonstrations of democracy. In this country the right to vote has been challenged repeatedly by the right. As a 10 year old trouble maker I picketed Charles Lindberg’s “America First” representative in our town in Illinois and almost got my father (a teacher at a State College) fired. The bloodstream of the American civil rights movement was a fight to get black American’s the vote. Fascist programs such as “Jim Crow” depend on the suppression of dissent….and the right to vote. We, thank God, have a First Amendment.
8. Narcissism. My sister, a famous neurologist, author of a dozen books on schizophrenia and autism, argues that our current President is a “clinical narcissist”. A self-contained and directed fascist society depends on the “absolutism”of self-love.
9. Dictatorship. The obvious….centralizes all political and military power to a single leader and smashes traditionalists, all sorts of democrats.
10. Insularity. The righteous belief in the uniqueness of a particular nationality or race…..such as Nietzsche or HS Chamberlain’s or Himmler’s or Hitler’s absolute belief in “Aryan Superiority”.
11.And finally, of course, the militarization of the state, the body politic, the mind, the beliefs, the entire teleology, the long term and short term purpose is born on the shoulders of armies and navies….usually dedicated to such horrific nonsense as “lebensraum” ---- the conquest of reputedly needed “living space”.
Next, let’s discuss America’s own periodic dance with fascism has been occasional, sometimes terrifying but usually snuffed by the good sense of our Constitution. Anti-democratic and xenophobic movements have flourished here fairly regularly. The Native American Party of 1845 and the No-nothings of the 1850s…with their eerily familiar “anti-immigration” nativist agendas both come to mind. America has continuously trashed the immigrant Asians, the Irish and of course African Americans up through slavery to Jim Crow and even today.
Setting aside Aaron Burr’s infamous attempt to create a dictatorship in Alabama and Louisiana after failing to win the presidency in 1800 and acknowledging but passing over such recent impassioned proto-fascists as the Protestant evangelists Gerald Winrod and Gerald L. K. Smith and George Lincoln Rockwell and his American Nazi Party, (who I actually confronted in the 1964 Democratic convention)….and most recently the scary “Alt Right”.
By the way…let’s not forget America’s direct affairs with the Nazis….In 1922 the first American local of the German Nazi Party was founded in New York City…by 1935 the German-American Bund claimed a membership of ten thousand. At the same time an “America First” committee was formed (headed by the solo-flight-to-France hero Charles Lindberg) that was committed to preventing the United States from opposing Nazi Germany. (By the by, American fascism rarely, if ever, used the original European models. No swastikas or bundles of rods….Stars and Stripes and Stars and Bars, were the ticket….rarely (excepting Rockwell and an infamous Alt Right meeting) used fascist salutes…but ubiquitous Christian crosses, mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance….American fascism transformed them into “obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy”.)
Charles Coughlin, commonly known as Father Coughlin, was a Roman Catholic priest who captured an immense radio audience in the 1930s and 40s…ultimately preaching his brand of populism which began sympathetic to FDR’s New Deal, but morphed into a savage stew of pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic screed. He spoke (I think I heard him) for an hour each week…..a strong vehement rhetoric mixing religion with what can only be described as hatred of the “money changers” He ultimately called Roosevelt a Communist and joined happily with the isolationists and America Firsters of the day. He claimed that Jewish bankers were behind the Russian revolution and started a weekly magazine called “Social Justice” which, among other things, published sections of the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” Efforts by many, including the Pope, to get him off the air, failed until he was threatened with an indictment for treason….and was orderedto return to his priestly duties. He finally complied and became a parish pastor dying in 1979 at the age of 88.
The Ku Klux Klan actually mass-attacked my CORE people in the town of Plaquemines Louisiana in 1964, 99 years after its founding…..the Southern Poverty Law Center calls it “the oldest and most infamous of American hate groups”. Born right after the civil war as a poisonous reflex by the losers, over its lifetime it has targeted immigrants, Catholics, Jews, gays, lesbians and most especially African-Americans. A bizarre mix of skirt-costumes, lynchings, rapes the so-called “invisible empire” actually murdered three friends of mine in Neshoba County Mississippi and buried them in a nearby dam. The current Klan cloaks its racism as “civil rights for whites” and boasts a current membership of 5 to 8000 split among dozens of different, often warring organizations.
