Fascism and Nazism

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Alexander De Grand


Fascism and Nazism developed out of a general crisis of the European political system connected with the rise of the mass participation state from the late nineteenth century to the end of World War I. The mass participation state was marked by five features: an unprecedented expansion of the number of voters brought on by universal manhood suffrage and in some cases by the extension of the vote to women; the development of mass communications; a high degree of mass mobilization, initially by revolutionary socialist parties; new economic and social demands put forward by democratic and revolutionary organizations; and fragmented, poorly organized middle-class political party structures, largely legacies of the nineteenth-century restricted franchise. Fascism was motivated by deep-seated fears of social and political disintegration and of political revolution on the part of both ruling elites and large sectors of the middle and lower-middle classes. These classes had little to gain from a socialist revolution. Fascist and Nazi movements appeared throughout Europe during the period between World Wars I and II, but only in Italy and Germany did they come to power and develop into regimes.

By 1919 liberalism and liberal democracy, focused on individual rights, offered a pallid response to social and economic upheaval brought on by World War I. Political life had been thoroughly radicalized by war and by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Large segments of newly enfranchised masses were moving outside of established social and economic institutions and were falling under the control of revolutionary organizations. Liberal democracy, which relies on competition of individuals and groups in the political and economic marketplaces, offered little assurance of social cohesion in a time of crisis. In contrast, socialism and communism formulated powerful quasi-religious visions of human redemption and solidarity based on the triumph of the peasantry and the working class.


Fascism exploded on the political scene after 1919 as a countermyth, as the first mass movement of the middle class in Italy and Germany, and as a political party through which important sectors of the economic and political establishments sought to preserve the status quo in revolutionary times. Faced with a shattered political order, a highly politicized and fragmented body politic, a revolutionary threat, and a profound loss of faith in the market mechanisms, Fascism put forward a vision of social and political solidarity based on the primacy of membership in the organic nation (Fascism) or race (Nazism). It brought a new word, "totalitarian," into the political lexicon. Because social and economic disintegration after World War I seemed to threaten the very basis of Western civilization, the remedy for it had to be equally drastic or total. Using techniques of mass mobilization pioneered by the left, tactics of combat forged in the trenches of World War I, and modern means of mass communications, Fascism and Nazism promised a new and unified national or racial community.

The Fascist-Nazi political revolutions stemmed from profound anxieties about the disintegration of the social order and of the national or racial unit. Thus, not surprisingly, they shared many characteristics: the cult of the single leader who represented the essence of the nation or race; the single party through which all political life was directed; state control of mass communications and propaganda; the absorption of all independent social, leisure time, and professional activity within the state; the destruction of independent labor organizations; state direction of the economy within the context of private ownership; and the mobilization of society for war against domestic and foreign enemies.

Nonetheless, the Fascist and Nazi regimes were mired in contradictions. They were movements of the middle class, aiming at the restoration of traditional gender and social hierarchies, yet they claimed to be revolutionary regimes that would create new national and racial communities. Both regimes at once reflected and mocked bourgeois values. They promised, especially in the case of Italian Fascism, to respect private property and ownership of the means of production. Yet they were built on a vision of mercantilist crisis that implied state direction of a shrinking world economy in which nations and races struggled continuously to survive. Mobilization for warfare undermined aspirations for political and social stabilization and the restoration of traditional values. The regimes put forward a spartan ethic of self-denial, austerity, and subordination of the individual to the group that neither was shared by most Germans or Italians nor reflected the private behavior of the leadership.

Contradictions were overcome by massive mobilization and propaganda efforts. Fascism and Nazism borrowed from their socialist and communist opponents and from traditional religion to create elaborate public rituals, vast public spaces for rallies, and an almost godlike cult of the leader. The central myth was the salvation of the nation or race through rebirth and regeneration. Rebirth could only come through struggle, new values of sacrifice, and constant vigilance against external and internal enemies. Italian Fascism consisted of constantly shifting "battles" for self-sufficiency in grain, population expansion, the value of the lire, and Italian domination of the Mediterranean Sea and against the League of Nations, France, and England. Germany, in contrast, concentrated its full attention on the perceived Jewish biological, cultural, and economic threat and the drive for outward expansion, especially in eastern Europe.

