Have you ever watched a historical documentary or perhaps a Second World War movie and wondered how the fascists ever took over? How did they convince people to follow them? How did they reshape a nation in their mould? How could anyone support that kind of hatred? Why weren’t they stopped, why did more people not stand up to them? Have you ever wondered what you would have done if you were in that situation? Surely you would have stood up to them, right? Surely they would have no appeal to people like you?
A lot of people don’t see the relevance of Fascism today and view comparisons with modern day as exaggeration, if not hysteria. To them, Fascism is a dusty museum relic, a black and white film of men marching in military uniforms and giving straight armed salutes. A strange and incomprehensible idea where thugs attacked Jews and started wars. A nasty thing, but one from long ago and far away, that no longer has relevance. That sort our thing doesn’t happen in our country.
But before we get too complacent and think that we are forever safe and it will never happen here, we should read the warning of history. Germany was one of the most developed countries in the world, it was a leader of science and culture, it’s people were intelligent. So how did Fascism take over? It cannot be said that the German people were stupid and gullible, at least no more than the rest of us are. If a developed country fell under its spell, then could the same happen to us?
One of the great misunderstandings and misconceptions people have is that Fascists wear uniforms and round up Jews, therefore anyone who isn’t calling for the Jews to be sent to a gas chamber or wearing a uniform, isn’t a Fascist. So many people honestly believe that only Germans with tiny moustaches are capable of the hatred of Hitler. Or that Hitler was a freak accident of history no more likely to re-occur than the Black Death.
But Fascism doesn’t start off by promising war and racial extermination. Had Hitler began his career by promising concentration camps, gas chambers and oppression, he would have never become Chancellor. Instead, Fascism takes over the way all change occurs, slowly. It took years of Fascism to take roots and to take full control. It takes years of propaganda, of speeches and articles that gradually chip away at tolerance, and make their hatred seem normal. Even against the Jews, Hitler acted slowly, it took years of unopposed power until the racial laws were fully implemented and almost a decade before the Final Solution began. There was no one day when Germany was lost, but rather there was a gradual process over years when Jews and opponents of the regime were dehumanised.
Fascism begins by promising to make the country strong again, to restore pride. It wants to help, it wants to build a better country, it wants to improve your life. It wants to challenge a corrupt establishment and change a broken system. It wants to get people working again and get tough on crime. It doesn’t present an image of violent thugs to you, instead it shows the face of ordinary respectable people, people just like you, who have had enough.
Fascists have been demonised as uniformed clowns and skinhead thugs, to the point that many think this is the only form they take. While mockery is a powerful tool, an over-reliance can make us blind to the real dangers posed. Fascism can also come in the form of a friend or a relative, someone you trust, someone you like and admire. I know from personal experience that nice, friendly, attractive people can hold hateful, racist views. My grandfather, after whom I am named, was a Blueshirt. I know many lovely people who suddenly spit venom when Travellers and gypsies are mentioned. My best friend frequently tells me that they’re scum.
So it starts with things a lot of people find attractive: national pride, restoration of glory, fighting the establishment. Then it pushes this further and further to the extreme. The nationalism become more extreme. Not only are we the best people, but all others are inferior. They only appear better because they cheat, they lie, they steal. The establishment is corrupt, the system is rigged, it is undeserving of support, it is illegitimate. The opponents are crooks, they should be put in jail. The media is suppressing the facts, censoring the truth, spreading lies, their dishonest must be silenced. Democracy only leads to indecisive and ineffective politicians, it only elects liars too corrupt to serve the people. If only we had a strong and decisive ruler, then we could solve the country’s problems. Drastic problems require drastic solutions.
Fascism has a major selling point in that it tells people that they are not to blame. Our country is suffering not because of anything we did, no, we don’t need to blame ourselves or feel guilty. The fault lies with others (the targets vary depending on country but it’s usually a different ethnic/religious group). They cheated, they undermined us, they sabotaged us, they are holding us back. If only we could lessen their stranglehold on us, we could prosper and thrive. We’re not attacking them, we’re just protecting ourselves. We’re the victims, but we won’t be pushed around anymore, now we’re going to stand up for ourselves.
