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Fascism is a reactionary and revolutionary ideology that emerged across Europe after World War I. Fascism was partially developed in Italy and became fully developed in Germany as a reaction against the unrestrained liberal capitalism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which promoted individualism over communal organization. Fascism as an ideology is anti-Marxist in its militarization of culture, society, and the economy and its rejection of social reforms as a means to create community. As in communism, fascism emphasizes the primacy of the collective unit; however, fascists reject communism’s internationalism and instead define the community as a racial group whose passionate, heroic sacrifice for the nation will fulfill its historical destiny.
Fascism also promotes the adulation of a dictatorial figure to act as a strong representative of the Volk (the “people”) in this process. Fascists argue that true democracy exists only under these specific conditions, thereby creating a myth of volkish communal heroism that relies on militarism for its success. Since fascists think in terms of absolute enemies of the people, they view imperialistic war as an inevitability of the rise of fascism. The goals of war are twofold: first, to resolve “land hunger” by expanding the nation’s access to land, natural resources, and labor of native populations and, second, to solve domestic economic and political crisis (usually due to economic depression that causes high unemployment and challenges to the new one-party state). They therefore stress the virtues of a warlike culture: authoritarianism, unity of methods and goals, discipline, and an abhorrence of political dissent. The creation of an active, warlike citizenry is what distinguishes fascist regimes from authoritarian or dictatorial ones.
Characteristics of Fascist Societies
Fascists solidified their power by stripping citizens of their individual rights and subordinating them to the will of the collective. A single-party political system that used terror, a secret police, and a strong military established a dictatorship controlled by a new social elite representative of the party. The hierarchy differed from that of other social systems in that it was not defined in class terms, but rather in terms of service to the nation. Because of this distinction, fascist states introduced a new form of social mobility that appealed to many citizens. The fascist government also succeeded in co-opting the economic system into the national sphere. Capitalist economics continued in the preservation of private property, though high party officials ensured the alliance between industrial and agricultural sectors and the state. The exploitation of workers in the form of low wages and high production quotas created economic growth, thereby fulfilling the promises of fascist governments to solve the problems of high unemployment caused by economic depression. In these ways, fascists ensured the loyalty of worker, peasant, industrialist, and businessman.
The heavy use of propaganda was another hallmark of fascist politics through its creation of the myth of the volkish leader whose destiny was to resurrect the greatness of the Volk. Films, books, signs, leaflets, and artistic productions attempted to present fascism as a new form of spirituality by espousing the “eternal truths” of the state through the repetition of slogans and symbols. Organizations such as clubs and youth groups and public displays of nationalism (in the form of parades or rallies) attempted to destroy private and individual identities by exalting a communal one. Censorship stripped intellectuals of their creative freedom and demanded that they produce warrior-peasant art that reflected the racial superiority of the Volk. Additionally, state-sponsored architectural projects embraced themes of sacrifice and national greatness through the construction of its war monuments and government buildings. Because fascism proclaimed to be the mouthpiece of a lost moral system, psychological conversion of the masses was essential to its success.
Historical Explanation for the Rise of Fascism
The roots of fascism can be traced to the political climate of European society before the outbreak of World War I in 1914. At the turn of the twentieth century, the international tensions that would soon lead to war in Europe were already apparent. Most members of the rising bourgeoisie supported their European governments because they greatly benefited from successful nationalist industrial and colonial expansion in the late nineteenth century. The working classes, however, were not benefactors of industrial and colonial growth, and socialist politics were strong across Europe. The rise of minorities’ middle classes—Slavs in the Habsburg Empire and Jews everywhere in Europe—also threatened traditional ethnic majorities. Nationalists at this point rejected their liberal roots and became more conservative as nationalism developed into an ideology that protected the rights of the ethnic community over those of the individual. Rightist parties at the turn of the century appealed mostly to the traditional middle and upper classes, those that stood to lose the most through the rise of workers’ movements and new privileged ethnic groups. Persuading the working classes into rejecting the internationalist foundation of Marxist politics and accepting the nation as a protective body soon became the primary goal of rightist parties in the decades preceding the outbreak of World War I. This development led conservatives to define the nation in ethnic terms. The rise of nationalism as a condemnation of “others” allowed for the emergence of fascist politics across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.
Fascism developed into mature political movements in European societies whose citizens experienced a recent, rapid, and intense possibility of social mobility as a result of concentrated industrial growth that threatened to destroy traditional hierarchy in the interwar period. Social anxiety over recent processes of modernity heightened when the United States stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression paralyzed European economies. Fascism became a viable political response for millions of Europeans when their parliamentary systems failed to provide adequate economic relief in the 1930s. The success of fascist politics additionally depended upon the existence of a substantial volkish population, one whose identity could be interpreted as being representative of a greater national entity and used by fascist leaders as a symbol of past, organic national greatness. Therefore, the states that supported fascist politics on a national level in the 1920s and 1930s, mostly in Central and Eastern Europe, sustained substantial agricultural economies at that time. It is also notable that World War I left an unresolved national question, irredentist, colonial, or a high percentage of “outsiders” within national boundaries, in the countries that became fascist in the interwar period—Italy, Germany, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Croatia, and France. Fascist promises of a return to national greatness resonated with the masses who viewed their economic suffering as a social injustice. France is the exception to this pattern in that its fascist government—the Vichy regime—enjoyed very little popular support and was a puppet of the Nazis rather than a legitimate state. Fascism in all of its manifestations can be seen as one response to the social, economic, and political crisis that accompanied the process of modernity in Europe.
