Kurt Weyland explains how the rise of communism and fascism made possible the proliferation of conservative authoritarianism during the interwar period. He is the author of Assault on Democracy: Communism, Fascism, and Authoritarianism During the Interwar Years. This is the 47th episode of the Democracy Paradox podcast.
In the 19th century Europe had thought that they had moved towards liberalism, enlightenment, rationality, progress, that stuff like mass warfare was over and it wouldn’t come back. And then you have four years of senseless, mass slaughter, they just totally destroyed or challenged those ideas of humankind getting better off, progress of humankind getting more civilized. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine the coincidence of deep challenges and crises that wrecked the interwar years.
Key Highlights Include
- Kurt clarifies the concept of totalitarian fascism from conservative authoritarianism
- A description of the political environment of the interwar period
- Why did authoritarians disliked communism and fascism?
- Why did fascism emerge during this period?
- Is there a parallel between the interwar period to today?
This week Liz Cheney was ousted as Conference Chair of the Republican Party, because she refused to back down to former President Donald Trump over the integrity of the 2020 election. Of course, this is just another reminder of the events of January 6th that horrified anyone who studies democracy, politics, or history. And the recurring question on my mind is, “Can it happen here?”
Danish scholars Agnes Cornell, Jørgen Møller, and Svend-Erik Skaaning have said, “The ghost of the interwar period makes an appearance whenever the possibility of democratic backsliding is mentioned.” We have long believed fascism and Nazism had disappeared, but our current era raises the suspicion it has come back to life.
So let’s talk about the elephant in the room. is Donald Trump a fascist or just a populist? Is there a difference? These are terms many of us throw around, but few of us have thought about what they really mean. We know they are bad, but can we really explain the difference between totalitarianism and authoritarianism?
Kurt Weyland offers insights on the reasons for the disruption of democracy in so many countries during the interwar years. He is a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of the new book Assault on Democracy: Communism, Fascism, and Authoritarianism During the Interwar Years.
Kurt believes it’s important to distinguish between totalitarian fascism and conservative authoritarianism. The difference is important to understand history and to understand the challenges for democracy today. But I want to emphasize both represent a danger to democracy. In fact, far too often democracies during this period descended into authoritarianism due to an overreaction to the threat of communism and fascism. So if you remember nothing else, the lesson for today should be to believe and trust in the resilience of democracy.
Now I do know this is a complex subject with a lot of opinions. So, feel free to share your thoughts about this episode at democracyparadox.com. You’ll find a full transcript of the episode and an area to leave comments about anything you liked or add your own thoughts about this time period. You can also send me an email at email@example.com. But for now this is my conversation with Kurt Weyland….
Kurt Weyland. Welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thank you for having me.
Well, Kurt. You write, “What spread during the 1920s and 1930s was neither communism nor fascism, but mainly conservative authoritarianism.” Many writers these days use the terms fascism and authoritarianism interchangeably. I think of Madeline Albright’s book, Fascism: A Warning. She just kind of uses the word fascism as a catchall for so many different regimes we see in the world today. I would love it if you could help explain some of the differences between conservative authoritarianism and fascism.
Fascism is a different type of political regime from authoritarianism. In the political science terminology, it’s totalitarian. It’s an effort to establish total control, to have strong mass mobilization pushed by the leader in order to bring a profound transformation of politics. And a profound transformation that is, in some sense, guided by a contradictory vision, bringing back elements of the long-forgotten past, but also in a form that is hypermodern, that uses the most advanced technology. And so, fascism is a profoundly totalitarian, very energetic, very dynamic, very mobilizational kind of system.
Conservative authoritarianism is very different because conservative authoritarianism wants to either preserve what exists or go back just a little bit to the preceding authoritarian regime that existed. So, for example, in the German case, the German Kaiserite had just broken down at the end of World War I. So conservative authoritarians wanted to restore something like the German Kaiserite. They don’t want to have hypermodern features either. They want to, in some sense, restore something that was recently there. And so, it is a system that is essentially demobilizational. Authoritarianism is a political regime type where an elite or a leader rules and where the masses of the population in the citizenry are mostly excluded from political participation and not supposed to have an independent role. They’re essentially not supposed to get in involved.
