by Robert O. Paxton
Vintage, 2005, 336 pp., $15.00
by Claudia Koonz
Harvard University Press, 2003, 362 pp., $29.95
Ever since William Wordsworth celebrated revolution as a gift of youth and Edmund Burke condemned it as the scourge of age, we’ve looked upon rebellion and reaction as a clash of generations. The biographies of movement and counter-movement seem to tell the whole story. Both the St. Petersburg uprising of 1905 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 were led by twenty-six-year-olds against regimes donning the mantle of eternity. Malcolm X was killed at forty, Che Guevara at thirty-nine, while Klemens von Metternich—another internationalist with continental vision—didn’t get going until his late thirties. Thomas Jefferson was thirty-three when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Frantz Fanon thirty-six when he wrote The Wretched of the Earth. Burke, by contrast, was sixty-one when he wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France. And when tennis champ Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in three straight sets at Houston, she was twenty-nine, while he was, well, old enough to be her father.
But what are we to make of fascism’s declaring war on anything and everything that stank of age? During the 1932 election campaign in Germany, Adolf Hitler’s handlers depicted their man as a dreamy adventurer with enough cojones (notwithstanding that rumor) to tour the country by plane. “In an era when air travel was considered dangerous,” writes Claudia Koonz, “Hitler literally descended from the clouds to address audiences of between 120,000 and 300,000 at major cities.” Widely distributing a booklet of photos from his air tour (half a million copies printed), Hitler offered a dynamic contrast to the doddering Paul von Hindenburg, who evoked little more than a war—and later a zeppelin—that failed. So central was the idea of youth to the appeal of Nazism that in a 1934 speech featured in Triumph of the Will, Hitler made a special point of declaring the young “our body and soul.”
Or consider the less familiar career of Robert Brasillach, the French writer—and fascist—executed by the Liberation government in 1945 for treason. As Alice Kaplan reports in The Collaborator, Brasillach first emerged on the French scene in 1930, an enfant terrible with a vicious wit and cruel pen, whose early mastery of the art of literary destruction anticipates the work of such later schoolboy provocateurs as William F. Buckley and the editors of the Dartmouth Review. The occasion of Brasillach’s debut was an obituary he wrote of André Gide. Brasillach was twenty, Gide sixty, but the budding fascist could think of no mo...
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