Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007
Roger Griffin, Professor in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University, first introduced the idea of “Palingenesis” to the field of fascist studies over 15 years ago, making him immediately a leading figure in his chosen vocation. He isolated the syncretic fascist core as being palingenetic, populist ultra-nationalism, with overtones of a phoenix-like heroic rebirth. Since then he has extended and elaborated his theory that essential to the definition of the “fascist minimum” is the notion of national rebirth or renaissance — “myths that generated policies and actions designed to bring about collective redemption, a new national community, a new society, a new man…engineered through the power of the modern state.” — culminating in this masterwork which rightly places fascism at the centre of wider modernist movements.
Epiphanic versus Programmatic Modernism
Griffin’s insights have previously been recognized as audacious and perceptive, no more so than here. Part One of the book tackles the at first seemingly tricky concept of Modernism itself, which Griffin clarifies brilliantly. Modernism’s “common denominator lies in the bid to achieve a sense of transcendent value, meaning of purpose despite Western culture’s progressive loss of a homogeneous value system and overarching cosmology (nomos) caused by the secularizing and disembedding forces of modernization.” Modernization is experienced by those caught up in its slipstream as a relentless juggernaut unzipping the fabric of meaningful existence and leaving in its wake the abyss of permanently unresolved ambivalence. In short, Modernism is defined as a reaction against the decadent nihilism of intellectual, societal and technical modernization.
While Marx, other Leftists and liberals consider modern man’s condition as one of angst and alienation induced by class warfare and industrial production, the Right sees anomie as both the cause and the principle symptom of our modern malaise. “It is the black hole of existential self-awareness in all of us, our fear of ‘the eternal silence of infinite spaces’ that so alarmed [Blaise] Pascal, which produces culture.”
This modern culture is further divided by Griffin into what might be called introvert and extrovert reactions: the introvert reaction is generally individualistic and in Griffin’s expression an “epiphanic modernism” — the path of the artist — while the extrovert, collective reaction is defined as “programmatic modernism.” The latter seeks to change the world and resolve the permanent crisis of modernity (“all that is solid melts into air” – Marx) by a collective act of “reconnection forwards” (Moeller van den Bruck). It is not difficult to make the short step from “programmatic modernism” to fascism; the transcendent politics proposed by van den Bruck at the beginning of the Twentieth Century are not so different from Guillaume Faye’s “Archaic Futurism” at its end. Both are, in the phrase of Guy Debord, “technically equipped archaism.”
Amongst the epiphanic modernists Griffin includes Nietzsche, Eliot, Joyce, Proust, van Gogh, Kandinsky, and Malevich, but perhaps the truth of Griffin’s argument is demonstrated by the man widely acknowledged as the greatest modern painter: Picasso. In his earlier cubist works, Picasso sought inspiration from the primitivism of African masks, and later in the archetypal Mediterranean symbols of horses and particularly bulls (which surprisingly Griffin doesn’t mention).
Following the exhaustive and enlightening dissection of modernism in Part One, Griffin explores the implications and applied politics in Part Two, where “modernity turbocharged by the conjuncture of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the collapse of three absolutist regimes and a powerful monarchy, with an influenza epidemic that killed as many as 100 million people world wide had made the modernist drive to ward off the terror of the void — cultural, social and political — a phenomenon of mass culture. The new era would be a creatio ex profundis, an act of creativity defying the void.” Fascism aimed for a complete overhaul, in accordance with Emilio Gentile’s observation of totalitarianism as “an experiment in political domination undertaken by a revolutionary movement.”
Griffin introduces the idea of the pre-War Fascist and National Socialist regimes as “gardening states” striking a successful balance between idyllic ruralism and technocratic modernism, the “compelling new imperative” that it obeyed “to clean up, to sterilize, to re-order, to eliminate dirt and dust” (Frances Saunders). Or neatly, if flippantly, summed up by Lars Lindholm, “For example, the Aryans (i.e. Germans, the blond and blue-eyed) are direct descendants from the Atlantean root-race, whereas the Jews, Negroes, Slavs, and anyone else for that matter, are unfortunate mutants, further away from Homo sapiens than the snottiest gorilla. The reason for all the troubles in this world is the presence of these unsavoury species that the master race should mercifully do away with so that peace and quiet could be restored and life imbued with a bit of style” (PILGRIMS OF THE NIGHT: Pathfinders of the Magical Way [Llewellyn, St. Paul MN, 1993]). It was this same vision of hygienic modernity which inspired the building in London of bright new health centres in Peckham and Finsbury during the 1930s. But mild English pragmatism was no match for German determination, where public buildings were “an act of sacralization symbolized in the toned bodies of Aryan workers showering in the washrooms of newly built hygienic factories or playing football on a KdF sportsground, their camaraderie and zest for life expressing the hope for a young, healthy nation.”
