A century ago today, Adolf Hitler realised that a coup d’état he’d initiated the day before, in a Munich beer hall, had failed. Fifteen of his followers had ended up killed by the police, including a friend shot while marching arm in arm with Hitler.
He was jailed but he also came to international attention. His month-long trial was widely publicised. It gave a national platform for his views; even the trial judge was sympathetic. Hitler used his imprisonment to write his manifesto, Mein Kampf, and was out in nine months.
Those who had seen him transform the crowd in the beer hall later said they had witnessed a special charisma. After he came to power in 1933, Hitler would continue to commemorate the putsch as the beginning of the salvation and triumph of Germany.
The failed coup marked a turning point in Hitler’s thinking. It led him to decide that he would capture power using only legal means. He used democracy to denounce democratic failures.
The attempt was modelled on a successful coup undertaken in Italy the previous year by Benito Mussolini. Until Hitler took power, it was Mussolini who was the senior politician. As late as 1930, Hitler was sending Mussolini fawning letters of the type you’d expect of an autograph chaser.
Both men were anti-clerical in their politics. They claimed to represent a pre-Christian kind of muscular politics. They argued for a break from traditional Christianity, for a “new man” who would see loyalty to the State, and its supreme leader, as a value – Mussolini called it “totalitarian” – that transcended all other loyalties.
Today, it is customary to see Mussolini as a buffoon. But, up to the mid-1930s, his brand of national cohesion, fascism, was widely praised across Europe and the US, including by leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
In a democratic world racked by political and economic difficulties, Mussolini seemed to many to represent the future. In 1932, the liberal writer, H.G. Wells, gave a speech in Oxford in which he called for a “liberal fascism”. And that was not unusual.
It’s important to remember that both Mussolini and Hitler appealed to prejudices that were widespread. Industrialists, used to giving orders and having them obeyed, were attracted by the idea of a supreme political leader who would resolve the messiness of politics.
Across Europe and the US, casual antisemitism, racism and support for eugenics were widespread, going right to the top of the patrician elites. The idea of a nation, a special exceptional race destined to rule, was hardly strange in what was still the age of empires.
The Germany of the 1920s and 1930s, however, was in a special predicament. Up until the Great War, it had been the leading industrial power with the best universities. However, defeat in war, a peace treaty seen as national betrayal, crippling inflation and unemployment… all these combined to create a paradoxical narrative: of a superior nation that was also a collective victim, thanks to a failed elite.
The narrative is full of contradiction but the oratory of a Hitler could square the circle. He promised salvation by identifying the culprits, “the Jews”, who would, in turn, be dehumanised and victimised.
For a long time, the principal opposition to Mussolini and Hitler came from committed Christians and socialists, both of whose respective traditions taught them to empathise with all victims. The title of the papal encyclical Christ the King today rings of cobwebbed, churchy triumphalism; but it was issued in 1925, in the wake of Mussolini’s rise to power, to insist that some values transcend both State and nation and it is to them that we owe ultimate allegiance.
If you ask me, Europe is ripe for a second coming- Ranier Fsadni
Umberto Eco, as a schoolboy, was a member of the Italian fascist youth brigade; then, as a pre-teen, he ran errands for the anti-fascist partisans during World War II. He knew something about both the mundane character of fascism and its spell. Faced with the debate about what defines fascism, he offered his own definition. It is a nihilism that fetishises death:
“To love death necrophilically is to say that it’s beautiful to receive it and risk it and that the most beautiful and saintly love is to distribute it…”
There are better definitions but Eco put his finger on something real. Hitler did not just fantasise about the extermination of his enemies. He also ruminated over the destruction of Germany.
He asked his favoured architect, Albert Speer, to design buildings that would look beautiful as ruins. The last military order issued by Hitler from his bunker (not carried out) was to destroy Germany to preserve it from the enemy.
A century after the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler continues to shape European thought in good ways and bad. For many Europeans, a destructive war replaced faith in God with disillusionment. Hitler replaced the devil; Auschwitz replaced hell; the Holocaust replaced the Crucifixion.
We continue to seek the devil and promote any political thug or warmonger to the status of a new Hitler. We give in easily to the temptation to raise ourselves to the status of a collective victim facing an enemy who needs to be eradicated.
We risk trivialising the horrors of Nazism and the lesson of history. The true lesson of the putsch, and the rise of fascism and Nazism, is another. If they return, it will not be under the sign of the swastika.
It will be in countries where democracy has been let down by its mediocre, mainstream leaders and paternalistic authorities. It will be in economies experiencing barely manageable decline. The new fascists will blame current international treaties, pander to our sense of entitlement and promise a new order of human being. Many of us will find they make politics seem fashionable, relatable and effective again.
In short, it will be an anonymous fascism. And, if you ask me, Europe is ripe for a second coming.