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The intensity of contemporary debates over the legacy of antifascism are to no small degree the result of the fact that there is no consensus over the historical role of antifascism as a political and cultural movement. Unlike Italian fascism and German National Socialism, which were defeated and discredited militarily and politically in 1945, antifascism emerged from the war with its reputation enhanced by the aura of resistance movements and the Soviet victory. Postwar European communist parties and regimes, especially in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), drew their legitimacy from the sacrifices of heroes and martyrs who became the touchstone of state-sanctioned myths and rituals until 1989. While for some historians antifascism was marked by an extraordinary mobilization of the intellectuals in defense of culture and democracy, for others it was thoroughly corrupted by its association with communism.

Characteristically, two distinguished historians, both of them veterans of the antifascist movement, could retrospectively approach the subject from entirely opposing perspectives. British historian Eric J. Hobsbawm reprised the moment during the 1930s when the Left abandoned its sectarian illusions, recovered from its earlier defeats, challenged the half-hearted and insincere policies of appeasement, and welded together a broad coalition of conservatives, liberals, socialists, and communists in a variety of countries "against the common enemy." By contrast, the French historian François Furet claimed that antifascism was the new face of Stalinism: a cynical and effective doctrinal shift that allowed European communists to change overnight from dedicated Bolsheviks into champions of liberty, marching under the banner of democracy, humanity, and hatred of Adolf Hitler (1883–1945).

Both approaches are too restrictive both in scope and content. The ideology of antifascism varied greatly from the Comintern's official declarations linking fascism and monopoly capitalism to more diffuse moral pronouncements by intellectuals like novelists Romain Rolland or Heinrich Mann, the German exile writer. At its height in the mid-1930s, antifascism was the rallying cry of the Left, but given the abiding hostility of communists and socialists, it was also a "pragmatic compromise" cobbled together to meet the emergency of Hitler's rise to power. Antifascism mobilized genuine popular support for democratic currents while at the same time it caused a fatal blindness that allowed many Western intellectuals to sacrifice their judgment and lead "double lives" guided by a secret Stalinist apparat.

Though communist antifascism was attractive to varying degrees in different periods, it is necessary to more broadly include noncommunist anti-fascism and go beyond parties and organizations to include ideas, intellectuals, the press, everyday life, and religious movements. A more capacious approach would also include "an attitude or feeling of hostility toward fascist ideology and its propagators." It is therefore advisable to distinguish the official antifascism of the Comintern from local initiatives as well as from exile intellectuals and noncommunist resistance groups, which encompassed a much more complicated fiber of beliefs, convictions, hopes, emotions, attitudes. The three main phases of the history of antifascism considered below are: antifascism before the rise of Hitler (1920–1933); antifascism in the era of Hitler and Stalin (1934–1945); antifascism after fascism (1946–1989).


Though fascism demonstrated its brutality and violence against Italian socialists and communists in the years before the establishment of the Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) government in October 1922, it initially caused no great alarm for the Italian Communist Party (PCI) or the Soviet Union. The leader and founder of the party, Amedeo Bordiga, saw no fundamental distinction between bourgeois democracy and fascist dictatorship; convinced of the imminent collapse of capitalism, he consider the greater danger to lie in a Social Democratic government after the fall of the dictatorship. During 1922 the Alleanza del Lavoro, probably the first antifascist organization, emerged, a more or less spontaneous coalition of socialists, republicans, trade unionists, communists, and anarchists. Early antifascism was politically and philosophically diverse. At the forefront of the parliamentary opposition to Mussolini (until his death from a beating in 1926) was Giovanni Amendola, a brilliant journalist who protested the ban on opposition parties and coined the term "totalitarian" to describe Mussolini's system. Catholic, socialist, and communist opponents of the dictatorship formed the "Aventine Secession" (named after the protest of Gaius Sempronius Gracchus in ancient Rome), withdrawing from Parliament after the assassination of the reform Socialist Giacomo Matteotti in 1924. The following year, antifascists were suppressed, arrested, forced into exile—and murdered. The voice of Italian liberalism, the philosopher Benedetto Croce, abandoned his initial support for Mussolini and issued his influential "Manifesto of the Antifascist Intellectuals" on 1 May 1925, calling for a "far deeper and more concrete understanding of the virtues of liberal laws and methods." After 1926, the PCI adopted the more nuanced position on the Italian dictatorship put forward by Antonio Gramsci (imprisoned by Mussolini) and Palmiro Togliatti (the PCI leader in exile), which admitted that at least in its first years fascism had been a genuinely revolutionary movement.

