National Review’s history of celebrating fascism and minimizing its crimes

Much is being made of this post on the National Review‘s blog that takes issue with Obama calling the Holocaust “senseless” and appears to engage in a kind of Big Lebowski-eqsue defense of Nazi Germany. The reality is that for this publication and for many individuals associated with it, defenses–and even celebrations–of fascism are par for the course:

When the Spanish tyrant [Francisco Franco] died in 1975, National Review published two effusive obituaries. F.R. Buckley (brother to National Review founder William F. Buckley) hailed Franco as “a Spaniard out of the heroic annals of the nation, a giant. He will be truly mourned by Spain because with all his heart and might and soul, he loved his country, and in the vast context of Spanish history, did well by it.” James Burnham simply argued that “Francisco Franco was our century’s most successful ruler.” (Both quotes are from the November 21, 1975 issue). Aside from F.R. Buckley and Burnham, many of the early National Reviewers were ardent admirers of Franco’s Spain, which they saw as an authentically Catholic nation free from the vices supposedly gripping the United States and the northern European countries. National Review stalwarts like Frederick Wilhelmsen, Arnold Lunn, and L. Brent Bozell, Jr. made pilgrimages to Spain, finding spiritual nourishment in the dictatorship’s seemingly steadfast Catholicism.
In his 1987 book From This Moment On, National Review editor Jeffrey Hart made a remarkable attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Benito Mussolini. According to Hart, Il Duce made only “a single error in judgement” (his decision to support Hitler in 1940). Other than that, everything the fascist leader did was hunky-dory. “His 1922 blackshirt march on Rome brought to an end a period of political deadlock and leftist riot,” Hart asserts. “His domestic achievements were substantial…. There was repression, the administrating of doses of castor oil, but no Gulags and Belsens or Cambodian-style slaughter….Mussolini was probably better read than any other national leader of his time…. Mussolini’s leadership made even proletarians take some pride in being Italian, and his addresses, broadcast across the Atlantic, were listened to with respect in American-Italian households…. Mussolini stood 5 feet 6 inches and had a massive, handsome head…. Mussolini liked to interrupt his working day several times with sexual intercourse, often standing up and in his uniform, a very rapid performance.” The ode to Mussolini’s character and sexual prowess ends, appropriately enough, with a quote from Ezra Pound, the fascist poet (Jeet Heer, 20 December 2007).

As noted in Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life, the magazine also used the opportunity posed by the Israeli trial of Adolf Eichmann to minimize Nazi war crimes and express more concerns about exploitation of the event by Communist propagandists:

The general circulation magazine that outdid all others in the frequency and vehemence of its attacks on the trial was William F. Buckley’s National Review. Its first commentary on Eichmann was noteworthy in that, at a time when all the other media were reporting his millions of victims, it spoke of Eichmann’s being “generally believed to have a primary hand in exterminating hundreds of thousands.” Two weeks later the magazine returned to the subject, attacking the “pernicious” trial that was “manipulat[ing] a series of ex post facto laws … to give assassination a juridical rationale.” National Review‘s Eichmann coverage then turned to anti-Semitic ‘humor.’ The magazine presented the imagined conversations of a vulgar Jewish couple: “Sylvie” spoke to “Myron” about Eichmann (and gold, and hairdressers) in their Central Park West apartment while “doing her nails … on an enormous crescent-shaped, gold-on-gold, French provincial Castro convertible.” A bit later, the National Review devoted an editorial to how the Communists were profiting from the “Hate Germany movement” being furthered by the Eichmann trial. As the trial opened, the magazine made its fullest statement on the subject:

We are in for a great deal of Eichmann in the weeks ahead. … We predict the country will tire of it all, and for perfectly healthy reasons. The Christian Church focuses hard on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for only one week out of the year. Three months–that is the minimum estimate made by the Israeli Government for the duration of the trial–is too long. … Everyone knows the facts, and has known them for years. There is no more drama or suspense in store for us. .. Beyond that there are the luridities. … The counting of corpses, and gas ovens, and kilos of gold wrenched out of dead men’s teeth. … There is under way a studied attempt to cast suspicion upon Germany. … It is all there: bitterness, distrust, the refusal to forgive, the advancement of Communist aims.