HITLER AND MUSSOLINI AND JAPAN
……Adolph Hitler. We can skip the oft-repeated early bio, with the lousy paintings and the years as a bum in Munich, but it is worth of minute to describe Hitler’s assumption of absolute power…absolutism….which as we have seen, is probably the principal requirement of full-blown fascism. In 1934 Hitler ran for “president” of Germany against the World War I hero 84-year-old Paul Von Hindenburg and came in second on a crowded ballot. He was established as a strong force in German politics and Hindenburg named Hitler “Chancellor”. Hitler used his Chancellorship to form a legal dictatorship……and began by using a flaw in the Weimar Constitution allowing him to rule by decree following a fire in the Reichstag. The day before Hindenburg he died in August of 1934, Hitler’s “cabinet” enacted a law abolishing the office of president combining those powers with that of the chancellor….making Hitler head of state and, importantly, supreme commander of the armed forces.
Tonight, as I sit in a darkened room, and exclude everything except my own memory of Adolf Hitler….what comes to me is the infection....a child’s fear of disease (I was nine or ten years old when they told me that a bad, poisonous man, screaming German obscenities, had captured Europe.) I remember the pictures: the knife-eyes, the straightened arm the blazing mouth…..Movietone News, that era’s television showed thousands, maybe tens of thousands of soldiers ranked before this tiny man….his words unintelligible barks answered by a thunderous response that seemed to make the swastika flags shake.
Hitler had emerged from a Weimar Republic that was politically and fatally weak. But it was on the other hand, a “closet” European renaissance. The Weimar years (or better said, the Weimar culture) was aesthetically a stormy and remarkable period with its “Bauhaus”, Dadaism, Kandinsky, Marlena Dietrich and the crazy lyric life later described as a “Cabaret”. But it was politically naive, its Constitution and government a grab bag of compromises fashioned by a mix of a half-dozen varieties of Marxism, democracy and old empires. But deep in the stew was a poisonous river of anti-intellectualism and most importantly, anti-Semitism. All of the ”cairns”of fascism were there…most evident in the so-called “Folk Parties” all of which called for revenge for the loss of First World War and its Versailles Treaty.
Hitler was the 55th member of the National Socialist Workers Party (forever shortened to NAZI) founded in Bavaria in 1921. In point of fact it wasn’t “socialist” at all….Hitler galvanized it into a political force and attempted to overthrow the German government in his infamous “beer hall putsch” in 1923. It failed, Hitler was arrested but landed softly in a comfortable prison where he dictated “Mein Kampf”. He spelled out his plans to:
1. Unify Germany, abrogate the Versailles treaty, recapture territory taken from Germany…namely Czechoslovakia and Danzig in Poland. He announced he would
2.“Destroy the virus known as the Jewish people”,
3. Destroy Bolshevism
4.Provide the German people with “Lebensraum”, living room beyond the German borders.
5. And all of this would emanate from a self-dependent state (an “autarky”).
A terrifying screed, “Mein Kampf” was the literal scenario of World War II. The Third Reich was the model for fascist states throughout all of Europe.
Here’s a list. First the “Axis”:
Japan (see below)
Other countries that became fascist Austria, Brazil, Chile, China, Croatia, Finland, Vichy France, Greece,Hungary, Norway, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain.
Benito Mussolini. But back to our narrative….by 1936 we have, in Germany, the elaborate, now classic fascist state. But any narrative of the history of fascism requires a closer look at the origins of fascism in Italy under the the command of Benito Mussolini.
About a century ago, Benito Mussolini showed up confounding the Italian political structure…..creating an “anti-party” called fascism. Although he was a well-established journalist and Socialist, Mussolini, after creating the fascist party (as we have seen above) in 1914 (and bringing Italy into the First World War) by combining left wing nationalists and outcast socialists into something called the Fascio Rivolunzionaro d’azione Interventista, in 1922 organized a “March on Rome” with a forest of black shirts…..beating and savaging everyone who stood in their way……upon arrival he demanded and became the prime minister of Italy. This has been called the “authoritarian playbook” and with one individual bully standing above and beyond the party, the overture of fascism.
