Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Sven Reichardt on Fascism as a Process-Concept

by contributing editor Jonas Knatz

Sven Reichardt is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Konstanz. He works on the history of global fascism, on social movements, and civil societies in the 20th century as well as on the history of war, civil war, and terrorism. For issue 82.1 of the Journal of the History of Ideas, he contributed an article titled “Fascism’s Stages: Imperial Violence, Entanglement, and Processualization,” which describes the radicalizing practice of the Italian, German, and Japanese regimes in the 1930s and conceptualizes fascism as a global phenomenon.

Contributing editor Jonas Knatz interviewed Reichardt about the interpretation of fascism as a political process-concept and the relevance of such a concept for contemporary debates about fascism as historical analogy.


Jonas Knatz: In your article, you argue that fascism “cannot be defined as a static entity or a catalogue of ideas” but “must be understood as a political process-concept.” (88) With reference to scholarship on National Socialism as an empire and by analyzing fascist warfare and imperial settler policies, the essay shows fascism as a radicalizing process in which the Italian, German, and Japanese regimes of the 1930s engaged in both inter-imperial collaboration and competition that successively radicalized the ideas of a “grand-area imperialism.” Additionally, in line with Anson Rabinbach, you conceptualize fascism as a “political Haltung” (ethos), a commitment to subscribe to an often-incoherent worldview characterized by a “conglomerate of nationalist, racist, anti-socialist, right-wing populist, anti-feminist or male chauvinist, and imperialist” ideas. (89) What is the connection between this political Haltung and the process of radicalization? And what are the advantages of understanding fascism as a political process-concept?

Sven Reichardt: Fascism has often been defined as something static. Whether with the help of a list of characteristics or one-sentence definitions: again and again, this made auxiliary constructions such as “para-fascist,” “proto-fascist,” or “semi-fascist” necessary. In the long run, this is a tiring game of deciding between “not yet,” “almost” and “already fascist,” but it can be overcome or at least mitigated by using a process-term. Fascism as a movement, acting within a democratic system, should be understood as fundamentally different from a state carrying out a genocide in the exceptional situation of the Second World War. Moreover, a process-concept can better capture the inherent radicalization dynamics of fascism, because fascism had a tendency to dissolve boundaries through its polycratic power structures. This is true at both the national and the global level, as both competition within national parties and among fascist regimes led to the violent dissolution of fascism’s boundaries. This tendency to transgress boundaries can be better understood as a habitus or Haltung than as an ideology—even though these two notions cannot, of course, be neatly separated.

JK: The presidency of Donald Trump sparked a wide-ranging debate about the applicability of the label of fascism to cotemporary politics in general and the US in particular, which gained even more steam after the Capitol riots on January 6. Michael Wildt tweeted that one could see “modern fascism” on this day, while Robert Paxton overcame his previous hesitation to call Trump a fascist and argued that “the label now seems not just acceptable but necessary.”  Previously, others had been more reluctant about the precision of the term fascism, seeing the fascism debate as a distraction from a debate about the structural causes that paved Trump’s way into office or reflecting more generally on the political consequences of historical analogies. How can understanding fascism as a “political process-concept” contribute to these debates?

SR: Most historians emphasize the differences between Trumpism and interwar fascism. The constitutional structure of the United States is more stable than that of young democracies during the interwar period. Economically, the contemporary United States has been in a much better position (at least before the Corona crisis) than the Weimar Republic ever was. In foreign policy, the US is also less isolated; it is still well-integrated and internationally respected. Left- and right-wing extremism lead a primarily extra-parliamentary existence. In one respect in particular, today’s right-wing populism differs (at least quantitatively) from the anti-system protest of the interwar period: despite the storming of the Capitol, it is not a primarily violent movement, unlike the interwar fascist movements that were shaped by World War I and the bloody street battles with socialists. Undoubtedly, there are numerous instances of violence in the present; consider the hundreds of right-wing extremists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan supporters who converged on the small college town of Charlottesville, VA in August 2017 and turned violent on a massive scale. In the US, the propagators of violence among “white supremacists,” such as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and alt-right ideologue Richard B. Spencer, have had a significant boost since Trump’s election. But brutality and militancy were far more widespread in the interwar period, and the legacy of World War I continued to operate in the virulent interwar paramilitarism. Murder rates, anger, and the general acceptance of violence were also significantly greater in the interwar period.

I do see parallels between the past and the present in how society has become divided, marked by hatred and attitudes of “unconditionality” (Unbedingtheit) that, in the case of the Weimar Republic, destroyed democracy. In the US, we have witnessed the formation of antagonistic camps. This is at least true of racism and the political-cultural divide between the metropole and the provinces. In the present, there is a renewed upsurge of nationalism and populism in international politics, from de-tabooed political language to the rise of targeted assassinations of individual politicians by right-wing extremists, or the emergence of a heavy-handed police state.

Presumably, liberal democracy will be further weakened by the Covid-19 crisis, because well before 2020, liberalism, prosperity, freedom of movement, the standing of democratic parties, consensus politics, and social justice had already come under massive pressure from a new authoritarianism. Jürgen Habermas‘ thesis that right-wing populism forms the “breeding group for a new fascism” is worth considering. The Viennese historian of Eastern Europe Philipp Ther prophesies in Der Spiegel that “existential crises like the current pandemic have strengthened xenophobic nationalists and right-wing radicals” several times in history. As is well known, there are no simple, automatic repetitions in history. However, a “Fortress Europe” already seems to manifest itself against asylum seekers. Non-European migrations to Europe will continue to be limited in the future. It is an entirely open question whether crisis-ridden Europe, in the face of tendencies toward re-nationalization since the 2010s, the recently adopted entry barriers by individual nations, and the massive prospects for over-indebtedness and recession, will continue to hold together.

Jonas Knatz is a PhD Candidate at New York University’s History Department. He works on a conceptual history of the automation of work and Modern European Intellectual History more generally.

Featured Image: Luigi Russolo, La Rivolta, 1911

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