“Fascist”, it appears, is the go-to epithet for characterizing nationalists and racists we don’t like. “Nationalist” is apparently the go-to epithet for characterizing fascists we do like.
The Western media is coping with the conspicuous and undeniable presence of fascists in the Ukrainian paramilitaries by rebranding them. A recent case in point was in a Reuters article celebrating the doughty defenders of Mariupol i.e. the Azov Battalion, which discommodes Kyiv-friendly observers by unapologetically marching under the fascist “Wolfangel” banner:
Many in the Azov Battalion have unabashed Ukrainian nationalist sympathies, prompting rebels to label them neo-fascists.
From time to time, Azov fighters in Shyrokyne greeted one another with ironic Roman salutes and then grinned at their own humor. That kind of idle larking and the battalion’s flirtation with neo-Nazi symbolism is seized upon as confirmation of their critics’ worst fears.
The infamy appears only partly deserved, however.
Some embrace fervent Ukrainian nationalism as a repudiation of the heavily Russian-dominated Soviet legacy, all while serving with fighters from a wide array of political and ethnic backgrounds. Chit-chat switches casually from Ukrainian to Russian and back again.
Let me offer my back-of-the-envelope guide to discriminating between “unabashed nationalist sympathizers” and “neo-fascists”. Nationalists let their fervor, their bigotry, and enthusiasm play out in the quotidian realm, along the spectrum from vociferous Internet commentator to soccer hooligan.
Neo-fascists do something about their nationalist convictions, by joining an armed fascist formation which considers implementing a national or racial political and social agenda, by violence if necessary, an existential national imperative beyond state sanction. That’s been a powerful strain in Ukrainian political thought since the 1930s that flourishes today, and not just in the Azov Battalion.
Trying to submerge “fascism” in the mushy nomenclature of “nationalism” is an exercise in self-delusion that, in my opinion, balks understanding of trends throughout Europe and not just in Ukraine.
A classic German film by Fritz Lang, Die Nibelungen, provides an opportunity to reflect upon the difference between unabashed nationalism and meat and potatoes fascism. The epic, split into two stand-alone films, Siegfried and The Revenge of Kriemhild, is available on Netflix, so readers interested in film and fascism are invited to have a look. I’ll wait.
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For those readers who did not just sit through four and a half hours of black and white silent film, I will mention that this is not Wagner’s Nibelungen. Instead of the hallucinogenic word salad and musical bombast of the Wagnerian Ring cycle, Lang and his wife and scriptwriter, Thea von Harbou, went back to the ur-text of the Nibelungen Saga, a medieval epic that was rediscovered in the 19th century and was adopted as the German foundation myth, its Iliad, in order to give age, nobility, and gravitas to the Germanic historical tradition, its recently established Kaiser, and Bismarck’s newly-minted nation.
The original Nibelungen is a simple story of a boy, his dragon, his utterly bugnuts wife, and the interesting folk they encounter.
UFA spared no expense to bring Die Nibelungen to the screen. The artistic and technical resources of German cinema are on full display in the sets, costumes, makeup, and cinematography, as are the expressive power of silent-film acting. The movie is quite compelling and, to the patient, rewarding. Remarkably, much of the syntax of modern film—the closeups, cross cutting, establishing shots und so weiter—appears to be fully developed at this early date.
Die Nibelungen was made in 1924, as Germany was still trying to come to terms with the epic calamity of its defeat in World War I, the exile of Kaiser Wilhelm, loss of territories in the east and west, the rise of communism as a potential organizing principle opposed to German nationalism, and the appearance of the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Weimar Republic. The explicit purpose of the film was to buck up the German people and assure them that the national mojo had not been lost.
The first title-card in The Nibelungen dedicates the film “To the German People.”
There’s a lot of good writing about the Lang movies. William Ahearn referenced several important works on his site and included this quote from Lang:
In 1974, in an interview with Focus on Film, Lang said: “By making ‘Die Nibelungen’ I wanted to show that Germany was searching for an ideal in her past, even during the horrible time after World War I in which the film was made. At that time in Berlin I remember seeing a poster on the street, which pictured a woman dancing with a skeleton. The caption read: ‘Berlin, you are dancing with Death.’ To counteract this pessimistic spirit I wanted to film the epic legend of Siegfried so that Germany could draw inspiration from her past, and not, as Mr Kracauer [author of From Caligari to Hitler; he links the films to Nazi themes—CH] suggests, as a looking forward to the rise of a political figure like Hitler or some such stupid thing as that.”
