Ángel Alcalde. War Veterans and Fascism in Interwar Europe. Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Modern Warfare Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xiii + 314 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-19842-5.
Reviewed by Kevin Braam (US Army)
Published on H-War (September, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Following the end of World War I, armies across Europe demobilized and many units downsized. Veterans of the Great War returned to their home country hoping to start life where they had left off. Political and economic changes affected Allied countries as well as those of the Central powers. Veterans’ organizations provided comradery for former soldiers and a voice in the fight for veterans’ rights and unrealized promises. In his book War Veterans and Fascism in Interwar Europe, Ángel Alcalde describes how fascist movements used veteran groups to help achieve a desired political end state. The relationship of fascists and veterans is focused primarily on Italian politics, but also described is the transference of ideas from Italy to such countries as Germany, France, and Spain. To better understand veteran mobilization in Italy, Alcalde presents a new argument that goes beyond the “brutalization” theory. The brutalization theory maintains that veterans of the Great War were numb to the effects of warfare thus making them susceptible to political influence. Alcalde argues that Italian fascists capitalized on this, but they also sought to elevate the status of veterans by showing their significance within society and by conveying that veterans were above the fray and deserved special treatment compared to the regular citizenry. The relationship of veterans and fascism is presented chronologically, with the interwar era separated into four distinct periods. Within each period the author explores the role of media, symbolism, and commemoration of veterans, highlighting the effects on public perception.
Media played a significant role in the amalgamation of veteran groups and Italian fascists. In late 1917, Benito Mussolini wrote an article for the newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia titled “Trincerocrazia” in which he outlined fascist ideals for postwar Italy. The primary focus of the article was how Mussolini “envisioned a new society in which the war veterans would play an essential role” (p. 29). From the beginning of fascism in Italy, the direct connection to war veterans was made. This newspaper became the voice of fascism and the advocate for veterans and their relationship to the welfare of the Italian state. This new political force could counterbalance the socialist influence in Italy, as Mussolini feared the possibility of revolution modeled after that of Russia. Socialist influence was prevalent in Italy following World War I. Alcalde presents new scholarship regarding the socialist use of media to court veterans in Italy. He argues that through newspapers such as Avant! socialists portrayed themselves as anti-war but not anti-veteran. This did not resonate well with former officers and soldiers and had an opposite effect, driving veterans to join such organizations as the Associazione Nazionale Combattenti (ANC), a large all-encompassing veterans group. Italian fascists portrayed war veterans as the most ardent anti-Bolsheviks in Italy. In addition, the fear of Bolshevik threat brought veterans together under a common cause in Italy and other European countries.
Another organization that brought veterans together in Italy was the National Association of the War Maimed and War Wounded (ANMIG). ANMIG brought together disabled veterans in the early 1920s, and took action to secure unpaid pensions. In December 1920, members of ANMIG demonstrated in Rome and, through threats of violence, forced parliament to pass new legislation supporting pension reform for all veterans of the Great War. Violence was used in support of the fascist cause as well as the promotion of veterans. The most influential fascist political party, the National Fascist Party (PNF), formed the squadrismo, or autonomous fascist squads under a local leader. Alcalde argues that the squadrismo was the most decisive political instrument of the development of the fascist movement. By late 1922, a symbolic link existed between fascists and veterans. The public perception of this was reinforced through fascist attacks on businesses and the forcing of employers to hire veterans. Perception of the fascist connection with veterans was felt outside Italy as well in the early 1920s.
In Germany, fascism grew out of fear of communists, anger about the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and a call for a new nationalistic fervor. Of the many ways Germany differed from Italy, one was the fascist/veteran relationship. The media perpetuated the perception of the fascist/veteran relationship outside of Italy. In early 1921, the Münchener Post reported that fascists, not veterans, were responsible for influencing the veteran pension bill for veterans that passed parliament in Rome in December 1920. Alcalde proves through his scholarship that “veterans and fascists were sometimes undistinguishable” (p. 85). While the author posits that newspaper articles were influential with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, it is more plausible, Alcalde suggests, that racial prejudice and attitudes toward Jewish veterans kept early German fascists from recruiting veterans. It was not until the 1930s that the Nazi Party incorporated the symbol of the veteran and modeled their approach to veterans after that of Italy.
Throughout the rise of fascism and political power in Italy, the symbol and significance of veterans were developed, recycled, and used for the purposes of increasing fascist influence. By June 1924, fascists had successfully rebranded the concept of veteranism. The fascist movement was portrayed as the voice of veterans and as a movement run by veterans themselves rather than politicans. Alcalde describes some of the significant events the PNF used to commemorate veterans. Between 1928 and 1930, ceremonies in recognition of World War I veterans were first introduced. The squadrismo embodied the new symbolism as they adopted uniforms closely resembling those of World War I Italian Army uniforms. By the late 1930s, national leaders of the PNF were also leaders in the ANC. Alcalde shows through detailed analysis how this assimilation took place. In the final chapters, he describes the nature of the fascist/veteran relationship following the Italian seizure of Ethiopia. A celebratory merger took place as the PNF presented veterans of the war in Ethiopia and World War I as equally deserving of praise. Fascists wanted to ensure that veterans joined the PNF, thus advancing the fascist/veteran relationship. By 1939, the PNF provided all veterans with automatic membership. While fascists in Italy dominated control over veteran influence and support, Germany and several other nations had differing success despite direct Italian influence.
After Hitler assumed the chancellery, the Nazi Party actively recruited veterans with various support and outreach programs. Disabled veterans were declared “First Citizens of the State” (p. 229). Germany paid recognition to veterans, and the SA (Sturmabteilung, the Nazi Party’s original paramilitary wing) used campaign slogans appealing to veterans of World War I. In France, the sharing of fascist ideas increased, with French members traveling to Italy to strengthen their bonds, and also stepping up fascist activity at home, specifically with World War I celebrations. Despite the presence of fascism in France, the author argues that they were not true fascists. The stance of the Croix de Feu (founded by veterans) supported defense of the homeland but did not advocate oppressive measures against businesses as seen in Italy. Fascists in each country sought influence with and support from veterans, not for the benefit of those heroes who served but for the advancement of fascism itself. Italy was the most successful at advancing the fascist/veteran relationship out of every country in Europe.
Fascism appealed to citizens of many European countries after World War I. In Italy, veterans were a group specifically targeted for their patriotism and embodiment of what it meant to be Italian. Through his detailed research, Alcalde has produced an excellent work that advances the field of study about the rise of fascism and its relationship with veterans. Alcalde presents an easy to follow narrative filled with intriguing new scholarship.
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