MHQ  Reviews, Autumn 08

To The Threshold of Power, 1922/33, Origins and Dynamics of the Fascist and National Socialist Dictatorships, Volume 1
By MacGregor Knox. 464 pp.
Cambridge University Press, 2007

There are historians who are popularizers, whose talent with language allows them to disguise the general superficiality of their research. Then there are academic historians, whose skill and persistence in digging through archives illuminates the landscape of the past in novel ways, but whose prose dulls the importance of the story they tell. These two divisions of the profession make up the great majority of practicing historians. There is, however, a handful of historians—the Andersons, the McPhersons, the Howards—who combine both elements of historical storytelling through the diligence of their research and their skill in manipulating the language. MacGregor Knox has joined this select group with his masterful new study, To the Threshold of Power, 1922/33.

In this work, Knox examines one of the great historical quandaries of the 20th century: how did Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, in nations lying at the heart of Western civilization and renowned for their culture, education, and philosophy, manage to create two of the most monstrous and murderous tyrannies in history? Military history per se is not the main focus of this work. Nevertheless, Knox’s thorough grounding in the history of war, particularly World War I, provides extraordinary insight into the driving forces behind the two movements, their leaders, and the sorry, dishonest courses that marked their rise to power.

Knox’s account is also insightful because it draws on vast research and a deep understanding of the dark roots of Fascism and Nazism, which reach far back into the 19th century and, in some cases, even into the 18th century. In Italy and Germany, most historians have succumbed to the temptation to ascribe a chain of events that ended in national ruin to some temporary accident. Inevitably, contingency did play a major role—the First World War had an impact of an almost unimaginable scale on both nations, and, in Germany’s case, led to hyperinflation and the Great Depression. Yet the founding of the two regimes in 1922 and 1933, and their subsequent trajectories, also owed much to citizens who wanted to restore the glory of their respective national pasts and the powerful continuities in their personnel, structure, attitudes, and myths. Why else would the two advanced capitalist countries most devastated in the Great Depression turn to leaders so different from someone like Franklin Delano Roosevelt?

As Knox relates, the foundations of Fascism and Nazism were quite different. To a considerable extent, the roots of the former lay in the failure of Italian society to escape the binding cords of national disunity, illiteracy, and poverty. Not until the 1850s and 1860s did external events finally allow Italy to unify under an incompetent Piedmontese monarchy and an even more incompetent military.

The Germanys also endured centuries of disunity, but in their case, two of the states, Austria and Prussia, laid claim to being great powers. Then, in the course of rapid, crushing wars in 1864, 1866, and 1870, Helmuth von Moltke’s general staff and Otto von Bismarck, Prussia’s iron chancellor, established the united German empire. The very different courses that marked unification in the two nations reinforced the enormous differences in how Italian and German societies viewed their futures, with profound implications for what would occur in the coming century.

World War I was the seminal event in the rise to power for both Mussolini and Hitler. Knox delineates the influence of the war on the future dictators and, more important, the way it warped the worldviews held by their societies. On the Allied side, the Italian commander, Gen. Luigi Cadorna, perversely sent wave after wave of illiterate peasants and workers in impossible assaults against entrenched Austrians who were protected by barbed wire and machine guns in the innumerable battles of the Isonzo. It ended the myth that Italian soldiers could not fight, but reinforced the legends about the stupidity of their generals. To the north, the Reich’s conduct in the war was marked by far greater German military effectiveness at the tactical level, but equal naïveté at the strategic level.

Both nations entered the war with great enthusiasm. A photographer caught a 25-year-old Austrian-born itinerant painter of middling watercolor scenes, his face uplifted in joy, amid a crowd of Germans standing before the Feldherrnhalle on Munich’s great Odeonsplatz. From that moment forward, Hitler’s began his descent into the depths of humanity. He had found his hour. He immediately joined the service and received an Iron Cross First Class for his role in the savage fighting on the western front.

The Germans waged their war for a “place in the sun” with unbridled ferocity. In the first two months of the conflict, their soldiers shot 6,000 Belgian and French civilians—men, women, old and young alike—in retaliation for nonexistent guerrilla attacks. Thereafter, they pursued the conflict with extreme ruthlessness. Under the guise of “military necessity,” they confiscated much of the food of any territory they conquered, introducing the specter of mass starvation in Belgium, Luxembourg, northern France, and the Balkans. They advised the Turks on committing genocide against the Armenians. They introduced unrestricted submarine warfare, chemical weaponry, and strategic bombing to the conduct of war, and they dreamed up megalomaniacal plans for national expansion after they had won the war.

Of course, the Germans did not win the war. Nor, for that matter, did the Italians. The former collapsed after winning spectacular tactical victories in the first half of 1918—the result of a national strategy that in 1914 had pitted the Central Powers’ population of 130 million against the Entente, which had a population of 765 million. Encapsulating the German view of numbers, a pastor in East Prussia thundered: “Nations are not numbers and God is not bound by the laws of arithmetic.”

The war may have been close-run, but the end was not surprising—except to most Germans. Knox writes that even before Hitler began his ascent to power, most people in the center and the right had accepted the myth that Germany’s defeat had come at the hands of the Jews and the Communists rather than as a result of the devastating victories won by Allied armies on the western front from July to November 1918.

The Italians had been on the winning side, but they had not won the war. For all the dreams of nationalist leaders, Italy’s paltry gains at the peace table paled before the suffering that resulted from 600,000 dead and the devastation inflicted on northern Italy by the Austro-German Caporetto offensive in late 1917. The similarity between the two nations lay in the profound disillusionment both societies experienced after the war. That disillusionment exacerbated the deep divisions so carefully delineated in the first half of Knox’s book, and served to drive a great many to the right to escape the bogeyman raised when Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power in Russia.

What was also so vastly different in the reaction of the Germans and Italians from that of the French and the British was their acceptance, in fact their embrace, of war as an ennobling and inspiring experience. Ernst Jünger’s ferocious account of his experiences as a frontline storm troop officer on the western front, where he had been wounded numerous times and earned the Orden Pour Le Mérite, was far more typical of the German reaction to the war than Erich Maria Remarque’s antiwar novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.

From the first, Hitler’s message to the German people was that there would be war, and only the most obtuse could have believed anything else. In a speech in November 1930, in front of a crowd that ranged upward of 7,000, he announced what he would repeat again and again throughout his electioneering travels in Germany: “When today so many preach that we are entering the age of peace, I can only say: my dear fellows, you have badly misinterpreted the horoscope of the age, for it points not to peace but to war as never before.” A man who said what he meant, Hitler was to launch the most catastrophic war in history less than a decade later.

To the Threshold of Power makes an extraordinary contribution to our knowledge about the intellectual, ideological, and social forces that brought Mussolini and Hitler to power.

As with Gerhard Weinberg’s brilliant examination of the strategic framework of World War II, Knox’s work represents the definitive study of the creation of these two tyrannies. We can only eagerly await his next volume on how ideology, politics, and leadership contributed to the formation of German and Italian strategy in the run up to World War II and to their conduct of that war.

—Williamson Murray