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Essential History: The Rise of Fascism (Part 3/3)

History fascism

Last week, we brought you the second part of our Essential History feature on the rise of fascism, in which we discussed the history of inter-war fascist states in Italy, Germany and Spain. And today, we bring you the third part in our weekly feature, where we look at post-war fascist states in Spain, Chile and South Africa.

READ: Essential History: The Rise of Fascism (Part 1)

READ: Essential History: The Rise of Fascism (Part 2)

A real understanding of the political ideology of fascism is less about the rise of figures like Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, the wars that they took part in, or even the atrocities that they committed. It’s about governance. In war, fascists are easy to pick out, largely because they’re held under the microscope, but also because they enter alliances. With Japan, Germany and Italy making up the axis powers in World War II. But to spot fascist ideology in peacetime is significantly more difficult to do.

As we pointed out in the first instalment of this feature, fascism has no set definition, but characteristics. The only truly fascist state was Mussolini’s Italy. He described himself as a fascist while none of the rest of the authoritarians leading fascist states did. For the sake of brevity, I’d like to settle on the following as one possible definition of fascism before we take a look at the historical context of “fascist” states following the end of the war.

Fascism: A system of revolutionary nationalism in a modern state context – the totalitarian subjugation of all society, economic, social and spiritual, under a state defined first by its ethnicity.

Post-war fascism

The history of fascism in Franco’s Spain

During the war, Franco’s Spain espoused neutrality as its war-time policy. Spain relied heavily on imports from the United States and was still recovering from the destructive Civil War that was the “dress rehearsal” for World War II.

Franco offered to enter the war in a letter addressed to Hitler in 1940 and a meeting was arranged for Spain to join the axis powers. But Franco knew that Spain would be unable to survive an invasion and the meeting went nowhere. He aided the axis powers through trade and various other means, but took part in no significant conflicts.

When the tide started to turn against the axis powers in 1944, however, Spain reverted to its “strict neutrality” policy. And by the time the war had ended there were no other states that could be described as “fascist”, besides the regime under Franco.

The fight against fascists in World War II evolved into a fight against communists in the Cold War and Spain fell out of the spotlight for three decades.

On paper, Franco had more power in Spain than any other leader before him or since. The “Law of the Head of State,” passed in August 1939, “permanently confided” all governing power to the Generalissimo; he was not required to even consult the cabinet for most legislation or decrees.

In fact, Franco yielded more authority than either Hitler or Joseph Stalin yielded at the height of their power. However, in 1942 Franco created the Cortes Españolas, which was elected in accordance with corporatist principles, and had little real power. it had no control over government spending, and the government wasn’t responsible to it; ministers were appointed and dismissed by Franco alone. And despite the fact that nobody held the throne, Franco proclaimed Spain to be a monarchy to appease monarchists, before declaring himself regent for life.

Throughout his regime, Franco governed with various fascistic tendencies, espousing values of authoritarianism, nationalism, Catholicism, anti-Freemasonry, and anti-communism. And following the law, Spain started to suffer from its economic isolation by being excluded from the Marshall Plan (the United States’ post-war recovery aid sent to Western Europe). As a consequence, much like Mussolini and Hitler did in the inter-war period, Franco effectively merged with private industry, in Franco’s case (like Mussolini), he merges with the monarchy. General Franco crushed Catalan dissenters, many of which were part of the socialist intelligentsia in Spain.

An argument that could be made is that fascism very much went under the radar during the Cold War and the argument could even be made that NATO was guilty of slaughtering significantly more people outside of its borders (Korea, Vietnam, Bolivia, Lebanon, etc.), with the military arm of government, private owners/corporations and political leaders merging together to form a single body. Catalan and Basque separatists, among various other political organisations were banned and exiled. Franco’s Spanish nationalism promoted a unitary national identity by repressing Spain’s cultural diversity, particularly Catalonians.

Among the reasons many will give to disprove the assertion that Franco ran a fascist state is that fascism entails a revolutionary aim to transform society, where Franco did not. And, to the contrary, although authoritarian, he was by nature conservative and traditional.

But in terms of “economic, social and spiritual” subjugation under “a state defined first by its ethnicity“, Franco’s Spain hits the nail on the head. He outlawed anything that he felt was outside of his conception of true Spanish culture.

