Fascism and justice
March 22, 2011 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Do fascists and/or nationalists believe in justice?

I was watching a WWII documentary a while back and it left me wondering: while their "rationale" for committing such mass atrocities are incomprehensible at best, do they base it on some form or conception of justice? After thinking about this I'm unsure whether to class them as fascists or nationalists, hence the question above.
posted by espada0 to Law & Government (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
From what I understand, the Nazi atrocities over the Jews were, (to the propaganda department at least) an act of justice to rid the country of their crimes, namely, weakening Germany, concentrating wealth, losing the Great War and perhaps dozens of other crimes, from perceptive to plain-out fabricated.

I think what the Nazis wanted to prove was that the Jews were essentially a race of criminals deserving punishment on a large scale (mass extermination of them would perhaps be the "apt punishment" for the generations of Jewish crime, leading to the deaths of thousands of Germans, by both war or poverty).

But then that's what the propaganda department would tell you. Did Hitler want to exterminate the Jews (and other races) for a different reason altogether? It's probably something only he could tell.
posted by Senza Volto at 12:39 PM on March 22, 2011

Who is "they" and what kind of atrocities are you talking about? Do you mean the Nazi death camps?

Regardless, an important concept to understand is that "they" is you. You believe with total conviction that you would never do such things. You believe that you have a moral compass. You are wrong.

Milgram Experiment
Stanford Experiment
posted by -harlequin- at 12:41 PM on March 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

What are we talking about when you say 'conception of justice?' That means a great many things to a great many different people.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:57 PM on March 22, 2011

Here's an explanation from Hannah Arendt's 1968 book The Origins of Totaliarianism, starting at pg. 461 (found by searching in the book for the word "justice"; copied and pasted the text from here):
It is the monstrous, yet seemingly unanswerable claim of totalitarian rule that, far from being "lawless," it goes to the sources of authority from which positive laws received their ultimate legitimation, that far from being arbitrary it is more obedient to these suprahuman forces than any government ever was before, and that far from wielding its power in the interest of one man, it is quite prepared to sacrifice everybody’s vital immediate interests to the execution of what it assumes to be the law of History or the law of Nature. Its defiance of positive laws claims to be a higher form of legitimacy which, since it is inspired by the sources themselves, can do away with petty legality. Totalitarian lawfulness pretends to have found a way to establish the rule of justice on earth - something which the legality of positive law admittedly could never attain. The discrepancy between legality and justice could never be bridged because the standards of right and wrong into which positive law translates its own source of authority - "natural law" governing the whole universe, or divine law revealed in human history, or customs and traditions expressing the law common to the sentiments of all men - are necessarily general and must be valid for a countless and unpredictable number of cases, so that each concrete individual case with its unrepeatable set of circumstances somehow escapes it.

Totalitarian lawfulness, defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or of Nature without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior. It applies the law directly to mankind without bothering with the behavior of men. The law of Nature or the law of History, if properly executed, is expected to produce mankind as its end product; and this expectation lies behind the claim to global rule of all totalitarian governments. Totalitarian policy claims to transform the human species into an active unfailing carrier of a law to which human beings otherwise would only passively and reluctantly be subjected. If it is true that the link between totalitarian countries and the civilized world was broken through the monstrous crimes of totalitarian regimes, it is also true that this criminality was not due to simple aggressiveness, ruthlessness, warfare and treachery, but to a conscious break of that consensus juris which, according to Cicero, constitutes a "people," and which, as international law, in modern times has constituted the civilized world insofar as it remains the foundation-stone of international relations even under the conditions of war. Both moral judgment and legal punishment presuppose this basic consent; the criminal can be judged justly only because he takes part in the consensus juris and even the revealed law of God can function among men only when they listen and consent to it.

At this point the fundamental difference between the totalitarian and all other concepts of law comes to light. Totalitarian policy does not replace one set of laws with another, does not establish its own consensus iuris, does not create, by one revolution, a new form of legality. Its defiance of all, even its own positive laws implies that it believes it can do without any consensus juris whatever, and still not resign itself to the tyrannical state of lawlessness, arbitrariness and fear. It can do without the consensus juris because it promises to release the fulfillment of law from all action and will of man; and it promises justice on earth because it claims to make mankind itself the embodiment of the law.

