Understanding the Rise of the Far Right: The Need for a Historical Approach

This is part of our Campus Spotlight on Maastricht University.


It might be hard to believe now, but debates about the dangers of fascism or the rise of far-right political parties were not very popular just over a decade ago. When in the summer of 2009, Matteo Albanese and myself started preparing for the research that would eventually constitute the basis for our book Transnational Neofascism in the Twentieth Century, several colleagues wondered why we were studying a topic that was so disconnected with the events of that time.[1] Such dismissive attitudes can be partially explained by looking at the work produced by some of the most prominent scholars of the time. For them, fascism appeared as a closed historical phenomenon, a political experiment definitively defeated in 1945. The few people who still recognized themselves as fascists, they argued, remained at the margins of society and had no chance to be politically relevant again. As for the far-right parties (which were seen as very different from fascist actors), they could indeed improve their electoral results, but only under very specific circumstances, and their eventual success was bound to remain temporary.[2] Despite the 2008 economic crisis, everything seemed to be in order at the beginning of the twentieth century, and very few commentators saw the urgency in studying the role of far right actors in international politics, let alone the legacies from the interwar years.

This scenario, however, has dramatically changed since then. By now, it seems undisputable that important developments are taking place at the right of the right of the political spectrum. The extreme right currently rules in several countries, in Europe and outside of Europe, and it is enjoying a growing electoral success in many other places. These developments have triggered a heated academic and public debate about how to interpret them in light of the fascist experiences of the interwar years. These discussions have intensified even further in recent months due to the coronavirus crisis, and the responses given by leaders like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Donald Trump in the US. Indeed, the Western media (especially in the United States) has become deeply involved in the public debate which can generally be circumscribed around two main positions.[3] On the one hand, many specialists in the history of fascism defend the importance of flexibly using the term “fascism” to denote and explain current far-right movements, including Trump’s or Bolsonaro’s.[4] On the other hand, historians from other areas of expertise as well as journalistic commentators tend to see this use as problematic. For them, the rise of right-wing extremism today should be interpreted as a separate phenomenon, very different from the fascist regimes of the 1920s and the 1930s.[5] This argument is partly based on the premise that what came after 1945 was a completely different phenomenon from interwar fascism, and that, therefore, we needed to use different expressions to address it, such as “right-wing populism,” “national populism,” or “right-wing extremism.”

The present piece tries to contribute to this debate by underscoring the advantages of adopting a historical approach to understand current developments at the right of the right of the political spectrum. At the same time, it implicitly sheds light on the discussions about labels by emphasizing the importance of neofascism as a moment of transition between interwar fascism and more recent developments at the right of the right. Specifically, I will showcase the exchanges that took place during the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s between the fascists who had managed to survive World War II, and a younger generation of political activists who were determined to play a bigger role in the far right camp. Moreover, my argument is that it is essential to understand what the current far-right activists learned from the neofascist wave of the previous generations. By looking at (neo)-fascism under this transnational longue durée perspective, it will be possible to identify some striking continuities that exist today, and that explain why the current far-right can be regarded as interwar fascism’s heir.

In fact, one of the main problems with the more traditional accounts that this piece aims to problematize, is that they are based on the reductive premise that leaders and members of right-wing and neofascist groups became politically irrelevant after 1945.[6] This line of argument is rather inaccurate because it ignores several far-right actors who did play an important part in postwar European politics, including regimes like Franco’s Spain or Salazar’s Portugal, political parties like the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) in Italy, or the Front National (FN) in France, or transnational movements like Jeune Europe (JE). Contrary to this mainstream literature, I contend that, in order to understand current developments, it is crucial to adopt a transnational historical approach that looks at the evolution of the far-right ideology beyond the year 1945 and addresses the issue of continuities and discontinuities between interwar and post-war fascism.

It should be clarified, though, that my main aim is not just to draw comparisons between the interwar period and today: interpreting the present as a re-enactment of the past should be avoided in rigorous historical analysis. Instead, the chief objective is to show how the fascist ideology evolved over time, in an attempt to identify the features that are still present today in far-right parties across Europe.[7] In order to do so, it is necessary to understand that the translation of an ideology from one period to the other, or from one group to the other, is never a mere exercise of juxtaposition, but an organic process of continuous appropriation and re-appropriation. In this regard, fascism must be considered as a living ideology that cannot be constrained by spatial nor temporal borders. It has existed through almost a century of history and travelled across many countries; in order to survive, fascism has had to change and adapt itself to the international context, and the main political actors at that time.[8] Hence, it is essential to trace the international trajectories of many of the fascists who survived the end of World War II, to understand the mechanisms through which they managed to pass on their ideology to successive new generations, thus keeping it alive.