But “they” didn’t act alone. No, they had help from the establishment, from traitors within. The media lied and misled us (but Fascism will force them to be truthful). The politicians cheated without punishment (but Fascism will bring them to justice). The courts are too soft on criminals (but Fascism will crack down on crimes committed by “them”). The nation is lost and hopeless (but the strong arm of Fascism will guide it in the right direction).
Fascists are the not the attackers, no, no, they are the defenders. “They” are attackers us, them, foreigners, Jews, Communists, they want to destroy our nation, they want to keep us weak. They attack our rallies, we merely defend ourselves. They are suppressing us, silencing us, censoring us, rigging the system against us.
A key point that is often missed in the films of marching with flags and street brawls, is how banal Fascism can be. In hindsight we can see the damage done, but at the time Fascists were just another political group. How can they be any worse than the current crowd? How can a failed painter dominate a country? The first bigoted speech against “them” is shocking and unbelievable but after hundreds of them over months and years, they fade to background noise. It becomes just another political opinion as worthy or unworthy of support as any other. The kind of thing people can shrug their shoulders at and say “well one side is as bad as the other” or “I don’t care about politics, it’s boring and doesn’t affect me.”
So people, weary of years of disruption and decline, people give the Fascists a try. What’s the worst that could happen? There will be checks on their power and once they reveal how clueless they are, they’ll lose support. Many thought Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor would marginalise him as his cabinet was a coalition of “moderates” who would manage him. The parliament and courts would block any of his crazy ideas and he would have to act moderately in order to maintain support. They can’t be any worse than the other politicians, maybe they’ll finally provide the tough action the nation needs.
Fascism could have never taken over without the damage of war and depression. War legitimised violence, made it something to be proud of, made it an ordinary everyday occurrence, made it the proper way of getting things done. Defeat in war particularly boosted the sense of national decline and betrayal. It’s hard to speak of peace and tolerance with people trying to kill you. Economic collapse undermined the establishment and the current system, while making people desperate for a change. With oceans of unemployed, it was obvious that the system was broken so why not try something new? People with no work or money (and people afraid this would happen to them) have little to lose and are willing to cut corners to get results.
There are some differences between the Fascism of 1936 and 2016, but the core principles are the same. Military uniforms are not worn (mainly because they are still illegal in many countries). The Jews are no longer the main enemy, instead they have been replaced by Muslims. Communism is no longer a major force to be feared, although some still try to whip up fear of this phantom menace. Instead Muslims are the new enemy within, who are supposedly plotting our demise and planning to take over and dominate us. The language and symbols have changed, now the main threat are SJWs and “political correctness” but the sentiment of national decay caused by effeminate erosion of traditional tough culture remains.
There is still the belief that others are undermining our culture and country. There is still the yearning for a strong decisive leader who can solve our problems in a no-nonsense manner. There is still the belief that establishment is corrupt and selling out the people. There is still the sense of persecution, the belief that rather being attackers, the Fascists are actually the defenders. This New Fascism looks different to the Old Fascism but the core principles are the same.
The main thing holding the Fascists back is that the system is still standing. Fascism thrives in a vacuum, when the establishment has become discredited. Had the 2008 recession lead to an economic collapse similar to the Great Depression then perhaps they would already be in power in some countries. If the Fascist propaganda was actually true, if criminals really were running rampant without punishment, if the political system was rotten to the core, if the economy was hopelessly mired in depression, if there were really were waves of immigrants drowning us and if they really did want to destroy our culture, then Fascism would be far more popular. As it is, the establishment is weakened by not destroyed.
Now most of the readers are probably going to compare this to the current American election, but I am not speaking about one individual or even one country. The rise of New Fascism is an issue across the Western World and my comments are as relevant for Hungary, France, Britain and Slovakia as they are for America. So far, Ireland has escaped this trend but we are only fooling ourselves if we believe that it can’t happen here or that Fascism only happens to other people.
I sometimes fear that
people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress
worn by grotesques and monsters
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.
Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you…
It doesn’t walk in saying,
“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”