Christopher Duggan on fascisms and their strengths

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Meet Christopher Duggan, Director of the Centre for Modern Italian History and Head of the School of Languages and Literature at the University of Reading:

I’m Christopher Duggan, I’m Professor of Modern Italian History at the University of Reading, and I have been working on Italian History now for around thirty years. I suppose my interest in Italy developed as a child. I travelled around Italy, became fascinated like a lot of English people by the beauty of Italian cities, by Renaissance art… At university I did history, I did a particular course, for example, on Dante, and Florence in the 13th and 14th century. I learned Italian at university, and after I finished, I travelled in Italy for a year, teaching English in various towns in Italy – and became even more passionate about Italy. Then, in the 80s, I started doing research, and I worked with a well-known historian, Denis Mack Smith, and did a doctoral study on „il prefetto Mori, il prefetto di ferro„, on the campaign of fascism to suppress the mafia in the 1920s. So that’s how I got interested in Italian history. I have been writing about modern Italy ever since.

Comparing Italian fascism and German national socialism, does this lead to something?

It’s a question of how much, I guess. Italian fascism started a good eleven or so years before Nazis came to power. They are of the same period, they overlap for much of the 30s and into the 40s. So, there are bound to be points of comparison. We can’t understand nazism without having Italian fascism there as its precursor. We know that Hitler admired Mussolini enormously, and took a lot of lessons from him.

There is something about this period in the Twenties and Thirties when liberal democracy seems in crisis everywhere. People are looking for new models. Fascism in Italy presents a new model, looked at by a lot of people, including of course by Hitler very very seriously in the 1920s and 1930s, but also by people further afield, like Chiang Kai-Shek. So, it’s a powerful new model, given that if, as people say, liberal parliamentary democracy is in crisis, the years 1929-33, the great depression, seemed to underline this point.

What’s the alternative? Well, there is communism, there is socialism, the Russian revolution of 1918 that some people look at. But if you don’t do comunism, what else do you do? And Italian fascism is there as a model. So, it’s not surprising there are considerable similarities in a number of respects between what’s happens in Germany in 1933, and what’s happened in Italy from 22 onwards. There are borrowings, they feed off each other: Mussolini provides inspiration for Hitler, and increasingly in the 1930s, Hitler provides inspiration for Mussolini. So, they are trading off each other, but they are not necessarily exactly the same thing.

What do they have in common?

Both Italian fascism and nazi Germany, in a sense were born out of crisis. In the case of Italy, you’ve got victory, but a sense that Italy has emerged from victory in first World War 1918 not more united, as they had hoped but disunited. Then you’ve got a period of effectively civil war, revolution, economic problems, a sense of crisis. But that crisis, after the First World War, links up to a bigger sense of crisis. a lot of Italians feel that liberalism has not worked, that the hopes of Risorgimento had not been fulfilled by Italietta: Italy was NOT a great power, it was NOT taken seriously by Britain, France and America at the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919, this sense of being offeso, humiliated, not taken seriously, not being treated as a great power, not receiving German colonies in 1919: a sense of hopes frustrated.

What fascism is able to do is to offer the kind of hope that all problems they had in the past of disunity, civil war, fragmentation, economic weakness, not being taken seriously by the rest of the world, can be resolved. Likewise, you’ve got a sense in Germany by the Thirties: economic crisis, Weimar having betrayed Germany in some way, defeat in the First World War…

So what both these regimes do, I think, is offer possible solutions -and I think what is interesting in the case of Italy, and probably this goes for Germany as well- is the extent to which, first of all, there is the emphasis on unity, that what has caused problems in Italy’s case, and in Germany’s case, that there is’nt a united people, ein Volk, un popolo, in the case of Italy. Both regimes offer a sense of creating an organic community, removing those people who are not part of the nation, whether there are socialists or Jews, creating a sense of a unified strong Volk, or popolo, driven by a sense of collective faith.

I think that element of faith, enthusiasm, is a very very notable theme of Italian fascism. That brings us towards the whole question of political religion, and to what extent there is a religious component within fascism, whether in Italy or Germany. Certainl, the emphasis is very much on unity, spiritual unity, and creating the kind of passion, and enthusiasm, that will then allow the achievement of big goals, primarily perhaps in foreign policy.

(source: first of two parts of May 2012 audio-interview with Prof. Christopher Duggan at Reading University, conducted and transcribed by for another interview with Prof.Duggan in Italian language see the 5th June post of this blog: „Professore provocatore?“)