By following a transnational and transtemporal approach to tracing the life trajectories of these fascists, the starting point should be based on the premise that 1945 might have been the end of fascist regimes, but did not represent the end of fascist ideology. Fascism managed to survive the end of the war and developed in Europe during the following decades. Indeed, between 1944 and 1946, several of these fascists were able to escape prosecution by the Allied authorities and find refuge in different parts of the world, always with the aid of the Vatican, the Francoist regime, Portugal’s Salazar and/or several governments in South America. These escapes thus became the beginning of a long diaspora that was both human and political, and which had huge ramifications for the fascist ideology. Many of the fascists who fled Allied persecution refused to abandon their political activities and devoted their entire energy to keeping fascism alive.[9]

The situation of these political actors improved towards the end of 1946. Due to the evolution of the international context, the Allied authorities decided to relax their efforts to prosecute fascist war criminals. Partly because of the growing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, the governments in London, Paris, and Washington began to realize that the reconstruction of Europe was now imperative and rather urgent. In this new scenario, the issue of war criminals became of secondary importance, if not a nuisance. Europeans needed to start looking ahead and stop dwelling on the past. To be sure, fascists benefitted from the politics of amnesia put in place by many states eager to forget, the subsequent failure of any meaningful purges, and the encouraging role of some governments (especially the Vatican, Spain, Portugal and several South American countries).[10]

As a result of the new international context, fascists in hiding slowly began to feel safer. If during the years 1945-1946, fascists on the run focused on survival, after 1947 they became freer to become more involved in active politics. There was the growing conviction among these political actors that, as relations between Moscow and Washington deteriorated, fascism had the possibility to be brought slowly back as a relevant ideology for the post-war world. In this juncture, the most relevant and far-reaching attempt to revive the fascist ideology took place at the Congress of Malmö held in Sweden in 1951. This congress brought together fascists from fourteen countries and ultimately founded a pan-European fascist movement known as the European Social Movement (ESM). Although the participants in the conference disagreed about issues such as anti-Semitism or the degree of racism necessary for post-war fascism, there was unanimous agreement about the idea of a regenerated Europe battling against the two “materialist” superpowers. That is, the Malmö Manifesto enshrined Eurofascism as opposed to narrow, insular nationalisms. Accordingly, the meeting in Malmö had a huge impact by laying the foundations to promote a shared ideological agenda and to spread the fascist doctrine and beliefs across European borders.[11]

As Andrea Mammone has elucidated in his book Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy, the impact of the ESM was complemented with the contribution of two fascist thinkers who would also be instrumental to expand the ideology in the following years: Maurice Bardèche and Julius Evola.[12] These two intellectuals, who had come to prominence within the fascist environment thanks to their literary works already during the interwar years, advocated for an ideological radicalization, rejecting the existing order and regenerating activism. In their view, fascism had to be pure, an aspiration, but also able to cross borders, and, consequently, be de-territorialized and independent from existing world powers.[13]The ideas of Bardèche and Evola quickly gained traction among the new generation of Europeans who were starting to make their way at the beginning of the 1960s. Through these two writers, the younger militants who had not lived the war, became exposed to interwar thinkers such as Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Robert Brasillach, René Guénon, Léon Degrelle, Oswald Spengler, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, or Corneliu Zelea Codreanu. The contributions of these authors produced a very fertile ground for the younger militants to create/join new groupings and movements. The most relevant examples of this trend were Jean-François Thiriart’s Jeune Europe, and also movements like Ordine Nuovo and Avanguardia Nazionale in Italy, Ordre Nouveau in France, or the Círculo Español de Amigos de Europa (CEDADE) in Spain.[14]

At the same time, though, the new generations were not just passive recipients of these new ideas. On the contrary, they developed an original appropriation of fascism as it was being passed on by the “old guard.” To be sure, an interpretative appropriation through the intergenerational contacts became central to the reception of the fascist ideology based on the combination of other political thoughts and the European specificities of the time. In other words, the young militants immediately understood that the type of fascism that came from the interwar years had to be adapted to the new international situation if it wanted to thrive. This push for change would be accelerated by the events of 1968. As Andrea Mammone and Matteo Albanese have explained, the threat derived from the explosion of radical leftism led neofascist movements to develop new policies made of unified fronts, but also renewed activism. Worried by the hegemony of the left, these neofascist militants decided “to reunite diverse factions, adopt counter-revolutionary stances in politics, develop bastions against communism, gain respectability in mainstream circles, and revitalize cultures.”[15] In this way, the neofascist groups incorporated a series of innovations resulting from the ferments of post-1968 society, which would be extremely important in the following decades.[16]

The outcome of this process of revision and transformation of the fascist ideology by the new generations gave rise to what has been labelled as neofascism. Influenced by the political stances of the younger militants, new ideas concerning politics and activism were integrated into the new groupings and organizations: a vision of a united and powerfully independent Europe, a corporatist idea of post-1945 Europe, the adoption of new methods like transnational cooperation, and a progressive elimination of the word fascist.

