A little riffing on Le Pen and fascism and French history

The landslide defeat of Le Pen today is historically a big thing for France as Le Pen as it is perhaps the most decisive defeat of that peculiarly French form of the far right has suffered since World War 2. The electorate, presented with the movement’s most presentable package ever, utterly rejected it. Doesn’t mean it is going away. It never has gone away. Yet it was only actually in power once, during the Vichy years, 1940-44. Nowhere was the Nazi conquest easier than in France, where perhaps a third of the populace were pre-disposed to a fascist government already and where the Nazi occupiers found no shortage of talented civil servants to operate the French government and bureaucracy for them. The French took care of collecting victims of the Holocaust for the Germans, the French collected and shipped their own citizens off to work in German factories, the French even had their own Gestapo. It was as if there had been a fascist infrastructure sitting there in France awaiting a fascist takeover. Whether that takeover came from inside or outside (i.e., from Germany) was no matter to the French right. When France’s greatest living military hero, Philippe Petain, who’d saved the French Army from mutiny and collapse in 1917 and eventually led them in victory through Berlin a year later, agreed to lead France under Nazi domination it just signalled how profoundly fascist the nation had become. Perhaps half the county felt it their patriotic duty to follow Petain. Perhaps more. A little know factoid from the war is that most of the French soldiers rescued at Dunkirk as the Blitzkrieg closed in demanded to be returned after the French surrender to France to finish their service in the Vichy army. That Vichy was a fascist puppet state did not bother them. France was now allied with Nazi Germany and Germany was at war with England. Serving in the Free French forces under De Gaulle was seen by many and perhaps most French soldiers in 1940 as being unpatriotic. That changed as Nazi repression grew worse and Nazi demands for French manpower increased and as Nazi armies were defeated on battlefields. But in 1940 it was obvious that fascism had dug deep roots in the French national psyche. No other state the Nazis conquered rolled over as did France. No other subject people collaborated so. Reading the histories of those days is surreal. France had been enemies to the death with Germany in World War One. They died in unbelievable numbers defending France. Not now. The spirit of fascism had transformed the land in the years between the wars. Not everyone was a fascist, of course, but enough were to make it very uncomfortable for those who were not.

Apparently that spirit remains. It just wasn’t quite sure how widespread it is. We now know. About a third of the French electorate has fascist tendencies. Some of that third are powerfully fascist, some just ornery nationalist. Which is about what it was in the 1930’s. Things haven’t fundamentally changed at all. Perhaps the left’s retribution after liberation in 1944 had not been ferocious enough. Perhaps they should have hanged Petain, and shot tens of thousands more. Perhaps they should have thrown a million collaborators in re-education camps. Perhaps there should have been a purge worthy of the darkest days of the French Revolution. But they were a democracy. And democracies don’t do that sort of thing. Besides, that is what Vichy had been doing. They were the ones killing and torturing and exacting brutal revenge on political enemies for four long years. No one wanted to go through that again.

Which might be what doomed Le Pen’s party to defeat. No one wanted to go through life under a far right government again. The French right had power only once, from 1940-44, and only because an anti-democratic foreign regime forced itself upon it. Without Nazi Germany there never would have been a fascist government in France. And now in lieu of Hitler it was Putin trying to put the French hard right in charge. A lot of bad memories came rushing back, you could see it in the French press. A lot of talk about Vichy, and Petain, and how the French Right had once sold out the French people for the sake of its brutal ideology. And then all the talk of an aggressive foreign dictator–Putin–interfering in French domestic politics, again, just like the 1930’s, when German Nazis and French fascists were very close. Not that Le Pen and her platform were anything even close to Naziism, but it sure smelled funny. And familiar. Like those odd smells that suddenly bring back the past in powerful deja vu. It was all too much, and today the French voters kicked the French right to the curb. The threat is over for now.

