Constructing fascism: a process of myth-making
Fascism was from the moment of its emergence after WW1 a highly contested concept. Academics have attempted to define fascism in various ways, but without reaching a lasting consensus. Some have argued that a definition is essential to ensure we know what we are studying, but even that position has lost traction in the past decade, not least as the growth of transnational approaches in the field have highlighted the complexity and malleability of ‘fascism’ – whatever it may be. While some definitions have had their use, the book Making Fascism in Sweden and the Netherlands: Myth-Creation and Respectability, 1931-40 makes the case that as scholars we are better served dispensing with definition, heuristic or otherwise, and instead focus on how contemporaries understood fascism.
Since fascism was always in a process of active construction, it is the process of myth-making that is analysed. That is to say, myths as a process, a thing one does, rather than something static and definable. Myths have often been explained as essentially a form of propaganda, while mythopoeia -the construction of myths – shows it as pragmatic project, something which requires resources, technologies, competencies, money – i.e. the material dimensions of cultural production.
Western scholarship previously considered fascism to be something like an ideological void, a nihilistic politics that embraced brute violence and sought only power and destruction. In the past few decades scholars have become more conscious of the role played by the aesthetics of fascism, its spectacular and theatrical performances, probably best known through the images of Nazi Germany’s Nürnberg rallies. These images, of serried ranks, disciplined troops, and liturgical spectacle around a single Leader embodying the nation, and the narratives that were produced with them, are myths of fascism, and some would argue as good an expression of its politics as any party programme, perhaps even a better one. The Swedish and Dutch fascists, partially inspired by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, sought to create their own myths to construct fascism as they understood it. In Sweden this was done by Sven Olov Lindholm’s NSAP (Nationalsocialistiska Arbetarepartiet), founded in January 1933; in the Netherlands by Anton Mussert’s NSB (Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging), founded December 1931. The NSAP was a small party that peaked at a little over 10 000 members in the mid-30s, and never attained more than 0.7% of the vote, while the NSB attained brief success in 1935 with 7.94% in its first elections in 1935, and some 50 000 members, making it one of the largest parties in the country, for a while.
Fascism and mythopoeia: Vikings and Christians
Mythopoeia worked on many levels: Swedish and Dutch fascists marching in full black shirt uniforms in orderly ranks, carrying banners, and singing songs constructed the myth of fascism as a crusading army through their clothing, props, and demeanour. When fascist NSAP leader Sven Olov Lindholm travelled around Sweden with a small band of comrades to spread the fascist gospel through speeches and grunt work, meeting local branches, camping in woods and bathing in lakes, they constructed the myth of the fascist Leader as primus inter pares, a true leader directly from the people in the tradition of the Vikings. The construction of this myth suited the specific conditions of the NSAP quite well: it played into the lack of financial resources of the party, as well as its decentralised organisation. It relied heavily on local party branches and used visits from the fascist chieftain Lindholm as a reward to invigorate isolated party members.
When the Dutch NSB set out to organise the largest ever political rally in The Hague in 1935, mythopoeia operated through the organisational and logistical challenges of creating such a spectacle, constructing fascism as a capable, disciplined, orderly force in the process. The ability to bring together tens of thousands of party members in one place projected power and unity, creating the core myth of fascism as a force that would unite the Dutch people, and change the course of history. Through a party congress programme that included hymns and prayers, and party leader Anton Mussert’s biblical rhetoric, the NSB constructed Dutch fascism as a respectable, Christian movement, that would defend the nation against godless communists and the Church parties that had politicised their religion. This was a myth constructed for public consumption – but media representatives were not necessarily impressed: Catholic and Protestant journalists thought this fascism barbaric and paganistic, while socialist journalists (who had snuck in secretly) ridiculed how most members present could hardly see or hear Mussert’s small figure at the front yet went wildly enthusiastic at appropriate intervals. The location of the party congress in a muddy field on the outskirts of the city also attracted mockery, as participants ended up spattered with mud. There were no guarantees outsiders would accept fascist myths at face value.
Respectability: The failures, limitations, and achievements of fascist mythopoeia
Fascists who attempt to seize power through electoral victory and mass support need to convince national audiences they are a viable, acceptable political option. Qualities like professionalism, discipline, and non-violence were key. But claims to respectability easily conflicted with the myths of fascism: fascists as crusading soldiers, the party as an army on a holy mission, fascism as a revolutionary force changing the course of history. Such myths easily made outsiders, fearful of violence, disorder, and dictatorship, concerned about the intentions of their native fascists.
The making of fascism in the 1930s was a profoundly fraught process. The practical requirements for fascist spectacle were often outside the reach of these small movements, while the demands of respectability regularly clashed with the demands of parties’ grassroots. Members formed attachments to particular myths, e.g. of the almost divine fascist Leader or the militaristic myths created by a black shirt uniform, and would defend these from alteration by the party leadership even where political necessity required it (usually meaning moderation). At times compromise or even harmony between myth and respectability was possible, but the relationship and the processes were never stable.
This explains a great deal about the political failures of these fascists, and this is one of the great advantages of the approach, that it showcases both the appeal of fascist myths and also their flaws and limitations. Lindholm’s fascists never came within reach of even entering parliament, let along seizing power, and remained a fringe party. The NSB’s rising star quickly waned in the second half of the 30s, while even under German occupation real power was always receding. But it also shows why fascists became so devoted to their cause, organisation, or leaders, and why in spite of numerous setbacks and great failures a core of devotees remained. Fascism was their own creation, of fantastical proportions, transcending the everyday. For the most committed fascists, that was an attachment that no lack of political prospects could sever – a matter also of some significance in our own times.
The book Making Fascism in Sweden and the Netherlands: Myth-Creation and Respectability, 1931-40 was published by Bloomsbury Academic October 2021. It is available in hardback and as an e-book.