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Theory in Depth
Theory in Action
Analysis and Critical Response
Topics for Further Study
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Fascism is a twentieth–century political ideology and movement based on nationalism and militarism, which emphasizes the importance of the state and the individual's overriding duty to it. It opposes communism and liberalism, and seeks to regenerate the social, cultural, and economic life of its country by instilling its citizens with a powerful sense of national identity and an unquestioning loyalty to the state and its leader. Agencies of state control, such as secret police, and sophisticated propaganda techniques are important factors in the suppression of opposition and the advancement of fascist doctrines.

who controls government? Dictator

how is government put into power? Overthrow or revolution

what roles do the people have? Not interfere with the state

who controls production of goods? The state

who controls distribution of goods? The state

major figures Benito Mussolini; Adolf Hitler

historical example Italy, 1922–1943

Drawing on nineteenth century theories, such as those of Friedrich Nietzsche and Georges Sorel, fascism arose out of the political and social destruction which followed World War I (1914–1918) and the Russian Revolution (1917), and reached its peak in the inter–war years between 1922–1939. Fascism was officially founded by Benito Mussolini, whose Fascist regime controlled Italy between 1922 and 1945, and derived its name from the fasces of ancient Rome, an axe tied up in a bundle of sticks which symbolized authority and justice. Italian Fascism proved to be the model for subsequent movements throughout Europe, most notably that of Germany. Under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, Nazism developed the nationalist principles of fascism into a blueprint for conquering Europe and establishing a racial hierarchy. The Third Reich's attempts to create a "new order" led directly to the carnage of World War II, and to the German "master race" inflicting terror and genocide on those who it deemed to be inferior.

Although the era of fascist domination ended in 1945, with the Allied victory over Italy and Germany, the influence of its ideology, as documented in Hitler's Mein Kampf ("My Struggle") and Mussolini's Dottrina del Fascismo ("Doctrine of Fascism"), continues to exist on the political fringes of all Western democracies.

Within this common framework, however, there are certain characteristics which, although figuring prominently in some fascist movements, are absent in others. Arguably the most important of these differences lies in the militarist and nationalist doctrines of the various regimes, which range from an intense pride in national unity and traditions, through to a belief in racial superiority, ending ultimately in the overt racism, anti–Semitism and ethnic cleansing adopted by the Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler. These ideological inconsistencies have resulted in constant debate as to whether the authoritarian and nationalistic movements that arose in countries such as Spain, Romania, Austria, and France can be accurately described as fascist, or were merely foreign models of the original Fascist regime of Italy. If taken to its most basic and literal meaning, the term fascism applies only to the Italian regime which was founded and named by Mussolini although it is generally extended to encompass all comparable ideologies and movements. What is indisputable, however, is that to most people, fascism is primarily associated with the regimes of Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany. Unfortunately, the well–documented manner in which its regimes mercilessly persecuted their national, political, and racial enemies has replaced much of fascism's political meaning with more common use as a term of abuse and a generic symbol of evil and violence.


1918:      First World War ends. Its aftermath creates the ideal conditions for Fascism's development

1919:      Benito Mussolini and the "Fascists of the First Hour" meet in Milan to form the Italian Fascist Party (PNF)

1921:      Adolf Hitler becomes leader of the NSDAP (Nazi Party)

1922:      Following the "March on Rome," Mussolini is installed as Italian Prime Minister

1923–1924:      Hitler is imprisoned for treason. While in Landsberg prison he writes Mein Kampf

1933:      Hitler becomes German Chancellor. Almost immediately he passes the Enabling Act which awards him dictatorial powers

1936:      Germany reoccupies the Rhineland and signs the Rome–Berlin Axis that unites Germany and Italy as allies. Outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in which Germany and Italy provide support for General Franco's forces

1939:      Italy invades Albania and signs the "Pact of Steel" with Hitler. Germany invades Poland provoking the outbreak of World War II

1941:      Hitler and Mussolini declare war on the United States

1943:      Allies invade Italy and Mussolini is removed from power

1945:      Mussolini is shot dead by Italian partisans, Hitler and other Nazi party members commit suicide and Nazi Germany surrenders unconditionally to the Allies

Despite this widespread demonization, and fascism's inability to regain the political dominance it enjoyed from 1922 until the defeat of Germany and Italy in World War II in 1945, it would be foolish to dismiss its continuing influence and potential. The resurgence, especially in Eastern Europe, of authoritarian regimes with strong nationalist support, and the existence of fascist and neo–fascist movements on the political fringes of most Western democracies, only serves to highlight the need for continued study of fascism, in the hope of gaining greater understanding of its ideology, aims, and appeal.


Although fascism, as a political system, did not thrust itself upon the world until after World War I, the roots and influences of its political theory stretch back as far as the early nineteenth century. As a reaction to the values and ideals created during the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution that had swept across Europe during the eighteenth century, many intellectuals developed philosophies and concepts

which would later be adapted to form the foundations of fascist ideology. Among those who opposed the new prevailing attitudes of rationalism, democracy, and liberalism, were the writers Johann von Goethe (1749–1832) and Friedrich von Schelling (1775–1854), who denied the claims that human nature could be explained in terms of general laws and dismissed the growing belief that politics and economics should aim for greater democracy and universalism. Along with other thinkers, known collectively as the Romantic Movement, Goethe and Schelling placed great emphasis on the importance of nationalism and tradition, and displayed a fervent hostility towards society's increasing adoption of material values.

The Romantic Movement's philosophy was developed into a rejection of democracy as the ideal form of decision making by thinkers who adapted the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), in particular his belief in the "general will." Rousseau, a Swiss political philosopher, claimed that a natural, harmonious decision will emerge within a society on any issue, but this decision is not necessarily the one that would be chosen by a democratic majority. He added that, on certain occasions, the people may not be aware of this "general will" and it was the duty of those in authority to invoke it. This theory has been linked to the fascist ideology of the strong, authoritarian state, making all decisions on behalf of its people and in the interests of the nation. In fairness to Rousseau, however, it is doubtful whether he intended for his theory to be interpreted in this way—his other assertions, in contrast to fascism, were that mankind was not inherently evil, and that ordinary people had the right and ability to bring about changes within their society.

During the course of the nineteenth century, the embryonic ideology of fascism gathered momentum and support in many European countries, with the continued rejection of liberal and democratic systems in favor of a return to traditional values and nationalism, under the guidance of a powerful, authoritarian state.

In France and Germany, nationalism progressed beyond its positive function of providing individuals with a shared heritage and a common identity and tradition. By coloring reason with emotion, and by selective interpretation of scientific and intellectual developments, the desire for national unity shifted sharply in the direction of racism. In France, Maurice Barres (1862–1923) introduced his theory of enracinement, which essentially suggested the existence of a mystical link between a country's living and dead citizens, placing great emphasis on the importance of a nation to uphold the traditions and values of their ancestors. The views of Barres, along with those of his compatriots Comte Joseph de Gobineau (1816–1882) and Charles Maurras (1868–1952), founded the ideology on which Action Français (AF), considered by many historians to be the first fascist movement, was based. Formed in June 1899, AF united support from all sections of French society against the liberalism and universalism of the Republican government. With the influence of leading members, such as Georges Sorel (1847–1922) and Georges Valois (1894–1945), AF sought to reinstate the monarchy as the means of reuniting the nation and thereby placing France in a stronger position to defeat external and, more importantly, internal enemies. In France at this time, just as in other Western European countries, the major internal enemy was considered to be the Jews. Viewed as the materialistic and scheming epitome of capitalism, Jews became the convenient focus of the growing nationalist movement and proved an effective common enemy, upon whom society could blame their economic and political failures and disillusionment. However, neither AF nor any of its subsidiaries were able to turn this strong nationalist support into political success. What they had achieved was the setting in motion of a chain of ideas and events which, only a few years later, would see their ideology of extreme nationalism and strong control of the state become the foundations of a new and powerful political system. Ironically, it would be not in France that fascism eventually obtained its political power, but in Italy and Germany (thus, the fascist regimes that French thinkers had so greatly influenced, almost succeeded in destroying France during World War II).

In Germany, as in France, the path of nationalism had moved from a healthy pride in their heritage and traditions to one of racism, anti–Semitism, and, ultimately, to fascism. The route of German fascism, however, would be influenced by thinkers who placed greater emphasis on the values of national and racial supremacy and military strength.

Before 1870, Germany was divided into many smaller states, the most important of which was Prussia. It was not until after the Prussian armies had defeated France at the Battle of Sedan in 1870 that the unification of Germany was realized, and Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) became the first Chancellor of the new Imperial German Federation. Yet, as far back as the sixteenth century, Germany possessed a strong sense of nationalism, evident in the popularity of the philosopher and religious reformer, Martin Luther (1483–1546). These values were later expanded upon by thinkers of the Romantic Movement, and by 1873, when German journalist Wilhelm Marr (1819–1904) published his highly successful book, The Victory of the Jew over the German, the seeds of anti–Semitism and the desire for racial purity were becoming generally promoted and accepted. The breakthrough, in terms of electoral support, came in 1887 when the independent, anti–Semitic candidate Otto Bockel was elected to the Reichstag (German parliament). Yet, his election was not as influential, in terms of fascist ideas, as the manner in which he carried out his campaign. In place of the normally low–key affair, Bockel organized mass rallies, consisting of marching bands and torchlight processions, all accompanied by the singing of nationalist songs and Lutheran hymns. This was a method that would be further developed and successfully employed by future fascist leaders.

Growth In the Twentieth Century

Germany The arrival of the twentieth century still found the growing number of nationalist and militarist movements relegated to the fringes of political power. Even the formation of the Pan–German League, with such popular commitments as emphasizing the will of the people and increasing German economic prosperity by expanding into Eastern Europe, led to minimal electoral support. After the elections in 1912, it was the socialists who had succeeded, for the first time, in becoming the German parliament's largest party. The majority of right wing groups, moderate and extreme, felt that radical measures were required to revive their popularity. Suggestions ranged from the establishment of a new, popular party to the setting up of an authoritarian regime; some activists even advocated the creation of a dictatorship. Two years later, with the onset of World War I, the nationalist and militarist movements seemed to have lost their momentum, as Germany united behind their government in expectation of a glorious victory, and the increased political and economic power that would inevitably follow in its wake. Indeed, had a swift victory occurred, then the course of world history may well have been very different. This was not the case, however, and as the war continued the German people faced increasing hardship, which in turn led to signs of unrest and dissent. The nationalist movements seized on this as their opportunity, and in September 1917 witnessed the formation of the German Fatherland Party (GFP), the first mass party within Germany to be founded on the developing fascist ideology. By proposing the annexation of states along Germany's eastern borders, and by deflecting criticism from the government and military by blaming the ailing war effort on the Jewish population, the GFP had, by July 1918, amassed a membership of 1.25 million.

By October 1918, the leaders of the German military were aware that defeat was inevitable and, in order to shirk from the responsibility of their failure, plans were drawn up which transferred the reins of power from the Imperial hierarchy to a new, democratic government. On November 9, 1918, one day after Kaiser Wilhelm I (1859–1941) had been secretly escorted to Holland, Germany was officially declared a republic. The first duty of the new leadership was to unconditionally surrender to the victorious Allies and, two days after succeeding to power, Matthias Erzberger (1875–1921) signed a formal armistice on behalf of the new government. The humiliation felt by the German people and military was intensified by the conditions imposed on their country by the Allies in the Treaty of Versailles. Among the requirements was that Germany must accept full responsibility for starting the war, and that the regions of Alsace and Lorraine should be returned to France. It also ordered major demilitarization and limitations of the German armed forces, changes to Germany's eastern boundaries, the removal of all German colonies, and a commitment to the paying of restorative compensation to the Allies. The war had shattered German society and they now required someone on whom to place blame, both for the defeat and for the humiliating aftermath. The Germans found two convenient scapegoats in their newly formed democratic government and the Jews. What the German people now sought was the rebirth of their country and the restoration of their national identity and pride, but they no longer believed that the politics of liberalism and democracy would provide this. The German state was collapsing and the people demanded radical changes.

