“The Rise of Fascism in Europe in the Twentieth Century: Lessons for Today”

Speech given at the India International Centre, Delhi: 3 June 2002

I first came to this great city in 1958 forty-four years ago, and was present when Jawaharlal Nehru spoke at the Red Fort on the eleventh anniversary of Indian Independence – to a crowd estimated at one million. In those days India was, as she is today, the world’s largest democracy. A country for which fascism is – or ought to be – an alien creed, flourishing (when it does) on a distant continent. Haider and Fortyn and Le Pen are not of Indian ideological stock, any more than Britain’s inter-war fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley.

Three facets of politics came together in twentieth-century European fascism. The first is the one-party State and totalitarian rule. The second is nationalism, pushing beyond the nation’s borders. The third is racism. Each in its turn brought to twentieth-century Europe a vast destruction of human enterprise and human life. In Indian terms, fascism and its ally Nazism were responsible for more than 100,000 Jalianwalla Baghs. Yet with the collapse of the continental European Empires in 1918, the way had seemed clear for a host of new, democratic nations based on the most recent western ideals of that era: universal suffrage, equal justice for all, legal and social; religious tolerance, and minority rights.

The newly created League of Nations enshrined these values. War was to become an anachronism through disarmament. Indeed, war as a means of deciding differences between sovereign states was formally abolished in 1924 by the Kellogg-Briand Pact; both of whose distinguished authors were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. There would be no more war. The International Labour Organisation (the ILO) would protect workers in farms and factories from exploitation. The Minority Rights Treaty of the League of Nations would protect those who came within the new national borders, but who did not share the language or origins or religion of those who made up the majority of the nation.

What went wrong? First, the post-war treaties at Versailles, Trianon, St. Germain and Lausanne not only created new nations but also nations like Hungary and Italy, who felt aggrieved at insufficient territories. The treaties also created multi-national entities like Yugoslavia – an uneasy amalgam of different peoples as shown by its formal title: The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes; and that made no mention of the Bosnians or Herzegovinians or Kosovars. The economic strains caused not only by the destruction and costs of the First World War, but by the heavy reparations payments demanded by the victors of those whom they had defeated, led to further abnormal situations – social unrest, economic disruption and widespread unemployment.

There was also in many nations, especially the defeated ones, a sense of the need of dramatic national self-assertion. To all this, the appeal of the confident leader, of the autocrat, of the one-party State was widespread and for many irresistible.

The Italians were the first people to turn to one-man rule. Mussolini treated the Italian parliament and judiciary with contempt. The first lesson of those days? Had there been a longer democratic tradition or a greater respect for the institution of democracy, the Opposition – which did exist – might have prevailed.

Fascism came not only with the charismatic leader Mussolini, but also with the harsh apparatus of repression: the growing rigours of a police state. The establishment of totalitarian rule by Mussolini and his Fascisti was to set a pattern for dictatorship in many countries in Europe between November 1922 and January 1933. The pattern was stark, and widely emulated: ignoring parliamentary institutions (Matteoti’s cry “long live parliament” had cost him his life); emasculating the judiciary (Hitler was to set up Peoples Courts in which the judges had to be members of the Nazi Party); legalising the Fascist thugs – the Italian Blackshirts who had earlier terrorised the citizens in the streets were legalised, just as Hitler was to legalise his Brownshirts; closing down all critical newspapers and publications, and the despatch of recalcitrant editors to prison and concentration camp; abolishing the right to strike, and making all protests subject to severe punishments; the strict censorship of books including school textbooks and films.

This censorship of school textbooks was an essential element in maintaining fascism: the perversion of classroom ethics and the elimination from the curriculum of everything liberal, humane or critical. This was followed by distributing state enterprises and confiscated enterprises to Party officials for their personal gain.

Greed played a central part in bringing all sorts of people to support the One-Party State: industrialists, bankers, teachers, shopkeepers, even neighbours with their eye on another neighbour’s property. Greed as well as ideology could lead to the acceptance of totalitarian rule by those who put their selfish interests first.

We should all remember the warning given in 1936 by the British historian and political liberal, H. A. L. Fisher: “Progress is not a law of nature. The ground gained by one generation may be lost by the next. The thoughts of men may flow into the channels which lead to disaster and barbarism.” In Nazi Germany those thoughts were deliberately subverted by the imposition of an extreme philosophy in the teaching of the young, starting at the stage of kindergarten.

Those who fail to stand up to emerging totalitarianism in its earliest days might also remember Lord Byron’s perceptive, frightening couplet:

A thousand years scarce serve to form a State,

An hour can lay it in the dust.

Another feature of fascism that became widespread was ostentatious and dramatic show and display. For Mussolini and his followers, uniforms, banners and symbols became all important. Even the handshake was replaced by an arm’s-length salute, which Hitler later emulated. Above all, terror pitted itself against good government: against the striving of social forces for social justice.

