Since the end of World War II, a crucial question has troubled many intellectuals: can we think of fascism as an ideology that returns cyclically?

The trauma of the totalitarian fascisms that arose in Europe was the main reason for the formation of the United Nations (UN), after earlier failed attempts to create a multilateral world organization. As the preamble to the UN Charter states, the aim of the organization is “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has inflicted untold suffering on Humanity.” The principle of memory and non-repetition was foundational to the UN. In its Resolution 39(I) of 1946, the UN General Assembly affirmed the organization’s condemnation of Mussolini’s Italian fascism, Hitler’s German Nazism, and their relations with the Franco regime in Spain, which it also considered fascist.

The horror inflicted on the continent by these historical fascisms was also a key factor in the first steps toward European integration. One of the European Union’s pioneers, Robert Schuman, spoke in 1950 about the need to promote economic cooperation and solidarity to prevent a possible new war and to lessen the threat of nationalism, which he characterized as “distrustful, suspicious, exclusive, incomprehensible, and pretentious.”

Nationalism is an essential feature of fascism, which can be understood as a political ideology that demands exclusive and dominant veneration of the nation as something sacred that is never to be questioned. Many authors have tried to synthesize fascism’s fundamental and most persistent features. Following Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Roger Griffin, and Umberto Eco, we understand fascism to be a cyclical ideology with the following characteristics:

  • Primacy of tradition, and the glorification of past wars and the nation’s heroic history as a way to sacralize political activity and establish the concept of “homeland”
  • Rejection of all critical theory, all questioning of cultural displays, and all freedom of thought that might be suspicious or subversive.
  • Fear of difference, and the creation or branding of social groups that are said to pose a threat to the political or economic stability of the homeland: migrants, LGTBIQ people, squatters, etc.
  • A belligerant, anti-pacifist posture that is resistant to all dialogue with those considered enemies or with those considered useless for the construction of the homeland.
  • Heroic political discourse calling for sacrifice and alluding to the “masses” of the frustrated middle class.
  • Exaltation of the middle and working classes, but maintaining elitist and exclusivist positions, so that no measures based on social justice are ever proposed.
  • Populist forms based on a post-truth discourse that falsifies data, uses poor vocabulary, offers no practical measures, and obviates parliamentary dialogue.

These characteristics have evolved over time and been adapted to various contexts. They sometimes take the form of explicit exaltation of fascist ideals, as is seen in the neofascism or neo-Nazism present in various subcultures and political parties. They are also implicit in the programs and practices of political parties of the extreme right, the ultra-right, the radical right, and the post-fascists. This last tendency has learned how to combine the essential characteristics of fascism with forms that are compatible with democracy.

These various models of fascism have become a worldwide phenomenon through politicians like Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump in the United States, Le Pen in France, Andrzej Duda in Poland, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Dispensing with the right/left categories, we can even consider Vladimir Putin in Russia. These various postures have sometimes been called a “third option,” but they remain closely aligned with the right in the European context.

We are dealing with a movement that puts the homogeneous in tension with the heterogeneous. That is to say, the common fascist traits of nationalist exaltation and alien exclusion vary according to the national context, which may depend on such factors as the limits of sovereignty and multilateral relations, the management of diversity (from an explicit LGTBIQphobia to a near-liberal treatment of diversity), or the approach to phenomena such as globalization and climate change. What does not vary is the way the movement uses national parliaments and the media to give notoriety to security emergencies, economic crises, and political disenchantment.

This heterogeneity in the movement is advantageous because it provides opportunities to spread such discourse throughout society, thus “occupying” other people’s spaces. If climate-change denial becomes nonsensical, then an “econationalist” discourse is proposed: ecological preservation is declared a service to the country, but concrete measures are never put forward. This “ecowashing” seeks to improve the country’s image in order to reinforce an exclusive nationalism. A similar tactic, called “pinkwashing,” is applied in a type of “homo-nationalism,” as when migrant populations are accused of generating discrimination and violence against LGTBIQ persons. There is also “femi-nacionalism,” which sets certain feminist sectors in oppostion to trans women. Still another concern, especially in Spain, is “nacionalist Catholicism,” which closely identifies country and Catholicism while subordinating social values and civil liberties to an extremely conservative Catholic morality.

