This is the third of a series of three posts responding to a bumper sticker that says, “war never solved anything… except communism, slavery, and fascism”. The first post examined this claim about communism, the second, slavery, and this one, of course, will look at war as a solution to fascism.
It has taken quite a bit more research for me to write this one than the other two. One of the first things I learned is that, like slavery, fascism has not actually been “solved”. In his book Fascism: A History, pp. xxii-xxvii, Roger Eatwell says:
It might be thought, therefore, that the story could safely close with the military defeats of Italy, Germany, and their various satraps […] But during the 1980s a variety of notable developments began to take place. One concerns the growth of racial violence. […] There has also been a notable growth in fringe political propaganda. […] Finally, but by no means least, there has been a surprising trend in recent years for neofascist parties to gain in electoral strength. The sudden rise to prominence during the 1990s of the charismatic and shrewd Gianfranco Fini and the Italian Social Movement-National Alliance, which became part of the governing coalition in 1994, serves as a particularly dramatic example of this tendency. […]Today the more alienated, violent side of neofascism remains a danger, particularly to ethnic communities. […] there are signs that violence is increasingly inspired by a belief that it will provoke an ethnic backlash, which will polarize politics and push the mass of “complacent” whites into the arms of the extremists. Should this happen, neofascists might gain yet further electoral support.As the final section of this book reveals, the time has passed when neofascism can be dismissed as style more than content, a living past rather than a political movement with a future. The fascist tradition remains very much alive and kicking – both literally and metaphorically. […]The revival of fascism should not be viewed fatalistically. In a fundamental sense, fascism succeeded for political reasons: hence, this is primaily a political history, which should serve both as a vehicle of instruction and as a warning.
World War I and the global economic depression of the 1930s destabilized nearly all liberal democracies in Europe, even those that had not fought in the war. Amidst this social and political uncertainty, fascism gained widespread popularity in some countries but consistently failed to overthrow any parliamentary system outside of Italy and Germany. In many countries fascism attracted considerable attention in newspaper and radio reports, but the movement never really threatened to disturb the existing political order. This was the case in countries such as Czechoslovakia, Denmark, England, Holland, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Fascism failed to take root in these countries because no substantial electoral support existed there for a revolution from the far right. In France, Finland, and Belgium, far-right forces with fascistic elements mounted a more forceful challenge in the 1930s to elected governments, but democracy prevailed in these political conflicts. In the Communist USSR, the government was so determined to crush any forms of anticommunist dissent that it was impossible for a fascist movement to form there.But fascism did represent a significant movement in a handful of European countries. A review of the countries where fascism saw some success but ultimately failed helps explain the more general failure of fascism. These countries included Spain, Portugal, Austria, France, Hungary, and Romania. In these countries fascism was denied the political space in which to grow and take root. Fascist movements were opposed by powerful coalitions of radical right-wing forces, which either crushed or absorbed them. Some conservative regimes adopted features of fascism to gain popularity.
Franco’s quasi-fascist government controlled Spanish politics [from 1939] until Franco’s death in 1975. Franco’s reign marked the longest-lived form of fascist political control, but fascist ideology took second place to Franco’s more general goal of protecting the interests of Spain’s traditional ruling elite.
Italy became fascist when Mussolini seized power in 1925, long before anyone declared war on them. In fact,
Many countries closely watched the Italian corporatist economic experiment. Some hoped that it would prove to be a Third Way—an alternative economic policy between free-market capitalism and communism. Mussolini won the respect of diplomats all over the world because of his opposition to Bolshevism, and he was especially popular in the United States and Britain. To many, the Fascist rhetoric of Italy’s rebirth seemed to be turning into a reality.
Things started to change when
Italy invaded Ethiopia in October 1935. In less than a year the Fascist army crushed the poorly equipped and vastly outnumbered Ethiopians. Mussolini’s power peaked at this point, as he seemed to be making good on his promise to create an African empire worthy of the descendants of ancient Rome. The League of Nations condemned the invasion and voted to impose sanctions on Italy, but this only made Mussolini a hero of the Italian people, as he stood defiant against the dozens of countries that opposed his militarism. But the Ethiopian war severely strained Italy’s military and economic resources.
Italy’s resources were further strained by defeats of the troops Mussolini sent to assist General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Then it went from bad to worse:
Mussolini knew his country was ill-prepared for a major European war and he tried to use his influence to broker peace in the years before World War II. But he had become a prisoner of his own militaristic rhetoric and myth of infallibility. When Hitler’s armies swept through Belgium into France in the spring of 1940, Mussolini abandoned neutrality and declared war against France and Britain. In this way he locked Italy into a hopeless war against a powerful alliance that eventually comprised the British empire, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the United States. Italy’s armed forces were weak and unprepared for war, despite Mussolini’s bold claims of invincibility. Italian forces suffered humiliating defeats in 1940 and 1941, and Mussolini’s popularity in Italy plummeted. In July 1943, faced with imminent defeat at the hands of the Allies despite Nazi reinforcements, the Fascist Grand Council passed a vote of no confidence against Mussolini, removing him from control of the Fascist Party. The king ratified this decision, dismissed Mussolini as head of state and had him arrested.
the Nazis attempted to take control of most of Europe in an effort to build a new racial empire. This effort led to World War II and the deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians. After early successes in the war, Germany found itself facing defeat on all sides. German forces were unable to overcome the tenacity and sheer size of the Soviet military in Eastern Europe, while in Western Europe and North Africa they faced thousands of Allied aircraft, tanks, and ships. Facing certain defeat, Hitler killed himself in April 1945, and Germany surrendered to the Allies in the following month.
So, going back to the question of whether war has “solved” fascism, while it is more than clear that war defeated Mussolini and Hitler, I am not convinced that the Allies were even fighting fascism, per se, but more that they were fighting out of sheer self-defense. One could argue that there is no difference: that the reason Germany and Italy declared war on France and Britain was because they were fascist. But since fascism seems to be defined basically as “the governments that Italy and Germany had in the 1930s and 40s”, that’s somewhat circular reasoning – i.e., they are fascist because they attacked other countries. The Allies would have defended themselves against invasion, no matter what the political ideology of the invading countries.
Despite the overwhelming defeat of Italy and Germany in WWII, and the horrible suffering it took to accomplish that, as I said at the beginning, there are still people today who are fascist. Fascism is a political ideology, and ideologies are made up of ideas. Ideas cannot be fought with weapons. They have no body that can be killed. The only way to stop a bad idea is to come up with a better one. I wish I could remember which book I read this in (I want to say it was A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped The World, by William J. Bernstein): “the stone age didn’t end because they ran out of stones”. It ended because someone figured out that they could use metal more effectively, and so no one wanted to use stones anymore. Likewise, this whole blog is essentially dedicated to convincing people that peaceful means of conflict resolution are a better idea than war. Peaceful methods solve problems more fairly and more permanently, and therefore more effectively. If enough people realize this, then we won’t have wars because we will simply not want to have them. They will be viewed as the primitive, stupid, wholly undesirable thing that they, in fact, are. I pray that day comes soon.