Fascism and Democracy. Reflections on ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’ by William Shirer, and ‘Fascists’ and ‘The Dark Side of Democracy’ by Michael Mann

9 January 2024

by Leonid Nikitinsky

Source: Novaya Gazeta

The book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: a History of Nazi Germany was written by William Shirer, a former reporter for CBS in Germany in 1934-1940 who went on to cover the Nuremberg trial for the network. Shirer gained access to the records of both this and subsequent trials, and to the vast archives seized by the Allies. These included, for example, recordings of Hitler’s private conversations, Goebbels’ diaries, and other official and personal documents.

Shirer’s book is probably one of the most complete accounts of the Nazi regime.

It was published in English in 1960, even before widespread denazification was underway in Germany, playing a part in that process. Shirer continued to work as a journalist but never engaged in any general theorising; the facts he presented in his writing were damning enough.

In contrast, Michael Mann, the author of the two-volume work Fascists and The Dark Side of Democracy, is an historical sociologist and theorist, although that did not prevent him from filling the second book with descriptions that are not for the faint of heart. By 2004–2005, when these books were published in English (they appeared in Russian in 2014 and 2015, respectively), Mann had already become well known as the author of the two-volume work The Sources of Social Power. It merits a brief mention, as without it, it’s impossible to understand the logic of Mann’s findings on fascism.

Mann develops his own view of “society” (which barely exists for him in its traditional form) as a dynamic network of power relations in which the state tends to be the most powerful, if not the only, actor. The state exercises political power without necessarily monopolising ideological and especially economic power. “Military power”, meanwhile, rests with the army and the police, which might enjoy substantial autonomy. One of the indicators of fascism, according to Mann, is precisely the emergence of paramilitary (popular) power structures that challenge military power, and likewise other forms of power in the field of ideology and economics.

To become acquainted with Mann, it’s worth starting with a quote from the first chapter of Fascists, where he contends that, far from representing a return to barbarism, fascism is a phenomenon of modernity: 

Ethnic and political purges constitute Europe’s chief contribution to modern history, and paramilitary violence is a hallmark of the twentieth century… We are fortunate that statism (the third most important element of fascism after organic nationalism and paramilitarism) is now out of fashion, given the failure of the two great statist projects: fascism and communism… Yet it remains to be seen whether neoliberalism, which is supposedly able to do without a state at all, will do as much damage to the world. Moreover, statist values may well merge once again with radical paramilitarism as part of movements that are reminiscent of fascism.

This went to press in 2004, and since then, one of the conditions named by Mann (now 82) has come to pass: a pivot towards ideas of a strong state at a time of terrorist attacks by Islamist fundamentalists, economic crises, armed clashes, migration crises and the 2020-2021 pandemic can be clearly discerned in many countries, including the Western (basically European) world.

Some European states, Mann argues as an historical sociologist, managed to circumvent a similar pivot to the right in the 1920s and 1930s within a framework of democracy and without being cast to the margins of civilisation. In others, however – Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Spain, fascist leaders came to power. In most countries, they needed the support of Nazi Germany, but these were no outsiders; in large part, fascist parties and paramilitary movements took legal forms, including in countries where they set their sights on power but did not get it, for example, in England and France (the occupation of the latter notwithstanding).

Mann sticks his main thesis – on the connection between fascism and democracy – right in the title. This connection is by no means linear, but it does exist. At the very least, it is easier for a traditionally conservative authoritarian regime to deal with its own extreme wing if it appeals to the masses.


William Shirer describes Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the Weimar Republic in detail, citing numerous sources, including Hitler’s own statements. It is important that, in developing his paramilitary formations as stormtrooper brigades (SA), Hitler only once, inspired by Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922 (his fighters halted 50 kilometres from the capital then, after which the king appointed him head of the government), in 1923, initiated the “Beer Hall Putsch” in Bavaria. But Mussolini was already a deputy in parliament and a well-known politician, whereas Hitler at the time was still an Austrian subject and a World War I lance corporal.

The failure of the Beer Hall Putsch, for which Hitler spent time in prison (where he dictated to his comrades the first volume of Mein Kampf*), taught him that he shouldn’t lock horns with the army—he should win its sympathy. Nor was there any point fighting the state; you had to seize it legitimately.