One can understand all authoritarianism, in some sense, like a division of labor. Let the elite and the government govern and the people stay out of it and don’t get involved in politics. And so, what underlies authoritarianism is a hierarchical approach to politics and approach where most of the population is supposed to be depoliticized, not to get involved. So, it doesn’t have nearly the dynamism, the energy of totalitarian fascism. And so, they’re quite different types of regimes. You just see that in a number of specific features. So, fascism is much more violent, much more imperialistic, much more expansionary than conservative authoritarianism. Think of, for example, foreign policy examples in Germany. Conservative authoritarians wanted to take from Poland pieces of Germany that had been lost in the first World War. And maybe go a little further and kind of correct the borders in the East.
Hitler wanted to conquer Poland and Russia unto the Euro mountains and turned them essentially into a slaveholder state. Completely different projects. So, there is a big qualitative difference between fascism as a form of mobilizational totalitarianism and this conservative authoritarianism. And I think that is overlooked in the contemporary time period as well. Since you introduced it, rightwing populists like Trump or Bolsonaro or Erdoğan. They’re not fascists.
I always think of fascism in particular as being very grounded not just in a sense of mobilization, but a sense of violent mobilization with the way that it incorporates paramilitaries. I think of the black shirts that were key to the Italian fascist movement. There was a lot of paramilitary violence on the side of the German Nazi movement. Am I reading history right? That the key to fascism incorporates a sense of violence that authoritarianism has in terms of repression, but not the same type of mass violence that just erupts organically within the society.
I think that is exactly correct, because, what you have is, authoritarian regimes used organized coercion of the state to employ usually targeted repression. And so authoritarian regimes tell the population, ‘Stay out of politics.’ And many people comply out of fear. And so that means that authoritarian regimes, most of the time do not need very much repression and they use the police and the military to specifically target people who actively oppose them. Fascism is very, very different partly because fascism emerged from bottom-up mass movements. And in the Italian case, mass movements that have been forged in anti-leftist violence. And so, this is not the state using organized coercion. The mass movement takes over the state and because of its totalitarian goals of totally transforming things needs much more massive, much more widespread much more permanent kind of coercion.
So you see again, what you said the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarian is, reflected exactly in that very significant difference in the degree and kind of the source who exerts that violence. The degree of violence is much, much higher in fascism and it comes much more kind of bottom-up and it’s much less controlled in that sense.
Your book is obviously about the interwar period, about a very specific period within world history between World War I and World War II where a lot of stuff is happening between these two wars. Can you paint the picture? Describe the political environment that is happening after World War I.
So, the interwar period was probably a time period in recent history that had the most turbulence, turmoil, convulsion that we can imagine, because the first World War was a shattering experience. And then 19th century Europe had thought that they had moved towards liberalism, enlightenment, rationality, progress, that stuff like mass warfare was over and it wouldn’t come back. And then you have four years of senseless, mass slaughter, they just totally destroyed or challenged those ideas of humankind getting better off, progress of humankind getting more civilized. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine the coincidence of deep challenges and crises that wrecked the interwar years. I mean, the first World War led to the downfall of four autocratic empires that had shaped world history, especially of Central and Eastern Europe for centuries: the Romanovs in Russia, the Ottomans in Turkey, German, and then, of course, the Habsburgs.
And so, there was a big change that led to the proliferation of new uncertain, insecure states with unclear boundaries and with a lot of ethnic conflicts. Another big transformation then partly as a result of the first World War, you had tremendous economic turmoil and you had hyperinflation in a number of countries, including Germany, which is a terrible experience that impoverished parts of the population. As soon as some amount of economic stability returned in the second half of the 1920s, you then get the Great Depression. I mean, much worse even then anything related to COVID or the 2008 crisis in the U.S. And so, what I emphasize in that coincidence of crisis is then another very distinctive ideological challenge which was the Russian Revolution.
And the Russian revolution was a big shock for many people because, yes, there had been Marxism and there had been communist parties, but essentially there had been among left-wing movements of good amount of moderation along the way. The German Social Democrats still talked about revolution, but in effect, they were a parliamentary party. Then comes Lenin, pulls off the thing in Russia, and that is a shock. A shock, of course, for the right and for the center that communism actually can turn into a real political system, that a communist regime can survive a massive civil war and hang on in a big, big country. It was a shock for right wingers as it was a shock for Centrists.