On 15 August 1958 – a day on which I myself was here in Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote:

It is absurd to imagine that in a conflict the socially progressive forces are bound to win. In Germany both the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party were swept away by Hitler. This may well happen in other countries too. In India any appeal to violence is  particularly dangerous because of its inherent disruptive character. The basic thing, I believe, is that wrong means will not lead to right results and that is no longer merely an ethical doctrine but a practical proposition.

The success of fascist totalitarianism in Italy in 1922 was followed in varying forms in Turkey, Portugal, Hungary and Romania. In each of these some aspects of the rule of law were preserved, but not so after 1933 in Germany. There, Hitler’s contribution and that of his Nazi Party was to accelerate and intensify the totalitarian structure. Using terror in the streets to tyrannise the population and emergency decrees to give spurious legitimacy to the suppression of Germany’s democratic institutions, Hitler outstripped even Mussolini. Within only a few months he extended his terror throughout Germany under the symbol of the Swastika – cruelly perverted from its Sanskrit origin as a symbol of harmony.

At the same time that Nazism was being imposed on Germany, a mirror image of Hitler’s totalitarian rule was being created in the Soviet Union. Stalin’s version of Communism, under the symbol of the Hammer and Sickle, was not only a mirror of Hitler’s Nazism but, in the end (lasting, as it did, three times as long as Nazi rule) was responsible for as many innocent civilian victims as all of Europe’s Fascist regimes combined.

The internal victims of Fascism, as of Communism, were drawn from every area of society: civil servants, professional men and women, teachers and scholars, trade unionists, priests of every faith, scientists, doctors, journalists, judges. No liberal-thinking person, no critic of tyranny, was immune from arrest and even execution. How did this happen? The clearest exposition, which surely has its lesson today, was made after the war by one of Hitler’s German victims, the former First World War submarine commander and later clergyman, Paster Niemoller. He declared on every occasion when he spoke in public, and he was most recently quoted by T. Thomas here, in the Business Standard only a few days ago, on May 12:

When they came for the Communists, I did not speak up as I was not a Communist. When   they came for the Jews, I did not speak up as I was not a Jew. When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak up because I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Catholics, I did not speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me. By that time there was no one left to speak up for anyone.

The totalitarian regimes of Europe eliminated democracy and crushed dissent. Then they turned, in every case, to territorial expansion. The first to do so was Mussolini. His nation, although one of the victorious powers of the First World War, felt cheated of further spoils – including a slice of the Ottoman Empire. Flouting the League of Nations, Mussolini invaded first Ethiopia, then Albania and finally Greece. In Ethiopia he used poison gas, promoting Thomas Hardy to make the bitter comment on Catholicism – for Italy was a Roman Catholic country:

After two thousand years of Mass

We’ve come as far as poison gas.

Mussolini’s territorial aggressions were overseas; Hitler’s were within Europe. First he remilitarised his own Rhineland province, then he annexed his birthplace Austria, and then he annexed the predominantly German-speaking (but never before German) Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. These three aggressions were made without European military challenge. Mussolini’s territorial designs on Ethiopia were actually condoned by the British and French Foreign Ministers, Samuel Hoare and Pierre Laval. Hitler’s annexation of the Sudentenland was agreed upon at a conference in Munich, at which the British and French Prime Ministers, Neville Chamberlain and Edward Daladier, took the initiative to prevail upon the Czechs to surrender vital territory.

Is this another lesson for today? Democracies must beware of connivance – whether through fear or through zeal – with fascistic territorial conquest. Appeasement practised by the great democracies in the 1930s was the ultimate green light for the suppression of democracy elsewhere. Small states were considered expendable. Only with Hitler’s invasion of Poland did the worm turn – and Britain and France declared war on the tyrant. The United States, then the world’s largest democracy and India’s predecessor, as it were, remained defiantly neutral for the next two desperate years of war.

The European Fascist agenda in the 1930s made its challenge global. In 1939, Stalin’s Soviet Union joined Hitler to partition Poland and seized the three Baltic States – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. In 1941 Japan joined the Axis and attacked not only the United States, but French, Dutch and British possessions in South-East Asia.

What had been lacking was any common front, any common purpose among the democracies against the dictators. It was as if the fascistic ideals could unite those of like-minded views, while the democratic ideals could not. Democracy, widespread as it was, lacked a sense of common destiny and almost failed to survive. Today, too, those who are under attack by extremists, those who confront the twenty-first century equivalents of twentieth century fascism, need to understand that the democratic values they share can be far more readily upheld by a sense of common purpose and mutual support than by distance and isolation. Indeed, it was the lack of common purpose between 1933 and 1939 by those who were in fact equally threatened, which enabled Germany and also Japan to pick them off, one by one. China was indeed the first victim of the bystander syndrome, followed by Austria and Czechoslovakia.

