Surrealpolitik: George L. Mosse and Walter Laqueur on the History of Fascism

Author: Stanley Payne

Quick Summary

A compare/contrast piece on George Mosse and Walter Laqueur, two historians of fascism who were the founding co-editors of the journal in which this appears, the Journal of Contemporary History. I discovered this piece by looking for stuff by Laqueur, who wrote The Age of Terrorism, referenced in the G.K. Chesterton article by Robert Caserio. Mostly of interest here because of excellent general observations about fascism, in particular the effects upon and role of culture in its growth.


There are 9 quotes currently associated with this book.

[Mosse] would write that 'the chief problem facing any historian is to capture the irrational by an exercise of the rational mind.' This would mean that scholarly work 'has to operate with the instruments of rationality in a so largely irrational world, it has to recapture the irrational rationally and thus it is in danger of getting it wrong.' At the same time, he corrected the common tendency to associate the irrational or non-rational with nihilism tout court, for fascism was not nihilistic but had its own peculiar value system.

A key aspect of this approach was to understand the nature and use of myth, something that the non-theoretical Mosse did very well in empirical and eclectic terms, though he never developed any broad concept of myth. His own approach he called, not inaccurately, 'a history of perceptions.' In a letter of 1990, Emilio Gentile pointed out to Mosse that he employed the concept of myth in two different ways, which one is tempted to term the authentic and the inauthentic, the first involving the 'irruption of the sacred' in a living faith, the second a cynical propaganda manipulation. Mosse acknowledged this problem without hesitation, saying that "I have never been able to get a satisfactory definition of myth, and as far back as 1960 Leonardo Olschki . . . told me that my use of myth was very problematic. Myth is both artificial and a sincerely held belief. I don’t think that they exclude each other." (page 754)
Tags: [Fascism, Rationality, Myth]
[Mosse's] initiative was important in championing the concept of a generic fascism and in achieving the empirical and analytic breakthroughs which revealed that fascist ideology, rather than being an intrinsic oxymoron, was a distinctive and indispensable part of fascist movements. He did path-breaking work on fascist culture and inaugurated the 'cultural turn' more than two decades before it became popular in the study of fascism and other aspects of modern history. His development by 1970 of an 'anthropological' approach was equally original, leading to a series of studies on myth, crowds, meetings, art, esthetics and liturgy. Altogether, this reoriented and broadened the study of fascism more than did the work of any other scholar, though a number of historians developed the model of a more unified single concept that he never achieved. (page 758)
Tags: [Fascism, Culture]
[Laqueur's] last book on fascism, Fascism: Past, Present, Future (1996), was the broadest single work on the topic attempted by either of the co-editors. Like most historians, Laqueur avoided any precise definition of generic fascism on the grounds that this was too complicated, since there were too many different variants. Both claims were obviously valid, up to a point, but, if that were absolutely the case, how might the reader be sure that all these examples belonged to one political genus? Thus, as is common in fascist studies (and certainly in the work of Mosse, as well), broad issues of taxonomy were eluded, though many individual problems were discussed. (page 761)
Tags: [Fascism]
Laqueur gave fascist doctrine due importance, labeling it 'nationalist, elitist, and anti-liberal,' but differentiating it from the radical right because of its fundamentally revolutionary thrust. Racism was seen as an important variable, rather than intrinsic to all fascism. He treated key differences between the Italian and German movements, in terms of the importance of the myth of the nation and of the state for the former, and of race for the latter. Unlike some, Laqueur warned that not every idea and ingredient found in fascism was wrong just because it was used by fascists, and agreed with his co-editor that fascism was not truly nihilistic, as was so often claimed, but was based on a strongly held belief system and even a kind of perverted morality. (page 761)
Tags: [Fascism]
Laqueur agreed with many scholars that Fascist Italy was never 'quite totalitarian,' and showed no interest in Gentile's concept of Italian totalitarianism as a means or process rather than a goal or structure. Laqueur also accepted the interpretation that the two regimes [i.e., German and Italian] possessed a certain 'polycratic' structure in so far as they were never fashioned into a single coherent bureaucracy. (page 762)
Tags: [Fascism]
Laqueur found terror and propaganda of approximately equal importance in developing and maintaining the two principal fascist systems, though the degree of terror was much less in the Italian case. (page 762)
Tags: [Fascism]
[Laqueur] found nothing uniquely 'bourgeois' about the social appeal of fascism, whose strength, by comparison with communism, lay in its capacity for cross-class mobilization. There was a large following among the middle classes, but that was true of many political parties. Many blue-collar workers became fascists but fascism was never a worker movement per se (save perhaps momentarily in Hungary in 1939). At times there was considerable support among the rural population, but that varied considerably.

There was never any uniform content to fascist culture. Nazi policy insisted on 'positive content' based on race, idealism and patriotism, rejecting most modernism, but Laqueur points out that what it denounced as Kulturbolschewismus was equally proscribed under the Bolshevik state. Italian Fascist policy was more tolerant, and much more accepting of aspects of modernism. It insisted primarily on formal compliance, not on total uniformity, as in Germany or the Soviet Union. (page 763)
Tags: [Fascism]
[Laqueur] noted in passing that the most effective enemies of the fascists were the right authoritarian regimes, which often simply suppressed them. (page 763)
Tags: [Fascism]
The search for neofascists has been ongoing since the late 1940s, due above all to the broad use of the term as a pejorative, though such a discussion involves major issues of definition and taxonomy. By the 1990s, it was clear that there have been a long series of groups that have sought to revive and/or redefine fascist doctrine, even though no individual party with these characteristics ever became a major force in any country. Indeed, the only one that lasted for many years and enjoyed a certain mass following was the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI). Unlike the situation after the First World War, a 'dearth of new political ideas' set in after 1945. This resulted in the adjustment or moderation of old ideas, and even the MSI had to give way in the 1990s to the decidedly post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale.

The same may be said for the Front National in France, so that any political initiative worth discussing turns out to be rightist and populist, and always lacking key ingredients of fascism. Genuine neofascism never achieved significance because, historically, there had been an inoculation effect, and, secondly, because of the enormous change in circumstances, the unique crystallization of events in the 1920s and 30s being something that cannot be repeated. There was a countercultural rightist lifestyle among small minorities ('skinheads'), there was naturally and inevitably growing hostility to uncontrolled immigration by inassimilable and potentially subversive groups, and there was growing antisemitism on both left and right, but none of this amounted to the revival of generic fascism. Any obsessive search for the latter seemed likely to end in confusion and conflation. (page 764)
Tags: [Fascism]