Saturday, 30 July 2011

Good Nazis, bad news: fascism in contemporary film


December 1937: The soldiers of fascist Japan are attacking Nanjing, the capital city of China, and massacring thousands of its inhabitants. As the warplanes roar overhead, John Rabe, a German businessman working for Siemens, hurries back to his factory, surrounded by fleeing Chinese workers. He allows the gates to be opened and orders the unfurling of an immense swastika flag, urging the refugees beneath it. When the Japanese pilots see the symbol of their Nazi allies, they move on – in a grotesque image, the swastika has become the means to a humanitarian act.

John Rabe (2009), directed by Florian Gallenberger, is a German film about the so-called ‘good Nazi of Nanjing’ [1], who used his membership of Hitler’s NSDAP to help protect a safety zone that saved the lives of over 200,000 Chinese from Japanese aggression. It is just one of a slew of recent films, on both big and small screens, which encourage us to revise our attitudes towards fascism.

In The Pianist (2003), the protagonist Szpilman is rescued from starvation by a music-loving Nazi officer. In Valkyrie (2009), a conspiracy of high-ranking National Socialists led by Von Stauffenberg is appalled by the excesses of Hitler. Further examples include Black Book (2006), The Counterfeiters (2007), Good (2008) and The Reader (2008) – and in Downfall (2004) we see the humanising of Hitler himself. None of these films advocates fascism as a form of government, or disputes that Hitler was a nasty piece of work. But apparently there were nice fascists too – and in contemporary Western cinema we’re cheering them on.

This trend represents a qualitative change in how fascism is treated on film, and demands an obvious question: Why are some film-makers trying to show followers of modernity’s most vile political doctrine in a sympathetic light?

We shall discuss this trend and some of its most important films in more detail [2]. But first we need to look at the broader social, economic and political context in which they are being created. Artistic trends, like political ones, are products of particular historical circumstances. They cannot be ‘explained’ through that context in a simplistic fashion, as their relationship to it is uneven, but nor can they be separated from it without their full significance being missed. As I shall argue, the shift of the political discourse to the right over the last thirty years has permeated all levels of society, including its cultural products.


We are presently living through an economic crisis, the worst since 1929 and still far from over, which is the product of a long, slow capitalist decline.

In the immediate post-war period the United States was by far the most dominant nation on the planet – it was the only nuclear-armed power and was responsible for half the world’s manufacturing output. Wartime industrial expansion helped to provide the resources to pour billions into rebuilding Germany and Japan, and allowed imperialism to reorganise itself around US hegemony.

From the 1970s however the US has been suffering a relative decline, whose principal cause is the immense competitive pressure placed upon the US economy by the higher levels of investment in Germany from the 1950s, in Japan from the 1960s, and in China today. With China in particular investing at historically unprecedented levels (more than 40% of GDP), it is extremely difficult for the Western powers to keep up.

As Karl Marx noted, capitalists must increase their level of investment in the means of production to remain competitive, but this investment grows more rapidly than the surplus value created by the workers – thus in the ratio of profit to investment, the rate of profit tends to fall.

Western capitalism’s response was the agenda pursued by Reagan, Thatcher and their neo-liberal successors since 1979: to transfer resources to capital from the working class by extending working hours, driving down wages, restricting trade unions and rolling back the welfare state. Their offensive has been made easier by the overthrow of the Russian Revolution in 1991, which dealt a huge blow to the prestige and influence of socialism in general. The Western capitalist alliance has also used the unrivalled military power of the United States to achieve goals it can no longer win by economic means. The most significant examples of this were the attacks on Iraq in 1990, Yugoslavia in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq again in 2003.

Over the last thirty years, therefore, the bourgeoisie has driven politics in the Western states to the right, with militarism and racism in tow. Yet despite its attacks on the working class and the opening of new markets in the former workers’ states in Eastern Europe, Western imperialism has still not succeeded in reversing its relative decline. It is only in this context that the rise of fascism, and its treatment in the cultural sphere, can be fully understood.

What is fascism?

The precise nature of fascism was dissected by Leon Trotsky, who exposed as nonsense the Stalinist theory that all forms of capitalism were as bad as each other. Trotsky argued that whereas a ‘normal’ dictatorship (an example from recent times would be Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq) uses the standard police and institutional resources of the bourgeois state, fascism has a different character.

