Defining Fascism and Nazism

The British historian Ian Kershaw has written some of the most insightful works on the Third Reich. His recent and widely acclaimed two-volume biography has become the standard against which all other works on the German dictator are measured. In his book The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, Kershaw tackles several historiographical debates surrounding Nazism. One of the questions which has occupied historians is that of characterizing and categorizing Nazism. Is it best understood as a form of totalitarianism; or does the concept of fascism provide a better paradigm for understanding Nazism? Perhaps none of these concepts are useful, and the Nazi phenomenon is best understood as sui generis. Kershaw’s chapter is a brilliant discussion of these questions. However, it is not an easy read. He refers to a plethora of historians and their interpretations and he presents his arguments in a succinct style. Here every word counts, therefore one has to read carefully. You might have to read some sections several times in order to fully understand. Do not be discouraged. Kershaw’s piece is worth the effort. The second piece you need to read for this assignment is a chapter from Robert Paxton’s book The Anatomy of Fascism and entitled ” the Invention of Fascism”. In this chapter, Paxton particularly looks to explain the paradox of fascism. For example, while it was based on mass rallies it was also undemocratic in nature; while it was antimodernist culturally it was not technologically. Further, although fascism was anti-bourgeois, this was not because fascists saw the bourgeoisie as a capitalist exploiter; rather, they saw the bourgeoisie as unheroic and self-serving. In sharp contrast, fascism looked to establish the authority of the state, and not only as the means of representing the nation, but as a means of inducing the people, through service to that state, to grasp greatness.This echoes in Mussolini’s dictum describing the fascist state: “Nothing outside the state; nothing against the state; everything for the state.” Further, Paxton points out that while fascism began in Italy in March of 1919, it did so without the virulent anti-semitism that would characterize the Nazi Party in Germany. In essence, Paxton examines the nature of fascism by comparing words and deeds, and by noting transitions that took place within different national contexts.

Decide which of the interpretations offered by Kershaw and Paxton you find most convincing and discuss it with your fellow students.

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Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation. 4th ed. (London: Edward Arnold, 2000), pp. 20-46. (See Topics and Tasks page for link)
Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), pp. 3-23. (See Topics and Tasks page for link)

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