Modernism and Fascism: How does unreason use reason?

Studying Modernities naturally entails a heavy focus on 20th century material. When we think of Modernism, we may perhaps think of progressive influences such as the rise of feminist writing. However, as we all know, the early-to-mid 20th Century was the staging ground for a major surge of totalitarian politics pre-WWII. And actually, a lot of significant Modernist literature written during this period shows the distinct influence of these shifting political tides. From the preoccupation of the German National Socialists with Nietzschean ideas of the superman, Ezra Pound’s infatuation with Italian Fascism, I believe there is a significant connection between these contemporaneous movements. For my dissertation, it is my hope to explore these connections, and the parasitizing influence of Totalitarian thought on Modernism.

Modernism takes its influence from thought such as the Enlightenment, rooted in post-Christian values. Though the man himself would likely balk at being called a “modernist”, Late Romantic Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and his famous “God is Dead” dictum was an important contributor in the thrust towards modernism.

However, an examination of the perversion of Nietzsche’s legacy by Nazi propagandists illustrates my point regarding the corrupting influences of the fascist movement on art, literature, and philosophy, and shows how it could usurp the very roots and origins of modernism for its own ends, much as it could do to the movement proper.

Nietzsche’s philosophy, and in particular,  his notorious “Ubermensch” or “Superman” concept have been burdened with an infamous connection with Fascism the pseudoscientific racial purity doctrines of German National Socialism. Nietzsche was massively popular in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, and upon rising to power, Adolf Hitler and his ilk used their forceful control of the media to lay claim to his legacy.

The enduring parallels drawn by the Nazi regime between Nietzsche’s “superman” and the idea of a “Master Race” illustrate the way in which the rising tide of totalitarianism in the first half of the 20th century fed off ideas in art, literature and philosophy of the time in order to propagate itself.


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