LONDON — Hundreds of thousands of words have been expended on the character, ideology and crimes of Europe’s prewar fascist dictators.
Rather less attention, however, has been paid to the foot soldiers of the far-right movements that warped the continent’s politics in the 1930s and helped plunge it into conflict at the end of the decade.
A newly opened exhibition at London’s Wiener Holocaust Library seeks to address this gap by focusing on the experiences of rank-and-file members of fascist parties in the interwar years, examining their motivations and activities.
“This Fascist Life: Radical Right Movements in Interwar Europe,” which runs until February 4, 2022, and is being staged in association with the European Fascist Movements 1918-1941 project, also seeks to throw a light on what contemporary lessons can be learned from the past in the wake of the rise of the far right in present-day Europe.
“It seemed a timely moment to look at supporters of far-right nationalist groups and what motivated them,” says Dr. Barbara Warnock, the Wiener Holocaust Library’s senior curator and head of education. “Obviously the situation now is different and historical circumstances don’t repeat exactly but, at the same time, with somewhat similar phenomena in some cases being seen it seemed to be a good moment to try and investigate the historical case.”
Warnock adds that the curators were also keen to range beyond the traditional focus on Germany and Austria to show that fascist movements were found across Europe. Moreover, even where they were not in power, fascist movements such as the Croix-de-Feu in France — whose membership peaked at around 1 million — were able to generate substantial amounts of popular support.
A man’s world
As the exhibition makes clear, interwar fascism had a broad appeal that crossed social groups. However, it does appear to have been especially appealing to men rather than women and young rather than older people. World War I veterans and the lower middle classes, whose dashed hopes of exercising power and influence in the newly established interwar democracies provoked disillusionment and disenchantment, were particularly attracted by far-right movements.
Fascist movements were “male-centered and misogynistic,” according to the exhibition, and emphasized muscular notions of masculinity. This is encapsulated by the striking cover of a July 1936 edition of the British Union of Fascists’ “Action” newspaper that leads with the story “The Return of Manhood.”
The role of women in fascist movements was predictably complex and differed according to the national setting. Idealized primarily as mothers and wives — and urged to reject “Jewish fashion” and makeup — they normally played a subservient role to men. In Italy and Austria, for instance, fascist parties established women’s sections and downgraded the role of women. Most fascist movements were also opposed to women working or voting.
But this picture wasn’t uniform. In Britain and Romania, for instance, fascist movements hailed their female activists. There was no doubt a degree of pragmatism involved: women had already been granted the right to vote in Britain in 1918. In France, Marie Thérèse Moreau, the secretary-general of the lawyers’ association and an active member of the far-right Jeunesses Patriotes, pushed for fascists to back women’s suffrage on the basis that they did not want to lose support to the Communists.
Conservative women’s groups in some countries oscillated towards the far right. The Federation of Austrian Women’s Associations — which campaigned for women’s rights — became increasingly associated with nationalist parties and eventually merged with the “Austrofascist” Fatherland Front.
However, the association between women’s groups and fascist movements sometimes spectacularly backfired. The conservative Lithuanian Catholic Women’s Organization campaigned for equal rights for women. However, its backing for the 1926 coup which ushered in Antanas Smetona’s right-wing authoritarian regime was rewarded by the government curtailing women’s rights and employment.
The exhibition also highlights a series of other paradoxes and contradictions in fascism which, perhaps, helped fuel its appeal by giving movements a degree of adaptability and allowing people to perceive them as they wished.
Most fascists were united by a series of core ideas: the concept of national renewal, an aversion to democracy and support for a “strong” leader, racism and antisemitism, and a belief that the rights of the group trumped those of the individual. But, as the exhibition demonstrates, in reality fascist leaders wrote down the ideas their movements were supposedly committed to long after they had been formed and grown to prominence.
Benito Mussolini’s “Doctrine of Fascism” was, for instance, written in 1932 — a decade after he came to power and 17 years after he founded the Fasci di Azione Rivoluzionaria. Similarly, the Romanian fascist leader Corneliu Zelea Codreanu established the Iron Guard nine years before publishing “For My Legionaries.” This apparent disparity was seemingly captured by Codreanu’s suggestion in the book that “this country is dying because it lacks men, not because it lacks [political] programs.” Nonetheless, once published, the books were avidly devoured and quoted from by fascist activists, and the beliefs enunciated in them treated as infallible.
As the exhibition notes, however, political motivations, such as a belief in far-right ideas, a fear of communism, or the supposed success of Hitler and Mussolini, were just one factor among many that led people to become fascists. Many of the reasons, it posits, were, in fact, rather more mundane.
Some joined up because family or friends were already activists, others because they liked the social activities the movement offered.
