The lure of the iron fist; BY CHARLES TOWNSHEND FASCISM: A History by Roger Eatwell, Chatto pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
IT is possible to write bad books about fascism, but it should be hard to write a dull one. No political spectre haunts our century with such spine-chilling terror. Fascism was the great trauma of modernity. The 19th century's faith in the steady march of progress and peace was brutally shattered by an irruption of ostentatious violence, deliberate irrationality and murderous intolerance. The thoughtful bourgeois was replaced by the instinctual "new man", Hitler's tiger-eyed "blond beast". In the most ideological and genocidal of total wars, 55 million people died.

At least the irruption was fairly short-lived. The "thousand year Reich" barely survived a decade. Mussolini and Hitler perished, and throughout liberated Europe, "denazification", the purging of collaborators and the trial of war criminals reasserted liberal norms. Or did they? The re-emergence of "neo-fascist" groups has raised echoes of the old terror, and even the most insignificant can open up with disturbing ease the question of whether the original movement lives on - and the even bigger question: could it all happen again?

Roger Eatwell, a political scientist who has studied neo-fascism and other "new right" movements in France and Britain, returns a positive answer to the first of these questions. A total history of fascism must rest on the assumption that the whole sprawl of thinkers and activists from the "mad philosopher" Nietzsche (Eatwell's description) onwards form a single subject. In fact, this is not quite the total history that its title suggests. By focusing on Italy, Germany, France and Britain, it leaves out Spanish Falangism and Belgian Rexism, as well as Eastern European organisations like the Romanian Iron Guard or the Hungarian Arrow Cross, not to mention non-European phenomena such as Peronism.

Still, even the narrowish west European area presents a challenge for anyone opting to write a parallel narrative history of four major countries, and Eatwell's decent and serviceable style does not have the eclat of, say, F L Carsten's 30-year-old classic The Rise of Fascism. He is right to say that "national political traditions played their part in moulding the fascist regimes", but his "hunt for the more concrete roots of fascism" pushes him back an uncomfortably long way into the past. His accounts of early German nationalism or of the Italian Risorgimento are dangerously sketchy. Yet the sheer scale of his narrative tends to swamp the analysis of fascism itself.

Fascism is notoriously difficult to define, but the issue has to be faced by anyone trying to relate pre-1945 fascism to its variegated and fissiparous successors. Eatwell's criterion is "a form of thought which preaches the need for social rebirth in order to forge a holistic-national radical Third Way" (ie, between capitalism and communism). This emphasis on social radicalism allows him to sideline "essentially conservative" figures like Franco, or Charles Maurras in France, whose "views in general are better placed within the reactionary right-wing tradition". But this formula misses the texture of fascist approaches to politics and to life. The Italian artist Marinetti (who is squeezed out of Eatwell's history) fixed this well before Mussolini's conversion to nationalism: "We want to sing the love of danger ... to exalt aggression, the forced march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow of the fist ... to glorify war - the only cure for the world - and patriotism."

It was this contempt for all that was dear to liberals, rather than its inconsistent egalitarianism or its mechanical efforts to create a corporatist economy, which made fascism exciting and alarming. It was the celebration of action, and the glorification of decisive leadership, which linked the "classical" fascist and Nazi movements. Eatwell does not really get at the potent psychological charge contained in his heavy adjective "holistic- national". He notes that in 19th-century Germany a powerful sense of organic national unity emerged, expressing itself most fiercely in anti-Semitism. But by speaking of a German "tendency to see citizenship in terms of blood", he misses the extent to which citizenship itself was irrelevant to exponents of the inner community of the nation, Volksgemeinschaft. Yet in 1896 German student clubs, the Burschenschaften, declared that "Jewish citizens of the Reich are not to be regarded as Germans."

It is almost too neat to say that fascism rose and fell with this obsession with ethnic purity. But if this is so, the prospects of its revival may now be stronger than at any time since the war. The "international community" is being revealed for the sham it always - in the view of nationalists - was. There was always a tension between the narrow nationalist roots of populist fascism, and the Europeanist aspirations of the "new order" that appealed to many intellectuals - especially since Europeanism effectively meant German control. It was dislike of Germany that stymied Oswald Mosley's British fascist movement, for example. But if that tension is resolved by a peaceful achievement of German hegemony, the war against the enemy within could begin in earnest.