Imperial power has sustained a powerful legacy for centuries. Most notoriously the Roman and British empires have left imperial traces across the globe. Whilst it can be argued that many good entities emerged from this colonial period including a mix of art, culture and exploration of new lands resulting in a more developed and diverse modern world, there is often a very negative connotation devoted to imperialism. Most notoriously is the link it holds with modern fascism in Europe and its escalations during the mid twentieth century. It can be argued that the results of such catastrophes including the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges of Russia are not just down to narcissistic, power crazed individuals but is also surged by the powerful history of colonialization and imperial rule that streams throughout mankind. The actions of the empire in the capturing of native land and the abuse of indigenous people due to an inherited entitlement fuelled by race superiority can be seen as a major connection between imperialism and European fascism. In my opinion there are many connections that exist between imperialism and European fascism, including the use of authoritarian power, race science and violence. However, what cannot be ignored is the distinguishing features that exist between the two entities.
The idea that imperialism and fascism have connections is not a new concept but one that has been pondered over and researched for years by scholars and historians. Hannah Arendt a prominent German philosopher, produced her first major work in the 1950s. 'The Origins of Totalitarianism'. The piece argued that there were continuities between the age of imperialism and the age of fascism in Europe She claimed that theories of race superiority and science, and the right of 'superior races' to expand their territories were undoubtedly themes that connected imperialism and European fascism Arendt also noted that anti-Semitism and imperialism provided essential preconditions for European fascism and totalitarianism. Many historians argue that the power and violence used by imperialists throughout their empires paved the way for a new 'psychology of domination' adopted by fascists in Europe over time.
The use of authoritarian power by imperialists in countries throughout Africa as one example, display major resemblances of actions and policies undertaken by European fascists in years to come. The 'Devonshire Declaration' of 1923 was a document written by the colonial secretary Victor Covendis. The document laid out a number of policies for East African countries especially in the Kenyan colony. Arendt refers to this period as 'The scramble for Africa'. The main features included an established trusteeship of the imperial state over African interests, a rebuffed claim for white rule and the agreement of whites to be given farmland over African natives. This resulted in the native people finding themselves marginalised, displaced and forced to work on imperialist occupied lands. Whilst it can be argued that the decree had some benefits such as educational improvements, the building of schools and a mild solution to the colonial office dilemma caused by attempting to balance the conflicting claims of the Kenya Indians and settlers. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the use of authoritarian-like governance in these situations by imperialists and its connections to the strategies used in European fascism. Additionally a prominent example of a connection between fascism and imperialism is the silencing of groups that disagree with the governance of a colonised land, which shows major resemblance to the mythology of authoritarian rule and the silencing of free speech illustrated within fascist Europe. A number of African dissent groups were silenced throughout the 20th century including the Kikuyu Central Association founded in 1925 banned in 1940, The Kenya African Union founded in 1940 banned in 1952, and the Land and Freedom Army, Kikuyu organisation that sought return of land to natives. The use of terror upon these different groups and minorities seen here and in other imperial led events is tantamount in connection with the rise of European fascism.
Additionally, the development of 'Race Science' by imperialist nations is a concept that heavily influenced European fascism particularly, Hitler's theories on the Jews. The idea consists of an attempt to show scientifically that the white European was in every way superior to that of the black population. The notion developed due to increasing questions in morality linked to slavery and the imprisonment of black slaves. The use of race science provided many imperialist colonisers with a 'justification' for their acts of cruelty.
Whilst this article has largely taken the view that imperialism and fascism have undoubtable connections, I do feel however that it is relevant to mention some of the key differences that do exist between the two notions. Whilst imperialism can be linked to certain events such as the Holocaust it is more realistic to interpret imperialism as a foreshadowing or a hint of what was to come rather than portraying it as having strong links to these specific events. Imperialism is autocratic in nature and has a rigid structure. Imperialism is also based on hierarchy, and includes the political and economic governance of one society over another, while fascism is a revolution against materialism and individualism, with terrorised intentions that promote violence and force. Another major variance being that colonial violence instigated by imperialism is very rarely a systematic process aimed at elimination towards a population contrary to many fascist ideas such as The Holocaust/Stalinist purges. In fact, this would be against the main interests of the empire as a whole. The labour and services provided by these occupied lands and people were of too much value to simply destroy them.
Imperialist endeavours were mostly for the benefits of the empire itself rather than the intentional violence and destruction of an indigenous people that could be deemed as inferior. Violence was more a condition deemed acceptable and unavoidable by many imperialists. For example Atul Kohli observes that Britain’s colonisation of India was broadly influenced by its need for economic prosperity and to take advantage of its resources. Additionally we see the emergence of 'Cultural Imperialism' a phenomenon that has spread throughout the world with the growth of Empires. Whilst it can be argued that this was mainly a negative aspect as it stripped indigenous people of native cultures and implied that the European was superior and entitled, we can equally argue that it led to a fraternisation of different beliefs, values and customs in many areas of the world unlike its fascist counterparts. The rise and spread of the Roman Empire provides some of the earliest examples of cultural imperialism in the history of Western civilization. The Romans secured a fairly long period of relative peace and stability among previously war-torn territories through a unified legal system, technological developments, and a well-established infrastructure.
To conclude, we must recognise the slight differences between the two concepts, the main being that imperialism is usually drawn out with differing intentions and with some arguable positives, whereas fascism is short, intense and more abruptly horrific in nature with little to no positives. To be blunt they are merely two sides of the same coin. However, the imperialist mindset of racial superiority and its attempts to justify its actions of brutality have played a major role in the roots of European fascism and its development. The connections between the two are clearly incontestable.
Zimmerer perfectly sums up the truly horrific connections between the two ideas by stating that, the events of imperialism contributed to the creation of conditions in which the Holocaust and other atrocities somehow became ‘thinkable and executable’ This also subsidises Arendt’s view that imperialism created the mindset that evil can be perpetrated by 'normal people'. The role of race science, expansion, violence and corruption created the perfect political and social climate for the rise of fascism, proving the irrefutable connections between both imperialism and European fascism.
Alex Dougherty is 19 years old and from Derry in Northern Ireland. She is studying history at Lancaster University. Alex has always had a passion for the past and a desire to show how education and awareness can help us in the future and with the present. She is a proud Holocaust regional ambassador for NI and uses her passion for historical awareness to help tackle important issues in today’s society.