Unfortunately, it’s kind of hard not to think and look backward at “stupid things” such as Nazi racial ideology when looking at the depiction of Siegfried’s human and barely-human foils in the picture.
Siegfried benefits greatly from a charismatic turn in the title role by Paul Richter. Richter is, there’s no other way of putting it, gorgeous. He’s studly, buff, noble, merry, and with a disingenuous and spontaneous demeanor which is pretty much supposed to embody the positive “German” self-image–as I understand it. I invite readers to test this generalization, as well as subsequent generalizations about the stereotypes of non-Germanic people (which I do not endorse and carefully identify as stereotypes by the use of “quotation marks”) Lang and von Harbau perhaps chose to depict, by watching the films and drawing their own conclusions.
We first meet the blonde Richter displaying his energy and effervescence while rusticating in the forest realm of Mime the Blacksmith. Actually, he materializes like a shaft of golden light forging a sword amid a group of slovenly oafs who, I regret to say, may possibly be meant to represent a certain easterly contingent of the northern European woodland population. Siegfried impulsively decides to seek the hand of Kriemhild, sister of King Gunther of Burgundy, in marriage and jumps on his snow white steed to venture off. Consider the box for “German” initiative and vigor—in contrast to the lackadaisical deportment of certain neighbors—checked.
Next, Siegfried slays the dragon, in this case an enormous and to modern eyes somewhat unconvincing puppet that weighed one and a half tons and was operated by 32 men. He bathes in the dragon’s blood, thereby acquiring imperviousness to all weapons—except on his shoulderblade, where a linden leaf alights and blocks the shield-sauce. (Speaking of sauciness, Siegfried’s rear is on display in the bathing scene, but it is not Paul Richter’s. Richter refused to do the scene nude and Rudolf Klein-Rogge–another member of the Lang troupe, Thea von Harbau’s first husband and, subsequently, star of Metropolis –stepped up to depict the heroic booty.)
Siegfried then encounters a suspiciously “Jewish”-looking individual, Alberich–depicted as “not a handsome Jew, naturally, but as a vile Jew.”, as one contemporary account put it — a tricky dwarf from whom Siegfried acquires the treasure of the Nibelungen, in addition to a worrisome curse. Then it’s Off to Burgundy! To woo Kriemhild with his glamor and treasure.
Burgundy is “Germanic” but also kind of “Frankish”, if you get my drift, with a pervasive and oppressive Christian establishment that contrasts with Siegfried’s apparently joyous, unselfconscious paganism. Siegfried wins Kriemhild, but also gets embroiled in all sorts of intrigue and betrayal in the gloomy court, culminating in his murder—yes, he is STABBED IN THE BACK—by the king’s henchman, Hagen.
Siegfried ends with Kriemhild vowing revenge for her husband’s murder.
In the second film, The Revenge of Kriemhild, Siegfried’s widow marries Attila the Hun in her quest for revenge and the manpower to inflict it. Attila is portrayed by the protean Karl Klein-Rogge, who transforms himself from Paul Richter’s butt-double in the first film to a depraved and cadaverous, phrenologically-challenged “Mongoloid” Oriental despot in the sequel. It is interesting though unfortunately meaningless that the German form of Attila, “Etsel”, was the name Henry Ford gave to his son, Anglicized as “Edsel” (it was the given name of one of Ford’s closest friends).
The Huns are subhuman “Asiatic” hordes (“Slavs” or “Bolsheviks” in my reading) whom Kriemhild (“Spartacist”/”race traitor”, perhaps) is able to wrap around her little finger. When her brother, the King of Burgundy, and Hagen and a small company arrive at Attila’s encampment in an ill-starred reconciliatory visit, she gins up a massacre that fails, thanks to the Euro-valor of the Burgundians and the fecklessness of the debased Huns.
