It’s NOT about „same old stuff over and over again“

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Dr Philip MORGAN was educated at Queens‘ College, Cambridge, and the University of Reading. He has been teaching nineteenth- and twentieth-century European history at Hull since the late 1970s, first in the Department of European Studies and then in History, as a Senior Lecturer in Contemporary European History. The books he has written include Italian Fascism, 1919-1945 (Basingstoke: Macmillan 1995), Fascism in Europe, 1919-1945 (London: Routledge 2002) and The Fall of Mussolini: Italy, Italians and the Second World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007). After recently retiring from the department, Dr Morgan is doing research for a book on collaboration in wartime Nazi-occupied Europe. We met at Hull, and I recorded the following interview with him:

Fascism, what does this actually mean to us today, what is it?

Well, I’m not sure what it means today, but I think historically it means extreme hyper-nationalistic movements, which saw the resolution of crises of national identity and power being resolved through the eliminination of all perceived and declared enemies of the nation, with the idea of creating a cohesive and powerful national community, which would allow, e.g. in the Italian case, the Italian nation to assert itself internationally and to become a great power. So I think, fascism would see itself in Italy as a force alone capable of creating a nation which would be coherent and united enough to make Italy a strong power in an international sense.

Might this longing for a powerful superiority have something to do with feelings of national impotence?

I think that’s undoubtedly the case, yes. Not all Italians felt this, but enough Italians felt that what had been created with unification in 19th Century was „Italietta“, i.e. a small version of a proper country, which was internally not united, and not respected internationally. So the imperialism and ultranationalism would not have appealed to all Italians, but it would appeal to enough Italians who felt that their nation was not great enough and was not recognized to be great enough. As I say, I don’t feel this was a feeling was shared by all Italians, which would help us to explain why Mussolinis declaration of the African Empire in 1935/36 was received with, I would say, overwhelming enthusiasm.

You are you implying, aren’t you, that a few years later similarly in Germany, there again was a nation which felt humiliated, which felt frustrated, which felt it was not playing the role it really should play on the world stage?

Yes, I think that very much features the way many Germans felt after the 1st World Watr…that they were being prevented as a result of defeat in this war from exercising economic preponderance and natural weight in European and international affairs, which would come from their geographical and strategic position and from their resources as well. And clearly this sense of frustrated and humiliated nationalism was something which extremist movements like nazism could easily draw upo. One has to emphasize again hat this is not something that would appel to all Germans. But it would appeal to enough Germans to make nazism a very important political force.

If one looks and listens nowadays to Hitler’s and Mussolini’s speeches and watches their body language, many people just find them ridiculous. But at the time, were they not very modern innovative and media savvy?

Yes, I think we get a false impression from Mussolini’s speeches from perhaps the way we see them on newsreels and so on, which are often with Mussolini on close-up. The I think to experience those speeches is to be in the crowd and listen at Palazzo Venezia where what appears to be istrionics when you are only a couple of yards away which is where the photographer was, is not what was experienced by the crowd. And I think that’s the strike of Mussolini’s and Hitler’s oratory: it’s the kind of oratory that is very striking and very resonant with people in a group, in a crowd rather than in a face-to-face conversation. I suppose one of the most sinister aspects of those totalitarian regimes was their very sophisticated use they made of what were then the most modern media and performance capacities in both countries, particularly the radio, which was used to spred the fascist and nazi message in a collapsed distance between them and their audience in a very real way.

Do you agree with those scholars who interpret fascism generically also as something rival to religions, offering quasi-religious aspects?

Yes this is becoming one of the most fashionable ways of understanding or interpreting fascisms, the whole idea of fascism being a political religion is in fact a revival of an old idea which was developed by contemporaries of the time. I think it’s a very seductive idea, but as a historian, I am not sure if one can say that nazism or fascism were religions. I think what one can say historically is that they acted as though they were religions. The analogy, in other words, is quite an illuminating one to take.

The Italian fascists used religious language. They talked about fascism being a faith. The kind of enthusiasm and commitment they wanted to generate among the Italian people was that of a religious convert: almost unthinking, unquestioning, committed, enthusiastic. One could say perhaps without too much exaggeration that catholicism is „totalitarian“ in the sense that religion does embrace certain values which are meant to inspire and shape people’s lives, and that is in essence what the totalitarian project was about.

So I think, the analogy to a political religion is really quite useful to an understanding of what fascismu was about, and what it was trying to achieve, and perhaps also of its success. The whole point of religious language, imagery, and ceremony of course, was to associate people emotionally and spiritually, they used that word, with the goals and aspirations of the regime.

Imagine me being an 18 year old, knowing that you have spent decades of your life dealing with fascism, but not really being interested in it. Tell me a valid reason why I shoul deal with this „old stuff“, what’s in it for me in the 21st Century?

Well it’s not old stuff, is it? Fascism marked, and was a very important component of what became sense a civil war between Europeans between the end of the 1st World War and the end of the 2ned World War. It was an extraordinarily divisive phenomenon. It both expressed divisions all over Europe, and exacerbated them, The only resolution in the end of those divisions within Europe the end was war. That seems to me, is something of immediate and continuing relevance. The divisions and conflicts within Europe in the inter-war period were so great that they led to war. That is of great relevance and, one hopes, something people want to be prevented from in the future. That seems to me a very could reason to study the roots and developments of fascist movements in the immediate past. In that sense, I don’t think that past history is old hat at all: it has to do with the very development of European society in the 20th Century.

Having lived in peace for more the 65 years, we have got used to it now. There is no reason any more for us to fear war again, ist there?

Yes, what we had is an area of general European peace, which is not of course, to say they have not been wars in Europe since 1945, and some have been of a very nasty civil war kind, the break-up of Yugoslavia for instance. To make us realize.these are not things that we can simply regard as our past. So in that sense, it seems to me, you can’t understand the ethnic and continuing nationalist and tensions in parts of Central and Eastern Europe without understanding the continuity of those tensions and rivalries which were expressed in and through fascism in an earlier period.

(Source: interview audiorecorded 12/06/2012 in Hull by