Europe-a-nation: transnational ideologies

As has always been the case, during the immediate postwar years there was no single, homogeneous British far right. There were dozens of organisations, led by a multitude of varied characters with differing outlooks, priorities and methods. However, in the wake of World War II, almost all on the far-right and fascist fringe were concerned with national decline. It was sometimes attributed to different causes, but all proud nationalists bemoaned the increasingly rapid deterioration of British pre-eminence. Many believed British and civilisational decline were inextricably entwined and sought recipes for national and cultural palingenesis. For them the sense of imminent crisis was palpable. The majority of activists remained committed to traditional nationalist solutions with a continuing emphasis on Britain and Empire, but a small minority saw the failings of traditional interwar nationalism and proposed trans-continental nationalism as a solution: a united fascist Europe.1 On the whole their ideas, unsurprisingly, were not particularly new, despite what they sometimes claimed themselves. While much postwar fascist thought was presented as radical and innovative, it was often actually firmly rooted in prewar fascist traditions, once again adding weight to the hypothesis that the continuities between the pre and postwar periods in terms of British fascism outweigh the discontinuities. Some proposals for national rejuvenation were genuinely grounded in serious philosophy with British fascists creating magpie ideologies that stole ideas and concepts from a range of thinkers such as Heidegger, Spengler, Nietzsche, Goethe and Schmitt.

Oswald Mosley and Europe a nation

Mosleys incarceration during the war years under Defence Regulation 18B provided him with an opportunity to read, one that he vociferously and enthusiastically seized. Mosley called it his ‘enforced withdrawal into reading and reflection’.2

The Mosley that emerged from internment was a fundamentally different thinker from the one who had been arrested some years earlier and was now armed with a broader canon of philosophers, authors, playwrights and even musicians. Through a series of articles and books Mosley outlined his grand vision for the postwar world making him, in the words of Sonabend, ‘by far the most prominent’ postwar fascist thinker.'

Mosley’s vision for society was rooted in his analysis of the contemporary one, a society he believed was in crisis and decline. His ideas and those of the prewar BUF had long been rooted in philosophical thought, especially anti-rationalist and anti-positivist thinkers such as Henri Bergson, Gustave Le Bon, and Georges Sorel, but it was the ideas of Oswald Spengler that were most influential on his thought.4 Mosley first read Spengler during his time as the leader of the New Party in 1931.5 Spengler’s magnum opus The Decline of the West significantly influenced Mosley, just as it had many leading Nazis in interwar Germany. His work rejected unilinear theories of historical development as ahistorical and Eurocentric and favoured a cyclical understanding of history with the rise and fall of contained civilisations.6 Cultures were to be perceived as organic and progressing through proscribed stages, rising and then falling. As he put it, ‘the great Cultures accomplish their majestic wave-cycles. They appear suddenly, swell in splendid lines, flatten again and vanish, and the face of the waters is once more a sleeping waste’.7 Each civilisation ‘passes through the age-phases of the individual man. Each has its childhood, youth, manhood and old age’.1* It was Spengler’s analysis that Europe was well past its prime. While by no means the first or last to espouse a cyclical understanding of history, it was the work of Spengler that excited Mosley, who in 1933 spoke of his ‘tremendous contribution to world thought’ and explained how ‘the great German philosopher has probably done more than any other to paint in the broad background of fascist thought’.9

The notion that Europe was in decline was a long-held position for Mosley, and it became markedly more acute in the postwar period. In his 1947 work The Alternative, a work that constitutes his largest contribution to fascistic thought, Mosley argues that the divided nature of Europe had

brought her youth to death; her culture to the dust; her happiness to ruin; her material prosperity to destruction, and her spiritual life to a jeopardy which threatens with eternal night the sunlit heights of the European mind. It is no small moment in the history of man when darkness descends on three millennia of human culture. We stand in front of a potential tragedy without equal in the known annals of time.’”

Yet despite being in accord with Spengler regarding the idea of a civilisation in crisis and decline, he fundamentally disagreed with him regarding the supposedly inexorable nature of the decay. Spengler wrote: ‘the history of West European mankind will be definitely closed . . . the outcome is obligatory and insusceptible of modification, that our choice is between willing this and willing nothing at all’11 and that it ‘will be accomplished with the individual or against him’.12 It is at this point that Mosley diverged from Spenglerian thought as he fundamentally rejected its determinism. While Spengler ‘gave new impulse’ to his thinking and ‘accentuated the impending disaster’,13 he felt it was possible to summon ‘the mighty spirit of modern science to provide the answer’.14 This split with orthodox Spenglerian-ism was neatly described by Lady Mosley, who wrote:

