The Friendly Fascist Next Door
At the risk of being provocative, Hitler and the Nazi Party gave fascism a bad name. Or perhaps we should blame his portrayal by Hollywood, such as in the movie “Downfall” as a shouting, aggressive, unhinged character. Likewise, it seems that almost all documentaries on the period focus on the atrocities of WWII and the Holocaust or the robot-like ranks parading in torchlit Nazi rallies. These are the types of images conjured up when someone uses the word “fascism”.
Perhaps strangely, this is a comforting image, and not totally accidental. We want to imagine Hitler was a lunatic from start to finish, that he somehow hypnotized millions of Germans with some mysterious power we would have been immune to, or at least would be now. COVID deniers and convoy occupiers are disruptive – but they’re not necessarily “fascists”. Individual instigators and organized groups claiming Drag performers and trans people are paedophiles, groomers and worse are distasteful – but they’re not necessarily “fascists”. Conservative politicians who ally with these elements are misguided, opportunistic – but they’re not “fascists”. Actual fascism was terrible, but in the past and can never be repeated.
What this perception obscures is what was very ordinary in the Nazi Party’s rise to power and the open complicity with — and admiration for — Adolph Hitler by mainstream conservative institutions and business elites. This was the case not just in Germany, but throughout countries that became “the Allied Forces” after war broke out. This is why this manufactured image is not accidental. The leadership of Western powers needed to emphasize their role in defeating fascism and bury any recollection of their previous collusion.
Who recalls, or is even aware of, the 1935 Anglo-German Naval agreement that was viewed by the Nazis as Britain’s first move to a formal alliance against Russian communism and the rising popularity of socialism in France? For similar reasons, Britain and the United States took great pains to hide how quickly they switched gears back again to employ Nazi war criminals and collaborators in the military and intelligence apparatuses of the Cold War.
This understanding is important. One could say it’s a matter of life and death, as far-right movements surge around the world, are brought into governing coalitions and even take power themselves in multiple countries. The Prime Minister of Italy is an avowed fascist. Hungary, Poland and India are euphemistically described as “authoritarian” or “illiberal”. And of course, one cannot ignore Donald Trump and his MAGA’fied Republican Party. Although some usually reticent and equivocating pundits on MSNBC and in the New York Times refer to it as a “fascist movement”, there remains a troubling hesitation to fully appreciate the implications of this accurate labelling and to rally the actions needed to effectively respond to the threat.
This is particularly a problem in Canada, where the media, centre and centre-left parties, and frankly ordinary people seem paralyzed by the stories we have long told ourselves about polite, liberal, tolerant, multi-cultural Canada. No matter how much one piece of evidence after another piles up into an undeniable mountain, we seem determined to deny that figures like Pierre Polliviere and Danielle Smith are cut from exactly the same cloth as Viktor Orban, Giorgia Meloni or Donald Trump – whatever the stylistic differences.
Sometimes much is made of the definitional differences between illiberalism, authoritarianism, the far-right, totalitarianism and actual fascism. For the targets and victims of these movements these are largely distinctions without a difference. Yes, Ron DeSantis is only banning books, not burning them, only firing Queer teachers, not sending them to concentration camps. But is this a fundamental difference from the Nazis or just an earlier stage?
After all, until September 1939 Hitler was viewed as largely benign, even admirable, inside Germany and out, as was Mussolini and the Italian fascist government. Sure, there were some rhetorical and some actual, but isolated, physically violent excesses but nothing that outweighed the positive effect these regimes had on the economy and squashing any threat from the unions and left political parties. At least to people like Charles Lindbergh, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and Winston Churchill – yes, even he of later "We’ll fight them on the beaches..." fame.
Almost eight years passed between January 30, 1933 when Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany with the support of centre-right parties and the outbreak of WWII in September 1939. His suppression of dissent including banning political parties, imprisonment of trade union and socialist leaders as well as virulent anti-Semitic policies did nothing to diminish the admiration in which he was held by leading figures in countries that would later be at war with him.
In August 1936, the American edition of Vogue took its readers on a virtual tour of the houses of three “makers of foreign policies”: Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini and British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden. Describing Hitler’s Haus Wachenfield (English translation), Vogue reported: “On the side of the mountain, the chalet has a suburban neatness, with a sun porch and canaries, and its rooms, like this one, a cozy podge of clocks, dwarfs, and swastika cushions.”