And was it in some sense, maybe a special shock, especially for social democracy, because they had been caught on the wrong foot. And social democracy, positioned themselves, interestingly, as very strong anti-communists, which then led them into kind of unsavory alliances with centrists and right-wingers and got them off on the wrong path in the interwar period.
To kind of emphasize the communist threat, that the sense that people had, it wasn’t just the Russian revolution. A few years later, you have Hungary impose a communist state within the country. It didn’t last very long, but it happened. And not just that, but different movements just looked at their countries entirely differently. You’ve got people trying to make sense of what does this mean? And like you said, it’s a very unstable environment already. You’ve got all of these new nation states trying to figure out, and not even nation states, because a lot of them are multi-ethnic States. And they’re trying to figure out who is it that they are.
And so, you’ve got leftwing thinkers in many different countries thinking if it happened in Russia and if it can happen in Hungary, why can’t it happen in Germany? Like Rosa Luxemburg. Or why can’t it happen in a country like Italy? Like Antonio Gramsci. And you’ve got a lot of, concerns all around the world from both the right and then you’ve got rethinking on the left. It’s just a crazy time period,
What is in some sense surprising is extreme left-wingers in a wide, wide, wide range of countries were inspired by the Russian Revolution. They got carried away. They thought like, Whoa, Lennon did it against all odds in Russia. That means we can do it in Hungary. And in Australia, in Germany, in Brazil. All over the world, there were movements, labor strikes, rebellions efforts to do something like the Russian revolution. And of course, in every single case sooner or later, there were violently disabused of that notion. They tried and they were knocked down and hit over the head and killed and imprisoned and repressed all over the place.
You mentioned that there was a lot of overreactions, both on the left and to some extent on the right where they overreacted to the threat. Why weren’t more countries susceptible to a communist revolution?
So, when you think of it, I mean, in many ways, Russia wasn’t ripe for the communist revolution. Right? I mean, that’s what the Mensheviks said and Lenin just said, ‘Forget it. I’m going to do it anyways.’ Now of course, that in some sense, I think, misled people. So, I mean, the chances for the radical left revolution in most settings in the less developed, more backward countries there wasn’t much of a labor movement, a communist party and, kind of support, for a radical left revolution.
And of course, in the more developed countries in Britain and France and the U S and Germany society had become so much more complex that that old scheme of kind of exploiters and exploited and that sort of idea that there was a big proletariat facing a small business class was just totally unrealistic. I mean, there was a big middle-class. There was a lot of differentiation. And so, neither in the more backward countries, nor in the more developed countries, was there really a chance.
It reminds me a lot of the Arab spring where sometimes when you see these movements that you think are going to create a domino effect, the governments, the regimes, end up learning from past mistakes and end up adapting to it.
So that is one point I tried to make in this book that a dramatic radical challenge like the Russian revolution has in some sense a cleaving impact. It inspires radical left-wingers who try to imitate this and try to do a similar thing, but it also scares a lot of opponents who become determined to prevent that spread and that diffusion. And it so happens that in many, many cases, the number of opponents and right-wingers who are interested in preventing the spread of this radical challenge are a lot more and a lot more powerful than the challengers. And so, you see where the Russian revolution inspired comparatively small groups of radical left-wingers in many countries. And it scared phalanx of establishment forces who were determined to crack down and prevent this from happening.
Think of the German case. So here you had Spartakus League, Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht, you know, a number of uprisings often in totally unrealistic kind of settings, like in Munich, you know, in conservative Bavaria. But what it also did is it led to an Alliance of even the social democrats crack down on it. And the social democrats in some sense, tragically, because they were so scared, they make this unsavory alliance with the old military. And so, you see their opponents, those who wanted to prevent the spread of the Russian revolution were highly determined to use any means they had. And there was a broad group of sectors and a lot of powerful sectors with resources.
Now fascism is part of that overreaction to the left. What was unique about Italy, specifically, that brought about the emergence and even success of fascism in that country?
So, what you see is the following that in many countries, the political establishment, the state, the military were sufficient in suppressing these left-wing uprisings. But in Italy, the state was comparatively weak. And what you had in a comparatively modernized Northern half of Italy, you had leftwing challenges being rather widespread, you know, like in Germany, was confined like to the Spartakus Uprising in Berlin, and then there was a Soviet Republic in Munich. Then there was some Soviet Republic in Bremen. Italy, you actually had, partly because the socialist party radicalized much more under the inspiration and influence of the Russian revolution, you had much more widespread challenges. A lot of land takeovers in the Northern part of Italy and with a lot of labor unrest in the industrialized Northern part of Italy, factory occupations, all these kinds of things.