While in Italy the communist underground remained the only clandestine movement that attracted any substantial popular support, exile antifascism was severely hampered by the nonparticipation of the communists. In 1927, the Concentrazione Antifascista (Antifascist Coalition) was created in Paris under the auspices of the Socialist Pietro Nenni. The most important antifascist exile organization was Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty), the political creation of Carlo Rosselli who conceived of a "liberal socialism" as an alternative to the divisions that fractured the organized Left in Europe. Many of the great writers of the antifascist movement, including Carlo Levi, Cesare Pavese, and Ignazio Silone, were prominent figures in the Italian exile community in Paris. By 1937, however, the Rosselli brothers (Carlo and Roberto) had been murdered and the exile antifascists were increasingly estranged from the situation in Italy.

Soviet foreign policy in the 1920s was highly ambivalent, continuing to maintain friendly relations with Mussolini and court the German nationalist Right, especially in the era of Soviet-German military rapprochement following the 1921 Treaty of Rapallo. In 1924 Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) announced the new policy of the Comintern: "Social Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.… These organizations do not negate, but supplement each other. They are not antipodes; they are twins." Throughout 1931 and 1932, communists and Nazis sometimes struck tactical alliances, as they did in the Berlin transport strike of November 1932. Even the International Congress against Fascism and War in Amsterdam, held in the summer of 1932, refrained from condemning Italy or Germany.


Before 1934, Italian socialist exiles and Austrian and German Social Democrats were the most prominent opponents of both Mussolini and Hitler. Following the Reichstag Fire of 28 February 1933, some five thousand communists were arrested and the powerful German Communist Party (KPD), with its 100,000 members and almost six million supporters, was dismantled. But as late as January 1934, the Red Army continued to maintain cordial relations with the German Reichswehr and a new commercial agreement with Germany was signed. Soviet leaders began to question, however, whether a new alliance with France and Britain might make more sense than the deteriorating Soviet-German connection.

In May 1935, the Soviet Union signed mutual assistance pacts with France and Czechoslovakia, signaling a turnabout. Events in France were already fuelling an upsurge in popular antifascist activism. The night of the nationalist "Leagues" in Paris on 6 February 1934 led to strong counter-demonstrations by the Left on 12 February (the day of the insurrection against Engelbert Dollfuss by the Social Democrats in Vienna), and to a joint antifascist declaration of the intellectuals signed by figures as diverse as the Surrealists André Breton, René Crevel, and Paul Eluard, the writer André Malraux, and the Radical philosopher Emile Chartier (known by the pseudonym Alain). At a Party Congress in June 1934, the French Communist leader Maurice Thorez told his followers, "It is not a question of choosing between communism and fascism, but between fascism and democracy." In the Loiret department, for example, there were only 200 active communists in 1930 but by 1935, more than 5,000 members had joined 77 local antifascist committees, reaching not only the workers' districts of the city of Orléans but rural villages where the Left had little influence. This is not to assert that pressure from below effected the doctrinal reversal of the French Communist Party on 27 July 1934 (the date of the unity of action pact signed by Communists and Socialists [SFIO]), but there is no question that the pact presaged the Comintern's Popular Front strategy announced at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern on 25 July 1935.

Georgi Dimitrov (1882–1949), who had become a hero during his trial on charges of conspiracy to burn the Reichstag in Leipzig, was installed as the new head of the Comintern, coinciding with its new strategy of a "broad people's antifascist front." Fascism was now defined as "the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital." The election of the Popular Front government in France in May 1936 cemented the alliance of the Left, increasing Communist representation in Parliament sevenfold and giving the Socialists 146 (from 97) seats. Conversely, tensions between industrial workers and the government of Leon Blum (1872–1950) during the 1936 strike wave and the overweening presence of Communists in the national antifascist organizations alienated local antifascists and caused a rapid decline in the grassroots movement.

German Social Democrats and communists in exile failed to produce a united front, but there were figures on both sides, including Willi Münzenberg and the Social Democrat Rudolf Breitscheid, who sought such an alliance. Münzenberg and his lieutenant, the talented Otto Katz, orchestrated spectacular international antifascist campaigns, cultural congresses, and committees to free Ernst Thälmann (who was imprisoned as a left-wing opponent of the regime). But the communists by no means dominated these genuinely mass campaigns. A comparison of communist and noncommunist publications among German exiles reveals that bourgeois-liberal writers published three times more than their communist colleagues. Antifascist culture in the 1930s was characterized by social inclusivity, political flexibility, and ideological imprecision, especially in defining who or what was "fascist."

Popular Front organizations embraced antifascists great and small, from commanding intellectual figures like Romain Rolland, André Gide, and Heinrich Mann, to the rank and file who attended Soviet dance recitals, lectures by the Archbishop of Canterbury, or tea parties for Spain. Such innocuous activities frequently masked uncritical admiration for the Soviet Union's achievements and sometimes even turned a blind eye to its crimes. But in 1937, at the height of the Spanish civil war, support for the Soviet Union did not always necessarily entail an embrace of communism, nor did it always mean a rejection of liberalism. "For us in the 1930s," historian George Mosse recalled, "antifascism was both a political and cultural movement in its own right, and one could join the movement, admire the Soviet Union for its lonely stand against appeasement, and yet reject Communism and Bolshevism as systems as well as for their materialist views of history."