The magazine’s final observation of the trial was an expression of satisfaction that despite the efforts of Israeli publicists, who were “titillating the world’s appetite for horror stories,” Yuri Gagarin’s space flight and the Bay of Pigs invasion, which coincided with the opening of the trial, had chased Eichmann from the front pages (p. 130).

Then there is contributing editor Michael Ledeen‘s dalliance with Italian fascism in the 1970s:

Ledeen’s conviction that the Right is as revolutionary as the Left derives from his youthful interest in Italian fascism. In 1975, Ledeen published an interview, in book form, with the Italian historian Renzo de Felice, a man he greatly admires. It caused a great controversy in Italy. Ledeen later made clear that he relished the ire of the left-wing establishment precisely because “De Felice was challenging the conventional wisdom of Italian Marxist historiography, which had always insisted that fascism was a reactionary movement.” What de Felice showed, by contrast, was that Italian fascism was both right-wing and revolutionary. Ledeen had himself argued this very point in his book, Universal Fascism, published in 1972. That work starts with the assertion that it is a mistake to explain the support of fascism by millions of Europeans “solely because they had been hypnotized by the rhetoric of gifted orators and manipulated by skilful propagandists.” “It seems more plausible,” Ledeen argued, “to attempt to explain their enthusiasm by treating them as believers in the rightness of the fascist cause, which had a coherent ideological appeal to a great many people.” For Ledeen, as for the lifelong fascist theoretician and practitioner, Giuseppe Bottai, that appeal lay in the fact that fascism was “the Revolution of the 20th century.”

Ledeen supports de Felice’s distinction between “fascism-movement” and “fascism-regime.” Mussolini’s regime, he says, was “authoritarian and reactionary”; by contrast, within “fascism-movement,” there were many who were animated by “a desire to renew.” These people wanted “something more revolutionary: the old ruling class had to be swept away so that newer, more dynamic elements—capable of effecting fundamental changes—could come to power.” Like his claim that the common ground between Nazism and Italian fascism was “exceedingly minimal”—Ledeen writes, “The fact of the Axis Pact should not be permitted to become the overriding consideration in this analysis”—Ledeen’s careful distinction between fascist “regime” and “movement” makes him a clear apologist for the latter. “While ‘fascism-movement’ was overcome and eventually suppressed by ‘fascism-regime,’” he explains, “fascism nevertheless constituted a political revolution in Italy. For the first time, there was an attempt to mobilize the masses and to involve them in the political life of the country.” Indeed, Ledeen criticizes Mussolini precisely for not being revolutionary enough. “He never had enough confidence in the Italian people to permit them a genuine participation in fascism.” Ledeen therefore concurs with the fascist intellectual, Camillo Pellizi, who argues—in a book Ledeen calls “a moving and fundamental work”—that Mussolini’s was “a failed revolution.” Pellizzi had hoped that “the new era was to be the era of youthful genius and creativity”: for him, Ledeen says, the fascist state was “a generator of energy and creativity.” The purest ideologues of fascism, in other words, wanted something very similar to that which Ledeen himself wants now, namely a “worldwide mass movement” enabling the peoples of the world, “liberated” by American militarism, to participate in the “greatest experiment in human freedom.” Ledeen wrote in 1996, “The people yearn for the real thing—revolution” (John Laughland, American Conservative, 20 June 2003).

In the obituary James Burnham wrote upon the death of Francisco Franco (mentioned earlier), he stated the following:

The whole concept of “fascism” for that matter has been a fraud from the beginning. Like “peaceful coexistence” and “detente,” it is a tactical invention of the Soviet Agitprop, and boils down in practice to the simple definition: fascism is any regime that outlaws Communism.

So there you have it. Before Jonah Goldberg and his ilk began to blame the left-wing for fascism, the National Review and its contributors upheld fascist rulers such as Franco and Mussolini as heroes, downplayed the Holocaust, ridiculed attempts to remember the Holocaust as communist agitation, heaped praise on the very concept of fascism and attempted to deny that fascism even existed as a coherent political phenomenon.