Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League has accused artist Hans Haacke of “trivializing the Holocaust” by creating analogies between Mayor Giuliani and Adolph Hitler. Said Foxman, the work “denigrates the memory of six million Jews and others who were killed by the Nazis.”
Foxman’s contribution to the Giuliani campaign illustrates the growing confusion over the nature of fascism, spurred in no small part by a form of historical revisionism that essentially reduces the Second World War to a matter of anti-Semitism. In some ways this revisionism is more dangerous than the claim that the Holocaust never happened, since the denials are safely on the fringe while the myth that fascism is inexorably linked to anti-Semitism is widely held.
One of the reasons we have such difficulty perceiving our current conditions is our aversion to this single word: fascism. While there is no hesitation by politicians to draw parallels with the Holocaust to justify whatever foreign adventure appeals to them, or for the media to make similar analogies at the drop of swastika on a wall, we seem only able to understand — or even mention — the climax of fascism rather than its genesis. Why this reluctance? Perhaps it is because we are much closer to the latter than to the former.
In any case, it is one of the most dangerous forms of political myopia in which to indulge. Italians, who invented the term fascism, also called it the estato corporativo: the corporatist state. Orwell rightly described fascism as being an extension of capitalism. It is an economy in which the government serves the interests of oligopolies, a state in which large corporations have the powers that in a democracy devolve to the citizen.
The link between business and fascism was clear to German corporatists. Auschwitz was not just a way to get rid of Jews, it was also a major source of cheap labor. As Richard Rubenstein points out in The Cunning of History, “I.G. Farben’s decision to locate at Auschwitz was based upon the very same criteria by which contemporary multinational corporations relocate their plants in utter indifference to the social consequences of such moves.” I.G. Farben invested over a billion dollars in today’s money at Auschwitz and, thanks to the endless supply of labor, adopted a policy of deliberately working the Jewish slaves to death. In such ways do economics and freedom become intertwined. Those who think it can’t happen here should consider that four days before Mussolini became premier, he met with a group of industrialists and assured them that his aim “was to reestablish discipline within the factories and that no outlandish experiments …. would be carried out.” In Friendly Fascism, Bertram Gross notes that Mussolini also won “the friendship, support or qualified approval” of the American ambassador, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Thomas Lamont, many newspapers and magazine publishers, the majority of business journals, and quite a sprinkling of liberals, including some associated with both the Nation and The New Republic. “
Orwell understood fascism. One of the characteristics of his inner party, the ten percent who controlled the rest, was that there was no sexual or racial discrimination. He understood that ethnic eradication, while characteristic of nazism, was not required for fascism. Even earlier, Aldous Huxley set up a similar non-discriminatory dystopia in Brave New World.
In fact, one of the characteristics of the modern propaganda state is the use of ethnic and sexual iconography to cover its tracks. Thus Richard Nixon was slurring Jews in Oval Office conversations even as he set a new record in their high-level appointments. And W.J. Clinton was called our first black president by Toni Morrison even as the government was sending young black males to prison in unprecedented numbers.
There is something else about fascism that we miss: it requires a modern, technocratic society. John Ralston Saul has written:
“The Holocaust was the result of a perfectly rational argument — given what reason had become — that was self-justifying and hermetically sealed. There is, therefore, nothing surprising about the fact that the meeting called to decide on “the final solution” was a gathering mainly of senior ministerial representatives. Technocrats. Nor is it surprising that [the] Wansee Conference lasted only an hour — one meeting among many for those present — and turned entirely on the modalities for administering the solutions …. The massacre was indeed ‘managed,’ even ‘well managed.’ It had the clean efficiency of a Harvard case study “
Marshall Rosenberg, who teaches non-violent communication, says that in reading psychological interviews with Nazi war criminals what struck him was not their abnormality, but that they used a language that denied choice: “should,” “one must,” “have to.” For example, Adolph Eichmann was asked, “Was it difficult for you to send these tens of thousands of people their death?” Eichmann replied, “To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language made it easy.”