In so far as Fascism and to a lesser extent Nazism operated according to economic theories, they opted for a corporative model of economic organization as a "third way" between capitalism and communism. Italy attempted to organize economic and social life around functional units that brought together workers and management in the various branches of the economy within a single framework. Strikes and lockouts were outlawed and replaced by mandatory arbitration. However, the destruction of independent trade unions, the close ties between industry and the Fascist and Nazi regimes, and war mobilization resulted in a state-directed autarky with major branches of the economy organized into government-sponsored cartels geared to war production and to the exploitation of conquered territories.


During the 1920s and 1930s movements modeled on Fascism or Nazism cropped up throughout Europe. Historians and political scientists have failed to find a common thread that would link the widely divergent experiences of France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Spain, Romania, Belgium, England, and Latin American countries. Generally they have used three approaches to analyze fascism and nazism. One approach defines the two movements as modern totalitarianism and links them with the Soviet experience under Joseph Stalin. However, totalitarian theory concentrates on organization of the state and leaves out Italy, which was not truly totalitarian. A second approach finds a fascist minimum that links Italy and Germany and leaves out Soviet communism. The common core is sought in economic structures, either in the form of a crisis of capitalism or of stages of economic development, in a general European cultural crisis, in a revolt of the lower middle classes, or in the psychological trauma of a generation that experienced World War I and subsequent dislocations. Finally, a number of theories deny any connection between fascism and nazism. Fascism has its roots in the crisis of the marxist left, whereas nazism derives from ideas of racial biology common in nineteenth-century Europe.

The diversity of organizations connected with fascism poses problems for any general theory. Some movements were authoritarian-traditionalist, seeking the restoration of traditional values, often by violence, through reliance on religion and ties to conservative forces. Others were overtly fascist or nazi, seeking an autonomous base by mobilizing the lower middle class and peasantry on programs that were always antimarxist but often included anticapitalist populism, extreme nationalism, racial mysticism, and anti-Semitism.

In Austria the nationalist authoritarian paramilitary Heimwehr was allied to right-wing nationalists, its ideology was Catholic corporative, and it drew support from the small-town middle class and the peasantry. In Spain the most notable movement inspired by fascism was the Falange, founded in 1933 by José Antonio Primo de Rivera. The Falange called for an almost mystical national revival through the reassertion of traditional, Catholic values and the struggle against marxism. Eventually the Falange was subsumed into General Francisco Franco's military revolt of 1936. The oldest of the conservative, nationalist movements was the Action Française, founded in France in 1899 by Charles Maurras. The Action Française was monarchist, authoritarian, anti-Semitic, theoretically Catholic, and virulently antidemocratic. Another French movement of the authoritarian right was the Croix de Feu, founded in 1927. After 1936 the Croix de Feu transformed into the French Social Party, which drew from the middle class and peasant farmers. The Belgian Rexist movement, headed by Leon Degrelle, followed the authoritarian, Catholic model closer to Benito Mussolini's Fascism than to Nazi paganism.

On the radical fascist right, the French ex-Communist Jacques Doriot formed the Parti Populaire Français that initially won a substantial working-class following but gradually lost it as the party was tied to conservative financial backers and gravitated toward the Nazi model during World War II. Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, formed in 1932, adopted the cult of the leader and the violent tactics that marked both fascism and nazism. Mosley's anti-Semitism drew him closer to Adolf Hitler than to Mussolini. Among the most interesting radical movements were the Hungarian Arrow Cross, led by Ferenc Szálasi, which combined extreme nationalism, radical economic and social restructuring, and violent anti-Semitism; and the Romanian Legion of the Archangel Michael, founded by Corneliu Zelea Codreanu in 1927. The Legion called for a peasant society based on extreme nationalism with a dose of Romanian Orthodox Christian mysticism. The movement was violent, confrontational, and extremely anti-Semitic with support from students and poor peasants and few ties to the economic and social establishment. The Arrow Cross and the Legion of the Archangel Michael were suppressed by the conservative Hungarian and Romanian governments in power during the 1930s.


