A little while ago there was an excellent movie on HBO called “Hemingway and Gellhorn.” Hemingway was, of course, the famous writer, Earnest Hemingway, and Gellman was war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. They came together in 1937 when both were covering the Spanish civil war, and eventually married, but then eventually separated. Each one had a fascinating life story to tell. Hemingway was part of the famous American expatriate movement of writers and artists living in Paris during the 1920s, and receiving much acclamation for their works. Early on he assumed a highly macho persona, both in his writings and personal life experiences. But as the world soon learned, much of that machoism was to cover-up deeply held feelings of inadequacy and depression. His father had committed suicide as did two brothers, and Earnest, himself, put a bullet in his brain in 1961, at age 62. That streak of depression seemed to be genetic, because a son also eventually committed suicide as did a granddaughter in the 1990s. Martha Gellhorn, on the other hand, suffered from no bouts of depression, but was instead an intrepid war correspondent who in WWII went fearlessly into fields of battle and trenches with fighting soldiers, as bullets and bombs were exploding all around her. She covered both Europe and the Pacific during WWII and then many other war zones in the ensuing years. She lived to the ripe age of 90, and died of natural causes in 1998.
Hemingway always had fought fiercely against the rising tides of fascism during the early part of the 20th century and his experiences during the Spanish civil war were chronicled in perhaps his most famous novel: “For Whom The Bells Toll.” (Ask not for whom the bells toll. They toll for thee.) But watching that HBO movie got me thinking about the rise of fascism and the enormous toll it has taken on all of mankind. Fascism, which has probably existed for thousands of years, is defined by its extreme form of nationalism, the scapegoating of usually defenseless minorities, and virulent military aggression. It can officially be traced to the rise of Benito Mussolini in Italy in 1922. Mussolini rose to power through democratic means, but once attaining power, made himself dictator for life, and destroyed any semblance of democracy that may have existed in Italy at the time. He also got rid of anyone who might have posed a threat to his political power. He had grand delusions about Italy reclaiming the power and territory of the old Roman Empire. Of course Italy did not have the resources or wherewithal to achieve the grandeur of ancient Rome so Mussolini eventually had to settle for smaller ambitions. In the meantime, a little man with a funny mustache, but an ability to speak in a powerful demagogic style, was taking notes in Germany.
Adolph Hitler made no secret of his admiration or sympathies for for Mussolini’s brand of fascism. Hitler, like Mussolini came to power, largely through the democratic process. But like Mussolini, once in power he eliminated all opposition and became a tyrannical dictator for life. Fascism in Hitler’s Nazi Germany thrived, largely because of the Nazi scapegoating of the small minority of Jews that lived in Germany and throughout Europe at the time. Coupling that with vicious military aggression, and you have what’s fondly known as World War II. I’m assuming that everyone knows the horrors that took place then, so I won’t go into gruesome detail, except to say that 60 million people had to die in Europe alone, before the cancer of fascism was finally expunged. Except it wasn’t eradicated in Spain when Francisco Franco took power after winning the Spanish civil war that Hemingway wrote about. Franco was also a dedicated fascist, but was somehow smart enough to keep Spain out of WWII, despite the pleadings of Hitler and Mussolini to join the Axis powers. As a result, whereas Hitler and Mussolini met death during WWII, Franco died in bed in 1975. Thereafter, democracy finally returned to Spain. (As a side note, when I visited Barcelona during Christmas of 1961, there were still small squads of military troops stationed at busy thoroughfares to assure there would be no uprising against Franco. When I checked into the hotel, they sent my passport to the police for 4 hours to make sure I wasn’t someone sent there to assassinate Franco.This was a full 25 years after Franco became dictator.)
Fascism wasn’t just relegated to Europe during WWII. In the Pacific, Japan’s militaristic brand of fascism took hold, and a brutal war ensued throughout that region that claimed millions of more lives. Japan’s brutality toward nations it had invaded was every bit as vicious as Nazi brutality in Europe. Japan might have still been ruling large chunks of the Pacific with an iron fist, had they not made the fatal mistake of bombing Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Until then Congress would not authorize the President to enter WWII. After, however, we entered the war on both fronts. Not that a strong dose of fascism didn’t exist in the U.S. For example, the Ku Klux Klan with its extreme hatred and violence toward blacks and Jews, gained enormous strength and had membership in the millions by the 1920s. Then there were large numbers of Nazi sympathizers and Hitler admirers that continually advocated for us not to join the war in Europe on the side of Britain and the Allies. President Roosevelt knew better, and would have brought us into the war sooner, but as I’ve said, his hands were tied by Congress, until the disaster at Pearl Harbor.
Today the tentacles of fascism still slither throughout the landscape, both here and abroad. Psychologically the roots of fascism are based on the strong urge to blame, or scapegoat others for one’s personal failures. Thus, “it’s not my fault that everything I’ve tried to achieve has been disaster. If it wasn’t for all those illegal aliens and foreigners getting all the good jobs, or all the preferences or affirmative actions shown to minorities I’d be a huge success.” Or so the thinking goes. I guess as long as human nature is what it is, the eradication of fascism, once and for all, will be beyond our grasp.