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MUCH has been heard recently of the possible division of Europe on the basis of political doctrines. It has seemed as if a kind of Fascist International were forming, as if intensely nationalistic authoritarian movements were tending toward a counter-revolutionary internationalism of the extreme Right as an offset to the revolutionary internationalism of the extreme Left. Italian Fascists and German Nazis have been fighting on Spanish soil against Communists and Left sympathizers from half a dozen other countries. Sir Oswald Mosley has visited Rome and sung the praises of Signor Mussolini. Léon Degrelle, the newly emerged leader of a Fascist movement in Belgium, broadcast in French in January from one of the officially controlled radio stations in Italy. In France many admirers of Mussolini are to be found, and Frenchmen have been found even to extol Herr Hitler (among them Bertrand de Jouvenel, son of the late Ambassador). Among Fascists and near-Fascists belonging to different countries, even those traditionally hostile to each other, there is a recognized temperamental congeniality, an open acknowledgment of common inspiration and origin, a sympathy which sometimes gives indications of transcending conflicting national interests.
Fascists often boast that there is little if any good to be found in other countries than their own; yet except in Italy, Fascism itself is an importation. The Nazis, who exalt the Nordic "race" above all other breeds, have borrowed their political creed largely from Rome. Mosley, who talks like an old-fashioned British imperialist, is a pupil of Britain's Mediterranean rival. Degrelle admits the kinship of his doctrines with those of Mussolini and even sympathizes with the foreign policies of the two great Fascist powers. These movements, then, though professing to excel in patriotism, are not indigenous in either their forms or their principles. Mussolini once said that Fascism was not an article of export; but when the foreign demand grew he changed his mind and concluded that Fascism had risen to a "world plane."
It is all the stranger that Belgium should have proved susceptible to the propagation of Fascist doctrine because that country has had to endure hardly any of the social or national stresses which caused or were pretexts for the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany. There neither is nor has been any such economic disorganization in Belgium as there was in Italy before the March on Rome. There has not been unemployment comparable to that in Germany when Hitler rose to power (indeed there is little social suffering and Belgium is relatively prosperous). Belgium has no foreign grievances like those of Italy and Germany which derived from the peace treaties, and her nascent Fascism shows no traces of imperialism. When one recalls the fears and discontents upon which Fascism fed in Italy and Germany, it appears that the establishment of a Fascist movement in Belgium would be like making bricks without straw. The emotional raw material so capably utilized by Mussolini and Hitler seems lacking. Moreover, with its two languages and cultures (one cannot speak quite definitely of two races, though there are racial differences), the country would seem difficult to weld into a regimented mass. Nevertheless, the Belgian Fascist movement under Léon Degrelle has made sufficient headway to disturb the older parties and disquiet the coalition government of M. van Zeeland.
This extraordinary movement, which does not call itself Fascist but "Rexist," was hardly known until the end of 1935. Degrelle was just the leader of a noisy group of youths within the Catholic Party, long divided by numerous factions. The mission of his group, as he saw it then, was to "cleanse" the Catholic Party from within, and the name they adopted was "Christus Rex" -- "Christ the King." When the van Zeeland Government was meeting the financial crisis in March 1935, Degrelle was vainly striving to be chosen for a safe Catholic parliamentary seat at Liége. He failed, and turned his attention to other parties. Among those who gave him aid were even certain Liberals. The movement now dropped the word "Christus" although its insignia still bear a cross and a crown as relics of its Catholic origin and became known by its present strange name of "Rex."
But in spite of the similarity of the phraseology in which the Rexist movement expresses itself, in spite of its alien symbols, salute and ideals, it is not quite the same as its Italian and German models. It does not so openly repudiate democracy, though it does repudiate economic liberalism. It has no uniformed militia and is not militaristic. It does not specifically advocate dictatorship, though that is the end toward which it tends. It seems rather less fanatical than either Italian or German Fascism. It has usually avoided the violence which characterized the early days of those two movements (it is still too weak in any case to use force), and it does not seem to contain the toughs that made the Fascist militia and the Nazi Storm Troops instruments of terrorism.