Origins and early development. The Fascist and Nazi movements developed in roughly three parallel stages. The first phase was the radical, quasi-revolutionary movement, which lasted in Italy only from March 1919 to mid-1920 and in Germany continued from January 1919 to the abortive Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923. The second period was marked by the transformation of both movements into broader middle-class alliances. In Italy this took place between mid-1920 and November 1921, when the Fascist movement became the landowners' primary weapon to smash the socialist peasant movement in the rich agricultural Po Valley. In Germany the transformative phase lasted from the reconstitution of the party in 1925 to the first electoral success in 1929. The final step in the party development, preparatory to the seizure of power, was when both movements became truly mass organizations, entered Parliament, and began to negotiate with the economic and social establishments. In Italy this process lasted from the end of 1921 until the March on Rome in October 1922, and in Germany it lasted from 1929 to January 1933.

The radical phase. Anton Drexler formed the German Workers' Party in Munich on 5 January 1919. A few months later, on 23 March, Mussolini launched the first fascio di combattimento (combat group) in Milan. The term fascio originally meant "group" and was used by both left and right. Members of the fascio were fascisti. Both movements combined extreme nationalism with radical economic and social programs. For instance, the first Fascist program, inspired by Mussolini's early socialism, called for the eight-hour day, worker participation in management, the vote for women, and a new republican constitution. Backing for the fascio came from students, veterans, and young professionals along with former socialists, syndicalists, and anarchists who had joined Mussolini in 1914 and 1915 in breaking with the official Socialist Party over Italian entry into World War I. They shared a complete rejection of the existing political system, a contempt for the Italian political class, and an intense hatred of proletarian-based socialism. The early Fascist movement was solidly northern, with particular strength in Milan, Italy's most modern urban center.

In contrast to the Fascist movement, the German Workers' Party had no ties to the left and was based in Munich, outside Germany's industrial heartland. Hitler joined the movement in late September 1919, and the next year it became the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP). The new party was extremely small, with 189 members in January 1920 and only 2,000 at the end of the year. The Nazi movement appealed to war veterans, artisans, and the disaffected lower middle class, who were hostile both to socialism and to large-scale commercial and industrial capitalism. In 1921 and 1922 it spread to the small Protestant towns of Franconia and Bavaria and to the major cities Munich and Nürnberg. Spurred by French occupation of the Ruhr Valley, inflation, and economic collapse, by November 1923 the party claimed over fifty thousand members spread throughout a large part of Germany. It had become a broad coalition of the middle class with some working-class support in the industrial Ruhr and Rhineland.

Three things characterize the social history of the early Fascist and Nazi movements. First, the leadership was young, drawn from the generation born in the 1880s and 1890s. Mussolini was born in 1883, Hitler in 1889. Second, the defining experience for both Fascists and Nazis was World War I. Coming of age as the war began, they were stamped by the conflict's violence and the solidarity of the trenches, and they re-created this cohesion in the military formations important to both parties. The Nazis created the Sturmabteilung (SA) in 1921; the Fascists organized fasci di combattimento, or squads, modeled after wartime special combat units. These paramilitary formations made both movements something new on the political scene—parties organized not for traditional electoral politics but for violent, ongoing confrontations with political opponents. The third characteristic of both movements was an intense anger and impatience that found outlets in nationalism, hatred of democracy and socialism, and calls for the restoration of social- and gender-based hierarchies. One additional element, extreme racism and anti-Semitism, was present in the Nazi movement from the beginning. For instance, the Nazi program of February 1920 excluded Jews from membership in the future German national community.

The transformative-coalition phase. The transformative phase revealed a high degree of organizational flexibility. Powerful local leaders (ras in Italy, Gauleiter in Germany) acted with significant independence. The movements' ideological opportunism allowed them to adapt to new circumstances, and the cult of the supreme leader emerged.

The radical-populist Fascist movement reached an impasse with the Italian elections of November 1919. Mussolini's movement was solidly defeated, and the Italian Socialist Party and the Catholic Popular Party represented over half of the new parliament. By early 1920 total membership in the fasci dropped to nine hundred. The movement revived from this low point after November, when it spearheaded the agrarian reaction to Socialist peasant organizations and strikes. One of the best social histories of the origins of Fascism in Italy, Fascism in Ferrara, 1915–1925 (1975) by Paul Corner, analyzes the Fascists' use of long-standing social and economic tensions to gain a popular base. By the end of 1920 the 88 fasci had over 20,000 members, and a year later 834 fasci had over 250,000 members.

