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The Anatomy of Fascism (2004)

by Robert O. Paxton

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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6251426,290 (4.07)12
From the author of Vichy France, a fascinating, authoritative history of fascism in all its manifestations, and how and why it took hold in certain countries and not in others. What is fascism? Many authors have proposed succinct but abstract definitions. The author of this book prefers to start with concrete historical experience. He focuses more on what fascists did than on what they said. Their first uniformed bands beat up "enemies of the nation," such as communists and foreign immigrants, during the tense days after 1918 when the liberal democracies of Europe were struggling with the aftershocks of World War I. Fascist parties could not approach power, however, without the complicity of conservatives willing to sacrifice the rule of law for security. The author makes clear the sequence of steps by which fascists and conservatives together formed regimes in Italy and Germany, and why fascists remained out of power elsewhere. Fascist regimes were strained alliances. While fascist parties had broad political leeway, conservatives preserved many social and economic privileges. Goals of forced national unity, purity, and expansion, accompanied by propaganda driven public excitement, held the mixture together. War opened opportunities for fascist extremists to pursue these goals to the point of genocide. The author shows how these opportunities manifested themselves differently in France, in Britain, in the Low Countries, and in Eastern Europe, and yet failed to achieve supreme power. He goes on to examine whether fascism can exist outside the specific early twentieth century European setting in which it emerged, and whether it can reappear today. This book, based on a lifetime of research, will have a lasting impact on our understanding of twentieth century history.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
Over the past few years, the word "fascist" has been deployed increasingly to describe modern-day political movements in the United States, Hungary, Greece, and Italy, to name a few places. The word brings with it some of the most odious associations from the 20th century, namely Nazi Germany and the most devastating war in human history. Yet to what degree is the label appropriate and to what extent is it more melodramatic epithet than an appropriate description?

It was in part to answer that question that I picked up a copy of Robert O. Paxton's book. As a longtime historian of 20th century France and author of a seminal work on the Vichy regime, he brings a perspective to the question that is not predominantly Italian or German. This shows in the narrative, as his work uses fascist movements in nearly every European country to draw out commonalities that explain the fascist phenomenon. As he demonstrates, fascism can be traced as far back as the 1880s, with elements of it proposed by authors and politicians across Europe in order to mobilize the growing population of voters (thanks to new measures of enfranchisement) to causes other than communism. Until then, it was assumed by nearly everyone that such voters would be automatic supporters for socialist movements. Fascism proposed a different appeal, one based around nationalist elements which socialism ostensibly rejected.

Despite this, fascism remained undeveloped until it emerged in Italy in the aftermath of the First World War. This gave Benito Mussolini and his comrades a flexibility in crafting an appeal that won over the established elites in Italian politics and society. From this emerged a pattern that Paxton identifies in the emergence of fascism in both Italy and later in Germany, which was their acceptance by existing leaders as a precondition for power. Contrary to the myth of Mussolini's "March on Rome," nowhere did fascism take over by seizing power; instead they were offered it by conservative politicians as a solution to political turmoil and the threatened emergence of a radical left-wing alternative. It was the absence of an alternative on the right which led to the acceptance of fascism; where such alternatives (of a more traditional right-authoritarian variety) existed, fascism remained on the fringes. The nature of their ascent into power also defined the regimes that emerged, which were characterized by tension between fascists and more traditional conservatives, and often proved to be far less revolutionary in practice than their rhetoric promised.

Paxton's analysis is buttressed by a sure command of his subject. He ranges widely over the era, comparing and contrasting national groups in a way that allows him to come up an overarching analysis of it as a movement. All of this leads him to this final definition:

"Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion." (p. 218)

While elements of this are certainly present today, they are hardly unique to fascism and exist in various forms across the political spectrum. Just as important, as Paxton demonstrates, is the context: one in which existing institutions are so distrusted or discredited that the broader population is willing to sit by and watch as they are compromised, bypassed, or dismantled in the name of achieving fascism's goals. Paxton's arguments here, made a decade before Donald Trump first embarked on his candidacy, are as true now as they were then. Reading them helped me to appreciate better the challenge of fascism, both in interwar Europe and in our world today. Everyone seeking to understand it would do well to start with this perceptive and well-argued book. ( )
  MacDad | Mar 27, 2020 |
Muy buena descripción de la genesis y desarrollo del fascismo que escapa de los cliches de los que pretenden que fue una cosa rara que no se sabe como surgió o que eran una banda de locos que se apropiaron de algun estado. Seria interesante un pequeño agregado actualizando los ee uu el tea party y trump ( )
  gneoflavio | May 10, 2018 |
More than a review, I will let the author speak, after doing my second run through the book, this time focusing on origins and how to avoid its recurrence (of which we keep having way too many examples, since the fall of the Berlin Wall)

The Anatomy of Fascism
Robert O. Paxton

Hannah Arendt observed that Mussolini "was probably the first party leader who consciously rejected a formal program and replaced it with inspired leadership and action alone" Origins, p. 325, n. 39

[Yes, the "neither right nor left" was part of European politics a century ago]

...some countries with a powerful cultural preparation (France, for example) became fascist only by conquest (if then).

Fascism... is still visible today. Fascism exists at the level of Stage One within all democratic countries... "Giving up free institutions," especially the freedoms of unpopular groups, os recurrently attractive to citizens of Western democracies... We know from tracing its path that fascism does not require a spectacular "march" on some capital to take root; seemingly anodyne decisions to tolerate lawless treatment of national "enemies" is enough. Something very close to classical fascism has reached Stage Two in a few deeply troubled societies. Its further progress is not inevitable, however. Further fascist advances toward power depend in part upon the severity of a crisis, but also very largely upon human choices, especially the choices of those holding economic, social, and political power. Determining the appropriate responses to fascist gains is not easy, since its cycle is not likely to repeat itself blindly. We stand a much better chance of responding wisely, however, if we understand how fascism succeeded in the past. ( )
  aleph123 | Apr 15, 2014 |
If a liberal is a conservative who has been mugged, a fascist is a conservative whose wife has been given the vote. ( )
  KidSisyphus | Apr 5, 2013 |
A solid introduction to what is probably the most bewildering of political movements. Instead of striving to find an exact definition of fascism, what Paxton refers to as a "fascist minimum," "The Anatomy of Fascism" goes wide-angle, considering fascism as a phenomenon that occurred all over the globe and tended to undergo radical changes as it went from being a barely organized movement to a governing power. Paxton pays particular attention to the compromises that fascists and ruling parties tend to make in order to bring fascism to power and the parallel developments of democracy and fascism as relatively populist systems of governance. Since fascism can be studied from any number of angles and intellectual starting points, this book is unlikely to satisfy everyone, and I'm sure that there are lots of professional and semi-professional students of history out there leaving two-star reviews of this one all over the internet. Even so, the author devoted much of his intellectual life to researching the historical and intellectual questions that surround fascism, and "The Anatomy of Fascism" represents an admirably concise and thoughtful distillation of its most salient features. Recommended. ( )
  TheAmpersand | Sep 30, 2012 |
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Robert O. Paxtonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Desmond, William OlivierTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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