Transatlantic Fascism: Ideology, Violence, and the Sacred in Argentina and Italy, 1919-1945

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In Transatlantic Fascism, Federico Finchelstein traces the intellectual and cultural connections between Argentine and Italian fascisms, showing how fascism circulates transnationally. From the early 1920s well into the Second World War, Mussolini tried to export Italian fascism to Argentina, the “most Italian” country outside of Italy. (Nearly half the country’s population was of Italian descent.) Drawing on extensive archival research on both sides of the Atlantic, Finchelstein examines Italy’s efforts to promote fascism in Argentina by distributing bribes, sending emissaries, and disseminating propaganda through film, radio, and print. He investigates how Argentina’s political culture was in turn transformed as Italian fascism was appropriated, reinterpreted, and resisted by the state and the mainstream press, as well as by the Left, the Right, and the radical Right.

As Finchelstein explains, nacionalismo, the right-wing ideology that developed in Argentina, was not the wholesale imitation of Italian fascism that Mussolini wished it to be. Argentine nacionalistas conflated Catholicism and fascism, making the bold claim that their movement had a central place in God’s designs for their country. Finchelstein explores the fraught efforts of nationalistas to develop a “sacred” ideological doctrine and political program, and he scrutinizes their debates about Nazism, the Spanish Civil War, imperialism, anti-Semitism, and anticommunism. Transatlantic Fascism shows how right-wing groups constructed a distinctive Argentine fascism by appropriating some elements of the Italian model and rejecting others. It reveals the specifically local ways that a global ideology such as fascism crossed national borders.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[T]hought-provoking, intelligent, well-researched, and complex work of intellectual history. . . . Finchelstein has written a book that is an important contribution to the study of fascism in general and makes an even more crucial contribution to the study of the ideology of the far Right in Argentina.” - Joel Horowitz, American Historical Review

“Federico Finchelstein’s extensive background in fascist and Holocaust studies and his work in Italian and French archives set this book apart. So, too, does his approach. Rather than simply discuss European influence on Nacionalismo, Finchelstein analyzes ideas and perceptions flowing in both directions across the Atlantic. . . . A short review such as this one cannot do justice to the originality, richness, and subtlety of this book. Even the detailed endnotes, which practically constitute another volume, merit close examination. Finchelstein’s fine work surely will stimulate debates about fascist transnationalism, Nacionalismo, and this movement’s legacy for years to come.” - Sandra McGee Deutsch, Hispanic American Historical Review

“[I]t is obvious that this book is a splendid contribution. But it is also welcome,
necessary, and timely as extreme right-wing politics, authoritarianism, and party-led totalitarian states in the world are reasserting themselves. . . . If Churchill or Roosevelt had allowed a partial peace to end World War II, instead of total surrender, the Argentine politics described in this book would have joined Brazilian integralism to further autonomous fascist traditions in Central America, the Southern Cone, and the Andes. Finchelstein’s wonderful work paints a haunting image.” - Friedrich E. Schuler, The Americas

“Federico Finchelstein’s careful and ambitiously researched book which rests on archival work done in Rome, Buenos Aires, and the United States usefully reframes the literature on fascism by successfully challenging its overwhelming Eurocentrism....[It] is an invaluable contribution to reinvigorating scholarly discussion of fascism and is sure to be emulated, contested, and extended in years to come.” - Dylan Riley, Journal of Modern History

Transatlantic Fascism is a fresh examination of fascism in Argentina from the perspective of its transnational connections. Federico Finchelstein provides new insight into fascism and its impact in Argentina.”—Donna Guy, author of Women Build the Welfare State: Performing Charity and Creating Rights in Argentina, 1880-1955

“Federico Finchelstein displays an exceptional combination of talents in Transatlantic Fascism: imagination tempered by diligence and meticulousness, independence tempered by judiciousness. His theoretical clarity and deep empirical research have forged a rich, intellectually rewarding, and important study of fascism. The book’s transnational perspective sheds much-needed light on a conceptually elusive ideology and political phenomenon.”—Jose C. Moya, author of Cousins and Strangers: Spanish Immigrants in Buenos Aires, 1850-1930

