The cliché that people and nations learn
from history is not only overused, but also overestimated; often we
fail to learn from history, or draw the wrong conclusions. Sadly,
historical amnesia is the norm.
We are two-and-a-half generations removed
from the horrors of Nazi Germany, although constant reminders jog
the consciousness. German and Italian fascism form the historical
models that define this twisted political worldview. Although they
no longer exist, this worldview and the characteristics of these
models have been imitated by protofascist1 regimes at various times
in the twentieth century. Both the original German and Italian
models and the later protofascist regimes show remarkably similar
characteristics. Although many scholars question any direct
connection among these regimes, few can dispute their visual
Beyond the visual, even a cursory study of
these fascist and protofascist regimes reveals the absolutely
striking convergence of their modus operandi. This, of course, is
not a revelation to the informed political observer, but it is
sometimes useful in the interests of perspective to restate obvious
facts and in so doing shed needed light on current circumstances.
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
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.
1. Powerful and continuing
expressions of nationalism. From the prominent displays of
flags and bunting to the ubiquitous lapel pins, the fervor to show
patriotic nationalism, both on the part of the regime itself and of
citizens caught up in its frenzy, was always obvious. Catchy
slogans, pride in the military, and demands for unity were common
themes in expressing this nationalism. It was usually coupled
with a suspicion of things foreign that often bordered on
2. Disdain for the
importance of human rights. The regimes themselves viewed human
rights as of little value and a hindrance to realizing the
objectives of the ruling elite. Through clever use of propaganda,
the population was brought to accept these human rights abuses by
marginalizing, even demonizing, those being targeted. When abuse was
egregious, the tactic was to use secrecy, denial, and
3. Identification of
enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause. The most significant
common thread among these regimes was the use of scapegoating as a
means to divert the people’s attention from other problems, to
shift blame forfailures, and to channel frustration in controlled
directions. The methods of choice—relentless propaganda and
disinformation—were usually effective. Often the regimes would
incite “spontaneous” acts against the target scapegoats, usually
communists, socialists, liberals, Jews, ethnic and racial
minorities, traditional national enemies, members of other
religions, secularists, homosexuals, and“terrorists.” Active
opponents of these regimes were inevitably labeled as terrorists and
dealt with accordingly.
4. The supremacy of the
military/avid militarism. Ruling elites always identified
closely with the military and the industrial infrastructure that
supported it. A disproportionate share of national resources was
allocated to the military, even when domestic needs were
acute. The military was seen as an expression of nationalism, and
was used whenever possible to assert national goals, intimidate
other nations, and increase the power and prestige of the ruling
5. Rampant sexism.
Beyond the simple fact that the political elite and the national
culture were male-dominated, these regimes inevitably viewed women
as second-class citizens. They were adamantly anti-abortion and also
homophobic. These attitudes were usually codified in Draconian laws
that enjoyed strong support by the orthodox religion of the country,
thus lending the regime cover for its abuses.
6. A controlled mass
media. Under some of the regimes, the mass media were
under strict direct control and could be relied upon never to stray
from the party line. Other regimes exercised more subtle power to
ensure media orthodoxy. Methods included the control of licensing
and access to resources, economic pressure, appeals to patriotism,
and implied threats. The leaders of the mass media were often
politically compatible with the power elite. The result was usually
success in keeping the general public unaware of the regimes’
7. Obsession with
national security. Inevitably, a national security apparatus was
under direct control of the ruling elite. It was usually an
instrument of oppression, operating in secret and beyond any
constraints. Its actions were justified under the rubric of
protecting “national security,” and questioning its activities
was portrayed as unpatriotic or even treasonous.
8. Religion and ruling elite
tied together. Unlike communist regimes, the fascist and
protofascist regimes were never proclaimed as godless by their
opponents. In fact, most of the regimes attached themselves to the
predominant religion of the country and chose to portray themselves
as militant defenders of that religion. The fact that the ruling
elite’s behavior was incompatible with the precepts of the
religion was generally swept under the rug. Propaganda kept up the
illusion that the ruling elites were defenders of the faith and
opponents of the “godless.” A perception was manufactured that
opposing the power elite was tantamount to an attack on religion.
9. Power of
corporations protected. Although the personal life of ordinary
citizens was under strict control, the ability of large corporations
to operate in relative freedom was not compromised. The ruling elite
saw the corporate structure as a way to not only ensure military
production (in developed states), but also as an additional means of
social control. Members of the economic elite were often pampered by
the political elite to ensure a continued mutuality of interests,
especially in the repression of “have-not” citizens.
10. Power of labor
suppressed or eliminated. Since organized labor was seen as the
one power center that could challenge the political hegemony of the
ruling elite and its corporate allies, it was inevitably crushed or
made powerless. The poor formed an underclass, viewed with suspicion
or outright contempt. Under some regimes, being poor was considered
akin to a vice.
11. Disdain and suppression
of intellectuals and the arts. Intellectuals and the inherent
freedom of ideas and expression associated with them were anathema
to these regimes. Intellectual and academic freedom were considered
subversive to national security and the patriotic ideal.
Universities were tightly controlled; politically unreliable faculty
harassed or eliminated. Unorthodox ideas or expressions of dissent
were strongly attacked, silenced, or crushed. To these regimes, art
and literature should serve the national interest or they had no
right to exist.
12. Obsession with crime and
punishment. Most of these regimes maintained Draconian systems
of criminal justice with huge prison populations. The police were
often glorified and had almost unchecked power, leading to rampant
abuse. “Normal” and political crime were often merged into
trumped-up criminal charges and sometimes used against political
opponents of the regime. Fear, and hatred, of criminals or
“traitors” was often promoted among the population as an excuse
for more police power.
13. Rampant cronyism and
corruption. Those in business circles and close to the power
elite often used their position to enrich themselves. This
corruption worked both ways; the power elite would receive financial
gifts and property from the economic elite, who in turn would gain
the benefit of government favoritism. Members of the power elite
were in a position to obtain vast wealth from other sources as well:
for example, by stealing national resources. With the national
security apparatus under control and the media muzzled, this
corruption was largely unconstrained and not well understood by the
14. Fraudulent elections.
Elections in the form of plebiscites or public opinion polls were
usually bogus. When actual elections with candidates were held, they
would usually be perverted by the power elite to get the desired
result. Common methods included maintaining control of the election
machinery, intimidating an disenfranchising opposition voters,
destroying or disallowing legal votes, and, as a last resort,
turning to a judiciary beholden to the power elite.
Does any of this ring alarm bells? Of course
not. After all, this is America, officially a democracy with the
rule of law, a constitution, a free press, honest elections, and a
well-informed public constantly being put on guard against evils.
Historical comparisons like these are just exercises in verbal
gymnastics. Maybe, maybe not.
"When facism comes to America, it will be
wrapped in the American flag." - Huey Long
1. Defined as a “political movement or
regime tending toward or imitating Fascism”—Webster’s
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