“The trenchocracy is the aristocracy of the trenches,” declared Benito Mussolini on the pages of Il Popolo d’Italia in December 1917. Reflecting on the new type of man emerging from the war, he went on: “What an immense moral force is contained in the patriotic spirit of those who come back from the front … The disabled servicemen of today are the vanguard of the great army who will return tomorrow. They are the thousands who await the millions of demobilised soldiers. The brutal and bloody apprenticeship of the trenches will mean something … The old men … will be swept aside.”
Evocations of a new type of heroic man arising to save society, such as this one, was an often-repeated trope in interwar fascist discourses. In a similar vein, a cartoon from the satirical magazine Kladderadatsch from 1933, depicts Hitler as “Germany’s sculpture.” He smashes up a messy knot of the degenerate, pre-fascist masses and transforms them into a new, idealized male figure.
Have We Seen the Eternal Return of Fascism?
This trope of a new, heroic male is often summarised using the term “new man,” which has often been used to point to the idea of a strong male redeemer figure who would lead the nation through a period of transformation and into a new era. This ideal was found across interwar fascism and is one that still resonates among contemporary fascists and the wider extreme right today. While fascism was driven by a myth of rebirth, the new man ideal was particularly important as it was he who was supposed to be the agent driving this transformation. In a similar vein, Emilio Gentile has also written about the “anthropological revolution” of fascism, driven by the “new Italian man.”
The Birth of the Fascist Man
As Griffin also highlights, the key figure within fascism studies who helped focus attention on the importance of the new man myth was George Mosse. His highly influential Journal of Contemporary History article from 1966, “The Genesis of Fascism,” argued the new man talked about by fascists was crucial for the cultural, rather than economic, revolution that fascists aspired to achieve. Mosse explained how fascists saw the new man as redemptive, a “man made whole once more … an activist in that he was not afraid to join in a revolution which would make society correspond to the longings of his soul. These longings were for unity with the group, for the recapturing of those virtues which were being submerged in the modern world.”
Mosse returned to the theme at length in his book, “The Image of Man,” which included a chapter on “The New Fascist Man.” He surveyed a wide range of fascist evocations of the new man and highlighted how the new man was idealized by many influential figures during the First World War. In Italy, this included Giovanni Papini, who combined Nietzschean ideals with nationalism — contrary to Nietzsche himself — to argue the war was a spiritual and redemptive event, and soon the new, brutalized soldiers would have the courage to complete Italian unification. Following Papini, Mussolini and other fascist visions of the new man regularly drew on memories of the war and from it saw society as being in a constant state of war.
Exploring some of the ways that memories of the First World War became central to the new man mythology created by interwar fascists, Bernd Hüppauf’s essay, “The Birth of Fascist Man From the Spirit of the Front: From Langemarck to Verdun,” focused on the use of memory of the First World War within German national socialism. He highlighted how two mythologies of “First World War men” were articulated by the Nazis, among others in Germany. The first recalled the early days of the war, and gravitated around a romanticized vision of battles around Langemark in the summer of 1914, with men typically remembered as young, fearless and idealistic Germans.
This more innocent and romantic ideal was exploited to a degree by Hitler’s movement but, once in power, another type of memory took over. This recalled the Battle of Verdun and presented a much darker image of fully-grown men fighting, with death ever-present. The sense of these soldiers in an existential conflict, either fighting their enemies to the death or being destroyed by them, and of the modern soldier as a cog in the fighting machine, became a core aspect of the (male) sense of mission at the heart of Nazi institutions.
Hüppauf adds that similar tropes of the new man as modern soldier could also be found in Ernst Jünger’s work, such as “Storm of Steel.” As Jünger himself explained in “The Worker” in 1932, a new elite, a new type of man had emerged from the war. Though small in number, Jünger too believed they would transform all of humanity.
Probing further into the impact of the First World War on interwar German masculinities is Klaus Theweleit’s two-volume “Male Fantasies,” seen by some as an important breakthrough and by others, such as Richard Evans, as fascinating — if questionable — speculation. Theweleit focuses on the pre-fascist group the Freikorps, assessing a range of novels diaries and other writings linked to those active in, or related to, the movement. His analysis includes discussion on people like Jünger. Rejecting Freudian psychoanalysis as flawed, he draws on a wide range of theorists, from Gilles Deleuze to Michel Foucault.