“Fascist movements had networks of sporting clubs, gyms, social activities, cycling clubs, all sorts of things, and sometimes people got involved because… they joined a club and because they enjoyed the activities,” says Warnock.
Indeed, grassroots fascists were encouraged to engage in a range of sporting activities — from training in gyms to boxing, hiking, and playing in football tournaments — with the aim of helping to fashion the “new man” who would assume future leadership roles.
Fascists often formed sporting groups or founded movements on the back of such groups. Niels Bukh, the well-known Danish gymnastics coach, backed the Nazis — a stance that made him unpopular after the occupation of the country in 1940 — and saw gymnastics as a way to improve the health of the Aryan race. In Czechoslovakia, Konrad Henlein, later the gauleiter of Sudetenland, formed his Sudeten German Home Front from a gymnastics association. And when they established the “brown shirt” SA in 1921, the Nazis initially described it as “a gymnastics and sports section.”
Some fascist activists, however, wanted rather more demanding forms of physical activity. Romanian fascist students, for example, worked in brickworks when attending their summer camps. Most Romanian fascists hailed from peasant backgrounds and claimed that farm labor meant they had no need to build physical strength through gymnastics.
“The networks of social organizations that fascist movements had were quite consciously trying to keep people involved and connected with the movement,” believes Warnock.
Others — especially WWI veterans or those who were younger but were inspired by militarism — were attracted to fascism by its quasi-military rituals, including its uniforms and spectacular torch-lit parades. These uniforms and marches were designed to act as both a means to strengthen the bond between members and to act — quite literally — as “walking advertisements” for the movement.
Violence and democracy
Efforts by governments to curtail such activities by instituting uniform bans occasionally took a somewhat farcical turn. In 1937, for instance, the Romanian government barred the wearing of black, blue, green, white, yellow, purple, violet, cherry or red shirts — colors linked with political parties.
But, believes Warnock, for some people “literally an interest in street violence and violence was the motivation” for joining fascist movements. As the exhibition notes, the fascists’ celebration of violence disguised the fact that they often preferred to celebrate past battles rather than engage in new ones. Nor did the fact that fascists provoked violence — frequently assaulting Jews and attacking their homes, businesses and places of worship — stop them from painting themselves as victims of the brutality of the police and their political opponents. Those who died in the violence they instigated, for instance, often received large funerals and were portrayed as martyrs.
Despite their expressed loathing for democracy, many fascist parties put themselves on the ballot. However, in some countries, there was an apparent tension between fascists attempting to vie in elections and their members’ enthusiasm for street brawls and violence. When the British Union of Fascists, for instance, held its largest-ever gathering — 10,000 people packed into London’s Olympia Stadium in June 1934 — the meeting’s descent into violence between the organizer’s bouncers and anti-fascist protesters earned Oswald Mosley’s party a deserved reputation for thuggery that it was never able to shake off.
A handful of fascist movements — most notoriously the Nazis — proved highly skilled campaigners and pioneered new techniques. For other fascist parties, success in elections proved a double-edged sword. The strong showing by Romania’s two rival fascist parties in the 1937 general election, for instance, led King Carol to suspend the constitution and institute a royal dictatorship. Some far-right movements — such as Ireland’s Blueshirts or the Rexist party in Belgium — found electoral failure to be ultimately fatal to their viability.
Fascists may only have managed to form governments in a small number of European countries in the 1930s, but after the outbreak of World War II their impact was nonetheless devastating.
Decades of antisemitic fascist propaganda helped pave the way for the Final Solution, while disparate national fascist movements found common cause, says Warnock, in implementing “a very murderous, racist fascist agenda across Europe.” Previously marginal political figures found themselves elevated to positions of power as their countries fell directly under German rule or allied themselves to the Axis powers. Meanwhile, the foot soldiers of prewar fascist movements — such as Romania’s Iron Guard and Croatia’s Ustaše — proved themselves to be willing and enthusiastic accomplices in the Holocaust.
Despite the differences in the political backdrop, Warnock believes there are some contemporary lessons that can be drawn from the interwar experience.
“Politicians should resist the temptation to legitimize extremist rhetoric whether against minorities or migrants,” she says. “Democratic institutions and norms should be valued. Moves that might undermine the legitimacy of democracy — for example, through questioning election results that are actually legitimate — are quite dangerous. There is also a broader point about looking at groups that are alienated for whatever reason and trying to avoid that situation.”
Moreover, while the mediums through which they are transmitted have changed radically since the 1920s and 1930, the problem of tackling the “dissemination of inaccurate, distorting, hate-filled conspiratorial thought” remains very current, Warnock says.
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.