I joked when I started my PhD, amid the skyrocketing numbers of ISIS foreign fighters reaching Syria, that I’d never really expected my research to actually have a semblance of contemporary relevance. Fast forward a few years, and I’m now also delighted  to discover that my related interest in the early history of anti-fascism in the 1920s and 1930s has also turned out to be surprisingly relevant in understanding everyday politics. This, needless to say, was even less expected.
A lot of this overlap between my research and current affairs revolves around the question of anti-fascist violence. In interwar Europe, just like today, furious political and cultural debates took place about what the appropriate response to fascism was – for the people I study, that answer ended up being to pick up a rifle and shoot back in Spain. As a result, I’ve been reflecting a great deal about what the 1930s can tell us about the place of violence in anti-fascist activism. I’ve been pontificating a bit on Twitter, and on AskHistorians when given half a chance, but thought I’d try and collect my ideas in a blog post. As a disclaimer: this is not intended as a guide or encouragement for any readers to go out on a Nazi-punching spree.
The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that fascism itself is a violent ideology. This violence occurs on a variable scale, from threats and scuffles on the street, all the way up to state-directed genocide. By this, I don’t just mean that fascists tend to be the kind of people who like to throw a punch, but that violence and its glorification are built into the fascist claim to legitimacy and power. The heart of their appeal is offering violent solutions to problems that normal politics can’t address properly – breaking both the rules and some heads to seize control and get shit done. Modern-day fascists have gotten better at using coded language and euphemism to express this, but go more than surface deep into far right rhetoric and platforms, and violence lurks just below the surface.
The violence of fascism was, in an Italian context, key to its surprisingly swift rise to power in Italy. Willing to break the rules to crush socialists and striking workers and peasants, at a time when the Italian state seemed unable to act effectively to preserve the social fabric, was the basis of the fascist appeal to the Italian middle-classes. The lesson, it seemed, was to be prepared to stand up to fascists. German communists, for instance, organised the Roter Frontkämpferbund in the 1920s, a paramilitary organisation that would protect working-class communities and communist rallies from Nazi violence and disruption. Unlike Italian socialists, they wouldn’t be caught napping.
Yet this response failed to appreciate the other source of fascist success: the appeal to victimhood. The Nazis campaigned on the basis that German society was collapsing, with traditional elites no longer able to contain the revolutionary chaos caused by Bolshevism. Only the Nazis, with their willingness to take the required firm measures to restore order, were able to offer a solution to these problems. This meant that every time the Nazis were on the receiving end of violence at the hands of communist-backed paramilitaries, they could use this to reinforce this message: Germany is now ungovernable, unless you put us in charge. It’s worth remembering that German communists were the other major beneficiary of the post-1929 crisis: as the communists gained strength, more and more non-communists started to buy the Nazi message that only they could contain the rising tide of revolutionary chaos. This message was, of course, full of internal contradictions, but fascists are good at ignoring those.
This then is the framework and constraints within which anti-fascists need to operate: on one hand, fascist violence is real, and needs to be confronted. Yet on the other, fascist narratives of victimhood, framing anti-fascists as the ‘real threat’ to democracy and civil decency, can also be effective in achieving their goals. This presents a tightrope for opponents of fascism to walk, requiring inventive and clever strategies to overcome.
So, what does this actually mean in practice? The first is to remember what anti-fascism actually represents as an ideology. It is an oppositional way of thinking – the common platform is opposing fascism, not a proactive set of ideas, philosophies or policies. Here I think the best comparison is with anti-communism – a label which in the past enabled a massive swathe of political viewpoints to put aside their differences and cooperate against a perceived mutual enemy. Anti-fascism is similar in that it wins adherents based on the perceived threat of fascism, not on its own basis. Anti-fascist movements, therefore, wax and wane along with the perceived threat of fascism. They never quite disappear – there’s always a far left group willing to see just about anyone else as fascist – but if a far right group looks like making a breakthrough, a much broader spectrum of people are willing to mobilise in opposition, such as in response to the rise of the National Front in 1970s Britain. Anti-fascism, in other words, is a coalition, and must strategise on that basis – deliberately alienating potential allies is to throw the game away. Centrists gonna centre no matter what you do, it’s your job to convince them that it’s the fascists, not you, who are the actual threat to their neoliberal paradise.
Where does this leave us in terms of ‘violence’? Outright confrontation is a losing game, one way or another. But history suggests other ways to succeed. The first is preventative – large scale mobilisations that deter fascist activism in the first place. If an anti-fascist counter-demonstration can mobilise a hundred times as many supporters as a fascist march, the march might be quietly cancelled, postponed or rendered into a comical spectacle, and fascist claims to represent popular views are undermined. This is where the coalition-building aspects of anti-fascism become vital – the wider the spectrum of opposition you can mobilise, the harder it is for the fascists to paint opponents as extremists who themselves are the main threat to society.
The second type of anti-fascist ‘violence’ that has succeeded in the past is disruptive. Here, the goal is not to overwhelm or intimidate, but to create disproportionate difficulties for a fascist political performance while making it difficult to claim victimhood. Think a handful of activists standing up mid-speech and starting to sing songs or wave banners. Quite aside from any benefit that might accrue from disrupting a fascist message, such acts can also provoke a disproportionate response. Particularly as fascist movements often hide behind rhetoric of non-violence and free speech, this can be particularly effective in exposing the true nature of the movement. The British Union of Fascist’s (BUF) infamous Olympia Rally in 1934 is a good example of how this might work – a small number of disruptive protesters were successful both in ruining fascist pageantry, and in provoking a wildly disproportionate and violent response that shocked onlookers and dealt a huge blow to the BUF’s efforts to be seen as a legitimate, ‘normal’ political movement. In my view, this was a much more significant victory than the more-celebrated Cable Street, the actual results of which were ambiguous at best and actually fed quite neatly into the BUF’s victimhood narratives. You might also categorise more recent forms of activism like milkshaking in this manner – while the ‘help, help I’m being oppressed’ line was quickly adopted in response by ‘victims’, it’s a hard sell to present yourself as the victim of a fantastical Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy to increase your dry-cleaning bill. That said, the recent disinformation about milkshakes being laced with cement in the United States points to the need for creativity and adaptation – once activism is predictable, it can be defeated.
Neither of these types of activism boil down to ‘to save civilisation, we need to punch Nazis’. But neither are they entirely non-violent, and certainly would be characterised as violent by fascists themselves – who, as I hope is clear at this point, cannot be taken as communicating or campaigning in good faith on these matters. Fascists in the 1930s, just as in more recent times, hid behind free speech, false accusations and framing opposition as illegitimate and the ‘real’ threat to civil society.