rise of fascist states in Germany and Italy during the post World War I era was accompanied by similar movements in nations across the world; but most of these never achieved the same prominence. Great Britain saw the emergence of the British Union of Fascists, which gained thousands of supporters, but the organization never came to power. Largely this was for economic reasons: Britain did not suffer as severe an economic downturn after the First World War as many other nations did. Another explanation is the general rejection of the violent methodology employed by the British Fascists. It is tempting to argue that fascism was fundamentally opposed to the overall democratic nature of the British populous, but it is more likely that the failure of the fascist movement in Great Britain had economic origins.
There had never been a war quite like World War I. In its aftermath it was simply called "the Great War"; some even referred to it as, "the war to end all wars." Never before had people died on the same scale or in the same manner that they did during World War I. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the architects of the peace agreement that followed -- the Treaty of Versailles -- were unprepared for the consequences of the stern punishment they dealt to the Germans.
For being the instigators of such a brutal and costly war the Germans were forced to surrender large portions of their territory, as well as pay huge reparations. These penalties created a setting that was ideal for fascism to grow and thrive: a crippled economy. A nation in the midst of an economic crisis is very susceptible to regimes that can promise immediate relief. With the high level of national pride in Germany it was relatively easy for people like Hitler to identify scapegoats for their economic woes while promising a return to glory.
"Fascism in Europe rose and spread quickly because of the ravages of World War I and the Political and spiritual vacuum they had left behind."
Certainly, many of the spiritual and moral guidelines for human behavior had been devastated by the horrors of World War I. Trench warfare and the use of poison gas introduced entirely new and painful methods for killing vast numbers of people in an almost indiscriminant manner. Survivors found that many long held institutions of belief and reason had been permanently violated; new systems had to be formed to fill the void left by the old ones, and to explain the awful brutality of the world. This general loss of faith can be reflected in the artistic movements of the time -- the modernists desperately searched for something, anything that could be held-up as a source of comfort and faith.
With an increasing number of people in post-war Europe having lost faith in Christianity one of the emerging institutions of belief was faith in science and innovation. As promising as this source of belief was, it was -- in many cases -- taken too far and trusted to explain too much. People had seen the power of direct application of science; they had seen the first truly chemical war, and they had also seen the improvements in living standards and increased productivity science could bring about. Yet, people had not yet learned that science, unlike religious faith, is not designed be trusted blindly. The search for faith in the years following World War I thrust science into forefront of human belief, and laid the foundations for the bigotry that was to follow.
Eugenics was a painfully backward application of science -- namely, evolutionary theory -- but it created a convenient scapegoat for the origins of fascist movements. In Britain the notion had been around for a long time. At the turn of the century the birth rate of the British middle class began to fall, which greatly worried many politicians for to reasons. "First was the fear that it might spread to the working classes, who were largely ignorant of the methods of birth control. . . . Second was the fear that if the middle classes alone continued to have fewer children this would have the effect of reducing the intelligent and enterprising section of the population. This stimulated a fashionable interest in eugenics -- the idea of improving the national stock by breeding the best elements, and preventing reproduction of the physically unfit and mentally backwards."
Generally, it was the elite of society who felt that they had the right to choose who could reproduce and who could not.
Fortunately, in Britain the movement never gained general support because the perceived population problem never came to fruition, but this was not the case in Germany. Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an Englishman who later moved to Germany published the infamous book, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. This book "can best be described as a mighty hymn to the superiority of the Teutonic people. . . . Within that wider category, moreover, the Teutonic or German People are markedly superior to all the rest. Thus Chamberlain's real point: that a racially pure German empire should, obviously, rule the world."
This book was one of the first to put to paper the notion of racial superiority, but it was not the last. It introduced an extremely attractive notion to people who had been downtrodden by the rest of the world -- it justified any future retaliation.
Chamberlain's ideas "gave high-octane fuel to the growth of the Nazi creed, providing for Hitler's theories in Mein Kampf just the right mixture of intellectual justification and high emotionalism."
Post World War I Europe was a fertile place for new theories to explain the world; notions of innate racial and class superiority came out of this draught of faith. Obviously this distortion of science created, for those who accepted it, a feeling that their enemies were something less than human.
Many British citizens firmly believed that the Irish were, in many ways, subhuman; yet Britain did not methodically exterminate the Irish as the Germans did the Jews. Additionally, "In 1863 Dr. James Hunt had dismayed his audience at a meeting in Newcastle of the British Association for the Advancement of Science by asserting that the 'Negro' was a separate species of human being, half way between the ape and 'European man.' Yet within a generation such views had become the conventional wisdom."
This point illustrates that racist views were prevalent in Britain as well as Germany and Italy, where fascist dictators actually came to power. Therefore, it would be false to claim that fascism did not come about in Britain because the British were free of bigotry, or that the ideology inherent in fascist states was foreign to the British mindset.
The fascist regimes that came out of the post World War I era were a reaction to a growing discontentment of the lower classes, and the reaction of the ruling classes against Communism. Upper class Europe during the Victorian era was able to maintain power through noble birthright. With the post war depression the dissatisfaction of the lower classes presented a very real threat to the upper classes -- the threat of Communist revolutions, like that in Russia, would strip the wealthy of every advantage they enjoyed. It was important, therefore, to relieve the economic pressures on the lower class while maintaining the upper class' position in society. Fascist governments are able to do this. "The rich were offered an end to the threat of socialism and communism, and the middle classes were guaranteed order. Even the working class was offered something. In its early days, fascism borrowed many of socialism's policies, like taxes on wealth, a minimum wage, and more government control over industry."
Thus with a few compromises, the social elite under fascism were able to protect themselves from violent social revolution and restructuring.
Unwittingly, under a fascist government the lower classes were maintaining the elite's position in society. But, by joining a fascist party they were also increasing their own power in a small way; this was because the methods employed by these parties encouraged violence as a means to control. So, it was relatively easy to find teams of angry youths willing to scour the countryside with sticks and knives to physically undermine all opposing parties. This offered a violent distraction for many in the working class who might have otherwise adopted a socialist ideology.
By 1919 the war had left the British Empire weakened, and increasingly vulnerable to chaotic uprisings from the socially discontented. The existing order tended to dismiss the grievances of these groups on the grounds that they were a vast conspiracy against Britain as a whole, but without any particular agenda. "Such attitudes, usually accompanied with an intense fear of Communism and its capacity to create mayhem everywhere, were prevalent among Britain's ruling class at the time."
This made Britain, much like the rest of Europe, prone to fascist movements; which assailed Communism…
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