Was the European Right Revolutionary or Counter Revolutionary in the 1920s and 30s?

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Following the Great War the political climate of Europe was alive with new emerging parties and movements on both sides of the political spectrum. The European right cannot be addressed as a homogenous group as the various movements and regimes came in a variety of forms.  It can be seen that there were both more conventional and less revolutionary movements aliened with traditional Conservatism along with the rise of more revolutionary populist movements such as Fascism and Nazism. However, it can be seen that even the most radical of the European Right had counter-revolutionary elements.

In order to answer the question effectively a definition must be given as to what is meant by the terms revolutionary and counter-revolutionary when discussing the European Right during the 1920s and 30s. If one were to describe a regime or movement as revolutionary it alludes to a belief that what was trying to be achieved would comprise of an ambitious over-haul of societal features and political institutions to be replaced by a novel forms. By counter-revolutionary one means the very opposite; with the goal of the movements and regimes being the restoration of the status quo in relation to societal and economic relationships. In order to determine whether the European Right was revolutionary or counter revolutionary one needs to examine the movements with respect to their political, cultural, and economic goals and achievements with special consideration to the realities of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the authoritarian regimes in Spain and Portugal during the 1920s and 30s.

A major characteristic of a revolutionary movement is its commitment to an over-haul of the current political status quo in terms of the political institutions and systems present within the country. An examination needs to be held concerning the political ambitions and ideologies of the right wing movements, as well as a consideration of how power was seized and consolidated in order to determine whether the European Right was revolutionary or counter-revolutionary in its political goals. The European right varied enormously in the extent to which their regimes represented a political revolution with different regimes representing both revolutionary and counter revolutionary political aims.

Nazi Germany was the most politically revolutionary of the European Right movements and regimes both through what it wished to achieve and how it achieved these goals. However, despite its radical ideology, the National Socialist Workers Party (NSDAP), or Nazi Party as it is often referred to, did not achieve power through revolutionary means. The NSDAP achievement of power did not represent the typical revolutionary methods of a forceful overthrow of the current regime, the party instead achieved power through the conventional framework of electoral success. The party was in fact in a minority coalition, until it won a majority in the Reichstag following the 1933 Election, in a climate of heavy SA coercion. [1] However, what was revolutionary about the NSDAP’s rise to power was its use of mass politics, the likes of which had rarely been seen in Europe before, and its consolidation of power once in a position of authority. For the Nazi Party, legitimacy could only be achieved by the representation of the ‘popular will’, which was to be manifested in the decrees of the Führer. [2] The will of the people had become a pivotal point in legitimising Hitler’s authority and alluded to the notions of the party representing a socio-political revolution of the people.

Furthermore, it can be seen that the way in which Hitler and the Nazi party consolidated power and authority once elected was synonymous with a revolutionary movement. The abolition of the constitutional role of the president was undeniably revolutionary in that it changed the constitutional system of Germany, and made Hitler unchallengeable constitutionally[3].

The ideology of Nazism is inseparable from the notion of revolution. Nazism was self-consciously revolutionary in what it sought to achieve; the creation of a racially homogenous peoples community and required the creation of a new type of state in order to achieve this. Hitler did so with the policy of Gleichschaltung, which entailed the introduction of new administrative organisms, which were either created alongside or replaced those that already existed. The first of these ‘Gleichschaltung laws’ was the Enabling Act of 1933 which saw an amendment to the Weimar constitution allowing the cabinet to introduce legislation without it first going through the Reichstag.  The policy of Gleichschaltung effectively saw a centralisation of power around the leader and changed the constitutional structure of power in the state, deploying a Reichsstatthalter (Governor’s) in each state, except Prussia, who had near-complete control over the state government and were under the authority of Wilhelm Frick, the Interior Minister. The purpose of the Gleichschaltung was to create an operating pyramid of authority under Hitler, however the effectiveness of this has been challenged by historians due to the overlapping nature of decision making within the regime. Historian, Martin Broszat went so far as to say that the system as a ‘polyocracy’[4]. Regardless of its apparent success or not the institutions introduced under the policy of Gleichschaltung undoubtedly represented a revolutionary movement in that it replaced the institutions and composition of the traditional German state.

