The leaked footage of the young queen giving a fascist salute seems so shocking partly because, today, we no longer know what Nazism was. Yes, there’s an inexhaustible appetite for books and films about Hitler and his regime. But, in some ways, that’s the difficulty.Today, the words National Socialism spur such an overwhelming rush of associations – death camps, blitzkrieg, Berlin in ruins – that it seems quite impossible to imagine any sane person supporting its doctrines. As a result, overt Nazism has become less a political philosophy than an exotic perversion, akin to cannibalism or coprophilia.
Last weekend, we saw the extreme right mobilise for the Reclaim Australia rallies around the country. In that context, the UK Sun’s clip of the royals seig heiling each other provides a useful reminder that, once upon a time, fascism was not a freak show represented by tattooed skinheads but a mass phenomenon with considerable backing in the upper echelons of the English-speaking world.
The enthusiasm of Prince Edward (later, King Edward VIII) for Hitlerism is well documented. The diplomat Robert Bruce Lockhart recorded a conversation between Edward and a fellow aristocrat:
“The Prince of Wales,” he noted, “was quite pro-Hitler and said it was no business of ours to interfere in Germany’s internal affairs either re Jews or anything else, and added that the dictators are very popular these days, and that we might want one in England before long.”
There were many Australians who would have agreed with him. In the antipodes, while fascism never came close to taking power, it had its share of high-profile supporters.
For instance, in November 1933, Wilfred Kent Hughes, a minister in the Victorian government (and later a federal minister in the post-war Menzies administration), penned a series of pieces for the Melbourne Herald entitled “Why I have become a fascist.”
In his articles, he explained that “fascism was definitely the spirit of the age” and that “industrial peace and security have been found to be worth the price of sacrificing some of the individual liberty previously enjoyed.”
The response to Kent Hughes’ effusions provides a fascinating glimpse of the political climate.
“Some interest and a certain amount of discussion,” wrote the Hobart Mercury on 20 November 1933, “have been caused by an opinion expressed by the Minister for Sustenance (Mr. Kent Hughes) that a Fascist system of government might be tried in Australia with advantage to the community.
“The Premier (Sir Stanley Argyle) and the Attorney General (Mr. Menzies), who between them possess a considerable amount of horse sense, have very wisely refused to be drawn into discussing the views of their colleague. The Minister for Agriculture (Mr. Allan), though he has never shown any indications of possessing anything but reasonably democratic political principles, thinks that the British Parliamentary Constitution is elastic enough to allow the incorporation of what is most advantageous in Fascism without involving the establishment of an Australian Mussolini or Hitler.
“The Leader of the Opposition, rightly it seems, takes the view that the inauguration of anything comparable to Fascism would entail the abolition of the electoral system and democratic Government, though there are people who say that that would be no great calamity.”
In this passage, fascism isn’t an obscenity but an interesting minority opinion, a plan that might be of “advantage to the community”. Menzies and Argyle seem not to agree with Kent Hughes’ convictions – but they don’t feel compelled to condemn them.
Another minister, while not going so far as his colleague, agrees that there might be something in this fascism business, while the Mercury itself remarks, with some jocularity, on the prevalence of widespread anti-democratic feeling.
This was, of course, in the context of a deep economic crisis and a corresponding political polarisation that had spurred right-wing loyalist and paramilitary organisations across Australia. The most important of these was the New Guard in NSW, created to oppose the administration of Jack Lang, a radical populist hailed by his supporters as “greater than Lenin”.
Under the command of Colonel Eric Campbell, the New Guard grew to a membership of perhaps 50,000 – a not inconsiderable figure, given Sydney’s then population of 1.5 million. The New Guard believed itself to be saving the state from a Communist takeover; as Francis de Groot, one of its more famous members, later said, “We had no intention of handing over Australia to the tender mercies of the rubbishy kind of people who aspired to rule us”.
To that end, the New Guard drilled its members, stockpiled weapons and attacked leftwingers. It drew up plans for an armed revolt; a secret inner circle called the Fascist Legion organised to bash Trades and Labour Council secretary Jock Garden at his home.
Even at its height, the New Guard, with its brawling and bluster, was never entirely respectable. The good and the great in Sydney sniffed at both Campbell’s affectations and his plebian supporters (most New Guard members came from the lower middle-class), while big business tended to back the more secretive Old Guard, an anti-communist network active behind the scenes.
Nevertheless, historian Andrew Moore notes that, “shortly after the June 1932 elections, [the influential businessman] Philip Goldfinch moved to scotch both a Commonwealth and State inquiry into the New Guard, for if plans to prosecute them had proceeded, at least twenty members of the State and Commonwealth parliaments would have been implicated.”
Some have queried the applicability of “fascism” as a description for the New Guard, given that Campbell only adopted the full rigmarole of European fascism (Nazi salutes and so on) after visiting Germany and Italy in 1932, by which time his movement was in steep decline.