The balance shifted from northern cities to the countryside and small towns of northern and central Italy. New recruits were young professionals, shopkeepers, students, and small and large landowners. They launched well-armed punitive expeditions from provincial centers against unprepared and poorly coordinated peasant unions. Beginning with the areas around Bologna and Ferrara, much of northern Italy turned into a battle zone with the passive acquiescence or active connivance of police and military authorities. This second phase ended at the Fascist congress in November 1921, when the movement officially became the National Fascist Party (PNF). The party fully accepted Mussolini's supreme position and abandoned its republican, anti-Catholic, and radical program in favor of a monarchist and economically conservative agenda.

The Nazi movement reached a similar impasse in late 1923. The movement was outlawed, and Hitler was arrested and imprisoned after the failed attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic (Beer Hall Putsch) of 3–9 November. The party was reorganized in 1925 on the Führerprinzip, or leadership principle, with Hitler as undisputed leader. The Nazi movement attracted middle- and lower-middle-class supporters, but the urban working-class strategy it pursued in 1927 and 1928 made limited gains. In the elections of May 1928 the Nazis won only 2.8 percent of the vote but made a significant breakthrough among the desperate small farmers in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, marking the end of the party's urban strategy. The onset of the Great Depression opened the way for major Nazi victories in 1929 and 1930.

The consolidation of the mass movement and the seizure of power. Fascists and Nazis took power in similar ways. Their paramilitary wings created a climate of violence directed at their Socialist and Communist enemies and the existing political class, which dared not crack down lest the revolutionary left revive. In both countries Parliament was paralyzed. After the 1930 elections successive German governments survived using presidential emergency decree powers. The Italian and German conservative political and economic establishments united to bring the Fascist and Nazi movements into the government, and in both countries the conservatives felt confident they could control any power-sharing arrangement. Thus Mussolini and Hitler came to power legally. The Fascist and Nazi revolutions came after the movements controlled the government.

In 1921 and 1922 the Italian Fascist squads continued their revenge against the Socialist worker and peasant unions in well-organized attacks against whole provinces. The Nazi SA, a massive organization devoted to street fighting and fund-raising, had a social base decidedly more working-class and lower-middle-class than the NSDAP. Once in Parliament both parties courted key constituencies within the established order. The Fascist Party entered the government-sponsored electoral coalition in June 1921, when it won thirty-five seats in parliament, and adopted a new conservative program in November. Weak and divided governments in 1921 and 1922 led all established political leaders to seek an alliance with Mussolini by October 1922. To precipitate events the Fascists decreed a mass mobilization of their squads and the March on Rome that began on 27 October. Faced with violence and potential civil war, King Victor Emmanuel III first offered the post of prime minister to a conservative. When Mussolini demanded the position for himself, the monarch yielded on 29 October and appointed the Fascist leader to head the government.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s the Nazis formed organizations that incorporated students, teachers, farmers, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, and architects into the movement. Hitler ignored the party's radical economic program and reached out to industrialists. The NSDAP won 108 seats in the September 1930 national elections and controlled several state governments, sweeping aside all the other middle-class political groups. Nazi domination of the political space previously occupied by several fragmented middle-class parties was confirmed in the July 1932 elections, when the party won 230 seats and 37 percent of the votes. By January 1933 party membership had reached 1.4 million people. Social histories have revealed that, of those who voted for the Nazis, 70 percent were middle class, but roughly one-third could be described as working class or unemployed. The rank and file members were small peasant farmers, shopkeepers, artisans, civil servants, teachers, professionals, and small businesspeople. In contrast, the party leadership after 1928 increasingly was drawn from the middle and upper-middle classes. Clearly the NSDAP was a successful mass movement of the middle classes before Hitler's appointment as chancellor on 30 January 1933.


