Dr. Chris Millington talks about the rise of the far-right in France during the 1920s-1930s.
Gary: Today’s special episode is an interview with Dr. Chris Millington of Manchester Metropolitan University on his book, A History of Fascism in France from the First World War to the National Front. We’re going to talk about the rise of the far right, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, what this meant, street fighting, its conflicts with ANTIFA and some very notable events that involve terrorism and attacks on the Parliament. Recently, a lot of historians have been comparing the rise of the far right in France and in Europe in general in the 1920s to 1930s to what’s happening in the world today and Dr Millington and I are going to counter some of these misconceptions, along with providing our input on what similarities exist between these two far right movements. Please enjoy.
Gary: Thank you very much for coming back on the show, Dr. Millington. The book, A History of Fascism in France from the First World War to the National Front, is, I say this about a lot of the books, maybe all of the books that I have on the…when I’m interviewing for the show. But this one is not only very well written, just like your last book that we talked about, but it’s also, unfortunately, it seems to be very relevant. But at the same time, thankfully, because you are looking at far-right movements in the 1920s and 1930s, I feel like this isn’t so immediate that we can’t look back and have some sort of distance between ourselves and the subject material you’re covering. So it’s a fine read. Either way, I’m going to recommend this heavily to all of my listeners. My first question, though, is before we jump into the far-right movements of the 1920s onward, we really have to define what we mean by far-right, and extreme right. How do you define these labels and how did contemporaries define them?
Millington: Well, I tend to think of the far-right and the extreme-right as the same thing, really not as labels for placing groups on the political spectrum. Now, the groups within the extreme-right are more hardline in their views and goals than we might consider right-wing politics, meaning conservatism. To be so extreme, right-wingers tend to be more extreme in their nationalism. Their concept of the nation is the expression of a single ethnicity, the desire for national rebirth, and also their opposition to democracy and with that authoritarianism. And we can’t forget also their extreme misogyny, too. I think that’s very important that we recognize this. And certainly in the period that I study, part of the extreme right ideology is the anti-communism. Now, the far or the extreme-right often oppose the conservative-right because extremists depict themselves in opposition to the status quo. So they want or they say they want a radical overhaul of society and institutions. And they are also more likely to talk about themselves as the expression of the will of the people or make a call to the people to mobilize. So what we might call populism, whereas conservatives don’t tend to do that. Conservatives traditionally fear the people and popular mobilization. So therefore, we would use far-right or extreme right as an umbrella term with labels such as fascism, as a specific type of right-wing ideology that falls under this umbrella.
Gary: And can you define fascism for us? Because this label of fascism doesn’t seem to be…even today it’s a point of contention with Robert Paxton describing fascism as more of a process than an ideology. How would you describe it?
Millington: Well, as I said, it’s a term used to distinguish a certain ideology within the extreme right. So fascism, to my mind, is different to say what we might call authoritarian conservatism, because fascism is more radical. And by that I mean it opposes conservatism. So fascism looks to overturn the conservative elites through an appeal to the people. So for me, fascism is at once therefore a reactionary ideology because it is obviously anti-leftist. It’s misogynist, it’s racist, but it’s also a revolutionary ideology, for it opposes the traditional forms of conservative politics and utilizes an appeal to the people to combat these. So this idea of fascism that I subscribe to draws on the work of my former doctoral supervisor, Kevin Passmore, who’s written on the subject. But I must say, I thought we should recognize that these labels defining who is fascist and who is not fascist, they depend very much on the contemporary contexts and cultures in which they’re used and this is where they get their meaning from. So, of course, we can have academic definitions of fascism, what scholars call ideal types, where we come up with the features of a certain ideology or idea like fascism, almost in a vacuum, disassociated from the historical context. But then problems can arise when people or historians try to apply their definitions to the history. And there is a huge debate amongst academics about what fascism actually is. Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t define fascism or we can’t define these concepts, because if you go to any university library, you’ll find more than several books that define fascism. But it does mean we have to be careful when applying them to historical cases. And we must take into account what people understood at the time about these labels. And the second thing I think that’s important to understand about these is that they are used to categorize movements and personalities, but that can pose problems, too, because it involves imposing boundaries between certain ideologies of movements where people at the time may not have seen these boundaries. So it involves erecting rigid divisions when things were much more permeable and political landscapes could change. And so while extreme right wingers, as I’ve said, may say that they oppose what they consider to be traditional conservatism in practice, I’m looking at various historical case studies. There are many points of contact and interchange between conservatives and extremists. And all this is important because historians have tended to come up with essential criteria for phenomena such as fascism and then look at the past and decide which groups in the past and also the present. You mentioned Robert Paxton and his article about Trump and deciding which groups were fascist and which groups were not fascist. But the problem is that these criteria could be different from historian to historian, and it ignores the realities of historical political relationships. It also ignores the fact that these relationships could change and that understandings were never fixed in stone.
Gary: I’ll put Trump aside for the moment. I know that, you know, hopefully, hopefully we’re going to get to stop talking about Trump because I don’t know what it’s like in the UK, But it seems like in America, every single conversation over the past four years or so has just been a countdown to Trump, and it’s driving me crazy.
Millington: Yes. Well, every single conversation here has been about Brexit, of course, until the pandemic. And now everyone just talks about the pandemic.