Not that the French far right’s struggle is over. It is never over. In France the next Revolution is always just around the bend (there have been five Republics since the Revolution, and perhaps twice that many regime changes). You can dream big dreams in France, because politically just about anything seems within the realm of possibility. Le Pen’s party will retreat and reform, as there is always fertile ground in France for this fierce Francophile nationalism (remember how it once conquered Europe), and at the same time elements of the far right might well grow more radical, getting violent and militant and perhaps even paramilitary. None of this is new. It was a powerful far right/fascist coalition that did so much to weaken the French Third Republic as Nazi Germany grew into a mortal threat in the 1930’s. Of course back then the French Far Left, with some elements following orders from Stalin, was the right’s foil, and Left and Right battled in the streets even as both undermined the center. During the Vichy regime those street battles took on a much more vicious nature as the left formed the core of the French Resistance (the Maquis) and the right became the parts of the Gestapo’s police state (the Milice). Now that French hard Left and even its softer Left is pretty much spent (for now, anyway) as a political force, only anti-semitic fascism remains as a mass movement, deeply rooted radical ideology in France. That is what made Le Pen’s campaign so unsettling, that unlike Trump she did not come out of nowhere but was the leader of a generations old political party that represented at least a century and a half of French ideological history. German fascism had shallower roots in 1933, yet swept the country after a couple electoral victories. Were we seeing a repeat of that success in France?

Nope. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, more or less, came though.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-H25217,_Henry_Philippe_Petain_und_Adolf_Hitler

Maréchal Pétain meets Adolf Hitler in October 1940. As low a point as there ever was in French history, it is also the high water mark of the French far right’s political power. You’d be hard pressed to find an entire political movement that ever betrayed its own country in such abject humiliation as did French conservatives after the French surrender in 1940. Not even Lenin turned his entire country over to the Germans in 1918 in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Hitler left the French with no pride whatsoever, and the French Right had no problem with the set up at all. Thus Marine Le Pen licking Putin’s jackboots was nothing new to those aware of the history of French fascism.

It was the best of times: the nostalgia of modern day fascism, a Dutch case history.

Geert Wilders, the headline said, the Donald Trump of the Netherlands who wants to lead his country of the European Union and shut the borders to Muslims. You see this a lot lately, countries have their own Donald Trumps. Yet Geert Wilders has been a player on the Dutch political stage for years, and the Netherlands has a political history that most European nations share but the United States doesn’t. We’ve had the KKK. But the KKK, even at its most vast in the 1920’s, was never a political movement in the sense of wanting to take over the reins of government. There has never been a hard right fascist movement in the US that amounted to more than a few hundred to a few thousand scattered weirdos in jack boots. But there is scarcely a nation in Europe that did not in the 1930’s have a militant movement of hardened fascists whose goal, whether through elections (as in Germany) or military coup (as in Spain) or revolution (as in Italy), was the fascist control and re-engineering of society. Most of them became willing participants in the Nazi regime once the Germans conquered or assimilated their countries. Other fascist movements–as in England and Switzerland–never got the chance before their leaders were imprisoned or interned by their government for the duration of the war. And still others–Spain, mainly, but also the fascist elements in Portugal–eschewed the Germans almost completely and survived fascism’s collapse in 1945. (However, Spain sent fifty thousand volunteers, the Blue Division, to the Russian front where nearly all fought to the death, paragons of the fascist warrior ideal, if about as un-Aryan as a European could be). The Dutch had a home grown nazi/fascist/national socialist movement before the war, a movement that was both well developed and well known by the late thirties, so well known, in fact, that Dutch nazis were the evil conspirators in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent.