Until 1934 the Fascist and Nazi movements seemed to run on parallel courses. Both leaders were young when they took power. Mussolini was thirty-nine in 1922; Hitler was forty-four in 1933. Neither man offered a clear indication of his future programs, and they headed movements more suited to seizing power than to governing. The Fascist and Nazi movements proclaimed themselves revolutionary but were in coalitions with conservatives who had decidedly different aims. The two movements had changed their social bases in similar ways during the march to power. As the movements grew, more middle- and upper-middle-class people joined, but remnants of the old lower-middle-class populism remained in the Fascist squads and in the SA. Expectations that the movements would share the spoils with the bases had to be balanced against the realities of governing. The conservative industrialists and landowners' desires for merely the restoring of order had to be reconciled with the drive to total power inherent in Fascism and Nazism.

How much the Fascist and Nazi regimes were the result of choices made by Mussolini and Hitler has been the subject of much debate between intentionalists and structuralists. The intentionalists stress the role of Hitler in the Nazi regime and, in fact, both regimes must be seen, at least in part, as determined by the wills of their powerful leaders, especially in foreign and racial policies. But the structuralists are correct to see these regimes as also the products of powerful social and economic institutional forces interacting within the contexts of the new dictatorships. The organization of the regimes was largely determined by the social alliances that brought them to power. Moreover policies often were shaped by competition for power among important interest groups within the dictatorships. The implication for social historians is that a simple top-down model of power relationships is inadequate, even in highly authoritarian regimes.

The histories of the Fascist and Nazi regimes can be divided into four periods: consolidation of power and the suppression of the opposition (Italy from 1922 to 1926, Germany from 30 January to July 1933), stabilization of power (Italy from 1926 to 1935, Germany from 1933 to 1936), the drive to totalitarian control (Italy from 1935 to 1939, Germany after 1936), and war and expansion (Italy from 1935 to 1943, Germany from 1936 to 1945).

The repression of the opposition. At the top of the hierarchy was the supreme leader. After 1934 Hitler combined the offices of chancellor and chief of state, while Mussolini formally served as prime minister under the Italian monarch. Both regimes abolished the old constitutions and never replaced them. Instead, they introduced a series of ad hoc constitutional arrangements. Mussolini and Hitler immediately diminished the importance of Parliament. They quickly dissolved the old legislatures and called new elections, Mussolini in spring 1924 and Hitler in March 1933. New electoral laws gave their parties a significant advantage. Mussolini won approval of the 1923 Acerbo law, which gave two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to the party that won over 25 percent of the vote. The Nazis declared a state of emergency on 31 January 1933 and on 4 February issued an emergency decree limiting press freedom and public meetings. The Nazis used the burning of the Reichstag building by a Dutch communist in late February as an excuse to ban that party under a decree for "the Protection of the People and the State" on 28 February 1933. Mussolini ended parliamentary control over the cabinet in December 1925 with a law making the head of government responsible only to the monarch. Hitler accomplished the same end with the Enabling Act of 23 March 1933, which gave the government power to issue laws without the consent of the Reichstag. Over time even cabinet meetings in both regimes became rarer and less important. Each constituency negotiated directly with the supreme leader or with other power centers on a bilateral basis.

The consolidation of power: economic, social, and religious policies. Upon taking power, the Fascists and Nazis faced conflicting pressures. The lower-middle-class base of the party and the paramilitary formations sought immediate rewards, such as restrictions on department stores in Germany, larger roles for the Fascist and Nazi militias, and appointment to government offices. Each of these demands conflicted with the desires of industrialists, bankers, the military, and the civil service. Both regimes coped by curbing the power of the party militias and buying off key constituencies.

In Italy this process of concessions worked only partially, and Mussolini never freed himself from the alliance with conservatives. To the landowners the Fascist government offered the suppression of the peasant unions and a substantial degree of local government control. Industrialists received the destruction of Socialist and Communist unions and reaffirmation of the supremacy of the employer within the firm. Over the long term, heavy industry was integrated into a lucrative system of state-sponsored cartels that carved up market shares to the advantage of larger competitors and guaranteed government contracts for military armaments and import substitution. The Italian Catholic Church benefited most notably from the Lateran Treaty and Concordat of 1929, which guaranteed the official status of the church and its autonomous sphere within the Fascist regime. The military won curbs on the power of the Fascist militia. The lower middle class gained increased access to party and state positions and a gradual relaxation of limits on educational opportunities. Of course, the losers in the process were industrial workers and peasants, both male and female, who faced lost political and economic rights and wage reductions with the onset of the depression.