Although in the Thirties, Mussolini organized industry, agriculture and economic systems into state-controlled labor unions and employer associations……special courts were set up to try anti-fascists…..despite all this, Mussolini came increasingly under the influence of Adolf Hitler’s Germany…..even joining the anti-Semitic holocaust in the making.
Mussolini called himself “El Duce”, the leader, and launched a series of failed, heartless, savage invasions in 1935 on Greece and ultimately on an innocent African state of Ethiopia which ended any chance alliance with the western democracies. The rest is too familiar…..the spiral downwards in World War II… ending with Mussolini and his mistress dead….hanging upside down in a Milan gas station. Milan…..Mussolini’s “model modern city” that would rebuild the Twentieth Century.
Now, we must deal with history of fascism in Japan. I was born in 1930 and was thus an adolescent spectator of World War II. At the time we saw the Japanese as our ultimate enemy who had manufactured Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, the Japanese invasions of China and Manchuria….who actually aspired to conquer and rule what they called “The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”. A closer look is appropriate and revealing. Was Japan a fascist state? Remember that this is the same nation that in 1919 proposed a clause in the charter of the League of Nations that condemned racial hatred….a humanitarian clause that was vetoed by England, Australia, France and tragically, America. In 1898, Japan had adopted a “Meiji Constitution” … modeled in part on the founding documents of the western democracies. It created a weak but representative legislature called “The Diet” under (and this is important) the ultimate and absolute authority of a worshiped Emperor…… The 20th Century brought both a representative government and a host of “factions” that, in the 1930s morphed in and out of a military dictatorship. Following the Meiji Restoration….. “Bushido” the warrior code of feudal Japan…..originally permitting the creation of a professional and actually humane military….became a combination of propaganda and radicalism that would lead to aggressive war.
There never was what one could call a purely fascist party or a purely fascist state per se. The horrors of war brought brutality on all sides….including the painful American detention of Japanese Americans in camps in the United States, Japanese brutality to American prisoner’s of war and, of course the barely-rationalized dropping of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities.
As to North Korea…..the modern paradigm of fascism….Need I say more?
Holding onto a humane democracy requires a lot of holding. It slipped through the hands of Pericles and the Greeks and has had spasms in most parts of the world. By and large it has held fast in America these 241 years despite slavery, 11 wars, and the almost unquenchable greed of regular human beings. But always on the horizon is the madness of fascism, riddled with righteousness and prepared to eat us alive with its promise of superiority and wealth.
It’s a terrible business….an obscenity coined by the greed in us. Now everybody has a theory of fascism…..the literature, by the way, is endless. Sinclair Lewis wrote a book “It Can’t Happen Here” in 1938, a dystopian novel about an America that elects a fascist president and spirals downwards. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” and of course George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” (which I read on a tape driving across the country….I had to pull over to breathe and recover.) Jack London, of all people, wrote “The Iron Heel” way back in 1908….another dystopian novel that amazingly, chillingly depicts the forthcoming horror and thunder of a fascist 20th Century.
Fascism seems to come up out the common commerce of our lives…parts of it even follows our better instincts…..Huey Long wanted to buy schoolbooks for the poor kids of Louisiana…..but, granted power by the electorate, he decided create a dictatorship which, he thought, would make every man a King. There is so much more….”The banality of evil” drowned the 20th Century in blood…..
In searching for a proper ending I was drawn back to the time between the wars and a man named Walter Rathenau. An industrialist, a superb politician (it can be argued that he saved the German economy during World War I)….a foreign minister but most of all , a Jew….symbolizing the sanity and decency of the best of mankind in the Weimar Republic which was the sweet but brutalized interval in the crush of fascism that consumed the first half of the 20th Century. On Yom-Kippur, the Day of Atonement, June 24, 1922 a trio of killers, members of a fascist terrorist group called the “Organization Counsel (or “OC”) dedicated to killing the “November criminals” who had negotiated an ending to the First World War…..murdered Walter Rathenau as he was driving to work. The first of six million. The door to fascism swung open.
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