“In this innovative, impressively researched work, Federico Finchelstein takes an ambitious comparative approach to the historical study of fascism. He shows both how fascism was a transnational ideology and how that ideology was inflected and joined with at times violent practices according to different national traditions. His close inquiry into the Italian-Argentine connection sheds new light on a complex set of problems, including dimensions of fascism related to religion and to the manner in which fascism was understood and experienced by its committed activists. This book is important not only for specialists in European and Latin American history but for all historians and social scientists interested in problems of comparative history and methodology.”—Dominick LaCapra, Professor of History and Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies, Cornell University

“In this original and refreshing work on the history of fascism between Europe and Latin America, Federico Finchelstein elaborates a new concept—transatlantic fascism—that predictably will raise a large debate among historians. Written from the perspective of global history, this book rethinks the history of fascism in its international, not only European, dimension.”—Enzo Traverso, author of The Origins of Nazi Violence

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822346128
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 1/11/2010
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 576,810
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Federico Finchelstein is Assistant Professor of History at the New School for Social Research and the Eugene Lang College of the New School in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Transatlantic Fascism

Ideology, Violence, and the Sacred in Argentina and Italy, 1919-1945

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4612-8

Chapter One

Transnational Fascism

It was always a too little noted hallmark of fascist propaganda that it was not satisfied with lying but deliberately proposed to transform its lies into reality. -HANNAH ARENDT, 1945

On April 16, 1939, Mussolini and his son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano, met with Marshall Hermann Göring in Rome. The international context was fragile. England and France were extremely worried, and the smell of war was in the air. The Nazis seemed unsatisfied with the section of Czechoslovakia accorded to them as a gift in Munich in September of 1938. Italy, with its invasion of Albania and its presence in the Balearic Islands, was threatening the status quo in the Mediterranean. As was customary in Nazifascist conclaves, great matters were discussed: master plans for world domination, invasion of countries, and disquisitions about spheres of influence. As usual, Mussolini tried to stress the originality of fascism vis-à-vis Nazism. He emphasized his own sense of political imperatives, and when referring to the "political situation," he declared that he "considered a general war to be unavoidable." Mussolini also exaggerated the Italian military capacity. He knew his military assessments were incorrect, but when meeting with the Nazis he could not display any uncertainty.

At one point, the conversation reached an astonishing detachment from reality, at times typical of fascist rhetoric. Göring dismissed American peace negotiations and leadership, suggesting President Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered from a "mental disease." Mussolini, in turn, mocked Roosevelt for his supposed ignorance of geopolitical matters. The Duce refused to show the Nazis any weakness in his knowledge or determination, and, as opposed to Roosevelt's "ignorance," he claimed to know everything about everything. He felt compelled to confirm to the Nazis what for many years anyone could read on walls throughout Italy, or in Italian papers: "Mussolini is always right."

But neither leader believed that the Americas could be ignored. Göring remarked that the United States was central to world opinion, particularly in the western hemisphere. Hopefully, he said, Roosevelt would not be reelected and "things could become very different." As was true of the Mediterranean, the Nazis wanted Mussolini to believe that they recognized Latin America as an Italian sphere of influence. Göring told Mussolini that "by means of her good connections with South America, Italy could certainly successfully counteract American influence on that continent." Upon the mention of Latin America, Mussolini uncharacteristically betrayed a lacuna in his knowledge when he admitted "that, for some reason which he could not quite understand, Italy's relations with Argentina were not particularly good."

Without noting that Göring was referring to South America in general, Mussolini had shifted the topic of conversation to just one of its countries. This book addresses a number of different questions symptomatically present in Mussolini's musings about Argentina. Why were relations between fascism and Argentina "not particularly good"? Why did Mussolini believe that relations with Argentina should be different? Why did he care about this transnational problem when the discussion turned to the New World order? What was the "reason" that he could "not quite understand"? What was his vision of Latin America and the special place he reserved in it for Argentina? What do all these questions tell us about the transnational nature of fascism? This chapter and the following ones provide historical and theoretical answers to these questions. As I hope to demonstrate, Mussolini's vision, and the connections between Italian and Argentine fascism, provide a window onto the transnational and imperialist dimensions of fascist thinking on a global scale. This is the story I am going to tell. But first I provide a brief historical assessment of Italian fascism, and how it changed over time. What was fascism in its "classic" form? This chapter provides a brief analysis of the rise of fascism in Italy and Europe, and gives the reader an equally brief historical engagement with fascist theory. Last but not least, I discuss Italy's connections with Argentina and Latin America, which predated Mussolini's global ambitions and his desire to propagandize Argentina. In short, in this chapter I introduce the reader to fascism as a historical and theoretical international reality. By emphasizing the ambivalent transnational and national dimensions of fascism, I provide a necessary correction to the theoretically static and nationally limited presentation of fascism that the book as a whole calls into question.