Where all these versions of fascism coincide is perhaps in their suspicion of the migrant. This is based not on the biological racism of yesteryear, but on a new type of prejudice, based more on cultural factors. Advocating the “right to difference,” they defend complete cultural homogeneity and the effective separation of differing ethnic-cultural groups. This presumed right to difference is little more than a new form of racism and xenophobia. They base their argument not on genetics but on the claim that accepting foreign cultures will inevitably generate conflicts and poverty at the national level. The raw fact of exclusion is the same, but the justifying discourse and the violence that results are less evident. Totalitarian forms and outright violence are rejected in favor of the dissemination of prejudicial ideas expressed in simple, direct language, designed to create a generalized rejection in the electorate.

The universalism of human rights is distorted into a type of group universalism. That is to say, the all-inclusive nature of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is subverted by applying it to only one part of the population and excluding “the others.” The “proper citizens” are set over against the rest. In this way universalism, like freedom and dignity, ends up being “occupied,” confiscated, and manipulated; it is transformed into the distinctive sign of a group and used against a specific community. This perversion of democracy uses human rights language to marginalize a sub-group of “humans,” and at the same time it cynically offers the promise of recognition to certain “original citizens” who have been traditionally excluded, such as LGTBIQ persons or those with economic problems, like the working poor and the middle class. All this is done for the sake of creating enemies of the homeland. But this happens not only with migrants: ad hoc groups are regularly created to highlight social problems that are portrayed as endemic, as is the case with squatters. Included among these enemies may also be all those opposing these post-fascist parties.

As a result of these tactics, part of the society finds relief at seeing their “ills” clearly and simply identified; they appreciate the superficial recognition that comes from being referred to as “sufferers”. But this recognition does not translate into better economic redistribution or greater representation in the political realm. The complexity of social problems is obscured by a false, simplistic discourse that disempowers the people and impoverishes democracy. The post-fascist phantasmagoria takes effect.

Recently, the advance of these parties has been perceived as a threat to the European Union. The parties oscillate between euro-scepticism, which seeks to limit the interference of EU institutions, and euro-denialism, which calls for their disappearance. In fact, sanctions have already been imposed on Hungary and Poland because of their LGTBIQphobia and their restriction of the democratic guarantees deriving from the independence of the judiciary, among other issues. Faced with these problems, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, launched the European Union Strategy for LGTBIQ Equality 2020-2025, commenting that the situation of sexual minorities in Poland reminded her a lot of the persecution of Jews during Nazism. The European Parliament, for its part, approved Resolution 1019/2819, on the importance of cultivating European historical memory in the face of these trends of fascist origin.

We cannot fail to mention that Pope Francis, during a May 2022 audience with the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, insisted that historical memory was essential for resolving conflicts.

It would seem that the solution to this problem is in not forgetting but always remembering, and in developing a critical spirit capable of discerning the new forms of fascism. The fact is, though, that the post-fascist parties are increasingly present in parliaments, either directly governing territories or joining in coalitions with other right-wing forces. The red line that was formerly drawn to prevent their participation in governments has been erased since Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party (PP), normalized his party’s pacts with post-fascism in 2023. This normalization was already happening in other countries, such as Spain, where post-fascist discourse has been adopted even by parties that are not post-fascist. Such pacts and such discourse may procure votes and power for the PP, but they also run the risk of insinuating this undemocratic ideology into the democratic institutions.

Did not something similar occur in the German federal elections of March 1933? I invite readers to study what happened at that time and to consider possible similarities with the current panorama.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons]

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Historiador y doctor en ciencias jurídicas. Máster en Cooperación al Desarrollo y Máster en Derechos Humanos y Democratización. Actualmente es Profesor contratado doctor en la Universidad Internacional de La Rioja (UNIR) y profesor asociado en la Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Junto con la labor académica ha desarrollado su carrera en el ámbito de la cooperación al desarrollo y los derechos humanos en la Agencia Española para la Cooperación Internacional al Desarrollo (AECID), Agencia de la ONU para la Coordinación Humanitaria (OCHA), Fundación internacional y para Iberoamérica de administración y políticas públicas (FIIAPP) y diversas ONG.
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