In 1931, when the tide of Hitlerism was rising fast, I visited half a dozen German universities to observe the political tendencies of the students. After many talks with teachers and students in widely separated regions, I found that two things had left the most lasting impression: the intensely emotional nationalism which seemed to be sweeping over the youth of the country, and the amazing seriousness with which these youngsters took their bizarre political creed. When they ragged and tormented a liberal or pacifist professor until his life became unbearable, they seemed to get no fun from it. When they struck or demonstrated against an insufficiently nationalistic dean, it was not a lark but a duty. These young Nazis were all terribly solemn. They rarely smiled. Life was a grave affair and politics were serious.
In striking contrast was my experience in Brussels recently, when I talked with Degrelle and many of his followers. They seemed equally in earnest, but they had not lost their ability to smile. One day I was in the office of the Pays Réel, the Rexist newspaper, waiting while a member of the staff gathered together some Rexist pamphlets for me. One that I particularly wanted was called "Les Principes Rexistes." After a long search I was told that it was out of stock. "Comment," I said, " Il n'y a pas de principes Rexistes?" A roomful of young men, all ardent apostles of Degrelle, laughed wholeheartedly at the jibe. I imagine that anyone who knows the Nazis would hesitate to make such a joke in the office of the Angriff or the Voelkischer Beobachter. Since an almost preternatural solemnity and fanaticism are characteristic of Fascism elsewhere, it seems significant that the Belgian Rexists are Fascists who sometimes can laugh, even at themselves.
"We are more middle-class, more respectable, than the Nazis were when they began," said one of Degrelle's associates. Others agreed that the Belgians were not so given to extremes or so inclined to mysticism as the Germans, and hence they could hardly become so intense in their politics. Moreover, the sturdy Flemish burghers, in their long struggle against tyranny, acquired a love of liberty and a suspicion of the state which have not died out and which constitute an obstacle to dictatorship. What the Nazis call the "Fuehrerprinzip" does not have the same appeal to this lowland population as it does to many Germans. The tradition of independence if not of liberalism probably explains Degrelle's avoidance of a sweeping condemnation of democracy or bids for arbitrary personal power like those made by both Mussolini and Hitler. "The spirit of the country is against dictatorship," he said. But he desires the dissolution of parties and a concentration of executive power which certainly tends toward dictatorship.
Probably few Belgians -- certainly not all of those who supported him in the last election -- regard Degrelle as a person to whom absolute or overwhelming power ought to be entrusted. He has not won anything like the blind devotion which is vouchsafed by exalted young Nazis to Hitler or which Mussolini explicitly demands by asserting that "The Duce is always right." Degrelle does not even profess infallibility, and that, for a Fascist, is a handicap. He is a bright-looking and handsome young man who considers himself, not unwarrantably, to be endowed with a peculiarly potent appeal to crowds. He speaks of his talent as "electrical." Whatever it is, it is effective. Degrelle has held political meetings far larger than any others in Belgium. Thousands of people much older than he -- he is only 30 -- have listened to him eagerly and have voted for him.
There are a variety of reasons for this, and not all of them are connected with Degrelle's indisputable personal charm. Some were well expressed to me by a distinguished Belgian of the upper middle class who himself had voted for Degrelle. "It may be," he said, "that Degrelle was at the peak of his influence this past autumn, as a result of the election last spring and his subsequent campaign against Communism at the time of the strikes. His success has come because of widespread discontent with the old parties, which are disorganized and consist of officers without troops. The Catholic Party, which governed virtually from 1840 until recent years, is split into many divisions -- there is a farmers' branch, a labor branch, a Flemish branch and a Walloon branch -- and is too much under the thumb of the clergy. National interests are neglected for partisan interests and privileges. Recently a Minister wanted to dismiss an incompetent official, but the Chamber threatened to insist upon the Minister's own dismissal instead. You cannot govern under such conditions. The executive is too weak in relation to Parliament and must always compromise with partisan groups. We must sift and attenuate popular control, since it cannot be abolished."
