Having recently completed a book on fascism, the career of a concept, it seems that all my efforts to lessen the abuse of my key term may go for naught. Fascism will likely live on, not as a resurgent interwar European movement but as a freely bandied about epithet that can be applied to whatever journalists don’t like. The unsuspecting reader of our partisan media will go on being be made to believe that fascists are one or more of the following villains: anti-American jihadists, outspoken opponents of immigration here and in Western Europe, Democratic presidential candidates, Israeli soldiers, homophobic Christians, foreign-policy isolationists, or the nationalist governments of Viktor Orban in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia. This “fascist” list continues to grow—a comprehensive one would be at least twice as long.
Almost all attempts to apply “fascist” as a dirty word entail comparisons that have little or no historical basis but evoke all too predictable responses. Put most simply, we are made to think “Fascism equals Hitler.” By associating what the speaker doesn’t like with the f-word or by making this association by indirection, one links the hated object of one’s attack to Nazi genocide. In his book Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg does not even rely on this implicit equation of bad guys with Nazis. He just plunges ahead and makes the argumentum ad Hitlerum when he compares Hillary Clinton’s economic planning to the policies of Hitler and the Nazi Minister of Labor Robert Ley. We are thereby made to believe that the Democratic Party has turned Hitlerian, and any fool knows what that means.
Someone who should know better than to abuse the term, the Israeli Francophone historian Zev Sternhell, is undoubtedly the world’s greatest authority on French fascism. In an interview with Haaretz last August, Sternhell lashed out against the Israeli bombing of Gaza, which he compared to the behavior of interwar fascists. He asserted that the fascist danger “reached a new peak in Israel during the Gaza operation” and that Israel is now fraught with fascist thinking of the kind that permeated France when Hitler’s armies invaded in 1940. These comparisons are inexcusable for two reasons. One, whatever one may think of the Israeli military operation, those carrying it out were not “fascists”—one may disapprove of the violence unleashed by these soldiers without having to reach for the emotive, ill-fitting f-word. Moreover, France fell in 1940 because the Germans outmaneuvered French armies militarily. The country was not overthrown from within by fascists, and the group that collaborated with the enemy most blatantly during the invasion was the French Communists, who were taking orders from Hitler’s Soviet allies.
Mentioning these facts in response to Sternhell’s abuse of historical parallels seems redundant, given that the writer in question knows the history far better than I. This is what renders his rant all the more remarkable. We are talking about a distinguished historian of fascism who writes brilliantly about his subject when he is not wearing his political hat. Sternhell introduces a sober thought when he reminds us that “there are worse things than fascism.” The Italian fascist regime before it was taken over by Nazi Germany killed “no more than a few dozen” opponents, and those were mostly assassinations that occurred outside Italy, probably without Mussolini’s knowledge. (One might note that while the partisan use of “fascism” has grown exponentially in recent decades, the scholarship on this topic has not degenerated in the same way.)
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