Gary: Oh, boy. Well, we’re going to talk about, I think, Brexit, too, though. But in any case, because, you’ve done a really good job of talking about how complex it is to apply the label fascist to these disparate groups, is it important to call a group fascist? Why not just call them far right or extreme right?
Millington: On the one hand, I think that fascist is important as a label for flagging the dangers that people see in a certain type of politics. So it might be useful for sounding the alarm about certain plans that a leader or a political party might have. I would say that’s fascism on the level of an insult disconnected from its academic context. If we were to then actually apply academic concepts and definitions of fascism to these people or movements, then I think that and as we’ve seen, historians have disagreed about who is fascist, who isn’t fascist. It’s then that we run into trouble because of historians and academics cannot agree on what fascism is. So I think it’s useful for flagging up what might happen and what certain people might be planning to do, and also for drawing historical comparisons that can be used to scare people away from one’s opponents. But usually this label, fascism, falls down when it comes under academic scrutiny.
Gary: With all that groundwork set out. Let’s talk about the actual subject of your book. What were the far-right groups that you looked at and which ones would you define as fascist?
Millington: Given what I’ve just said, I would hesitate to label any of them fascist, of course, there were many similarities between their politics and those of Italian fascism and Nazism. But I look at how they define themselves and what they understood their own relation to fascism to be. So the main groups during the 1930s were the Jeunesses Patriotes and as you know, the first group I mentioned, the JP and this was a league that, it’s an extra parliamentary, paramilitary formation that looked to overthrow the democratic republic and establish a right-wing dictatorship. Its leader was a very successful businessman, Pierre Taittinger of the Taittinger Champagne Empire, and he was also a member of parliament. Now, the JP posed themselves as anti-communist, but not fascist. And they said they were a force for order and they deployed paramilitary street fighters both against communists and also to protect conservative political meetings. They were, in fact, many ties between conservative politicians and the JP because this was a time of left-wing government when the conservative-right in the 1920s was looking to populist paramilitaries to challenge the left-wingers in power. Now, the other main group during the 20s on the extreme-right was called the le Faisceau This was founded by a man called Georges Valois who was a former member of the Action Française, which was an old monarchist league. Now, le Faisceau did declare itself to be fascist and it adopted what we might call a fascist style, such as uniforms and marching in the street. Now Valois favored the more revolutionary aspects of fascism and its preference for a corporatist economy. And he threatened to use his uniformed veteran stormtroopers against the republic, threatening to topple the regime with violence and establish what he called a combatant state. So you see here then we have two main groups in the 20s, one that says it is fascist or it’s a certain type of fascism and the other which to modernize would look fascist, but denied it was fascist at all. Now, the most significant political group of the 1930s, and not just in terms of its fascism, actually became the largest political group in France, was called the Croix-de-Feu and this became the party Parti social français in 1936. Now, the Croix-de-Feu was founded in the late 1920s as a veterans association. It became a paramilitary league in the early 1930s under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel François de La Rocque. Now the group went from strength to strength, thanks to de La Rocque’s adept use of propaganda. Notably, he liked mass rallies, and he also exercised judiciously political violence. He had quite an ambiguous relationship to political violence. And in that he denied that he used it as a strategy. And the group also admitted many young people and women. And by 1936 the Croix-de-Feu has about half a million members, and it’s at this time in June 1936 that the left-wing popular front government bans the paramilitary leagues and with it, the Croix-de-Feu and the Croix-de-Feu transforms into a political party. And the PSF, which is ostensibly a republican party, but one which resembles the Croix-de-Feu quite closely. However, it did gradually abandon paramilitaries in favor of a root and branch overhaul of democracy and society through social action and also the establishment of an authoritarian government. And by 1939, this party has about a million members. But historians have estimated it could have had about three million members. Now it’s the sheer size of this movement that puts it at the center of a very bitter debate about French fascism that has been rumbling on for decades. So to simplify the debate greatly, there are three sides. There are those historians who deny that fascism in France was ever a threat. And these historians consider the Croix-de-Feu and the PSF to be moderately conservative. And then there are historians who do not underestimate the influence of fascism on French politics, and they consider the Croix-de-Feu and the PSF to be fascist. Of course, it all depends on their different definitions of fascism. But there is a third way that by French political scientist Michel Dobry that is less obsessed with classification, and more concerned with examining the relationships in which these movements were embroiled. And I put myself in this latter school and so perhaps you can understand why I do hesitate to use the label fascism in the book.
Gary: Definitely. So, you’ve talked about some of the activities that these groups dealt with, you particularly focused a lot of your time on the street fighting between the right-wing groups and ANTIFA. Can you tell us about this and the activities that these groups used in general to grow and develop?
