Books: The Metropolitan Critic — The Fascist Intellectuals |
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The Fascist Intellectuals

As a study of fascism and the intellectuals, Alastair Hamilton’s The Appeal of Fascism is far better than one had any right to expect from a man who was minus two years old when the last war started, and I commiserate with the author that the praise for his effort has so far not been markedly intelligent. There seems to be a general impression that a book of this type has been done before. It has not been done before. The four separate studies — of the relevant intellectuals in Italy, Germany, France and England — are done with tactful inwardness, sound judgment of character and dedicated scholarship. Alastair Hamilton has done well to avoid the apocalyptic tone: the cast of characters are men we can recognize as human, all too human, and the way things happen to them is a way we can recognize as not only historically inevitable, but likely at the time. Above all, Mr. Hamilton’s sense of history’s flow is an intelligent sense: he uses hindsight to illuminate events without pretending that such illumination was ever, to anyone, available then. All this I find admirable and would like to say straight away that The Appeal of Fascism is a book of considerable importance to the study of modern cultural history.

The situation in Italy is treated first. This section is the best researched, the best written, the best organized and for several reasons the most interesting intrinsically. Given the chaos in Italy from the end of the First World War up to 1922, and given Mussolini’s will to power and his genuine ability (for short-term ends, at any rate) to wield it, there is no mystery about Fascism getting itself established. Nor is there much mystery about it keeping itself established. As Mr. Hamilton summarizes with deceptive plainness: ‘Fascism survived partly because of the Duce’s accomplishments on a national level, and partly because, after the dissolution of the opposition, there was simply nothing else.’ Ideologically, Fascism ranged from Gentile’s idealistic, rather touching and finally tragic humanism, through the shrill aggressiveness of D’Annunzio, Marinetti and Malaparte, down to Pirandello’s naive longing and gratitude for a theatrically satisfying leadership. From some of the minor intellectuals there were outbreaks of thuggishness along the way, but the civilizing influences were strong enough to keep Nazi-style violence out of the picture until after Italy’s surrender and Mussolini’s sad rebirth as a German puppet. Practically, Mussolini kept relatively clean, from the disbandment of the Squadristi right up until his diplomatically motivated espousal of anti-semitism in 1936, which led to the passing of laws in 1938 but to no action until after the Italian surrender, when the appropriate persecutions and deportations became the hobby of the embattled Germans, irrational to the last.

If Mussolini had disallowed the assassination of Matteotti in the first place, and refrained from trying to please Hitler with race legislation in the last, there would have been comparatively little for the major intellectuals to recoil from, early or late. Most of them, anti-Fascist as well as pro, saw nothing damnable about the invasion of Abyssinia. Few of them looked back to the immediate post-war parliamentarianism with any nostalgia. The fact that Mussolini used violence to come to power ceased to be an issue once power was attained. Use your own extremists to knock out your opponents, then purge your own extremists: the technique is familiar now — it looked like responsibility then. It was the colossal stature of Croce which gave the non-Marxist opposition to Fascism a rationale. Mr. Hamilton is careful to point out that even Croce was willing to accept Mussolini in the early stages, rather than go back to the post-war chaos. It’s the gravest failing of this section that Mr. Hamilton does not sufficiently explore Croce’s intellectual reasons for going into opposition. The reasons were complex and the reader should not be left to guess.

Intellectuals were objects of intrigue within the Fascist movement; far more than manipulating events, they were themselves manipulated; with the exception of Gentile, Fascism’s one genuinely tragic figure among the geriarchs, those involved in the regime’s destiny were men whose character failings were compensated for by a whiff of power. Mussolini knew just how to flatter them. He had Pound’s early Cantos on his desk when Pound came to visit: Mr. Hamilton forgets to remind us that this sublime moment, the confirmation of Pound’s insight into the profoundly artistic nature of the Duce, was solemnly recorded later on in the Cantos themselves. It is inconceivable that Mussolini had actually ever read a line. Similarly he knew exactly what to give Pirandello — a medal. After the race laws nearly all the first-class men became disaffected. When the Republic of Salò started torturing people, even Soffici (ex-Futurist, long-term ‘realist’, permanent ingénu) realized that liberty counted. Finally Mussolini got his, in a scene of butchery which Pound (who had never been good at imagining the mass suffering taking place beyond the screen of his own rhetoric, but who could comprehend the fate of one man who had flattered him) immortalized in the opening lines of The Pisan Cantos. Gentile, whose idealism had been compromised all the way to fantasy, and who was too civilized to be unaware of the uses his distinction had been put to, was fortunately bumped off by the Communists.