However, the vastly outnumbered Burgundians are unable to escape and find themselves trapped inside Attila’s castle. Kriemhild orders wave upon wave of attacks, all of which are beaten back by the doughty knights. Finally, she orders the hall torched (the inspiration for Wagner’s Gotterdammerung), the roof falls in, everybody dies, THE END. Well, the King and Hagen make it out, but they choose death instead of dishonor so THE END. To be honest, Lang missed a trick when he omitted the fate of Kriemhild described in the original edda: an enraged Burgundian retainer cuts her in half as she stands amid the corpses of her brother and her countrymen and she doesn’t even notice until she bends over to pick something up and literally FALLS TO PIECES. THE END.
The Burgundian band of brothers are explicitly identified as the Germans; when the king is offered a dirty deal of safe passage in return for giving up Hagen to Kriemhild’s wrath, the riposte is “You don’t understand us Germans.” And before the final inferno in Attila’s hall, one soldier speaks longingly of his wish to see “the green waters of the Rhine” again. At the time the film was released, German audiences were well aware that the Rhine was under Allied occupation and German troops forbidden to approach within 20 miles of the river per the terms of the Versailles Treaty. They were also aware that the French had occupied the Ruhr, on the “right” or east bank of the Rhine, in retaliation for Germany’s non-payment of reparations. Not only that, the French were currently engaged in an escapade to try to encourage the creation of a Rhenish Republic to permanently alienate the Rhine Valley from Germany. The Rhine crisis was the mother of hot-button issues for Germans, all Germans I suspect and not just over-the-top German nationalists, during this period.
For those with an interest in historical parallels, it could be said that the Rhineland represented the “classy, European elite-status schloss und kultur” element of German national identity as Kyiv does today for Ukrainian nationalists; and loss of the Rhine represented loss of caste, and a disastrous descent toward parity with “those people” inhabiting the eastern reaches of northern Europe.
The Revenge of Kriemhild did not find much favor with audiences or critics. Kriemhild does little more than glower, grumble, and occasionally point a minatory finger as the ape-like “Huns” caper about; the characters are universally unsympathetic and viewers are unable to develop a sporting interest in their fates which, it transpires, are universally dismal. One critic described The Revenge of Kriemhild as a “vast, spectacular pageant of boredom.”
On the other hand, everybody loved Siegfried. Including Hitler, who cried at the ending.
The character of Die Nebilungen as a national/nationalist rallying cry is indisputable, and its rather nasty nationalist/racialist approach to Germany’s relationship with its neighbors, though implicit is, I think, genuine.
Nationalism/racism themes inform both halves of Die Nibelungen, and both films fed into the unsavory theme of “dolchstosse”, the idea that Germany could only have been defeated in the Great War by the unpatriotic machinations of socialists and Jews in the homeland.
The general theme of the film is superior Teutonic stock gets cut down thanks to its inferior numbers, its hubris, and its quixotic devotion to noble ideals, especially when confronted with the duplicitous scheming of its enemies. It’s not just the tragedy of Siegfried, the invincible German hero vulnerable only to treachery; The Revenge of Kriemhild recapitulates his death at the collective level.
In fetishizing German martial valor, the film reflected broadly-held attitudes in Germany after World War I.
As Friedrich Altrichter, author of a widely-cited 1933 work on “the soul of the German Army” put it (h/t to the website Long Story Short Pier for the quote):
He had become painfully aware of the enemy’s overwhelming firepower, of his superiority in the air, of the countless tanks against which one could oppose nothing of equal force. Everyone recognized that Germany, economically exhausted and lacking important raw materials, helplessly faced the enormous harnessing of the world’s resources. But all this had nothing to do with the feeling of superiority as person, soldier, and fighter. The fact that this feeling of superiority was retained after the war’s conclusion is of utmost significance for the German future. It preserves a feeling in society that the battlefield was not left as loser, despite the lost war and the mighty collapse.
But the movie doesn’t quite qualify as “fascist” for a variety of reasons. First off, it was made too early—1924– to be part of the Nazi bandwagon. It was a Weimar product, approved by Weimar censors.
