Theorising the Use and Abuse of the Classical past in Mussolini's Third Rome and Hitler's Third Reich

Presented at an international conference entitled Classics and the Spectacular under Fascism: Classical Performance in the ‘Ventennio Fascista’, Ioannou Centre, University of Oxford, 16 December 2019.

It is a truth widely acknowledged that fascist movements tend to glorify and mythicise the national past of the country in which they arise. Yet, sometimes, fascist regimes seek to resurrect myths of a past even more ancient, and more glorious still – a phenomenon which has been termed the search for ‘distant models’ – the turn towards classical Greece or Rome.

This paper considered why Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were particularly drawn to such distant, classicising models. In investigating this form of “ultimate palingenesis”, it is suggested that this twin turn towards antiquity was no mere accident, but was rather motivated by certain commonalities in national experience, even if the German case seems more extreme, inasmuch as it attempted to elide ruptures not only across time, but across space as well.

While one could claim, if one looked solely at the Italian model, that this is simply a case of a nation returning to the first available “Golden Age” of national unity (which does not wholly explain the preference for romanità over the Risorgimento, which had also featured prominently in the official politics of the past), the attempt to dismiss the National Socialist turn to classical antiquity as merely due to subsumption in a form of Aryan “myth-time”, encompassing the Germanic as well as the Greco-Roman, overlooks the pivotal historical significance of philhellenism in the creation of German national identity since the eighteenth century at least.

By placing these two fascist regimes alongside each other and considering their seduction by antique myths in tandem, this paper suggests that – without putting forward some kind of classicizing Sonderweg – we can better appreciate the historic rootedness of this particular form of “chronopolitics” in a complex nexus of political and social causes, many of which lie far deeper than the traumatic events of the Great War and its aftermath.

An article providing a full exploration of these ideas has now been published in Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies (Vol 8.2, 2019).