For the last several months, a war crimes trial has been unfolding in Bordeaux in Southwest France. The defendant, Maurice Papon, an octogenarian on the verge of cardiac arrest, was the subprefect of the Gironde during the Vichy regime. At that time Papon and his superior, Maurice Sabatier, oversaw the deportation of thousands of Jews destined for concentration camps and often eventual extermination. The trial of Papon is being used to underscore French complicity in the holocaust, and, as L’Express (November 26, 1997) observes, most of the prosecution’s case has consisted of “discours solennels” instead of rigorously presented evidence. The trial was originally planned to deal with the misdeeds of Papon’s boss, but since Sabatier inconsiderately departed this world before the proceedings began, the prosecution has had to refocus.

But the gloomy sermons are far more central to the trial, as object lesson, than some legal critics recognize. These orations are meant to drive home what the French and American media industry does not want Frenchmen (and other vestigially Christian peoples) to forget, that their societies had eagerly collaborated in Nazi atrocities and that their inherited cultures had predisposed them to such behavior. Though this complicity was admittedly more common in France than it should have been, the charges made are all too often questionable. One, featured in the movie Le Chagrin et la Pitié, is that religiously indoctrinated Frenchmen ran to welcome the German armies that over ran their country in 1940, as a bulwark being offered against Jews and communists. On the basis of highly selective sources, such as the pro-Nazi statements of the rector of the Catholic Institute in Paris, we are led to believe that professing French Christians happily supported Hitler’s occupation and the deportation of Jews. But French Calvinists, almost without exception, protected Jews, invariably at the risk of their lives. And though the Catholic record was, on the whole, less impressive, monasteries and convents throughout France took in Jewish refugees. One beneficiary of such kindness is the present French primate, whose parents had been Polish Jewish immigrants.

Another faulty generalization is that most of France’s intelligentsia were well-disposed toward Nazism. Here a distinction is appropriate that may also apply to other European intellectuals of the same period, between those who (like Louis-Ferdinand Celine) applauded the Nazi regime in all its grisliness and those who merely went along. It is the latter who were in the vast majority, certainly in France, and who form the subject of Jean-Robert and Giles Ragache’s probing study, Des ècrivains des artistes sous l’occupation 1940-1944 (1988). Unlike such proudly collaborationist authors as Celine, Robert Brasillach, and Pierre Drieu La Roehelle, most intellectuals—for example, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Andre Gide, and (throughout most of the Occupation) Andre Malraux—tried to stay out of harm’s way. This also applied to the Russian Jewish artist Marc Chagall, then resident in the French village of Gordes. The Ragaches studiously avoid confusing plainly different actions—such as cheering on the Nazis, keeping a low profile, or expressing generic pro-fascist sentiments —and turning Jews over to the Waffen SS.

There is, of course, a compelling reason why most Frenchmen no longer ask who did or did not collaborate, and in what way, with the Vichy government. From June 1944 until months after the war ended, French communists (who ironically had been among the most conspicuous Nazi collaborators until Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union) led the way in meting out rough justice to “collabos” in areas freed of German control. During this “épuration” thousands lost their lives, and many more suffered public humiliation, like being beaten and spat upon or, in the case of women thought to be fraternizing with the enemy, having their heads shaved. Similar ghastly displays occurred in Italy, particularly in liberated Rome in June 1944; and a feature story in Corriere della Sera in April 1995 describes one such anti-fascist bloodletting. This strage engulfed the innocent and not very guilty as well as those who may have aided the occupying German army, and it was carried out against hundreds of Italians with the connivance of the Committee of National Liberation, which was in charge of organizing the post-fascist government. Even more ominously, millions of Eastern Europeans were killed, imprisoned, or deported between 1945 and 1948, as Stalin tightened his grip on the region in the name of “anti-fascism.” In view of the ugly, bloody history attached to digging up and concocting pro-fascist dossiers, it is understandable that the French were long reluctant to renew the post-liberation witch-hunt of 1944-45.

In interwar Europe, fascist and quasi-fascist movements flourished, a situation that has attracted considerable scholarly attention. Historians have debated the differences and overlaps among fascist groups: whether, for example, the German Nazis, who claimed some affinity with European fascism, were representative fascists, or whether the Nazis were more like Stalinist totalitarians, as suggested by George Watson, Robert Conquest, and Stanley Payne. Latin fascists like Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera and Giovanni Bottai did not have either the totalitarian agenda or the anti-Semitic fixation of Hitler and his lieutenants. Those fascists spoke for national revolutionary movements that left their mark on non-Latins as well: both black nationalist Marcus Garvey and revisionist Zionist Zev Jabotinsky were strongly drawn to the Italian national revolution, identified with Mussolini. Well into the 1930’s (Renzo de Felice has shown in his dissertation), the Zionist right both expressed admiration for and sought favor with the Duce. He, in turn, granted Jabotinsky’s followers the right to build a navy at Genoa for a future Jewish state.

Israeli francophone historian Zeev Sternhell has written copiously on the background of the Latin fascism that came of age in the 1920’s. Looking at the “founding generation” of thinkers and activists concerned with bourgeois decadence and the irrational sources of power and social actions, Sternhell traces back to the late 19th century a revolutionary force that was “neither left nor right” in any traditional sense. It also combined varying degrees of economic collectivism with a belief in hierarchy and a vivid sense of the national past.

