Fascism is a right-wing political movement rooted in nineteenth-century elitist nationalism and cultural romanticism.
It advocates authoritarian, single-party rule as the only solution for the socioeconomic problems of modern society. Fascism became a political force after World War I, when rightwing parties throughout Europe promised to restore health, moral order and a sense of purpose to their respective national communities. In 1921, the first self-proclaimed fascist party was founded by Benito Mussolini in Italy. Mussolini took the term fascist from an ancient Roman word meaning a bundle of sticks used as a disciplinary tool. As the term suggests, the National Fascist Party brought together various socioeconomic groups, particularly those who felt disenfranchised by World War I and/or the Great Depression– veterans, the lower middle class and youth.
Fascism's Appeal to Youth
Fascism recognizes youth as a vulnerable and politically significant population. In the 1920s and 1930s, fascist parties promised young people not only jobs and educational opportunities, but also a divine mission–to be the leaders of a revolutionary movement that would purify the nation. The fascists promoted a cult of the youthful, featuring young heroes in their music, film and literature, rejecting the ruling elite as cynical and complacent, and emphasizing the relative youthfulness of their own leaders. Fascism celebrated duty, loyalty and physical vitality, and challenged the young to use their natural energy, idealism and competitiveness for the good of the national community.
Fascist youth associations attracted large majorities of young people in Italy under Mussolini's rule and in Germany under the Nazi dictatorship. In these state-sponsored movements, young people found a variety of subsidized leisure opportunities, a strong national identity, and clearly defined gender roles. Because leaders encouraged members to put youth group duties above all other responsibilities, many youth joined in order to undermine the traditional authority of parents, school, or church. This practice reinforced core fascist beliefs that individuals owed primary allegiance to the state and that youth–not their elders–would shape the future.
National Variants: Italy and Germany
Benito Mussolini ruled Italy as a dictator from 1922 to 1945. His National Fascist Party offered a comprehensive array of clubs and service organizations for youth ages six to twenty-one, thereby challenging the traditional role of Catholic associations and sports clubs. The Fascists worked hard to attract older youth, particularly university students, but were most successful in mobilizing eight to fourteen-year-old boys into their Balilla organization, which promoted physical fitness and paramilitary training. Parallel groups for girls, such as the Piccole Italiane, promoted ideals of domesticity and motherhood.
In Germany, the NSDAP (Nazi Party), led by Adolf Hitler, won power in 1933 and immediately assumed dictatorial control of the country. The party's youth wing quickly evolved into a state-sponsored movement intended to simultaneously inspire, educate, and compel young Germans to serve the Nazi state. Like the Italian Fascists, the Nazis prescribed obedience, loyalty, and gender-specific roles. German youth were taught that racial purity would help Germany regain its proper dominant role among European nations. In their view, Jews, Gypsies, and other minorities had contaminated Germanic culture and weakened the nation. Through new national youth organizations, the Nazis recruited young Germans to help "cleanse" society of these racial impurities. In addition to ideological indoctrination and obedience, the boys' Hitler Youth emphasized preparation for future service in the German army or navy. The parallel League of German Maidens promoted physical health, service and motherhood, encouraging older members to volunteer for a year or more of domestic service.
Smaller fascist youth movements (such as the French Jeunesses Patriotes ) existed throughout Europe prior to World War II. The Hitler Youth, however, was by far the most successful. Through the Hitler Youth, the Nazi state controlled virtually all educational, vocational and recreational opportunities, and effectively coordinated propaganda, peer pressure and intimidation techniques to claim, at its peak, more than 95 percent of German youth as members.
Post-1945 Fascist Youth
After World War II, the Nazis' militant authoritarianism and nationalism were blamed for corrupting and exploiting an entire generation of young Germans, and fascist youth groups were banned in many countries. Isolated groups persisted, often in secret association with racist political association. The skinhead movement, originally a working-class youth subculture that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, was initially associated with fascism. However, although both European and American skinheads typically embrace Nazi symbols (the swastika), aggressive behavior, and nationalism, they lack a clear political organization. Consequently, most observers describe the skinheads as a rebellious subculture rather than a fascist youth movement.
In contrast, true neofascist youth groups are usually associated with ultraconservative political organizations, and while promoting nationalism, also foster international contacts and cooperation. The European Confederation of National Youth, for example, draws support from far-right parties including the French Front National and the German Republikaner, while the British-based International Third Position (ITP) promotes ties between European neofascists and American white-supremacist groups. These contemporary organizations attract youth (mostly males) hard-hit by economic decline, particularly in Germany and Eastern Europe, but also throughout Western Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. Like their historical predecessors, contemporary neofascists advocate racist, paramilitary, and authoritarian programs. Since 1989, neofascist youth groups have attracted public attention–and new members–with aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric and demonstrations.
Scholarly debates about fascist youth highlight questions of motivation and program content. First, does membership imply acceptance of fascist ideology? In Nazi Germany, the Hitler Youth oversaw virtually all educational and extracurricular activities, so that membership became almost compulsory, and former participants sometimes argued that they simply endured (or ignored) ideological messages in order to participate in other activities. Later neofascist youth groups, on the other hand, had no such monopoly, leaving ideology and rhetoric as their primary recruiting tools. Second, what, other than ideology, distinguishes fascist youth from other youth organizations? Both the Italian and German variants borrowed program content, methods and rhetoric from preexisting groups such as the Scouting movement; the fascist youth organizations simply imbued activities, songs and traditions with more extremist political and social significance. In this context, later neofascist youth groups again stand out because, unlike mainstream youth organizations, which promote cooperation and tolerance, neofascists cultivate absolute obedience, racial elitism, and paramilitarism.
See also: Communist Youth.
Eatwell, Roger. 1996. Fascism: A History. New York: Penguin.
Leeden, Michael A. 1969. "Italian Fascism and Youth." Journal of Contemporary History 4, no. 3: 137–154.
Payne, Stanley. 1995. A History of Fascism 1914–1945. Madison: University of Madison Press.
Kimberly A. Redding