So, you have essentially a surprisingly widespread mass challenge and the Italian state and the established kind of old stodgy, oligarch elite didn’t take care of the problem. And so that allowed for these fascist movements to come up bottom-up financed by landowners, financed by businesses. Kind of a bottom-up movement where people in society took things into their own hand to combat the left. Kind of like what you had in Columbia. You have these paramilitaries forming little self-help groupings that crack down on the radical left. And so, that led to fascism. The state didn’t do it so kind of a mass movement that emerged from society and that violently crack down on the left and then as part of this kind of violent upsurge took power in Italy.
That is the origin of fascism. So, in some sense, the comparatively widespread left-wing challenge provoked a comparatively wide spread bottom-up rightwing challenge. And that led to a much more totalitarian movement and much more mobilization and a much more bottom-up movement led by, of course, a personalistic charismatic leader.
Now Italy is an interesting country because it’s highly divided between the North and the South. We’ve got Putnam where he talked about the different cultures within Northern and Southern Italy. At the time of the inter-war period, you have Gramsci writing his famous essay about the Southern problem, how to be able to get the South on board with far left ideas, because really the communists really only had support up in the North in Italy, at least widespread support. Did fascism arise in the North or did it have widespread support throughout the entire country?
In the North. That’s exactly what it is. And you see this. So, what’s interesting about that, you see how fascism is a direct reaction to a perceived leftwing movement. You know, here the left tries to pull things off with these land seizures, these factory occupations, and then the right emerges and cracks down. And fascism emerges and is most powerful only in kind of countries of middling level of modernization. What you’ll see is the most modernized countries of Western and Northern Europe, they maintain democracy. Their democracy was developed enough. Civil society was advanced enough, developed enough. The party system was consolidated enough that when they had right-wing movements like in France and Belgium, they never really got a ton of support that could kind of contain them and limit them. So, in the developed countries, democracy survived.
In the really backwards regions, Eastern, Southern Europe, and Balkans their society was so backward, left-wingers never got strong enough. That established kind of elite and the state and the military took care of the problem. And so, fascism emerged kind of in between, Germany and Italy, in countries that were more modernized than the East and where you had left-wing challenges. But where that modernization was, one reason that fascism emerged because you had a society that was mobilized. You had people who had been, freed from kind of elite control, from clientelism who were in cities, mobilized by these fascist paramilitary groupings, fascist parties that could form a mass movement that then would take power.
And so, you see, of course, the interesting thing is fascism only came to power in the democracies, because it was a mass movement that then used democratic mechanisms to turn that mass movement into, especially in the German case, increasing electoral support and in the Italian case, at least get a foothold in the party system and then rise. Where authoritarian regimes that close the electoral arena and that was strong enough to crack down, not only the left-wingers, but also on the right-wingers, the fascists never came to power.
And so you see fascism, the only two countries where fascism came to power, Germany, and Italy, are sort of in the middle of Europe, in that constellation, not modernized enough to maintain democracy, not backward enough for the established elite to keep turmoil under control. That’s where left-wing challengers were strong and where fascism emerged as a mass movement.
You have a quote in the book where it says, “The Weimar Republic was weak enough to fall, but strong enough not to fall easily to an authoritarian coup. Instead, it took a massive totalitarian movement to bring it down and replace it with a brutal dictatorship.” We haven’t talked much about the German case. You just introduced it. I find it fascinating the way that you describe it like that. Nazism rose up in the Weimar Republic. Not because Weimar was too weak, but because it was just strong enough to require a totalitarian movement to overcome it.
Because, I mean, that is an argument that a good part of it comes from Detlev Peukert who wrote a great book about the Weimar Republic and emphasized how modernization and modernity in Germany was a precondition for the rise of fascism, because what you see is, of course, in the early 1930s with Brüning’s reliance on the president and his decree powers, Germany was moving into kind of semi- authoritarian regime. Then Brüning’s two successors in 1932, wanted to emphasize the more authoritarian aspect, like Papen wanted to have a real kind of authoritarian corporatist, you know, a system that would look kind of like Salazar in Portugal. And it was just not viable. You can’t do that in Germany. Germany is too modernized. There are too many leftwingers, right-wingers. The Nazi movement was already strong enough.