These observations upon the weakness of the Belgian state and divisions within it might have been taken literally from critical essays recently written on the alleged crisis of parliamentarism in France by M. André Tardieu. They represent the impatience of the conservative portion of the middle class with the fumbling and log-rolling of democratic parliaments, and with the cost of a state machine which they are inclined to attribute to its socialistic propensities. With them goes also a fear of Communism and a desire to erect a strong state as a barrier against it. These, of course, are the apprehensions upon which Fascism is founded, and it is the critics of parliamentary government who entertain such feelings that often unconsciously pave the way for Fascism. First parliamentary government is shown to be inefficient or venal, or both; then the thesis is advanced that a "strong" executive is the only alternative to Communism -- and the battle for Fascism is half won. It has become difficult to criticize democracy without playing into the hands of the Fascists or the fascistically inclined; for to expose its defects, in order to remedy them, inevitably involves an at least partial justification of the Fascist indictment of it.
The Belgian gentleman cited above is not a Fascist, yet he has furthered the cause of Fascism. So have numerous other middle-class people who, as one put it, admire the Rexists for "waking up the country" and would like to see them control perhaps 25 percent of the Chamber, "but not a majority." They see in Degrelle's movement an idealism and nationalism which appeal to them. They do not desire dictatorship. They imagine, as many Germans did in 1931 and 1932, that they can support a Fascist movement as a means of stimulating a lethargic state to more efficient action, but stop short of a Fascist revolution.
We may say, then, that it was because of middle-class discontent, on both economic and political grounds; because of an almost universal recognition of the need of reforming the machinery of the state; and because of the apparent decadence of the traditional parties, that a Fascist movement suddenly appeared in Belgium. It was not born of an acute crisis nor of any mood of despair, as elsewhere, but of a general malaise.
The devaluation of the currency and the Brussels Exposition improved the economic situation in Belgium in 1935, but in the autumn of that year Degrelle began a sensational campaign in which he accused leaders of the Catholic Party of corruption and of exploiting their official positions for private advantage. The president of the Catholic Party and a Senator, both bankers, retired from office. This was a feather in Degrelle's cap. He continued his violent attacks against a score of other politicians. To many shopkeepers and peasants he seemed the personification of outraged public virtue. It was mainly as a result of this muckraking campaign, carried on without the restraint which would have been imposed by the more severe libel laws of Great Britain, for example, that Rex obtained 281,000 votes in the May 1936 elections, winning 21 of the 202 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 12 out of the 167 seats in the Senate. This success was not enough to endanger the government but was enough to cause it disquietude. Van Zeeland and his associates began a counter campaign. But they could not equal the Rexists in reckless assertions, and this put them under a handicap.
At this point some new factors came into play. Almost at the same time as the Belgian elections, France chose a new Parliament. The Popular Front took power. There followed the "stay-in" strikes which provoked fears of revolution. Throughout the summer Belgium was disturbed by similar labor demonstrations on the part of miners, textile workers and metal workers. As a result, social legislation (40-hour week, minimum wages, etc.) was adopted similar to that hastily passed by the Blum Government in France. Here was just what the Rexists might have prayed for -- a chance to wage a campaign jointly against Communism and against the diplomatic association with France, whose foreign policy had begun to awaken considerable apprehensions. The two objectives harmonized perfectly. The French Government was tainted by the fact that it had Communist support and because it appeared to be bullied by Communist-inspired strikes. At the same time it had a kind of alliance with Soviet Russia which might (so it was said) drag Belgium into war on the side of Communism. The fact that the Franco-Russian treaty was the work not of Blum but of Barthou and Laval was forgotten. The Rexists made the most of the bogey. Degrelle had hardly mentioned the Communist danger; but in August he began a vigorous campaign against it. We have no concrete evidence such as election figures to show what success he had; but his meetings were largely attended and he undoubtedly increased his influence.