Fascist Histories

Fascism is a political ideology that encompassed totalitarianism, state terrorism, imperialism, racism, and, in the German case, the most radical genocide of the last century: the Holocaust. Fascism in its many forms did not hesitate to kill its own citizens as well as its colonial subjects in its search for ideological and political closure. Millions of civilians perished on a global scale during the apogee of fascist ideologies in Europe and beyond. Like liberalism and Marxism, fascism assumed many national variations and political interpretations.

The word "fascism" derives from the Italian word fascio and refers to a political group (such as the group lead by Giuseppe Garibaldi during the times of Italian unification). "Fascism" also refers visually and historically to a Roman imperial symbol of authority. Its birthplace as a modern political ideology was northern Italy, the year was 1919, and its founder was Benito Mussolini. Thus, "fascism" as a term and as a political movement was born in the Italian peninsula. Its ideological origins, however, predate its name. The fact that fascism was born as a concept before its birth as a movement is central to any understanding of fascism. The ideology of radical nationalism that made it possible was part of a larger intellectual reaction to the Enlightenment. This tradition was both European and, in the Latin American case, "non-European" as well. To be sure, the original ideology behind fascism was born as a reaction to the progressive European revolutions of the long nineteenth century (from the French Revolution of 1789 to the American and Latin American revolutions of 1776 and the 1810s). The ideology of the anti-Enlightenment is the major root of the longstanding ideological tradition that created fascism. Its branches constituted a reaction against liberal politics. And yet fascism did not oppose the market economy and put forward a corporatist organization that aimed to be functional to capitalist accumulation. Equally important, fascism is a philosophy of political action that ascribes value to absolute violence in the political realm. This ascription was boosted by one radical outcome of the Enlightenment: Soviet communism. The rise of Bolshevism in 1917 encountered global opposition as well as emulation. By presenting itself as the opposite of communism, fascism took advantage of this widespread rejection and fear of social revolution and at the same time incorporated some of its dimensions.

A new age of total war ultimately provided the context of fascism more than the Soviet experiment did. In fact, it was with the First World War that the ideology of fascism emerged in the trenches. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini openly stated that war constituted their most meaningful experience. After the war, these two former soldiers found violence and war to be political elements of the first order. When this ideology of violence fused with extreme right-wing nationalism and imperialism and non-Marxist leftist tendencies of revolutionary syndicalism, fascism as we know it today crystallized. This moment of crystallization was not exclusively Italian or European. In Argentina, former socialist intellectuals such as the poet Leopoldo Lugones soon understood the political implications of this fusion. Like Lugones, the Brazilian fascist Plinio Salgado saw fascism as the expression of a universal transnational ideology of the extreme Right. During the same period, young Hitler, a disenfranchised war hero, began to give political expression to his basic violent tendencies. And he did it from the new trenches of modern mass politics. Hitler first adopted, and then shaped, the ideology of a small German party of the extreme Right, soon to be called the National Socialist Party. Hitler early on recognized his debt to the thought and practice of Mussolini, but both leaders also shared a belief that the world as they knew it was in crisis. Both adopted fierce anticommunist and antiliberal stances. This antidemocratic modernism combined modern politics with technological innovation, aesthetic notions, and a discourse of war.

The modernity of fascism has preoccupied major thinkers over the course of the last century. Whereas Sigmund Freud saw fascism as the return of the repressed, namely, the mythical reformulation of death and violence as a source of political power, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their Dialectic of the Enlightenment presented fascism as modernity's worst outcome. Overall, although I agree with Horkheimer and Adorno's analysis, their thesis is nonetheless limited to European developments and the "continental" frame of reference. In order to grasp the global and transnational dimensions of fascism it is, however, necessary first to understand its history, beginning with its national articulation, and second to relate this manifestation of fascism to intellectual exchanges across the Atlantic Ocean and beyond.