Millington: Yes, well, each of the groups that I examined in the book had a street fighting wing. So the JP, for example had what it called its ‘centuries’ and an ‘iron brigade.’ And the Faisceau had Legionaries, the Croix-de-Feu had groups that were formed, paramilitary groups called the disponibles. These groups had great propaganda value. So they wore uniforms or they wore a uniform style of dress. They use salutes. They had insignia. They went on parades in the streets. And this is all intended to convey an image of masculine order and discipline. They were supposed to be the image of the future nation. Should their group take power? Now they were also intended as a threat to the anti-fascist left. So to send the message that revolution would be met with violence, counter-revolution, but their violence was not simply symbolic. So it was not just a case of marching in the streets. And then everyone goes home. Right-wing thugs often fought with left-wing opponents in the streets in meeting calls of France and deaths did occur. Although they were infrequent in the wake of violence right wingers. But also, we have to say their left-wing enemies always claimed that the fault for the violence lay with the other side. It was, however, particularly important for the right to deny that they had started the fighting as they were meant to be the guardians of order. It was the left they claimed that loved disorder and anarchy. Now, in reality, all sides were generally armed and the potential for violence was constant, even after the paramilitary leagues were banned in nineteen thirty six. Yet, violence was not the only thing that these leagues did. And I think one of the most important activities that the Croix-de-Feu in particular and the PSF undertook was social work. This is a hugely important subject and it’s been best addressed by Caroline Campbell’s book, which is called Political Belief in France. And she writes that during the mid 1930s that the Croix-de-Feu, PFS moved away from power militarism, and it used women to spread propaganda through social work. So on the surface, this social work looked quite harmless. So, soup kitchens and charity sales all benefited the poor and working class areas. Yeah, it was through this social work that women were able to propagandize about Lieutenant Colonel de la Rocque and the party in left-winger areas that men could not enter without the threat of violence. So in combination with this propaganda, the social work also discriminated against minorities. So it was for white French. And so it was therefore a very effective means to begin transforming France from the ground upwards.
Gary: So you talked a little bit about the far-left response in this case, the ANTIFA brigades and the street fighting. What was the response from the other groups involved, such as the centrist parties, conservatives and the government itself?
Millington: The centrist parties, which was the essentially the Radical Party at this time in France, they actually formed a Popular Front coalition with the left, the socialists and the communists in 1935 against the threat of what they saw as homegrown fascism. And so they formed this broad-based left-wing alliance or center-left alliance, which wins the elections in June 1936. And this government bans the far right leagues. So the center disapproves of the violence and takes proactive steps to undo the threat of fascism in France and the conservatives, we see, as in most periods, a certain amount of collaboration between conservatives and extremists, especially when the threat from the left was considered to be greatest or when conservatives believe they could gain something for themselves from such collaboration. So the Croix-de-Feu and the PSF, for example had a number of prominent right-wing personalities and members of parliament in its ranks. It was strong too in traditionally conservative areas of France. Now, of course, we can’t say that these people who supported the Croix-de-Feu were fascists, nor can we say that they were conservatives. The important thing is that there was common ground between the so-called moderates and the so-called extremists and each derived legitimacy from their association with the other. And I would argue that this legitimacy or this legitimizing action from conservatives benefits the extreme-right more because it gradually chips away at democratic legitimacy in France and the Croix-de-Feu profits from this hugely in recruiting traditionally conservative members to its project, which is actually to destroy the Third Republic.
Gary: So let’s talk about one of the most exciting and consequential events during this period, which is the 6 February 1934 demonstration, an event which many in the Anglosphere don’t know much about, but has recently been talked about a lot due to its parallels with the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol by a far right insurrectionary mob. What was the crisis of 6 February 1934?
Millington: Yes, I’ve certainly seen some references to February 1934 on social media and the online press, admittedly from French historians. But it did catch my eye because I’ve worked on this quite in-depth over the years. And now the crisis of 6 February 1934 actually began in December 1933 when there was a corruption scandal that engulfed the centre-left governments. This government had been elected the previous year. The scandal involved a man known as Alexander Stavisky, who was a Ukrainian immigrant. And this scandal, centered on his latest dodgy financial schemes, he’s essentially a con-man. But the press also picked up on the fact that he had continually escaped from justice, thanks probably to his links to leading politicians in the governing radical party. Now, in particular, the press of the Action Française League noticed in December 1933 his latest con-trick and his links to the government, but also his Jewish heritage. The Action Française was extremely anti-Semitic and it used this in the Stavisky scandal and to accuse the third republic of being rotten throughout and in the hands of foreign Jews. Now, the sense of crisis escalated after Stavisky was found dead in January. He’d gone on the run. He’d been tracked down by police and he’d apparently committed suicide. But the extreme right and then some conservative newspapers alleged that he had been murdered by the government to prevent him from divulging his secrets. And so a campaign against what was called the Republic of Assassins moved from the press to the street. And there were a number of violent clashes between activists and police in Paris throughout January. Now, the government, the radical government ended up resigning and the new government of Eduardo Daladier assumed power. And one of the Daladier first moves as prime minister was to get rid of the head of the Paris police or the prefect of police, Jean Chiappe, because he blamed Chiappe for failing to bring Stavisky to justice. Now Chiappe was a darling of the extreme right because he sent his men against communist demonstrations in the streets and he approved of sort of no-holds-barred repression of communist activists. And his removal seemed to signal that to the extreme right wing leagues that there was a left-wing coup about to happen. And so they called their followers into the streets on the 6th of February 1934. Now, on that night, thousands of leaguers and war veterans demonstrated in Paris, the Place de la Concorde which is the square just over the river Seine from the Chamber of Deputies to the French parliament. The marchers fought with police as they try to get over the bridge to the chamber, and the police eventually opened fire and killed over a dozen people. Now, Daladier government resigned soon after the riot. And the reason this riot is so significant is because Daladier was replaced by a right-wing personality Gaston Doumergue. And so essentially, what the 6th of February, the consequence of the 6th of February, was that street violence had succeeded in removing an elected government from power and reversing the political mandate of the 1932 elections.