But things were moving so fast and on such a scale that all their dreams of a Dutch fascist empire seemed like schoolboy fantasies. Holland was too small. It hadn’t fought a war since the Battle of Waterloo. Twentieth century history was vast and sweeping and full of revolution and war and transformation. What was Holland but shopkeepers and chocolate and memories of greatness gone by? So man did those Dutch national socialists get excited when Hitler invaded Holland without warning in the spring of 1940. Yes, the Luftwaffe leveled Rotterdam, just to show that the Luftwaffe could level Rotterdam. But look at the upside. Now at last Dutch fascists could have their Greater Dutch Empire, including Belgium, the Belgian Congo, the Dutch East Indies, South Africa (they assumed Hitler would take it from the defeated English and give it to back the Dutch) and a few places in the western hemisphere even–Suriname, Curacao, Aruba and a smattering of other islands acquired in the sugar and slaves days. Even the Frisian Islands. It would be a global empire, with domains on four continents and hundreds of millions of subjects. No one would laugh at the Dutch then, with their wooden shoes and tulips and Bergen Op Zoom. They would be the rulers of a mighty fascist empire. Not even Germany, which in the mid thirties was still just a rump state of what had been Imperial Germany–had anything even remotely possible (it seemed at the time) on the scale of such a Dutch fascist empire. And who would lead this realm? Who was the mighty leader of which there were problems only he could fix?

It was to be Anton Mussert, the leader and co-founder of the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (National Socialist Movement) of Holland since 1931. Virtually every country in Europe had their little führer to be, Mussert was the Dutch version. But it was a fleeting fantasy. By 1939 it was obvious that Hitler’s Germany was no longer a rump state of anything, and Dutch fascists, if they wanted to avoid being a boil on Germany’s Nazi ass, better join with the Third Reich. The Nazi invasion was their deliverance, their moment, the end of history and beginning of the new era. Hitler, as he did with the local Nazis everywhere he conquered, put Mussert in charge and expected him to serve his new masters. He did, too. He was quite helpful when it came to rounding up Holland’s hundred thousand Jews, and even more helpful when the Nazis began plucking Dutch men off the streets to work in German war industries. He must have been annoying, though, as the Germans eventually stopped bothering with him, and by the time the Nazis were deliberately starving the Dutch in 1944 no one paid attention to Mussert at all. He said virtually nothing as his people starved–the Nazis kept him well fed–and one can only imagine the dread filling him as he watched the Allies advance. It all ended so fast. In 1940 Germany was the crest of the future of mankind, the Dutch included. By 1945 Nazi Germany was a leveled wasteland, destroyed, and the Nazis themselves on the run. The restored government Dutch government hanged or shot Mussert after the war, an afterthought, a footnote at best. They gave him a two day trial. I have no idea what he said in his own defense. I was just following orders wouldn’t have worked. Pride utterly gone, he begged the queen for clemency. She refused. He was executed by firing squad in 1946, in the same plaza where hundreds if Dutch had been executed (who knows how many by his direct order) during the war for violating some Nazi or another. If he had any last words, I couldn’t find them.

I have no idea if Anton Mussert is a hero to his new spawn. He certainly doesn’t look like a hero. He’s a balding, pudgy nebbish–pardon the Yiddish–in a silly uniform. Then again, people who look like complete schmucks can get elected president. It’s all a matter of perception. Perhaps people who think Geert Wilders is the most charismatic thing since Gouda cheese would be knocked off their feet by a shot of Anton Mussert giving the straight armed salute. I have no idea. It is very difficult to get into the mindset of these atavistic Nazi nostalgists.

Many of the new Dutch fascists (and however one says Alt-Right in Dutch) certainly do lionize the few ten thousand Dutch who joined the Waffen SS to wear groovy black uniforms with skulls and crossbones and swastikas to fight hard against Bolshevism and Jewry and commit inexplicable war crimes. Some of the surviving Dutch SS members were hanged or shot later too. Probably not enough, but some. Most of them were killed on the Russian front. Things were never easy at home either those five long years, 1940-45. I read somewhere that the Netherlands had more dead and killed residents per capita than any other country in Western Europe. War, Holocaust, famine and bombing took their toll. Denmark, which skated though the Nazi occupation relatively unscathed, even after saving almost every one of its Jewish residents from the Holocaust. Holland was not. Holland was trashed, starved, bombed, and fought over. Thousands of its citizens were slaves in the German foreign workers program. Yet certainly the Danes never came up with a quisling like Mussert. His being on a first name basis with Hitler did The Netherlands no good at all. He made a lot of those dead Dutch possible. That was brought up in his trial. I wish we knew what he uttered in is own defense.

