Griffin, R. 2007. Modernism and Fascism: The sense of a beginning under Mussolini and Hitler.

New York, Palgrave McMillian. $39.95

In this day when new world orders,[1] authoritarian movements, and Imperial Presidencies,[2] appear to be making a come back in the West, it is more than worthwhile to consider innovative approaches to the evaluation of what Paxton refers to as fascisms.[3] Oxford academic Roger Griffin takes just such a special look in his book Modernism and Fascism.

While maintaining that even these many decades later, scholarship suffers the burden of political correctness when it comes to European fascism, Griffin calls for an ‘entirely different lens’ through which to analyze fascist and Nazi movements. It is his hypothesis that fascism is a political variant of modernism. He bases this, in part, on the fact that 20th century fascism provided its adherents with a sense of new beginning, a concept also inherent in modernism.[4] Griffin finds that fascism created a “cult of paramount expansion, dynamic change, and creative destruction…” with a purpose to “prune back the wild shoots and tear out the weeds”[5] in order to create a ‘new man’ and a ‘new world.’ We continue to see this grossly aberrant horticultural metaphor in the increasing occurrence and magnitude of ethnic cleansing.

Griffin defines modernism as a term describing reactions to chaos and social and cultural decay resulting in attempts to transform the institutions, structures, and belief systems of society in response to the impact of Western modernization. Modernism is an attempt to ‘ward off the terror of the existential void’ in which the “The canopy of civilization is burned out.” [6]

Griffin spends considerable time tracing the evolution of social and cultural modernism before turning to the exploration of the rise of political modernism. The depth of the tragedy surrounding World War I called for meaning. What was the horror of that colossal tragedy all about? Could it be that the war was the forge on which a new humanity was created and from which a new world would emerge? Fascism became one of the ways through which western humanity sought that new order. Fascism came to be viewed as a “revolutionary species of political modernism,” conceived to combat social and cultural degeneration by establishing an “alternative modernity and temporality (a ‘new order’ and a ‘new era’) through the rebirth of the nation.” Over the period of its evolution and ascendency fascism provided a hope of renewal with the promise of transcendence hosting representative art and architecture and utopian social engineering. Out of all of this, its adherents saw what appeared to be something “Something genuinely new and sacred beginning.”[7]

To Griffin, Nazism was an expression of fascism and a form of political religion, the focal point of which was the Fuhrer cult, a “new religion born out of social disintegration and the compensatory emergence of a charismatic leader.”[8] Nazism, with its own unique twists and turns, was nourished by a “pagan cult of the life-force as a primordial source of value and meaning,” replacing “…both traditional Enlightenment and revealed religion as the rationale for science, technology, and modernity itself.” In his somewhat surprising Postscript, titled ‘A Different Beginning,’ Griffin addresses a continuing green thread ‘blood and soil’ in the work of Gerd Bergfleth[9] who argues that Germans, because of the Nordic character that longs for a ‘bondedness with the earth craves a German remembrance’ of things past under a German sky. I wonder, should we take perverse comfort in knowing that little ever changes?

This book is an exceptional work of analysis. It’s unique and comprehensive perspective opens a window on a past that may become the future. The human project faces a world of continued environmental degradation, the onset of economically manipulated religious wars, and the existence and use of weapons of immense destruction and mass death. Under these pressures, Griffin sees our time as a time “of one history in which the planet became increasingly unable to bear the ecological burdens imposed on it by our species colonization of the globe…” Griffin does, however, feel that a “…new history of sustainable, viable stabilized human life on earth” is possible and it is here that I disagree with him. Perhaps we should remember the words of Alexander Herzen who reminds us that it is our misfortune “…of being born when a whole world is dying.”[10]

Please cite this as follows:

Baugh, T. 2008. Modernism and Fascism, a review. The Green Institute;

[1] A term used in a March 6, 1991 address to the US Congress by George Herbert Bush.

[2] N.A. 2002 (September 16). The Imperial Presidency. The Nation.

[3] Paxton, R.O. 2004. The anatomy of fascism. New York : Alfred A. Knopf.

[4],…a concept also disturbingly present in some postmodern, New age paradigms.

[5] Hitler, A. 1992.. Mein Kampf. London: Pimlico

[6] Woolf, V. 1931. The waves…

[7] Safranski, R. 1998. Martin Hediger: Between good and evil. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

[8] Stevens, A. 1998. Ariddine’s circle: A guide to the symbols of humankind. London: The Allen Press.

[9] Bergfleth, G. 1996. Erde und Heimat. Berlin: Ullstein.