Fascism as a political movement was created in Italy by Mussolini, in Piazza San Sepolcro, Milan, on March 23, 1919, in front of about fifty followers, and it reached power there in 1922, ten years before Nazism. Italian fascism was the first successful fascist model, and other kindred movements of the radical Right, including Nazism, regarded it as such throughout the interwar period. Besides fascism and Nazism there were other movements and ideologies of the fascist variety in Europe. The historian Robert Paxton presents five stages of fascist development in the region: (1) the creation of movements, (2) their taking root in the political system, (3) their seizure of power, (4) the exercise of power, and (5) the long "duration," during which the fascist regimes chose either radicalization or entropy. To be sure, only some fascist movements completed these five stages, but fascist movements were a reality in most countries on the European continent. Their success or failure was related to national and international currents. The Nazi occupation of France or Norway, for example, literally placed native fascists in a position of power. Spain would not have seen the emergence of a fascist regime without the military assistance that Hitler and Mussolini provided. Conversely, the apparent sustainability of the British and Russian political systems, the entry of the United States into the war, and the ultimate failure of the Nazi invasion of these countries saved these countries from fascism.

Military historians are right to point out this external evidence, but in all these cases, fascism would not have existed without an ideological synthesis as important as socialism or liberalism. Fascism was the product of an ideological concoction that combined a deformed version of socialism and a deformed version of liberal nationalism. Once socialists such as Benito Mussolini replaced notions of class struggle with ideas of national struggle, the road to fascist imperialism and war was open; Mussolini's proletarian imperialism (he declared the fascist empire in 1936) was a result of exactly this fascist synthesis. Even in his socialist youth, when Mussolini opposed state-sanctioned imperialism, he nonetheless stressed the supposedly superior traits of Italian national spirituality. For Mussolini every language was the expression of the "need, the attitudes, and the spirituality of a given people." (He claimed that "not even" the Zulus as a linguistic group should be denied their national pride.) Thus, even before his famous renunciation of socialism, Mussolini believed in the possibilities of nationalist politics as a transnational theory and practice adapted to the spirituality of every country. Mussolini's "internationalism" should be considered within the framework of his idea of specific nationalist needs. More than an institution or a state, "Italianness" for Mussolini was an ethnic and linguistic identity, and it was this that he identified with; he had never identified with the politics of the Italian pre-fascist state, even in the socialist period of his life (when, according to his hagiographers, he had been a staunch patriot). He actually saw the liberal state as representing the established bourgeois order that he opposed. His opposition to the Italian colonial adventure in Libya in 1911-1912 propelled him to national attention within the Italian socialist movement, and, more important, the radicalism of his anti-imperialist position gave him national exposure-on the strength of that position, when he was just twenty-nine years old, he became editor of Italy's most important socialist paper, Avanti.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Mussolini briefly hesitated but finally joined the tiny prowar camp of the Socialist Party and thereby isolated himself from the mainstream party as well as from almost all his socialist acquaintances. He told a party gathering, "You persecute me because you love me." He was soon expelled from the party. By the end of 1914, he had founded a newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia, which was subsidized by the French government in its effort to persuade Italy to enter the war on the Allied side. (The paper was also supported by Italian industrialists.) In 1915, Mussolini was thirty-two, already old in military terms, but he successfully lobbied to be sent to the front, where he rose to the rank of corporal. Mussolini killed some of his fellow soldiers when apparently mishandling a grenade thrower, but then he was badly wounded, and when he returned to Milan, he presented himself as a war hero.

The self-proclaimed status of Il Popolo d'Italia as the organ of "producers" and "combatants" signaled the nationalistic sense of Mussolini's new understanding of politics. The slogan of the paper was a quote from Napoleon: "The revolution is an idea that has found bayonets." What kind of revolution did it refer to? This was of minimal importance to Mussolini. At the time, he considered it the revolution put forward by revolutionary syndicalism. But perhaps more important, he believed that bayonets, and violence, epitomized politics in general. He was ready to lead an ampler movement than socialism, and so, fascism was born.


Excerpted from Transatlantic Fascism by FEDERICO FINCHELSTEIN Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1 Transnational Fascism....................15
2 The Argentine Road to Fascism....................42
3 Fascism Discovers the Americas....................79
4 A "Christianized Fascism"....................118
5 Debating Global Totalitarianism....................138
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