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Understanding Fascism – making sense of dark times

“No other method exists for acquiring knowledge about the human heart than the study of history coupled with experience of life, in such a way that the two throw light upon each other. It is our duty to supply this food to the mind of youth, the mind of Man.” – Simone Weil


In order to learn from history, one must learn history. And though this seems obvious, it is a truth that often goes forgotten. Alas, much like history.

The present moment is one in which many people are scrambling to make sense of what is going on in the world, and as such many are turning (admittedly a bit late) to history for guidance. Especially, insofar, as people harbor the fear that we are living through the early stages of history repeating itself. It used to be that one would be denounced for hyperbole by evoking the specter of fascism, but these days that term has many a person quite worried. Thus, many seem to be turning to Hannah Arendt’s classic The Origins of Totalitarianism – and though that book is certainly worth reading, what follows are some different texts to consider. These were the books that I kept thinking about, over the course of the last year; the books that I felt provided me with some sort of insight into what was unfolding. The books in the following list are overwhelmingly written by individuals who had some sort of direct experience with the rise and rule of fascism. Therefore, these are not merely dry accounts of what happened – but fervent efforts on the parts of these authors to make sense of the horrors they lived through. In trying to make sense of their time, these authors can provide us insight into making sense of our own time. It is true that some of these books cover similar themes and topics, though they are not actually redundant, but these are books which work best when placed into conversation with each other.

Admittedly, these are not fun books to read – but, as I’ve argued before, pessimism is often unnervingly prescient. The authors of most of these books would not be surprised about the current world situation.

After all, they tried to warn us.


Escape from Freedom

By: Erich Fromm


“Any attempt to understand the attraction which Fascism exercises upon great nations compels us to recognize the role of psychological factors. For we are dealing here with a political system which, essentially, does not appeal to rational forces of self-interest, but which arouses and mobilizes diabolical forces in many which we had believed to be nonexistent, or at least to have died out long ago.” (5)

About the book: Why do seemingly normal people become fascists? Certainly, there are those drawn to fascism by xenophobia, love of violence, or “the authoritarian character” – but what about those who did not manifest any signs of such grim proclivities? With Escape from Freedom (which is sometimes published as The Fear of Freedom), Fromm seeks to make sense of the psychological conditions in a society that make people susceptible to the appeals of fascism. Fromm examines the slow emergence of capitalism and the ways in which it brought with it new versions of social, political, and economic freedom that displaced earlier systems of meaning. With the rise of these freedoms, people came to find themselves disoriented as the previous ways in which they had made sense of themselves and their place in the world vanished. Gone was the religious explanation of a person’s place in society – along with its reassurances as to why things happened, and promises of heavenly rewards – and in its place was put the alienating meaninglessness of consumer society. Confronted with such an unnerving freedom – and a need to find new meaning – many people blanched and sought to “escape.” With such forms of escape including things ranging from simple conformity, to destructiveness, or to a turn towards the authoritarianism which makes people potential foot soldiers for fascism. Overwhelmed by the disorienting freedom of modernity, people sought simple solutions and easy answers – which many found in the easy promises of fascism. Fromm develops a wide ranging critique of the vapid nature of mass consumer capitalism in which the main sources of value are the consumption of things or tirelessly working so that one can afford to consume more things. What Fromm recognizes is that overwhelmed, alienated, economically unstable, and resentful people – often lack the defenses to enable them to see through the loud charlatans who build themselves up as saviors. And Fromm concludes his study by noting that it is not enough to point out that the charlatans are lying fools – one must offer a real alternative.

Why you should read it now: The critiques that Fromm offers in Escape from Freedom have lost little of their heft as the years have gone by. His investigation of the ways in which people feel ill-prepared and isolated in the world of consumer capitalism is as resonant to the twenty first century as it was to the twentieth. And while many may read Fromm and confidently tut “I don’t turn to authoritarianism” – how easy is it to counter Fromm’s claim that many people simply make their peace with the status quo and in conformist fashion “go with the flow”? This is an excellent text for understanding the shortcomings of modern society that lead many to lust for a return to “the good old days” – even as it makes it clear that unless steps are taken to dramatically alter contemporary society, that those possessing “the authoritarian personality” will keep turning up.