And so essentially the relative modernization of German society precluded the imposition of an authoritarian regime. Authoritarian regimes in the interwar period got essentially imposed by a self-coup or whatever, and then in Germany that wasn’t viable. You couldn’t do that anymore. And which of course means that then Hitler pushed away the conservatives as well.
Now you described Nazism as a very extreme form of fascism. I mean, I don’t think anybody’s going to disagree with that assessment by the way, but what I’d like to know is how do we think of that as a more extreme form of a fascism?
So, Mussolini, it took some time. I mean, Mussolini became prime minister and it didn’t turn Italy into a dictatorship, you know, immediately in late 1922. it took a while for him to dismantle democracy, establish his hegemony, turn Italy into a dictatorship, repress the opposition. And in order to do so, Mussolini, for example, had to make an agreement with the church, some agreement with business. Mussolini always was under a King. Hitler comes to power, within weeks and months, he turns Germany into a totalitarian dictatorship. He comes to power and he cracks down right away on the left. He rounds up the communists, puts them in prison. After the Reichstagsbrand, they have the new election, they clean up, and they resolutely, brutally take power. And within like six months, I mean, there’s nothing left of German democracy.
So much more dramatic, much more determined, Macht Ergreifen, grab power, you know? Yes, he was handed it in the beginning, but then he really took power. And after, President Hindenburg died, there was nobody else. And he didn’t make an Alliance with a church. It was Hitler who ran the place and then in addition to the atrocities of the Holocaust, which of course are the clearest indication of the enormous brutality and very distinctive nature of German Nazism. You know, that very idea of essentially unleashing a race war against Poland and the Soviet union, where the idea was to wipe out millions of Slavs and then turn the other remaining ones into slaves and somehow recreate some kind of German warrior peasant farmer state in the vast expanses of that territory.
I mean, totally different from the Italian case, you know, Mussolini had colonial adventures in Ethiopia, but it was kind of, sort of belated brutal European style colonialism. The Hitler project, for example, under external expansion was a different order of magnitude, of a different order of kind of qualitative transformation. I mean, something that was unheard of.
Now, you mentioned, Mussolini didn’t have widespread concentration camps with a racial focus. I mean, he definitely cracked down on the opposition and put them into prison. I don’t want to diminish the brutality of the Italian fascist regime, but like you said, the Nazi regime is on a different order of magnitude. The Holocaust is just unimaginable and for good reason. It’s just difficult to be able to describe. But is the type of racial ideology, the very racist policies that went out to create genocide, is that a natural consequence of taking fascism to the next level?
I do not think that the racial angle as such, is a necessary part of that radicalization of fascism that is seen in Germany. It could have gone in other directions, other goals. So I think that was more kind of the more peculiar feature of German fascism, but in order for it to really mobilize society to the extent that a totalitarian regime does, you need in some sense an enemy.
Now you have fascist movements across Europe. Obviously, they don’t create new regimes. They don’t take power, but they have fascist movements all across Europe. And conservative authoritarian coups, their attempts to be able to consolidate power are oftentimes using these fascist movements in the short-term to install their authoritarian rule. Can you describe how that happened?
The interaction between conservative authoritarian elites and regimes and fascists, I think I distinguish two paths or two ways in which this happened. There are cases like Brazil, Portugal, and Spain where conservative authoritarians maneuver and use fascists to essentially establish their own predominance. Put themselves into the top positions of power. And then when they are on the top, of positions of power, they discard their erstwhile allies and impose their authoritarian control over those guys, and they dupe them sometimes. So, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, you know, there is this integrelismo movement that is surprisingly large for Latin America. And he sort of suggests to them, you know, if they truly want him to become a dictator, you’re going to have an important role in the regime.
And so, they support Getúlio Vargas in establishing himself as a dictator. And when, he’s in power, he’s like now get off my back. I don’t need you. And they even make a little rebellion and he cracks down. So, you have that. Literally duped and used and you see that relationship between conservative authoritarians and fascism is very calculated, even both sides want to use the other side for their own purposes and the conservative authoritarians win and they impose their demobilizational authoritarianism on those former fascist auxiliaries.