This identification of man and law, which seems to cancel the discrepancy between legality and justice that has plagued legal thought since ancient times, has nothing in common with the lumen naturale or the voice of conscience, by which Nature or Divinity as the sources of authority for the ius naturale or the historically revealed commands of God, are supposed to announce their authority in man himself. This never made man a walking embodiment of the law, but on the contrary remained distinct from him as the authority which demanded consent and obedience. Nature or Divinity as the source of authority for positive laws were thought of as permanent and eternal; positive laws were changing and changeable according to circumstances, but they possessed a relative permanence as compared with the much, mote rapidly changing actions of men; and they derived this permanence from the eternal presence of their source of authority. Positive laws, therefore, are primarily designed to function as stabilizing factors for the cver changing movements of men.

... When the Nazis talked about the law of nature or when the Bolsheviks talk about the law of history, neither nature nor history is any longer the stabilizing source of authority for the actions of mortal men; they are movements in themselves. Underlying the Nazis’ belief in race laws as the expression of the law of nature in man, is Darwin’s idea of man as the product of a natural development which does not necessarily stop with the present species of human beings, just as under the Bolsheviks’ belief in class-struggle as the expression of the law of history lies Marx’s notion of society as the product of a gigantic historical movement which races according to its own law of motion to the end of historical times when it will abolish itself.
posted by John Cohen at 1:01 PM on March 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

Every Fascism was different, but yes, of course they believed in "justice". In the Spanish civil war, for instance, the right-wing Nationalist side and the Falange (who came to draw substantially from Mussolini's ideology and practice) depended a great deal on the idea of returning justice, and law and order, to a Spain wracked by anarchy, lawlessness and "Bolshevism".

It was a series of high-profile extrajudicial political murders—Calvo Sotelo in particular—which precipitated the military rising of 1936, and from the very start they portrayed Republican/"Red" atrocities against priests, members of religious orders and landowners as examples of intolerable injustice and casus belli.

I think what interests you, and what happened in the Spanish War, was that this ideology of justice and order became subsumed to different ideas about having a national "Crusade" against anti-Spanish influence, in gutter anti-Semitism, and to the violent national "hygiene" ideas that were so popular with the other European Fascist social movements.

They talked justice and believed it sincerely, but purged their enemies regardless of process. In fact one of the fascinating inversions of the time was that Republican soldiers and officers tried before Nationalist summary courts-martial before execution were generally accused of "Rebelión Militar" (insurrection), the very thing that Franco and his other Generals were guilty of.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 1:04 PM on March 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

You should read The Anatomy of Fascism. It's a great book, and it helps rescue the term "fascism" from simply (and unhelpfully) meaning "evil."

The short answer is that of course most fascists believed in justice. What's especially creepy about fascism is not that it is so alien and monstrous, but rather that it grows out of recognizable human feelings and values.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:55 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

What everyone seems to forget is that everyone is human (to a certain degree. I'm sure there are some decent enough counter examples, but I don't think any of the big nation leaders that you see thrown about qualify): You. Me. Sticherbeast. Obama. Bush. Stalin. Hitler.

You need to separate the Holocaust from the political ideology. Fascism is as valid of a political theory as Marxism, as Anarchism, as Western representative democracy, as Athenian democracy, as state capitalism, etc.

Marxism believes that the elimination of class is the best for the good of society, whereas Fascism see that solidarity in our class differences is the best for the good society. As a faithful Marxist, I can safely say that their belief is just as valid as mine, or any other political ideology for that matter. (Admittedly we all commit ourselves to certain ideologies because when we theoretically dig deep enough we come to certain conclusions, but to a certain intellectual severity this equality holds true.)

