Introduction to The Beast Reawakens
by Martin A. Lee
Adolf Hitler and his top military advisors had gathered at the "Wolf's Lair," the Fuehrer's headquarters in East Prussia, for an early afternoon strategy session on July 20, 1944. They were listening to Lieutenant-General Adolf Heusinger, Chief of Operations of the Wehrmacht (German Army), deliver a bleak report about Germany's latest misfortunes on the eastern front. Suddenly a violent explosion hurled everyone onto the floor. Writhing and coughing amid thick smoke and dust, several German officers could hear Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel shout, "Wo ist der Fuehrer?" ("Where is the Fuehrer?")
Somehow unharmed, Keitel made his way through a tangle of dead and injured men, until he found a groggy Hitler, his uniform shredded and bloodstained. Helped to his feet, the Fuehrer stared at Keitel with a dazed expression before collapsing in the field marshall's arms. Hitler was carried to a hospital bed, where a doctor dressed his wounds. He had a punctured eardrum and a lacerated back, his legs were burned, his face and hair were charred, and his right arm temporarily paralyzed. A badly shaken Hitler had barely survived the only serious assassination attempt against him.
Meanwhile, confusion reigned in Berlin, where a handful of German officers who had organized the bomb plot sought to gain control of the city. But their efforts would soon be thwarted by the fateful intervention of Major Otto Ernst Remer, a relatively obscure, 32-year-old leader of the Grossdeutschland Guard Battalion, which was responsible for protecting government offices in the capital.
As rumors of Hitler's death swept through the barracks, Remer was told by his commanding officer to arrest Joseph Goebbels, the top Nazi official in Berlin that day. With pistols drawn, Remer led a twenty-man contingent into the Propaganda Ministry, where Goebbels held sway. At that moment, Remer was probably the single most important military officer in Germany.
Encircled by gun-pointing soldiers, a quick-thinking Goebbels told Remer that the conspiracy had failed: Hitler was still alive. To prove his point, he picked up the phone, called the Wolf's Lair, and handed the receiver to Remer. The tall, strapping young officer breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the Fuehrer's voice. Hitler put Remer in charge of all troops in Berlin and ordered him to crush the putsch. Anyone who resisted was to be shot immediately.
It was a heady assignment for Remer, who immediately took control and instructed his troops to establish roadblocks and patrols. They sealed off the city command center and surrounded the army buildings where some of the coup ringleaders were ensconced. Remer was posted at the entrance of the War Office, when SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny, a fierce Hitler loyalist, arrived on the scene with a band of armed men.
Remer introduced himself to Skorzeny and apprised him of the crisis situation. They agreed that no one, regardless of how high in rank, would be allowed to enter or leave until they finished searching the premises. Skorzeny and his SS squadron encountered a mayhem of murder and suicide inside the building. The can-do colonel quickly put a halt to a wave of executions so that suspects could be tortured into naming others and exposing the extent of the plot before they were sent to the gallows.
With Skorzeny in charge of the War Ministry, it didn't take long before the revolt was smashed and the affairs of the High Command were once again in smooth working order. During the weeks that followed, he helped track down the remaining suspects in one of history's most gruesome manhunts. It was an occasion to settle old scores, as two thousand people, including dozens of high-ranking German of ficers, were killed in a paroxysm of military fratricide. Some of the leading plotters were garroted with piano wire and impaled on meathooks, while Nazi cameramen recorded the victims' death throes so that Hitler could view the film in his personal cinema.
For the colonel's invaluable support during the aftermath of the coup attempt, the Fuehrer gratefully declared: "You, Skorzeny, saved the Third Reich." But it was Remer who stole the limelight. His decisive actions were crucial in restoring order in Berlin. Hitler showed his appreciation by promoting Remer to the rank of major general, a distinction that instantly propelled him into Nazi superstardom. Henceforth, Remer would serve as Hitler's bodyguard.
