Urban History as an Approach to the Study of (Neo)Fascism

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During the past two decades, Fascism Studies has undergone a number of relevant developments. Among these, probably the most salient one has been the transnational turn, which has reached by now a rather broad consensus in the field.1 Influenced by other disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences, many historians have indeed concluded that fascism is better understood as an ideology that travelled across national borders, thus underscoring the salience of transfers and entanglements from the early 1920s onwards. In other words, transnational history is now consolidated as a helpful research perspective which sheds light on the origins and evolution of fascism through interaction in any sphere or part of the globe. The outcome of this development has been the publication of great work that has substantially advanced our knowledge about fascism.2

One major consequence of the adoption of the transnational approach in fascist studies was the expansion of its chronological boundaries. Contrary to traditional literature, a series of new works showed the importance of looking at the evolution of the far-right ideology beyond the year 1945 and addressing the issue of continuities and discontinuities between interwar and post-war fascism. Although it is necessary to understand that the translation of an ideology from one period to the other is never a mere exercise of juxtaposition, but an organic process of continuous appropriation and re-appropriation, the works of scholars like Roger Griffin, Andrea Mammone, Tamir Bar On, Matteo Albanese or Federico Finchelstein, among others, have evidenced the importance of studying how the fascist ideology evolved over time, as a way to identify the features that are still present today in far-right parties across the world.3

With these two developments more or less consolidated, in the past five years or so a number of historians have shared the impression that it is now time for research to take the next steps.4 This should not come as a surprise. As Kiran Patel has explained, “the relative vagueness of transnational history also makes it seem more a transitory term than a stable category.”5 Specifically, it seems that arguing that fascism was transnational or transtemporal in nature has become part of the consensus and something that does not add too much anymore. Instead, what a number of studies are now suggesting is that we should try to delineate the boundaries of that transnationalism, explain when and how the transnational dimension mattered, and when it was not so important. The underlying assumption is that transnational history should not confine itself to links, flows, and other interconnections. Adopting a transnational approach should also prompt historians to think that ruptures and discontinuities cannot be over-emphasized.

The recent article I wrote for Contemporary European History, entitled “The Neofascist Network and Madrid, 1945–1953: From City of Refuge to Transnational Hub and Centre of Operations”, constitutes an attempt to depart from both of these developments and take further steps in my previous research. In doing so, I decided to use urban history, one of the most promising research perspectives of recent years, to ground the transnational story I wanted to tell. This decisions was based on the notion that cities are key sites of observation, inspiration and emulation that help turning the social movements of a particular period into a transnational phenomenon. In the words of A. K. Sandoval-Strausz and Nancy H. Kwak, urban history helps us “locate transnationalism in specific places, grounding the study of globalization in the built environments and everyday interactions of the city”. Taking this elements into consideration, I pondered that if cities are places to reinvent politics, they could become relevant actors for the study of neofascism. After all, the fascists who survived the end of World War II were in dire need of re-inventing their own political project. And what a better city to use as a main case study than that of Madrid. Let us not forget that the Spanish capital had become a safe haven for many fascists fleeing allied prosecution, something which had already been shown by historians like David Messenger, Guy Walters or Uki Goñi.6

Taking these theoretical underpinnings as a starting point, I began my research with an initial aim: to delineate the specific contours of the transnational experiences of these fascists escaping from Allied prosecution who for different reasons had decided to stop by in Madrid after 1945. In doing so, the article evidenced that, contrary to what the existing literature claims, Madrid was more than just a haven. Indeed, after 1947 most of the fascists that decided to come to Madrid were no longer prosecuted in their countries of origin. In that regard, their choice to settle in the Spanish capital was related to other factors, like the possibility of using the networks and the socio-political infrastructures that existed there to fight for their political projects. This reality confirmed the need of taking a step further with regards to more recent works on transnational history of fascism. If previous works had focused on transnational networks, this article has tried to explain how a space with specific contours, in this case the Spanish capital, functioned as a node in these networks tying together persons, goods and ideas together with physical spaces within the modern city which now became a place of politics. In other words, this analysis helps us understand better how the networks worked on the ground. In brief, my article makes a twofold contribution: elucidating how the network functioned on the ground, and understanding better the urban space of Madrid.

Needless to say, this article is just a small contribution to a field of vast possibilities. There is still a lot of research to be done, especially with a view to specifying the contours and the ways in which transnationalism was important (or not) for the story of fascism. In this regard, I am firmly convinced that a combination of urban history and transnational history can be extremely fruitful to ground that transnationalism, also evidencing its limits and challenges. Following the examples of this article and, to some extent that of David Motadel on Berlin, I believe it would be relevant to trace the evolution of the transfers and entanglements between fascist elements in cities like Buenos Aires, Cairo, Damascus, Rome, Lisbon, Santiago de Chile, Tokio, or Barcelona, just to name a few.

Pablo Del Hierro is an Assistant Professor in History at the University of Maastricht, and  specializes in international relations during the Cold War, with special emphasis on the decolonization.



  1. Angel Alcalde, “The Transnational Consensus: Fascism and Nazism in Current Research,” Contemporary European History (2020), 29, 243–252.
  2. Constantin Iordachi, Comparative Fascist Studies: New Perspectives (Routledge, 2009); David D. Roberts, Fascist Interactions: Proposals for a New Approach to Fascism and its Era, 1919–1945 (New York: Berghahn, 2016); Arnd Bauerkämper and Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, Fascism Without Borders: Transnational Connections and Cooperation between Movements and Regimes in Europe from 1918 to 1945 (New York: Berghahn, 2017); Benjamin Martin, The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); Sandrine Kott and Kiran Klaus Patel, eds., Nazism Across Borders: The Social Policies of the Third Reich and their Global Appeal (Oxford: Oxford University Press / German Historical Institute London, 2018).
  3. Andrea Mammone, Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2015); Tamir Bar-On, Where Have All the Fascists Gone? (London: Routledge, 2007); Roger Griffin, Fascism: An Introduction to Comparative Fascist Studies (Cambridge: Polity Books, 2018); Matteo Albanese and Pablo del Hierro, Transnational Fascism in the Twentieth Century: Spain, Italy and the Global Neo-Fascist Network (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
  4. Christian Goeschel, Mussolini and Hitler: The Forging of the Fascist Alliance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018); Ricky W. Law, Transnational Nazism: Ideology and Culture in German–Japanese Relations, 1919–1936 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019); David Motadel, “The Global Authoritarian Moment and the Revolt against Empire” American Historical Review 124:3 (June 2019), 843–877.
  5. Kiran Klaus Patel, ‘An Emperor without Clothes? The Debate about Transnational History Twenty-Five Years On’, Histoire@Politique, 26 (2015), 15.
  6. David Messenger, Hunting Nazis in Franco’s Spain (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2014); Uki Goñi, La auténtica Odessa: la fuga nazi a la Argentina de Perón (Barcelona: Ariel, 2002); Guy Walters, Hunting Evil: The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring Them to Justice (London: Penguin, 2009).

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