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What to Read on Fascism

Fascism destroyed fledgling democracies across interwar Europe and led directly to World War II and the Holocaust. Few topics have attracted more attention from historians and social scientists, yet the literature on fascism continues to expand because of the profound questions the subject raises about the stability of democracy, the power of nationalism, and the potential for seemingly civilized societies to descend into barbarism. The works below represent a combination of classic texts and state-of-the-art syntheses that focus on the following questions: What was fascism? Why did it come to power in some places and not in others? To what extent did fascism transform those societies in which it came to power? How did fascism lead to genocide? And how did European societies deal with fascism in the decades that followed?

Fascists. By Michael Mann. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
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The Anatomy of Fascism. By Robert O. Paxton. Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
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A History of Fascism, 1914–1945. By Stanley G. Payne. University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
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Michael Mann defines fascism as “the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism.” His penetrating book largely succeeds in defending this definition -- perhaps the most concise scholarly one to date -- by examining the backgrounds of the men and women who joined fascist movements. Robert Paxton and Stanley Payne are less parsimonious yet they both, in different ways, delineate the essential features of fascist ideology and fascist movements in their excellent introductions. Paxton takes a developmental perspective and analyzes the stages of fascist movements in various countries -- from their creation and seizure of power to their radicalization -- before finally offering his own definition of fascism at the very end. Payne begins with the crises of fin de siècle Europe and the trauma of World War I before proceeding from case to case. He covers the usual suspects, such as Germany and Italy, the lesser-known but still significant cases, such as Romania and Hungary, and the minor movements that failed to gain much notice but whose experiences are nonetheless important in building a theory of fascism. Payne tries to do just this at the end, but the fact that his theory contains no less than 20 elements illustrates the enduring complexity of the phenomenon.

The Coming of the Third Reich. By Richard J. Evans. Penguin Press, 2004.
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The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922–1945
. By William Sheridan Allen. Quadrangle Press, 1965.

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Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power: January 1933.
By Henry Ashby Turner, Jr. Addison-Wellesley, 1996. 

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As Mann, Paxton, and Payne all make clear, fascism was a pan-European phenomenon. Yet the question of how German democracy collapsed and Hitler came to power overshadows nearly all the others in the field, and each of these three books provides a partial answer to it. Richard Evans’ synthetic history -- the first installment of a three-part history of the Third Reich -- is sweeping and truly geared toward the general reader. William Allen’s classic case study of the town of Northeim shows how the Nazis’ superior organization allowed them to become the largest force in the town before Hitler’s seizure of power. Henry Turner’s analysis of the fateful month of January 1933 reveals that Hitler’s appointment as chancellor resulted from complex machinations among a small group of politicians who believed -- wrongly, as it turned out -- that they could use him for their own devices.

The Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy, 1919–1929. By Adrian Lyttelton. Routledge, 2009.
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Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915–1945. By R. J. B. Bosworth. Penguin Press, 2005.
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In contrast to Germany, the fascist rise to power in Italy was a slow and halting affair: Mussolini needed more than six years to consolidate his regime. Adrian Lyttelton dissects this process and demonstrates how the Duce’s pragmatism produced a level of accommodation with other major political and social actors that would have been unthinkable in Nazi Germany. R. J. B. Bosworth reminds us of the brutality of Italian fascism, even as he shows how ordinary Italians manipulated and adapted it to suit their own needs. Mussolini promised to change the very language Italians spoke, but Bosworth explains why totalitarianism -- a term Mussolini himself propagated -- was constantly being negotiated and compromised.

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. By Christopher R. Browning. Harper Perennial, 1992.
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Although racism was never an integral element of Italian fascism, it was the defining feature of German Nazism. Hitler’s fanatical anti-Semitism and plans to create “living space” in lands inhabited by Jews and other groups that he deemed unfit to live produced the Holocaust. Christopher Browning’s treatment of this subject is chilling in many respects. Using documentary evidence, he chronicles the atrocities of a reserve police battalion in Poland from March 1942 to February 1943, the period of the most intense slaughter of the Holocaust. This is indispensable, albeit difficult, reading for anyone wanting to understand the mechanics of the killing, which were often far less organized than one might think, and how the perpetrators reacted to it. But the arguments that Browning sustains are even more terrifying than the narrative itself. First, despite being “ordinary” in the sense that they did not initially fit the profile of the sadistic Nazi killer, the members of the battalion were quickly transformed into ruthless executioners as they became habituated to committing heinous acts. Second, despite having the option not to take part in the killings without suffering any serious consequences, most of the men still participated, largely because of the dynamics of peer pressure. What Browning demonstrates is that neither ideological brainwashing nor coercion (“just following orders”) can explain the behavior of the perpetrators. “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers,” Browning concludes, “what group of men cannot?”

Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys. By Jeffrey Herf. Harvard University Press, 1997.
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The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944. By Henry Rousso. Harvard University Press, 1991.
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Both of these books show how elites use history for political ends and how unwieldy and unpredictable a tool history can be. Jeffrey Herf’s goal is to explain why the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) came to such radically different understandings of the Nazi past. He argues that West Germany’s process of reckoning with its Nazi history -- one that is widely viewed as admirable today -- was by no means inevitable in the late 1940s, and that the beliefs and actions of several key politicians were critical in pushing the country along that trajectory. He contrasts this path with that of East Germany, where communist leaders manufactured a narrative that minimized the Holocaust and transformed the population into a nation of antifascist heroes. Henry Rousso reminds us that the French told themselves a similar story, and that both Charles De Gaulle and the communists were willing to spread the fiction that “eternal France” had resisted the Nazis and the Vichy collaborators. This myth unraveled in the 1970s and 1980s, however, as Vichy turned from a repressed memory into an obsession.

Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. By Cas Mudde. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
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For nearly four decades after the end of World War II, far-right political parties were marginalized across Western Europe. Since the 1980s, however, parties that rail against immigrants, criticize some of the core features of liberal democracy, and embrace populism have become important players in many European states. Cas Mudde classifies these parties as radical right, and his book provides a trenchant guide to the massive literature that has developed as these parties have surpassed 20 percent of the vote and even become parties of government.

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