Italy Ironically, one of Germany's enemies in the war, Italy, experienced a similar feeling of national despair and frustration. Although Italy had emerged on the winning side, the cost of their victory had been a national, social, and economic crisis that resulted, just as in Germany, in the desire for a strong, nationalist political party to lead them out of the post–war chaos and confusion. The combination of intense public disillusionment and the general collapse of the old political order contributed to a rapid growth in the popularity of the developing Fascist movement and its leaders. The head of one such movement was quick to observe that a political void now existed, and within one year of the war's conclusion, Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) had added the term Fascism to the political dictionary, and laid the foundations of the first Fascist political party.

Just as in Germany, the political, economical, and social effects of World War I proved to be the most significant factors in the development and popularity of Italian fascism. However, the political ideology of the National Fascist Party, and the reasons for its subsequent rise to power, had roots which lay far deeper in Italy's history.

Corresponding very closely to the development of Germany, Italy as a unified nation did not exist until 1870. Prior to this it had consisted of an assortment of independent city–states, interspersed with several kingdoms under the control of autocratic foreign dynasties. The first half of the nineteenth century had spawned a national independence movement, known as the Risorgimento, which sought to establish a united and independent Italian state. The major figures of this nationalist movement were Camillo Cavour (1810– 1861), Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882) and Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872). Garibaldi and his Redshirts, a renowned army of one thousand red–shirted volunteers, conquered the major kingdom of Naples in 1861 and throughout the 1860s Italy gradually moved closer to unification. The process was completed, under the guidance of Cavour, in 1870. Unfortunately, although Italy was now officially united, in terms of politics, economics, and geography a great deal of division remained. Italy was, in effect, a dual economy, with the more advanced, industrialized areas being concentrated in the north, while the rural economy of the south was beset with problems of illiteracy and underemployment. Politically, Italy was governed by a succession of elitist coalitions, which were unstable and short–lived, causing the people to feel increasingly alienated and resulting in major public unrest. The instability of the new political system was intensified when the Vatican, who objected to losing the Papal States during the unification process, refused to cooperate with the new state, and announced a papal ban which prohibited any participation in politics.

Italy's defeat by the Ethiopians at the Battle of Adowa in 1896 further exposed the weakness of the Italian state, and proved yet another blow in their quest for national glory and stability. The Italian people's discontentment with their leadership became increasingly apparent and, in the years immediately preceding World War I, there was a rapid development in the popularity of both socialism and a new, organized nationalist movement.

While the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) was establishing itself as the largest political party within the coalition government, a small group of intellectuals and writers were laying the foundations of the Italian Nationalist Association (ANI). Officially formed in Florence in 1910, and containing key figures such as Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863–1938), Enrico Corradini (1865–1931) and Giovanni Papini (1881–1956), the ANI adopted a doctrine which focused on the creation of a strong, authoritarian state and a commitment to providing rapid economic growth. At the outbreak of war in 1914, the ANI and their nationalist beliefs were gaining support from all sections of society, including many disillusioned socialists. One of these was Benito Mussolini, whose conversion to nationalism and decision to support, rather than oppose, the war resulted in him being dismissed as editor of the socialist party newspaper, Avanti!. Upon returning wounded from the war, Mussolini set up his own newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia (The People of Italy), in which he criticized the government and opposition political parties, while promoting his own nationalist and militarist views.

Birth of Fascism

The official birth of fascism is generally accepted as occurring on March 23, 1919, when Mussolini met with the "Fascists of the First Hour" at the Piazza San Sepolcro in Milan. This gathering, which brought together elements from the extreme right and left of Italian politics, including groups such as the Italian National Association and the Futurists, led directly to the formation of the Fasci di Combattimento, the first self–styled Fascist movement. As its symbol, the group adopted the fasces, an ancient Roman emblem of authority and punishment, consisting of a bundle of rods bound together with a protruding axe head. Although the membership of the Fasci di Combattimento was drawn from all points of the social and political spectrum, most had served in the war, which was of crucial importance to Mussolini, who firmly believed that only a "trenchocratic" regime would be capable of creating a regenerated Italy. He was also of the opinion that the use of violence was necessary to achieve major political goals, whether directly or as a means to suppress the opposition. The Fasci di Combattimento was controlled by an elected central committee, the order of the hierarchy being determined by the number of votes gained by each successful candidate. Mussolini secured the number one position. This, however, was his only successful election in 1919, as in the November national elections the newly formed fascist movement attracted minimal support. Mussolini and the Fascist Central Committee, attributed their failure to the electorate's distrust of policies which advocated extreme left– and right–wing measures. In order to redress this imbalance, the Fascist movement distanced themselves from many of their left–wing programs and embarked on a definite shift towards the right.

This further drift towards extremism manifested itself most visibly in the increased level of violence, and in the para–militarism of these attacks. Originally employed on a small scale, in order to intimidate opposition groups and defend those attending Fascist meetings, these tactics soon changed with the setting up of the squadristi. These were fascist squads, composed mainly of disillusioned ex–servicemen, who increasingly took on a paramilitary role and favored the use of more threatening tactics. To visually reinforce their militarism, the squadristi adopted the black– shirted uniform and the one–armed salute employed during the war by the arditi, who were the elite troops of the Italian army. Although Mussolini exercised overall command, at a local level each of these squads was under the control of Fascist leaders known as ras, the name being taken from the Ethiopian word for chieftain. By early 1921, Mussolini had growing concerns about the ruthless tactics being employed by the squadristi, and the power and influence that certain of the ras had achieved. Although he was in favor of using violence to achieve specific goals, Mussolini was, at that time, attempting to portray Fascism as a stable and credible political force, and was concerned that the excessive brutality of many squads would undermine his plans. His solution was to formalize the status of the Fascis di Combattimento as an official political party.

When the Fascis di Combattimento was first formed, Mussolini deliberately avoided setting it up as an official political party for two reasons. First, Italy's recent political past had caused most Italians to become disillusioned with traditional party politics and the ineffectual parliaments that they consistently created. This persuaded Mussolini and the Central Committee to seek an alternative, less rigid, vehicle for their policies. Secondly, an unofficial and flexible nature of the organization had been able to attract disaffected members from other political persuasions, which allowed Mussolini to present Fascism as an inclusive and holistic political movement. With this achieved, and with the ras now threatening his position, Mussolini convened a meeting of the Fascist Constitutional Congress in Rome and, after some shrewd negotiations, successfully pushed through his plan to envelop the Fascist movement within an organized political party, the National Fascist Party (PNF). With Mussolini at the helm, the PNF rapidly attracted mass support from all sections of Italian society and, in particular, the armed forces. There was also an underlying sense of cooperation between the fascists and those in political authority, which led to many of the squadristi attacks on socialists going unpunished, even quietly applauded by those with business interests. This newly found acceptance of Fascism was further enhanced when the Prime Minister, Giovanni Giolitti (1842–1928), invited Mussolini and the PNF to join the nationalist electoral coalition, which allowed them to compete in the May 1921 General Election as a respectable, parliamentary–style party. As a result, the PNF won thirty–five seats in the Chamber of Deputies (Italian parliament), providing them with a great deal of political influence and, more importantly, the appearance of a constitutionally respectable political party. At the end of 1920 the Fascis di Combattimento and its associated fascist movements had a total membership of just over 20,000, but by December 1921 the PNF had boosted this to almost 250,000. After centuries of intellectual and political development, Fascist ideology had finally secured itself a stable, organized, and united political base; a powerful, charismatic, and politically astute leader; and an increasing body of electoral support comprising a cross section of society. For the first time, Fascism appeared to be on the threshold of political power.

Fascists Gain Control

Throughout 1922 Italy suffered continued political and economic instability, culminating in a general strike which threatened to cripple the Italian economy and invoke considerable public unrest. Mussolini seized on this as the opportunity to strike at the heart of the weak, divided government and secure Fascist control of Italy. In a carefully prepared exhibition of strength and showmanship, Mussolini and the PNF threatened to overthrow the existing regime by dispatching Fascist squads to simultaneously occupy key sites and buildings in all the major cities, while Mussolini, at the head of 30,000 squadristi, led the "March on Rome." However, on the morning of October 28, 1922, the date set for the threatened coup, King Victor Emmanuel III (1869–1947) struck a deal with the Fascists and, instead of his proposed march into Rome, Mussolini arrived at the royal palace by train on October 30, 1922 and was duly appointed the youngest prime minister in Italian history.

The Fascist regime that took control of Italy that day would remain in power for more than two decades, and throughout that time, as the regime sought to consolidate its authority and achieve its vision of a powerful, regenerated Italy, the underlying Fascist ideology underwent considerable evolution. Its vision of a new dawn, where the Fascist state would provide strong leadership, economic and social development, and a renewed sense of national pride was replaced by the nightmare of human tragedy and inhuman atrocities which were carried out in the name of fascism. When that evil chapter of history was finally brought to a close in 1945, Italy's Fascist regime had been removed from power and Mussolini had, for a time, been installed as a Nazi puppet ruler in northern Italy, before being captured and shot by Italian partisans on April 28, 1945. In effect, Italian Fascism became a victim of its own success. The theories and achievements of the PNF between 1922 and 1936 became the model for subsequent fascist movements and Mussolini's charismatic style inspired future Fascist leaders. Unfortunately, one of those movements was Nazism, and one of those leaders was Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), and due to a favorable combination of circumstances, fascism was able to assume a far greater degree of unchecked power and dominance in Germany than it had done in Italy.

Fascism's Development in Germany

Although German fascism had been greatly influenced by its Italian counterpart, its origins and development were firmly rooted in German history. The aftereffects of World War I were particularly embarrassing for a nation with such a proud military past as Germany, especially the humiliating conditions imposed on them by the Treaty of Versailles. In addition, post–war problems such as massive unemployment and crippling inflation placed the ruling Weimar Republic under increasing pressure from both left and right. The political opposition to the democratic leadership was comprised of two totalitarian parties, the Communist party and the misleadingly named National Socialist German Workers' Party, more commonly known as the Nazi Party. Far from being socialist, Nazism encapsulated, in theory and in practice, the most extreme of fascist doctrines, with an ideology based upon oppression, racism, violence, and inhumanity.

By 1923, the economic and social crisis in Germany had virtually destroyed the authority of the democratic Weimar government and, on November 8, the Nazis organized an unsuccessful attempt to gain power. Under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, the Nazis and 600 armed storm troopers raided a Munich beer hall, in which several leading government figures were addressing a public meeting. However, the Nazis' military and popular support was insufficient to succeed with their coup d'etat and, following a violent clash with armed police, Hitler was arrested and subsequently sentenced to five years in prison. He served only nine months in Landsberg Prison, and it was during this time that Hitler formulated and dictated his book Mein Kampf ("My Struggle"). Upon his release from Landsberg, Hitler discovered that economic conditions had improved, resulting in an increased air of confidence in the democratic leadership and a sharp decline in popular support for fascism. Hitler and his associates, presumably heeding the lesson learned in Munich, acknowledged that the time was not right and quietly set about rebuilding and reorganizing the party. It was not until the national election of 1930 that they achieved any notable electoral victories, their cause aided by Germany having almost been brought to its knees by the economic crisis and crippling unemployment that resulted from the Depression that swept over Europe and the United States.