All cultural activities were subject to censorship, and many, such as the Sardana, the national dance of Catalonia, were forbidden, while Franco also put bans on variations of Spanish, such as CatalanGalician, and Basque, promoting the use of Castilian Spanish. Furthermore, the Catholic Church was afforded all kind of privileges and civil servants all had to be Catholics, with some even requiring “good behaviour” certificates from their priests. Both Hitler and Mussolini used the church in a similar way to morally justify subjugation and to drive nationalist sentiment.

During the economic isolation, Spain’s economy stagnated and the only means of amassing wealth was through the black market for more than a decade after Franco’s declaration of victory after the Civil War. And upon the brink of bankruptcy was where the United States and the IMF found Spain before the convinced Franco to adopt capitalist policies, following which Franco replaced his ideological ministers with the apolitical technocrats.

The regime took its first faltering steps toward abandoning its pretensions of self-sufficiency and towards a transformation of Spain’s economic system. Pre-Civil War industrial production levels were regained in the early 1950s, though agricultural output remained below prewar levels until 1958. And, despite the “economic miracle” that followed.

However, Franco was particularly repressive towards  the labour movement in Catalonia with the Comissions Obreres (workers’ commissions), trade unions, and the PSUC all subjected to the regime’s cruelty and ire.

Franco’s authoritarian state was defined by a Castilian national identity. He used social, economic and spiritual means to repress Catalonians, Basques, Galicians and anybody that served as a threat to his authority. However his totalitarian subjugation was not about a revitalisation or expansion, but rather consolidation and resistance to change. This is what separates Franco’s Spain from its Italian and German counterparts.

There are certainly, however, clear similarities in their peacetime governance.

The history of fascism in Chile’s military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet

The military dictatorship of Chile, from 1973 until 1990, began with the successful military coup to overthrow the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in September 1973. General Augusto Pinochet set up a military junta immediately afterwards, made up of Pinochet representing the Army, Admiral José Toribio Merino representing the Navy, General Gustavo Leigh representing the Air Force, and General César Mendoza representing the Carabineros (national police). 

The military used the alleged breakdown of democracy and the economic crisis that took place during Allende’s presidency to justify its seizure of power before presenting its mission for “national reconstruction.” The coup itself was a coming together of countless factors, including pressure from conservative and women’s groups, political parties and foreign intervention from the United States. It remains a subject of great debate today exactly how much of a role the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had to play in the coup, but there’s no denying their involvement after  lifelong CIA operative Jack Devine wrote about it in an article.

Two days after the Junta came into power, the 1925 constitution was suspended and the government Junta immediately banned the socialist, Marxist and other leftist parties that had constituted former President Allende’s Popular Unity coalition. And shortly after the Junta had agreed upon how they were to split command over the different branches of the military, Pinochet moved to consolidate his power and declared himself  “Supreme Chief of the Nation” (de facto provisional president) on 27 June 1974, before changing the title to “President” in December.

Before long, Pinochet undertook a systemic campaign of imprisonment, torture, harassment and/or murder against the perceived opposition. Christian Democrat leaders, among others were exiled, and retired military leaders were appointed to roles at universities in place of left-wing sympathisers within the intelligentsia.

Beyond this, women were treated horrifically in Pinochet’s Chile. They played a critical role in Allende’s rise to power and feminists were subjected to the worst kinds of human rights abuses in the bloody regime, which was characterised the term “politicide” ( “a systematic project to destroy an entire way of doing and understanding politics and governance.”)

According to the Latin American Institute on Mental Health and Human Rights, 200,000 people were affected by “extreme trauma”; this figure includes individuals executed, tortured, forcibly exiled, or having their immediate relatives put under detention. Women were arrested for being “leftists” and for not conforming to the regime’s ideal of women, usually being called “perra” (“bitch”).

The lowest figures record the death toll under Pinochet’s regime to be 10,000, while others speculate it is as high as 30,000. Thousands of people disappeared under the regime, tens of thousands were tortured and as many as 200,000 people were forced into exile.