Second, Lang was not a fascist. Lang elaborately overstated his anti-fascism after he left Germany and emigrated to the United States, but the fact is he did leave Germany after the Nazis took power. Goebbels had actively recruited him to lead the Nazi cinema program on the strength of Die Nibelungen & Lang’s overall stature in the German film industry. But Lang demurred and left the country, maybe not the next morning as he endlessly declared in his potted autobiography, but soon after.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse may not have been, as Lang pretended, his conscious riposte to the rise of Hitler (see David Kalat’s book, The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse for an in-depth discussion of the gestation of the movie and its repurposing as part of Lang’s self-cultivated anti-fascist mythos), but it was a brilliant and unsettling look at a monomaniacal genius declaring “I am the state” and mobilizing a secret army of thugs and fanatics to destroy Weimar Germany through street terror, intimidation, and sabotage of its political and economic institutions. And it was banned by Goebbels (who secretly loved the film and frequently screened it in private) because its depiction of individuals and an entire society spiraling into madness worked against the will-exalting/subconscious and psychoanalysis-detesting Nazi program for social renewal.
Finally, Die Nibelungen doesn’t fit the fascist script. The movie acknowledges, explores, exalts and panders to nationalism and racism. But nationalism and racism ultimately are the instruments of annihilation, not rebirth and triumph.
At the end of the day, the dolchstossing of Siegfried is committed by another German, Hagen, enabled by the spinelessness of King Gunther and the gullibility of Kriemhild. And the calamity that befalls the Burgundian party in the second film is entirely the work of Kriemhild, who basically has to take over from an initially conciliatory and remarkably disengaged Attila the Hun to organize the massacre.
Taken as a whole, in other words, Die Nibelungen was not a fascist infomercial effectively advocating exclusionary racial unity over democracy and socialism as the indispensable recipe for national survival, unless the definition of “national survival” includes “burning your nation to the ground” (which, interestingly enough, is exactly what Hitler did!).
Eventually the Nazis had their chance to revisit Die Nibelungen.
In 1933, with Hitler in power, Siegfried was re-released in a truncated form, Siegfrieds Tod (Death of Siegfried), with passages of Wagner finally chunked in (the notoriously protective and contentious Wagner estate had denied music permissions to the film when it was first made). Netflix viewers can rest assured that they have watched a careful reconstruction of the original 1924 version—released on BluRay by Murnau Stiftung in 2012—and not the Nazified release.
According to scholar Adeline Mueller (in Joe & Gilman, Wagner and Cinema, Indian University Press, 2010) the 1933 version was re-edited without Lang’s input to shift focus away from the fecklessness of the Frankish king and the role of his cowardice in Siegfried’s death —after all, his royal seat stood on the shores of the hallowed Rhine at Worms! Can’t irresponsibly disparage German leadership!—in order to put the onus on one Burgundian bad apple, Hagen, for the demise of the Teutonic paragon.
And the entire second half of the opus—The Revenge of Kriemhild—the downer-bloodbath in which Germanic back-biting, vindictiveness, and stubborn malice effect the destruction of the entire Burgundian nobility—got ditched.
Ironically or perhaps understandably the Nazis had no appetite for Lang’s vision of self-annihilation of a group of obtuse, violent, and vicious German nationalists.
It is also amusing, I suppose, that Hitler was recapitulating American artistic judgment. For the 1924 release in New York, only Siegfried made the cut; The Revenge of Kriemhild stayed in the can and sank virtually without a trace on its US release three years later. And to reduce the “embittered-loser” vibe that would have set Americans’ teeth on edge, the last few minutes of Siegfried—Kriemhild’s vengeful mutterings that set up the second movie—were reportedly excised. Instead, Siegfried died heroically and pitifully…and then, in a tacked-on live-action epilogue, was transported to Valhalla by the Valkyries to the tune of the funeral march from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung! The pit orchestra was recruited from the Metropolitan Opera, and the arrangement apparently represented a flank attack on the Met’s ban on Wagner & indeed all sung German opera in place since World War I.
One practical explanation for this epilogue is that it provided a more conclusive ending to Siegfried, given the absence of Part 2. Another motivation was that American preference for happy endings…the renunciation of revenge suggests that the New York version of Siegfried sought to rewrite…history itself…to “speed the healing of the wounds of war”.
In other words, Siegfried got to go to Valhalla early using the EZPass lane of youthful martyrdom, so no biggee, right? Bygones be bygones?
Of course, Hitler didn’t feel that way, and decided to do something about it. That “something” was transforming his nationalist and racist inclinations into a political and paramilitary movement, fascism.
I expect a lot of members of the Azov Battalion feel the same way.
Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.