What is fascism? By focusing on the concrete, what the fascists did rather than what they said, the esteemed historian Robert O. Paxton answers this question for the first time. From the first violent uniformed bands beating up "enemies of the state", through Mussolini's rise to power, to Germany's fascist radicalization in World War II, Paxton shows clearly why fascists came to power in some countries and not others, and he explores whether fascism could exist outside the early-20th-century European setting in which it emerged. The Anatomy of Fascism will have a lasting impact on our understanding of modern European history, just as Paxton's classic Vichy France redefined our vision of World War II. Based on a lifetime of research, this compelling and important book transforms our knowledge of fascism.
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A quite dense but incredibly rewarding and interesting summary of fascism in theory and practice. The emphasis in this book is on the practice. Paxton traces fascist movements through a series of stages, arguing that we learn more from fascism in action than we do from studying a doctrine. This is especially appropriate for fascism, which takes a cynical approach to ideological consistency, reason, and any kind of universal doctrine. The stages go from formation to wedging themselves into power to consolidating power to governing to radicalization or entropy. He shows these processes at work mainly in Germany and Italy. He argues that we can't take a snapshot of fascist movements at any point and say "This is fascism," because like any political movement fascists strategically ally with partners, downplay or play up certain aspects of their programs, and ally with conservative institutions in society. Rather, we have to see fascism as morphing around within certain limits over time.
This book is also interesting on the question of what conditions facilitate the rise of fascism. Obviously there is no recipe for fascism, but there are some cautionary points in this book. One key condition that helped Nazism and Italian fascism rise to power was conservative elites or parties allying with fascists in order to isolate or destroy socialist parties. The conservatives saw the communists or socialists as the worst imaginable threat, causing them to jump into bed with another, possibly worse, group. It certainly helped that they shared some of the same ideas about why society was going downhill . Although the scale is radically different, and Trump is not a fascist, this issue of allying with someone who will degrade your values or those of society at large in order to defeat what you view as an existential enemy calls for reflection among establishment Republicans. I thought this was the biggest 'lesson" of this book for the present.
Other key conditions that facilitated the rise of fascism were WWI's trauma, parliamentary gridlock, a loss of faith in democracy and liberal values like human rights, and the chaos created by fascist groups themselves. Paxton emphasizes that no fascist group ever won more than 50% of the vote, so they all needed some kind of help from established elites in getting their foot in the door. Mussolini's March to Rome, which would have flopped had King Victor Emmanuel not offered him a Cabinet position in a panicked error, is the perfect example of this point. Fascism was a mass totalitarian movement with genuine popular support, but it is important to not portray fascists as coming to power in mass revolutions or outright coups. In Germany and Italy, this was a much more gradual process, aided and abetted by mostly conservative elites who sought to co-opt and channel these forces (not that this isn't a good strategy-it didn't work here, that's all)
This is an outstanding guide for the perplexed on a term and set of movements that has gained newfound currency in our politics. Although sometimes I think Paxton is a little to strict on what counts as fascism (Imperial Japan seems to check virtually every box), he nevertheless captures the central dynamics of fascism. I was especially intrigued by the outright rejection of reason, the embrace of violence, the disdain for intellectual consistency, the strong sense of victimhood, and the worship of power. Mussolini may have reached the heart of fascism when someone asked him "What is your position on the liberal party?" He replied "Our position is to break their bones, and to do so as soon as possible." When someone else asked him what the fascist program was, he said it was to take and hold power. This pursuit of power as an end in itself is always present in human affairs, but in fascism this drive took its most extreme and destructive form. The same forces lie in human nature today. If anything, this book shows us that as people we are never as far from these dark pasts as we would like to think.