Gary: So I think this ties into my next question about the impact that this event had, but it seems like the impact went beyond just reversing the election, that it actually had a pronounced significance on later developments in the far-right. Can you dive into that a little bit?
Millington: Yes. The impact, as you say, of the 6th of February 1934, was far reaching. Essentially, it saw politics polarize with groups taking evermore to the street to put forward their visions of France. And so politics moved from the democratic debate in the chamber evermore to street violence. In terms of the extreme right, the size of the Croix-de-Feu membership grew hugely. Now, this seems a bit of a paradox because the Croix-de-Feu had taken part in the 6th of February, but it’s really been quite limited. So the la Rocque was not even present on the night and he called off his men early in the evening. Yet he played off this supposedly moderate and disciplined response to attract conservatives. At the same time, he staged massive rallies involving thousands of motor vehicles. And in one instance, 16,000 motor vehicles were mobilized to travel to a particular mass rally. And this sent the message that he was the most sure defense against the threat from the left. And if we add to this a reinvigorated appeal to women and an expansion into social work, what we see after February 1934 is the flourishing of a mass extreme right-wing movement in the context of a parliamentary democracy. Yet the 6th of February resonated too, even after the end of the Third Republic, after the defeat of France in 1940. So some on the extreme right considered the 6th of February 1934 to be the moment that first heralded the coming of the Vichy regime in 1940. Now, the history of France after 1934 was, of course, much more complicated. But this belief nevertheless showed the place that the 6th of February assumed in the mythology of the extreme right and how it was used as a mobilizing myth by an array of groups.
Gary: So, you have a truly incredible section of the book that deals with the Organisation secrète d’action révolutionnaire nationale otherwise known as OSARN. I had no idea this existed, but when I read it, it sounded like something straight out of an action thriller novel. Can you tell us all about OSARN.
Millington: Yes, the OSARN which was also known as the Cajoule, “the Hood.” It was a network of secret, extreme right-wing groups. What we might understand today to be militia groups throughout France that were bent on the destruction of the Third Republic. So this group has been best explored by Gayle K. Brunelle and Annette Finley-Croswhite. And now, unlike groups like the Croix-de-Feu and all these leagues I’ve talked about, the Cagoule was an underground movement that could be regarded as terrorist for the sheer amount of weapons it held and many of which were sourced from foreign fascist countries, and for the plans it had for overthrowing the Republic. Now, its plan was quite Machiavellian: The first part of the plan was to stoke fears of an imminent communist revolution. And it did this through a number of attacks and murders such as that on the attack of September 11th 1937, which was actually a double bombing of two French employers groups in Paris. And the reason they did this was because they thought, well, this attack on employers could easily be blamed on the communists. The second part of the plan was to convince some of France’s top army leaders that a communist coup was in the offing, and the OSARN would then, with the help of the army, eliminate the communists in a preemptive strike. In the ensuing chaos, it hoped to topple the republic and install a fascist-style dictatorship in its place. Now, plans for this coup were very far advanced. So, in addition to the weapons it had, the group had the floor plans of ministries. It had access to certain leading politicians’ apartments. It had drawn up the names of notable left-wing personalities who would be executed, its had its hands on police uniforms to act in disguise, and it even constructed underground prison cells in Paris to hold its enemies. Now the plot failed, the OSARN launched its supposed communist coup on the night of the 15th of November 1937, but its contacts in the Army failed to act. Now it’s at this time that the government and the police swung into action and they had actually been watching the group for some time and many of its leaders and militants were subsequently arrested. Then a few were actually prosecuted in the end. Now, I think it’s interesting that you describe this story as quite fantastical because right-wingers at the time, and we have to admit later some historians, have dismissed the group as a collection of cranks and madmen living out their own fantasies and posing little real threat to the republic. But when we look at their plans and we look at the weapons that they had and the international contacts they had with Mussolini’s regime in Italy and Franco’s regime in Spain, in reality, it was a dangerous and violent terror group that was in fact the only group on the extreme right in France to actually put its plan for the destruction of democracy into action, although it did eventually fail.
Gary: So let’s transition to Vichy for a moment. How did these far right groups react to the Vichy government and German occupation? And perhaps I could add to this, how did Vichy react to them?
Millington: Well, the most significant groups on the extreme right still around by 1940 were the PSF. So la Rocque’s supposed moderate political party and also another party called Parti Populaire français which I’ll explain in a second. Now, a good deal of Vichy’s program to renovate France, what it called its “national revolution” actually drew on themes common to the program of the PSF. So there was an emphasis on authoritarianism, conservatism, anti-feminism, an ethnically homogenous vision of the nation. And this might explain why the PSF was essentially muted by the Vichy regime. So PSF members were left to surmise that their program had actually been implemented without them. Now, of course, many likely supported Vichy for this reason, but others doubtless supported resistance to Germany due to their extreme nationalism. La Rocque himself was not invited into government, and he was eventually arrested and imprisoned for his contacts with the resistance and the Allies. Now, the fact that he is involved with the resistance has led some historians to read his past backwards and claim that he was always a moderate and always a democrat. But I would argue that we can’t dismiss is extremely anti-democratic and the hard line stance that he took in the 1930s. Now the PPF, which is the other party I mentioned, this was founded in 1936 by Jacques Doriot who’s actually a former communist, and the program he had for the PPF was fiercely anti-communist. So he wanted to get revenge on the party that had expelled him in 1934. And he moved closer to the style of fascism seen in Italy. And as the 1930s came to an end especially, he was very anti-Semitic. Now during the occupation, the PPF vied for both the support of the Vichy regime and the support of the occupier, its members took part in operations against the resistance, and they also helped to round up Jews for deportation. And Doriot even fought on the eastern front for the French Legion of volunteers against Bolshevism. But Vichy and the Germans both did quite a good job of ensuring that fascist groups like the PPF remained relatively powerless during the occupation of France.
