What historical models did contemporaries compare the Nazis/Fascists to?
April 29, 2021 4:07 PM   Subscribe

Nazis, and fascists more generally, are a familiar historical/cultural trope that we often use to think about current events. What historical models did people at the time use to make sense of them?

It's basically a cliche by now (which is not to say it isn't warranted!) to think of the rise of anti-democratic forces, populism etc. through the lens of fascism. We're familiar enough with the history of 1920s-30s Europe that it's a handy trope for people to invoke, argue about etc. in discussing current history. For people of that time, were there earlier parallels that they used to try to understand what was going on around them?

I can't think of a particularly good model that would have been available (at least not in terms of a free democratic society falling into totalitarianism), but I'm no historian. Did people say "Oh, this Hitler guy is basically like Napoleon/Cromwell/??", or was there a sense that they were living through something that was totally without historical precedent?

I'm asking about opponents of fascism, not fascists' own historical mythologizing as in Mussolini being the heir to the Roman Republic or whatever.
posted by zeri to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A related question from 15 years ago (good lord): Who was Hitler before Hitler?

Not exactly what you're asking, I don't think, but maybe offers some food for thought.
posted by dismas at 4:48 PM on April 29

I collect school stories from the interwar period. These were written for and about teenage girls and do not often reference contemporary events.

I can think of an instance of Hitler being compared to Napoleon. It's in a Chalet School book, written no later than the early 1940s set with mainly English characters either in Austria or after the lead characters have left Austria for England following the Anschluss. The main character Joey has always been a fan of Napoleon, and another character suggests that life under Napoleon may not have felt much better than life under Hitler, and that Hitler has Napoleonic ambitions. The books in the series are explicitly anti-fascist and anti-Nazi, and include references to concentration camps, and anti-semitic laws, but the full horrors of the holocaust would I think not have been known by the author at the point that this story was written. The fleeting concentration camp references accurately match elements of 1930s Dachau. Another earlier book in the same series featuring a German girl called Thekla describes disparagingly the "new spirit" infecting Germany, which is intended a reference to Nazi ideology.

In another, earlier book I have by a different author (that I think was written in the 1920s), the important male adult speaks very positively about Italy under Mussolini and the benefits of having a "strong man" in charge. There may be a reference to figures such as Julius Caesar as a comparison but I couldn't swear to it. At the end of the book the protagonists move to Australia, with the important male adult as their stepfather, where they can become strong characters in a young country. This clearly harks back to the earlier mentions of Mussolini.

Sorry I can't be more specific, my books are currently boxed up, and I just can't remember the titles confidently.
posted by plonkee at 4:49 PM on April 29 [6 favorites]

I think most commonly he was understood in terms of the "militaristic Prussian" tradition running back to Bismarck. Most people don't like to think they're living through a period of world-historical awfulness.
posted by praemunire at 5:16 PM on April 29

I was shocked when Victor Klemperer in his famous diaries of life under the Nazis, compared the ideology of Hitler to Zionism. I was surprised that someone of Jewish descent would be writing that in the 1940s. I had assumed it was a later creation of formalized antisemitism.
posted by Glomar response at 5:53 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]

Probably the most common comparison they made was to The Hun from the earlier world war. Nobody much made a deal about what Hitler was doing to the Jews in the media. If that had been in the public consciousness, the Allied countries would not have been complicit in the Holocaust when they denied immigration. For most people it was a matter of "the Germans are at it again."

Hitler was often compared the Kaiser, simply because he was the one who headed the German government. The Germans were much cited for committing atrocities in Belgium during the first war, and some people may have had a dim idea of the mass murder committed in South West Africa just after the turn of the century, but genocide of the "lesser" peoples was not something that shocked a lot of English speaking people because of their own history of doing it to the natives of their own colonies. It was instead more of a point of pride - Our Boys had a glorious victory over the Savages! The atrocities that inflamed them was of civilian refugees being dive bombed and machine gunned. It was the things that happened to people they could identify with.

One of the several reasons that Germany was partitioned after the war was to ensure that the Germans would not do it again. There was a belief that a unified German would unilaterally start another World War every twenty years or so, if allowed to do it. The Second World War was seen very much as a continuation of the First World War; depending on who you talked to, either we should have stuck it to them much harder after the first War, or we were asking for it, sticking them with too harsh reparations.

Until the Second World War was on-going, the First World War was popularly known as the Great War; because the two were linked so closely the first war was given a new name. You'll see this reflected on monuments for the fallen that were erected after the Great War.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:09 PM on April 29 [3 favorites]

I was shocked when Victor Klemperer in his famous diaries of life under the Nazis, compared the ideology of Hitler to Zionism.

Joseph Roth, writing before WWII, considered Zionism just another form of the nationalism he deemed responsible for much of the world's evil. (His preferred alternative was a restoration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)
posted by praemunire at 7:38 PM on April 29 [4 favorites]

In Frank Capra’s « Why We Fight: The Nazis Strike » the comparison is to Gengis Khan and his « barbarian hordes ». You can hear it just before the four minute mark.
posted by Cuke at 7:54 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]

In another, earlier book I have by a different author (that I think was written in the 1920s), the important male adult speaks very positively about Italy under Mussolini and the benefits of having a "strong man" in charge.