Nazi Germany similarly bought special constituencies. Heavy industry won significant advantages. Unions of all sorts were banned, and not even the Nazi Labor Front had the right to bargain collectively. Arbitration of wages was shifted to the Ministry of Labor, and the rights of management were reaffirmed. In 1934 Hjalmar Schacht, a banker with close business ties, became economics minister, and he dominated policy until 1936. He introduced foreign currency controls, import restrictions, and cartelization in favor of large industrial corporations. Radical demands from the Nazi base, such as the anti–department store campaign, were shelved; handicrafts were brought under the German Craft Trades organization; and small businesses were arranged under a specialized association. In September 1933 the Nazis created an agricultural marketing organization, the Reichsnährstand, which introduced price supports for basic commodities. The so-called blood purge of the SA leadership in June 1934 eliminated a rival to the military establishment, and the army was further satisfied by the decision to rearm.

On the religious front the Nazis attempted to create a party-dominated Evangelical Church but pulled back in the face of resistance from Protestant leaders in 1933 and 1934. In mid-1933 the Nazi government signed a concordat with the Catholic Church modeled on the Lateran accords of Fascist Italy. On paper the Catholic Church was assured of its own sphere of religious influence in exchange for abandoning its political activity and its youth groups. But both the Protestant and Catholic Churches in Nazi Germany were on the defensive before the power of the state.

Fascism and Nazism brought large areas of social and economic life under state control. Both regimes created youth groups (Balilla in Italy, Hitler Youth in Germany); women's organizations (fasci femminili and National Socialist Womanhood, and the Deutsche Frauenwerke); leisure-time organizations that provided both indoctrination and entertainment for workers (Dopolavoro, and the German Strength through Joy); myriad official professional associations for lawyers, doctors, artists, and architects; and social welfare agencies that aimed to increase the birthrate of the "racially healthy" population (the Fascist Woman and Infants Organization, and the Nazi Welfare Organization). To encourage a higher birthrate, the two dictatorships offered housing allowances and family subsidies, forced married women out of the employment market, and imposed special taxes on the unmarried. The number of women workers declined in the Fascist era due as much to the reduced importance of agriculture and textiles as to actual Fascist policy. During the early 1930s the Fascist government closed some state employment to women, and in 1938 it imposed a 10 percent quota on female employment in the state sector and in large firms. The excess of females over males, pressure from middle-class families, and mobilization for war moderated the impact of these measures, but professional advancement was closed in many areas. Politically active women were directed into party and state women's and social welfare agencies. Neither regime closed the universities to women, although the Nazis imposed a 10 percent cap on female enrollment. Nonetheless, on the eve of the war women comprised 30 percent of German university students.

Neither Italy nor Germany encouraged significant upward social mobility. The educational system remained a middle-class bastion. Workers in Italy suffered a significant decline in wages as a result of state-enforced salary reductions during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Prices fell more slowly, resulting in an overall decline in the standard of living. Nazi Germany reached full employment by 1936, and labor shortages kept wages from falling. Both regimes provided sufficient basic foodstuffs but neglected the consumer goods sector. Nonmonetary incentives, such as housing and family benefits, replaced wage incentives.

Both Fascist rule in Italy and Nazi rule in Germany profoundly influenced their respective societies, but it is dangerous to exaggerate their impact. Certainly large areas of working class life remained on the margins of the Fascist or Nazi consensus, and the middle and upper classes could retreat into the sphere of private life. German historians of "everyday life," such as Detlev J. K. Peukert in Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition, and Racism in Everyday Life (1987), are aware that the Nazi regime failed to resolve any of the historic social and economic cleavages in Germany. To this extent the "racial community" failed to create a new German, just as Mussolini's "revolution" failed to create the new Fascist Italian. But the two regimes did touch almost all Italians and Germans, even those who retreated into private life, by forcing them into constant daily compromises and involving them in the many official social and economic organizations. In the end the social impact of fascism and nazism cannot be separated from the effects of the war, defeat, and occupation. Certainly in the case of Italy and Germany, the "economic miracle" of the 1950s and early 1960s changed their societies more fundamentally than anything the Fascists and Nazis did.