Mein Kampf

Adolf Hitler composed Mein Kampf (My Struggle) while in Landsberg Prison for his part in the unsuccessful attempt to seize power from the Weimar government in 1923. Later to become the bible of Nazism, and a major influence on fascist movements everywhere, Mein Kampf was a powerful compilation of fascist theory, propaganda techniques, racist thought, and plans for the creation of the Third Reich, which Hitler declared would first conquer Germany and then Europe as it embarked upon its one–thousand–year reign.

Originally titled Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice, Mein Kampf was not "written" in the conventional sense, but was dictated by Hitler to his fellow inmate and confidante, Rudolph Hess (1894–1987). In his book, Hitler declared the racial superiority of the German people, warned of the threat posed by the Jews, communists, and liberalism, and explained the need for a strong, authoritarian state which was willing to use war to achieve military and economic greatness for Germany. It outlines, in great detail, his belief in Aryan supremacy, anti–Semitism and the importance of conquering those who do not recognize their racial inferiority to the German race. Mein Kampf also specified the military conquests that Hitler would later attempt in order to expand the German nation and described the fates of those who were conquered.

Published in 1925, Mein Kampf initially attracted little interest from the public, due in part to its length and the labored style of its writing. However, upon Hitler's ascension to Chancellor, and ultimately Führer, its popularity soared and millions of copies were sold. Although rarely read from cover to cover, the majority of German households possessed a copy of Mein Kampf, as did followers of fascism everywhere, and the influence it exerted is evidenced by the devastating events that followed.

In the years between 1925 and 1929 Hitler reinforced his position as the Führer, or irrefutable leader, of the Nazi party and continued to develop the radical fascist doctrine which would shape the Third Reich. Hitler held dictatorial power over the party and set about creating a paramilitary wing, known as the Sturmabteilung (SA), drawing recruits from the unemployed, criminals, and down–and–outs of Bavaria. This period also witnessed important changes in the functions of the Schutzstaffel (SS) who were originally formed to act as bodyguards for Hitler but, under the guidance of Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945) assumed responsibility for supervising and policing the party, and for ensuring that Hitler's patriotic propaganda was able to permeate every area of German society with little resistance. It was becoming apparent that German fascism intended to control all aspects of national life, yet its proposals to restore Germany's economic and military pride proved extremely popular with the electorate, and seemed to instill the nation with a renewed sense of purpose. Therefore, when economic disaster struck again following the Depression, and the democratic Weimar Republic was unable to resolve the crisis, it was the Nazi Party's stable, unified appearance, its commitment to German rebirth, and its powerfully charismatic leader, which helped them become Europe's second fascist government. Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor on January 30, 1933, and the Third Reich began its twelve–year reign of terror and oppression, during which time its "achievements" included plunging Europe into a war which cost over thirty million lives.

The Third Reich, which had been created to reign for a thousand years, effectively ended with the suicide of its Führer on April 30, 1945 in Berlin, with the victorious Soviet troops only streets away. The triumph of the Allies in World War II and the deaths of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini effectively brought the era of fascist rule to a close. In an attempt to eradicate the memory of fascism in Europe, and to ensure that it could not rise from the rubble, the Allies banned Fascism in Italy and set up a program of de–Nazification and re–education for the German people. Fascism had to be seen to be punished, and in addition to the Nuremberg Trials of 1946, which imposed death sentences or incarceration on many of the surviving Nazi leaders across Europe, there was a desire for retribution, resulting in tens of thousands of fascists and fascist sympathizers being summarily executed. Germany, having come so close to conquering the rest of Europe, stood defeated and helpless as it was divided into the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) under the control of the Soviet Union, and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) which was initially controlled by the western Allies of Britain, France, and the United States. It would remain a divided nation, tainted by the shadow of Nazism, until its celebrated reunification in 1990.

Fascism In Other Countries

Outside of Germany and Italy, fascism was unable to convert its significant influence and public support into political power. Many regimes and movements were denied the political space in which to fully develop their fascist ideas, but did incorporate specific aspects of fascist theory into their doctrines, with varying degrees of success. Yet again it was the aftereffects of World War I, coupled with the rise to power of Mussolini and Hitler, that encouraged many of these movements to emerge and develop during the 1920s and 1930s. In Spain the fascist Falange Party, founded in 1933 by Ramiro Ledesma Ramos (1905–1936), wielded sufficient influence to become incorporated into General Francisco Franco's (1892–1975) regime, which emerged victorious from the Spanish Civil War in 1939. The Falange was later subordinated to Franco who, although the dictator of a brutal and totalitarian state which ruled until 1975, is more accurately described as being an authoritarian conservative rather than fascist. France had always possessed a strong sense of nationalism, so it came as no surprise that many fascist movements evolved from the extreme right of French politics. However, unlike Italy and Germany, French fascists formed and supported several movements, rather than focusing their energy and ideas into promoting a single, united fascist party. As a result, groups such as Le Faisceau ("The Fasces"), the Francistes, and the Croix de Feu ("Cross of Fire") (which was banned in the same year as its formation only to be reformed as the Parti Social Francais) each separately attracted a great deal of political and popular support, but no individual movement was able to amass a power base capable of threatening the political establishment. British fascism, in the form of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), was viewed as a novelty by the public, and posed no threat to the liberal democratic traditions. After its formation in 1932, the BUF and its founder Sir Oswald Mosley (1896–1980) attracted significant publicity, but a government ban on the wearing of paramilitary uniforms was enough to ensure the BUF's collapse. Despite differing in many respects, the movements that evolved in Spain, France, and Britain shared an ideology that mimicked that of Italian Fascism and sought to bring about change through the use of nationalist and militarist policy. However, in eastern and southern Europe, the path of fascist thought was following the route taken by Nazism, with the emphasis on racism and anti–Semitism.

The Iron Guard was a violent fascist movement in Romania that developed and promoted its ultra–nationalist and anti–Semitic beliefs from 1930 until its destruction by the Romanian army in 1944. In Hungary, the nationalist dictator Miklos Horthy de Nagybanya (1868–1957) ruled from 1920 and, when the country came under German control in 1944, the reins of power were handed to the radical fascist Arrow Cross Party, albeit only briefly. From 1932 onwards, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (1889–1970) established a dictatorial regime in Portugal, into which he incorporated many fascist characteristics such as the one–party state, a secret police force, and widespread propaganda. However, the virulent anti–fascist period that followed the defeat of Germany and Italy in 1945, and the disclosure of the atrocities that had been carried out in the name of fascism, ensured that any party or movement holding a similar ideology came to be viewed with a mixture of loathing, fear and suspicion. Even those regimes who remained in power after the war, such as in Spain and Portugal, diffused their fascist traits and adopted a style more akin to authoritarianism than totalitarianism. It appeared that fascism had not only been discredited, but any movement acquiring the label of "fascist" became instinctively despised and relegated to an existence on the most extreme of political fringes.

Political Landscapes Change

The socioeconomic recovery after 1945 removed many of the conditions that had been such a major factor in the rise and advance of fascism, and the consensus among historians was that fascism had simply been a phenomenon of the inter–war years, a case of a political movement being in the right place at the right time. What no one could foresee was the rapidity with which the world's political landscape would change. Within a few years of their united triumph, the wartime Allies became absorbed in their own ideological battle, the Cold War, and the eradication of fascism was no longer their priority. The superpowers' preoccupation with each other allowed fascists the political space to regroup, develop new ideas and strategies, and emerge as a significant influence in many European countries. The first instance of this re–emergence, known as neo–fascism, occurred as early as December 1946, when former members of Mussolini's regime developed the Italian Social Movement (MSI) which, in the 1948 general election, secured six seats in the Chamber of Deputies. At around the same time, in Germany, the link with fascism was maintained, firstly by the Socialist Reich Party (SRP), and then by the National Democratic Party (NDP) which continued to promote its extreme nationalistic views into the 1980s. In recent years many neo–fascist movements have infiltrated extreme right–wing groups in an effort to gain wider support and increased influence. Front National, under the leadership of Jean–Marie Le Pen (1929–), executed this tactic so successfully that they established themselves as a legitimate third party in French politics, obtaining widespread support for their fascist program, in particular their anti–immigration policy. In Italy, Gianfranco Fini (1951–) guided the National Alliance (AN) into a coalition government in 1994 and two years later Fini had become Italy's most popular politician. This trend in the upsurge of neo– fascism has been mirrored in many countries, as witnessed by a widespread increase in extreme nationalist groups and racial violence against ethnic minorities, immigrants, and asylum seekers. Although racism and fascism are not synonymous, many of these movements do possess a core fascist ideology, based on promoting national identity and pride, and on singling out racial scapegoats for any social and economic difficulties. To reach its political pinnacle, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini required the political and economic instability that arrived in the wake of World War I, and unnerving comparisons may be made with the horrifying policy of "ethnic cleansing" that was carried out following the collapse of the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s. Fascism, as an identifiable political theory, has existed for less than a century, yet the violence, murder, and brutality for which it is already held directly responsible make it essential that close study is made of its causes and its future development. In the words of Primo Levi (1919–1987), a writer, chemist, and survivor of Auschwitz, from his work, If This Is a Man: "We cannot understand it, but we can and must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again."


Although strands of fascist ideology had been evolving throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was the First World War and the destruction left in its wake, that proved to be the active catalyst that fused these fragmented ideas into a coherent and powerful political theory. In most countries this emerging philosophy was confined to several extreme nationalist movements, which existed on the political fringes, and in a few others it exerted varying degrees of limited influence within major political parties. However, within a handful of countries, where socio–economic crisis was combined with strongly held national traditions, disillusionment with the existing leadership, and the emergence of an inspirational figurehead, the core components of fascist ideology were adopted to develop a radical and powerful political system. The unrestricted power enjoyed by fascist regimes, and the illiberal policies they introduced, while ultimately remembered for the mass atrocities to which they led, also reshaped their societies, resulting in the majority of their citizens enduring an everyday life which came to be dominated by oppression, fear, and violence. However, such was the appeal of the fascist philosophy and propaganda that, in Germany and Italy in particular, the majority of people were willing to sacrifice their individual freedoms and ambitions for the greater good of their nation.


The ability to convince each individual that the nation belonged to them, and that they in turn belonged to the nation, was one of the doctrines which lay at the heart of the fascist political system. In fact, it could be argued that this is the central tenet of fascist ideology. Fascist philosophy is anti–liberal, in that it views the nation as the most important political and social unit, and that the individual's value is measured only by the extent to which he contributes towards the well–being and success of the national community. In all fascist writings and speeches, the recurrent message is one of national rejuvenation, rebirth, or regeneration, and it is this belief in organicism—that a nation is an entity in its own right, an organism that can decay or be revitalized—that instilled in a nation's people a sense of duty to protect and nurture their nation, irrespective of the cost to themselves. This "illiberal nationalism" exploited the basic human desire to conform and belong, and provided individuals with a sense of importance and purpose, believing that they would be the generation that would restore the nation to its rightful place of prominence and glory. This type of nationalism breeds powerful emotions and feelings of kinship between those who view themselves as being ethnically and culturally united in their endeavors, but inevitably generates equally intense feelings of hostility and distrust towards those considered as outsiders. Therefore, racism was an inherent factor of fascist ideology, and although this did not necessarily have to result in the persecution of specific groups or races, unfortunately, that is exactly what happened in the countries where fascism was able to gain political control. In Germany, the Nazis systematically victimized and murdered countless Jews, Gypsies, blacks, homosexuals, and anyone who did not conform to the fascist regime's definition of "ethnically pure" was subjected to abuse, oppression, and violence, not only from the authorities, but also from within the community, including their neighbors, work colleagues, and even those whom they had considered as friends. In Italy the Fascist regime conducted a less extreme campaign of propaganda and violence aimed, more generally, at persuading all immigrants and foreigners to return to their own nations.

