To the Threshold of Power, 1922/33, Volume 1: Origins and Dynamics of the Fascist and National Socialist Dictatorships

To the Threshold of Power, 1922/33, Volume 1: Origins and Dynamics of the Fascist and National Socialist Dictatorships

by MacGregor Knox

This work seeks to explain the origins and dynamics of the Fascist and National Socialist dictatorships.See more details below


This work seeks to explain the origins and dynamics of the Fascist and National Socialist dictatorships.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This superb study stands alone as a deep comparison of the origins of the rise of Fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany. Reaching back to the early nineteenth century, Knox's book provides a detailed, thoughtful, and provocative analysis of the political, economic, and social structures in both countries that led to the catastrophes of the twentieth century. In my view it is the best account of the rise to power and the relationship of both movements to the Great War that has ever been done. Lively, pointed, and gripping, the book will surely become a classic."
-Isabel Hull, Cornell University

"MacGregor Knox has constructed an ambitious and compelling comparative analysis of the roots of Fascist and Nazi destructive dynamism of a kind which few scholars could have attempted. It is a splendid achievement."
-Sir Ian Kershaw, University of Sheffield

"MacGregor Knox has completed a very ambitious work, which takes a fresh look at a key issue of twentieth century history, the origins and nature of European fascism. There have been many comparative studies, but no one else has done what Knox has achieved: a sustained comparison of Italian Fascism and German National Socialism in the light of the long-term peculiarities of their national histories. He succeeds admirably in explaining both their common features and their differences."
-Adrian Lyttelton, Johns Hopkins University Center, Bologna

"MacGregor Knox"s innovative, critical, and thoroughly documented works have thrown light both on Mussolini’s dictatorship and its wars, and on the nature of German military traditions and the sources of the terrifying effectiveness of the Nazi armies. This volume offers a unique, sustained, and brilliant comparative analysis that stresses the centrality of military institutions and of the Great War in the genesis of the Fascist and National Socialist movements and regimes."
-Giorgio Rochat, University of Turin, Italy

“Comparative history is one of the most promising, but also most demanding avenues of modern historiography. MacGregor Knox, whose fame in this field is already well established, succeeded in writing a comparative history of the German and Italian periods of dictatorship during the first half of the 20ths century. [The] two volumes [will] present fascinating analysis, and reading them will become a ‘must’ for all those who are interested in that era of the dark century.” -Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Bielefeld University, Germany

"Knox sets a standard of excellence for writing comparative history in this study of how Mussolini and Hitler came to power...A work with great value to specialists and general readers alike. Highly recommended." -Choice

"MacGregor Knox's study is a compelling and densely packed narrative of a dual process..." -Robert O. Paxton, American Historical Review

" impressive achievement..." -Dietrich Orlow, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"...Knox’s comparative analysis is refreshing, original, and pointed." -Peter Fritzsche, EHR

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Cambridge University Press
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To the threshold of power, 1922/33
Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-87860-9 - To the Threshold of Power, 1922/33 - Origins and Dynamics of the Fascist and Nationalist Socialist Dictatorships - by MacGregor Knox


Dictatorship in the Age of Mass Politics

[L]ong voluntary subjection under individual Führer and usurpers is in prospect. People no longer believe in principles, but will, periodically, probably [believe] in saviors.

– Jacob Burckhardt

Burckhardt, Basel patrician and pessimist, was right. From his university chair in neutral Switzerland, the nineteenth-century pioneer of the history of culture saw Bismarck’s founding of the German Reich in 1866/71 as the overture to a “world war” or an “era of wars” that would destroy the cultivated elite that Burckhardt exemplified. In the “coming barbaric age,” mass politics and industry would create a nightmare world under the domination of vast military-industrial states whose miserable inhabitants would serve out their regimented days “to the sound of the trumpet.”1

   The rulers of those states would differ markedly from the dynasties of the past. Equality, as Burckhardt’s contemporary Tocqueville alsosuggested, could serve as foundation for wholly new varieties of despotism. In Burckhardt’s jaundiced view the egalitarianism of the French Revolution and Rousseau’s doctrine of the inherent goodness of humanity had destroyed all foundation for legitimate authority. The result – from Robespierre and Napoleon to the future of “terrifying simplifiers” that Burckhardt saw coming upon Europe – was rule by force in the name of the people. In the “agreeable twentieth century” of Burckhardt’s imagination, “authority would once again raise its head – and a fearful head.” Mass politics and the levelling force of the market would compel the world to choose between the “outright democracy” that Burckhardt disdained and the “unlimited lawless despotism” that he feared. Despotism might not even be the rule of an individual, as in the past, but rather “the domination of a military corporate body [die Herrschaft einer militärischen Corporation]” employing unprecedented terrorist methods. His contemporaries, their wits dulled by the nineteenth century’s religion of progress, “might not like to imagine a world whose rulers are utterly oblivious to law, public welfare, profitable labor and industry, credit, and so on, and can therefore rule with the most consummate brutality.” But some might live to see it; Burckhardt took perverse pleasure in the thought that the return of “genuine naked force” would transmute the self-satisfaction of the commercial and industrial middle classes he so despised into “pale terror of death.”2