The book highlights that it was the ways these Germans grew up and became men that was significant in creating a fascist masculinity steeped in war and violence to resolve seemingly intractable problems. His opening chapter, for example, explored how seven men, including the later commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, saw only two types of women. The first were “white,” who they tended to idealize in an a-sexual way but could not express emotions toward, even if they married them, and “red” women, who they saw as dangerous, potentially armed and degenerate, and whom they wanted to kill and smash into a bloody pulp. Freikops killed others too, but it was red women they were thinking about.
In the second volume, Theweleit described the new man as someone terrified and terrifying, a man
“sired in the drill (the drill as organized battle of the old men against himself) [who] owes allegiance only to the machine that bore him. He is a true child of the drill-machine, created without the help of a woman, parentless. His associations and relationships bind him instead to other specimens of the new man, with whom he allows himself to be united to form the macromachine troop. All others belong only ‘under’ him — never alongside, behind, or in front.”
The new man, he added, was “a man with machinelike periphery, whose interior has lost its meaning (the technocrat is his contemporary manifestation).”
New men might be seen as hardened soldiers, but they could be many other things too. For example, Fernando Esposito has explored the fascist fascination with aviation. Flying was often deemed as a way out of the crisis of modernity. “Aviation stood for the dawn of an eternal order,” Esposito explains. “The aviator, not least because of his boldness, love of danger, indomitable will and Faustian power, was the new man … Flying thus became a metaphor for fascism itself.”
Embody the Image
The ideals of the new man could also be conveyed by those who embodied its image. Leaders themselves could be the new man, and so body language and performance were crucial. For example, Mussolini’s jutting chin and striking poses were supposed to exemplify the new man and communicate a sense of willpower.
Indeed, Mussolini’s public image was always supposed to idealize the fascist new man. News of his personal frailties was certainly not reported, but depictions of him working in fields or exercising were recurrent themes, evoking a sense of virility. Often depicted as youthful and macho in fascist propaganda, the development of such myth-making even extended to the lights being left on in his empty office late at night, to suggest to onlookers in the Piazza Venezia that Il Duce was working all hours.
Hitler was less clearly the personal evocation of the new man, but the regime was not short of materials evoking the ideals of a new masculinity. Artists such as the sculptor Arno Brecker created many public works for the Nazi regime. This includes the sculptures “The Party” and “The Army,” which featured idealized male nudes. While public nudity was often frowned upon by the Nazis, faultless, depersonalized nudity in such artistic representations was central to the Nazi vision of the new man and the Aryan-dominated future to come. The actual new man may not have been fully created yet, such works suggested, but they gave powerful visualizations of the goals of the fascist revolution.
In recent times, work by a range of historians is helping to further develop the critical application of the term “new man.” Griffin, among others, has rightly highlighted that there is an ambiguity with the way “man” has been used in the past by historians and fascists themselves. In German, “neuer Mensch,” for example, is often translated as “new man,” but is not necessarily gender specific. Some care should be given to older studies that take the use of the word “man” in interwar contexts too literally — sometimes it refers to the creation of a new type of fascist person, male or female, other times to a new type of fascist masculinity.
Meanwhile, Richard Shorten, in “Modernism and Totalitarianism,” highlights that the new man concept should be seen as central to all illiberal totalitarian projects. For Shorten, the anthropological revolution of totalitarianism requires a vision of the new man. As he explains: “Utopian thought pictures the new man in harmony and concord with the ‘perfected’ community; scientism provides the knowledge that makes the New Man possible (and also clarifies exactly who he is); and revolutionary violence gives him final shape, enabling him to emerge reborn from struggle and conflict.”
Other totalitarian regimes, most notably the Soviet Union, clearly produced their own visions of new men — and new women. The Stakhanovite movement in the 1930s is one particularly evocative example, and comparisons with other forms of the illiberal new man ideal can prove fruitful in various ways.
Ideals of Masculinity
Reflecting on the similarities and differences between the new man in communist and fascist contexts, Peter Fritzsche and Jochen Hellbeck have written on “The New Man in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.” Here, they also explore the ways the ideal of the new man was constructed by a wide range of social forces well before the 20th century. It was not simply imposed from above through propaganda, as some of the scholarship has implied. Their survey located the emergence of myths of a new man in previous revolutions, especially the French Revolution.
They also note the sense of technological transformation after the First World War, as well as its memory, driving the search for the new man: “Modern technology in the 1920s arguably served as a vast metonym for war itself. The constant iterations of the ‘New Man’ or the ‘new type,’ the athlete, the race-car driver, and the aviator to which popular magazines introduced readers, can be seen as civilian projections of the new warrior.” Moreover, totalitarian regimes were not the only ones looking for new ideals of masculinity in this period.