The extreme nationalism contained in fascist ideology was at the core of its main aim, that of creating a "new order." This was the term used by fascists to describe their vision of how they would implement their doctrines and values in order to transform society. Regardless of how the theory and practice of fascism varied from regime to regime, and from country to country, the total commitment to establishing some form of "new order." was inherent to all. The typical fascist view, most notably implemented within Italy, was that the creation of the new order, and the new Fascist man which it would cultivate, should be an inclusive process, instilling into as many of its citizens as possible strong feelings of national pride and a desire to work together towards restoring their nation to a position of greatness. Unfortunately, both for its own people and for the world at large, the Nazi regime took a very different approach towards creating the "new" Germany, and enforced programs and policies that went far beyond the basic fascist premise of asserting national virtues, traditions, and superiority.


The Nazi model of fascism was contaminated by a pseudo–scientific component, developed from the theory of Social Darwinism, which was used to promote and justify its overtly racist, anti–Semitic, and morally reprehensible policies. Although Charles Darwin's (1809–1882) principle of "survival of the fittest" had long been a recurrent theme in fascist theory, the Nazi regime replaced natural selection with their own criteria for deciding who was, or was not, fit to survive within their "new order." Society in fascist Germany therefore became multi–layered, with the regime and its agencies at the pinnacle, followed closely by all individuals who were considered to be racially pure (that is, Aryan) and who enjoyed the social and financial rewards which this status bestowed. However, for those who were placed lower down this discriminatory hierarchy there was no inclusion into the proud national community, only the misery of continual oppression, persecution, and terror. The most appalling and barbaric treatment was reserved for those unfortunates who found themselves in the lowest classification and whom, not only the fascist regime but also many of the German people, considered to be sub–human. This ill–fated group, including Jews, Gypsies, and the mentally handicapped, among others, were so despised that they were commonly labeled "the useless eaters." By use of indoctrination, which was an another important facet of all fascist movements, this depersonalization of the nation's "internal enemies" was accepted by the public who, either through fear or through consensus, condoned the systematic abuse, torture, and murder of countless innocents, whose only crime was to differ racially, culturally, or physically from the fascist blueprint of the "new man."

Bringing About a "New Order"

In order to successfully implement the societal changes necessary for the creation of a "new order," fascism relied heavily on its commitment to a strong, authoritarian state and to the widespread use of indoctrination and propaganda. Both of these factors were mutually advantageous, the propaganda helping to ensure the continued dominance of the totalitarian regime, which in turn applied its absolute control over the lives of individuals to maximize the effectiveness of the indoctrination. Fascism has often been accused of containing more style than substance, yet its mastery of propaganda techniques and its skill in the art of political theater provided it with a greater mandate for the implementation of its policies than most other ideologies could ever hope for. The techniques employed by fascism, to ensure public conformity and to inspire enthusiasm for the creation of a "new order," were highly sophisticated, both in their conception and their execution.

Drawing on psychological theories, such as Gustave Le Bon's (1841–1931) study of crowd behavior, and the primitive, but highly persuasive, effects of symbolism and tradition, fascism was able to convert vast numbers of people to its ideals and values without having to present a rational and coherent body of ideas. Instead, it spawned charismatic leaders who commanded total obedience and assumed grandiose titles, such as Führer and Il Duce, thereby acquiring an air of infallibility. To cultivate this sense of hero–worship towards its leadership, fascism was responsible for the introduction into politics of stage–managed public appearances and carefully written speeches which contained powerfully emotive slogans and "catchphrases" designed to reinforce national unity and support for the state, while imploring every individual to offer greater sacrifice and effort in the struggle to achieve a "new order." The success of this approach was assisted by programs of indoctrination, which permeated every section of society through the education system, youth groups, the workplace, the frequent public mass rallies, and the extensive presence of fascist symbolism. State control of the media provided fascism with yet another valuable method of exerting its influence, and it made full use of the opportunity by transmitting powerful propaganda films and radio shows, and ensuring strict pro–fascist censorship of the press. From dawn until dusk, those who lived under the power of fascism found that every activity involved in their daily life was, in some way, influenced or controlled by fascist ideology and policies. Many willingly welcomed this as being necessary for the eventual success of their nation, while others, who were less committed to the values of the regime or the concept of a "new order," accepted it, though rather less eagerly.

Then there were those who were not persuaded by the propaganda, and refused to accept fascist authoritarianism, whether on political, moral, or racial grounds, and opposed it, either openly or within their private circles. Fascism, however, was eventually well prepared for this with state controlled secret police and an extensive network of official and unofficial informants enabling it to suppress most incidents of opposition by means of fear and violence. The secret police organizations, such as the SS and the Gestapo in Germany, had full access to an individual's private life, and they were quick to assault, imprison, or even murder, anyone who dared to denounce the regime or its leadership. It was a fearful and lonely existence for those who opposed fascism and for those not considered worthy of inclusion into the "new order," as most citizens supported and obeyed the leadership and would readily report any acts of disobedience or denunciation. There were frequent instances of teachers informing on their students and traders reporting on their customers, but what illustrated the immense control that fascism exerted over its subjects was the distressing number of dissenters who were reported by friends, neighbors, and, in some cases, their own families. This coercion proved successful in suppressing a great deal of the resistance to fascist policies, although it also made it impossible to accurately assess the levels of dissent that existed. Did the majority of German and Italian people genuinely support their fascist regimes, as some commentators profess, or were they merely reluctant to oppose it for fear of the terrifying consequences?

Eliminating Opposition

Fascism's commitment to eliminating all opposition was only one manifestation of its intense hostility towards all forms of liberalism. The fascist state was a rejection of all that liberal democracy stands for, and involved the abolition of the principles of pluralism, individualism, parliamentary democracy, and the concept of natural rights. The centralized, single– party state was the foundation on which fascism sought to rebuild the "new order" and, within this reorganized society, there was no place for opposition parties or democratic elections. All other political parties were banned, and in the case of the Communists and Socialists, many of their members were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Fascism had long held a deep–rooted hatred and fear of communism, as exemplified by this comment, made by Heinrich Himmler, the man who led the SS, during a lecture to his officers in 1937: "We must be clear about the fact that Bolshevism is the organization of sub–humanity, is the absolute underpinning of Jewish rule, is the absolute opposite of everything worthwhile, valuable and dear to an Aryan nation." Yet, without communism, it is unlikely that fascism would ever have gained political power in either Germany or Italy, as it was the fear of the threatened spread of Bolshevism from post–revolutionary Russia, westward into Europe, that increased the electoral support for fascist movements. Many people believed that fascism's strong authoritarian and militarist approach was their nation's prime hope of protection. The electorate were proved correct and fascism emphatically extinguished any threat posed by those on the political left, and continued this violent persecution throughout the duration of their dominance. Yet, beneath the intense hostility, fascism and Communism shared a common ideological enemy—Capitalism—and it was this opposition to both Communism and Capitalism that has seen fascism sometimes referred to as the "Third Way."

Third Way

This "Third Way" was most apparent in the economic thought and policies of fascist regimes which, although exhibiting slight variations, tended to follow a similar model, that of corporatism. Unlike Marxist theory, fascism did not concur with the belief that class antagonism was the primary agent of social change, neither did it agree with the capitalist emphasis on economic motives as the basis of a nation's success. Fascist theory sought to eliminate class conflict and bring about social change by creating a national unity based on the shared values of language, culture, race, and tradition, and by glorifying traits such as heroism, bravery, and strength, rather than materialism. It allowed the ownership of private property, and developed its economic policy along the lines of a partnership between the owners, the workers and the state, through the setting up of syndicates and corporations. In practice the workers interests were given low priority and they received little support from their unions, which had become state–run organizations following the abolition of all free trade unions, while the employers were rewarded with the granting of state investment and government contracts. Notwithstanding this unsuccessful attempt at corporatism, fascism possessed no stable or coherent economic policy, but instead relied on a series of temporary, short–term measures, while state intervention continued to escalate, as fascist economies increasingly relied on the work provided by their rearmament policies. War, therefore, was not only an important political and ideological factor of fascism, but was also crucial economically.

In economic matters, as in many others, fascism displayed its tendency towards male chauvinism. With the ideology's emphasis on war, strength, and heroism, it followed that women were relegated to the role of home–maker and mother of the nation's future workers and warriors. Germany, in particular, adopted an extremely repressive attitude towards women, excluding them from all leading positions within the party and prohibiting them from becoming judges or public prosecutors. After 1933, the regime extended these restrictions and dismissed many married female doctors, teachers, and civil servants to concentrate on, what Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945) described in 1934 as "the task of being beautiful and bringing children into the world."


Militarism and fascism are often considered to be synonymous, which is unsurprising considering the events and atrocities for which their unholy alliance will forever be remembered. To fascists, military strength and victory in battle lay at the very core of their personal and national identity. It encapsulated the ideals and virtues which they glorified above all others, and would ultimately, in their opinion, lead to the successful creation of an heroic "new order." Only through war, against internal and external "enemies," could fascism assert its core values and ensure continued public support as it strove to achieve its ideological goals. All fascists agreed with Mussolini's view that war was inevitable and often preferable, and believed that the annexation of weaker nations by the strong, to form powerful empires, was the highest form of human development. In addition, the military values of patriotism, unity, and discipline could equally be applied to fascism, and military symbolism was widespread in fascist societies. By putting them into uniform and involving them in organized movements, fascism gave individuals a sense of belonging, and reinforced the belief in a national cause that was of far greater importance than their individual lives.

Fascist foreign policy, therefore, tended to be extremely aggressive, driven by the desire to expand their territory and assert the superiority of their nation. In Italy, where Mussolini was aware that his army had serious weaknesses, they used shows of military strength as a means of manipulating public opinion, whereas the German fascists possessed the capability and the conviction to expand their "new order" throughout Europe, and were ruthless in pursuit of their goal. The consequence of this determination to create a great and glorious Germanic empire was the attempted genocide of the Jewish race, a barbaric program of ethnic cleansing and racial war, and the brutal butchery of over 30 million soldiers and civilians in World War II. That fascism came so close to succeeding in its mission is terrifying to contemplate, especially when considering that this destruction was only the first phase in the blueprint of the "new order." Subsequent plans for fascist domination included the deportation of millions of Slavs to Siberia to provide the German people with increased Lebensraum (living space), and the extension of the fascist model of Social Darwinism to include the areas of health and social welfare, the level of assistance to be determined on the grounds of race and fitness. Although the Allied victory in 1945 successfully halted these developments, the extent of public acceptance and support for such abhorrent policies served to illustrate the ever–present danger of underestimating the influence and appeal of fascist theory.

Although the end of World War II saw the defeat of fascism's political power and the widespread condemnation of its illiberal and racial theories, it has continued to exist as a political undercurrent, as numerous groups have modernized and adapted its ideology in an effort to revive its popularity. Unlike the movements of the inter–war years, neo–fascism and neo–Nazism has to compete with a relatively stable, liberal democratic Europe, not one that is in political and economic crisis. So, although the fundamental ideology remains the same as it was before 1945, neo–fascists have had to repackage their ideas and promote them in a far subtler manner than their predecessors. This often involves the infiltration of mainstream political parties and movements, especially those on the extreme right, where they attempt to introduce their nationalist and racial values into areas such as anti–immigration policy and the issue of asylum seekers. Fascism has become a marginalized and fragmented movement, which has, in general, lay dormant since its military defeat in the Second World War, but as the campaign of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s illustrates, if given the correct political or economic stage, fascism will be waiting in the wings.