You have a different pattern in countries like Austria, Romania, Estonia where you have fascist movements emerging, and you have leaders of conservative parties that arose in democratic ways and that come from democratic parties and making itself close down democracy, establishing an authoritarian regime in order to keep the fascists out of power and partly under the pretext of keeping the fascists out of power. So that’s a different thing. They didn’t ally in that sense. But, you know, like in Austria, Dollfuss, was a christian social kind of a conservative authoritarian, but a conservative. Initially, he rose through democratic ways, but he saw in especially German and Austrian Nazism as a huge, huge threat. And so, he closed down democracy. He established himself as a dictator to keep that threat out of power.
And so, you see the transformation of conservative, initially democratic leaders, into authoritarians in a preemptive way of blocking the ascent of fascism, because they are worried that the fascists would win the next election. And so, they have to close down the election and turn themselves into dictators because they’re worried about the kind of mass mobilizational capacity of the fascists.
Again, I think it’s important to remind everyone that democracy is collapsing in these countries. These are oftentimes, democratic countries that are collapsing. What your insight is, is that it’s not fascism that’s taking control of those countries. It’s conservative authoritarian governments. And you make a critical insight there that in the East, many of these conservative authoritarians are doing these autogolpes, these self-coups in order to prevent the fascists from taking power. They’re afraid of fascism just as much as communism. Now fascism is an ideology of the right, just like how their conservativism is an ideology of the right. Why are the conservatives afraid of fascists?
Because the conservatives, they want to establish their control. They want to cement hierarchy. They want to exclude the population and the fascists. The fascists were in some sense anti-conservative. They didn’t think that the established elite had done a very good job. They wanted to push them out of the way. They wanted to establish the preeminence of their personalistic leader, their equivalent to Hitler and Mussolini. And so, there was a significant conflict and the fascists had a much more dynamic transformational project. They had a much more of kind of bottom-up support, whereas the conservative authoritarians were kind of top-down and hierarchical. There was also a social difference because many of the fascist leaders and the fascist movements essentially came from lower, lower middleclass groupings and different from the elitist authoritarians.
And there were a number of disagreements. And of course, what you see is the conservative authoritarians were scared by the precedent of Hitler. Because when you think of it, Hitler had been handed power in an alliance with conservatives and the conservatives thought, ‘Oh, in this government, we have the big positions and we are the big important guys. We’re going to reign in this little guy, they’re going to tame him.’ And within weeks he had stripped that kind of domestication strategy, had established his hegemony. Hitler had established brutal predominance and he had pushed aside the conservatives as well.
I mean, when you think of it what was a special shock is when in that infamous night of the long knives when Hitler cracked down on the SA, he also killed some of the former conservatives, he killed general Schleicher who had been a long-standing leader of the German military, had been the chancellor before him. So, there was a significant fear, significant concern among conservative authoritarians, you know. You say, yes, they were both ideologically on the right, in their shared anti-leftism, their shared anti-liberalism, their shared anti-communism, their shared nationalism, all these kinds of things. That’s why both of them tried to use each other, but always kind of wary and trying to make sure that they would end up on top.
And so, conservative authoritarians in cases like Brazil and Spain and Portugal use the fascists, but they always like trying to make sure we want to be on top. You know, Franco used the fascists as fighting forces, but very soon he said, ‘I am in charge. This is not going to be an independent movement that then gets powerful enough and pushes me aside. I’m going to make sure I’m on top.’
Well Kurt, you’ve also written quite a bit about populism, so I’m not afraid to ask you questions about it. Populism shares a lot of similarities with fascism. If we look at Juan Perón as really the archetype or the proto-populist or maybe the first real populist leader to arise, he admired Mussolini, admired a lot about fascism. And it’s clear to see some strong similarities between the two. We see charismatic leaders in both. We see people being mobilized within both. Is populism just a less radical form of fascism or is it truly something distinct?
So that’s a very interesting question. I think in many ways, Perón was a self-restrained fascist who knew he had to become a populist. Perón was too late because, I mean, Perón had spent two years in Italy. He admired Mussolini. Perón, I think, in many ways would have liked to do a fascist regime in Argentina, but the coup that brought Perón initially to a minor position, the government happened in 1943. By the time Perón had worked his way up the hierarchy it was 1944. And Perón was smart enough to see, ‘Oh, fascism is over. They’re, losing the Second World War. The U.S. is hammering them in the Western hemisphere. A fascist regime just isn’t viable anymore. And so, in some sense, if you want to put it colloquially, Perón ate a lot of chalk and became a populist.