While systematic surveys of the new man in interwar and wartime fascism remain limited, new directions in this field have been developed in a major collection of essays edited by Jorge Dagnino, Matthew Feldman and Paul Stocker, “The ‘New Man’ in Radical Right Ideology and Practice.” Here, as well as studies of the new man in Nazi art by Gregory Maertz, the Croatian Ustasha by Rory Yeomans and the Romania Iron Guard by Roland Clark, chapters included Jeanette Baxter’s analysis of British fascism and its ideals of the new man. Again, for her, artists were at the core of projecting the vision of the fascist new man. She assesses the influence of the Wyndham Lewis, among others, on the image of the fascist man in the British Union of Fascists. Modernism and fascism were powerfully interlinked here — and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Joan Tumblety, in the conclusion to her essay on fascist new men in interwar France, argues for an expansion of the concept to move beyond seeing fascism only as a political religion that promotes an anthropological revolution. She stresses that the new man concept allows us to see how masculine ideals that were widespread in society could be developed by fascist groups for their own purposes, raising questions about just how different fascists really were. Roy Stars and Aristotle Kallis, meanwhile, explore the theme beyond Europe, in Japan and Brazil respectively.
The New Man in Contemporary Culture
While the focus on new men and masculinities in interwar and wartime fascisms is at least developing, the study of masculinity and the extreme right in contemporary contexts is another area requiring more research. One leading voice among few here is Michael Kimmel, whose recent book, “Healing from Hate,” examines the gendered dynamics of contemporary extreme-right culture. From interviewing white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Europe and the US, he stresses most people miss the full extent of the gendered nature of the culture. As he continues:
“These young men feel entitled to a sense of belonging and community, of holding unchallenged moral authority over women and children, and of feeling that they count in the world and that their lives matter. Experiencing threats to the lives they feel they deserve leads these young men to feel ashamed and humiliated. And it is this aggrieved entitlement — entitlement thwarted and frustrated — that leads some men to search for a way to redeem themselves as men, to restore and retrieve that sense of manhood that has been lost. Joining [a group] is a form of masculine compensation, an alternate route to proving manhood.”
Similarly, Cynthia Miller-Idriss has focused on how hypermasculinity is developed through extreme-right culture, especially clothes and the body. In “The Extreme Gone Mainstream,” she explores how extreme-right youth culture requires a sense of masculine ideals to help develop its attraction. For her, “The hypermasculine nature of much of the far right and its idealised notions on manhood and what a ‘real man’ does for the nation are key to far right and right-wing extremist scenes and groups.”
Such a quest for a new sense of masculinity can be found widely in the materials produced by such groups. For example, the Australian neo-Nazi group Antipodean Resistance has written of its idealized vision of a male activist. In sum, they should reject the mainstream notion of “Alpha Males,” whom they see as degenerate figures that pursue multiple sexual partners and often drink too much. Instead, men should be strong and monogamous. Their ideal for the alpha male therefore “embraces hardship as a challenge, and readily prepares for fixing even the worst situations when they arise. All of the Alpha Male’s characteristics, skills and qualities are preparing him for his ultimate goal of finding a mate, continuing his blood and progressing his race.” Echoing Theweleit, here women are reduced to playing a subservient role in allowing the alpha male to achieve his full realization. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they cite the Nazi regime as a central influence.
Meanwhile, the now proscribed British neo-Nazi group National Action saw the emergence of the new man as part of their revolutionary project. In their 44-page document outlining the need for a Nazi-inspired revolution, “Attack,” the group explained: “Out of the catharsis will come a new type of man who doesn’t flinch — whether it is a soldier or a politician. We do not need ‘intellectuals’, what we need are brutes who can form the lines hard. Moral men who can rise above fear so they can both take and dish out punishment.”
There is much work to do to bring a new focus on the radicalized masculinities driving contemporary extreme-right activism. The historical vision of the new man as a nebulous yet potent ideological marker for the goals of fascist movements still animates many neo-fascist and neo-Nazi organizations that are rooted in the legacies of fascism. Such groups continue to play with the vision of powerful men imposing clarity and order on a world that seems chaotic. These people need to be understood if they are to be tackled, and this includes understanding their masculinities.
Mosse concluded his 1966 article helping to introduce the term “new man” with the following: “The ‘new man’ of whom fascism had dreamed went down to defeat … The dream turned out to be a nightmare.” However, for some at least, the dream of the fascist new man continues, and they certainly do not see the fascist past as a nightmare.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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