The failure of many democratic governments to effectively tackle the political, social, and economic consequences of World War I, the Great Depression, and the perceived threat from the spread of communism fueled the creation and development of fascist movements throughout the world. The Falange Espanola in Spain, the Iron Guard in Romania, and the Arrow Cross Party in Hungary all shared many of the fascist doctrines and displayed much of its political style. In one of Europe's most well established and advanced democracies, that of France, it was estimated that, in 1934, almost 370,000 people were members of the various French fascist movements and, in Britain, support for Oswald Mosley's BUF was sufficient to bring about a government ban on the wearing of paramilitary uniforms. Yet, despite this widespread influence and depth of support, fascist ideology only managed to manifest itself in the form of a truly fascist government in two countries, Italy and Germany, and the era of its dominance would last only twenty–three years.

Fascist Italy

The "March on Rome" in October 1922 was a demonstration rather than a glorious bid for power, but it resulted in King Emmanuel III inviting Mussolini and his party to form the world's first Fascist government. It was a relatively smooth takeover and, due to the limitations on their power invoked by a coalition government, the Fascists made very few changes to the Italian state in the first three years. Upon becoming prime minister, Mussolini successfully secured a parliamentary vote allowing him to rule by decree for a year. It was during this time that he established the Fascist Grand Council, a forum with the official function of coordinating the activities of the party and the government, but which Mussolini intended to eventually supercede the parliament as the center of power. The gradual move towards absolute control continued with the introduction in 1923 of the Acerbo Law which granted two–thirds of parliamentary seats to any party that obtained a majority of the vote in a general election providing they had polled at least 25 percent of the total votes. Mussolini and the PNF duly obtained control of two–thirds of parliament at the next general election, in April 1924 and, with Fascist membership having spiraled from 300,000 in 1922 to 783,000 by the time of the general election, the initial limitations to Fascist power were disappearing. Having already outlawed the Communist Party, immediately after taking office in 1922, Mussolini then abolished what little remained of the socialists and trade unions after their crushing electoral defeat, before introducing further measures designed to increase the authority of the PNF within the parliament, and to strengthen his position as Il Duce.

The year 1925 witnessed the creation of two major agencies of state control. First of all, Mussolini, in order to maintain control over the blackshirted squadristi, incorporated them into the Fascist Voluntary National Militia (MVSM), a paramilitary force whose main function was the violent oppression of left–wing opposition, but who also assisted in the theater of Fascist politics by performing in ceremonial events. Shortly afterward, in response to several assassination attempts on his life, Mussolini created a state–controlled secret police force, the OVRA, who were responsible for monitoring Italian society for evidence of dissenters, who were then tried by the Special Tribunal for the Defense of the State. Although this illustrated the repressive nature of the Fascist state, the vast majority of dissidents were sentenced to exile, with relatively few being incarcerated and even less condemned to death. Unlike the Nazi regime which would later gain power in Germany, the development of the centralized fascist state in Italy was based more on acceptance than it was on fear and, except in the case of left–wing political opposition, there remained a degree of toleration of criticism and dissent.


Benito Mussolini

The founder and leader (Il Duce) of Italian Fascism, Mussolini was born in Predappio, Romagna, on June 29, 1883, the son of Alessandra, a blacksmith, and Rosa, a schoolteacher. Following in his father's footsteps, Mussolini joined the Socialist party in 1900 then entered his mother's profession by qualifying as a schoolmaster in 1901. In 1910 he became secretary of the local Socialist party in Forli, and his reputation as a prominent socialist was further enhanced the following year when he was jailed for his opposition to the war that Italy had declared on Turkey. Upon his release, Mussolini was appointed editor of Avanti!, the Socialist newspaper based in Milan, establishing him as one of Italy's leading socialist activists.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Mussolini denounced it as "imperialist" and argued for Italian neutrality, even threatening to lead a proletarian revolution if the Italian government took the decision to fight. Within a few months, however, he had totally reversed his position, and called for Italian intervention on the side of the Allies, resulting in his expulsion from the Socialist party. On November 15, 1914 he founded his own newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia (The People of Italy), in which he expounded his support for the war, and introduced the embryonic ideology of the Fascist movement.

He formed the Fasci di Combattimento in March 1919 and, with the support of industrialists and landowners who saw him as their protection against communism, he entered the Chamber of Deputies in 1921. Following the fascists' symbolic "March on Rome," King Victor Emmanuel III, invited Mussolini and his now formalized Fascist Party (Partito Nazionale Fascista), to form a government on October 30, 1922. Mussolini had become the youngest prime minister in Italian history and quickly became the most powerful.

He linked Italy to Nazi Germany with the Rome–Berlin Axis in 1936, closely followed by the "Pact of Steel" in 1939, and committed the military of Italy to the Nazi war effort in 1940. After many Italian defeats, a meeting of the Grand Fascist Council was called on July 25, 1943, and Mussolini's colleagues turned against him. King Victor Emmanuel III first dismissed him from power, then had him arrested.

Rescued by German parachutists in September 1943, Mussolini set up a puppet regime, under the control of Nazi Germany, in the Republic of Salo in northern Italy, where he "ruled" until April 1945. As the Allies approached Milan, Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, attempted to flee into Switzerland, but were discovered at a roadblock near Lake Como. On April 28, 1945, Mussolini was shot by his Italian partisan captors, and his body was strung up publicly in Milan.

By 1930, most of the political opposition had stood down or been abolished, and Italy had become a single–party state, with Mussolini at the helm. To fortify his position as Il Duce, Mussolini granted additional powers to the Fascist Grand Council, and any members of the PNF who were perceived as a threat were removed and replaced by impressionable sycophants. However, throughout his reign, Mussolini's authority over the state was limited by the country's economic weakness, his reliance on the backing of the king and his political advisers, and the need for continual compromise with the existing establishment. Although he overcame these constraints in creating a dictatorship, he was never able to achieve the level of absolute power and control which was later to be enjoyed by Hitler in Germany. To ensure his continued supremacy, and to advance the implementation of Fascist policies, Mussolini therefore had to rely more on the force of persuasion than on the power of coercion. In his development of propaganda techniques and

political theater, Mussolini created what was to become a familiar pattern for subsequent dictatorships, elements of which have evolved to become incorporated and accepted into most areas of modern mainstream politics.

Il Duce

An extremely charismatic leader who was highly skilled in the use of propaganda, Mussolini ran most of the important government offices himself and made use of any opportunity to reinforce his revered public image. Such was the importance he placed on public persuasion and manipulation that, in 1935, he set up an official governmental ministry for the promotion and development of propaganda. Influenced by Gustave Le Bon's theories of crowd psychology and Friedrich Nietzsche's (1844–1900) belief in the "will to power" and the Ubermensch (overman or superman), Mussolini displayed a charismatic style and dynamism that proved a convincing advertisement for his rejuvenation of Italy. Mass rallies, orchestrated military displays, the renaming of Labor Day to Birth of Rome Day, and the resetting of 1922 to Anno Primo (Year One) all instilled the Italian people with the belief that their nation was destined to return to the glorious days of the Roman Empire.

On a smaller but no less significant scale, Mussolini placed great emphasis on his personal image in order to elevate his status as Il Duce to that of an all–powerful and all–knowing ruler of his people. Every public appearance was carefully choreographed to ensure his physical appearance and gestures were appropriate for each specific situation, and experts were employed to ensure the correct use of setting, lighting and music, especially for photographs, which were invariably taken from below to disguise his diminutive stature.

Fascism Permeates Life

Throughout Italian society the ideology and symbols of Fascism were inescapable. It appeared that almost every official, from local to government, wore a different uniform each day, and all street corners were clothed in nationalist images and the painting of Fascist slogans. The teaching of Fascist values and ideals and the promotion of the qualities required to create the new Italy invaded all aspects of daily life—in schools, at work, in leisure pursuits, in the press, and in the media. The principal target of manipulative policies were the young, who embodied the desired Fascist attributes of strength, energy, and loyalty, and they were exposed to indoctrination, not only in school but also in the Fascist promotion of sport and physical fitness, and in political youth organizations, such as "Little Italian Girls" and "The Sons of the She Wolf." For these groups, the focus was on cultivating the importance of militarism and conformity, with boys as young as seven receiving training in military drill and gun skills, and the program's popularity resulted in over five million young members by the 1930s. Sport also played an important role in the advancement of Fascist propaganda with its wide appeal, its ability to divert the public's attention from other matters, and its manifestation of Fascist belief in national pride and a sense of belonging. These sentiments were echoed in the media, who were tightly controlled and prohibited from printing or broadcasting anything which the Fascist censors considered would shed a poor light on the image of either Mussolini or his regime.

One area of policy that could not disguise its consequences with censorship or propaganda was the complex relationship that existed between the Fascist regime and the economy. Initially, the inconsistent economic and social policies introduced by Mussolini failed to address the deep–rooted crisis that consumed Italy in the aftermath of World War I. The continual rise of unemployment was exacerbated by the Fascists' unsuccessful attempts to manipulate the value of the lire, which they carried out in the hope of improving their economic competitiveness. The arrival of the international depression in 1929 deepened Italy's problems and, by 1932, wages had halved in real terms, becoming the lowest in western Europe. Although Mussolini readily acknowledged the drop in the Italian standard of living under Fascism, his response of "fortunately, the Italian people were not used to eating much and therefore feel the privation less acutely than others" did not fill his supporters with any measure of confidence.

The decision amongst the PNF was for an increase in government intervention, with the immediate result that strikes became illegal, and in exchange employers were forced to offer improved wages and conditions to their workers. Italy then moved towards becoming a corporate state, in which each industry came under the control of a corporation consisting of representatives of employers, workers, and government officials, though ultimately these corporations were under the control of Mussolini. In practice, the labor force received very little consideration and the state effectively stepped back and encouraged employers to manage their own affairs, the only apparent measure of intervention occurring when the state rewarded big business with state investment and government contracts.

There then followed a period of consolidation, during which measures introduced by the Fascist Regime—such as the "Battle for Grain," in which offering farmers incentives to increase production ensured almost total self–sufficiency in wheat production—created substantial improvements in the country's economic and social conditions. Mussolini also introduced a vast program of public works, under which the Pontine Marshes were drained, public buildings were improved, ancient monuments were restored, and hydro–electric power was developed to counterbalance Italy's lack of coal and oil. This phase of Fascism also witnessed the creation of the autostrada (motor ways), and the improvements he made to the railways and airlines gave rise to the myth that Mussolini's power was so great that he could even make the trains run on time.

Italian Foreign Policy

One of the most significant and enduring legacies of Italian Fascism was Mussolini's signing of the Lateran Treaties with Pope Pius XI (1857–1939) in 1929. This gave official recognition of the Vatican as an independent state and confirmed Catholicism as the state religion, in the process bringing to an end a half–century of discord between the state and the Church. These successes, and the growing confidence that they instilled in Mussolini's regime, led to the development of an aggressive foreign policy, beginning with the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and culminating in the "Pact of Steel," signed in 1939 to cement the alliance between Italy and Nazi Germany.