   The agreeable twentieth century proved closer to Burckhardt’s forebodings or hopes than to the expectations of other observers of the historical process, from Immanuel Kant, to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx, to Richard Cobden. The teleological determinisms of Hegel and Marx – history as the self-realization of the world-spirit or of humanity as a species – were fundamentally optimistic. Hence the sovereign unconcern with which Hegelians and Marxists contemplated the unlucky or weak who perished under the spiked wheel of history. Cobdenite liberalism, the insular Anglo-Saxon successor to the Enlightenment faith in human perfectibility, was more optimistic still. The weak need not perish; free trade would painlessly “[draw] men together, [thrust] aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and [unite] us in the bonds of eternal peace.”3

   After July 1914, millions slaughtered one another in ethnic and ideological massacres, industrialization through terror, and the two greatest wars in history. It required a genuinely heroic belief in Hegel’s “cunning of reason” to see at least 100 million dead as advancing the progress of the world-spirit or the self-realization of the species. The “eternal peace” of the Cobdenites receded into the realm of fantasy. And the first of the two world wars led to the revolutionary despotisms that Burckhardt had foreseen, despotisms of mass politics that claimed to rest on the general will that Rousseau had imagined.

   The new regimes were anything but uniform in pattern, despite their frequent grouping under the rubric of “totalitarianism” and their shared responsibility for the Second World War. Their single parties under quasi-military discipline and above all their common aspiration to total control of the individual made them appear loosely comparable, but they rested upon radically different political and social foundations. The Soviet regime came to power through revolutionary civil war in a country whose population was three-fourths peasant and whose fiercely authoritarian political culture derived from Byzantium, from the thirteenth-century Mongol conquerors of Moscow and Kiev, and from pitiless autocrats from Ivan the Terrible to Peter and Catherine the Great. By the time the party of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin consolidated its grip on Russia, war and economic collapse had wiped the slate clean. The fragile Western-style civil society – modernity’s characteristic web of religious and community groups, voluntary associations, and professional bodies – of nineteenth-century Russia had vanished, and with it any barrier to dictatorship other than the peasantry that Stalin duly crushed.4

   The dictatorships of west-central Europe, Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany, arose by contrast in semi-legality within still-functioning industrial societies that despite their many differences shared the Western traditions of public law, limited government, and a civil society largely independent of the state. In Russia, as the dying Lenin apparently feared, a restored “Asiatic” dictatorship was one likely outcome of the collapse of Tsarist autocracy.5 In Italy and Germany, dictatorship was a less foreseeable consequence of war and upheaval.

   From the beginning, one major school of interpretation – in both countries – privileged the unique national characteristics that purportedly produced Fascism and National Socialism. In Italy, the Fascist regime laid jealous and exclusive claim to the heritage of the national movement that had created united Italy from the 1830s to 1870. Anti-Fascist intellectuals in return disparaged Fascism as the “revelation” of that same Italy’s deficits in civility and modernity. Once its momentary political utility had passed, Benedetto Croce’s famous dismissal of the regime’s twenty years in power as a mere “parenthesis” in the triumphant history of a United – and Liberal – Italy won few converts. Italy’s trajectory had indeed diverged after 1918 from that of Britain and France, despite common experience of industrial warfare, mass death, and near-defeat. The structural and ideological roots of that divergence clearly extended back far beyond the crises of the Great War and of its aftermath that had produced the Fascist movement.6 The leaders of that movement, from its origins in 1919–22 to national ruin in 1943–45, were products of Liberal Italy, not visitors from another planet. Understanding Fascism’s origins and career inevitably required causal analysis of its specifically national past.