Unlike Sternhell, German intellectual historian Ernst Nolte downplays the anti-bourgeois aspect of fascist movements. Rather, he focuses on their role as a bulwark of bourgeois civilization in the face of the social ferment following World War I. For all their invective against the liberal capitalist order, insists Nolte, fascists were essentially bourgeois opponents of the revolutionary left. The movements they created were “counterrevolutionary imitations of Bolshevism” that drew their ideals from a folkish past.

While Nolte may indeed understate the revolutionary thrust of some interwar fascist movements, he is correct to stress their bourgeois component. Fascist leaders and thinkers were recruited from the business and professional classes, and Italian bourgeois liberals such as Vilfredo Pareto, Luigi Einaudi, and Gino Olivetti generally gave Mussolini the benefit of the doubt, at least in the 20’s. The major proto-fascist movement in early 20th-century France, Action Française, numbered many professionals, particularly physicians, in its ranks. And faced by a choice between restive socialists and clerical fascists in Austria in the 1930’s, classical liberal economist Ludwig von Mises quickly made his peace with the clericalist imitator of Italian fascism, Engelbert Dollfuss.

Despite this bourgeois and occasionally reactionary direction taken by interwar fascism, its reforming image also appealed to some on the left. Most significantly, American advocates of an expanded welfare state followed English and French socialists in holding up Mussolini’s Italy as a political model. In the 1920’s, the New Republic published essay after essay by, among other contributors, Horace Kallen and Herbert Groly, praising Mussolini’s socialist zeal. Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America by J.P. Diggins treats this love affair that large parts of the American left had with fascism, seen as an anti-capitalist, revolutionary force and as a nationalist variation on Marxist-Leninism.

This romance, however, was supplanted by an implacable hate, which has characterized the left’s relation to fascism ever since. While there certainly are explanations for this hate, including the reasons most often given—that all fascism came to be identified, rightly or wrongly, with Nazism, which produced the holocaust—the standard explanation is not entirely convincing. Mass murder is not a moral problem for much of the left. When the communists undertook this experiment in Russia and Maoist China, journalists and academics tried to look the other way. Afterwards, they urged (and continue to urge) “healing” in dealing with communist killers and their accomplices, in order that we might get on with the unfinished business of atoning for right-wing oppression. Such ideologues here and in Europe do not wish to be diverted by the fact of communist genocide from dealing with the apparently real enemy, anyone thought to have been passively as well as actively implicated in fascist crimes. It is therefore not even worthy of note that at the end of World War II, Truman, Churchill, and Anthony Eden all collaborated in returning hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans to Stalin’s rule and certain death, in Operation Keelhaul. Such behavior, which barely amounts to a footnote in most histories of the war, would seem to make the alleged crimes of Subprefect Papon pale by comparison.

It is no longer clear what fascism was or is, save for an extension of Hitlerism into the present. This extended Hitlerism is imagined to be behind every political or religious movement that is guilty of political incorrectness, from anti-immigrationists to homeschoolers and evangelical Christians. Meanwhile, the holocaust, as depicted in the New York Times and Le Monde, has been revised to exaggerate the sufferings of homosexuals (fewer than 5,000 died directly or indirectly owning to Nazi mistreatment) and to include the entirely fictitious afflictions of lesbians. This is consistent with revised definitions of fascism that make it synonymous with homophobia, sexism, and general insensitivity. As a proclaimed effort to combat such insensitivity and to expiate the national part, the German Bundestag has decided to have two separate monuments erected to homosexual and lesbian victims of the Nazi regime.

In the language of Critical Theory, “fascism” and “anti-fascism” have been instrumentalized. From being a failed model of political management tied to a project of cultural and national regeneration, fascism has evolved into a codeword for genocide associated with insensitive attitudes. The semantic denaturing of the terms in question was already under way by 1950, when volumes of The Authoritarian Personality, a study of fascist attitudes and their relation to anti-Semitism, began to appear under the aegis of the American Jewish Committee. All the contributors —among them S.M. Lipset, Max Horkheimer, Use Frenkel, Theodor Adorno, and Paul Lazarfeld—believed that any departure from their socialist, secularist, and gender-egalitarian outlook betrayed fascist and possibly Nazi sentiments. The “pseudo-democratic” populist danger evoked in this work has now been updated to include such telltale fascist signs as favoring restrictions on immigration and being uncomfortable at the sight of gays fondling each other in public.

“Fascist” is also now exempt from the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction. As seen in Le Monde‘s attacks on the National Front, fascism, like liberalism, can be used in ways that contradict a once settled meaning. While granting the prevalence of Thomas Fleming’s mock equation—that European populism equals fascism which equals Hitler which equals Auschwitz—one might still expect some to remember that the Nazis were engaged in far-reaching territorial conquests, not in restricting immigration or in fighting for local democratic autonomy. Are we supposed to believe that leghisti or kpenistes are incipient Nazis because they complain about the growth of the welfare state or are unwilling to expand their societies to include culturally alien immigrants?

Although these populists may be provincial or insufficiently cosmopolitan, theirs is not the evil that produced a murderous Nazi empire embracing the European continent. Such decontextualization, encountered daily in journalistic descriptions of “the new fascist threat,” makes one wonder whether the slanderers have any idea of the expansionist dynamic embodied by the Third Reich or of the fascist corporatist welfare state vision. Remember the illiterate insolence of Charles Krauthammer, who in March 1992 decried Patrick Buchanan as a Hitlerite? Krauthammer pronounced the “N” word after learning that Buchanan opposed free trade and had a father who admired Francisco Franco. Such malicious pseudo-reasoning abounds in the verbal industries, which makes it unlikely that lying about fascism will soon end.