September 27, 2007

The fall of previous Fascist Dictatorships

Everywhere there's lots of piggies
Living piggy lives.
You can see them out for dinner

With their piggy wives
Clutching forks and knives
to eat their bacon.
--George Harrison, "Piggies"

I've been reading a superb new book about post-war Italy called "The Fall of Mussolini," by Oxford historian Philip Morgan, which recounts, among other things, the colorful period toward the end of World War II and its bloody aftermath in Italy. The Italians, with the operatic and grandiose tendencies which adorn their culture, dealt with the problem of Fascists and German collaborators with the kind of direct brutality, and disregard of judicial nuance, which makes an episode of "The Sopranos" seem like a Neil Simon comedy. There is the fairly well-known case of Mussolini himself, who, after his dramatic rescue by German commandos from his mountain top hotel "prison" in September, 1943, was installed by Hitler in a gilded cage in the town of Salo, on the shore of Lago di Garda in the north. The Allies eventually crossed the Gustav Line and then the Hitler Line in the north, and in April, 1945, Mussolini was spirited away from his "capital" by a German SS convoy, heading toward the neutrality of Switzerland. Alas for Il Duce, his lame disguise of a German helmet and reading glasses did not fool the partisans who ambushed the patrol near Lake Como. Along with several confederates and his mistress, Clara Petacci, Mussolini was taken to a farm house and shot, along with the other captives. The bodies were taken to Milano, where Musso and Clara were hung upside down in the Piazzale Loreto, and the well-documented (and photographed) desecration of the bodies took place. For the Italians, it was a necessary catharsis.

This was far from the only instance of reprisal and vendetta, however. It was a national phenomenon. Among many other episodes, there is the notorious storming of the prison at Schio, in July, 1945, where the partisans short-circuited the legal process by picking out the Fascists they considered appropriate for rough justice and shooting 54 of the prisoners, including 13 women. The principle of omerta, with which we're so familiar because of Francis Ford Coppola movies, prevented any legal action against the perpetrators, who were considered heroes in any event.

Mussolini was in power for 21 years between 1922 and 1943, when he was removed from office by fellow Fascists (including his son-in-law, Ciano), and the Third Reich lasted 12 years. It seems very likely, however, that both regimes could have survived indefinitely if Hitler had not initiated World War II. Finished totalitarian states create their own inertia by closing off the means of effective opposition. Another example, of course, is the Soviet Union, which existed as a dictatorship from 1917 to 1991. I think it's reasonable to say that none of these regimes disappeared because of internal democratic forces. Germany and Italy were conquered from without; the Soviet Union collapsed because of internal rot.

As I have said before, I don't think the USA is in that class of Great Tyrannies of History; however, it is clear that since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 that the United States has drifted increasingly toward an authoritarian, militaristic, right wing form of government, a process broken only briefly by that most talented and unprincipled of huckster/gasbags, William Jefferson Clinton, and if anyone can figure out his true political beliefs, drop me a line. I've always been curious. America's governmental style has been called "corporatist," which makes the most sense; the influence of big money on national priorities is unmistakable, and both parties, to stay in power, must play the fund raising game with all its attendant corruption. Along the way, we've learned to tolerate breaches of the Constitution and civil liberties which would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. The Fourth and Fifth Amendments (unreasonable search and seizure; due process) survived the war against the Nazis and the Japanese Empire, but apparently will not remain intact after an attack by 19 Arabs hijacking four airplanes.

The Republicans pushed this thing so far that they lost seats in both the House and Senate in 2006; however, let us never forget that George W. Bush actually received a majority of votes in this country in November, 2004, not even 3 years ago. Parse it any way you will, but that represented a vote with full knowledge of the fraudulent basis of the Iraq War, the Valerie Plame disclosures, Guantanamo, Jose Padilla, Abu Ghraib, the torture regime, and so much more. And even when the Democrats were given power, we saw that their predilections turn out to be very similar to their Republican brethren. They will spend any amount on defense (more than the combined defense budgets of the rest of the world) while paying lip service to other national needs, and will do nothing to remedy the dire fiscal problems of the USA, with its collapsing dollar and exploding national debt.

So I don't think the American people are going to vote their way out of these trends. That says something fairly profound about the nature of democracy; countries change their fundamental nature more by cataclysm than by evolution, once reactionary processes set in. When it happens, it might be good not to appear too prosperous or powerful, as the Italian Fascists learned to their abrupt horror in post-war Italy. The peasantry might not know how to vote, but they know who's been feeding at the trough of corruption.

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