   In Germany, the eulogists of Germany’s peculiarities, its monarchical-military-Protestant Sonderweg – its “eccentric route” to modernity midway between Russian despotism and Anglo-French democracy – held the upper hand until 1945. Thereafter, Germany’s unique trajectory “from Bismarck to Hitler” abruptly reversed polarity, and became the foremost answer to the question “How was Auschwitz possible?” That phase held through the early 1980s. In the 1960s the first postwar generation of German historians, with help from a few of their elders, discovered Marx, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, and modernization theory. They fashioned a new “historical social science” Sonderweg along which the German people had goose-stepped from the wars of Otto von Bismarck through those of Adolf Hitler.7 Social formations, politics, and culture had diverged sharply from the democratic West on the one hand, and on the other Germany’s tumultuous economic growth had outstripped, by the eve of the Great War, the achievements of the first industrial nation, Great Britain. Prussia’s victories, Bismarck’s charisma, and political manipulation by the great man and his successors had fortified Prussian-aristocratic domination against industrial modernity and parliamentary democracy well into the twentieth century.

   The social-historical Sonderweg school designated the Reich’s post-1878 tariffs and “negative integration” as the tools that had unified the Prussian-Protestant “state-supporting forces” in a purported “marriage of iron and rye” and in common hatred for the Socialists and Catholics whom Bismarck had damned as “enemies of the Reich.” When those remedies proved insufficient, Bismarck and successors had allegedly invoked “social imperialism”: colonial, naval, and ultimately continental expansion to preserve the social order and purportedly preempt revolution at home. War in 1914 and the advent of Adolf Hitler were thus desperate bids to stave off domestic reform; the dictator’s “stirrup-holders” of 1933 and the monocled nobles who commanded his assault on Soviet Russia in 1941 were merely the final stages of an iron continuity from Königgrätz and Sedan to Auschwitz and the ruined Führerbunker of 1945.8

   Opposing views inevitably arose. British neo-Marxist historians of Imperial Germany mocked the new Sonderweg orthodoxy on many counts, but scoffed especially at the democratic credentials of the Western “model” that they themselves ungratefully inhabited. Imperial Germany, in their analysis, figured as a triumphantly modern state ruling a society that had undergone a “successful bourgeois revolution,” even if that claim – apart from proposing an even cruder linkage between society and politics than that put forward by opponents – left much of pre-1914 German history perplexing. Nor did the allegedly unexceptional bourgeois career up to 1914 that the critics described offer any clue to the sources of the Reich’s undeniably exceptional efforts at world conquest from 1914 to 1945 – efforts too broadly supported by Germans from all social groups to pass as contingent phenomena without a past.9 German scholars of a moderate conservative bent delighted in the British Left’s critique, and inevitably exploited it to suggest that Germans should once again aspire to national pride. Others suggested that the Kaiserreich had been evolving peacefully toward parliamentary democracy until 1914, or that Germany had succumbed to Nazism in 1933 not from resistance to modernity, but from a surfeit of it, an abrupt overload of overlapping traumatic events – swift and thorough industrialization, total war, humiliating defeat, the sudden advent of genuine mass politics, hyperinflation, and the Great Depression.10

   Finally, after Soviet collapse and West Germany’s annexation of its eastern neighbor in 1989–90, skepticism about the Sonderweg’s explanatory power and very existence became general, and embraced not merely the lock-step social-historical concept of the 1960s and 1970s but virtually all suggestions that Germany’s pre-1914 past might help explain 1933–45. The Reich’s trajectory to and through the era of world wars mutated yet again, into a causally irrelevant German “parenthesis,” an unfortunate interlude in the nation’s orderly progress toward the stable democracy of the post-1949 and post-1990 eras.

   The post-1990 consensus that Germany until 1914 or 1933 was in no significant way peculiar, and that statements to the contrary were quaint throwbacks was itself merely a by-product of generational change and political and historiographical vogue, not of shifts in the underlying evidence. One powerful if faintly indecent objection to the new orthodoxy was that the alignment of Italy and Germany with Western values and political norms, however deep and abiding it might appear from a twenty-first-century vantage point, only dated from 1945. The United States and Great Britain, not indigenous political or social forces, established or reestablished representative democracy in the lands under the bloody footprint of their armies, from Sicily and Normandy to the Elbe. Stalin memorably explained the process, as he himself applied it, in spring 1945: “This war is not as in the past.…Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise.”11

   The German people nevertheless defended their dictatorship in 1942–45 with such fervor that at least 7 million Germans – up to 10 percent of the population – died. Half of Germany’s 5.3 million military dead perished after July 1944 – when the imminence of total defeat was apparent to the meanest intellect. And those who led and many who followed in that suicidal struggle, the entire top and middle management of National Socialist Germany and of its armed forces, and well over half the Germans alive in 1945, had received their intellectual furnishings and political socialization under the Kaiserreich.12 Contingency after 1918 clearly played some role in their behavior, but scarcely explains a cohesion and fanaticism more deadly, to themselves and to others, than those of the warriors of Imperial Japan – whose rulers surrendered pusillanimously, largely from fear of domestic upheaval, after a mere 2.7 million dead.13