I really can't answer your "true" question specifically, but I hope to at least point you to understanding the flaw in your question. Of course Fascists and Nationalists believe in justice. These "mass atrocities" you speak of are not a necessity of these political ideologies. Though I don't mean to fully separate the atrocity from the ideology. The Holocaust happened for historically logical reasons, and I know as a fact that there is a wealth of literature already out there on what those reasons are, but these details are unimportant in first trying to understand the general logic behind these ideologies.
posted by SollosQ at 4:08 PM on March 22, 2011

  • In spite of some fuzziness regarding the difference between various historical forms of fascism, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it...
    Umberto Eco, "Eternal Fascism: 14 Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt"
  • For the purpose of this perspective, I will consider the following regimes: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Papadopoulos’s Greece, Pinochet’s Chile, and Suharto’s Indonesia. To be sure, they constitute a mixed bag of national identities, cultures, developmental levels, and history. But they all followed the fascist or protofascist model in obtaining, expanding, and maintaining power. Further, all these regimes have been overthrown, so a more or less complete picture of their basic characteristics and abuses is possible.

    Analysis of these seven regimes reveals fourteen common threads that link them in recognizable patterns of national behavior and abuse of power. These basic characteristics are more prevalent and intense in some regimes than in others, but they all share at least some level of similarity...

    -Lawrence Britt, "Fascism Anyone?"
  • From these articles defining the general characteristics of Fascism, they don't seem to believe in abstract notions of universal justice. Rather, the regime is right, what it wants is righteous, and anyone who disagrees is a traitor, and justice for traitors is death.

    Besides, if you think to hard about the details you're an intellectual. And the intellectuals are part of the problem that has kept [COUNTRY] down, them along with [MINORITY GROUP]. TRAITORS! You in the glasses, up against the wall!

    Fascism is anti-intellectual, pro-action/-violence. Justice (when more than "The regime is right") is game for bespectacled egg-heads, not heroes bent on saving the country, no matter the costs.
    posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 5:49 PM on March 22, 2011

    The basic question of moral philosophy is how to identify what systems and institutions are 'good'. If you believe in the idea of monarchy, for example, then democracy looks like an assault on the very foundations of society - hence the historical assertion of 'the divine right of kings,' equating the practical fact of an incumbent monarch with the will of God, and thus at least as important as the commandment about not killing people.

    Excuses for pretty much any kind of mass persecution can be asserted on the theory that the alternative involves the persecuted people doing something unspeakably worse to a benign majority: Indians will scalp your children, Jews will eat babies, Islamists will nuke us all, and so on. It seems astonishing that sufficient people would take these suggested doom seriously enough to acquiesce or even support obviously brutal repression of the target group, but that's only because their concerns look remote and quaint through the lens of hindsight (in which we realize that it hasn't actually happened since then). At the time, the issue seemed new and unpredictable, so it was easier to persuade people about the probability of a worst-case scenario.

    Sticking with the Holocaust, remember it wasn't just a matter of Nazis walking up to random German people and saying 'Hey! See that Jewish person? Did you know they're actually evil?!' Instead, Nazi ideology mixed together folk myths, religious prejudice, and intercultural ignorance with modern but poorly understood discoveries about genetics, anxiety about communists (who had recently staged a bloody revolution, and created a large number of refugees eager to testify about how horrible it was), massive economic insecurity at a time when economists knew much less about how currencies and treasuries functioned, and legitimate unhappiness with the rather unfair and heavy-handed obligations slapped upon Germany after WW1. Now we can say that if the Germans had rejected Hitler and stuck with the moderate path for another ten years, prosperity would have returned, but at the time the country looked to be in a state of total collapse. People are willing to cling to certainty at such times, even if the price of the certainty is the exclusion of some vulnerable minority.

    These are perennial issues, and relevant to the study of any society, including our own. In 50 or 100 years many people might ask how those in the developed world could possibly sleep at night while allowing the climate to overheat, or allowing a multigenerational war to go in the Middle East, or (fill in the blank). I think you will save yourself an awful lot of time and confusion by reading the dialogs of Socrates, as recorded by Plato - in particular, Phaedrus, in which Socrates establishes the difficulty of identifying what is 'good', the Apology, in which Socrates asserts the value and necessity of dissent from the prevailing norm, and Crito, in which Socrates refuses to escape his prison and imminent execution, because to do so would make it too easy for his detractors to dismiss his ideas as the self-serving arguments of a criminal.
    posted by anigbrowl at 5:52 PM on March 22, 2011

    while their "rationale" for committing such mass atrocities are incomprehensible at best

    I don't think it's incomprehensible to want people you hate to die, and I can see pretty easily why you might want people you believe are responsible for committing terrible crimes to suffer a terrible punishment. I utterly reject the basis of their hatred and their claims about crimes against [insert glorious state], naturally, but once the hate or the belief is there, I don't see anything that's incompatible with contemporary view about justice.