The emergence of Italian fascism deserves special attention because of Benito Mussolini’s role in fascist ideological development. Mussolini, fascist dictator of Italy from 1922 to 1943, first used the term fascism in 1919 to describe this new political ideology of individual subordination to the ethnic community as a method of attaining national greatness. Mussolini developed this belief in the strength of the community as an active and politically prominent socialist during his youth. Like many socialists, Mussolini was critical of the politics and economics of European liberal capitalism. In Italy’s case, the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century were years of grave economic crisis, primarily due to its ineffectiveness in industrializing and the weakness and inefficiency of its governments. Italy’s lack of natural resources perpetuated a largely agricultural economy that was unable to support imperialist expansion, causing international embarrassment in a time when national greatness on the continent was largely defined by the building of empires abroad.
After World War I, Mussolini came to believe that socialist internationalism would only serve to subordinate Italy to more powerful European neighbors who had failed to reward his country adequately for its Allied support during the war and turned to rightist politics. In 1919, Mussolini founded the Fascist Party and defined fascism as a technique for gaining and solidifying power through the use of violent action. Fascism demanded first and foremost the cultivation of military discipline and a fighting spirit in every Italian citizen. Unlike Marxist theory, which believes in an end to the process of history through a democratically based revolution that establishes a communist state, Mussolini’s fascism defined history as constant struggle through constant war. The necessity of action required the adulation of a leader who would manage his country’s destiny through acts of war and violence. Complete confidence in the decisions of the leader, Il Duce, as Mussolini referred to himself, needed to be blindly obeyed in order for national goals to be met. Mussolini pointed to Italy’s weakened economic state after the war as proof that such a leader was necessary for Italian recovery.
In 1922, Mussolini’s fascist militia marched on Rome and he became the prime minister of Italy. Between 1922 and 1927, Mussolini concentrated on fascist state-building. The state and the Fascist Party became a single entity that oversaw the alignment of the legislative, executive, and judicial bodies with nationalist goals. Mussolini asked Italians to sacrifice their individual identities in order to establish Italy as the new leader of mankind. He further legitimized his dictatorship by pointing to the rise of fascist parties across Europe as evidence that parliamentarianism and liberal democracy were decadent political and social values and that fascism was indeed the new path of modernity.
What differentiated Italian fascism at this early stage from other young fascist movements across Europe was its rejection of anti-Semitic sentiment. This distinction is mostly due to the lack of a discernable Jewish population in Italy. Instead, Italian exposure to African populations during failed colonial ventures made Africans the targets of Italian racist nationalism during the interwar period. Mussolini integrated this race doctrine into the construction of his dictatorship but never fully developed it. Rather repulsed by the racist program of the National Socialists (Nazis) in Germany, Mussolini instead directed his energies toward imperialist expansion rather than cultivating an ethnically pure Italian state.
Anti-Semitism was the distinguishing feature of mature fascism developed by Adolf Hitler in Germany. Hitler’s fusion of race doctrine—the belief in the natural inequality of human races and the superiority of the Teutonic race—with Mussolini’s philosophy of power created a particularly virulent and highly destructive form of fascism. The anti-Semitic flavor of Imperial German society laid the foundations for the rise of racist nationalist politics in the interwar period. The increase of Jewish presence in trade, finance, politics, and journalism, particularly in Berlin, around the turn of the twentieth century fueled conspiracy theories about a Jewish “infiltration” of German society. Hitler’s fascist National Socialist Party, begun in 1919 as the German Workers’ Party, was an antiSemitic, supra-nationalist political organization whose proclaimed goal was to protect the ethnic German community at all costs. The Nazis succeeded in earning millions of German votes in the late 1920s and early 1930s with its strong repudiation of the Versailles Treaty coupled with messages of moral and economic rebirth through the destruction of “Jewish” market competition, the annihilation of European Jewry, and territorial expansion. Hitler and the Nazi Party attempted to fulfill the promises of his propaganda through the creation of a totalitarian state in Germany. From 1933 to 1945, the Nazis exercised total control over the German population and conquered much of the European continent. The fascist period of German history was additionally responsible for the deaths of approximately six million Jews and three million Slavs, Roma, homosexuals, political dissidents, and other “undesirables” during the Holocaust.
Interpretations of Fascism
It has been difficult for historians, political scientists, psychologists, and sociologists of fascism to agree on a single explanation for the rise of fascism in some countries but not in others. One leading interpretation supports the notion that fascism was an experience unique to certain countries, pointing to some kind of predestination of radical conservative nationalism. The second prominent interpretation is that fascism was a reaction to the failure of European liberalism to make good on its promises of promoting every individual’s right to social mobility. This interpretation puts the rise of fascism in an international context of the struggles of European modernity.
- Brady, Robert A. 1971. The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism. New York: Citadel.
- De Felice, Renzo. 1977. Interpretations of Fascism. Trans. Brenda Huff Everett. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Falasca-Zamponi, Simonetta. 1997. Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Laqueur, Walter. 1996. Fascism: Past, Present, Future. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Lubasz, Heinz, ed. 1973. Fascism: Three Major Regimes. New York: Wiley.
- Paxton, Robert O. 2004. The Anatomy of Fascism. New York: Knopf.
- Payne, Stanley G. 1995. A History of Fascism, 1914–1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Smith, Denis Mack. 1982. Mussolini. New York: Knopf.
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