Gary: So your book goes beyond just Vichy. You talk about the far right up until 2017. You mention how after World War II the far-right was extremely unpopular for obvious reasons, and it really didn’t come back in a large way until the Front National was formed in 1972, although you do note that there were precursors to this. How did the far-right make a comeback?
Millington: Well, you’re absolutely right that the far-right was extremely unpopular after the Second World War. But we shouldn’t dismiss the fact that there were many people who supported the Vichy regime who still held these views. There were people who were punished during the purge, after the Second World War, who were later amnestied and could return back to a normal life. But the far-right really begins its comeback in the 1970s. And two factors are central to help us understand the revival of the far-right in the 1970s, though, we should add, it’s real electoral breakthrough came during the 1980s. Now, firstly, there was a concerted effort to develop an intellectual counterculture on the far-right in the context of the emergence of what’s called the new right in politics. And so to this end, a range of political, social, economic and cultural subjects came under scrutiny in the reviews and journals of the new right, and many of which had been previously unaddressed by right wing thinkers. And so the aim was to penetrate mainstream political thinking with new ideas and prepare the ground for future electoral conquest. Now, the second main reason we see this revival of the far right is that is due to the work of a group called Ordre Nouveau which comprised the most influential political activists on the extreme right. And this group decided that a change of tactic was necessary, so it targets not street fighting or violence anymore, but a breakthrough into mainstream politics via political engagement with the institutions and the conservative parties of the Fifth Republic. So this strategy retains the goal of destroying the democratic regime, but this will be accomplished from within the system itself. And Ordre Nouveau’s plan took shape when, in October 1972, the Front National was established with Jean-Marie Le Pen as its president. Now, I mentioned that the real breakthrough only came in the 1980s, and this was in the Parisian municipal elections in 1983 when Le Pen stood as a candidate in the 20th arrondissement of Paris which was a working class district but with a significant immigrant community. And what he did was he exploited local fears of unemployment and hostility to foreign so-called “job stealers” while posing as a man of the people. So a man from the people unafraid to, as he said, he said “he said out loud what people were really thinking inside.” And it’s from that moment on that his appeal as the voice of the ordinary French grew and the party succeeded in making immigration a central issue of French politics.
Gary: Now that we’ve talked about the main parts of your book, I wanted to talk a little bit about contemporary events. First, using history as a way of illuminating and learning from the past, which is what we should use history for, but also as a way of countering certain misconceptions. Because just as you and I have watched a lot of comparisons being made to what was happening in France during the 1920s and 30s, particularly the 6 February 1934 event and comparisons in general to the fascist movements of the 1920s and 30s. You and I have talked before this interview about how there was a lot of disinformation or misconceptions as well, so hopefully we can dismiss some of those. And let’s start with the article written by Robert Paxton, the legendary historian who wrote about Vichy France. Recently, he wrote an article in Newsweek comparing the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol by President Donald Trump’s insurrectionists to the 6 February 1934 demonstrations against the French parliament. And he also said that the event made him consider Trump an outright fascist, not just someone who was on the far right in general. Do you see similarities between the two events and what did you think about Paxton’s article?
Millington: Well, I agree with the fact that you said that studying history is so important to the present, partly because we can use examples to perhaps historical examples to illuminate. It encourages a critical mind and a mind that doesn’t accept things at face value. And one of these or one of the things that history encourages you to do is to delve deeper into events and question what people say about these events and perhaps why they say these things. And I think Paxton’s article, although I agree with you that he’s a legendary historian and I would hesitate to criticize him. And I’d say that on the broadest level, there are similarities in that both the 6th of January 2021 and 6th of February 1934 saw a demonstration of extreme right-wingers, angry at real or perceived corruption in government and attack the building that houses the parliament of their respective countries. But there are also huge differences. So, for example, the 1934 demonstrators in Paris were not encouraged by the incumbent president of France to attack parliament. And in 1934, police successfully prevented demonstrators from entering parliament, although with lethal violence. Now-
Gary: -right, maybe our police could learn something from that. I don’t know why they were so hesitant. Not that I’m encouraging violence, but at least some of them were taking selfies with the people trying to come into the building. So I don’t really think that the French were like that.