Antifascism was a complex mix of ideas, images, and symbols that ultimately divided the world into two hostile camps, and subordinated all political judgment to a Manichaean logic. In the struggle between "fascism" and its enemies, there could be no middle ground, no neutral space, and no noncombatants in a world divided between the forces of progress and decline, the friends and enemies of culture and civilization. The historian Richard Cobb, who lived in Paris during the 1930s, recalled that "France was living through a moral and mental civil war … one had to choose between fascism and fellow traveling."

Not unconnected to its friend-enemy logic was the antifascist myth of "virile innocence," especially concerning masculine heroes. "Better the widow of a hero than the wife of a coward" was an oft-repeated slogan. The centerpiece of the myth of heroic innocence was the Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire (1933), one of the all-time bestsellers of world communism, "the Bible of the antifascist crusade." It offered a picture of the Nazi regime that not only masked the real defeat, but that became all too familiar: a regime devoid of popular support, resting on terror, conspiracy, and arson, orchestrated by a band of "feminized" homosexual degen erates, dope-fiends, torturers, and corrupt officials.

Many of the international volunteers who arrived in Spain during the heyday of antifascism during the Spanish civil war (1936–1939) truly felt that they belonged not to a nation or class, nor to a party or a movement, nor a doctrine or a metaphysics, but to a common humanity whose adherents all spoke the same Spartan language, shared the same sacrifices, and were engaged in the same redemption of the world. The writer Milton Wolff, who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade composed of 3,000 American volunteers, wrote of his "Spanish Lesson": "He went to Spain in 1936 because he was an antifascist. He felt, although he did not know for sure, that if fascism were not stopped in Spain, it would sweep the world. He did not know beforehand what he was going to do when he got to Spain. Certainly he did not know anything about fighting or killing or dying; but he was a volunteer. In Spain he met a people who lived, slept and ate antifascism, who never tired of doing something about it." This rhetoric of innocence and the innocence of antifascist rhetoric may explain why antifascism remained so pure in the memory of its veterans. As George Orwell wrote in his classic Homage to Catalonia (1938), those illusions were in truth the correct "anti-Fascist" attitude that had been carefully disseminated largely in order to prevent people from grasping the real political nature of the civil war within the civil war.

For opponents of Hitler, the news of the non-aggression pact signed between Foreign Ministers Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop on 23 August 1939 was a devastating blow. Though Stalin had already begun to withdraw from the Spanish conflict, though explorations of a possible rapprochement with Hitler continued throughout 1937, and though the British and French alliance never materialized, no one anticipated what simply seemed inconceivable. While the majority of communists quickly knuckled under and abandoned antifascism to pro-Sovietism, a minority of dissident intellectuals like Münzenberg, Manés Sperber, Arthur Koestler, Gustav Regler, Ignazio Silone, and Hans Sahl, broke ranks in order to remain anti-fascists. Forced to choose between loyalty to communism and opposition to Hitler, these writers understood that the "Machiavellian powers," as Sperber called them, had struck up a totalitarian alliance. Even the word fascist disappeared from the communist lexicon.

If the Hitler-Stalin pact all but destroyed the hopes of European antifascism, the invasion of the Soviet Union on 21 June 1941 partially revived them. But it is mistaken to assume the wartime policy of the Comintern, which was dissolved in May 1943, resumed the antifascist discourse of the Popular Front era. Rather, Stalin rejected the idea that the Nazi-Soviet conflict was a "general anti-fascist war" and instead supported the creation of broad "national fronts" of all forces willing to oppose the Germans (with whom a separate peace might still be concluded). In the Soviet Union, "the great patriotic war" remained the national symbol and the national myth, even after communism's collapse.