I think in his opinion, Spengler (whose work he greatly admired) had said it all, that up to a point Spengler was a prophet, but that he thought he had left out of account the fact of scientific advance, which might modify the pessimism inherent in the idea, that the West must decline. Mosley’s own thought was directed towards the future, the Union of Europe’.15

In both the prewar and postwar periods Mosley felt that the decline could be reversed through revolutionary new ideas, which fundamentally contradict Spengler’s conclusions. As Mosley put it, ‘pessimism and revolution are contradictions in terms’.16 Interestingly, as a short aside, this statement further questions the position of those historians and anti-fascists who have sought to negate all revolutionary aspects of fascism by painting it as mere nihilism.

Mosley’s belief in decline and his proposed solution for its reversal had some striking parallels with the work of the influential German philosopher and sometime Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger.17 Heidegger, the inspiration for the philosophical current of existential phenomenology; most famous for his 1927 book Being and Time, described in Introduction to Metaphysics, a series of lectures delivered in the summer of 1935, how

The spiritual decay of the earth is so advanced that people risk exhausting that reserve of spiritual force which enables them just to see and take stock of this decay. . . . This simple observation has nothing to do with cultural pessimism: for in every corner of the world the darkening of the world, the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the massification of man, the contemptuous suspicion of everything which is creative and free, have reached such proportions that such childlike expressions as pessimism and optimism have long become laughable.18

While he was primarily concerned with the fate of Germany, believing that, ‘As the Volk situated at the centre we experience the sharpest pressure, as Volk with the most neighbours we are the Volk in the greatest danger’,19 he made it clear that he was also concerned with the wider crisis faced by Europe and the West as he talked of‘the destruction of the earth’ and the ‘flight of the gods’.20 While there is of course nothing explicitly Nazi about this position, his utter despair and longing for an end to the erosion of authentic Being and metapolitical renewal by means of a cultural revolution no doubt was the cause of his support for the Third Keich - yet also perhaps for his rejection of it when he realised his mistake.

During the 1930s Heidegger deeply felt the spectre of this impending crisis in Europe, which derived, he felt, from the nihilism engendered by World War I, the threat from Russia and Asia in the East and the rise of America, including the Americanisation of language.21 As he put it, ‘This Europe, which is always in the process of tearing itself apart out of utter blindness, lies today in the great pincergrip formed by Russia on the one hand and America on the other’.22 He expanded on this theme during a speech to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in April 1936 explaining how he understood the situation of Europe eschatologically, believing the impending crisis would determine the future - or lack thereof- for Europe and the West.23 His opening remarks stated that,

Our historical Dasein experiences with increasing distress and clarity that its future is tantamount to a naked either/or: either Europe’s rescue or its destruction. The possibility of rescue, however, demands two things:

  • 1. The preservation of the European Volker against the Asiatic.
  • 2. The overcoming of their own deracination and fragmentation.24

There is much in Heidegger’s work on crisis and Europe that Mosley would have agreed with. First, the notion of a Europe ‘tearing itself apart’was central to Mosley’s call for postwar continental unity, as he also often blamed decline on ‘division and war’.2’ They also agreed on the external forces hastening decline with Heidegger talking of a ‘pincer-grip’ formed by America and Russia and Mosley’s postwar denouncement of ‘mob and money. Communism and Finance’.26 More important, however, was their shared belief that radical palingenesis was needed to stave off total destruction: a civilisation on the precipice. Heidegger talked of ‘either Europe’s rescue or its destruction’ and in accord Mosley of‘crashing, burning death - or new civilisation’.27 Furthermore, the overcoming of fragmentation as a means of rescue was the same means of survival offered by Mosley in his postwar Europe-a-Nation proposal.

However, when both are historically contextualised, Mosley’s ideas stand out as divergent from the general moods of the time in which they were written. Heidegger’s predictions of a Europe in crisis were written during the tumultuous 1930s with the impending spectre of a second continental war making pessimistic predictions common, while Mosley’s came in the late 1940s, after the war, as a new optimism was emerging across the continent. With that said, Mosley’s belief in European decline and impending crisis places his postwar analysis - the very starting point of his postwar plan - firmly within the prewar pessimistic philosophical tradition. Yet, as did many fascists in the interwar period, he firmly rejected the inevitability of this decline and built his whole doctrine around finding a way to reverse it. His belief in the possibility and necessity of cultural rebirth - the staving off of eternal night - also places Mosley’s postwar plan for society within the fascistic tradition of mythic palingenesis. While the obsession with decline is a constant in Mosleys thought, his proposed solution to halt and reverse it changed after the war.

 
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