Included in the book are illustrations of art and architecture not usually associated with the pre-War Fascist and National Socialist regimes: from the soaring arch designed by Adalberto Libera for the aborted EUR ’42 exhibition in Rome (later ripped-off by Eero Saarinen for the St. Louis Gateway Arch), to the cool steel and glass structure designed by Morpugo encasing the Ara Pacis of Augustus, the 1933 blueprint for the new Reichsbank in Berlin by Gropius, or Baron Julius Evola’s painterly experimentations with Dadaism.
Goebbels is revealed as a fan of Edvard Munch and Fritz Lang, while Le Corbusier submitted plans for the new town of Pontinia in the recently-reclaimed Pontine Marshes. Fritz Todt celebrated Aryan technocratic power in his construction of autobahns and later the Atlantic Wall. Irene Guenther is quoted extolling “Nazi Chic” with fashion displaying “another countenance, one that was intensely modern, technologically advanced, supremely stylized and fashionably stylish” and the Bauhaus influence on the new, burgeoning market in consumer durables is emphasised.
Unlike previous historians of fascism with their simplistic and inflexible frameworks, Griffin admirably demonstrates that “fascism, despite the connotations of regression, reaction and flight from modernity it retains for some academics, is to be regarded as an outstanding form of political modernism,” encapsulating a “deadly serious attempt to realize an alternative logic, an alternative modernity and an alternative morality to those pursued by liberalism, socialism, or conservatism.”
Griffin is well aware of the boldness and ambition of his arguments. “Post-modern” academia is notoriously hostile to transdisciplinarity, and historians today are loath to erect grand structures of interpretation and meaning. Few historians are less fashionable than Oswald Spengler, or even Samuel “Clash of Civilizations” Huntington. Griffin is well aware of this problem, and in the introduction he specifically places Modernism and Fascism within the context of “Aufbruch” (a breaking out of conventions). For this reason Griffin’s style is reflexive: he is conscious of the fact that in proposing a new syncretic historical worldview he is in some ways mirroring the dynamics of fascism itself.
Of course, European Identitarians and New Rightists will have no problem with the concept of evolutionary synthesis (it’s no accident that one of the principal English-language New Right websites is called Synthesis), nevertheless Griffin is correctly keen to show and stress that his work is non-totalizing. Overall his style is extremely lucid, and arguments that may appear at first to be mere flights of fancy are revealed as having firm foundations, unlike the convoluted, almost impenetrable, and until recently-fashionable critical theory style of, say, Andrew Hewitt’s Political Inversions: Homosexuality, Fascism and the Modernist Imaginary (1996) or the late Lacoue-Labarthe’s Heidegger, Art, and Politics (1990).
“The sky is falling on our heads”
At the end of his book, Griffin draws attention to a BBC News report from September 1998. “The sky is falling” it announces dramatically (shades of Asterix and Obelix here) “The height of the sky has dropped by 8km in the last 38 years, according to scientists from the British Antarctic Survey. Greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide are believed to be responsible for creating the effect.” He goes on to speculate, “Had Nietzsche been philosophizing at the beginning of the twenty-first century instead of the end of the nineteenth, amidst Swiss glaciers shrivelling under skies where the abstract art of vapour trails punctures illusions of transcending Good and Evil, maybe he would have ‘rethought all his ideas’ in a different, greener ‘framework’. Instead of railing against the advent of ‘nihilism’, ‘decadence’ and ‘the last man’, he might have realized that the time for any sort of ‘eternal return’ is rapidly running out in a literal, not symbolic sense.”
In the intervening 9 years since that ominous BBC report, our carbon emissions have escalated tremendously while our climate has deteriorated further, thanks to global capitalism, free market economics, liberalism, population increase, mass migration across borders, and above all the profound weakness and myopia in confronting the issue which is inherent to liberal democracies. We need to get a grip.
 Not the frivolous, glamourized Sally Bowles Weimar “decadence” that the word conjures up in the minds of many gay men, but rather the very real awareness of decay; that all our greatest achievements as a civilization — the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, the Moonshots — are behind us.