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Pierre Milza, historian: 1932-2018

Enda O’Doherty writes: Pierre Milza, who died in Saint-Malo, Brittany on February 28th, was an eminent French historian of Italy and a specialist in the study of Italian fascism and other forms of nationalism and authoritarianism in mid-twentieth century Europe.

The son of an Italian immigrant who had fought in the First World War and a French worker, Milza rediscovered his family roots on a visit, aged sixteen, to an aunt in San Remo, Liguria. He very quickly learned Italian and returned repeatedly throughout his life to the country to pursue his research in Italian archives and teach at universities in Parma and Florence.



Milza, who spent the greater part of his career at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris, wrote a large number of works on fascism in its various national shapes, on international relations and on Italian immigration into France and the problems of integration, as well as individual studies of Verdi, Voltaire, Garibaldi, Mussolini and Pope Pius XII. He also co-authored, with his close friend Serge Berstein, a number of popular synthetic general histories for college use which were known as models of rigour and clarity. Milza was in the 1950s a fellow traveller of the French communist party, but later, under the pressure of events in eastern Europe, gravitated towards the socialists, thus sharing, according to his son Olivier Milza de Cadenet, in “all the painful mutations of French socialism”.

The title of his substantial 1985 work is indicative of Milza’s scrupulous approach to his chief academic specialisation: it is Les Fascismes not Le Fascisme (fascisms not fascism). The various forms in which the ideology took flesh in different countries were, he believed, “close relations of each other, but marked by a specificity which related to the past, the individual traditions and the societal structures of the countries in which they developed”. Thus Italian fascism would exhibit different characteristics from German or Belgian, while these would also be different from the various forms of national authoritarianism which flourished in central or southeastern Europe in the 1930s; different again might be the Iberian variants of Francoism or Salazarism, more closely allied with long-standing traditions of Catholic reaction.

Milza also believed that fascism, properly speaking, was a phenomenon of a particular place and moment (Europe in the inter-war period) and that it was unlikely – in spite of the nostalgia of former adherents or the periodically flaring enthusiasms of small groups of the marginalised and disaffected – to reappear as a significant force. He also deprecated the use of the term to denote other forms of authoritarian rule, however murderous (Latin American or Arab populism, South American military regimes protecting savage landlordism and capitalism), and, in 1985, in his preface to Les Fascismes, offered a view of the future which we might now regard as rather too sanguine:

At the time of completing this book the European elections of June 1984 show clearly to what degree, after ten years of crisis, fascism has become a marginal force even in those countries where it was born and experienced, half a century ago, its most striking successes. What is left today of the MSI of Almirante or the NPD of Adolf von Thadden [the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano and the neo-Nazi Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands], which were flourishing at the beginning of the 1970s? What weight in European politics do the nostalgics of Francoism, Salazarism or the Greek colonels’ dictatorship have? What significance, other than as a commemoration of a past that is gone, has the annual gathering of neo-Nazis at Dixmude in this Flemish territory that once supported a mass fascist movement? Only France appears to be an exception, with its 11 per cent support for the Front national ...

Given what has happened since in European politics, and particularly in the last few years, 1984 is strangely beginning to look like a happy time in the distant past. Certainly Germany kept its far right for a very long time in its box, but in last year’s federal election the AfD, whose joint leader Alexander Gauland has said that Germans could be proud of the deeds of their soldiers in WWII, won 12.6 per cent of the national vote. In Italy last weekend the successor party of Giorgio Almirante’s neo-fascists, Fratelli d’Italia, won 4.35 per cent support and is a member of what is somewhat laughably referred to as the centre-right coalition, in which the main force is no longer Berlusconi’s Forza Italia but the Lega Nord (17.37 per cent) led by the rather nasty xenophobe Matteo Salvini. Marine Le Pen, the French Front national’s candidate, won 34 per cent of the vote in last year’s presidential election run-off ‑ though the party’s core vote in other elections is much less. Meanwhile, right-wing anti-EU populists thrive in various countries in northern Europe while a form of populist nationalism has made a strong return in many of the central and eastern European regions which in 1984 were part of the communist bloc. And sprinkled among those nationalists are smaller but far from insignificant far-right groups, like Hungary’s Jobbik, that look as near as bedamned to actual fascists.