Millington: No, The French police were actually very scared of the rioters and they were there in heavy numbers blocking the bridge over the Seine to defend the seat of French democracy. And now I did feel that Paxton made a few errors in his depiction of the 6 February riots. And I did wonder what the purpose was of him changing his mind about Trump and fascism. Now Trump’s fascism is, of course, a question that has aroused much debate from day one really of his presidency, but especially recently in the press and on social media in the context of 6th of January 2021, some historians have dismissed using the label fascist as merely an exercise in semantics undertaken from, we might say, the comfort of the historians armchair while the world burns outside. So they’ve accused their colleagues of not seeing what is really important. So why debate the meaning of fascism when you have the House, the House of Parliament in America under attack? Now, I can understand their point of view to an extent, because if American democracy is or was under threat, what relevance does fascism or not have to it? But for others, it seems the fact that because we can’t resolve the question of Trump’s fascism, because what is fascism? After all, they’ve lost interest in that debate. But what I would say is that maybe this is because one of my research interests is historical fascism is I can’t help but see the sorts of opinions as anti intellectual. So academics debate many concepts and ideas that are currently burning issues like poverty, humanitarianism, immigration, climate change, terrorism. But that doesn’t mean we should stop discussing the meaning of these things because action is on these subjects is better than words. I think we can debate Trump’s fascism or non fascism and oppose it. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. We can even conclude that Trump is not a fascist, but still a danger for democracy. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that someone who isn’t fascist is necessarily democratic. And in any case, rather than dismiss this question itself, we might better ask, why is it important to ask the question, What is at stake in the debate? Does the label fascism still have the power to influence people? And for me, the significance of the comparison between the violence in Washington and the violence of February 1934 lay in the potential consequences. So past fascist seizures of power have not taken place through violent demonstrations. Fascists tend to enter government upon the invitation of the elite and thanks to the work of their allies within the system. So the riots of February 1934 failed to achieve that goal, largely because they have no representation in Parliament. And remember that Hitler and Mussolini combined street politics with electoral participation, whereas the French leagues did not. And so they suggested to me that the violence of the 6th of January 2021 was not the most important aspect of that crisis. The most important aspect of it was how a Trump’s parliamentary allies respond. And that was more important than the actions of the rioters, however shocking these actions were when we watched them on the news.
Gary: I know it was interesting for me as a historian and I completely agree with you because when that happened, I know a lot of people were crying. They were horrendously upset. They thought it was just this horrendous thing. And I actually thought that in a strange way, this is probably one of the best things that could happen, because symbolically it was huge and it was waking people up. But I agree with you, it really was not in itself something that threatened the mechanisms of democracy, whereas I think challenging the election itself and saying that it was fake and getting so many Republicans to vote to not accept the results of the election, I thought that was way more dangerous. So it is an interesting perspective, I think that history can give us. So moving forward just a little bit, let’s talk about some of the similarities and differences between the 1920s, 1930s and what is happening today. And here we can talk about, since we brought up the United States, we could talk about the U.S., France, or if you’d like to throw in Britain. I don’t think Britain has had quite a similar level of the far right, although perhaps you’d like to correct me on that. But in any case, one notable similarity I find is between the street fighting, between the far right and ANTIFA, which has made a huge comeback in the United States. And I don’t want to say street fighting is regular, but it is not too uncommon in major cities now like Portland, which is pretty close to where I live, in the Bay Area around San Francisco.
How do you think this compares to the period that you studied?
Millington: To respond to your comment about Britain, to the extreme right in Britain, to seem to be have less of a presence in the street? We have groups such as those called the English Defense League who now and again staged noisy, not very well attended protests. However, we shouldn’t really underestimate the threat from them, because several years ago, a member of parliament, a member of the Labour Party, said the left wing party was actually shot dead in the street by an extreme right wing activist. So we don’t necessarily have perhaps the regular presence of the extreme right in the streets, but we do have still our own experience with extreme right wing fanatics and their violence. Now, there do seem to be similarities. But firstly, I’d like to address the differences. So, street fighting in interwar Europe was far more widespread and deadly than in the US today, for example. So hundreds of people died in Italy, in Germany, and there were fewer deaths in France, as I’ve mentioned. But still more than one might expect for a country that is considered to be a stable democracy, free from violence. This street fighting involved organized paramilitary groups led by men who wanted to get into power. And it was therefore an organized propaganda strategy. Based heavily on the imagery of the First World War, connected to a political movement, now, my impression is that although Donald Trump may have encouraged or sympathized with Right-Wing violent groups, they remain separate entities. And I wouldn’t necessarily say he directed or commanded them in the way that into all extremist leaders did. And finally, the antiwar groups were understood or understood their violence as a means to mobilize followers, to militarize society, to introduce violence as a legitimate form of political competition. And I’m not sure if the goal is the same or was the same in the US. However, there are similarities. We see in both cases that words and rhetoric can lead to violence. So, violent discourse, violent rhetoric, especially one that constructs violence as a legitimate and from my point of view, a manly form of action has consequences in the real world. See the ways in which right wing violence is framed today as in the 1920s and 30s, as a means to combat unpatriotic anti national and subversive elements. Whether these are Jews or Muslims or socialists is similar, as is the fact that right wingers frame their own action as being in the name of security and order against their own disciplined, antifascist left. And it’s on the left that violence or blame for violence is placed. Now, I should add, however, that though all this creates the potential for violence in my research into political violence and interwar France that there wasn’t actually a single recipe for the outbreak of violent incidents. So sometimes violence was planned. More often it broke out due to the unplanned interactions between activists on the ground in the heat of the moment. But I think the really important thing then and today is that both sides arrived at what we might call the stage of the confrontation with pre-existing ideas about who the enemy is, what he or she stands for, and the means to combat them. So in this context, I think violence is always a possibility, even if it’s not inevitable.
Gary: So one thing that we have touched on. And a similarity between then and now is the mainstream conservative parties allying with the extremists in order to fight off an imaginary communist revolution. This seems to be their justification, even though, as far as I can tell, the threat of communism seems it was seems pretty limited in the 1930s. And I think now it’s virtually non-existent. There isn’t a single person in the US House of Representatives or Senate who has ascribed to Marxism, although it seems like they’re all being accused of it. And likewise, I think we could pretty much say the same thing about what’s happening in France and the United Kingdom, that they’re also the communist movement has pretty much died out, aside from a few diehards. Can you talk about the bogeyman of communism or the extreme left and how it’s still a major rallying cry in conservative politics today?