Militarism, and the belief that war was essential to the creation of the new order, was a central element of Italian Fascist ideology and figured highly in Mussolini's plans from the moment he secured power. He temporarily seized the Greek island of Corfu in 1923, but it was his invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935 that won him acclaim from within all sections of Italian society and inspired him to proclaim the beginning of the new Italian Empire. However, some of the barbarous methods employed to secure victory included chemical warfare and mass executions of native tribesmen, a radical departure from previous campaigns. Shortly afterwards, the sanctions imposed on Italy by the League of Nations, in response to Italian military aggression, led to Mussolini forging closer links with Germany, who had stood by Italy over the Ethiopian invasion. The "brutal friendship" was affirmed by the signing of the Rome–Berlin Axis in 1936 and later tightened by the "Pact of Steel" in 1939. Both countries joined in supporting Francisco Franco's nationalist revolt in the Spanish Civil War and, as the specter of World War II rapidly approached, it was apparent that Mussolini and Italian Fascism were becoming increasingly influenced by the ruthlessness and success of Nazism.

Adopting Hitler's belief in its purely nationalistic nature, Mussolini curtailed his promotion of "universal fascism," in which he had invested a considerable amount of capital and effort to encourage foreign forms of fascism, including the British Union of Fascists. Of greater concern to the Italian people, and to governments throughout Europe, was the introduction, in 1938, of anti–Semitic laws into official Italian policy. Until this development, anti–Semitism had no place in Italian Fascism, with the PNF including a number of Jews among their membership, and its introduction proved unpopular throughout Italian society and provoked opposition from many organizations, including the Vatican. By the time the Second World War broke out, a great deal of division existed within Italy—and within the PNF—over the association with Germany, and cracks began to appear in Il Duce's veneer of invincibility.

World War II

When war broke out in September 1939, Mussolini, who was fully aware of his country's military weakness, initially reneged on the "Pact of Steel" because he had previously informed Hitler that Italy would not be prepared for war before 1942. This declaration of neutrality only lasted until June 1940 when Mussolini, exhibiting his capacity for opportunism, sensed that a German victory was imminent and feared missing out on a share of the spoils. Still harboring hopes of extending his Italian Empire into the Balkans and Africa, Mussolini's aspirations had outgrown his military capabilities and German forces had to come to the Italians' rescue, both in Albania and North Africa. For the remainder of the war, Italy tagged along as the weaker member of the Axis partnership, with Italy's interests becoming subordinate to those of Germany, resulting in the erosion of Mussolini's authority.

Support for the Fascist regime collapsed in the face of constant military defeats and, with the invasion of Sicily and southern Italy by the Allies in 1943, there was a rapid growth of partisan resistance throughout Italy, plunging the country into civil war. As a result, many of the Fascist Grand Council turned on their leader and, on July 25, 1943, King Victor Emmanuel III dismissed, then arrested, Mussolini, and surrendered Italy to the Allies. In an attempt to regain control over Italy, Hitler rescued Mussolini from imprisonment and installed him as the puppet ruler of a brutal Social Republic in the north of Italy. With the aid of the Black Brigades, which were the vicious secret police force controlled by the Nazi SS, Mussolini endeavored to recreate his original vision of a Fascist state, but his personal stature had now crumbled and there was a total lack of support for his philosophy. The demise of Il Duce and Italian Fascism reached a violent conclusion when, on April 28, 1945, while fleeing from the approaching Allies, Mussolini was captured and shot by Italian partisans, who then strung his body upside down in Milan as a powerful symbol of the death of Italian Fascism.

Fascist Government Rule in Germany

The only other fascist regime to assume the power of government was the National–sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist Party of German Workers), who became universally known as the Nazis. After rising to power through democratic means in January 1933, the party wasted no time in diminishing the authority of the Reichstag, and establishing the creation of a Nazi state. One month after the elections the parliament buildings were destroyed by fire and Communist agitators were accused of arson. Using this as vindication, the Communist and the Social Democratic parties were subject to mass attacks and violent suppression, with neither offering any resistance. By the time the Enabling Act was passed in March 1933, removing all legislative powers from the Reichstag and passing them to Hitler's Cabinet, all opposition parties had been abolished and it became a criminal act to even attempt the creation of any new party. The Enabling Act, which had effectively granted dictatorial powers to Hitler and signified the end of the German Weimar Republic, was reinforced in December 1933 with the passing of a further law, which declared the Nazi party "indissolubly joined to the state." Hitler's development of the Nazi state involved eliminating all working class and liberal democratic opposition, so he exploited the aftermath of the Reichstag fire not only for the suppression of the Communist and Social Democratic parties, but also for abolishing many constitutional and civil rights.

Thereafter, the Nazi party and the state became indistinguishable and Germany was under the control of a totalitarian regime. Party members who were of "pure" German blood and were over eighteen years of age were required to swear allegiance to the Führer after which, according to Reich law, they became answerable for their actions only in special Nazi Party courts. At its peak, the Nazi Party had an estimated membership of seven million and although the majority had willingly joined, a great many more were forced to join against their will, including many civil servants who were required to become members.


Adolf Hitler

The architect of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889 in Braunau on the River Inn, Austria. The son of an Austrian customs official, Hitler followed an undistinguished school career at Linz and Steyr, with an equally unremarkable spell as a would–be art student in Vienna. By 1914, he had cultivated a lifelong hatred for academics, Jews, and socialists, while his voracious reading had instilled him with a fervent belief in German nationalism and anti–Marxism.

Hitler moved to Munich and, on the outbreak of World War I, enlisted in a Bavarian regiment. Acting as a messenger between Regional and Company Headquarters on the Western front, he was wounded twice and received the Iron Cross for bravery in action. Germany's defeat, and the humiliating conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, reinforced Hitler's anti–Semitic and racist ideology, while strengthening his belief in the greatness of Germany and the virtue of war. In September 1919, Hitler joined and became the seventh member of the German Workers' Party, a group founded by Anton Drexler (1884–1942) in order to promote a nationalist program to workers. By 1920 the party had changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazis) and in July 1921, when Hitler became party chairman, its membership had increased to 3,000.

In November 1923 he made his first attempt to seize power when he tried to violently overthrow the Bavarian state government, in the Munich putsch, or bid for power. The attempt failed and Hitler received a five year jail sentence for treason.

Hitler contested the presidential election of April 1932, narrowly losing to the incumbent, Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934). However, the relentless growth of support for the Nazi party resulted in President Hindenburg appointing Hitler as chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. To national acclaim, Hitler pursued a policy of expanding German territory, an act which sparked the horrific death and destruction of World War II.

Throughout the war Hitler pursued his desire to build a "new order" in Europe, one that centered on the creation of a master Aryan race. Hitler's Final Solution to rid the world of the Jewish population was an event of such incomprehensible horror and inhumanity that it has left the German nation a legacy that will haunt them for generations to come.

Although he remained popular with the masses, one group of army officers and civilians, under the guidance of Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (1907– 1944), attempted to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 but failed, and paid with their lives. By then, however, the Allied forces were closing in and Hitler, who was deteriorating both physically and mentally, acknowledged defeat but planned to reduce Germany to rubble for failing him. At this final hour his lieutenants turned against him and refused to carry out his orders. On April 30, 1945 Hitler and his wife of a few hours, Eva Braun (1912–1945), committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, their bodies then being taken into the Chancellery gardens and burned.

As with Mussolini in Italy, Hitler's powerful personal charisma, aided by his meticulously organized public appearances and the saturation of everyday life

with Nazi symbols, posters, and indoctrination, established him as the infallible, hero–worshiped savior of the German people. Despite the fact that his repressive totalitarian regime had abolished many of their basic liberties, and that just about every area of their lives was pervaded and controlled by state police organizations, many of the German people responded with uncritical loyalty to their leader and a frightening willingness to obey all state–issued directives. The Nazification of German society was greatly assisted by the efforts of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda under the control of Joseph Goebbels, which was highly effective at promoting the Hitler regime as a "well–oiled Nazi machine," by means of mass rallies, military parades, and sophisticated manipulation and censorship of the media.

That being said, the ordinary German citizen still lived a relatively normal life—as long as that ordinary citizen didn't happen to be a Jew or a gypsy and didn't question the policies of the Nazi regime. Most people in Nazi Germany did not live in constant terror. Many had normal families, satisfying careers, and social lives closely resembling that of 1930s Americans. Author Walter Laqueur, in Fascism: Past, Present and Future, notes that people were "not told what games to play, what movies to watch, what ice cream to eat, or where to spend their holidays." In other words, a person could feel "free" as long as he kept his mouth shut and did not show much of an interest in politics. Conversely, if most people kept quiet and did not cause trouble, there was not really a need for the regime to risk agitating the populace by interfering in every aspect of life.

State agencies The principle auxiliary organization of the Nazi regime was the Brown Shirts or SA, often termed the "vanguard of National Socialism," whose functions included the official training of the German youth in the ideology of National Socialism. The SA was also responsible for the organization of the Nazi program against the Jews in 1938, and throughout World War II they ensured the indoctrination of the German army and coordinated the Reich's home defenses.

Another organization to prove crucial in maintaining state control was the SS, whose special combat divisions were invariably called upon to support the regular army in times of crisis. Assisted by the Sicherheitsdienst or SD, the espionage agency of the regime, the SS controlled the Nazi party in the latter years of the war, while the SD also operated the concentration camps for the victims of Nazi persecution. Other auxiliary agencies included the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth organization) who prepared teenage boys for membership within the party, and the Auslandsorganisation (Foreign Organization) who promoted propaganda and the formation of Nazi organizations among Germans abroad. However, the most brutal and oppressive of all the state agencies was the infamous Geheime Staatspolizei (secret state police), known as the Gestapo, which was formed in 1933 to suppress all opposition to Hitler's regime. Upon its official incorporation into the state, in 1936, the Gestapo was declared to be exempt from all legal restraints and was responsible only to its chief, Heinrich Himmler, and to Hitler.

By 1935 the last remnants of Germany's democratic structure were replaced by the Nazi centralized state. The Reichstag no longer performed any legislative functions, but was retained to be used for ceremonial purposes, and the autonomy which provincial governments had previously exerted had been removed and replaced with local governments which were nothing more than strictly controlled instruments of central government. The process of coordination (Gleichschaltung) ensured that all private organizations, such as business, education, culture, and agriculture were also subject to party direction and control. Not even the church escaped the pervasive domination of Nazi doctrines.

Economy Upon taking control of the German economy, the most pressing problem to face the party leadership was unemployment, which at that time was in the region of six and a half million. Included in this figure were large numbers of Nazi party members who rapidly became disillusioned when Hitler failed to fulfill his anti–capitalist pledge to put an end to large businesses and cartels and to rejuvenate German industry by promoting the extensive growth in small businesses. The party rank and file demanded a "second revolution" and Hitler was faced with a choice between appeasing the working classes or forging an alliance with Germany's industrialists. He decided on the latter course of action and, on the evening of June 30, 1934, which would come to be known as the Night of the Long Knives he issued orders for the SS to assassinate members of the SA, a group who had a mainly working–class membership and who Hitler now feared would attempt to threaten the social stability and agitate the Reichswehr (the regular army), with whom they sought a closer affiliation. A number of prominent SA members, including their leader Ernst Rohm (1887–1934), and over 400 of their followers were killed, most of whom had no intention of opposing Hitler.

