State and Nation under Totalitarianism: Nazi and Fascist Comparisons from Above and Below

AHA Session 236
Central European History Society 11
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Gramercy East (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Elissa Bemporad, City University of New York

Session Abstract

This panel advances the contention that the phenomenon of the “totalitarian state” can be fully understood only when analyzed with a dual approach: on the one side, the perspective of the state and its legal provisions; on the other side, individuals’ points of view and their everyday experience.

The papers in the panel all raise the question of how the essence of totalitarianism under Nazism and Fascism can be identified, and what if anything made them distinctive. Two papers examine the meaning of Fascist totalitarianism. De Cristofaro argues that its meaning in the Italian context can be elucidated by considering its specific conceptualization and implications in the field of legal and political science during the period of the Fascist regime. Skinner questions the extent to which the Italian Fascist state differed from a contemporaneous democratic system, namely interwar Britain, by comparing their common concerns with military security and demonstrating their similar use of repressive legal measures to protect it. Two papers question the nature of Nazi totalitarian repression by examining individual perceptions. Carnaghi engages with court trials of police spies, showing how the Nazi terror was an everyday experience, while undoing the traditional dichotomy between popular dictatorship and repressive totalitarianism by revealing how they co-existed in the spies’ lives. Burzlaff excavates the emotional history of Jews before and under the Nazi regime, arguing that their personal accounts and memoirs are essential to understand the inner workings of the Nazi state. These papers also involve cross-cutting questions and techniques. Carnaghi and Skinner explore the Nazi and Fascist state systems from a critical perspective, considering them in terms of grey areas between apparently opposing notions, of Fascism and democracy, and of perpetrators and victims. De Cristofaro and Burzlaff engage with the intangible dimensions of ideas and emotions, questioning each regime from the intellectual and experiential perspective of those formulating or suffering under them. All four papers seek to question how the meanings of totalitarianism encompass dimensions of both state and nation, understood as collective and disaggregated phenomena, and approach their topics from top-down and bottom-up perspectives using a range of official legal materials and personal memoirs.

Taken together, the panelists’ contributions provide a nuanced examination of totalitarianism in context, questioning its construction and effects, and situating it in relation to both broader horizontal issues of state power and nationhood in modernity and deeper vertical issues of individual experience and perception.We believe this panel will be of interest to a wide range of scholars, jurists and historians, and in particular those who study repressive regimes, state formation and self-representation, the Holocaust, and expressions of political violence. Given current worldwide concerns about resurgent antisemitism, unstable socio-economic and political conditions, and the ongoing rise of populist, far-right regimes, the apparent echoes of early-twentieth-century history demand attention.

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