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The aesthetic manifestations of fascism

Visualizing Fascism. The Twentieth-Century Rise of the Global Right
FASCISM / This does not necessarily manifest itself through mass spectacles and revolutionary fractures, and it is not a primarily European phenomenon. But like a product of political crises in the modern capitalist states.


"Propaganda is what we do not see", as Vibeke Nielsen on the Danish online media Solidarity states in a review of the book Identity. A journey into Europe's new right, which has also been published in Norwegian. What we see, and do not see, what we are meant to see and what it is supposed to do to us – emotionally, politically – is precisely the focal point of a new book on the aesthetic manifestations of fascism.

Visualizing Fascism. The Twentieth-Century Rise of the Global Right is not about Generation Identity or about other contemporary fascist movements for that matter, not so directly at least. It examines fascism visuale expression from its rise in the early 20th century and into the post-war years. Through this grip – looking forward to reading – however, the book creates new insights into the nature of fascism, which are acutely useful in the present.

«By actively att se on the rise of the global right, we can comprehend exactly how emphatic visual sensory impressions can bind people to the nation, ”writes Julia Adeney Thomas, an American historian specializing in Japanese political and philosophical thinking.

Together with the British historian Geoff Eley, who specializes in German radical nationalism and fascism, Thomas edited the anthology Visualizing Fascism, where unlike many other works on fascism do not primarily focus on Europe. One of the points of the anthology is that fascism is best understood as a global phenomenon from the start.

That Europe is most often analyzed as a formative laboratory for fascism is primarily due to the fact that it is Europe, historians of fascism have been specialized in and interested in – not the actual movements of fascism, which from the start went across continents. By bringing Asia and the European colonies into the center of the analysis, the complexity and history of fascism can be far better understood, argue Visualizing Fascism convincing for.

Portable fascism

Fascist groups and movements today have opportunities to exchange and meet across countries and continents in ways that were not possible at the beginning of the 20th century, but in fact the radical development of means of communication and visual media was one of the fundamental preconditions for the emergence and spread of fascism – also 100 years ago. Thomas argues this in the introduction, where she also introduces the framework phrase "a portable concept of fascism".

In the introduction, Thomas reviews in a wonderful pedagogical way the preconditions for the rise of fascism in a rather specific historical moment, and the basic characteristics of fascism as popular-seducing mythology and political power.

It is an analysis, which is so multifaceted, that it cannot be done justice within this short review text. But one of the points is that a global right could not have formed in that particular constellation before the rise of colonial capitalism, socialism and nation states. And at the same time – despite the nation-state's central function for fascist ideology – fascism could not have taken shape without the new opportunities for rapid global exchange of ideas, people and things, which arose precisely at the start of the twentieth century.

Fascism, according to Thomas, is a product of political crisis in the modern capitalist states. Thus, it cannot be written off as a phenomenon of the past either, as new crises constantly arise and create conditions for political dynamics, where things that resemble fascism can begin to accumulate.

Fascist media in China

The anthology contains contributions on, among other things, fascist media i China in the years when the Communist Party and Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Party fought for power, about fascist overtones and undertones in settler photography in the former German colony Namibia, about the remarkable absence of visual representations of Japan's greatness during the fascist transformation up to the Second World War:; and about fascist connections between Holland, Japan and Indonesia during the colonial power Holland's incipient imperial crisis.

It is certainly not because neither Hitler nor Mussolini are being written out of history Visualizing Fascism, but the fascist movements in Germany og Italy are written into their proper global context, which gives the analysis a completely different power – also in relation to illuminating the forms of fascism in the 21st century, although the authors wisely refrain from direct analogies.

Sniper fascism

Several of the chapters are fascinating readings of visual sources, where from each of their vantage points we learn more about fascism in all its complexity. But in fact it is Julia Adeney Thomas herself who analytically makes the anthology fly, both in her introduction and her chapter "Japan's imageless war: The normalization of fascism". It is hair-raising to say the least to read her analysis of why "the research's emphasis on premeditated, sudden institutional change accompanied by dramatic images is misplaced as a key to understanding the rise of fascism".

If you look for analyzes of fascism closer to the present, you will be sorely disappointed.

With his quietly precise observations of political changes – fascism can come roaring with boot stomps, but it can just as well come slyly in its best Sunday clothes – Thomas fully compensates for the fact that the promise of analyzing fascism not only across space, but also across time, not quite being held. At least not with such broad brushstrokes, as one might be led to believe. The period in all the anthology's contributions is quite consistently limited to the 1920s-1940s, and if you look for analyzes of fascism closer to the present, you will therefore be badly disappointed.

On the other hand, you really get bang for your buck if you look for tools for even those recognizable forms of fascist expression, wherever and whenever they manifest themselves.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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