These transformations proved to be rather successful and neofascist parties experienced a period of growth from the beginning of the 1960s. However, this growth was short-lived. As Cas Mudde has argued, already at the beginning of the 1980s, a gradual realignment in European politics progressively reduced polarization and saw voters returning to more traditional parties.[17] However, it is also important to acknowledge that this new juncture did not mean the disappearance of neofascism from European politics. Despite problems and disagreements, transfers of ideas and mutual influences continued to exist during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Even though neofascist groups were pushed again to the margins of mainstream politics, they managed to stay alive waiting for better conditions to resurface. And indeed, the very factors that marginalized neofascism in the 1980s were the same ones that facilitated its return three decades later. In the words of Cas Mudde, during the last two decades of the twentieth century, “mainstream European parties increasingly converged on a new elite consensus—a common agenda that called for integration through the EU, multiethnic societies, and neoliberal economic reforms,” thus creating a fertile breeding ground for far-right parties, “as many voters began to see political elites as indistinguishable from one another, regardless of their party affiliations.”[18]

This convergence, together with other external factors such as the international terrorist attacks, perceptions of growing numbers migratory fluxes coming to Europe, and, more importantly, the 2008 economic crisis, contributed to creating the perfect scenario for extreme right-wing parties in many countries. However, it should be noted that this re-emergence of political parties and movements at the right of the right of the political spectrum was also accompanied by yet another generational change. Indeed, by the time of the fall of Lehman Brothers, the young militants who have fostered the transformations that derived into the formation of neofascism between the 1960s and the 1980s, were not young anymore. They too had to incorporate the new generations who evidently came with new ideas and strategies. Although more research is still necessary about this second intergenerational exchange, thanks to the works by Pietro Castelli, Steven Forti, Caterina Froio, and Matteo Albanese about far-right groups in France and Italy, we can already advance a few elements. Crucially, the younger militants understand the relevance of the Internet and social media, and how they can work them to their advantage. As the political campaigns by Salvini’s La Lega, or by Abascal’s Vox have shown, an aggressive digital strategy can be extremely useful to reach and mobilize the sectors of the society who are more disenchanted with the current state of affairs.[19] At the same time, though, these authors explain that the new generations continue to rely upon the main tenets of neofascism to build their discourses. That is why elements of neofascist right wing extremism have survived in contemporary times, and they will continue to be visible in Western politics during the coming years: this is a process of constant appropriation and re-appropriation, which transforms certain features while keeping the core aspects.[20]

Consequently, neofascism becomes the crucial link between fascism and today’s right-wing extremism. It is thus necessary to study neofascism as a genuine transnational actor—with attention to the intergenerational exchanges first from the old guard, then to today’s young generations—to highlight the patterns of continuity within the history of right-wing extremism throughout the decades. In this way, we can produce a more balanced account of the evolution of the ideology. On the one hand, we see that the far right has indeed experienced significant transformations, such as the rejection of mass mobilization, the ambition to create a one-party state, or an initial compliance with the formal procedures of representative democracy. On the other hand, though, we can verify prominent continuities. To begin with, the fact that radical right parties initially respect the procedures of democracy does not mean that their way of interpreting democracy is in line with liberal democratic understandings. But that is not the end of it: elements like extreme nationalism, discrimination against ethnic minorities, glorification of violence, antifeminism, antisocialism, hostility to established social and political elites, anti-capitalism, antiparliamentarianism, or the conflation between people, leader, and nation are features which have remained unaltered throughout the years.[21]

To conclude, the rise of the extreme right is built on a series of foundations that have not been improvised but have been systematically laid during a long period of time and that have accelerated after 2008. Contrary to mainstream views on contemporary right-wing extremism which overlook these deep historical roots, I argue that if we want to understand what is happening today, we need to go back to 1945 when many fascists managed to escape Allied prosecution and keep the ideology alive by passing it on to the new generations. Only if we take this approach, will we be able to understand the political phenomenon and to appreciate the durability of today’s far right appeals among European voters.