Yeah, there's a kind of toxic masculinity at work. Perhaps one angle might be to look at how the democratic governments of Europe were regarded at the time: weak, emasculated, arguing among themselves, slow to respond to crises. That's where the Napoleonic comparisons show up, not least because Napoleon III's ascent to power amid a ("the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce") was not ancient history. So there's this broad sense that a strong man is needed -- the cliché is "muscular politics" -- and there are lots of "strong men" to invoke. (One extremely Napoleonic aspect was the appeal to plebiscites / referenda as a way to sidestep elected chambers and claim a popular mandate.)

(His preferred alternative was a restoration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)

Fantastical, because the heterogeneity and messy tolerance of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires was on a countdown timer after German and Italian unification, and timed out after the Russian revolution, even before the end of the Great War. But it's true that fascism cemented itself in climates of strong (or perhaps fresh) nationalism and weak democracy.
posted by holgate at 7:55 PM on April 29 [2 favorites]

The little corperal, Austrian corperal. Napoleon was referred to as corperal.
found this: "During the Nazi era, Adolf Hitler was frequently compared to previous leaders including Napoleon, Philip of Macedon, and Nebuchadnezzar. The comparers wanted to make Hitler understandable to their audiences by comparing him to known leaders, but according to historian Gavriel Rosenfeld the comparisons obscured Hitler's radical evil. When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933, Hitler was compared to Napoleon by The Brooklyn Eagle and Middletown Times. The Night of Long Knives was compared at the time to such events as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, a 1572 massacre of French Huguenots by Catholics. The comparison between Hitler and Philip of Macedon was used by some American journalists who advocated the United States's entry into World War II. Others felt that this did not go far enough and used other metaphors such as Nebuchadnezzar and Tamerlane: Harold Denny of The New York Times visited Buchenwald and later stated that "Tamerlane built his mountain of skulls ... Hitler’s horrors … dwarf all previous crimes".[2] In a public radio broadcast of 24 August 1941, Winston Churchill compared Nazi war crimes in the Soviet Union to the Mongol invasion of Europe, saying "There has never [since] been methodical, merciless butchery on such a scale, or approaching such a scale."[3]"
posted by clavdivs at 8:37 PM on April 29 [4 favorites]

I think most commonly he was understood in terms of the "militaristic Prussian" tradition running back to Bismarck.

Though Hitler admired Bismarck, he distrusted the aristos, a few exceptions, Von Stauffenberg...By 1940, the Prinzenerlass was passed after Bismarck II grandson was killed.
posted by clavdivs at 8:55 PM on April 29

I was talking more about the context that the rest of Europe/America saw him in. There was an easy "Hun" slot for him in their minds. Obviously he was neither Prussian nor much of a credit to German army discipline.
posted by praemunire at 9:41 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]

During the second world war, and in particular the invasion of the Soviet Union, tonnes of comparisons were made with Napoleon's similar invasion in debates in the British parliament. They are recorded in Hansard.

Hansard more generally is a good source for sentiment about Hitler and Nazism in Britain both before and during the war. This exchange from the House of Lords, is more about whether Germans are intrinsically terrible/dangerous, but in paragraph 540 it compares Hitler as a totalitarian to Louis XIV.
posted by plonkee at 5:34 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]

This is a difficult question, because the answers are complex. First of all, everyone knew that the Nazis were persecuting Jews and other peoples. Just like we know today how there are concentration camps in Syria, in China and in Myanmar. We also know right now that people suffer and die in these camps/prisons, but we don't really act on that knowledge.

What people didn't know in the 1930's because it was only happening on a small scale at the time, was the policy of extermination. That only took force during WWII when a lot of other crazy stuff was going on, so while people might have known or not, the bigger agenda was to stop Nazi Germany from taking over most of Europe.

With that all cleared up, I think people used a lot of different comparisons, while being completely aware that Hitler was a uniquely modern phenomenon. There was a sense that monarchy had played out its role in WWI, and that democracy wasn't able to deal with the challenges of modern society. Among the elites, in the US and in Europe, there was some admiration for Hitler and Mussolini, generally based on their modernity, their novel approach to novel issues. Differences depended on wether one thought they were a threat beyond their borders, and obviously what those borders might be.

Mussolini and Hitler were populists, and they both invoked a return to the Roman Empire. That is just weird. But I think it needs to be understood in the light of the British Empire and the US and UK victory in WWI. France is a more specific story, because there are lots of disputed areas. Whatever: they were telling their voters that they could take back the leadership of the world from the anglos and French because they were purer and smarter.
posted by mumimor at 12:37 PM on April 30

For a fascinating and scathing pre-war take on Hitler (and Mussolini, Stalin, etc), read "Inside Europe" by John Gunther (back of my October 1938 edition has the blurb: "Translated into 12 languages -- Suppressed in 3 countries"). It has an entire chapter on Hitler. It has vivid descriptions of him, but doesn't compare him to any previous historical characters.
posted by fimbulvetr at 1:21 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]

You don't have to go back very far before WW1 to find a very different map of Europe when there were many small states comprising what we think of as Italy and Germany, etc. Against that was the Ottoman Empire which was the last phase of a massive state going back 1000 years. The notion of waging war on your neighbor to gain territory was totally familiar. The way we think of countries as more or less secure in their borders is really a result of the horror of WW2. (New generations in China and Russia have forgotten...)
posted by SemiSalt at 2:10 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]

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