From that moment on, the National Socialist party cultivated its own quasi-state formations, especially in the form of special services (SS and SD) and paramilitary brigades (SA), which were prepared to duplicate the state—at least when it came to personnel—as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

On this level, the Nazis’ main weapon was populism. They promised to overcome the economic contradictions within the context of the corporate “total” state. They scratched at the resentment Germans felt after the loss of territory as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, they always said what Germans wanted to hear, and many of their promises, such as the elimination of unemployment, a significant rise in the standard of living, and the return of many territories after the Nazis came to power, were kept.

The phenomenon of populism, which one way or another was the inverse of democracy in the twentieth century, by all accounts will remain such in the twenty-first—it’s like a tango, which takes two: a charismatic leader generous with his promises; and, essentially, the populus, the people, which before the appearance of nation-states in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries participated in wars and the economy but was virtually unseen in the political arena and made no claims to that.

From Mann’s point of view, it’s wrong to use the same term to designate modernist states and the structures in which power—primarily military but also economic and ideological—invested itself before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The ethnic and even linguistic features in them, although they were present, they were not defining. The subjects of a medieval king identified themselves by estate, were indifferent in this context to the ethnos, and saw a foreign language merely as a technical difficulty. In the framework of one ethnos, the elite, who possessed the right to vote in some form, and the plebs lived in different cultures and often also spoke different languages.

Let us not forget that for Mann there is no “society.” There are networks of power, the lines of which for the time being run through estates. The first democratic institutions (in England, in the early thirteenth century already) arise precisely along these lines, unrelated to any ethnos. The nineteenth and a significant part of the twentieth centuries pass under the sign of class contradictions until, closer to the end, they level out in a society of consumption.

Right up until the nineteenth century, states were “small,” and no one expected too much from them.

Much more powerful were other players: the bourgeoisie that appeared due to the Industrial Revolution; the church and intellectual elites in the sphere of ideology; and, of course, the armies, which had definite autonomy from monarchs. Mann believes it is military power that played the leading role in the development of democracy in its modern mass form. In nation-states, armies appeared that were constituted according to the principle of universal military obligation (for the first time in France in 1793), and most important, a strict system of taxation was put into place with the aim of maintaining and arming troops.

“No taxes without representation”—this simple idea formulated at the turn of the twentieth century shaped a kind of mass society in which the “populus” not only became interested in politics but also gained the real possibility of influencing it through elections. This was supplemented—especially in Germany, where the doctrine of a social state appeared in the nineteenth century—by the redistribution of income from taxes in favor of the poorest strata of the population, and states (which had already become nation-states) immediately became “multi.”

In his Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism, the Russian-English philosopher (Sir) Isaiah Berlin points out that the majority of intellectuals from the turn of the century mostly overlooked nationalism, thinking it a marginal current on the backdrop of socialist and communist international utopias as well as the mystical irrationalism characteristic of fascism (with qualifications, more about which below). This is where nationalism took its shot.

Mann sees one of fascism’s foundations in the ambiguity of the very term “people” (populus, demos), which can be understood (and was understood up until the nineteenth century) as the body of subjects of one monarch residing on a defined territory, and maybe as an ethnos: “the German people,” “the Russian people.” 

Replacing the demos with the ethnos is nationalism, which, however, can be moderate and even healthy, but can also be unbridled, which in combination with statism can give birth to fascism and Naziism as its extreme variety. 

Why it is unbridled nationalism that finds the liveliest response among the demos is a puzzle whose answer has to be sought either in man’s biological nature or else in the Cain and Abel story. More important is this given itself, which manifests itself squared and cubed in the “masses.” Philosopher and legal scholar Carl Schmitt, who supported Nazism (but at the same time was very profound), defines the “political” in general as the sphere where the line is drawn between friends and enemies.

The mass person without an “enemy” has nowhere to go and feels inferior, as if blind—and doesn’t know where to go or who to go with. And here a charismatic leader shows up. . . . Populism + nationalism + socialism in the guise of partially kept promises + compensated resentment + the cult of power and youth—this cocktail threatens to sweep away the pathetic dams of democracy erected on the estate-class principle rather than the ethnic one.

In the early twentieth century, this phenomenon is not only “modern” but also ubiquitous—at least in Europe. After that everything depends on the stability of the dams and buttresses, which are guaranteed, more than likely, only by the longevity of the democratic tradition in the form of the separation of powers. 