   Yet even Germany’s extreme behavior after 1933 did not necessarily rule out general interpretations that grouped it with other contemporary regimes. The common western European character of the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships struck most contemporaries as more salient than the resemblances of either to Soviet Russia. The term totalitario, which Liberal opponents of Benito Mussolini coined in 1923–24 and the dictator merrily plagiarized, only became popular as a sweeping “ism,” a putative generic phenomenon embracing Moscow, Rome, and Berlin, in the 1940s.14 Not so “fascism” (lower case), which originated in the Communist International in the months after Benito Mussolini’s victory in 1922, over a decade before a second discernibly “fascist” regime arose. By the advent of Hitler in 1933 the term was long-established as the generic designation for the non-communist dictatorships that Marxists chose to describe as “capitalist,” and whose leaders were purportedly “agents” of malefactors of great wealth.15

   The concept of fascism lived down its origins and its implausible identification – in Comintern orthodoxy – with a “monopoly capitalism” whose timorous representatives clearly did not rule in Rome or Berlin. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the archives of the interwar period slowly opened; the popularity of the concept of totalitarianism waned as Stalin’s successors replaced mass terror with calculated selective repression. Ernst Nolte’s Three Faces of Fascism (Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche, 1963) caught the new mood, and led an explosive wave of research into the putative “fascist phenomenon.” With the enthusiasm of entomologists let loose in virgin rain forest, scholars created taxonomies of the interwar “fascist” movements. Paperback volumes sampling a bizarre variety of groups and regimes – one chapter per country – poured from the presses.

   The taxonomists soon found themselves in difficulty: they were unable to define fascism convincingly and thus delimit it as a “genus.” Nolte, who made the most valiant attempt at definition, described fascism as an “anti-Marxism” that had arisen in response to Bolshevism after 1917. But anti-Marxism was scarcely the most salient feature of Mussolini’s Fascismo or Hitler’s National Socialism.16 Barrington Moore, Jr., in his 1966 epic, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World, derived fascism not from Marxism-Leninism but from feudalism: “fascism and its wars of aggression” were “the consequence of modernization without a real revolution” under the direction of agrarian elites, a claim that implausibly stretched a monocausal economic-determinist variant of Prussia-Germany’s Sonderweg to cover the Italian and Japanese cases.17

   Others avoided the task of definition by simply listing or “modelling” fascism’s presumed attributes – the “fascist syndrome” – without offering persuasive rationales for selecting one attribute or set of attributes rather than another. The “cases” furnished the characteristics that made up the social-science “model.” That model, with impeccable circularity, then confirmed the author’s choice of cases. The geographic and chronological limits of fascism varied notably from author to author, and few proponents of the concept agreed on causal hypotheses about fascism’s origins, dynamics, or goals. No single conceptual mold fit the “fascisms” of industrialized Germany and of agrarian eastern Europe or Iberia, much less the putative “emperor-fascism” of distant Japan. Many historians divided even the seemingly close Italian and German “cases.” Some of the “ideological and moral roots of Fascismo” allegedly “grew from the soil of the French Revolution”; Italy’s dictator ostensibly “believed in the idea of progress.” The Hitler movement, by contrast, was purportedly an atavistic “radicalism of the Right,” a twisted product of the German Sonderweg.18 At a subjective level, it emerged that Italian and German “fascists” had failed dismally to find common ideological ground in efforts to found a “fascist international” in the early 1930s.19

   By the mid-1970s, proponents of the concept were in considerable embarrassment. The taxonomists sought to divide fascism into two or more fascisms, or resorted to involuntarily revealing adjectives: pre-fascist, proto-fascist, quasi-fascist, semi-fascist, neo-fascist, fascistic, and fascistoid. Some scholars attempted to define fascism by connecting it – like the German Sonderweg itself – to the problematic social-science notion of modernization.20 Others innocently continued to assume that generic fascism was a thing rather than a concept, and analyzed its presumed social bases in a variety of interwar European societies.21 But the inability of its supporters to define it cleanly, to divide fascist movements and regimes convincingly from merely “authoritarian” ones, to explain its rise coherently, and to agree on whether it ended in 1945 provoked increasing skepticism.