The Language of the Third Reich

By: Victor Klemperer


“The sole purpose of the LTI [Lingua Tertii Imperii, the language of the Third Reich] is to strip everyone of their individuality, to paralyze them as personalities, to make them into unthinking docile cattle in a herd driven and hounded in a particular direction, to turn them into atoms in a huge rolling block of stone. The LTI is the language of mass fanaticism.” (21)

About the book: The words which people use to speak about something may be almost as important as that which they are actually speaking about. And oftentimes the words which are issued from a leader’s mouth and eagerly seized upon by their followers can take on a meaning other than that which would be found in a reputable dictionary. It was Klemperer’s conviction that something could be discerned about the character of fascism/Nazism from the way in which they used language (the LTI). Thus, terms like “heroism,” “movement,” “organization,” all came to take on special meanings when used by fascists – and the usage of such words helped carry and reinforce the ideology of fascism. Words that had once carried a certain negative connotation – such as “fanaticism” – were redeemed and made laudable in the context of the LTI. But Klemperer does not limit himself only to considering specific words, he also considers the presence of oft repeated phrases such as “I believe in him” – a phrase that came to signal a certain unthinking, quasi-religious, devotion to Hitler. What Klemperer argues is that fascism cannot simply be understood in terms of arm bands, salutes, and crowds gathered. Instead, it works in much deeper and nefarious ways by hijacking language itself – and thus fascism is not always obviously expressed through a speaker’s armband, it can be found in the words that people use and the way that they use them. In short, fascism wasn’t just a uniform people wore, it was a frame of mind. Thus, for Klemperer, combating fascism could not be limited to physically fighting it – one had to combat it as a system of meaning by which its adherents made sense of the world. The Language of the Third Reich is based upon the diaries Klemperer kept during the fascist period – it is both a harrowing memoir and a fascinating investigation of what people were really saying.

Why you should read it now: Language is a battlefield. Consider current consternation around terms like “truth” or “fake” or “great.” A lot is being said right now – but what is actually being said? Klemperer’s book provides an argument for seriously considering the words people are using, and further argues that it is necessary to understand how the speakers are using those words. It’s true that many of the terms Klemperer explores were particular to the LTI – but many were not so. It certainly seems like the phrase “I believe in him” is making a comeback.    


Reactionary Modernism: Technology, culture, and politics in Weimar and the Third Reich

By: Jeffrey Herf


“Germany did not suffer from too much reason, too much liberalism, too much Enlightenment, but rather from not enough of any of them.” (234)

About the book: The rise of modern science and technology is often associated with the spirit of rationalism that flowered during the Enlightenment. And this spirit not only served to drive science and technology but also helped to promote values of liberalism and tolerance. Yet, paradoxically, fascism embraced advances in science and technology while rejecting the other values of the Enlightenment. This gives rise to what Herf terms “reactionary modernism” wherein adoration for technology and science was treated as part of a broader project of nationalism. What Herf demonstrates is the ways in which the pastoralist “back to the soil” mythos of fascism was intertwined not with a rejection of technology but with it being embraced– albeit an embrace which treated technological advances as part of the national character which strengthened the national “soil.” The project of reactionary modernism was one which rejected “modern” values like democracy and equality, while eagerly seizing upon the power of “modern” techno-science. It is a philosophy that serves to seamlessly meld backwards looking traditionalism and conservatism with a forward looking attitude towards technology and science. In his analysis, Herf pays particular attention to thinkers like Oswald Spengler, Ernst Juenger, and Werner Sombart to demonstrate that – far from being anti-technology – these thinkers were advancing philosophies that did not reject technology (as such) but which looked to wield the power of technology in the name of nationalism. Beyond right-wing intellectuals, Herf considers the fascist engineers who had read those figures and who were able to forge ahead in their engineering endeavors while carrying the banner of fascism aloft. Reactionary Modernism is a cold reminder that scientific and technological progress can serve societal regression.

Why you should read it now: The early twentieth century was a period of intense interest in, and excitement about, the promises of techno-scientific advances. So, too, is the early twenty-first century. Herf’s book is a reminder that there is nothing automatically “progressive” about technological progress, and that rational scientists and engineers are not immune to the irrational appeals of fascism and nationalism.