    And it's very easy to slip from a more noble morality into a consequentialist view of justice, too; rationally, I know that putting a bullet through Gadaffi's head, for example, is wrong, but in practice I wouldn't bat an eyelid if it happened, would feel it was 'deserved' and that he'd met a just end. Find the right switch - and for the vast majority of people, it's something as small as 'this is necessary' - and we're all capable of horrifying things.
    posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:04 PM on March 22, 2011

    Response by poster: Of course, the desire itself is not incomprehensible, but when that desire breaks free of the individual that harboured it, and acts upon his desires, can that be justified? While we can entertain the idea that justice is ultimately arbitrary and subjective, surely there must be an overall moral standard that people adhere to. If so, then fascists do not believe in justice right, since they readily violate the abovementioned moral standard?
    posted by espada0 at 4:47 AM on March 24, 2011

    While we can entertain the idea that justice is ultimately arbitrary and subjective, surely there must be an overall moral standard that people adhere to.

    Surely? Why surely? Who determines what the overall moral standard is? Based on what? Amd what about people/cultures that disagree with that standard?

    Universities devote entire semesters of Philosophy classes to the questions of "What is justice and how do we define it". We could just as easily "entertain" the idea that there is an overall moral standard that people adhere to, and have just as much evidence to conclude "But that's not really how the world is."

    If George Washington's army had lost, he would have been hanged as a traitor to his King and a terrorist. He would have been the Osama Bin Laden of his age. And by the standards of the day, that would have been justice.
    posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:39 AM on March 24, 2011

    Your original question was whether or not fascists believed in justice. That is a question about their own subjective beliefs. It is a very different question from whether or not fascists "actually" carried out or valued justice. As PBZM points out, ethics is an enormous topic in philosophy. You should read an introductory text on the subject to grapple with that question.
    posted by Sticherbeast at 8:43 AM on March 24, 2011

    Response by poster: Indeed, if according to what PBZM has said, that justice as a concept is ultimately constructivist and relativistic, and that there is not an "overall moral standard", can we assess that the war crimes as committed by Hitler and his Nazis were in some way appropriate because what we see as justice is really just normative, and hence justified? I would like to think that the amount of attention, dissent, and retaliation directed towards Nazi Germany would imply that there is a standard of justice. It would be hard to believe that Hitler did not expect any response from his actions, he knew he was risking the massive arousal of arms from other nations because he was breaking the rules. The fact that he carried on with his actions despite the risks shows that at the very least, he recognizes the existence of such a standard, and is going against it. So is it possible to state that fascists believe in justice to the extent that their actions represent an antithesis to the world's standards? Can one act against something if that something does not exist in one's conception of reality?
    posted by espada0 at 10:22 AM on March 24, 2011

    I would like to think that the amount of attention, dissent, and retaliation directed towards Nazi Germany would imply that there is a standard of justice. It would be hard to believe that Hitler did not expect any response from his actions, he knew he was risking the massive arousal of arms from other nations because he was breaking the rules. The fact that he carried on with his actions despite the risks shows that at the very least, he recognizes the existence of such a standard, and is going against it.

    It seems to me you're looking for a reasoned, internally consistent argument. You want to understand the logic. Fascism is inherently irrational and self-contradictory. That's part of why they all collapse in the end.

    Nations of Nietzschean übermenschen are not bound by the conceptions of justice promulgated by lesser nations populated by barely-more-than-apes. To them, the question you're posing makes no sense.

    Of course, when those BMTAs have more resources and the industrial might of mid-20th C USA behind them, concepts of justice become HELLA important.

    Can one act against something if that something does not exist in one's conception of reality?

    Probably not. But one can be in line with ones own sense of right and just while being in conflict with a neighbor's sense of the same.
    posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:23 AM on March 24, 2011

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