I’ve been reading a very informative book from my local library called “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Fascism” by Richard Griffiths, who is or was a professor of history at King’s College. In this (fairly) slim tome, the prof gives the reader the straight inside dope on wacky extreme right nutters from Charles Maurras and Action Francaise, the royalists with a name like a professional cycling team, to the Movimento Sociale Italiano, who sound as if they ought to have run tea dances for Italian OAPs, but sadly preferred running meetings about hating black people instead. He also covers the real obscurities, like some German guy named Hitler you’ll never have heard of, and debates issues such as whether you could really draw clear lines between fascists and conservatives in inter-war Europe (he thinks not).
However, there is one thing Griffiths either misses or, more likely, chooses not to go into: fascism as comedy. In fairness, he is writing a serious academic work, and some of the people concerned managed to conquer much of Europe and kill millions of people in the process. However, even this sobering fact cannot obscure fascism’s well-earned status as the silliest political movement in modern history. Communism leaves you po-faced, anarchism barely raises a titter, conservatism, liberalism and socialism are simply dull. But fascism is pure comedy gold. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Take, for example, Arnold Leese, leader in the 1920s and 30s of the Imperial Fascist League. He got into jackboots and goose-stepping after a career as a vet during which he had become, I kid you not, a well-known specialist in the diseases of camels, presumably including that fearful contagion and star of a thousand awful puns, “the hump”. Along the way, he’d also concluded that the Jews were secretly controlling the world, so he set up a fascist political party to keep himself busy in retirement. The Imperial Fascist League never got that far, perhaps because it was, as Sir Oswald Moseley put it “one of those crank little movements…mad about the Jews” (harsh words, Ozzy), but he could at least claim to be one of British fascism’s first elected representatives – on Stamford Council. Later on, Leese became friendly with Colin Jordan, one of the faces of the post-war British far right and a man who seems to have spent much of his adult life setting up a political party about once every couple of years, then leaving it in a huff when he fell out with everyone else involved.
OK, so fringe political parties are always good for a laugh, but the joy of fascism is that it isn’t just the minor figures – the major, “successful” ones are pretty ludicrous too. Hitler’s hammy oratory and resemblance to Charlie Chaplin gifted material to comedians even at the time. Benito Mussolini was never more than a few seconds away from a preposterous pose and his military were never more than a few months away from humiliating defeat at the hands of an inferior foe. True, General Franco never gave rise to much humour, but then there is still argument as to the extent he and his regime were fascist or not. Basically, the adoption of fascism as a creed seems to doom you to being silly. You more or less have to overrun several countries to be taken seriously at all.
Why should this be particularly true of fascism? Well, the cult of the leader and the emphasis on his charisma can’t help. There’s a perilously thin line between looking like a charismatic badass and looking like a complete plonker, as neatly illustrated by any photograph of the aforementioned Oswald Moseley trying out his “Leader face”, which seemed to consist of staring into the middle distance with pursed lips under a clipped 30s moustache. Democratic politicians may be less than physically inspiring too, but they don’t have the Fuhrerprinzip and the perfect racial ideal to live up to, which is why it somehow seems worse that Nick Griffin is a big, fat, sweaty bloke than it does that John Prescott is.
Also, nothing is funnier than people who take themselves and their beliefs completely seriously. Politicians generally are prone to this, as a side-effect of the kind of self-belief you need to get anywhere in politics. Fascism cranks this up to eleven through its Manichaean vision of the world as a place of struggle between light and darkness, where enemies are not merely wrong, but evil, and fighting them is some kind of sacred duty. Hitler’s ego operated on a cosmic scale and he certainly wasn’t known for his self-deprecating wit (or, indeed, his wit, full-stop. The Wit and Wisdom of Adolf Hitler would be a short book indeed).
Until his untimely death a few years ago, British politics was enlivened by the presence of Lord David Sutch aka Screaming Lord Sutch of the Monster Raving Loony Party, who would stand in Parliamentary by-elections advocating silly policies and generally pratting about for the cameras. Although Sutch had his serious side (he was advocating votes at 18 years before this became the law), his party was mostly a send-up of orthodox politicians. However, faced with the real monster raving loonies of fascism, his efforts pretty much pale into insignificance. No-one sends up their politics better than they do, and the fact that they do it all without a smile on their face is as funny as it is scary.