Diary of a Man in Despair

By: Friedrich Percyval Reck-Malleczewen


“Nobody is moving to stop this before it is too late. It almost seems that they prefer to stand back and wait until the cobra breaks out. But I foresee a day when the nations will regret their cowardly passivity.” (59)

About the book: Reck-Malleczewen was a staunch conservative of aristocratic stock who pined for the reestablishment of the monarchy, and enjoyed associating with prominent thinkers of the conservative revolution like Oswald Spengler. Reck-Malleczewen also hated Nazism with a demonic passion born of his distaste for the fascist masses and his personal disgust with ranking Nazis. His diaries, which he maintained secretly, are a testament to his certainty that the Nazis would not be able to bring greatness but only apocalyptic destruction. And at many instances his book is tinted by a sort of longing for a cleansing fire that will obliterate the Nazis and their followers, as he puts it (in 1939) “this people is insane. It will pay dearly for its insanity. The air of this summer is full of foreboding, and fire and iron must heal what no physician can any longer cure” (76) and again (in 1942) “I am optimistic enough to believe that this black cloud which came up over our heads during the last century will some day disappear, even if only after years of apocalyptic horror” (148). Reck-Malleczewen, who was also an author of adventure stories for children, was something of a conservative romantic (which is not the same as a fascist romantic) and his diary is animated by a somber longing for a nobler past which has been destroyed by technology and the turning of people into masses. A well-connected and respected individual, Reck-Malleczewen’s diaries tell of his growing rage and dismay as he watches more and more individuals he had once known and respected falling sway to the appeals of the Nazis. Though his diaries tell of repeated run-ins with the Nazis (who knew he was no fan of theirs), when he was arrested in 1944 there was no one left to intercede on his behalf. He was taken to Dachau and murdered in February of 1944.

Why you should read it now: Diary of a Man in Despair provides a view of the rise and rule of fascism which is often overlooked – that of the conservative anti-fascist who may have briefly cheered the new power (a la Spengler) but subsequently turned away in bitter horror. As Reck-Malleczewen puts it “to be a conservative means to believe in the immutable laws of this old earth: this earth that will begin to shake and quake when the day comes to cleanse itself of all this filth” (107). Reck-Malleczewen knows the Nazis personally – but he is not interested in elegizing them, he is too busy damning them.


Modernity and the Holocaust

By: Zygmunt Bauman


“In the face of an unscrupulous team saddling the powerful machine of the modern state with its monopoly of physical violence and coercion, the most vaunted accomplishments of modern civilization failed as safeguards against barbarism. Civilization proved incapable of guaranteeing moral use of the awesome powers it brought into being.” (111)

About the book: It is comforting to think that the fascism of the twentieth century was a strange and aberrant moment in history that lies safely in the past. It is reassuring to believe that fascism was a brief period where people in a handful of countries were seized by irrationality. After all, such beliefs allow one to think that these were just strange occurrences that can be safely guarded against by typing “#NeverForget.” Bauman smashes such comforting reassurances. At the core of Bauman’s book is the argument that fascism, and the Holocaust in particular, is not an incident out of line with modernity but a thorough manifestation of modernity. Nazism may have revolved around irrationalism, but it was able to achieve such gruesome results through its successful seizing of the tools of rationality – science, technology, and bureaucracy. Bauman demonstrates how the victims of Nazism were caught up in the bureaucratic machinery of a seemingly rational system wherein people were reduced to nothing more than numbers –in which the guise of rationalism compelled people not to resist – and as Bauman emphasizes it was not only Jews who were swallowed up in this destructive machinery. It is not Bauman’s argument that modernity automatically leads to the Holocaust, but he demonstrates that when dangerous groups grab hold of the powerful control switches crafted by modernity…modernity itself proves incapable (or unwilling) of stopping them. Impressive advancements in science, technology, and methods of bureaucratic control do not necessarily entail advances in the types of moral responsibility required to check the destructive uses of such power. With this book, Bauman argues against a treatment of the Holocaust that simplifies it into a tragic tale of doomed martyrs – and emphasizes that people need to understand that atrocities like the Holocaust can easily become the end result of the smooth functioning of the machinery of modernity. As Bauman makes clear, it is comforting to think that horrors like the Holocaust can be treated as incidents in the past and not matters of concern for the future – but such would simply be wishful thinking.