Millington: Well, I think it’s interesting because obviously I have my own view of British politics and the way I view American politics and in Britain to accuse a political opponent of communism or socialism or Marxism. My impression is it doesn’t resonate in the way that I understand that it might do in the US. But that’s not to say that British conservatives don’t do this. And so, for example, the former leader of the Labour Party say Britain’s main left wing or social Democratic Party, and the former leader, Ed Miliband, he was called a rat and in the Tory press and for some of his economic policies, which would not necessarily, I wouldn’t necessarily describe as particularly socialist and his successor to the Labour Party leadership, Jeremy Corbyn, was accused more than Miliband of being a Marxist. And now I’m not sure how well this really plays with the British electorate. Would they understand that being a Marxist or a rat was necessarily a bad thing? It seems like such an old fashioned insult to Cold War, insult to throw at one’s enemies. And socialism, I don’t think here is perceived to be inherently bad and as I suspect it might be, amongst the conservative movements in the US. So when opponents, for example, accuse Barack Obama of being a socialist, I’m not sure that socialists would necessarily have agreed that he was for it. And you might be able to correct me, but it seems to be repeated often enough for me to read about that. I thought it must have been a good line of attack for the American right against Obama.
Gary: Yeah, that is something that will bother me till the day that I die, because Barack Obama, with the stimulus he gave well, I should say gave, but he made a generous loan of seven hundred and forty seven billion dollars to Wall Street. And yet he was called a communist and still is called a communist to this day. And I just I can’t help but think that, you know, Marx and Lenin have to be rolling in their grave, that people think that communists or those who are giving billions of dollars to Wall Street. But in any case. So I think that’s a very big similarity between then and now. But let’s talk about some of the differences. And I think this is important because especially over the past, I don’t even want to say four years because this definitely preceded Trump. But basically, ever since the 2008 recession, there have been constant comparisons between 1920s and 1930s Europe. And I understand that there are definitely some similarities with questions, questioning the elite, questioning the status quo as a failure, and then the rise of this right wing response. But there are some very noticeable differences. And one thing that I wish people would talk about a lot more when what I see as the biggest difference is just pure demographics. So, for example, in the United States, up until and I’m just using the United States because the United States is one of the most diverse major countries on Earth and they’re sort of leading this change. In the United States up until 2012, every presidential candidate who won the white vote won the election. But in 2012, Republican candidate Mitt Romney won the white vote but lost the election by five million votes to Barack Obama, who won the people of color vote by huge margins. And again, in this most recent election in 2020, Joe Biden lost the white vote but won the election by seven million votes. So, as a comparison, in the 1930s, the far right parties like the German Nazi Party and the Italian Fascist party could be a mono ethnic and mono religious party and win major elections. But it seems like in the United States and in France, which has a huge non-white population and a huge non Christian population, and in most of Europe today, a one race, one religion party is a recipe for defeat. What do you think about this challenge to the far right? How are they adapting and how can they run on a platform that multiculturalism is bad in what are essentially multicultural countries?
Millington: I think the example of France during the 1930s, it provides some interesting comparisons because France may not have been as ethnically diverse as it is today, but we should remember that there was, for example, a Jewish population of 300,000 in France by 1939, as some of them had been in France for generations. But that’s where we’re more recent arrivals who fled persecution in Germany, for example. And we should add to that Algeria was considered part of France. It comprised three departments on the indigenous Muslim population far outnumbered the French settlers there. So we might conclude that the extreme right wing parties were also operating by the stances of the time, a multicultural France in the 1930s, but the Croix-de-Feu, the PSF for example, did distinguish between what they called good and bad Jews and what some within the Jewish population itself made a distinction between those who are deducted to French customs and French way of life over centuries and those who had only just made it to the country, often not speaking the language and wearing the traditional style of dress. And as for the Muslims under French rule, the Croix-de-Feu and PSF did try to win their support until 1936. However, we have to admit that to join the party and most of them had to prove his or her Frenchness, however they did that, it was very difficult. And so consequently, I don’t necessarily see perhaps as you frame it as contradiction in opposing multiculturalism in a multicultural country. So firstly, the extreme right has tended to distinguish between the good and the bad immigrants. So those who’ve proved their patriotic credentials and those who haven’t, of course, often the burden of proof is very high on their patriotism. Yeah, as I stated in the case of France, the minority populations feel the same way and the extreme right can also appeal to this division. So, for example, Marine Le Pen is the current president of the Front National or it’s now called the Rassemblement National in France. She’s put an emphasis on defending what she calls French secularism, which might appeal to non-religious immigrants of second and third generation families who feel that they have a stake in these French values. Now, of course, we should argue it’s just a means to discriminate against Muslims dressed up in the language of the republic. And I think secondly, which I think is really important, in which we see evidence of in the history of France, we’re making the assumption here that many opponents of the extreme right may also make, and that because these parties so obviously appeal to a very narrow ethnic, gender and economic interest, that it’s only those people who support them. So I’m not too sure about the profile the supporters of, say, the Republican Party in the US. But evidence from the 1930s in France shows us that the parties that some people said were fascist were actually supported by a broad range of people, even women, even working class French and even North Africans, Jews and Muslims.