Thus the fear of communism combined with the fear of war and with suspicion of France, notably among the Flemish, to provide an opportunity for a second dashing advance of Rex; and these fears and this suspicion are not likely soon to vanish. They produced last autumn the King's declaration of foreign policy which amounted to a resumption of Belgian prewar neutrality. The Rexists had cleverly seized upon movements of opinion and prejudices which the Government could not ignore. In this sense Degrelle has proved himself an able campaigner.
Germany also enters the picture. In his speech the King gave the occupation of the Rhineland by German troops and the consequent alteration of the military balance in Western Europe as the reason for Belgium's change of foreign policy. Germany had become more powerful and strategically better situated. Belgium wished to avoid offending her and was unwilling to give her any pretext for attack by continuing her close military relations with France. This was the official attitude. Degrelle took a similar line but went further. He virtually adopted the thesis which underlies Hitler's foreign policy by proclaiming the Communist danger and demanding that France break with Russia. So while the Belgian King and Government were moving away from France to a position of neutrality, Degrelle in effect took the German side.
Similarly bold and similarly disturbing to many thoughtful Belgians was his alliance with the Flemish nationalists, who have long been influenced by German propaganda and are regarded as still leaning toward the separatism which some of their leaders used to preach. So far, Rex's largest vote has been in the Walloon provinces, of one of which (Luxembourg) Degrelle is a native. But now he has begun to make a special appeal to the Flemish.
The great majority of the Belgians, some 6,500,000 out of a total 8,000,000, speak only one language. Of these unilingual inhabitants, 52.77 percent spoke Flemish at the time of the 1930 census. This Flemish-speaking portion seems to be increasing; for between 1920 and 1930 the population of the Walloon provinces increased by 3.85 percent and that of the Flemish provinces by 10.98 percent. Consequently the so-called Flemish question, or the problem of the use and teaching of Flemish as well as French, remains one that successive governments must consider.
The Flemish suffer from an inferiority complex. Their language, virtually identical with that of their Dutch neighbors, is not one of the major ones of Europe; and in Belgium it has labored under the additional handicap that French has long been the language of the educated, even in the Flemish provinces. With the advent of popular education, the lower classes insisted upon the use of their own tongue in the schools. Some consider this substitution of a local dialect for a world language a backward step; but it was a necessary sop to Flemish sentiment.
It was a concession which was first granted by the German administration in 1916 in an effort to win over the Flemish to the German side. At that time a group called Activists took advantage of the war to further Flemish nationalism, and in 1918 they formed what they called the "Raad van Vlaanderen," a kind of Flemish Parliament, which proclaimed the end of the Belgian dynasty in Belgian Flanders. Some 49,000 (a small minority) participated in the election of this "parliament." When the Belgian Government was restored, 40 of these Flemish nationalists were condemned to death for treason (though never executed), and some 220 were imprisoned. A similar Flemish movement arose in the Belgian army during the war, and the Front Party which they formed after the peace included the extreme nationalists. This party later became the Flemish Nationalist Party and advocated a vaguely-defined political autonomy for Flanders. Some wanted a federal Flemish state within Belgium; others talked of joining Catholic Belgian Flanders with Protestant Holland in a Volksstaat built upon a common language; still others had an imperialistic dream of a revival of the fifteenth century Burgundian state embracing Holland, French Flanders, Belgium and Luxembourg. It was the Declerq group of Flemish nationalists, who really want cultural autonomy though they may talk of wider aspirations, who recently made a kind of tentative alliance with the Rexists.
Very few Flemish would really care to separate from Belgium. The real issue is the status of the Flemish language. Since concessions were made to the desire for cultural equality the separatist sentiment has greatly diminished. Between 1930 and 1935 a series of laws was passed which will make Flanders virtually a unilingual territory. Flemish is taught not only in primary and secondary schools but also in the University of Ghent. It is used in the public administrations and courts. Flemish soldiers are segregated in separate companies in the army. Brussels, the capital, has a bilingual régime. The Flemish Nationalists have never polled more than 13 percent of the votes. In the last election they polled only 7.4 percent. Today we may say that the Flemish movement has simmered down to not much more than a watchful concern for the preservation of the language, and even the few extremists who still talk of separation or of a Greater Holland do not attach practical importance to their projects. In fact, Belgium has gone so far toward a solution of the language problem that Degrelle finds little to promise the Flemish, though he speaks of cultural autonomy in terms of separate ministries, especially for education, for Flanders and Wallonia. It is not because Flemish nationalism is a danger that Degrelle's flirtation with it was distasteful to many Belgians, but because the separatist sentiment with which it is associated might again make the movement susceptible to German influence. Degrelle himself contends, of course, that by conciliating the Flemish he is merely uniting Belgium.