At the same time, if we pathologize fascism and neofascism, those ideologies and their repercussions today will be harder for us to understand. Likewise, an analysis exclusively focused on the discontinuities is bound to remain superficial and incomplete. Instead, we need to understand the complexities of ideological transfers; to be sure, when ideologies travel, in space or time, they are not merely juxtaposed, but there is always a process of appropriation and re-appropriation involved. In other words, the translation of the fascist ideology to other contexts has always entailed a process of appropriation and re-invention. That is why, for example, most of the young neofascist militants in Europe during the 1960s and the 1970s decided to avoid the use of the term “fascist” in order to dissociate themselves from an experiment which was distrusted because of the events of World War II. Scholars need to understand the intricacies of the evolution of the fascist ideology and assess the extent of the changes implemented over time. In doing so, it is possible to verify that there are differences in today’s radical right from the fascists of the interwar years, but also remarkable similarities. Because, as Mark Mazower put it, probably fascism, as a product of its time, will not return, but some of its main ideological components never went away.[22] It is thus the duty of us scholars to identify and expose them.


Pablo del Hierro is Assistant Professor in History at the University of Maastricht. He obtained his Doctorate from the European University Institute. He specializes in international relations during the Cold War, with emphasis on the decolonization process, and on political history in the twentieth century, focusing on right wing movements and neo-fascism. Recent publications include Transnational Fascism in the Twentieth Century. Spain, Italy and the Global Neo-Fascist Network (with Matteo Albanese, Bloomsbury, 2016) and Spanish-Italian Relations and the Influence of the Major Powers 1943-1957 (Palgrave, 2015).​



[1] Matteo Albanese and Pablo del Hierro, Transnational Neofascism in the Twentieth Century. Spain, Italy and the Global Neo-Fascist Network, (Bloomsbury, 2016).

[2] Larry Bartels, “The Wave of Right-Wing Populist Sentiment is a Myth”, Washington Post, 21 June 2017, at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/06/21/the-wave-of-right-wing-populist-sentiment-is-a-myth/. Kim Sengupta, “French election result shows right-wing populist wave is not sweeping Europe”, Independent, 24 April, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/marine-le-pen-france-election-macron-right-wing-populist-vote-not-sweeping-europe-a7700131.html

Paul Taggart, “Populism and representative politics in contemporary Europe” in Journal of Political Ideologies, Vol. 9. No. 3, (2004): 269-288.

Reinhard Heinisch, “Success in opposition – failure in government: Explaining the performance of right-wing populist parties in public office.” in West European Politics, Vol. 26, No.3, (2010): 91–130.

Rogers Brubaker, “Between nationalism and civilizationism: the European populist moment in comparative perspective” in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 40, No. 8 (2017): 1191-1226.

Chantal Mouffe, “Populists are on the rise but this can be a moment for progressives too”, The Guardian, 10 September, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/10/populists-rise-progressives-radical-right

Chih-Mei Luo, “The Rise of Populist Right-wing Parties in the 2014 European Parliament: Election and Implications for European Integration”, in European Review, Vol. 25, No. 3 (2017): 406–422.

[3] Matt Johnson, “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” in Haaretz, 11-06-2020, https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-is-donald-trump-a-fascist-1.8913249

Spencer Bokat-Lindell, “Fascism: A Concern” New York Times, 30-7-2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/opinion/fascism-us.html

Another good summary of the debate can be found in the Twitter thread by the prominent specialist in Fascism, Ángel Alcalde: https://twitter.com/Angel_Alcalde_/status/1288346387361366021

[4] Masha Gessen, Donald Trump’s Fascist Performance, The New Yorker, 3-6-2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/donald-trumps-fascist-performance

John Nichols, “Call Trump’s Tactics What They Are: Fascist” The Nation, 28-7-2020, https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/fascist-tactics-trump-wisconsin/

Sarah Churchwell, “The return of American fascism, The New Statesmen, 2-0-2020, https://www.newstatesman.com/international/places/2020/09/return-american-fascism

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is Right to Warn of ‘Fascism in the United States’” The New Republic, 8-8-2020, https://newrepublic.com/article/158999/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-right-warn-fascism-united-states

Federico Finchelstein and José Zepeda, “Del fascismo al populismo. Aclaraciones indispensables” in OpenDemocracy, 12-12-2018, https://www.opendemocracy.net/es/del-fascismo-al-populismo-aclaraciones-indispensa/

Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Random House, 2018.

