Science

The ideals, but not the revolution

'Dutch fascism failed'

According to Willem Huberts, fascism among Dutch political parties in the 1920s and ‘30s ‘failed’ with respect to the fascism of, for example, Germany and Italy. On Thursday, he will obtain his doctorate for his research into Dutch fascism.
Text and photo by Koen Marée / Translated by Alain Reniers

Willem Huberts researched fascism in the Netherlands. He became fascinated by this topic while working for the University Library where, in the 1980s, he found an enormous bequest of fascist literature.

According to Huberts, the common definition of fascism needs to be adjusted; Dutch fascist parties were not advocating revolution, yet considered themselves fascists. In Huberts’ opinion, the revolution criterion is thus not essential.

Repressive measures issued by the government held back the rise of fascist parties and movements in the 1920s and 1930s.

Huberts sees a lot of similarities with the current political climate. Nevertheless, in his eyes, politicians cannot be considered fascist because the ideology has withered.

Reading time: 5 minutes (1,012 words)

In Germany, Adolf Hitler took control. In Italy, Benito Mussolini organised a march into Rome and had a successful revolution as well. And in the Netherlands? Here, a failed revolution resulted in repressive measures issued by the government. As a result, Dutch fascism did not gain a foothold until 1939. Even though there was no revolution, there were definitely active fascist parties in the Netherlands.

Immediately following World War I, politician Pieter Jelles Troelstra called for a socialist revolution at De Harskamp army base. His efforts were based on the communist revolution in the Soviet Union and revolutionary uprisings in Germany. During the Roode Week, there was a lot of unrest in the Netherlands, but the coup ultimately failed. In fact, the socialists were not allowed to be a part of government until 1933 out of fear for a new revolution.

An anti-revolution law meant that, after 1921, parties and movements were allowed to cherish revolutionary thoughts, but were no longer permitted to put them into practice. ‘Nevertheless, reading between the lines in newspapers and pamphlets, it was clear that specific parties were still focusing on revolution,’ Willem Huberts says. On Thursday, he will receive his doctorate for his research into Dutch fascism, a field he became interested in in the 1980s. ‘At the time, I worked at the University Library and was tasked with picking up a bequest in Amsterdam. This contained a range of books from authors whom I, as a Dutch language expert, was unfamiliar with.’ Further inspection revealed that it concerned fascist works.

What is fascism?

From that point forward, Huberts began developing into an expert on fascist Dutch literature. In 2005, he decided to shift focus to fascism as an ideology, a topic he knew little about at the time. No complete overview of fascism in the Netherlands existed. However, there was a definition of fascism, which was established after years of discussions. ‘English historian Roger Griffin states that fascism can be defined based on four criteria. It must be revolutionary, populist, extreme-nationalist and palingenetic. The latter means that it strives for a rebirth of the nation, to go back to what was lost.’

‘The revolutionary aspect means that it is felt that society needs to change as fast as possible as it is considered to currently be rotten to the core. A revolution would be necessary to take power; this was a firm belief.’

Sometimes revolutionary

Huberts investigated to what extent all 60 to 70 political parties that were active in the period between 1923 and 1945 period viewed themselves as fascist. Subsequently, he focused on the seven primary parties, such as NSB and Zwart Front. He discovered that six out of seven could not be considered revolutionary. ‘Then I asked myself: ‘How?’ If this is the main characteristic of fascism, then am I supposed to conclude that they were not fascist parties? They called themselves fascists, the outside world saw them as fascists, and they embraced fascist ideals. That seemed strange to me.’

‘To this end, in my conclusion I propose an altered definition of generic fascism. By adding the words ‘sometimes revolutionary’, the definition is still valid. The revolutionary aspects simply do not have the same weight as before. Of course, I could’ve picked a different definition for Dutch fascism, but I learned from the past. In the 1960s to ‘80s, researchers tangled with each other proposing new definitions of fascism. Linking up with Griffin seemed to be more productive.’

Around 1932 and 1933, when Hitler rose to power in Germany, the fascist parties failed to turn the ‘momentum’ into revolution. ‘This period was a big boost for Dutch fascism. A lot of articles were written in the press and there were public meetings. This is when the government took additional measures. Even though the anti-revolution law was in effect, revolutionary sentiments were still permitted. By this time, however, civil servants were no longer permitted to be a member of extremist parties. Catholics were also told by the church that they were not allowed to be affiliated with right-wing extremist politics. It was an effective measure that caused Dutch fascism’s failure.’

Insult

In this day and age, parallels are often drawn with the period right before World War II. In Huberts’ eyes, politicians like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders are not fascists. ‘Fascism has become an insult. If someone would say: ‘Wilders is acting like a fascist,’ then they’re not saying: ‘Wilders is following a specific ideology,’ but it is intended as an insult, and that immediately kills any discussion. I can say, however, that these politicians and parties base themselves partly on the same ideology as what was then called fascism.’


Moreover, he recognises a similar atmosphere of unease within society. ‘We are currently faced with a lot of technological developments in a short period of time, but this was the same in the 1920s and ‘30s. There was the rise of electricity, construction of railways, the construction of the first planes. These enormous changes were reinforced by the outcome of World War I. New countries formed, such as Yugoslavia and Austria, and old countries, such as the Ottoman Empire, fell apart. Citizens were not so sure about what once was quite clear.’

Side effects

‘I see the same thing happening now,’ Huberts says. ‘My grandfather was born in 1885 and said that he felt more like a Groninger in the 1960s. Now we’re Dutch, or even European or world citizens. This globalisation causes a number of unpleasant side effects in our society from which PVV is profiting, from which Denk is profiting, from which VNL is profiting.’

An important difference is the society we are living in now, says Huberts. ‘We have turned into an open and communicative society. Contrary to the 1920s, today’s citizen does not simply accept what the government is saying; instead, people need to be convinced. Repressive tools like those used in the 1930s will no longer work. I expect my government to offer solutions that everyone can accept. It should occupy itself with keeping everyone together. Only pointing out differences is not that effective.’

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