By linking the Rex movement with Flemish extremists, Degrelle seeks to insure a stronger showing at the next election. If he succeeds, a tendency already at work would have been carried an important step further. If we regard the three government parties -- Catholics, Liberals and Socialists -- as moderates, which seems accurate enough, and put down the Communists, Rexists and Flemish Nationalists as extremists, we may say that in four years (from the election of 1932 to that of 1936) the moderates have lost materially and the extremists have gained. The Catholic percentage of the votes cast fell from 38.5 in 1932 to 28.9 in 1936, the Liberal percentage from 14.3 to 13.6, the Socialist percentage from 37.1 to 31.1; while the Communist percentage rose from 2.8 to 5.9, the Flemish nationalist percentage from 5.4 to 7.4, and the Rexists, a new extreme group, polled last year 11.8 percent of the votes. Thus the total moderate vote, which was 89.9 percent in 1932, was 73.6 percent in 1936; and the extremist vote, which was 8.2 percent in 1932, became 25.1 percent in 1936. This growth of extremist strength, both Left and Right, at the expense of the moderates, was a striking aspect of the last elections held under the German Republic. The same tendency in Belgium does not necessarily indicate the eventual annihilation of the moderates there, but it is a danger signal.
This is no less the case because the most formidable extreme movement, the Rexist, does not openly advocate dictatorship or a totalitarian state. Its program, like those of other Fascist movements, is very vague. It will take shape according to expediency when and if the movement advances. The Nazis were a party with certain anti-capitalist principles but with capitalist financial support; yet when they attained power, Gregor Strasser, with his radical economic program, was dropped, and the Left wing was decimated by the "purge" of June 30, 1934. In France, it was the effort to introduce an economic program which led to the split in the Croix de Feu movement. The Rexists have not yet reached this point; but they talk of acquiring a long lease of power (ten to twenty years), of reducing the rôle of Parliament and strengthening the executive, and of a corporative state somewhat on Italian lines. In the now classic Fascist manner they condemn individualism and liberalism along with Communism. Their pamphlets, considering the number of words they contain, reveal amazingly little regarding their aims. M. Pierre Daye, a Belgian writer who supports Degrelle, told me that the Rexists favor a corporative state, which would not be as centralized as that in Italy but would more closely resemble the system prevailing in Belgium before the French Revolution. He said there was no desire for a totalitarian régime in Belgium, but that the Rexists would favor a smaller Chamber, the referendum, and greater power for the King. He thought they would sponsor greater provincial and municipal autonomy and a diminution of the power of capitalists in public life.
The Fascist movements are alike in being essentially middle-class reactions against the Left, which for political purposes is identified with Communism. They themselves may contain Left elements and working-class followers who are unaware of the movement's real aims. They may even be to some extent anti-capitalistic in the sense that they profess a desire to control banks and great industries in the interest of the middle class. They depict parliamentary government as decadent, corrupt and inefficient, and they advocate in its place a strong and vigorous, if not arbitrary, régime. They likewise regard economic liberalism as obsolete and favor a kind of economic state within the political state in which regulation will be substituted for free individual enterprise. In Italy and Germany they have deified the state and exalted militarism as an end in itself. Since 1934 the two Fascist Powers have collaborated in the field of foreign policy. Circumstances have to a considerable extent rewarded this collaboration as against the leading democratic Powers, Britain and France. But in the relations between states it is interests and not doctrines which dominate in the long run; and Fascists of different countries, however they may agree regarding the alleged defects of parliaments and the need of planned economy, will not find it easy to reconcile their aspirations outside their own borders.