Federico Finchelstein, A Brief History of Fascist Lies, University of California Press, 2020.

Sarah Churchwell, “American Fascism: It Has Happened Here”, The New York Review of Books, 22-6-2020, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/06/22/american-fascism-it-has-happened-here/

[5] David Bell, “Trump is a racist demagogue. But he’s not a fascist.” In Washington Post, 26-08-2020,   https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/08/26/trump-not-fascist/

John MacNeil, “How fascist is President Trump? There’s still a formula for that” in Washington Post, 21-08-2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/how-fascist-is-president-trump-theres-still-a-formula-for-that/2020/08/21/aa023aca-e2fc-11ea-b69b-64f7b0477ed4_story.html

Eliah Bures, Don’t Call Donald Trump a Fascist, Foreign Policy, 2-11-2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/11/02/donald-trump-fascist-nazi-right-wing/

Samuel Moyn, The Trouble with Comparisons, The New York Review of Books, 19-5-2020, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/

The debate has reached higher levels of intensity on Twitter, with important additional contributions by David Bell, Adam Tooze, Ruth Ben Ghiat, Angel Alcalde, or Richard Steigmann-Gall, among others.

[6] Arnd Bauerkämper and Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, eds. Fascism without Borders: Transnational Connections and Cooperation between Movements and Regimes in Europe from 1918 to 1945, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2017).

[7] This notion is based on the work of historians such as Roger Griffin, Andrea Mammone, Tamir Bar-On, or Matteo Albanese, who have recently elucidated how large parts of the post-1945 extreme-right would conform to the general definition of fascism as given by Roger Griffin. Andrea Mammone, Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2015). Tamir Bar-On, Where Have All the Fascists Gone? (London: Routledge, 2007). Roger Griffin, Fascism: An Introduction to Comparative Fascist Studies, (Cambridge: Polity Books, 2018), Matteo Albanese and Pablo del Hierro, Transnational Fascism in the Twentieth Century: Spain, Italy and the Global Neo-Fascist Network, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

[8] Albanese and del Hierro, Transnational Fascism in the Twentieth Century.

[9] Albanese and del Hierro, Transnational Fascism in the Twentieth Century.

[10] Tony Judt, Postwar, (London: Penguin, 2005).

[11] Archives of the Central Intelligence Agency (ACIA): Secret Report on the European Social Movement, without date, but not before September 1951, Document Number: CIA-RDP78-00915R000400120004-0, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp78-00915r000400120004-0.

[12] Mammone, Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy.

[13] Andrea Mammone, “Revitalizing and de-territorializing fascism in the 1950s: the extreme right in France and Italy, and the pan-national (‘European’) imaginary” Patterns of Prejudice, Volume 45, Issue 4, (2011): 295-318.

[14] Mammone, Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy. Albanese and del Hierro, Transnational Fascism in the Twentieth Century.

[15] Mammone, Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy, 122.

[16] Albanese and del Hierro, Transnational Fascism in the Twentieth Century.

[17] Cas Mudde, “Europe’s Populist Surge. A Long Time in the Making” in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 95, Issue 6, (November/December 2016).

[18] It should be clarified that Cas Mudde uses the label “right-wing populist parties” in his text. Mudde, “Europe’s Populist Surge.”

[19] Steven Forti, “’La bestia’, ovvero del come funziona la propaganda di Salvini,” Rolling Stone, July 13, 2018, https://www.rollingstone.it/politica/la-bestia-ovvero-del-come-funziona-la-propaganda-di-salvini/420343/

[20] Pietro Castelli Gattinara, Caterina Froio and Matteo Albanese “The appeal of neo-fascism in times of crisis.  The experience of CasaPound Italia”, Fascism, Vol. 2, (2013): 234–258.

[21] These lists have been compiled by combining the works of specialists like Diethelm Prowe, Andrea Mammone and Federico Finchesltein. Diethelm Prowe, “Classic’ Fascism and the New Radical Right in Western Europe: Comparisons and Contrasts” in Contemporary European History Volume 3, Issue3, (1994): pp. 289-313. Mammone, Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy. Federico Finchelstein, A Brief History of Fascist Lies, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020).

[22] Mark Mazower, “Ideas that fed the beast of fascism flourish today” Financial Times, November 6, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/599fbbfc-a412-11e6-8898-79a99e2a4de6


Photo: Vienna, Austria – June 11, 2016: Demonstration of the Austrian Identitarian Movement in front of train station in Vienna | Shutterstock
Published on November 10, 2020.


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