The Twentieth of July would prove to be more than just the date when an ill-prepared coup attempt, led by the one-armed Count Claus von Stauffenberg, failed to topple a mad dictator. The events that transpired that afternoon were destined to become a hot-button issue that deeply divided the German people in the years ahead. Nazi diehards and their sympathizers saw the putsch as yet another stab-in-the-back that deprived Germany of its rightful empire. They embraced Otto Ernst Remer as the epitome of the loyal soldier, a symbol of unflinching resistance to "the traitors" who betrayed the Fatherland from within and caused Germany's defeat. But for many others, the Twentieth of July became a legend of exoneration and redemption, offering a moral basis for expunging the sins of the Nazi past and beginning anew. After the war, West Germany's leaders would seize upon the anti-Hitler insurrectionists as a source of historical legitimacy. The coup plotters were touted as a shining example of the "other Germany" that had valiantly opposed the Third Reich.
Far from being a national reaction against Hitler, the July 20 conspiracy was actually the work of a relatively small number of individuals who were not necessarily inspired by lofty ideals. Evidence produced during the Nuremberg Tribunal showed that one of the army officers involved in the coup plot had been the commander of an Einsatgruppen mobile killing squad, which perpetrated some of the first large-scale murders of Jews on the eastern front.
Some of those who belatedly turned against Hitler were motivated not by moral outrage but by fears that they were losing the war. Theirs was a desperate attempt to restore an authoritarian order stripped of Nazi trappings, rather than a first step toward political liberalism and democracy. The complete disintegration of Germany could be prevented only, they surmised, if Hitler was overthrown. Toward this end, the conspirators were encouraged by American spymaster Allen Dulles, who intimated from his intelligence headquarters in Switzerland that a non-Nazi government might be spared the harsh terms of an unconditional surrender. Ignoring the Nuremberg data, Dulles later offered unequivocal praise for the coup plotters' efforts "to rid Germany of Hitler and his gang and establish a decent regime."
The myth of the "other Germany" that was fostered by the Twentieth of July provided a convenient alibi not only for the West German government but also for various Western espionage agencies, which recruited Third Reich veterans en masse during the early years of the Cold War. As far as America's intelligence chiefs were concerned, it didn't really matter where these ex-Nazis stood with respect to the July 20 debacle as long as they were steadfastly anti-Communist. Among those who later worked with the Central Intelligence Agency, under the directorship of Allen Dulles, was Colonel Otto Skorzeny.
The Americans also tried to recruit Skorzeny's partner from the July 20 affair, Major General Otto Ernst Remer. But Remer spurned their offers, opting instead to collaborate with the Soviets during the Cold War. Those who looked to the East after the Third Reich fell took their historical cue from Bismarck, the Prussian realpolitiker who unified Germany "by blood and iron" in 1871. Bismarck insisted that Germany must align with Russia, its proximate and mineral-rich neighbor. This was also Remer's wholehearted belief.
Yet, even as they gravitated toward rival superpowers, Skorzeny and Remer remained friends and stayed in contact over the years. Both men continued to move in the same neo-Nazi circles while trafficking in military hardware and expertise. Their shady business ventures embroiled them in high-stakes, international intrigue. Having crossed paths for the first time on the Twentieth of July, their overlapping stories embody the dual-pronged nature of postwar Nazi subterfuge. Together they helped lay the groundwork for a multifaceted neofascist revival that gained alarming momentum in the post-Cold War era.
The speed and ferocity with which the extreme Right asserted itself after the Berlin Wall crumbled--not only in Germany, but across Europe and North America--caught nearly everyone by surprise. The growing clout of far Right political parties in Europe; the emergence of a "Red-Brown" alliance in Russia; the rise of the U.S. militia movement; the mounting pattern of violence against refugees, immigrants, guest workers, asylum-seekers, and racial minorities throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere--all are manifestations of a widespread neofascist resurgence. Accentuated by the reunification of Germany, the collapse of Soviet bloc Communism, and major changes in the global economy, the sharp escalation of neofascist activity constitutes one of the most dangerous trends in international politics.
Focusing primarily on Germany, and to a lesser extent on the United States, Russia, and other countries, this book examines how and why fascism-utterly vanquished and discredited fifty years ago--has once again become a force to be reckoned with. In the ensuing pages, I attempt several extended treatments of major personalities in the postwar fascist scene. These political malefactors have demonstrated remarkable tenacity and resourcefulness as they grappled to fashion an effective strategy in an era when fascism seemed defunct as a legitimate political alternative.