Although it proved a powerful warning to other agitators, this ruthless display of state terror did not solve the underlying cause of the unrest, the problem of unemployment. To resolve this issue, Hitler had to regenerate German industry, and he proposed to accomplish this with the creation of the "new order." In common with the Italian vision, the German "new order" was based on the premise of regenerating the Germany nation and restoring it to a position of strength and leadership in world politics, industry, and finance. In addition, Hitler sought it necessary to ensure that he possessed an adequate merchant fleet, and that he constructed modern air, rail and motor transport systems. To achieve total implementation of his plans required Hitler's reversal of the economic and political restrictions imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, which he was aware would ultimately result in war. Therefore the Nazi economy, by stockpiling raw materials and resources, and insulating itself from the international economy, was reorganized essentially as a war economy. Hitler's reputation was enhanced when, in the years 1937 and 1938, the German economy made a dramatic recovery and the country achieved full employment, due mainly to the increasing level of rearmament, introduced in preparation for war, and to enable his policy of Lebensraum, which advocated the eastward expansion of German territory.

The creation of the new order also resulted in the banning of strikes, the abolition of trade unions

(including the confiscation of their assets), and the termination of all forms of collective bargaining between workers and their employer. In their place, a team of government officials, appointed by the Minister of National Economy, adjudicated on any issues relating to wages and conditions of employment. Official directives also empowered the Ministry of Economy to expand any existing cartels and introduce policies designed to merge entire industries into powerful conglomerates. Private property rights were preserved and previously nationalized companies were "re–privatized," which returned them to private ownership but subjected the owners to rigid state controls. The introduction of these measures eliminated competition and ensured that the new order was economically dominated by four banks and a relatively small number of huge conglomerates. One of those to prosper was the notorious Interessengemeinschaft Farbenindustrie (I.G. Farben), an enormous consortium composed of over four hundred businesses, many of which exploited millions of prisoners of war and immigrants from conquered nations as slave labor. These cartels also readily supplied the materials and expertise that were employed in the systematic and scientific extermination of millions of innocent people under Nazism's racial doctrines.

Expansions and Expectations

Above all, Nazism was a nationalist movement, and Hitler's plans for the Thousand Year Reich were based on the construction of a greater German state that would initially include Austria and the other German–speaking people who had been lost to Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1919, but would ultimately unite all of Europe's Germans and rise to world supremacy. From 1933 to 1939, Hitler continually proclaimed that he was merely asserting the national rights of Germany, and most Germans agreed with his declaration that the imposed terms of the Treaty of Versailles had been a "shame and a disgrace." Even those who despised the Nazi party methods, and much of its doctrine, supported its nationalist policies and acclaimed Hitler's militarist program, which resulted in the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936, the Anschluss or union with Austria in 1938, the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and ultimately the start of World War II.

Genocide and Destruction of Lives

The most destructive aspect of German fascism was its racial and anti–Semitic doctrine. Drawing on the roots of German nationalism and anti–Semitism, which dated back to the nineteenth century, Hitler's regime developed a hierarchy of "racial value" which was placed at the core of their vision of national rebirth and the creation of a "new order." Human breeding programs were developed, called the Lebensborn experiment, in which SS members were used to sire Aryan (racially pure) children. Legislation was introduced which excluded Jews from the protection of German laws, and the Nuremberg Laws (1935) were passed, which withdrew citizenship from non–Aryans and forbade the marriage of Aryans to non–Aryans. Although several state–sponsored programs were implemented before 1939, such as the notorious Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) in November 1938, it was during the course of World War II that the Nazi regime displayed the full extent of its disregard for human rights and its capacity for murderous efficiency.

Although there is no evidence of a written order by Hitler authorizing the Holocaust, it is believed that he either issued a verbal order or, at the very least, made it clear to leading Nazis that this was his intention for the Final Solution. He did, however, officially endorse The Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring which, by 1944, had enforced sterilization on over 400,000 women who were either mentally handicapped or considered at risk of passing on a hereditary illness. He also personally introduced a program of euthanasia which "put to sleep" more than 70,000 people, mostly children, who suffered from serious physical or mental disabilities. Of course, even these atrocities were overshadowed by the policy of genocide which was pursued against all those considered "without value" by the Nazis. When the Allied forces finally brought the war to an end in 1945, the human cost of German fascism's attempt to create a "new order" was the extermination of tens of millions of innocent lives and the infliction of terror and torture on countless others, while Europe had been reduced to rubble, and the political, economic, and geographical scars would remain for decades to come.


What perceptions and images come to mind when people consider the word fascism? Among the most common replies would probably be Hitler, the swastika, the Holocaust, inhumanity, and racism. These all appear to be perfectly rational and understandable reactions, based on what is known about fascist regimes, and their political, social, economic, and humanitarian ideology. Yet, understandable though they may be, these responses are wholly inaccurate, as what they affirm is the widespread confusion that has long existed between fascism and its notorious cohort, Nazism. The tendency to attribute the evils of Nazism to fascism in general paints a misleading picture of the values and motives of many fascist movements who denounced much of what Nazism advocated. It is important, therefore, when conducting an overall evaluation of fascism, that the abhorrent acts of inhumanity committed by Hitler's regime do not affect the objectivity of the analysis.

Fascism as a political system was discredited and condemned after the Allied victory over the German and Italian regimes in 1945, and has since been unable to achieve any significant level of political power in its own right. However, considering its once dominant position, it is unsurprising that elements of fascist ideology have continued to exert a major influence in political movements and governments throughout the world. Yet, because of the lingering images of the human destruction and atrocities carried out in its name, these movements seek to avoid the label of "fascist" for fear of being perceived as guilty by association. This has resulted in neo–fascism and extreme nationalism devising far subtler and less apparent means of promoting their values and beliefs to a wider audience, in the hope of regaining a foothold on the ladder of political power. In order to identify and prevent any of these disguised strains of fascism from re–emerging from the shadows, it is important to construct a detailed understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, the conditions that are required for its growth, and the techniques it employs to infiltrate society to attract support.

Fascism's Limited Spread

Despite inspiring the development of countless groups and movements, fascism has only risen to power on two occasions, the Italian Fascists of Mussolini and Hitler's Nazi party in Germany. Although it exerted varying degrees of influence in other countries, such as George Valois' Le Faisceau in France and Oswald Mosley's BUF in Britain, fascism consistently failed to convert this influence into significant political power. There were a number of reasons for fascism's inability to successfully cast its net outside of the two Axis states, one of these factors being that, in the years between the First and the Second World Wars, Italy and Germany possessed the ideal combination of political, social, and economic conditions considered necessary for fascism to prosper, and their existing governments were too weak and unstable to provide effective resistance against the growing fascist bandwagon. In addition, the profound dissatisfaction with the apparent decline of their nation, and an intense fear of the threat posed by Communism had already established a desire, within the Italian and German public, for stronger and more nationalistic leadership.

In contrast, the fascist movements that arose in other European countries in the aftermath of World War I were denied the political space in which to develop, due to the long–established liberal traditions within these nations and the relative stability of their governments. However, before Nazism's inhuman methods had caused fascism to become primarily associated with the atrocities of World War II, it was neither loathed nor condemned in those countries who had resisted it, but was accorded a certain degree of respect. Winston Churchill (1874–1965) is recorded as stating that, if he was Italian he would have been glad to be living under Mussolini's Fascist regime. Even as late as the mid 1930s, many of Europe's lead ers continued to accept Italian Fascism as being a legitimate right wing reaction to Communism. Indeed, until Mussolini allowed Italian Fascism to become influenced by Hitler's philosophy, the state was no more oppressive or violent than it had been under the liberal regime in the years leading up to 1922. It was those near–civil–war conditions that had led to the significant rise in Fascism's support and enabled it to seize power from the previous government.

Also, at that time, Italian Fascism was strictly opposed to both anti–Semitism and biological racism, and even when Mussolini's alliance with Hitler persuaded him to adopt these principles in 1938, the majority of his fascist regime and the Italian people rejected it, and on several occasions, the Italian military deliberately sabotaged the carrying out of anti–Jewish campaigns. During World War II the Italian General, Mario Roatta, disobeyed a German order to round up Jews because he viewed this as "incompatible with the honor of the Italian Army" which, in stark contrast to the German military, had pledged equality of treatment to all civilians.

These contradictions portray fascism as an extremely fluid ideology and one which enabled the modification of specific characteristics to accommodate the diverse nature of national traditions and values. Therefore, although all fascist movements asserted the importance of the nation, the need for strong authoritarian leadership, and the desire to create a "new order," they frequently differed in regard to the methods they employed and the promises they made in order to attract support. Indoctrination and propaganda were other central tenets of fascist ideology, and these were also adapted to target each regime's specific objectives. Italy tended to focus on promoting the "Italian national spirit" as being a tangible entity, relying on each individual's support and effort for its survival and, in return, providing them with a sense of belonging and purpose. The majority of Italians did not view themselves as being governed by the state, to them it was a natural and integral organ of their existence, and in pledging their lives to pursue its success, they were willing to sacrifice their individualism. German fascism added a twist to this philosophy which, although in retrospect is viewed as evil and barbaric, at the time was an adaptation intended to reflect the German people's cultural history of racism and anti–Semitism. For the German fascists it was not enough to simply become a unified nation with a greater standing within the world—they also focused their efforts on asserting German dominance within their own nation, through biological racism and ethnic persecution. This single modification of the classic fascist ideology led directly to the deaths of more than 30 million people. Although many fascist groups, who became generically termed the fifth column, assisted Nazism in these atrocities, a great many more opposed and condemned it just as strongly as those in liberal democracies.

Aims and Goals

The ultimate aim of fascism was to create a "new fascist man," who would possess the desired strength and courage to earn the right to exist within a "new order." A major element in the ideology behind this aim was the belief in the necessity and glorification of war, and it was this principle which ultimately led to the defeat of Italy and Germany, thereby ending the era of fascism. In only twenty three years, from Mussolini's seizing of power in 1922 until the Allied victory in 1945, fascism had indeed succeeded in reshaping society, though not with the outcome that they had intended. The reality that had been produced by fascist ideology included worldwide destruction, the senseless loss of millions of lives, the reduction of the major cities of Europe to rubble, and the permanent alteration of the political and geographical landscape of Europe. But what of the culpable nations? What had fascism achieved within its own countries that could justify the rest of humanity paying such a high price? The answer is…very little.

Economically, fascist countries did show some improvement as the government prepared for war. Many people came to compare the economies of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to capitalist countries such as the United States, but this is inaccurate. There's a big difference between a free–enterprise economy and one run by a government to achieve its own ends before those of its people.

Italy's "national spirit" quickly disappeared, revealing a country which still possessed both class and regional divisions, while the introduction of corporatism had failed to shield the economy from the massive cost of the war effort. It had, however, left behind an improved relationship between politics and the papacy, the construction of the countries motor ways, and an increased level of self–sufficiency in food production. Under the Hitler regime, Nazism had succeeded in creating improved economic and social conditions for those groups in the upper levels of the racial hierarchy, but only at a huge humanitarian cost to the remainder of German society. As the full extent of the Nazi atrocities began to emerge in the aftermath of the war, the German people became the focus of the world's hatred and condemnation. In his attempt to unite Germany and restore it to greatness and glory, Hitler and his regime had achieved the exact opposite and condemned his nation to years of control by their conquerors, during which time it became divided, both politically and geographically, for almost half a century.

There are, however, certain elements of the fascist style of government which have been incorporated into mainstream politics throughout the world. Every government and regime today acknowledge the importance of image in modern politics, and have developed the techniques used by Hitler and Mussolini to manipulate their audience. The carefully worded speeches, the stage–managed appearances, and the effective use of technology and the media have all been updated and employed with increasing sophistication. The majority of governments, even those in the advanced western democracies, favor a charismatic leader who will be considered an international statesman and the singularly authoritative spokesperson for his nation, and even the fascist's use of symbolism and party slogans has gained widespread imitation.