And I think that was a qualitative important transformation because you see that populism including Perónism. Yes. They downgraded liberalism, they cracked down on the opposition, they screwed the playing field, they became over time authoritarian, but they always maintained elections. They never had mass terror. They didn’t turn Argentina into a kind of bastion of dictatorship. Very different from German Nazism and Italian fascism. And so, you can say that, yes, in some sense, the Argentine case shows populism emerged from the realization that fascism wasn’t viable anymore and you had to kind of transform. But I do think as Finkelstein used to emphasize in this academic work that this is a qualitatively different phenomenon. That populist leaders get their way in their eternal hunger for power and their effort to establish their own hegemony.
I think the worst that can happen under populism is what Levitsky and Way call competitive authoritarianism. So, you have an authoritarian leader who still uses elections and parties and there are opposition parties allowed and all these kinds of things. And that is totally different from fascism where there was no opposition party and there were no elections. And there was mass violence and a profoundly transformational impulse and they were much more ideological.
So, I think the big difference that I see between populism and fascism is that they both mobilize the population, but populists try to mobilize them within a political system whereas fascism literally ignores the concept of law and glorifies a sense of violence, almost vigilantism. You’ve got, like you said, paramilitary groups, like the black shirts. I mean, that’s a key difference between the two. Now, recently, on January 6th, we had the storming of the capital. This is not on the level of a fascist state right now. I don’t want to go there, but we’re starting to see movements where violence is starting to become more and more accepted in Germany. We’ve got groups that talk about Day X that are oftentimes connected to the AFD over in Germany, the far right political party that is oftentimes still described as populist. Not fascist yet.
Do you see a possibility that some of the populist movements could evolve into fascism over a period of time?
Not really, because when you think of, for example, that storming of the capital and compare that with like Mussolini’s March on Rome totally different thing. I mean, Mussolini’s March on Rome was organized. This was a, you know, a clear paramilitary grouping of an organized party that upon the orders of the leader made their moves. This Washington DC event, there was no real coordination. They have a variety of groupings they all do their own different thing. I mean, to me, what was one of the most striking things about the storming of the capital. They stormed the Capitol, they took a couple of laptops, and they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t have a project of power. I mean, this is a totally different phenomenon.
I understand that clearly in the German case, anything sounding like just having the slightest trace of their terrible past causes concern, but the AFD, for example, is a heterogeneous disparate hodgepodge of different factions and groups. It doesn’t have an outstanding leader. And I think the good part of their supporters are kind of protest voters and alienated and don’t know what to do. There is a hard rightwing like around that guy Höcke in Thuringia. But, I mean, a lot of that party’s not fascist. And you can always spin out dystopian scenarios. In many countries, you have a radical fringe, but this is very different from like the black shirts in Italy or the Nazis that have a constant kind of deliberate provocation of mass violence.
And I think, I indicated in the beginning, when you think that during the interwar years there was so much enormous trouble and strain on society, it had undergone a ton of challenges and transformations, and that gave rise to fascism. I mean, it takes something very unusual for so many people to, for example, resort to mass violence. It’s not what comes very naturally to lots of people for all kinds of reasons. It’s a dangerous thing for one and it’s an ugly thing. And it’s, you know, it’s not something that you would want to turn into a career in most places.
And so, in the interwar years under these tremendously, unusual coincidence of massive problems you had that. But nowadays, I mean, you know, in our societies and in societies that are so pluralistic, so heterogeneous, so differentiated, everybody does their own thing. You know, people talk, but like sort of acting in terms of mass violent movement. I think it is very rare.
but your point is more. That it’s just an order of magnitude difference between some of the things we’ve seen and the things that we’re talking about during the interwar period. It’s not that these things are completely insignificant, but we’re talking about orders of magnitude is what I’m hearing from you.
I just don’t think that that is anything that we have to seriously worry about. You want to watch it. You want to contain it. You want to do whatever you can. But I don’t think that it’s a major source of concern.