   Former believers chronicled the “deflation” of the concept: “we have agreed to use the word without agreeing on how to define it.”22 Skeptics argued that the common link between fascisms was mere style, the aesthetic of the violent political deed.23 Yet others suggested that the social-Darwinist pseudo-science and the genocidal deeds of “German fascism” were indeed unparalleled – except perhaps in Stalin’s Soviet Russia, with its pseudo-scientific dogma of class struggle and its up to 30 million dead.24 Scholars continued to turn out slim volumes on theories of fascism, but with diminishing conviction. The most persuasive recent effort has largely confined itself to the history of ideas, defining fascism as a “genus of political ideology whose mythic core…is a palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism.” But such definitions contribute little to understanding the regime dynamics and differing outcomes of the various putative cases of generic fascism.25

   Historical interest in the meantime shifted to the peculiarities of the movements and regimes themselves. A “new social history” – Alltagsgeschichte in its German variant – of everyday life “from the bottom up” duly emerged. A postmodernist “cultural history” viscerally hostile to the analysis of a putatively imaginary historical process followed. Youthful scholars professing the new genres promised to color in many totally blank areas in the recent history of Europe. But contempt for high politics engendered at least two perilous liabilities. First, the “new social historians” of Nazi Germany often focused on minor episodes of non-conformism among the population. They failed to show much interest in how the regime demonstrably inspired fanatical belief and reduced recalcitrant individuals and groups to obedience. Some even implied that the non-political rhythms of everyday life overrode even the most violent forms of political change, a strangely innocent attitude in a century in which high politics had killed, maimed, dispossessed, or displaced hundreds of millions, and had divided Germany for forty-five years. Second, the new emphases on particularity, on history from the “bottom,” and on evanescent and often trivial cultural phenomena to the exclusion of the commanding heights of government, armed forces, and industry led to a proliferation of works whose authors actively denigrated synthesis. Large-scale efforts to explain historical change became – in voguish jargon – “master narratives” or “metanarratives” suspect or convicted a priori of sinister political or cultural agendas. The consequence, as the mills of academic specialization ground steadily and the stream of Ph.D. dissertations, monographs, journal articles, conference volumes, and essay collections on the era of the world wars widened relentlessly, was an increasing and apparently irremediable fragmentation of knowledge.

   If self-referential analysis of national Sonderwege is inadequate, if theoretical and practical perplexities have deflated the generic concept of fascism, and if academic specialization and the histories of “everyday life” and of “culture” threaten to dissolve historical knowledge into disjointed particulars, little hope may exist for understanding the twentieth-century dictatorships that Burckhardt had imagined. Yet generalization is an inescapable duty. Fragments are not historical knowledge. Erudition without synthesis illuminates only minute disconnected portions of the past and contributes nothing to understanding the present. Synthesis without erudition, without ruthless testing of generalizations against the widest possible spread of evidence, replaces incoherence with hollow formulas. Perhaps the career of generic fascism in particular is a cautionary tale about how not to frame a concept. Perhaps fascism, from its Comintern origins in 1922 to its re-elaboration by historians in the 1960s and 1970s, sought to cover too broad a range of too disparate phenomena.26

   Successful concepts also exist. The ideal-types that Weber helped pioneer have proven indispensable for analyzing significant characteristics of historical phenomena, from domination, whether traditional, legal, or charismatic, to bureaucracy and the state.27 Generalizing abstractions (“isms”) with apparently well-understood origins and histories have likewise helped mightily to order the historical evidence, just as the changing meanings of those abstractions are themselves vital evidence. Few but the most recalcitrant empiricists or mocking skeptics would dismiss notions such as “absolutism,” the organizing drive of the early modern monarchical state toward internal and external power. Nationalism is for most working historians the passionate urge to merge ethnicity and state invented in the decades surrounding 1789 and spread murderously across Europe and the world.28 Communism’s corpus of sacred books, historical development from the Bolshevik Revolution through the Third International, and Leninist-dictatorial practice – enduring in its remaining outposts around the globe – make it a concept of uncommon solidity. Capitalism’s origins, nature, and relationship to politics have aroused fierce debate, but few historians would dispense with the term. Democracy, despite appropriation by every known form of modern dictatorship, nevertheless has a modern history that stretches back to the English and French revolutions and a set of core values – popular sovereignty and rights against the state – that define the phenomenon and delimit it from other types of regime. Liberalism and conservatism, although increasingly awkward to define as the distance from their origins in the American, French, and industrial revolutions increases, are concepts ingrained in the very texture of nineteenth-century Western history.

© Cambridge University Press

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