Why you should read it now: At one point in Modernity and the Holocaust Bauman writes, “In 1988, it is unimaginable again. In 1988, however, we know what we did not know in 1941; that also the unimaginable ought to be imagined” (85). This book makes uncomfortably clear how the tools of civilization that promise to allow people to reach new heights, often just wind up taking people to ever more abyssal depths. A devastating and fascinating argument against the normalization of fascism and a dire warning against entrusting massive power in the hands of those incapable of using it responsibly – Modernity and the Holocaust is a reminder that the past is not as safely ensconced in the past as we might like to think. Zygmunt Bauman died in the early weeks of 2017 – but this book (and his other work) are a harrowing warning of what may come.


Male Fantasies

By: Klaus Theweleit













“We need to understand and combat fascism not because so many fell victim to it, not because it stands in the way of the triumph of socialism, not even because it might “return again,” but primarily because, as a form of reality production that is constantly present and possible under determinate conditions, it can, and does, become our production.” (v. 1, 221)

About the book: Fascism did not spring fully formed from the firmament – and nor for that matter do fascists emerge from the womb uniformed and shouting slogans. Thus, Theweleit investigates fascism by focusing on the groups and individuals that went on to become fascists. The two volumes of Male Fantasies are a sort of history of proto-fascism, these books focus primarily on the men who made up the Freikorps (right wing militias composed largely of WWI veterans that suppressed the German Revolution and battled the Weimar Republic) – men who would go on to be early and enthusiastic supporters of the Third Reich. Theweleit does not provide a simple history of the Freikorps, or of Weimar Germany, instead he focuses on the stories that were told and circulated amongst the Freikorps members in the form of novels and periodicals. By reading these works Theweleit is able to dredge up the underlying fantasies of these proto-fascist men (hence the book’s title). Theweleit contrasts their anxious obsession with women (and their hatred of the “soft” and “feminine”) with the deification of violence, action and the hard metal of war machinery. What Theweleit finds is that the men who would go on to commit atrocities had been dreaming of committing those atrocities long before they donned armbands emblazoned with swastikas. And that these fantasies were not simply private and secret. These men had been partaking in, and creating, a culture in which hatred of women (particularly “red” women), valorization of violence, and a desire for a strong leader were all powerful forces. These were men who found in fascism an outlet to do what they wanted – no wonder they enthusiastically joined.

Why you should read it now: These two books are not easy reads. Not because they are stodgy theoretical tomes, but because Theweleit quotes liberally from his proto-fascist source material while also making use of many quite disturbing images. What makes these books of so much continuing importance is the seriousness with which Theweleit treats “fantasies.” These books are a warning that you should take seriously the things that people say. In short: those “fantasies” that populate memes, comment sections, and message boards may not seem so dangerous now – but they may represent very real desires which are just chomping at the bit to be unleashed. Theweleit’s book is a warning: the dreams of the proto-fascist become the actions of the fully armed fascist.


The Need for Roots

By: Simone Weil


“Today, science, history, politics, the organization of labor, religion even, in so far as it is marked by the Roman defilement, offer nothing to men’s minds except brute force. Such is our civilization. It is a tree which bears the fruit it deserves.” (291)

About the book: What comes after fascism is defeated? What is built upon the ruins it has sown? And, perhaps most importantly, what needs to be done to ensure that fascism is dead and not merely hibernating? Written in the last year of her life (1943), Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots is an attempt to put forth a, sort of, program for rebuilding after fascism is defeated. Importantly, this is not a simple programmatic account of “first do A and then do B.” Instead, Weil couches her argument in a fiercely ethical view that takes as its key component the idea that all humans have “obligations” to one another based solely upon the fact of their shared humanity. From this Weil constructs a challenging and iconoclastic set of “needs of the soul” which includes everything from “liberty” and “responsibility” to “freedom of opinion” and “private property” – “security” and “risk” are both amongst the “needs” she identifies. Weil argues that modern society has caused people to become “uprooted” – lost, alienated, despairing – and thus she argues that what is needed is for people to regrow their “roots.” After all, it is the “uprooted” who are easily gathered up in the hands of a dictator – those who maintain “roots” are not so easy to pull up. To Weil, much of modern society runs directly counter to people’s ability to grow “roots” – and she sees rampant consumerism, mass culture, the deification of the state and money as all being inimical to the need for roots. Of particular importance to Weil is history, and she sees a genuine knowledge of the past in all of its grim unpleasantness as being a key way for people to once more grow “roots.” Tinted with ascetic flourishes and a heavy helping of spirituality – Weil’s argument for what is needed is not an easy one to digest. But her point is that the work that is needed is difficult.

