Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fascist as an epithet, part one

By Boatboy

Fox's FX network had (perhaps unsurprisingly) Sum of All Fears on recently. Watching it, one gets a clearer idea why the Conservatists think "Fascist" is a useful insult to fling at the Left.

In the 1930s it was very difficult to make the US understand what a threat European Fascism truly was. Part of this was because there were and remain large German-American and Italian-American populations who have strong connections to the Fatherland. But part of it was cultural, and part a misreading of the national socialist economic engine as a revitalised capitalist instrument.

In 1933 the US was only sixty-odd years removed from the strife of the Civil War. Reconstruction was still fresh in the minds of Southerners, who had had to endure another two decades of a brutal recovery programme intended to keep the South defeated as much as the nation united. Successive waves of immigration had created communities of the recent arrivals easily targeted by earlier arrivals: Italian-American, Irish-American and other groups were only just achieving respectability after some very rough experiences in post-Civil-War US communities, and were still viewed negatively from the criminality spawned by Prohibition. The African American population, though legally free and guaranteed its rights, was still suppressed by Jim Crow legislation, and viewed by society as largely inferior. The makings of Fascist thought were very close to the US reality of the time: challenged nationalism, economic collapse, and populations of "undesirables" that made for easy scapegoats for the current set of ills offset by multiple northern European populations with strong ethnic identities.

Many US citizens had been supportive of Germany in the Great War. The US had only entered the conflict in response to to German U-boat warfare, which had claimed several US ships and many US lives in the years before US intervention. Sympathy ran high. When Hitler began Germany's industrial resurrection, many in the US cheered: Germany was "back on track." The Germans, for their part, while not making their activities truly secret, were very quiet about their less-savory activities, and the darkest exploits of the Nazi regime were years away from discovery. There were many in the West, including many major industrial figures, who were overtly supportive of the resurgent German industrial machine.

Ethnic identity, coupled with a revived apparently capitalist economy and a tacitly accepted faith in Caucasian superiority, blinded many to the threat Fascism presented the free world. It took six years of fighting, many lives, and the discovery of the concentration camps and the testimony of the incarcerated and their captors to bring to light the full horror. Part of the shock of the Nazi camps lay in the vivid, graphic proof that presumably civilized and humane Europeans could descend to such depths: the camps in Japan and China were more comprehinsible to the biased Western mind, but the Nazi facilities in Germany and Poland horrified on a cultural and ethnic level that layered onto the barbarism displayed there.

Fascism as a global threat perished with Nazi Germany. But that was in 1945, and the war crimes trials that followed were at once perceived as closure on the chapter and overshadowed by Soviet expansionism. Communism quickly replaced Fascism as the greatest global threat, and the details of the prior period were subsumed by the fears of the present.

Which brings us to today. We are now as many years removed from World War II as 1933 US was from the Civil War. The memories of that period are fading, and that fuzziness is compounded by the fact that, unlike the conflict in the 1860s, World War II was for the US a war fought on foreign soil. The daily reminders that face France, Germany, Italy and other nations directly affected by that war are absent here. The US has only the occasional WW2 memorial, which lists no name of any serviceperson lost in that conflict on US soil anywhere but plaques in DC and Hawaii.

To be continued.

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