Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Dagmar Herzog & Stefanos Geroulanos on the Afterli(v)es of Fascisms

by contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach

Dagmar Herzog is Distinguished Professor of History and the Daniel Rose Faculty Scholar at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She has published extensively on the histories of sexuality and gender, psychoanalysis, theology and religion, Jewish-Christian relations and Holocaust memory, and she has edited anthologies on sexuality in the Third Reich, sexuality in twentieth-century Austria, and the Holocaust. Her most recent books include Unlearning Eugenics. Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe, and Cold War Freud: Psychoanalysis in an Age of Catastrophes. With Chelsea Schields, she has coedited The Routledge Companion to Sexuality and Colonialism, forthcoming 2021. For issue 82.1 of the Journal of the History of Ideas, she has served as guest editor of a cluster of articles on ‘Fascisms and Their Afterli(v)es’.

Stefanos Geroulanos is Professor of History at New York University and a Co-Executive Editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas. He is working on a book on conceptions of human prehistory since 1800 and a shorter book on Napoleon and the institution of the Civil Code in France. His most recent books include The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe (with Todd Meyers) and Power and Time (edited with Natasha Wheatley and Dan Edelstein). With Herzog, he recently co-edited and introduced the important collection of essays by Anson Rabinbach, Staging the Third Reich.

Herzog and Geroulanos spoke with contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach about “Fascisms and Their Afterli(v)es: An Introduction,” the introduction to the cluster of articles on fascism in the current issue of the JHI


Nuala P. Caomhánach: In your introduction, you refer to the opportunism of fascism to take advantage of the slipperiness and unstable status of truth. If fascism is a process moving between ideas, actions, and truths that mutate in unexpected ways, becoming redundant, deniable, and recycled, are you suggesting that the plasticity of historical “facts” destabilizes the field of intellectual history and is forcing it to move outside of conservative methodologies? Put another way, is this a reckoning for the field of intellectual history with fascisms’ amorphous and plastic ability to absorb and disregard ideas? Indeed, does the discomfort and “peculiar resistance to thinking [about] fascism together with ideas” reflect on the limitation of intellectual history (and the disciple of history itself) to integrate fascism, as opposed to anomalize it as a deviation from the centre, all the while up until today, it is still a viable alternative vision of modernity for ordinary people “on the ground”? 

Dagmar Herzog & Stefanos Geroulanos: Yes. There is a conventional way of interpreting fascism as this stable body of racialist, statist, tyrannical, and hierarchical ideas. It has sustained intellectual history with endlessly replicable and important-sounding questions like “was Heidegger a Nazi? Discuss!” (now updated to “is Trump a fascist? Discuss!”) and with attention to the obvious anti-democratic ethos of fascism, the Führerprinzip and so on. Intellectual historians have also often sustained it, not so much by anomalizing fascism but by replicating the conventional approach in a pedagogy that focuses on particular thinkers, big concepts, rigid ideologies, and historical overviews. 

Part of our purpose was to foreground process-ideas and translations of ideas that do not allow for such comforting discretions and do not simply identify fascism with 1930s Italy, Germany, and some other “maybes.” Scholars of fascist culture have long shown the complexity, contradictoriness, and syntheses generated by fascist ideas, the ways these ideas clothe everything from dull everydayness to management rhetoric to international competition to regeneration plans. To look at this in intellectual history means we need a better understanding of what ideas are, how they do not reside high up in some clouds, to be observed at a distance from the rest of some “reality,” how they are woven into everything from self-justification to fantasy. The recognition that ideas are meshed in such a way as to mangle and “regenerate” what fascists understand as life—this should help intellectual history more broadly, as truth isn’t something that simply exists and falls as fascism’s first casualty; this is a good place to start. 

NPC: Wilhelm Reich and Hannah Arendt set the stage for the reader to your thought-provoking challenge to scholars, “[I]f ideas mattered, how did they matter?” Reich and Arendt seem to offer an evolutionary argument over whether fascism is innate human nature or inherent nurture.  What advantage does reframing “ideology and form of rule” within a global context offer when analyzing fascism to move beyond this type of nature/nurture argument? How would a global context provide a more stable footing on which to think about fascism “across the 1945 line” when by its very nature fascism is unstable?

DH & SG: Just as one cannot simply end fascism’s history in 1945—Elisabeth Åsbrink shows well how fascist networks mutated fascist ideas afterward, to the point of treating overt racism as uncouth in order to better perpetuate it—one really cannot begin with a checklist that starts from famous tenets. That’s just virtuous self-distancing from evil. So if instead you are looking at the pleasures fascisms offer their followers, the construction of enemies internal and external, the practices and disavowals of violence (see here Matías Grinchpun’s study of Holocaust revisionism and its influence in Argentina), the (mendacious but always again seductive) promises of racial and social regeneration and war—all these are shared, albeit not with the same gusto or in the same ways. This is part of our point: there’s no prototype and copies, rather, there are particular ways in which the general dispositions that fascisms learn from one another (and from their stumbles) serve them to pursue highly similar projects. So it matters to look at the global dimension, and also to think of fascism as a dynamic potentiality and forcefield rather than persisting via any simple replication or “survival.” 

NPC: I was struck by the cluster of essays moving between the macro- and micro-scales adding richness and depth to our understanding and analysis of fascism. You offer an entry way into the kinds of actions undertaken, the processes set in motion by these said actions, and “what institutional and legal structures are created, what truths are devised.” In what ways will these approaches offer a way to move beyond “the ambiguous fit between the contents of those ideas and their most devastating effects,” particularly when thinking about institutional gaslighting, legal and governmental corruption and white-washing?

DH & SG: As you say, essays move from the micro (Elissa Mailänder on a Nazi chemistry professor’s bigamous home life) to the macro (Sven Reichardt’s study links ideas, movements, imperial processes, and annihilationism in the intertwined development of Italian, Japanese, and German state practices). We think that intellectual history can make its mark by considering fascist thought as it belongs in the in-between these two—between the structural, broad levels and the everyday behaviors. If we look at ideas as mutable, lived, at times theorized, as ambiguously perched, at times less than effective, at others as guiding lights, we can begin to explain regimes, practices, worldviews, and behaviors that have eluded historians. 

After the Second World War, ideologies were blamed in order to absolve individuals, including large groups who did more than simply participate and even did so enthusiastically. Our intent is to go the opposite direction—not to let liberals use a limited notion of ideology to proclaim themselves safe from it, and not to let historians turn that same limited notion into a generalized failure to account for all sorts of problems ranging from “everyday life” to violent enthusiasm, or even the diverse particulars of fascist intellectuals. Instead, we think of ideas as the connective tissue between these different levels or orders, and—leaving aside the frame specific to fascism—between power, violence, justification, and behavior. 

Nuala P. Caomhánach is a doctoral student in the Department of History at New York University and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on the concept, meaning, and construction of biological Time and Space across three bodies of scientific knowledge—Ecological, Malagasy, and Phylogenetic– as applied to conservation ideology and policy from the late nineteenth century to present day. In short, her dissertation aims to understand how Madagascar became the botanical museum to save all of nature (and thus, humankind).

Featured Image: The City Rises, Umberto Boccioni, 1910.

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