The situation is certainly depressing and we are right to be worried. At the same time there is a good deal of flux in politics: the unexpected has happened (viz Emmanuel Macron) and may well happen again – at least we may hope so. What would Pierre Milza say? Well this is what he did say in 1985:

After four decades of peace, the industrialised world, and particularly Europe ... are characterised by almost unanimous support for the democratic model and by a correspondingly large rejection of totalitarianisms of right and left. This doesn’t mean that it has definitively moved beyond being threatened by one or the other, any more than it means that dictatorships which are flourishing elsewhere in the world are any less repressive or inhuman than those which have given their name [fascism] to the present study. It would be decidedly myopic to believe that. But let us agree to call things by their name, respect for humanity and for democracy having nothing to gain by lumping different things together or by conceptual confusion. This book [Les Fascismes] has no other ambition.

Milza is no doubt here thinking principally of a certain laziness and imprecision of terminology which was prevalent thirty years ago and is prevalent now (in the notion of “Islamofascism”, for example). But in fact calling things fascist which are not fascist has an even longer pedigree. The German communist party of the 1930s was inclined to call its social democratic rivals “social-fascists” and paint them as a greater enemy than the Nazis – until the point at which, in 1933, both parties were swept away into the jails and prison camps. Contemporary far-leftists too can have a rather wide definition of the term, while even some who would not think of themselves as extremists at all seem increasingly prone to wonder out loud why people whose views they find unacceptable (which is to say conservative, traditional) are being “given a platform”.

In a characteristically confident and eloquent article (with which I find myself partially in disagreement), Fintan O’Toole last year argued that the current phenomenon of the “alt-right” was essentially the same thing as classical fascism, the “surface changes [being] surely less important than the underlying continuities”. This is an arguable position, but I would suggest that the main reason why some people on the left – though possibly not Fintan himself – are so keen to designate this or that phenomenon as fascist is the fairly general acceptance of the idea that had fascism been crushed at the outset, its appalling consequences could have been prevented ‑ furthermore, that crushing, suppression, silencing is in fact the only way in which this particular phenomenon can be dealt with.

Personally, I wouldn’t have any real objection to outlawing fascist, racist, antisemitic, violent, paramilitary politicians of the street wherever they raise their head, but a problem is that the far left is rather fond of the idea of crushing pretty much all those who do not agree with it and can be quite undiscriminating in those it affects to consider fascist. Is a far-right phenomenon which has its chief existence in virtual networks rather than actual cells of an actual party, most of whose participants seem never to have grown up and which pathetically amuses itself by belittling and abusing women and sneering at those not fortunate enough to have been born white the same thing as a disciplined, consistently violent mass party of uniformed thugs with a charismatic leader who whips up hysteria at rallies, threatens war on neighbours and drives determinedly towards power with a ballot paper in one hand and a truncheon (and where required machinegun) in the other? Some might argue that the very considerable material differences here of scale and brute power are, in terms of practical consequences, more important than the undoubted ideological continuities.

The answer to the question whether contemporary alt-rightists are the same as 1930s NSDAP members may depend on what we understand by the words “the same thing”. For Fintan, fascism is “a virus”, which “adapts itself to changing environments”. This is of course a metaphor, and metaphor is what one expects from a predominantly literary intellectual. But fascism is in fact not a virus or any kind of biological organism with predictable behaviour patterns but a set of beliefs or ideologies and practices: it doesn’t, of itself, do anything; people do things, individually and collectively. It has not for a long time been more necessary than it is now to keep a close watch on the new forms that the far right is taking (of which the alt-right is probably not likely to be the most dangerous). But we are not going to be very successful in our efforts to combat it if we do not try to understand its various and increasingly multiple forms, their connections and the differences between them. Let’s try to keep our heads clear – in memory, at least, of the very distinguished historian Pierre Milza.

7/3/2018