Meanwhile for the duration of the war in the Pacific (1942 to 1945) in the vast Dutch colonial domain known as the East Indies, the tens of thousands of Dutch captured/interned by the Japanese died at a prodigious rate in Japanese camps. And millions of subject Indonesians were killed or worked or starved to death (about four million is the usual figure). The Asian Holocaust that took place within the Japanese Empire from 1937-45 was nearly as brutal as anything the Third Reich came up with, and sometimes more so, and only China saw more violence, murder and brutality under Japanese fascist occupation than did the Dutch East Indies. (The Philippines came in a close third). Afterward, the Indonesians learned that no matter how much they hated the Japanese, the Japanese had at least shown that Asians can defeat Europeans. Japanese arms had beat the Russians in 1905. Then even more stunningly, Japanese armies, navies and air forces in 1941 and 1942 routed the Americans in the Philippines, the English at Singapore, the French in Indochina (they just walked in and took the place, and the French let them) and most importantly from the Indonesian nationalist point of view, they easily routed the Dutch the length and breadth of the Dutch East Indies. So the Indonesians rose up and booted out the Netherlands colonial administration and the tens of thousands of Dutch soldiers sent to put down the rebellion. Japanese prisoners even pitched in (as they did in Indochina as well). Somehow the whole story has slipped from the public historical consciousness, but it was one of the great anti-colonial revolutions, and the Battle of Surabaya, even though the Dutch army (and navy and air force) won it tactically, it is one of the most decisive battles since World War Two, leading to the end of a great colonial empire. An army raised by small, brown skinned, colonial subjects, armed with as many modern weapons as they could get their hands on, nearly beat a modern European army. It did not go unnoticed throughout Asia. Indeed, perhaps the Indonesian Revolution will prove a key moment in world history, though we don’t know it yet.

Yet it is certainly a key moment of colonial liberation that is impossible to imagine without the context of the rise of fascism–a German fascism corrupting and conquering the Netherlands, and Japanese fascism seizing the East Indies. Holland as a colonial power was mortally wounded by the Japanese, as was Britain’s hold on India after the abject humiliation of their loss of Singapore. Fascism, though it failed, inflicted wounds on European colonial powers that bled their colonial empire to death within a few years. The Netherlands, Great Britain, France and Belgium were booted from Asia inside of a decade, and Africa wiithin two. (Only Portugal, protected from the storm of Nazi revolution and total war by the neutrality of Spain, found its overseas empire unfazed.) That was the power of fascism, the lasting result of its nihilism and destruction. From 1931 to 1945 it was an existential threat to the world on a scale not seen since the Mongol invasions. It lost, totally, completely, nearly annihilated. But it left little fascist seeds scattered about, blown by the winds, and they seem to be germinating at last. Like Geert Wilders, for instance, the 21 century Anton Mussert, sans jackboots.

When you come down to it, weighing the good (shiny uniforms, getting to hang with Hitler) against the bad (murder, starvation, genocide, loss of empire and dignity), Dutch fascism turned out to be a complete disaster and abject humiliation for the Dutch people and Dutch state. And now a reborn Dutch fascism, a kinder, gentler fascism, seems to be returning, following the distinctly non-German playbook that Anton Mussert and his pals were so effective with for a while in the 1930’s. There is that musty haven’t-we-been-here-before feel in the sights and sounds and ideology of Geert Wilders. Nostalgia. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

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Anton Mussert