Spiritually, the Church was symbolically and institutionally powerful within Chile and could be considered matched only by Pinochet’s government with regards to power. But, in this instance, Pinochet was unable to get the support of the Church and it actually served as a platform for resistance to the dictatorship. The Church was the only public voice allowed in Chile at the time and in 1974, the Commission of Peace had established a large network with the Church to provide information to numerous organisations regarding human rights abuses in Chile. This is one part of the Pinochet regime that doesn’t overlap with his counterparts. Pinochet’s flavour of fascism did not involve spiritual subjugation, but more likely because he never had the option, due to such well organised resistance from the Church to his regime.

Economically,  neoliberal economic reforms were implemented, in sharp contrast to Allende’s leftist policies, advised by a team of free-market economists educated in US universities known as the Chicago Boys. These laissez-faire, free market economic policies were in stark contrast to Allende’s centrally planned economy that targeted extensive nationalisation. Most of the reforms were implemented between 1975 and 1982, which led to the international debt crisis and the collapse of the Chilean economy. The period after was characterised by quite the opposite, with the 1980 Constitutions declaring the nation’s copper-mining industry “inalienable”. Following this, seven banks were nationalised between 1982 and 1983, with another two being put under government supervision. Critics ridicule this at “the Chicago way to socialism”.

All in all, The Chilean military dictatorship under Pinochet had many features of fascism, but was not in the business of spiritual or economic subjugation. Whether that’s due to a lack of content or simply unfavourable decisions is a different debate, but it gives us a key point going forward that we need to understand what doesn’t constitute a fascist state. Many will say Pinochet’s Chile was fascist but the fact that it’s so difficult to come up with an answer to whether a state is fascist or merely has characteristics of fascism. However, let’s take a look at one last post-war fascist state: South Africa under the National Party.

The history of fascism in Apartheid South Africa

To include South Africa in this feature on the history of fascism will probably be considered controversial for a variety of reasons. Primarily, once again, there will be an argument over whether, indeed, it was a fascist state or merely had fascistic tendencies.

It would be naive to think that the features of fascism only arose when the National Party won the 1948 election. The NP took power as a party representing white Afrikaners in the country, after centuries of colonisation under the British Empire. Afrikaners were the descendants of Dutch and German settlers and French Huguenots who arrived in the Cape hundreds of years earlier. And, primarily as a result of the British suppression of non-English whites and the remainder of the melting pot of South Africa’s diverse population, the Apartheid legislation was drawn up to protect the Afrikaans (and white) identity.

Furthermore, it is often understated that the 1948 election was an outcome of the Second World War. There was a growing concern in the country about the wartime shortage of white labour which attracted black migrant workers in large numbers to chief industrial centres. The South African government at the time was unable to provide housing and basic services, having failed to recognise this monumental influx of labour. The NP convinced a large segment of the voting bloc that the impotence of the ruling United Party in curtailing the evolving position of non-whites, indicating that the organisation had fallen under the influence of Western liberals.

NP leaders argued that South Africa did not comprise a single nation, but was made up of four distinct racial groups: white, black, Coloured and Indian. Such groups were split into 13 nations or racial federations. White people encompassed the English and Afrikaans language groups; the black populace was divided into ten such groups.

The first major legislation to pass was the Population Registration Act of 1950, which  formalised racial classification and introduced an identity card for all persons over the age of 18, specifying their racial group. This is the textbook definition of a state that is defined first by its ethnicity. The Second major piece of legislation was the Group Areas Act of 1950. It put an end to diverse areas and determined where one lived according to race. Each race was allotted its own area, which was used in later years as a basis of forced removal. The Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act that followed in 1950 allowed the government to demolish townships and informal housing structures.

Other laws that made up some of the most significant legislative efforts to disenfranchise non-whites economically and socially include the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 and the Immorality Act of 1950 that prevented races from getting married or sleeping with one another, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953, which reserved government programs for housing, schools, buses and so on for particular races, with white Amenities taking the lion’s share of the budgets for these programs, making the services for black people significantly inferior to those reserved for whites.

The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 banned any party subscribing to Communism and the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 created separate government structures for whites and non-whites and was the first piece of legislation to support the government’s plan of separate development in the Bantustans, which would be recognised as “independent homelands” for Black South Africans. “self–governing Bantu units” were proposed, which would have devolved administrative powers, with the promise later of autonomy and self-government. It also abolished the seats of white representatives of black South Africans and removed from the rolls the few blacks still qualified to vote.