Mann cites the map of fascism, which illustrates that fascist parties were able to gain success most often in the east and south of Europe and did not succeed in the north and center (with the exception, actually, of Germany).


At this point we return to Shirer. He examines Adolf Hitler’s biography in detail and finds no reason for his rampant anti-Semitism, although his appeal as an orator is due to his controlled psychopathic personality traits. Shirer does, however, point to the background of nationalism and etatism in German culture.

  • There is Hegel with his claims to inclusiveness (totality) and the state as the embodiment of the German spirit,
  • there is half of Nietzsche’s, work where he talks about the superhuman “blond beast”,
  • and, of course, Richard Wagner  in terms of not so much the music, but the characters that fill his operas and are drawn from pagan mythology.

Inspired by the German ideas were French writer Joseph de Gobineau and Englishman Houston Chamberlain. They developed the theory of the Aryan race in the spirit of Social Darwinism, Chamberlain eventually marrying Wagner’s daughter. Hitler had their books on his bookshelf. But this is only the visible part of the German cultural iceberg, at the base of which, along with rational bureaucracy, lay a dark romanticism and idealism, even mysticism of the transcendent (Shirer is not the only one to point out this prerequisite of Nazism).

It was romantic visions that ultimately destroyed Hitler, and with him the German army and Nazism. In particular, the Holocaust, which diverted considerable Nazi resources during the war, seemed irrational to many, including Hitler’s military associates. Not to mention that, thanks to the expulsion of Jewish scientists, the atomic bomb at the end of the war was developed in the United States, not Germany. This strategy, however, should not be called irrational but, as Mann points out, a value-rationality in Max Weber’s categories.

In Shirer’s detailed and documented description of Hitler before and after he seized power, it is as though he were two different characters. He was not the only one to lose his reason on account of dictatorial power and the impossibility of criticising him.

Hitler before 1933, a brilliant orator, an extremely cunning, intuitively calculating schemer and manipulator, was undoubtedly an outstanding politician.

He repeatedly made mistakes, almost losing the leadership of the NSDAP in 1932, just before his seizure of power, to Gregor Strasser (not so radical on the national question), a friend of Goebbels and Himmler, who betrayed him and defected to Hitler in the end. In terms of these errors, Hitler became the Führer of the German nation partly by luck, although due to seasoned and skillful tactics with which he fooled the previous chancellors and President Paul von Hindenburg.

Up until 1933, the Nazis rapidly won the popular vote by combining promises to solve all problems with the paramilitary violence of SA units and intimidation. But before seizing power, even at the peak of his popularity in the 1932 presidential election, Hitler gathered only 36.8 per cent of the vote, losing to Hindenburg with 53 per cent.

However, as Shirer describes, confirming Mann’s main thesis, by this time the democracy of the Weimar Republic was already completely shaken and had lost all credibility. Enough to say that in 1932 elections to the Reichstag were held five times and the president was forced to change the heads of the cabinet, the chancellors, like gloves.

In a deadlocked situation in January 1933, the 85-year-old Field Marshal Hindenburg, persuaded by ex-Chancellor von Papen, appointed as head of government lance corporal Hitler, whom he undoubtedly despised. Only after this, breaking all previous agreements, Hitler moved as if into another, dictatorial, regime. After the provocation with the burning of the Reichstag on 27 February (there are still a few question marks in this story, but the involvement of the Nazis in the arson can be considered established), Hitler persuaded the broken Hindenburg to sign the decree “For the Protection of the People and the State” on 28 February, granting him extraordinary powers, which in Nazi Germany for brevity (and without any irony) was later most often referred to simply as a “legal act”.

After the death of Hindenburg in August 1934, Hitler united the posts of president and chancellor, and by this time the separation of powers was being destroyed at full speed: to obtain a constitutional majority in the Reichstag, the Nazis only needed to remove the Communist faction and intimidate the Socialists. The last act of independence of the judiciary was the acquittal in a Leipzig court of three Communists, led by Georgi Dimitrov, who had been accused as accomplices in the Reichstag arson – but the acquitted were immediately arrested by the police and left in prison without any sentence.

[To be continued]

Translated by Lindsay Munford, Marian Schwartz and Ecaterina Hughes

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