How Fascism Inspired Radical Right Movements Across The Global South
Yannick Lengkeek is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He is a member of the project Everyday Dictatorship: Dictatorship as experience in Mediterranean Europe, which is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).
For a long time, fascism was seen only as a Western problem. After all, the movement originated in Europe and was, ideologically speaking, a concoction of European imperialism, nationalism, revolutionary syndicalism, and neoromanticism with an esoteric tinge. What could people in colonized countries possibly find attractive about an ideology that showed nothing but utter contempt towards them?
But historical findings over the last years and recent developments in postcolonial countries like India, where Muslims live in a climate of constant fear under Narendra Modi’s government, force us to broaden our Eurocentric and Western-oriented view on fascism. While fascists across the world keep preaching about borders and nations, the bitter irony is that some of the core tenets of fascism – violent ultra-nationalism, ethnic and religious scapegoating, and disregard for free speech and expression – know no borders or boundaries. Fascist bigotry is boundless.
There are more than enough cases to illustrate this point. In What am I Doing Here, the last collection of essays and travelogues written by famous travel writer Bruce Chatwin before his death in 1989, he recounts a strange encounter at a hotel in Douala, Cameroon: “There was another Englishman staying at the Hôtel Beauregard. […] The Englishman was writing a history of the German Colonial Empire. He had been investigating the activities of the Black African Nazi Movement, here in Douala, in the late Thirties. Black men in black shirts with red armbands and black swastikas. The idea made him very excited.”
On a surface level, the existence of a Black African Nazi Movement seems baffling. After all, how could Black Africans feel an affinity towards a violently racist ideology like National Socialism that put Africans at the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy? A look at global developments from the 1920s onwards provides us with a simple, yet disturbing explanation that boils down to the adage ‘the enemy of the enemy is my friend.’ In the case of Cameroon, the suspect would be German-educated African elites in Douala (primarily members of the Duala tribe) who apparently despised their new colonial rulers, the French, more than their former German overlords.
Germany controlled the colony until France took over in 1916. One argument brought forward in the academic literature on the subject is pragmatism. At that point in time, Germany was the enemy of the enemy (France), and until the tables turned with Russia’s surprising counter-offensive and the United States entering the Second World War in the winter of 1941, it looked to many observers in Cameroon like Nazi Germany was going to win. However, the fact that fascism never took root in Cameroon shows us that opportunistic displays of loyalty alone were not enough to create a genuine fascist movement.
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Strategic choices or ideological kinship? Why nationalist leaders looked to Nazi Germany
The ‘enemy of the enemy’ hypothesis is appealing because it provides us with some form of explanation as to why colonized nations as culturally diverse and geographically scattered as Egypt, Palestine, India, or Indonesia developed homegrown fascist networks. These countries shared colonial ties with nations that Nazi Germany was at war with. The British Empire held varying degrees of control over Egypt, Palestine, and India, whereas the Netherlands ruled Indonesia until the archipelago was occupied by Japanese troops in March 1942.
However, many of these fascist movements struggled to become part of the anticolonial establishment in the long run. The case of Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who sought to forge an alliance with Hitler, is a case in point. Aiming to kill two birds, namely, British rule and Jewish nation-building, with one stone, al-Husseini even visited Hitler to enlist his support for an Arab rebellion against British rule. While Hitler agreed with the objectives, he urged the Arab leader to wait, as he thought the time for an uprising was not ripe. After the war, al-Husseini gradually lost his influence, went into exile, and became a marginal figure until he died in Lebanon in 1974.
The case of Subhas Chandra Bose, an Indian nationalist who mobilized all his contacts and energy to end British rule in India by creating alliances with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, is equally illustrative. With the military and financial support of the Axis alliance, he embarked on an ambitious mission to liberate India from British rule. After the British Indian Army successfully pushed back against the Japanese attack on India in 1944-45, Bose died in a plane crash on 18 August 1945 during his escape from the advancing Allied forces.
At the same time, Subhas Bose was respected by Gandhi, who admired his extraordinary commitment to the anticolonial cause despite his questionable choice of partners. Among historians, Subhas Bose is considered a pragmatist or opportunist and not so much an ideologue. If we want to search for the real ideologues in India – the political actors who paved the way for Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist and anti-Islamic government – we have to go back all the way to figures like Nathuram Godse, the man who shot and killed Gandhi in January 1948.
As a former member of the radical Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary organization influenced by fascist sympathizers such as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and K. B. Hedgewar, Gandhi’s assassin represented a new generation of Hindu nationalists. Organizations like the RSS, which cleverly disguise themselves as harmless boy scout groups, follow the blueprint of fascist youth organizations in Europe, such as the Hitler Youth or the Opera Nazionale Balilla. Their aim was, and still is, to indoctrinate boys and young men (and, as time progressed, young women) and prepare them to fight not only for independence but also to purge the nation from various ‘undesirables,’ such as Muslims.