However, the real haymaker was the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which carved up the education system, and geared black students’ education towards unskilled labour, condemning them to generations of stagnant or declining social status. It was designed to prepare black people for lives as a labourers, while separate universities for each race were established. The state spent ten times more per child on the education of white children than on black children.

By destroying the black family nucleus, forcing parents to travel to cities for work and leave their children behind to be raised in an education system geared towards political and economic suppression. The case of economic subjugation speaks for itself in South Africa, but the social subjugation is often understated when we look back on the history of Apartheid.

Finally, in terms of spiritual subjugation. Blacks were prohibited from attending white churches under the Churches Native Laws Amendment Act of 1957, but this was never rigidly enforced. However, the Dutch-reformed Church (NG Kerk) was used as a tool to promote Afrikaner nationalism and reinforce racist sentiments – although many still dispute this.

The story of political repression and atrocities committed by the Apartheid government are also widely documented. From the Sharpville Massacre, where where 69 people were killed by police, more than 18,000 were arrested and political organisations such as the ANC and PAC were banned. Struggle leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki were imprisoned for life, others such as Oliver Tambo were exiled and many more, including Steve Biko were murdered by the South African Police. Also, countless people were tortured among an endless list of victims of the regime – not to mention the effects of the economic disenfranchisement of Black South Africans to this day. After centuries of colonialism and 35 years of Apartheid, South Africa finally transitioned into a multi-racial democracy in 1994, bringing and end to one of history’s most brutal regimes.

While we look back at the Apartheid regime and just about every fascist state that came into being, we notice all kinds of nuances. The history of fascism is convoluted, practically impossible to define and due to the brutal nature and sheer number of victims that each regime left in its wake, it is likely that there may be massive gaps in our historical knowledge that can be retrieved only from the consciousness of those who lost their lives.

And there are countless more states out there that may also share features of fascism that we did not cover over the course of this three-part series (Japan, for example). Covering the issue from head-to-toe would be a massive undertaking and at the end of it all, you probably still wouldn’t be able to identify and all-encompassing definition for fascism or an example of a state that fits the description in every way.

Nonetheless, there are very important lessons to learn about our world as it is today when examining the history of fascism. And it upon these lessons which I will bring you the afterword of this three-part series, which will focus on the contemporary examples of modern states that appear to fit the description of fascism.

Further reading

Adolf Hitler’s Letter to General Franco (6 February 1941)

Boddy-Evans, A. 2019. South Africa’s Apartheid Era Population Registration Act [retrieved 18/01/2020]

Byrnes, Rita M. 1996. South Africa: A Country Study. GPO for the Library of Congress: Washington

Carrasco‐Gallego. 2011. The Marshall Plan and the Spanish postwar economy: a welfare loss analysis. The Economic History Review.

Devine, J & Kornbluh, P. 2014. ‘Showdown in Santiago: What Really Happened in Chile?’, Foreign Affairs 93.

Harrison, Joseph. 1978. An economic history of modern Spain. Manchester University Press.

Hyslop, J. 1995. White Working-Class Women and the Invention of Apartheid: ‘Purified’ Afrikaner Nationalist Agitation for Legislation against ‘Mixed’ Marriages, 1934-9. Journal of African History: Cambridge

Kaplan, I. 1970. Area Handbook for the Republic of South Africa. ERIC: Washington DC

Klein, N. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Knopf Canada.

Payne, S (2012). The Spanish Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Vasallo, M. 2002. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: General Considerations and a Critical Comparison of the Commissions of Chile and El Salvador. University of Miami Law Review.

Weinberg, G. 2005. A World In Arms, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Hexham, I. 1980. Christianity and Apartheid. The Journal of Theology for Southern Africa: Stellenbosch.

UKEssays. November 2018. The Church And Apartheid In South Africa Religion Essay. [online]. Available from: https://www.ukessays.com/essays/religion/the-church-and-apartheid-in-south-africa-religion-essay.php?vref=1 [Accessed 18 January 2021].

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