- Fascisms and Their Afterli(v)es:An Introduction
What ideological "befogging," asked the iconoclast Marxist Freudian Wilhelm Reich in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), convinced the impoverished, disempowered masses to find in fascism the answer to their discontent? The only explanation could be, he suggested, that fascism addressed human selves already riven by impulses of insurgence and compliance.1 In 1946 he observed again that Nazism had quite apparently spoken to antiauthoritarian, "rebellious emotions" just as much as long-term, corporeally anchored reflexes of submission to overpowering authority.2 That same year, the philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, in the pages of Commentary, reflected on the faux "scientificality" of all totalitarian regimes, Nazism included. She saw the "ideas" these regimes promulgated as at best a window-dressing that lent to "purely man-made power—mainly destructive … some superior, super-human sanction from which it derives its absolute, not-to-be-questioned force." Perspicaciously, she saw Nazism's distinctiveness in its "assign[ing] to nature the role Marxism assigns to history"—nature's message, according to the Nazis, being that "by killing the weak and the helpless, one proves by implication that one belongs to the strong."3 Both emphasized the pleasures fascism offered its followers—and the challenge of studying fascist ideas in view of the ambiguous fit between the contents of those ideas and their most devastating effects. [End Page 73]
Ever since the 1920s, rarely have discussions of fascism broken surface without its perplexing relation to the history of ideas breaching rapidly alongside. Did ideas matter? Fascism has hovered by the centers of political and philosophical thought. Whether as participant, counterpart, or feared enemy, it has determined the histories we tell of political regimes, ideologies, modernity, and state violence. It altered—conceptually too—the place of Europe, its wars, and its declining powers across the globe. As is recognized, Nazism and other fascisms did not wane away along with the summer of 1945. In the postwar, as before, fascism's ideas have been enfleshed in forms of privilege and exclusion, in sex, in violence, in the reassertion of hierarchies, in memory and its cultures. Different authoritarian and nationalist movements ever since—to say nothing of political positions now called "alt-right"—have at least toyed with fascism as both ideology and form of rule. Historians have debated the ways each fascism sheathed its claims in ideas; they have pored over the ways in which each drew from its contexts and fellow travelers; they, like other intellectuals, have quarreled about historical analogies of the present with the fascist era;4 they have outlined the extents to which ideology defined "fascism" and legitimized state violence. The historiography of Nazism in particular has recurrently struggled with the riddle of whether ordinary citizens pursuing their daily lives and even the actual perpetrators of its many mass murder programs ever actually believed regime leaders' ideological pronouncements—on Jews, on Roma, on the disabled, on Communists, on homosexuals, on the "asocial," or any other persecuted category. If ideas mattered, how did they matter?
Indeed a peculiar resistance to thinking fascism together with ideas has been characteristic of much historical research. In postwar Germany, historians long focused on depersonalized structures5; in English-speaking historiography, concepts and ideas eventually became collateral to the development of social and cultural history. This persistent resistance all but conditions the contrastive positions in current historical and political debates. One [End Page 74] strand of commentary acts as though only actions or configurations of power are important—and ideas not at all. Another points out that idea-content matters less than the affective work done by rhetoric when it enables identifying with a leader, enjoying surrender to a group, flattering a sense of superiority, or nurturing resentment toward scapegoats. Yet another strand insists that hardly anyone is a true believer but there are many opportunists, and ideas are important at most in legitimizing violence, power over reproduction, and strategies of colonial rule. Everyone is puzzled by the frequently implausible, contradictory, and outrageous qualities of the promulgated ideas.
One wonders, actually, why historians do protest quite so much. A century after Mussolini's March...