During the immediate postwar years, fascists had no choice but to maintain a low profile. This was the "catacombs" period for Third Reich veterans. They were placed on the defensive by the unique scope of the Nazi horror, now indelibly associated with state terror, genocide, and mass destruction on an unprecedented scale in human history. Between 50 million and 60 million died as a direct result of World War II, which Hitler started. Many millions more suffered unfathomable cruelty and hardship. The face of global politics was irretrievably altered. With the Axis armies smashed, the Western European allies exhausted, and their colonies on the verge of rebellion, a huge vacuum appeared in the world power structure. The United States and the Soviet Union were the only countries with sufficient military strength and political resolve to fill this lacuna.
The onset of the Cold War was triggered in part by the superpowers' struggle over how to integrate Germany into the new world order. Although it had been conquered on the battlefield and stripped of its political sovereignty, Germany remained a potentially important player in Europe. Even when divided between East and West, the two Germanys were not merely client states under someone else's thumb. "The theory of the Cold War as a Soviet-American duopoly is sometimes defended on the grounds that, after all, the United States and the Soviet Union were in full command of their respective alliances," Arthur Schlesinger notes. "But nationalism, the most potent political emotion of the age, challenged the reign of the superpowers almost from the start." De Gaulle's quarrel with NATO, Tito's break from Moscow, and the bitter Sino-Soviet conflict were among the examples cited by Schlesinger, who concludes: "The impact of clients on principals is another part of the unwritten history of the Cold War."
In a different way, German nationalists also brought their influence to bear on the U.S.-Soviet conflict. A coterie of Third Reich veterans quickly reconstituted a covert network of neofascist groups, which tried to exploit the deepening rift between the two superpowers. The Cold War became a walking stick for Nazi spies who sought to parlay their overwhelming military defeat into a partial but significant victory once the guns had been silenced. Nazi espionage agents skillfully plied their trade on both sides of the East-West divide, playing one superpower off the other, proffering services to both American and Soviet intelligence. Instead of truly denazifying the German menace, the United States and Soviet Union plunged into the deep freeze of the Cold War, thereby allowing the fascist beast to acquire a new lease on life.
Many Nazi operatives, including Otto Skorzeny, curried the favor with Western secret-service agencies by touting themselves as rock-solid anti-Communists. At the same time, other Third Reich veterans, such as Otto Ernst Remer, were careful not to burn bridges to the Soviet Union in accordance with the centuries-old geopolitical imperative that beckoned for a German-Russian alliance. Whether opting for expedient relations with East or West, they never ceased dreaming about a fascist comeback. The clandestine milieu they inhabited was awash in intrigue, shifting alliances, internecine disputes, and unexpected linkages that defied standard interpretations. It was a strange world in which the political categories of "Right" and "lLeft" at times seemed to blur beyond recognition.
While the Cold War raged, several academics who wrote about fascism provided intellectual fodder for the East-West propaganda contest. But mass-based fascist organizations were never just pawns of big business, as Marxist historians have asserted; nor were they the totalitarian soul mates of Stalinism, as anti-Communist polemicists have argued. In addition to avoiding avoided awkward truths about the indigenous appeal of fascism, both theories cannot account for the recrudescence of fascism in the 1990s.
Over the years, academics have engaged in much debate and semantic hair-splitting without arriving at a universally accepted definition of fascism. The lack of agreement as to what constitutes the "fascist minimum" (the lowest common denominator of features found in all examples of fascism) stems in part from the protean nature of the fascist experience. Fascism during the 1920s and 1930s was an ideologically ambiguous movement that metamorphosed through several phases or sequences. Fascist parties initially attracted support among the hoi polloi by campaigning as social revolutionaries against the inequities of the free market; later, as serious contenders for power, they won over conservative elites in Italy and Germany by promising to thwart the Red Menace. In places where fascists governed, they inevitably violated their early platforms, especially their anticapitalist pretensions. Ultimately, their main political enemy was the worker Left, which placed fascism in the right-wing extremist camp.
Several fascist leaders, including Benito Mussolini, started out as socialists but eventually lost faith in the revolutionary capacity of the working class. In order to mobilize an inert proletariat, they embraced nationalism. The mythos of national rebirth was germane to fascism, which assumed widely diverging forms based on a constellation of historical and social factors that differed from one country to the next.
