Fascism's 'Flaming Motor'

Did writers in pre-World War II Russia, Italy and Germany contribute to the rise of fascism—and the murders of millions—in their respective nations?

Approximately 50 Harvard students, faculty, and community members crowded into the Center for European Studies (CES) March 4 to reach a verdict.

The proceedings, however, were highly unconventional. There were no first-hand witnesses. Most testimony bordered on hearsay. And all of the defendants were dead.

The panel discussion, entitled “Literature and Fascism,” was organized by the CES’ recently formed Undergraduate Committee, with Sharon O. Doku ’05 and Alexander Bevilacqua ’07—who is also a Crimson editor—taking the lead. A panel of three distinguished Harvard professors explored the correlation between the modernist literary style and the contemporaneous rise of totalitarian governments.

After all the evidence had been laid out, the verdict, though unspoken, was clear: artists and writers whose work bolstered fascist ideals undeniably bear some responsibility for the consequences of totalitarian rule—but those who turned a blind eye may have been equally guilty. As long as speculation continues, however, authors and readers must continually reassess the relationship between the political mind and the artistic imagination.


In the Soviet Union, artists produced propaganda to prop up Joseph Stalin’s murderous regime.

According to Svetlana Boym, who is the Reisinger professor of Slavic languages and literatures and professor of comparative literature, artists in the USSR offered a “vision of Paradise” that flatly contradicted the harsher realities of political purges, labor camps, and starvation.

A popular anthem of the era, for example, begins, “We were born to make fairy tales come true,” and presents an image of comrades working “with a flaming motor for a heart.” Boym noted the comic absurdity of the image: “If you know anything about the mechanics of motors, you know that ‘flaming’ is not a good sign!” Propagandistic art, she said, falls apart under close scrutiny because it was not intended for critical analysis. Instead of generating honest and creative work, artists generated sloganeering clichés.

Boym returned repeatedly to artistic “defamiliarization” of totalitarianism, using a term coined by Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky to describe literature’s ability to make the familiar elements of human life take on new significance—and even strangeness.

Ideally, defamiliarization can be an act of transcendence, making commonplace human rituals nearly sublime by elevating them to the realm of art. However, defamiliarization worked both ways, Boym argued. As a tool of Stalinist propaganda, art could lend a sense of wonder and exaltation, as in the harvest painting that declared the Stalinist slogan, “Life has become better. Life has become merrier.” The actual subject of the painting, a communal dinner in rural Russia, would itself have been unremarkable. But when metamorphosed into a massive genre painting as a monument to Stalinist benevolence, such a banal, benign subject can take on a sinister power.


Whereas Soviet artists produced propaganda that directly supported Stalin’s regime, Italian literati during the 1920s and 1930s adopted a more hands-off, apathetic approach to the rise of Mussolini’s fascism. While many of Italy’s artists and intellectuals were in theory “liberal,” meaning sympathetic to the democratic monarchy, “liberal writers were totally absent from the political scene,” said Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Lino Pertile. “They did not think it was their business to meddle.”

Pertile attributed the Italian literati’s apolitical stance to a desire to produce a more lasting “high art,” finding writers “too occupied with the human condition....They weren’t interested in writing about fascism; they wanted to write for eternity, not the here and now.”

Part of the distance between intellectuals and Italian Zeitgeist, according to Pertile, was the fault of Italy’s cultural and linguist fragmentation. “In 1930, most Italians did not speak Italian,” but rather conversed in mutually unintelligible dialects. Still fewer could actually read. As a result, Italian fascists had little trouble keeping the nation’s arts and literature in check, devoting far more effort to censoring news reports on suicides—or even reports of bad weather—because of their adverse affects on morale. “Literature sailed above all this,” Pertile remarked ironically.