Now, in your book you do have many variations of the following quote, “conservative status quo defenders won out over extremist challenges. But the main victim was political liberty.” One of the themes in your book is that there were consistent overreactions both to communism and to fascism, but something that was a very, very, very real threat in many places was the threat of authoritarianism. And between these two extremes, it comes across as though it’s a middle road, but the end result is that democracy fails. So, in today’s political environment, does liberal democracy still remain a very fragile political regime?
Oh, I think much less fragile for two main reasons. One is that you don’t have these extremists. I mean, in retrospect the interwar years were unusual, not only in the accumulation of bombs and crises, but also in the enormous ideological extremism and polarization. I mean, people thought you could just should imitate something like a Russian Revolution. And on the other hand, you had fascists. And so, I mean, nowadays we just don’t have serious mass movements among those extremists anymore. There isn’t really anybody who wants to have anything resembling a communist revolution. And so, I mean, in some sense the challenges that liberal democracy faces are much, much, much more limited. The trouble and turmoil and disorder and accumulation of bombs and crises that, for example, Ian Kershaw again reminded us in his book, but then second also kind of the ideological alternatives and challenges.
I mean, there was a huge battle of the paradigms that was, you know, in Hobsbawm’s terminology, this was the era of extremes. There were extremes and there were very, very radical groupings. Nowadays, we don’t really have that anymore. While liberal democracy can get exhausted and tired and apathetic, I think there also is and continues to be a significant learning effect. We have learned how to construct institutional frameworks in a way that don’t have the problems that many of the democracies of the interwar years had. You know, like I mentioned in the book, the Baltic States, they have essentially assembly democracies without any real, strong executive power. And it just doesn’t work well.
In the German case, you had that strange construct of having tremendous decree powers of the president, you know, and you had just being able to block chancellor prime minister by a vote of no confidence. So, Germany learned. And now they have to construct a vote of no confidence and have different type of presidential powers. And so, I think there has been a lot of learning and consolidation of democracy. And also, maybe on the most fundamental sense they’re just used to living in a democracy and having liberty and, you know, not in a police state. And that we have some amount of say and some amount of voice.
So, if democracy was seriously threatened, I think you would see what in many ways, in my analysis of populism emphasized in the U.S. case that there would be a backlash. I mean, what is interesting from my perspective, Donald Trump, as a populist, posed some threats to American democracy. And he went much farther in his self-perpetuation project from like late 2020, and early 2021 than anybody had ever imagined, but it stimulated a pro-democratic response. I mean, when you think of it, in the 2018 midterm elections, electoral participation was way higher than it had been for many, many decades before. In the 2020 election electoral participation was higher. And so, what you see is, I think, you know, democracy in advanced industrialized western countries is just so firmly rooted and has so become kind of our natural way of life.
That if there was a serious, threat, I think you would see a pro democratic response. And so, I mean, liberal democracy now, I think, is firmly established. One interesting thing that I don’t mention because they mentioned it, there is a group of Danish scholars, Agnes Cornell and Møller and Skaaning who wrote a great Journal of Democracy article and that came out as a great book from Oxford. And what they emphasis is that during the tremendous trouble and turmoil of the interwar and during the tremendous challenges, extremists of the interwar years, Western democracy really didn’t break down.
I mean, none of the real Western democracies, France had significant rightwing movements and Belgium had the Rexist moment, but I mean where democracy had been established before the first World War and had kind of taken inroads and some consolidation, it didn’t break down. The only regimes that broke down were new, fragile volatile, newly created democracies that didn’t have those rules, that hadn’t been consolidated. And so, I mean, I think the big message of their book, I think is a very important message, especially nowadays, is even in the interwar, established, consolidated Western democracies showed a tremendous amount of resilience in the face of unprecedented crisis.
Well, thank you so much for the conversation. Like I said, your book is really remarkable and I definitely recommend people reading that not just to understand the interwar period, but to understand some of these concepts like fascism. The way that communism intersected with it during that time, so that we can kind of understand our own period. And not just because we’re necessarily looking at similarities, but to understand the real important differences between these two time periods. Thank you.
Well, thank you for having me, and I’m glad that you found the book interesting. And it’s always a fascinating topic that I love talking about. So, thank you for giving me the opportunity.
“The Real Lessons of the Interwar Years” by Agnes Cornell, Jørgen Møller, Svend-Erik Skaaning in Journal of Democracy, July 2017
Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation by Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan
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