Written by Aidan Daly.
War and peace are often understood as two opposing, mutually exclusive concepts. Yet the impact and legacy of wartime has wide-ranging consequences for the societies that emerge from conflict. The development of fascism as an alternative political creed to liberalism, socialism, and traditional conservatism had roots in a number of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century intellectual and ideological currents, but the experience of conflict in the First World War transformed and catalysed these ideas into the various political movements that were to shape the course of interwar Europe. Fascism was born of war, and the ethos and aesthetics of conflict were paraded into peacetime along with it.
In the immediate post-war years of Italy and Germany, the shared experience of trench warfare among returning servicemen proved to be fundamental in the creation of a collective consciousness celebrating classless egalitarianism, wartime sacrifice, and camaraderie. This desire to return to the solidarity of the war deepened as social conflict, economic disarray, and political instability fostered a sense of increasing disillusionment among veterans. For these men, the war was the most profound and formative experience of their lives and fascism offered them the chance to prolong this idealised experience of the trenches once the war was over, symbolising the virtues of youth, dynamism and sacrifice that were to become central to fascist propaganda and organisation.
The war had the additional, more macabre consequence of immunising front-line soldiers to the horrors of war, death, and mutilation. Indeed, the experience of war would subsequently become mythologised and celebrated through various memorials and cemeteries. For many, this creation of a cult surrounding the fallen soldier would become part of a notion of dynamic activism and national revitalisation. The glorification of struggle and the sense of camaraderie meant that for a lot of young men fascism became a continuation of the war experience to be embraced, not rejected.
More tangibly, many ex-servicemen had a large role in institutionalising violence and the ethos of war into the paramilitary organisations of fascism. In Italy, the squadristi were a considerable source of violence and unrest in the early 1920s, and modelled their distinctive black uniforms on the Arditi, the elite Italian troops of the war. Originally a loose band of disillusioned ex-soldiers, from 1923 onwards the squadristi were reorganised into the main paramilitary organisation of the National Fascist Party, following a regimented hierarchy in imitation of the Roman Army. Similarly, the SA in Germany consisted of ex-Freikorps troops, paramilitary ex-servicemen who had returned from the war feeling disconnected from civilian life following German defeat. These groups, and others like them, represented the transformation of wartime militarism and violence into peacetime activism.
This diffusion of militarism into peacetime Europe was demonstrated most spectacularly in the theatrical public displays of fascism. The ubiquitous images of mass rallies, disciplined marches, and the military uniforms of Mussolini and Hitler figure most prominently in popular representations of Italian Fascism and German National Socialism. This was, of course, intentional. The utilisation of military symbolism was part of a wider attempt to aestheticise the entire movement, transcending the traditional party system to become not only a political movement, but also a civic religion. Evidently, this pervasive air of militarism within peacetime was demonstrated not only on a practical level, but also ideologically.
The mythologising of war experience is key in understanding interwar fascism not only in the regimes of Italy and Germany, but in other countries where fascism gained support as a movement such as here in Britain; Oswald Mosley repeatedly appealed to the sacrifice of the war generation in speeches and publications using emotive, poetic language. Indeed, Mosley saw himself and the British Union of Fascists as representing the ‘lost generation’ of young men killed during the war. However, a seemingly paradoxical effect of this was the BUF’s appeasement campaign of the late 1930s. Despite this, their opposition to war on the continent did not seem to be at odds with their penchant for violence on the streets; Mosley’s Blackshirts were overtly influenced by Benito Mussolini’s paramilitary wing and promoted a virile, militarised sense of violence which characterised much of their activity, especially in clashes with Communists.
Politically, peacetime can be defined as a period of time in which no violent conflicts occur. But when the experience, memory, and aesthetic of war become so much a part of the outward expression of regimes and movements existing and operating in peacetime, can we make such clear-cut distinctions? Though the period of peace in the interwar years were the years in which European fascism developed, fascism itself cannot be fully understood without reference to its inherent identification with war and militarism. This demonstrates the extent to which the legacies of war continued to permeate an ostensibly harmonious continent, ultimately leading to further conflict.