After World War II, antifascism became a "foundational myth" of the newly created "People's Republics" throughout Eastern Europe. What this meant was that Soviet rule could be cemented by celebrating the latter's victory over "fascism," while the abolition of private property could be justified by vigilance against "imperialism" and "militarism"—which during the Cold War meant West Germany and the United States. The new, postfascist German Democratic Republic (GDR) was built on a complex structure of legitimating myths, first and foremost that the German Communist Party had led a popular antifascist resistance movement against National Socialism that ultimately had resulted in the creation of the GDR. Antifascism was colored by its highly clichéd veneration of the heroes of the resistance, by the blood sacrifice of the Soviet Union, and by the martyrs whose noble deeds provided the basis for school textbooks, memorials, and rituals. Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the Communist Party who was imprisoned by Hitler in 1933 and died in Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944, was the object of an official sanctification that included countless poems, books, and films. More concretely, the antifascist German state dispensed broad amnesty and rehabilitation for the mass of former Nazi Party members and fellow travelers. The antifascist narrative allowed mass popular support for the Nazi Party and Hitler to be swept under the rug while the population could be collectively "immunized" against any association with the recently defeated Nazi regime. Collective memory in the GDR was "staged," "ritualized," and censored to present only the most schematic and authorized version of the history of antifascism. Especially during the 1950s, the German Communist Party was portrayed as the only leading and organized force of the antifascist resistance within Germany. The officially sanctioned history of German communism failed (despite its eight bulky volumes) to mention the key figures of German antifascism who had fallen into disrepute, such as Münzenberg, and of course avoided any reference to the nearly three thousand German exiles who disappeared during Stalin's purges in the USSR.

Biography, in the Stalinist and post-Stalinist era, was destiny. The creation (and re-creation) of a curriculum vitae that included the "correct" anti-fascist past and the right landmarks of a personal itinerary was a sine qua non for success among the Party elite. The creation of a state-sanctioned myth of antifascism often produced collisions with the actual individuals and groups that had taken part in the very struggles so sanctimoniously commemorated. Among these, veterans of the Spanish civil war, though officially enshrined in the pantheon of heroes, were in fact frequently considered a major threat to official memory. Their familiarity with—indeed participation in—the military police in Spain, the repression of anarchists and the "Trotskyite" Marxist Party of Unification (POUM), and knowledge of what the writer Bodo Uhse called "the arrests over there" (in the Soviet Union), produced profound distrust among the party cadre. The Organization of Those Persecuted by the Nazi Regime (VVN) was abruptly dissolved in 1953 because of constant friction between its members and the GDR regime. Some members of another highly venerated group, the communist functionaries that had been interned in concentration camps like Buchenwald, were later revealed to have engaged in highly questionable behavior as "red Capos" (camp police). However, the experience of internment, Soviet exile, or Western exile did not lead to greater doubt among party members but instead reinforced loyalty to the cause and heightened distrust of comrades who might betray it.

From the outset, citizens who had taken part in the active "struggle against fascism" were given a higher standing in the official and administrative hierarchy of the GDR than those, like Jewish survivors of the Holocaust (or Jehovah's Witnesses), who were only reluctantly designated "victims of fascism." Ideological conformity was strictly enforced and communists who had spent time in the West came under suspicion. By the mid 1950s, the most prominent left-wing Jewish intellectuals—the philosopher Ernst Bloch, the literary critic Hans Mayer, and the publicist Alfred Kantorowicz, who had voluntarily returned to the GDR—had gone over to the West. Beginning in 1948 and 1949, the Soviet Union inaugurated a campaign against prominent Jewish figures, beginning with the murder of the actor Solomon Mikhoels, a world-renowned figure in the Jewish Antifascist Committee. In August 1952, fifteen Soviet Jews, including five prominent Yiddish writers and poets, were secretly tried and executed for capital offenses, including treason, espionage, and bourgeois nationalism. In December of that year, the former Secretary General of the Czech Communist Party, Rudolf Salzmann Slansky, and thirteen others (including eleven Jews) were convicted of espionage in Prague. In 1951 the preparations began for an "anticosmopolitan" (a euphemism for anti-Semitic) trial in the GDR centering on Paul Merker, a member of the central committee of the Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED) who had been in exile in Mexico. Though the trial never took place due to Stalin's death, Merker was accused of being an agent of "imperialist intelligence" and "Zionism" for having written that the Jews should be compensated for their suffering at the hands of the Germans. The purges were a turning point in the East German attitude toward the Holocaust and Nazi anti-Semitism. Despite a few exceptions like Jurek Becker's novel Jacob the Liar (1969), the Holocaust remained a virtually taboo subject until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

Official antifascism created a cult of state-sanctioned nostalgia and ex post facto legitimacy. Even the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 was justified as an "antifascist protective wall." Ironically, the institutionalized memory of antifascism not only disavowed the mass extermination of the Jews, the mass extermination of the Jews was a subject that transcended the "eternal" struggle between communism and fascism and thus threatened to destabilize the state ideology. Despite the efforts of well-intentioned scholars and contemporaries to disentangle authentic antifascist memory from the official rituals of state policy after 1989, the two were so entwined that not even the most careful craftsmanship could untie them. This is perhaps true of antifascism in the broader sense: though not all antifascists were implicated in communism and its crimes, antifascism as an ideology and as state sanctioned memory could not be entirely dissociated from them.

See alsoAnticommunism; Communism; Fascism; Molotov-Von Ribbentrop Pact.


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Anson Rabinbach