Considering the emphasis the new dictatorships laid on their supposedly distinctive nationalistic traditions, they all looked remarkably alike: the coloured shirts [German Brownshirts, Italian Blackshirts, Irish Blueshirts, Romanian Greenshirts], the shiny boots, the martial music, the strutting leaders, the gangster violence. At first sight, then, there was little to distinguish the German version of dictatorship from all the rest – except perhaps that Hitler was marginally more absurd than his counterparts. As late as 1939, Adolf Hitler could still be portrayed by Charlie Chaplin in his film The Great Dictator as an essentially comic figure, bawling incomprehensible speeches, striking preposterous poses and frolicking with a large inflatable globe. Yet there were in reality profound differences between National Socialism and fascism. Nearly all the dictatorships of the inter-war period were at root conservative, if not downright reactionary. The social foundations of their power were what remained of the pre-industrial ancien régime: the monarchy, the aristocracy, the officer corps and the Church, supported to varying degrees by industrialists fearful of socialism and by frivolous intellectuals who were bored of democracy’s messy compromises.* The main function the dictators performed was to crush the Left: to break their strikes, prohibit their parties, deny voice to their voters, arrest and, if it was deemed necessary, kill their leaders. One of the few measures they took that went beyond simple social restoration was to introduce new ‘corporate’ institutions supposed to regiment economic life and protect loyal supporters from the vagaries of the market. In 1924 the French historian Elie Halevy nicely characterized fascist Italy as ‘the land of tyranny … a regime extremely agreeable for travellers, where trains arrive and leave on time, where there is no strike in ports or public transport’. ‘The bourgeois’, he added, ‘are beaming.’ It was, as Renzo De Felice said in his vast and apologetic biography of the Duce, ‘the old regime in a black shirt’….
Contrary to the old claims that it was the party of the countryside, or of the north, or of the middle class, the NSDAP attracted votes right across Germany and right across the social spectrum…. It is true that places with relatively high Nazi votes were more likely to be in central northern and eastern parts, and those with relatively low Nazi votes were more likely to be in the south and west. But the more important point is that the Nazis were able to achieve some electoral success in nearly any kind of local political milieu, covering the German electoral spectrum in a way not seen before or since. The Nazi vote did not vary proportionately with the unemployment rate or the share of workers in the population. As many as two-fifths of the Nazi voters in some districts were working class, to the consternation of the Communist leadership. In response, some local Communists openly made common cause with the Nazis. ‘Oh yes, we admit that we’re in league with the National Socialists,’ said one Communist leader in Saxony. ‘Bolshevism and Fascism share a common goal: the destruction of capitalism and of the Social Democratic Party. To achieve this aim we are justified in using every means.’ It was a mark of Goebbels’ skill in making the party seem all things to all men that, simultaneously, dyed-in-the-wool Prussian Conservatives could regard the Nazis as potential partners in an anti-Marxist coalition. Thus were political rivals lured into what proved to be fatal forms of cooperation. The only significant constraint on the growth of the Nazi vote was the comparatively greater resilience of the Catholic Centre party compared with parties hitherto supported by German Protestants.
Other fascist movements, as we have seen, depended heavily on elite sponsorship to gain power. The Nazis did not need to. For all the attention that has been paid to them, the machinations of the coterie around Hindenburg were not the decisive factor, as those of the Italian elites had been in 1922. If anything, they delayed Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, an office that was rightfully his after the July 1932 election. It was not the traditional elite of landed property that was drawn to Hitler; the real Junker types found him horribly coarse. (When Hitler shook hands with Hindenburg, one conservative was reminded ‘of a headwaiter closing his hand around the tip’.) Nor was it the business elite, who not unreasonably feared that National Socialism would prove a Trojan horse for socialism proper; nor the military elite, who had every reason to dread subordination to an opinionated Austrian corporal. The key to the strength and dynamism of the Third Reich was Hitler’s appeal to the much more numerous intellectual elite; the men with university degrees who are so vital to the smooth running of a modern state and civil society.
For reasons that may be traced back to the foundation of the Bismarckian Reich or perhaps even further into Prussian history, academically educated Germans were unusually ready to prostrate themselves before a charismatic leader.
(*A list of all the treasonous clerics who flirted or did more than flirt with fascism would be a book in its own right. If only to give an illustration of how widespread the phenomenon was, dishonourable mention may be made of the writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, who established his own tinpot tyranny in post-war Fiume; the poet T. S. Eliot, who wrote that ‘totalitarianism can retain the terms “freedom” and “democracy” and give them its own meaning’; the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who, as Rector of Freiburg University, lent his enthusiastic support to the Nazi regime; the political theorist Carl Schmitt, who devised pseudo-legal justifications for the illegalities of the Third Reich; the novelist Ignazio Silone, who shopped former Communist comrades to the fascists; and the poet W. B. Yeats, who wrote songs for the Irish Blueshirts. Thomas Mann, who had made his fair share of mistakes during the First World War and only with difficulty broke publicly with the Nazi regime, was not wrong when he spoke of ‘the thoroughly guilty stratum of intellectuals’.)