“Highlighting Intellectual Continuities That Linked Fascist and Democratic Worldviews” – 5in10 with Simon Unger-Alvi

Simon Unger-Alvi is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Rome. He gained his PhD in 2018 at the University of Oxford, where he also taught classes in modern European history. Before taking up his current position in Rome, Simon Unger-Alvi was a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington DC (2018–2019). His research has been concerned with patterns of accommodation and criticism in fascist dictatorships, but also with political language and religion in the twentieth century. Currently, he works on a new project about Christian Democracy and political continuities in post-war Europe. 

 

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

My current project analyzes connections between Christian Democrats and fascist ideologues in Europe. It starts by retracing networks of religious and right-wing intellectuals under the regimes of Mussolini, Hitler, and Pétain, but focuses on the question of how the relations between these groups evolved after 1945. My aim is to question the dominant political narratives of post-war historiography, which still revolve around contradictory categories of a ‘democratic rebeginning’ and ‘fascist continuities’. Instead, I seek to understand how Christian Democrats and (former) fascists found common answers to much larger questions about modernity, secularism, communism, and capitalism.

Christian Democracy was vital for Europe’s democratic transformation after 1945, but it simultaneously recurred to older reactionary themes. In the 1950s, for instance, we often find ideas about a ‘Third Way’ that was supposed to save Europe from Eastern communism, but also from Western ‘materialism’ and capitalism. This went alongside doctrines such as the ‘soziale Marktwirtschaft’ [social market economy] in Germany, Gaullism in France, and Catholic Corporatism in Italy. At the same time, however, intellectuals also developed imaginaries of a Western European ‘occident’ that should stand in continuity to the pre-modern political order and even to the Christian Middle Ages. 

Ultimately, I try to understand how much of Fascism and Nazism could survive within Christian Democratic parties. I wonder whether Christian Democracy should be understood as a ‘reconciliation movement’ of the European right, which had formerly been divided in supporters and opponents of fascist regimes. For me, the challenge is to reconstruct post-war mentalities for which dictatorial legacies were not of primary political concern, and in which democrats and former fascists could instead find shared political values. 

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

More than by anything else, my work was inspired by the approaches of the Frankfurt School that researched the ways in which fascism was anchored in the traditions of modernity. Yet, while sharing the Frankfurt School’s intention of exposing the links between National Socialism and our modern democratic societies, my work is concerned with intellectual trends rather than economic and social structures. My aim is neither to formulate an all-encompassing political critique of Christian Democracy nor to lump Christian-conservative and fascist authors together. While acknowledging how important Christian Democracy was for the construction of a free and united Europe after 1945, the goal is to highlight intellectual continuities and similarities that linked fascist and democratic worldviews. 

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)

While historians have extensively researched individual biographies of Nazis and fascists who went on to pursue important careers after 1945, my aim is rather to engage with larger patterns and continuities of thought. As an historian of political ideas, I do not hope to discover new ‘facts’ or unknown sources that lie forgotten in dusty archives. Instead, I mainly work with published sources, such as newspapers, cultural journals, and political books. That being said, however, I also look at personal diaries and letters in private archives. In doing so, the difficulty for me is not to find enough material, but rather to make a proper selection of sources that are representative of larger historical trends. 

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

I am primarily inspired by academic efforts to understand political continuities beyond the great turning points of the twentieth century. As a graduate student, for instance, I took part in a very small doctoral workshop at the University of Hannover under the title ‘German continuities’, which had a strong influence on my work. This, I think, is a great example for how even small events can change the trajectory of your research. 

The same is also true for books. Udi Greenberg’s Weimar Century, for instance, was very important for the evolution of my current project. It is a formidable study of Weimar intellectuals who went into American exile during WWII and would ultimately shape Western politics in the Cold War. For all its merits, however, it also illustrates that continuities in European history are generally conceived of as either democratic or fascist. By contrast, my research shows that both Christian Democrats and members of the radical right continuously engaged in recurring debates around shared themes and ideas. Thereby, I hope to develop a new perspective on the interactions between democratic and fascist thought in European societies. 

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

Academic mobility is a precondition for my research, because I have to move a lot between Italy, France, and Germany. This is the first time I pursue a transnational research project and I find it quite challenging: not only is it crucial to make accurate translations, it can also be difficult to maintain an awareness for national historical particularities whilst highlighting international historical patterns. In addition, academic mobility poses its own methodological challenges. For instance, I was raised in the British academic system which places far less emphasis on theory-building than its continental counterparts. As I am currently writing in German, I now need to find a balance between different academic traditions and writing styles. 


Citation: “Highlighting Intellectual Continuities That Linked Fascist and Democratic Worldviews” – 5in10 with Simon Unger-Alvi, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.04.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23606.


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