The National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP), led by Hitler, emphasized Nordic mysticism, biological racialism, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and aggressive militarism. In its formative period, the NSDAP shared the ultranationalist stage with several non-Nazi variants of fascism that flourished during the so-called Conservative Revolution of the 1920s. A plethora of German fascisms embraced Volk-ish and anti-Semitic assumptions-unlike Italian fascism (sometimes referred as "corporatism"), which was not inherently racialist. Mussolini's followers may have been racist in the general sense of viewing nonwhites or non-Europeans as culturally inferior, but they did not inflate their racism into an obsessive, all-encompassing ideology. Nor did Franco's hyper-authoritarian Catholics in Spain, who had little sympathy for the pagan and anti-Christian motifs that Nazis often espoused.
Unfortunately, the blanket usage of the terms fascist and neo-fascist belies the diverse and sometimes conflicting tendencies that these labels encompass. Umberto Eco describes fascism as "a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas," which "had no quintessence." The word itself derives from fasces, a cluster of sticks with protruding axheads that symbolize the power and the glory of ancient Rome. In Latin, fasces is related to fascinum, to fascinate or charm.
The abracadabra of fascism casts a spell over people by diverting economic and social resentments toward national and racial preoccupations. Proclaiming the need for a new spirit and a new man, fascist demagogues have extolled action for its own sake and romanticized violence as regenerative and therapeutic. Although many of their ideas are a by-product of the Enlightenment, they vehemently reject egalitarian social theories that formed the basis of the French Revolution in 1789. The "anti" dimensions of fascism are manifold and well-known: anti-democratic, anti-Marxist, anticapitalist, antimaterialist, anti-cosmopolitan, antibourgeois, antiliberal, antifeminist, and so on.
But fascism was always more than just a negative crusade. Its eclectic style incorporated elements of competing ideologies that fascist rhetoric ostensibly repudiated. Herein lay the essential paradox of fascism: its ability to embody social and political opposites, to be at once elitist and populist, traditionalist and avant-garde. ("I am a reactionary and a revolutionary," Mussolini boasted.) Within the fascist milieu, there has always been a nostalgia for preindustrial societies and an attraction to modern technology, a pathos for uncontrolled brutality and a fetish for obedience and order. Promising the remedy the malaise and anomie of modern life, fascist leaders manipulated seep-seated longings for a better society. The skewed utopian impulse of fascism was the basis for part of its magnetism as a political movement, which appealed to all social strata--urban and rural, young and old, poor and wealthy, the intelligentsia and the uneducated.
The massive defeat they suffered during World War II did not refute the innermost convictions of many fascists, who kept pining for the day when they might again inflict their twisted dream of a new order on much of the world. Within the neofascist scene, there has always been a residual subculture of nostalgics who clung to the heritage of the Third Reich and the Mussolini regime. Holocaust-denial literature and other racialist screeds have circulated like political pornography among the deeply devoted who cluster in small marginalized groups and clandestine cells. Others showed more resiliency as they tried to adapt to the changing realities of the postwar era. But the East-West conflict, which initially afforded a means of survival for these ideological miscreants, also stranded many of them on the farther shores of politics. They realized that sooner or later the binary logjam of the Cold War would have to be broken for revisionist forms of fascism to take hold.
The more sophisticated tacticians understood that the fascist game could be played in many ways. Some deemed it best not to advertise their allegiance to the creed. Discarding the fascist appellation was an initial step toward articulating a political discourse more in tune with modern times, one that spoke of preserving identity and cultural uniqueness instead of white supremacy. Pragmatic and opportunistic, neofascist leaders reinvented themselves and crafted euphemisms into electoral platforms that concealed an abiding hatred of the democratic process. Campaigning as national populists, they managed to rack up significant vote totals in several countries and redefine the post-cold-war political landscape.
This is the saga of an underground political movement that has reawakened after a half century of hibernation. It is the history of something long hidden reappearing in a new form, a thing once forbidden that is gradually gaining influence and respectability. Most of all, it is a story about a cadre of old-guard fascists who kept the torch burning and bequeathed it to a new generation of extremists who are carrying on the struggle today.
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