The argument, however, misses the point. Fascism is always both incoherent and protean, reshaping itself opportunistically according to circumstances. Yes, most of the New Guard’s supporters joined to oppose Lang Labor. But Campbell, who, after 1933, kept signed photos of Mussolini and Hitler on his desk, was in no doubt as to his organisation’s internal logic. “I became a fascist without knowing what Fascism was,” he said.
Indeed, in the 1920s and 30s, fascism appeared in many different guises and enthusiasts found their way to it through a variety of routes.
In Queensland, Catholic Archbishop James Duhig was a longstanding admirer of Mussolini, describing Il Duce as “like Napoleon with few, if any, of his faults”. Later, Spanish fascism exerted an attraction. As Ross Fitzgerald says in his book about BA Santamaria and the Labor split, “The Australian Catholic community were fed a diet that depicted the conflict in terms of a battle between good and evil. Franco was God’s warrior sent to defend Catholic Spain.”
Others liked what they saw of fascism in practice. The depression-era NSW police commissioner WJ MacKay, for instance, admired the way that the German labour youth battalions “subordinate[d] the individual to the welfare of the nation” – and then established the Police Boys Clubs in NSW along similar lines. More importantly, in 1938, Robert Menzies visited Nazi Germany and enthused about the “really spiritual quality in the willingness of Germans to devote themselves to the service and well-being of the state”.
Despite his admiration for Hitler (“one of the really great men of the century”), Menzies remained an establishment conservative, not a Nazi. But his remarks remind us that, even in the late 30s, fascism was not necessarily understood as an abomination by respectable society.
Indeed, many people saw it as a possible – even likely – development for Australia. On 17 November 1936, for instance, the Argus reported an address by Menzies to the exclusive Millions Club. Menzies, the then-attorney general, warned the assembled businessmen that “unless something was done Australians might in his lifetime see the end of parliamentary democracy” and explained that “Parliament failed in Italy because that parliamentary system had become weak, incompetent and corrupt”.
That was the reason, he said, that “Mussolini as a great and patriotic Italian marched on Rome with all his Blackshirts”.
The next year, the Melbourne University academic William Macmahon Ball offered a similarly gloomy prognosis, explaining sadly that “the whole trend of affairs in Australia was toward Fascist dictatorship”.
We might put this down to local naivety, to Australians not really understanding what was at stake. The Holocaust was, after all, some distance in the future. If fascism seemed possible, surely that was only because people didn’t know what it represented.
If that’s true, it’s only true up to a point. By November 1933, when Kent Hughes was proclaiming his fascism, Hitler had already established dictatorial control in Germany. Civil liberties had been abolished, allowing the Nazis to detain opponents. Trade unions had been banned. Discriminatory legislation targeted Jews and other minorities; socialists, communists and other dissidents were being imprisoned. By July that year, no other political organisations existed.
By 1938, the year of Menzies’ visit to Germany, the Nuremberg laws had been in place for three years, meaning that Jews were no longer citizens and could neither vote nor marry Germans.
As for Italy, everyone understood that Mussolini’s rule had always meant the abolition of trade unions, opposition parties and most political freedoms.
In other words, the local supporters of fascism in the 30s were not consciously endorsing genocide. They were, however, consciously endorsing dictatorship, repression and (usually) racism.
That’s worth thinking about when we contemplate the extreme right today. If you watch the old clips today, Hitler and Mussolini seem more preposterous than charismatic, preening and strutting in the grainy footage like a pair of comic opera villains. You can easily conclude that they represent a phenomenon from a bygone age.
It’s far more sobering, however, to read about the general political mood from which support for fascism emerged. Here’s Andrew Moore again, from his book The Right Road:
The Depression saw the growth of ‘anti political thought’, visible in persistent refrain that the democratic process had been subverted by ‘sectionalism’ and ‘machine politics’. … Some believed that the political parties should unite to form a national government that would see the country through its difficulties. Others argued that ‘professional politicians’ should step aside in favour of a ‘strong man’, a sort of Australian Mussolini. … Others felt that ‘experts’, drawn from business, the British banking system, the military, primary producers, or the private school network, should assume responsibility for government.
In 2015, we’re not in the midst of a social crisis comparable to the Great Depression. There’s certainly no radicalisation equivalent to Lang Labor to send the right into a frenzy.
Nevertheless, the attitudes Moore describes sound strikingly familiar. Today, it’s almost a cliché to hear pundits complain that politics is somehow broken; that the political class is ineffectual and out of touch; that we need to replace squabbling parliamentarians with technocrats who might get something done.
Ideologically, the memory of the Holocaust remains the biggest obstacle to a revived fascism. Old-fashioned Hitlerism, with its swastikas and Jew baiting, will not easily overcome the legacy of Auschwitz – which is why, of course, the extreme right now embraces Islamophobia instead.
The Reclaim Australia rallies were tiny. The United Patriots Front – the “nationalist” split from Reclaim Australia – could barely mobilise a football team for its protest in Melbourne. Neither seems set for great expansion.
Nevertheless, these are unsettled times and we should never grow complacent. As the footage of the royals giving the Nazi salute remind us, fascism could, at one stage, count on support from the very pinnacle of society. There are six million reasons never to allow that to happen again.