Why you should read it now: About a third of the way through The Need for Roots, Weil writes “a lot of things can be said about our misfortune, but not that it is undeserved” (86). Those are troubling words. Yet it seems that they push towards an uncomfortable question: given the state of the world – what did we think was going to happen? And if what we had hoped for didn’t happen – why didn’t it? Weil’s book is an ethically based attack on the sorts of societies that produce authoritarian figures and produce people unable to resist the appeal of such figures. Yet, what makes her book particularly worth reading is not the portions in which Weil is on the attack, but the parts where she lays out a program for reconstruction. Her book is valuable not just because it explains the mess, but because it explains what must be done (if we get through the mire) to rebuild.


Dialectic of Enlightenment

By: Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno


“A fascist does not like to be spoken to. When others have their say, he takes it as an impudent interruption. He is impervious to reason because he recognizes it only in concessions made by others.” (174)

“The leaders have become fully what they always were slightly throughout the bourgeois era, actors playing leaders.” (197)

About the book: In the preface to their book, Horkheimer and Adorno state their project’s goal: “What we had set out to do was nothing less than to explain why humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism” (xiv). It was a task which the two authors picked up with courage, harshness, and with a sense that fealty to the truth of their project was more important than providing readers with reassurances. They question the ways in which the freedom that was supposedly ushered in by the Enlightenment only served to entrap people in new prisons – the old myths of the gods were battered only to be replaced by fresh myths of the national community and capital. The vaunted values of modern civilization – reason and rationality – were themselves revealed as myths being used to prop up a new class of rulers, just as earlier myths had served the interest of an older ruling caste. The resurgence of (or relapse into) barbarism was a revolt against the failure of the Enlightenment values; they had promised freedom, self-determination, and techno-scientific abundance but had delivered only the freedom to consume. Barbarism succeeded by appealing to the irrational emotions that the Enlightenment had tried to suppress, but to which the Enlightenment had failed to offer a real alternative – “kindness and good deeds become a sin, domination and suppression virtue” (81). Beyond attacking the failure of the Enlightenment and the making of new myths, Horkheimer and Adorno found much of the explanation they sought in the rise of mass culture, which provided “enlightenment as mass deception.” To them, mass culture helped turn already alienated masses of people into docile consumers, carefully trained to follow the commands of clownish television personalities. Mass culture deadened the critical faculties of individuals and made them easy targets for the appeals of the would-be dictator – or at least unable to mount a real resistance. And insofar as there were numerous options made available by mass culture, they warned “something is provided for everyone so that no one can escape” (97). While the hatred of maligned groups, spoke to them of a desperate drive to banish any evidence of difference from society. Horkheimer and Adorno sought to explain why humanity was “sinking into a new kind of barbarism” – and they warned that there was more to this barbarism than just men wearing jackboots.

Why you should read it now: Adorno and Horkheimer are bogeymen – often ignored for their cultural elitism and pessimism. A standard tactic against them is to vilify their assault on mass culture. Which makes sense. Anyone who enjoys watching movies, television programs, or listening to popular music is likely to chafe against an argument that states that all of those things are making people easy targets for fascism. But it seems today (to paraphrase Adorno) that the duo are now having their revenge by having been proven correct. They saw the current mess coming. Dialectic of Enlightenment is a book that will make you uncomfortable. It is a book that should make you uncomfortable. It is also a book that you really should read.


About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul @libshipwreck

2 comments on “Understanding Fascism – making sense of dark times

  1. David F
    January 20, 2017

    Off the top f my head, I’d add Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times; Bauman’s Liquid Modernity; Primo Levi, If Not Now, When?; Ernst Junger, The Forest Passage. Perhaps some Bonhoffer would be good too.

  2. Louise
    January 30, 2017

    Great post; might I add, for recent American history, John W. Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience.

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This entry was posted on January 20, 2017 by in Activism, Capitalism, Culture, Education, Ethics, History, Impending Doom, Philosophy, Technology, US Politics and tagged , , , .

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