Presented with a crisis that threatens its very existence, capital needs greater forces on the ground to defeat the workers’ movement and mobilises a section of the masses, the petty bourgeoisie, which it uses “as a battering ram.”[3] A fascist regime sweeps aside independent organisations of the working class and subordinates the apparatus of the state to monopoly capital, increasing the exploitation of the working class (even as far as the use of slave labour) to produce the superlative profits that can extricate it from crisis.

The bourgeoisie has a contradictory relationship with fascism. It does not trust the petty bourgeois forces it mobilises, and in return the petty bourgeoisie engages in occasional rhetoric against big capital. Hence the distaste with which Hitler’s NSDAP was regarded by the traditional conservative parties in Germany. Nonetheless, fascism creates ideal conditions for big capital and cannot triumph without its full support. In his famous montage ‘Millions Stand Behind Me’, in which a businessman places wads of banknotes into Hitler’s saluting hand, the German artist John Heartfield neatly illustrated whose interests fascism truly serves.

Fascism therefore is not some perplexing psychological enigma: it is a capitalist response, logical in its way, to the kind of crisis that precipitated Europe into the First World War and intensified after the 1929 crash.

If fascism is a form of militant capitalism hostile to working class interests, why does a section of the working class support it? Hitler could not come to power with the votes of the petty bourgeoisie alone. These votes were won over through a combination of pseudo-socialist rhetoric and an appeal to nationalism and racism. This combination is manifested today in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment and the myth of the ‘white working class’ as a distinct community whose needs are being overlooked. Fascism cannot thrive without racism, its repulsive ideological fuel.


Racism plays an essential part in the bourgeoisie’s response to the crisis, dividing the working class by turning its members against one another and scapegoating vulnerable minorities for the social problems arising from the failings of capitalism. The principle was summarised by Karl Marx in a letter of 1870 where he discussed anti-Irish prejudice:

Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker.[4]

Marx’s argument is just as true of the contemporary prejudices against Muslims, immigrants and other minorities.

Racism desensitises the West to the humanity of the many millions of people, overwhelmingly black, who suffer most from increasing global inequality. It ‘justifies’ brutal attacks on the Middle East and elsewhere by demonising people who come from the target region. At home, it diverts from government the blame for housing shortages and the other social problems exacerbated by neo-liberalism. Racism is thus imperialism’s ideological accomplice, expressed through anti-immigrant legislation, attacks on multi-culturalism, media scare stories about asylum seekers and Muslims (who are overwhelmingly from ethnic minorities), and other means. Sadly a section of the left also supports Islamophobia from a supposedly progressive direction, claiming that Islam is especially sexist, homophobic and reactionary. In practice, this scramble to abet the hounding of a minority provides a ‘left’ justification for imperialism’s wars and benefits racism.

The rise in racism inevitably boosts support for the fascist parties that feed on it. The public is frustrated by the identikit neo-liberalism of the main political parties. The bourgeoisie’s concern is that this discontent, and pressure upon mainstream politics, should be led by right-wing developments such as, in Britain, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the fascist British National Party (BNP). It is therefore allowing space for fascist arguments and even actively assists their profile. BNP leader Nick Griffin has been invited to speak on the BBC’s Newsnight and Question Time programmes, and the BNP’s bigotry is rarely challenged by mainstream politicians disarmed by their own concessions to racism.

The encouragement of racism has had concrete results. Globally there has been a slight shift in favour of the working class over the last decade, with the rise of China, the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and a general left shift in Latin America, and the stymieing of the US military in Iraq. In Europe, however, developments on the far right have equalled or outpaced those on the far left. In Italy and Austria, far right parties have taken part in governing coalitions. In France, National Front leader Le Pen reached the second round of the 2002 presidential elections. In Britain, where the far right has historically been less successful than on the continent, the BNP won two MEPs and nearly a million votes in the 2009 Euro-elections – the biggest vote for a fascist party in British history. In the English Defence League (EDL) we see a street-fighting movement that aims to intimidate Muslim communities.

It is in this context that sympathetic fascists are being introduced onto our screens.

(Continued in Part 2.)

[1] Rabe’s diaries were published under the less offensive title The Good Man of Nanking in 1998.
[2] This article is concerned with the political significance of the films discussed rather than their quality as cinema, which is variable.
[3] Leon Trotsky, Fascism: What it is and how to fight it (1944/1969).
[4] Karl Marx, letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, 9 April 1870.

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