The Fascist regime in Italy under the leadership of Mussolini, like the Nazi Party of Germany, shared the self-conscious belief that it was a revolutionary movement. However, the extent to which Fascist Italy was truly revolutionary in terms of its political position and policy leads one to question whether it was truly a revolutionary rather than radical regime. Italian Fascism as a movement and as a regime should be viewed very differently in respects to their revolutionary aspects. Martin Blinkhorn makes the distinction between the revolutionary nature of Fascism as a movement compared to the conservative nature of Fascism as a regime. [5] For it can be seen that the Fascist movement of the early 1920s had very revolutionary tinge, with its’ resentment of the liberal regime, which it viewed as sheltering the richest and most influential in society. Fascism’s support for the ideology of Corporatism; the organization of society by corporate groups, would lead one to believe that the regime in Italy would be a revolutionary with its clear goal for the reorganisation of Italian society. However, it can be seen that although never abandoning its radical goals the Italian Fascist regime was far from revolutionary as it operated within the established political order, compared to the Nazi regime in Germany, it did little to change the constitution of the state. For it can be seen that when Mussolini appointed Alfredo Rocco to be the chief ‘architect’ of the institutions of the Fascist regime, he favoured strengthening of the structures and institutions of the existing state. [6] Mussolini himself was never constitutionally unchallengeable and was subordinate to the crown. This along with Mussolini’s recognition of the role of the Church and the state through the Lateran Accords of 1929, can be seen as challenging the totalitarian aspects of Fascist Italy. Historian Charles Floyd Delzell argues that this abandonment of revolutionary aspects was due to the realisation by the party that it was unlikely to win power against the forces of Italian establishment.[7]

The European Right were not exclusively self-conscious revolutionary movements during the 1920s and 30s, as it can be seen that two of the more radical of the right-wing regimes, those established in Spain and Portugal, were counter-revolutionary in their aims. For it can be seen the two dictatorships which were present in Spain during this period represented a counter-revolutionary movement in their opposition to the Republic introduced between 1931-6. Both the regime of Primo de Rivera and General Franco represented counter-revolutionary movements in that they sought to return order and stability to Spain through the traditional socio-political hierarchies and relationships. General Franco, was particularly counter-revolutionary in that he sought to restore the structure of ‘caciquismo’ following the revolution of the Spanish republic[8], while Primo de Riveria wished to establish order and stability with disdain for revolutionary apparatus to achieve this. Similarly, the establishment of a dictatorship in Portugal, led by Salazar was an appeal to tradition and a desire for order and stability. Salazar drew his ideological inspiration from social-catholic school of thought and his regime lacked the desire to challenge the established social order, the creation of single party apparatus or the ambition to forge a new elite [9], traits synonymous with a revolutionary movement. The appeal of Fascist traits in both of these regimes was an appeal to the order which it seemed to guarantee rather than to its revolutionary qualities.[10]

Another aspect of a revolutionary movement is its commitment to creating new cultural norms and an extension of politics into everyday life, compared to the conventional separations of one’s political and social life. Both Fascist Italy and Nazi German saw politics and culture as inseparable and wished to create new cultural norms and forms of high society which they saw as promoting desirable traits for individuals. Politics is viewed as an expression of a lifestyle, “an attitude towards the totality of human experience” [11]. Both regimes used propaganda to promote these ideals of the ‘new man’. However, within both of these regimes there would appear to be an internal conflict in the creation of the ‘new man’ as it often appealed to past traditions and exemplified a past resurrected[12]. Nazi Germany in particular wished to see a return to the ‘golden age’ of Germanic culture, with its open content of the ‘roaring twenties’. While Italian Fascism sought to create a militarisation of culture, with the myth of the ‘new Italian’ connected with the myth of Rome as a symbol of their rebirth as the spiritual heirs of the ancient Romans[13]. Myth was an essential part of both revolutionary movements, with perhaps the most important of these being the ‘cult of the leader’ which created propaganda and myth around the leader in an attempt to secure absolute loyalty from the masses. What Emilio Gentile termed as the “sacralization of politics” was present in both regimes. By “sacralization” Gentile, draws a comparison to the politics of the regimes and traditionally religious means of worship through the construction of faith through obedience of the leader and the party, and a type of worship of the nation.[14] In 1932 Mussolini went as far as to state that “Fascism is a religious concept of life”[15]

Along with this ‘sacralization of politics’ both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were revolutionary in their attempts to mobilise the youth in an attempt to indoctrinate them towards the regimes radical ideology. The creation of youth organisations such as the Hitler Youth in Germany and the Opera Nazionale Balilla in Italy represent a wider trend of trying to incorporate the ideological stances of both regimes into the everyday culture of their societies. The creation of social programmes such as the Dopolavoro in Italy and the Volksgemeinschaft in Germany were key to creating the cultural revolution necessary for the regimes continued survival. Attempts to ‘revolutionise’ culture was only really present in Nazi Germany and Italy, due to the importance of mass politics to both regimes, compared to Spain and Portugal which represented counter-revolutionary aims in wishing to bring the country in line with traditional Christian culture.