European Fascism also revealed in its military aspect one of the ugly facets of national leadership – the decision of a dozen states to join in the apparently unstoppable march of conquest. Thus Hungary seized parts of Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia, and participated in the German invasion of both Yugoslavia and Greece. Thus Romania cast its lot with the dictators and joined Hitler against Russia. Thus Lithuania – even in the few days after Soviet forces left and before the Germans arrived – initiated the massacre of its Jewish citizens with a savage butchery in the streets.

The success of Fascism bred ugly side effects. Greed could lead even conquered peoples to pillage and murder fellow victims if they were of another race or creed. The German SS, the spearhead of terror and execution in the conquered lands, received, and relied upon volunteers from almost every conquered nation, although not from Poland. Special volunteer SS units were established by the Danes, Dutch, Belgians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and even Bosnian Muslims. Tyranny not only crushes the decent elements in mankind; it also encourages the evil elements.

Today, as every day, we must beware of being attracted by the instant appeal of power, and by the injustice of corruption that always came – and still comes – with tyrannical power. In August 1944, after Mussolini’s regime had fallen and Italy was seeking a return to democracy, Winston Churchill set out seven questions for the Italian people – questions which must be asked of anyone in defining a democracy:

Is there the right to free expression of opinion and opposition and criticism of the Government of the day?

Have the people the right to turn out a Government of which they disapprove, and are constitutional means provided by which they can make their will apparent?

Are their courts of justice free from violence by the Executive and from threats of mob violence, and free of all association with particular political parties?

Will these courts administer open and well-established laws which are associated in the human mind with the broad principles of decency and justice?

Will there by fair play for poor as well as for rich, for private persons as well as Government officials?

Will the rights of the individual, subject to his duties to the State, be maintained and asserted and exalted?

Is the ordinary peasant or workman, who is earning a living by daily toil and trying to bring up a family, free from the fear that some grim police organisation under the control of a single party, like the Gestapo started by the Nazi and Fascist Parties, will tap him on the shoulder and pack him off with fair or open trial to bondage or ill-treatment?

Churchill’s questions of 1944 are as relevant today as they were fifty-eight years ago. Of the 190 nations that make up the United Nations, scarcely fifty can answer them in the affirmative. India and Britain both can; but both must never forget that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

The third and last facet of Fascist policy of which I would like to speak this evening is its most all-pervading: racism. Looking at my own Britain of today – remembering last year’s race-motivated riots – I sometimes wonder if there can be any society that is truly free of racist impulses. Of course, no enlightened person would give the time of day to the belief that any other human being is inherently different.

There was a time when the concept of “inferior” and “superior” seemed a curse that would be confined to the nineteenth century, not surviving into the twentieth, let alone the twenty-first century. Alas, one of the most pronounced features of twentieth-century Fascism in Europe was not only its racism, but the fact that the racist aspects of Fascism were promulgated and upheld by the educated as well as ignorant people. At the Wannsee Conference near Berlin in 1942, which set out the number of Jews to be murdered, the dozen principal participants were all senior civil servants, a majority of them holding university doctorates. (German universities had been at the time when they got their doctorates, among the finest in the world.)

It was the racist element in Nazism that enabled the SS killing squads to be turned upon the Gypsies as well as the Jews. Nor was the racism of totalitarian regimes a new feature when Hitler came to power in 1933. In Turkey, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were massacred in 1921 and 1922. The Armenians were Christian victims. Under the harsh military orders of a Spanish General (and later dictator) Francisco Franco, Muslims in Spanish Morocco suffered cruelly. Not only German Nazis (almost all of them born of Christian parents), but also Christian-born Hungarians, Romanians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Croats, turned against the Jews – contributing to a death toll of six million, of whom at least one million were children.

Fascist regimes will always encourage racism, will always exacerbate and exploit the false divide between colour and colour, and creed and creed. Perhaps the most powerful, and in many ways the most urgent lesson of Europe between the wars is to strive today – and everyday – to prevent governments, government institutions, government agencies, teachers, preachers, demagogues, from paying the racial card.

Fascist totalitarianism, national cross-border aggression and racism need to be confronted by active, positive opponents within each society. Democracy cannot survive if those who live under it are content to be bystanders when it is endangered.

In conclusion, I would like to dedicate this lecture to the late B. K. Nehru, whose friendship I enjoyed for forty-four years. It is he who reflected in his memoirs, Nice Guys Finish Second, with regard to the fragility of democratic institutions (which are everywhere the enemies of Fascism) that a mere three-year period of Emergency Rule could have such a powerful effect which could “so damage all the institutions of democratic government and civilised progress …. as to make it almost impossible to restore them.”

We must both pray and ensure that this does not happen in the twenty-first century, in either your country or mine.

Originally published in the  India International Centre Quarterly

Volume 29, No. 2, Monsoon 2002

©Martin Gilbert

Picture:India International Centre, www.iicdelhi.nic.in

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