Not to be outdone, the New York Times magazine reported repeatedly on his domesticity and personal qualities in many cases, such as a 1935 article titled: “Hitler His Own Architect: He Practices His Art on a Simple Chalet.” Noting Hitler’s early aspirations to become an architect and lauded his renovations for their modesty and tastefulness.
The highlighting of Hitler’s domesticity began as a deliberate propaganda move in the runup to the 1932 German election in order to soften his image and broaden his base especially among the respectable middle class and women. As the above examples illustrate this “charm offensive” was successful not just among German voters but internationally. One cannot help being struck with the parallel with Pierre Polliviere ditching his off-putting nerdy black rimmed glasses for contact lenses and his undertaker dark suits for denim shirtsleeves. The fake populism of his newfound sympathy for working people and focus on the crisis of affordability are also eerily reminiscent of the National Socialist Workers Party. A name deliberately and cynically chosen to confuse and mislead. Like their modern-day counterparts they hated both real socialism and actual working people.
As Rachel Maddow’s podcast series “Ultra” detailed, accommodation with German fascism went beyond soft-pedalling media to widespread support including within the congressional Republican parties. It is based on, or at least inspired by, “Hitler’s American Friends” by Bradley W. Hart, that goes into even more detail on how widespread and deep this support was within the “bastion of democracy”. Canada was not immune either, memberships in fascist organizations surged here, aided and abetted by institutions including the Catholic Church and police forces including the RCMP.
Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King almost swooned after meeting Hitler in 1937, just a year before the infamous anti-Semitic rampage known as Kristallnacht. “As I talked with him, I could not but think of Joan of Arc,” wrote King in his diary that night. The entry overflowed with pages of near-infatuation for Hitler. The German leader was “eminently wise,” a “mystic,” a “deliverer of his people from tyranny.”
King went into obsessive detail about Hitler’s background, his vegetarianism, his love of nature, his alleged religiousness. He remembered every detail from the meeting: How Hitler positioned his hands, what he was wearing, his “knowing smile”, and his “smooth” skin.
“He is particularly strong on beauty, loves flowers and will spend more of the money of the State on gardens and flowers than on most other things,” said King.
But wasn’t it obvious from Mein Kampf and Hitler’s speeches that he had genocidal intentions, particularly toward Jews? It appears not. In the leadup to the 1936 Berlin Olympics one of the American Olympic Committee members said: “Well, my men’s club in Chicago won’t accept Jew [sic] either.” This kind of common ground was not unusual. Some universities in Canada, notably McGill, Universite de Montreal and the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine had longstanding quotas on the number of Jews admitted.
Similarly, future Ontario premier George A. Drew saw fascism as a potential ally in the struggle against communism, while the RCMP, preferring to focus on anti-communist efforts, did not include reports of domestic fascists in its security bulletin until 1937. Inspector Charles Rivett-Carnac, who later rose to be Commissioner of the force, laid out his thinking in a 1939 letter: “While the Communist program embodies the destruction of the state apparatus of the government and the setting up of a new economic order, the Nazi program which as been brought into being in Germany has retained the principles of the old system to the extent that a modified form of capitalism now exists in that country.”
If one pauses to recall how Ottawa police not only allowed the February 2022 occupation of the capital by the far-right convoy, but often openly colluded with them, or how the RCMP continues to refuse to enforce a legal injunction obtained by the BC government aimed at ending display of hate message over highway overpasses in North Vancouver, you will see how little has changed over the ensuing eight decades.
Similarly, when Pierre Polliviere poses for photos with violent far-right (ie. fascist) figures like Jeremy Mackenzie or caucus members play footsie with foreign far-right agitators like Christine Anderson of Germany’s AfD their fingers-crossed disavowals are reported with credulity. When Alberta premier Danielle Smith praised Florida governor Ron Desantis and South Dakota’s Kristi Noem as models and potential partners, CTV reporter Michael Franklin described the comments as “raising eyebrows”.
They should be raising five alarm fire sirens! When people tell you who they are – believe them!
We need to get organized and prepared now. If we wait for brownshirts (or polo shirts) to be roaming the streets and police to be rounding up dissidents, radicals, trade unionists, people of colour, Indigenous people, and Queer folk, it will be too late.
In an upcoming article we will delve further into the parallels between the rise of fascism in the 1930’s and its current resurgence. In particular we will look at how – as understood by Inspector Rivett-Carnac – fascism is not so much a radical break from liberal democracy resting on a base of capitalist power as much as it is an evolution flowing from the inevitable crisis of that system. And, that it is based on the same ideological foundations of patriarchy, white supremacy and settler-colonialism.