The final criteria upon which the revolutionary status of the European Right can be judged on are its economic aims. The authoritarian regimes of Spain and Portugal did not represent a revolutionary movement in respects to their economic policy. Neither regime sought to establish a new economic order, and instead favoured the existing, traditional economic relationships. The right-wing movements of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, both, at least claimed, that they sought the establishment of novel economic relations. In Fascist Italy, this was the product of Corporativist ideas; the subjection of private capital to national interests. On the surface this would appear revolutionary but the realities of the 1920s and 30s would lead one to question just how revolutionary it in fact was. The Fascist movement in Italy represented a defence of the socio-economic relationships, and was a key aspect to its success in rural Italy during the early 1920s[16]. Mussolini’s regime did not represent this Corporatist revolution which it had initially set out but rather a more Keynesian model of state intervention. Similarly, it can be seen that Nazi Germany’s economic policy although radical was not in fact revolutionary. ‘Full employment’ was Hitler’s ultimate goal, which he achieved through radical measures of state provided public works and the freeing of jobs previously occupied by women and Jews. However, the extent to which Nazism represented a revolutionary economic system cannot be overexaggerated. Like Mussolini, Hitler supported the current socio-economic relationship, key to his success in getting the support of big business in Germany. Furthermore, it can be seen that none of the right-wing movements in Europe were in fact revolutionary in respects to their economic policy, as they all supported the pillars of the established capitalist system.

In conclusion it can be seen that the European right different enormously in regards to their revolutionary status. Although, it has not been discussed in the essay it should not be forgotten that many of the right-wing movements in Europe represented more conventional forms of conservatism and were counter-revolutionary by nature. Even the most radical of the right-wing movements of Europe: Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal did not fully represent revolutionary movements in the same respect as Communist Russia on the other side of the spectrum, and it can therefore not be argued that the European Right was totally revolutionary.

Bibliography

  1. M. Blinkhorn, Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919-1945 (Longman, 2000)
  2. Broszat, M., ‘The Hitler State: The Foundations and Development of the Internal Structure of the Third Reich’ (Pelgrave Macmillan, 1981)
  3. J. Casanova, ‘Civil Wars, Revolutions and Counterrevolutions in Finland, Spain and Greece (1918-1919) – A Comparative Analysis’: International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 13/3, 2000, 
  4. C.F. Delzell, ‘Mediterranean Fascism 1919-1945’ (Pelgrave Macmillan, 1970)
  5. E. Gentile, ‘Fascism as a Political Religion’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 25, (Summer 1990)
  6. M. Mazower, ‘Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century’ (Vintage Books, 2000)
  7. G. Mosse, ‘The Political Culture of Italian Futurism’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 25 (Summer 1990)
  8. B. Mussolini, ‘La dottrina del fascista’ in Enciclopedia Italiana, vol. xiv (Rome) 1932

[1] Blinkhorn, M., ‘Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919-1945’ (Essex, UK) 2000, P.71

[2] Mazower, M., ‘Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century’ (New York, USA) 2000, P.32

[3] Blinkhorn, M., ‘Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919-1945’ (Essex, UK) 2000, P.71

[4] Broszat, M., ‘The Hitler State: The Foundations and Development of the Internal Structure of the Third Reich’ (London, UK) 1981

[5] Blinkhorn, M., ‘Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919-1945’ (Essex, UK) 2000, P.42

[6] Blinkhorn, M., ‘Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919-1945’ (Essex, UK) 2000, P.66

[7] Delzell, C.F., ‘Mediterranean Fascism 1919-1945’ (London, UK) 1970, P.18-37.

[8] Casanova, J. “Civil Wars, Revolutions and Counterrevolutions in Finland, Spain and Greece (1918-1949)” (Spring 2000) P.530

[9] Blinkhorn, M., ‘Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919-1945’ (Essex, UK) 2000, P.79-80

[10]Blinkhorn, M., ‘Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919-1945’ (Essex, UK) 2000, P.55

[11] Mosse, G.L., ‘The Political Culture of Italian Futurism: A General Perspective’ (Summer 1990) P.253-4

[12] Mosse, G.L., ‘The Political Culture of Italian Futurism: A General Perspective’ (Summer 1990) P.265

[13] Gentile, E., ‘Fascism as a Political Religion’ (Summer 1990) P.245.

[14] Gentile, E., ‘Fascism as a Political Religion’ (Summer 1990)

[15] Mussolini, B., ‘La dottrina del fascista’ in Enciclopedia Italiana, vol. xiv (Rome) 1932

[16] Blinkhorn, M., ‘Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919-1945’ (Essex, UK) 2000, P.79-80

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