Dr. Paul Gottfried’s Talk on Nazi Germany

Amid peaceful protests, Dr. Paul Gottfried discussed his book Fascism: The Career of a Concept last week with Professor Alfred Kelly’s “Nazi Germany” class and interested guests. Gottfried introduced his lecture with brief commentary about both liberals’ and conservatives’ use of the label “fascist” to condemn either side of the political spectrum. According to Gottfried, the use of “fascism” as a label for any movement that is not derivative of Benito Mussolini’s Italian fascist movement is simply inaccurate.

He briefly discussed Adolf Hitler’s version of fascism, which was actually, according to Gottfried, an eclectic borrowing from both Stalinism and Italian fascism. His talk then continued with the concept of “generic fascism,” which he said can thrive only in a Roman Catholic society with a quasi-medieval corporatist economy. Leaders like Spain’s Francisco Franco and Portugal’s Antonio de Oliveira Salazar attempted to copy Mussolini’s system, but “generic fascism,” Gottfried said, only succeeds as a regime when there is complete state control.

Gottfried criticized Goldberg’s assessment that fascism as a whole was a product of “the left.” He also discussed the use of Italian fascism as a model by other regimes, as in Lebanon and in Tito’s Yugoslavia. These regimes copied Mussolini to an extent, he said, but ultimately weren’t really fascist because they lacked the Catholic-influenced corporatist theory that allowed fascism to thrive in Italy.

Historiographically speaking, Gottfried explained, most scholarly discussions of fascism reflect the political and cultural world of the scholars themselves rather than, with real accuracy, the ideological concept. When authors like Jonah Goldberg write about fascism, he said, they reveal more about themselves and the context in which they live than about fascism’s history. He specifically mentioned the German historian Ernst Nolte, who argued that counter-revolutionary forces disguised themselves as part of the socialist left. Nolte also argued that anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany was almost an afterthought for that country’s regime in comparison with its hostility to Bolshevism, an interpretation Gottfried very strongly disagreed with.

When Gottfried opened the discussion to questions, the topic quickly evolved from his presentation on fascism to a political and cultural discussion about the “Alt-Right.” One student asked about labeling certain modern movements or political groups as “fascists.” The student asked for Gottfried’s reaction to Richard Spencer’s expressed admiration and idolization of Gottfried, also inquiring: If certain white nationalist or white supremacist groups were behaving in, or advocating for, a manner that resembles fascism, is it not fair to call them fascists?

Gottfried responded by strongly disparaging white supremacists like Spencer. In his eyes, he said, the Alt-Right is no real political threat. Referring to them as fascists is not only historically inaccurate, Gottfried said, but also gives them much more credit for political strength and influence than they deserve.

Unfortunately, much of the question period strayed far from Gottfried’s topic of fascism. In a comment to Gottfried, one student referenced an article from the Guardian about a Italian police officer who terrorized a town during Mussolini’s rule, although Gottfried was unfamiliar with the story.  Gottfried made a comment at one point about how he disagrees with the Nuremberg Trials of German war criminals after World War II and with what he views as show trials in general, but this topic was sidetracked by another discussion of current events, when one student distractingly brought up the Las Vegas shooting, engaging him in a conversation about the historical or moral impact of violent crimes and large-scale traumatic events.

Paul Gottfried’s presence on campus certainly generated substantial dialogue about current political and cultural movements in the United States. While he made interesting historical arguments about Italian fascism and various attempted imitations of that ideology and regime, they seemed to take second place to more contemporary questions about current politics and ideologies.