This explosive blend of fascist paramilitarism, youth activism, and inflammatory anti-Islamic rhetoric had a similar impact in Burma (nowadays: Myanmar), where entire ethnic groups, including the Rohingya, were stigmatized and framed as national enemies. The long-term consequences of this peculiar brand of Asian Islamophobic activism, both in India and in Myanmar, continue to have a devastating impact on Muslims in these nations, including everyone who speaks out on their behalf.
The murder of prominent Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was murdered on her doorstep, is just one of the countless cases of press representatives being attacked in the country, while the government shows open disdain for independent media outlets, academics, and activists who dare to criticize radical Hindu nationalism. Even the past itself is not safe from these attacks, as Modi’s government has taken steps to rewrite Indian history based on the Hindu-supremacist ideology of Hindutva.
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In other postcolonial countries, the legacies of anticolonial fascist activism are less visible but nevertheless frightening. In Indonesia, fascist ideology successfully found its way into the highest echelons of nationalist parties like Partai Indonesia Raya (‘Great Indonesia Party’) in the 1930s, and the party’s youth organization gained a controversial reputation in the colony for openly using the Nazi salute during party gatherings, with the infamous Hitlergruß frequently finding its way into official press releases and photographs.
Members of the party were suspected of maintaining close ties with Imperial Japan, but the Dutch colonial authorities consistently downplayed the risk posed by the party and its youth organization. More than seven decades later, in 2014, the presidential campaign of former army general Prabowo Subianto, who is accused of human rights violations in East Timor and the disappearance of democratic activists in the 1990s before the fall of the dictator Suharto, was accompanied by a wave of Nazi symbolism among some of his prominent supporters. While Prabowo Subianto lost the election in 2014 to president Joko Widodo, he was made Defence Minister under a new cabinet after the president was re-elected in 2019.
The list of countries with historical fascist movements could be continued ad nauseam. The Chinese New Life Movement in the 1930s is another fascinating example of fascism finding its way to Asia. However, the ‘enemy of the enemy’ hypothesis has its limits. Fascist movements in the Global South originally had very little broad appeal and were focused on protecting the privileges of elites that were already established: upper-caste Hindus in India, Buddhist upper-classes in Myanmar, and wealthy, often Western-educated Javanese elites in Indonesia.
Presumably, colonial authorities largely ignored their activism for precisely that reason, as they eagerly welcomed economic competition among their colonial subjects, particularly along ethnic and religious divides. As the fear of communism and democratic grassroots movements grew in the 1930s, colonial intelligence reports were far more concerned about labor strikes than they were about the occasional Roman salute at a gathering. On top of that, colonial archives and press releases often reveal a great deal of amusement and condescension, showing that policymakers found the idea of Asians looking up to Hitler bizarre and unworthy of serious investigation.
What they missed, however, was the fact that these parties and movements were selective about which elements of fascist ideology, practice, or aesthetics they wanted to engage with. Ironically, the racism of colonial authorities made their agents blind to the fact that Indonesians or Indians were perfectly capable of taking what they needed from the fascist toolkit and discarding what they deemed unnecessary. We can think of it as a form of ideological cherry-picking. Furthermore, colonial society was built on divide-and-rule tactics, so it is hardly surprising to see that this approach inspired wealthy, educated local activists and politicians to use the same time-tested methods to rally their supporters around a common cause.
To many non-European observers in the colony, fascism appeared like a more modern version of colonial rule. Some, as the Martinican poet, author, and anti-colonial activist Aimé Cesaire in his famous Discourse on Colonialism, even went as far as to say that “Hitler applied to Europe [the same] colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India” and Black people in Africa.
If we want to understand how fascism could gain a following among colonized peoples, this is an important point to keep in mind. In Africa, as elsewhere, Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy were often not perceived as more bloodthirsty than the old colonial powers like France, Britain, or the Netherlands. From a non-European perspective, they all shared the same imperialist DNA and had a very flexible approach to human rights, propagating freedom and equality at home while denying the same basic rights to their citizens overseas.
Moreover, in some colonized nations like India or Indonesia, the horrors of the Second World War seemed like something remote compared to the hardships and poverty in their own countries, not to mention the censorship and constant surveillance under colonial rule. If we want to understand how certain political forces in colonial societies used fascism as a blueprint for crafting their own nativist, authoritarian and militaristic movements, we must go back to the lived experience of people in the colonies. Only then will we be able to understand how fascism, with its blatant us-versus-them mentality, rigid social hierarchies, and disdain for the ideal of an open society, found a rabid fanbase in the most unlikely places.