Differences between Fascist and Nazi regimes. If the two regimes resembled each other in important ways, they differed in equally important regards both during and after the consolidation of power. First, the Nazis made revolutionary use of the concept of race to undermine existing legal standards and bureaucratic order, to make sweeping changes in cultural life by labeling most modern art and literature Judeo-Bolshevik, and to extend state control into the sphere of private life. The Nazis used racial laws to purge the civil service in 1933; Joseph Goebbels's new Ministry of Propaganda (1933) began to dismantle libraries and museums with a massive, symbolic book burning in the spring of 1933; and the Nürnberg Laws of 1935 took citizenship from Jews and forbade marriage between Jews and non-Jews. Applying racial theory, the Nazis sterilized those deemed physically or mentally defective or born of mixed-race marriages. They encouraged Aryans to have children; indeed divorce was granted on grounds of infertility. In Italy the opposition of the Catholic Church made sterilization or divorce practically impossible but failed to prevent the adoption of anti-Semitic legislation in 1938 that began the physical separation of Italian Jews from Christians.

The two regimes also differed in how the state bureaucracy related to the party and its paramilitary and police organizations. In Italy the Fascist Party was subordinated to the established bureaucracy that imposed the dictatorship, therefore the party never developed its own police and security apparatus. Hitler understood that the German bureaucracy was ill suited to create his racial utopia, and to a much greater extent than in Italy, the party relied on Nazi-dominated organizations to carry out its will. Most important, the SS, the party security agency, paralleled the state security police, the Gestapo. In 1936 Heinrich Himmler merged the state and party police under his control and forged a weapon of totalitarian terror that had no Italian counterpart. The Italian regime rested on a highly effective police apparatus (the OVRA), widespread use of informants, censorship of the media, and even concentration camps in the late 1930s, but it did not use systematic terror.

A final distinction between the two regimes is in the culture. Most of Italian culture survived under Fascism, which applied no official doctrine to purge literature, the arts, or the universities except against overt opponents. Thus Italy's greatest artists and writers remained in the country. In contrast, the Nazis forced German writers and artists into silence or exile. The Nazis gathered much of the best European painting and sculpture in 1937 for the Exhibition of Decadent Art, which subsequently was sold, was destroyed, or disappeared into Nazi private collections.

Fascism, Nazism, and war. Fascism and Nazism were geared for war and expansion. Both regimes started from a vision of a world of narrowing opportunities in which nations and races had to struggle, expand, or die. Hitler's goal of expansion of the German state was rivaled in importance only by anti-Semitic policies. In 1933 and 1934 he assured the military that he would begin rapid rearmament. In 1936, after achieving full employment and economic recovery, the Nazis rejected economic orthodoxy for continued expansion of a war economy. From the remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1936 to the final disaster of World War II in 1945, Nazism embarked on a series of conquests that had no limits and involved ever-widening aims.

Fascist Italy, a much weaker state, moved more slowly. Mussolini had few options during the 1920s, when Britain and France were dominant, but the revival of Germany after 1933 gave Il Duce (the leader) his opportunity. Mussolini had the more limited ambition of replacing Britain as the dominant power in the Mediterranean. By putting his country on a war footing, he might also break the conservatives' hold over his regime and resume the push for a totalitarian society. Unfortunately for Mussolini, Italy lacked the industrial and military base to compete with Germany and Britain. Mussolini embarked on wars in Ethiopia (1935–1936), Spain (1936–1938), Albania (1939), and France, Greece, and North Africa (1940–1941). Defeat in Greece and North Africa by early 1941 meant the beginning of the end of Italian Fascism, and the regime collapsed after the Allied invasion of Sicily in early 1943. On 24–25 July 1943 Mussolini was outvoted by his fellow Fascist leaders, removed by the king, and arrested. In September, Hitler's army rescued Il Duce and restored him to power as head of a puppet Italian Social Republic that lasted until April 1945. It preceded its German ally in defeat and collapse by only a matter of weeks.

See alsoThe World Wars and the Depression; The Jews and Anti-Semitism; Racism (volume 1);War and Conquest (volume 2);Revolutions (volume 3); and other articles in this section.


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