Asked to explain, Eichmann said, “My fellow officers and I coined our own name for our language. We called it amtssprache — ‘office talk.'” In office talk “you deny responsibility for your actions. So if anybody says, ‘Why did you do it?’ you say, ‘I had to.’ ‘Why did you have to?’ ‘Superiors’ orders. Company policy. It’s the law.'”
Yet for all the words we have devoted to the Holocaust, go into almost any bookstore and you’ll find far more works on how to manage, manipulate and control others – and how to use “office talk” — than you will on how to practice the skills of a free citizen.
The most important lessons of the Holocaust are simply missed. Among these, as Richard Rubenstein has pointed out, is that it could only have been carried out by “an advanced political community with a highly trained, tightly disciplined police and civil service bureaucracy.” In The Cunning of History, Rubenstein also finds uncomfortable parallels between the Nazis and their opponents, of which we are being now reminded with recent questions about the role of the Vatican and the Swiss during WWII. For example, a Hungarian Jewish emissary meets with Lord Moyne, the British High Commissioner in Egypt in 1944 and suggests that the Nazis might be willing to save one million Hungarian Jews in return for military supplies. Lord Moyne’s reply: “What shall I do with those million Jews? Where shall I put them?”
Writes Rubenstein: “The British government was by no means adverse to the ‘final solution’ as long as the Germans did most of the work.” For both countries, it had become a bureaucratic problem, one that Rubenstein suggests we understand “as the expression of some of the most profound tendencies of Western civilization in the 20th century.”How many school children are taught that, worldwide, wars in the past century killed somewhere between 100 and 150 million people? In World War I alone the death toll was around ten million. All this, including the Holocaust, was driven by a culture of modernity that so changed the power of institutions over the individual that the latter would become what Erich Fromm called homo mechanicus, “attracted to all that is mechanical and inclined against all that is alive.” Becoming, in fact, a part of the machinery — willing to kill or to die just to keep it running.
Thus, with Auschwitz-like efficiency, over 6,000 people perished every day during World War I for 1,500 days. Rubenstein recounts that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men and half of the officers assigned to them. But the bureaucratic internal logic of the war did not falter at all; over the next six months, more than a million British, French and German soldiers would lose their lives. The total British advance: six miles. No one in that war was a person anymore.
Milton Mayer, a Jewish journalist, who wrote a book about ordinary Nazis, They Thought They Were Free, concluded:
Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany ~ It was what most Germans wanted — or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusions. I felt — and feel — that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here, under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.
Giuliani’s politics contain proto-fascist elements. We should not hide from this fact. The discussion of Giuliani and fascism is also pertinent for local historical reasons. During the rise of Mussolini, more than a few New York City Italians supported the fascist dictator. Of course, this same community produced such progressives as Fiorello La Guardia and Vito Marcantonio. This is a sensitive subject, witness the change from the New York City Historical Society’s frank depiction of the intracultural struggle in its exhibit on Italians in NY to a post-exhibit mealy-mouthed summary on its web site which reads: “The 1933 election of reform candidate Fiorello La Guardia as mayor of New York reflected the strength of Italian voters. Like any community, however, Italian-Americans are not monolithic in their political views. The rise of European Fascism created significant political divisions among New York’s Italian population. Yet, when called upon, civilians organized behind the war effort, staging countless rallies, war bond drives, Red Cross efforts and youth enlistment campaigns.”
The Italian-American right is not the only story shoved down the memory hole. How many know, for example, that 21% of the initial votes for Republican mayor Fiorello LaGuardia came from the left-wing American Labor Party? Where would Giuliani have fallen in this political divide? Hardly on the side of LaGuardia.
These are matters worth discussing frankly. Let Giuliani explain how he differs with the fascist idea, and not hide behind Abraham Foxman’s coat tails. Let’s debate the fascistic side of both the Clintons and Giuliani. Or are we now a nation that permits “fuck” on cable TV but not “fascism” in an art museum? If so, we are finished, whatever we call it.