Gary: I definitely get your criticism, especially because if I’m reading correctly, the Front National, now the Rassemblement National has actually been able to appeal to Muslims in inner cities who are concerned about incoming Muslims who are more radical. So I definitely understand that. And perhaps the multiculturalism of countries today is not so much a brick wall that the far right can’t overcome. It’s more just a new challenge for them. And at least in some cases, they have been able to challenge that. So I definitely understand your criticism of what I said. So one missing piece of our discussion is talk about the left. It seems that in our modern age, the left is stuck in the past and has really floundered. In the US. the Democrats are mostly neo liberals who are just as opposed to left wingers like Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez as they are to the conservatives in your country and Britain, labor largely discredited itself with the Iraq war and hasn’t been in power since 2010. In France, Socialist Francois Hollande was possibly the least popular President of the Fifth Republic. And the 2017 election was between a centrist and the far right, the left didn’t even make it to the second round. Is there a left wing response to the rising far right? Why haven’t they evolved? And will it take some sort of unimaginable catastrophe for the left wing to actually develop into something that can credibly address the challenges of our times?
Millington: Yes, well, it’s very easy to be disillusioned if you are a left wing at the seemingly inevitable and unstoppable march of the right in the West. And in response, I’d say that I can only give my opinion here is a more or less educated citizen. If the UK, rather than someone who studied the political science of this subject. I agree that I wouldn’t describe the Democrats as a left wing party, and I wouldn’t even say it’s close to the Labour Party in Britain, which is itself not as far to the left as it once was. However, my overall impression is that both parties do seem to share a general concern for what we might call social justice and an opposition to social inequality, which seems to set them apart from the right. And you’re absolutely correct that the Iraq war did damage the Labour Party. However, the Labor Party did win the general election after the Iraq war in 2005, and it lost in 2010, I believe, due to the financial crisis and largely because the conservatives were able to frame the narrative of the crisis as the fault of 13 years of Labor government. Now, since then, Labor has experimented with more left wing policies. Yeah, it’s had little real hope of getting back into power, in part because these policies are framed again by the conservatives as the policies of a bygone age and the policies of the 1970s in which the trade unions held too much power and Britain supposedly ground to a halt. Now, my very again, impressionistic view is that conservatives and I suppose we could say capitalist society more generally has so succeeded in defining the rules of the game for decades now that, as I’ve said, left wing ideas seem out of date or simply fantasy. And this is combined with the decline of, certainly in Britain, established leftwing constituencies upon whom these parties could always rely for support. So in their most recent general election here in 2019, traditionally Labor left wing areas voted conservative, often for the first time in decades. The left wing parties, I think, have to compromise and move to the centre. That’s that’s how Labour got into government here in 1997. And we might say working with the system in order to win as broad a support amongst the electorate as possible. Now the problem with that is that alienates a lot of left wing voters who value their ideals, who values, we might call socialist ideas or social democratic ideals, who seek compromise with the system as collaboration with the enemy and who put this above, say, the concerns of winning power. Now, I think the right has become stronger because it appeals to the instinct to protect one’s own, whether it’s against foreigners, immigrants, terrorists or challengers to traditional family life. And in the conservative capitalist system, which I think has become so entrenched, this impulse seems to be stronger than the left’s appeal to essentially look after your neighbor and look after the people who are less fortunate than yourself. But I do believe that most people and this might be idealistic and terribly optimistic. I do believe most people do prefer social justice to social injustice. And I think that the world can change. For the left to get back into power, we might not require a catastrophe because in the British context, we’ve already had the financial crisis, the global financial crisis in 2008, 2009, we’ve had Brexit here and we’ve got the pandemic now. And I don’t see the right really being too troubled in its position of power by any of this. So I think the problem is there isn’t really a magic formula for the left coming back to power. And to put it very, very vaguely, it will be a confluence of circumstances that we don’t yet know that revives the left.
Gary: On that potentially hopeful note, which I might just be throwing a bunch of water on, I was going to ask how your understanding of the 1920s and 1930s might give you some hope for the future or some vision of the future. But knowing what came after, I suppose that’s not the most hopeful thing. Given what you’ve studied and what you know, do you have any predictions of what might happen in the Western political landscape?
Millington: It’s easy to be pessimistic if we look at, as you say, the historical precedents. So if the capital violence in January really was the American 6th of February, then the future is political polarization and the strengthening of the extreme right. And I hope that that is not the case. And of course, it’s important to bear in mind that historical comparisons can only offer really clues and warnings about possible outcomes, because, of course, no two situations are the same. I think they tell us a lot in the present about what was, what shouldn’t have been, what was and what might be in the future. Now, in the context of the pandemic obviously complicates matters hugely. And I don’t I don’t know about you, but my thoughts about the future don’t go to far beyond the end of the pandemic that we’re in right now, but I think if I could be a bit more optimistic about the future and it’s not usual that we compare modern politics and modern society to the 20s and 30s in an optimistic way. And I think if we look at the 20s in the 30s and the thing that I could most console myself with at the moment is the fact that learning from the history of that period, pandemics end and fascists lose.
Gary: That is the best way to end any episode. I might just have to copy and paste that onto every episode of the podcast going forward. Thank you very much for being on the show, Dr Millington. Thank you.
Millington: Thank you
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