WHEN LEON DEGRELLE DIED RECENTLY AT 87 IN EXILE in Spain, he had lived long enough to enjoy a last laugh at the expense of those who doubted the durability of the dark impulses that define fascism. Founder of a fascist party in Belgium in the 1930s, Degrelle organized a Belgian military unit that fought for Germany in Russia and was integrated into the Waffen SS. Condemned to death by Belgium, he escaped to Spain, where for decades he hosted members of Europe's fascist remnants. He claimed that Hitler had said to him, "If I had a son, I would have liked him to be like you."
Today it seems that Hitler had progeny after all. Who could have guessed in 1945 that half a century later communism would be a spent force in Europe but that echoes of fascism would be reverberating there. Among the grim astonishments of a century replete with them is the fact that the world has fresh reasons for worrying about the tribalism, irrationality, mythmongering and cult of purging violence that define fascism.
Never mind that Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the socialist journalist who first brought fascism to power, is a member of the neofascist party's delegation in Italy's Parliament. By now that growing party may be merely xenophobic, and Italy is a stable democracy. The English Football Association was foolish to cancel a soccer match set for Berlin last Wednesday, Hitler's birthday, because of fears of neo-Nazi violence. The firebombing of a Lubeck synagogue last month does not indicate the disposition of Germany, which is a stable democracy.
But in Russia Vladimir Zhirinovsky's recognizably fascist party recently received 25 percent of the vote. His rantings about restoring Russia's lost status and land, including Alaska, might seem as funny as Charlie Chaplin's portrayal of Hitler as a buffoon seemed until, suddenly, Hitler was no laughing matter. And there is a family resemblance to fascism in the impulses currently fueling Serbian barbarism.
Against Marxism's myth of creative class conflict, with the proletariat the engine of progress, fascism offered the myth of perfect national unification. A nation could be a people purged of internal conflicts and of "unassimilables," such as Jews. History would be powered by the outward projection of strong nations' hostilities against weak nations. Marxism preached that preindustrial factors-race, ethnicity, religion-had lost their history-making power. Fascism asserted the primacy of the primordial. Marxism is a discredited prophecy. Fascism has a future.
As they use "ethnic cleansing" to create "Greater Serbia, " Serbs claim, as Hitler and Mussolini did, to be defending both their nation's ancient particularity and "European" civilization. Serbian demolition of mosques is revenge against the Ottoman Turks. Fascism was, and is, projected hostilities and does not just condone violence, it is inextricable from violence-it is violence. "The democrats of Il Mondo want to know our program?" said Alessandra's grandfather. "it is to break the bones of the democrats of Il Mondo." His spirit simmers in those Serbian gunners firing randomly into cities jammed with refugees.
The soil of modern society, including American society, has been fertilized for fascist seedlings. Fascism is a revenge history takes on an age of mindless moral relativism. You say we should "deconstruct" all truth claims (a founder of "deconstructionism," Paul de Man. whose writings are still influential in American universities, was a Belgian fascist) because there are no facts, only opinions? Well then, if truth is a chimera, let the stronger opinion prevail. Serbian opinions are very strong. You say you favor "ethnic self-determination"? How do you like the Bosnian Serbs' determination?
In the name of "diversity" and "multiculturalism" many American young people are taught to ground their sense of self in their racial or ethnic identity. This repudiates a source of America's success, its creedal identity, grounded in free assent to truths-"propositions," in Lincoln's language-to which the nation is dedicated. History-make that "history"-is increasingly taught not to ascertain truth but to enhance the "self-esteem" of various factions. The result is the manufacture of myths that make this or that group feel good. Or bad. Today more and more groups are taught to cultivate grievances as victims. Fascism flourishes as a doctrine of vengeance.
Fascism favors the visceral over the cerebral-thinking with one's blood. There is a lot of that going on where there should be the least of it-in universities. Khalid Muhammad is a black anti-Semite currently receiving ovations on some historically black campuses, and others. After touring the Holocaust Museum in Washington last week, he referred dismissively to what the Nazis did to "so-called" Jews. (He calls Jews "hook-nose, bagel-eating ... just crawled out from the caves and hills of Europe.") Then he headed for Howard University to lecture, again.
He says 150 million blacks died en route to the Americas in slave ships. Many historians believe that between 7 million and 15 million Africans came to this hemisphere as slaves, and perhaps 15 percent died during the transatlantic passage. Howard students should hear David Biron Davis, Sterling Professor of History at Yale and an authority on slavery. But Howard officials persuaded Davis to "postpone" a scheduled lecture there because they thought the anti-Semites-Davis is Jewish-would disrupt the event. Said a dean, "I did not want this man to be embarrassed." Howard cannot protect a scholar from the equivalent of Brownshirts, and the scholar might be embarrassed?
This squalid little episode is of course as nothing next to the bloodlust in Bosnia, but it arises from a similar mentality, and is another reason why, 50 years later, the faint smile on the face of Leon Degrelle looks so sinister.