The German section of the book is not as good as the Italian, perhaps because it is, intellectually, a necessarily less interesting scene. Mr. Hamilton traces Mann’s early backing of German ‘culture’ against foreign ‘civilization’, of the ‘artist’ against the ‘intellectual’, but sensibly does not try to include Mann, or any other first-rate figure, in an intellectual movement ancestral to Nazism. He follows Arendt in placing the intellectual (the semi-intellectual) antecedents of National Socialism among the völkisch nationalists and the race scientists — the detritus of politics and the intellect. He follows Taylor (mainly his neglected Course of German History) in tracing Hitler’s political base to the conflicts of Little v. Greater Germany: indeed, it is sometimes easier here to put Hamilton’s book down and pick up Taylor’s. Heidegger was no fool: he was just a fool about politics. Croce wrote to Vossler pointing out that Heidegger was Germany’s Gentile, an acute remark. Benn, sickened like Céline by his early experiences as a doctor, just wanted to be a hero, like D’Annunzio and Marinetti: by 1933 he was out of favour and the dud Blunck was in. The party’s hack minds — Krieck and Johst, Blunck and Binding — achieved a stature they could never have won ordinarily. Bronnen was influenced by Goebbels in the same way in which he was influenced earlier by Brecht: he was simply weak, and had to spend most of the thirties trying to prove that he was not a Jew because his father had not sired him, which implied that his father was a Jew, and put him on the hook. It was a farce. The faction fights were terrific, with Rosenberg trying to frame everybody Goebbels favoured. The regime obviously stank from an early date and no man of intelligence could be in two minds about it — only about what to do about it, which is a different thing.

The section on France is much more rewarding, the issues being so much less clear-cut. The material on the intellectuals is matched with difficulty to the shape of history — one is continually losing track of a character only to pick him up again at a later date — but it is hard to see how it could be any neater, considering the complexity of what went on. Maurras is traced back all the way to the Dreyfus case and Mr. Hamilton does not forget to point out how much admired Action Francaise was by Proust, Rodin, Gide and Apollinaire. The emphasis on will-power attracted the bright young men later on: Bernanos, Montherlant, Drieu La Rochelle and (surprise?) Malraux. The shadings and gradations in anti-semitism were marvellous, the character weaknesses almost engaging. Brasillach blamed the sympathy attracted by Jewish refugees for increasing the risk of war! There were lots of theories, but it took the Nazis to import the realities: torture sessions in Fresnes and box-cars rolling east. A tough way to bring down a fever.

The section on England (Eliot, Yeats, Campbell, Lewis, etc.) is well done but familiar. Except for Mosley, fascism never happened, only reactions to it, and most of those involved eventually settled down to an uneasy peace with the democracy they despised. If they got the chance, that is what nearly everyone involved did, in all four countries. The whole experience taught them about the limits of ideal artistic concepts of society and the danger of the irrational. Those it didn’t teach can still teach us, by their fate. I could wish the book to be better proof-read and in places better written, but I could not wish it to be a more distinguished product of my generation or more relevant to the generation now coming up. This was the story, it still is the story, it will always be the story: clever men without imaginations, gambling with the liberties of the defenceless for a dream.

(Listener, 1971)


Comparing this piece with the piece before it, I can see the difference that three years made, and hope the reader can see it too. There is less shorthand, more longhand, and the style isn’t trying to do the thinking. I should have spelled out what I claimed to know about Croce’s position instead of angling to imply that it was all too complicated to go into. Nowadays I would never cite A. J. P. Taylor as an authority on Hitler: Golo Mann’s reviews of Taylor’s major writings on modern Germany laid bare his paradox-mongering in its full perniciousness. But generally the piece benefits from a developing ability on my part to entertain the notion that the author whose book is under review might have known a few things I didn’t. Alastair Hamilton was especially penetrating about Heidegger: though it wasn’t until much later that Heidegger, Paul de Man et hoc genus started having their reputations dismantled, the possibility had long been on the cards. Alastair Hamilton’s book was ahead of the fashion, which depended on how far a given nation’s intellectuals were prepared to go in re-examining unpalatable facts. Slowest off the mark were the French, for reasons which became clear when they finally started to dig. Effectively, every French intellectual who continued publishing in occupied Paris was a collaborator. There being an understandable reluctance to admit this fact, most of the early studies of the phenomenon were published outside France. Alastair Hamilton’s was one of the first, and the one for which I came to be particularly grateful, because its influence enabled me to begin a gradual adaptation to an ethical morass whose all-pervading squalor, had it been revealed suddenly, might have made me give up altogether on the idea that literary journalism is a good thing.