Since 1945 no country has yet experienced a replica of the conditions which predisposed both Italy and Germany to the rise of fascism, but with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union have there has been a negative effect on the political stability of recent decades. In the 1990s there has been an increase in the support of neo–fascist movements and political parties with extreme nationalist agendas. The National Alliance led by Gianfranco Fini became part of an Italian coalition government, in France Jean–Marie Le Pen's Front National regularly polls 20 percent in national elections, and the Austrian Freedom Party have amassed up to 28 percent of their country's electoral vote. Other neo–fascist movements prefer to infiltrate established right–wing parties and exert their influence on immigration policy and on the increasingly popular platform of Euro–fascism, which advocates the strengthening of the European Union into a closely unified "super–state."

Fascism has no concrete ideology, it has the ability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances to further its own aims. This capacity for improvisation assisted it to gain power in Italy and Germany, and it now allows neo–fascists and neo–Nazis to avoid the damaging associations of the past by disguising themselves in the cloak of the New Right and other mainstream havens of respectability. The need for political vigilance is succinctly stated in the words of Roger Eatwell: "Beware the men—and women—wearing smart Italian–style suits…the material is cut to fit the times, but the aim is still power."


  • Compare the political ideology, style of government, and propaganda techniques employed by Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq with those that exemplified Hitler's Nazi regime before World War II.
  • In 1945, Hitler and Mussolini both lost their lives in the final days of World War II, and after the Allied victory the fascist movements in Germany and Italy rapidly collapsed. Consider which of these two events, the loss of the war or the loss of their idolized dictators, was of greater significance to the disintegration of fascism in those countries.



Berwick, M. The Third Reich. London: Wayland Publishers, 1971.

Eatwell, R. Fascism: A History. London: Vintage, 1996.

Griffin, R. Fascism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Laqueur, Walter. Fascism: Past, Present and Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Thurlow, R. Fascism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Woolfe, S.J. European Fascism. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1981.

Further Readings

Adamson, W. Avant–Garde Florence: From Fascism to Modernism. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1993. A comprehensive study of the ideals and methods of the new nationalism.

Koon, T. Believe, Obey, Fight: Political Socialization of Youth in Fascist Italy 1922–43. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1985. Study of indoctrination and propaganda as used in education, sport, and other areas of interest.

Koonz, C. Mothers in the Fatherland. New York, 1976. A detailed and interesting account of life for women under the Nazi regime.

Lyttleton, A. The Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy 1919–1929. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997. A broad explanation of fascism's formative years.


views updated May 14 2018


For the purposes of this article, fascism will be treated as a politicized and revolutionary form of ultranationalism bent on mobilizing all remaining "healthy" social and political energies to resist the perceived onslaught of decadence so as to achieve the goal of a regenerated national community. It is a project that involves the rebirth (palingenesis) of both the political system and the social and moral culture that underpins it.

In discussing fascism's place within the history of ideas two basic issues must be addressed: first its genesis as a new "generic" political force that emerged at a particular point in the evolution of Western society, and second the various ideological components that it subsumes in the individual permutations it forms, in particular in national and political contexts. It will then be possible to offer some observations about fascism's evolution since 1945, one that has led some of its contemporary variants to be arguably of more interest to the history of ideas than to conventional political analysis.

The Origins of Generic Fascism

The ideological core of fascism postulated here contains one timeless component that cannot be said to have a historical source as such, while the other component originates in a relatively specific time and place within the history of ideas. The vision of rebirth, of palingenesis, of a new cycle of regeneration and renewal growing out of what appeared to be an irreversible linear process of decay, dissolution, or death, appears to be an archetype of human mythopoeia, manifesting itself, for example, as much in the Christian faith in the Resurrection of Christ and of all true believers as in the Hindu cosmology, which computes in mathematical detail the universe's infinite cycle of creation and destruction.

Ultranationalism, on the other hand, could only appear in countries where populist notions of sovereignty as the inherent property of a national community had already firmly established themselves. Fascism was able to emerge as a modern political ideology only after nationalism had arisen as a major ideological force in an increasingly secular Europeanized world where the foundations of traditional social systems (tribal, feudal, or absolutist) had been extensively eroded. In the wake of the French Revolution, several variants were formulated by intensely patriotic ideologues who imagined the nation as a supraindividual community subject to organic processes such as decay and growth and destined to rise to greatness. Though such a concept of the nation had already been formulated in the early nineteenth century by Germans such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte (17621814) and Ernst Arndt (17691860), it was the widespread obsession in fin-de-siècle Europe with the degeneracy of liberal civilization and its urgent need for moral regeneration that first made possible the conjuncture of palingenetic myth with ultranationalism that together formed the ideal climate within which fascism was incubated.

A major contributing factor in the evolution of organic conceptions of the nation was the rise of cultural, biological, and political racism, Aryan theory, and anti-Semitism in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Europe. These had no single source, but drew both on the widespread and highly diverse preconceptions about race first articulated by such figures as Johann Gottfried von Herder (17441803), Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau (18161882), Robert Knox (17981862), Richard Wagner (18131883), Cesare Lombroso (18361909), Ernst Haeckel (18341919), Herbert Spencer (18201903), Vacher de Lapouge (18541936), Houston Chamberlain, (18551927), and Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), as well as on currents of humanistic, scientific, and scientistic thought such as national histories, philology, physical and cultural anthropology, criminology, sociology, genetics, demography, eugenics, Social Darwinism, and vitalism. Once blended in with ultranationalism and palingenetic myth, racism could provide a pseudoscientific (scientistic) rationale to the myth that a nation in decline can only fulfill its transcendent historical mission once purged of forces allegedly compromising the "purity of the race" (for example, materialism, individualism, cosmopolitanism, immorality, miscegenation, "alien" ideological elements, or some combination of these).

It was in the first decade of the twentieth century that artists and cultural commentators such as the numerous writers ofvölkisch literature in Germany, Charles Maurras (18681952) and Maurice Barrès (18621923) in France, Giovanni Papini (18811956) and Gabriele D'Annunzio (18631938) in Italy, and Nicolae Iorga (18711940) in Romania provided poetic or theoretical expression to the importance of reawakening the national soul from the debilitating slumber induced by liberal modernity. Some attempts to turn these ideas into political movements were made before World War I, notably by Maurras' Action Française (1897), the Pan-German League (18861914) under Heinrich Class (18681953), the Christian Social Party (18931938) founded by the Austrian anti-Semite Karl Lueger (18441910), and the Italian Nationalist Association (19101923). But it was the shattering impact of the "Great War" itself that transformed marginalized and essentially cultural movements for national rebirth into political formations with a serious revolutionary strategy based on a blend of populist rally for change, a democratic party, and an extra-parliamentary paramilitary movement. It was the war that simultaneously nationalized the masses subjectively while creating localized pockets of objective political, social, and economic upheaval in many European countries, not least the collapse of the Hohenzollern, Habsburg, and Romanov dynasties and the Russian Revolution itself, that were indispensable for new forms of revolutionary nationalism to thrive. The first of these new "militia parties" to seize power was Fascism, which conquered the Italian state in two stages, 19221925 (when Mussolini was head of state) and 19251929 (when he established a dictatorship), and it is from this movement and regime that the generic term takes its name. Since the 1920s, fascist has been applied by historians, political commentators, and activists to a number of dictatorial regimes that emerged in interwar Europe and in the wider Europeanized world, notably in Latin America. However, significant differences of opinion persist between experts about which regimes are embraced by the term, the inclusion of the Third Reich being especially contentious.

An Overview of the "Fascist Epoch"

The period 19181945 has become widely known as "the fascist epoch." Certainly by the autumn of 1941, after the recent triumph of Francisco Franco (18921975) in the Spanish Civil War (19361939) and the apparently inexorable success of Adolf Hitler's (18891945) Blitzkrieg in France, Scandinavia, and Poland, and with victory in Soviet Russia seemingly imminent, there were good grounds for this, however problematic the phrase may have become for later historians. By this time Benito Mussolini's (18831945) Partito Nazionale Fascista (PNF) and Hitler's Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP, whose core ideology correspond closely to the generic definition given above) had created the templates of organization and style for revolutionary nationalists to emulate all over the Europeanized world. Even democracies as stable as Switzerland, Denmark, and Iceland, or new nations still confident in their future such as the United States and Australia, hosted minute fascist parties attempting in vain to emulate the performance of mass revolutionary movements. More significant (though safely contained) fascist movements developed where the structural conditions of crisis were sufficiently strong, notably in Finland, France, Hungary, Romania, Brazil, Chile, and South Africa, and some abortive fascist movements achieved prominence under Nazi occupation, notably Vidkun Quisling's Nasjonal Samling in Norway, Léon Degrelle's Rex in Belgium, and (in 1944) Ferenc Szálasi's "Hungarist" Arrow Cross movement. Thus José Streel, a leading spokesman of the collaborationist Belgian Rex movement, had not succumbed to delusions of grandeur when he asserted in 1942 that, whether it was called "fascism," "national socialism," or "the new order," "a new force" able to "synthesize the needs of the age" was "everywhere at work giving birth to the revolution of the twentieth century" (quoted in Griffin, 1995, p. 206).

In the final analysis the fascist assault on modern history was abortive. Only two fascisms managed to conquer state power and attempt to turn their revolutionary vision into reality, and eventually both met with crushing military defeat having failed to realize their revolutionary objectives. All other fascisms were successfully marginalized by liberal democracies or fended off by conservative authoritarian states by being either crushed or absorbed. It was nevertheless a tribute to the degree to which fascism had come to be associated with the future of civilization by the 1930s that a number of authoritarian states modeled themselves on the style of fascism.

A number of other authoritarian states chose to simulate the "real thing" by such ploys as organizing "from above" nationwide single parties, youth movements, and other mass organizations, proliferating nationalistic symbols, declaring the inauguration of new eras in the life of the nation or the creation of "new states," staging theatrical political events, and engineering phony leader cults. This pattern was most prominent in Franquist Spain (19381975), Antonio de Oliveira Salazar's Estado Novo in Portugal (19261974), Philippe Pétain's Vichy France (19401944), Ion Antonescu's National Legionary State in Romania (19401941), Ioannis Metaxas's dictatorship in Greece (19361940), Karlis Ulmanis' authoritarian Latvia (19341940), and Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya's authoritarian state in Hungary (19191944). It was equally a sign of the times that the ultimate victor was liberalism (or liberal capitalism), apparently the weakest of them all.

Spain and Portugal progressively defascistized themselves once the tide of war started to turn against the Axis powers. Once parafascism is taken into account and with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that interwar Europe was dominated not by fascism at all, but by a titanic struggle between liberalism, conservatism, communism, and fascism, in which fascism, which at one point looked like carrying all before it, eventually came off worst.

Non-European Fascisms

Traditionally, comparative fascist studies have focused almost exclusively on fascism as a European phenomenon. However, it should be noted that, while the emphasis on the totalitarian bid of fascism to create a new type of society distinguishes it from conservative regimes, whether traditionalist or military, there were in the "fascist epoch" a small number of non-European countries that hosted attempts to emulate the achievements of revolutionary nationalism in Italy and Germany. The most important examples are the Ossewabrandwag and the Greyshirts in South Africa, the National Socialist Movement (MNS) in Chile, and the Brazilian Integralist Action (AIB) movement that arose under Getúlio Vargas's dictatorship in Brazil (19371945). All of them suffered the fate of most of their European counterparts by being marginalized or crushed.

Breaking with the European pattern, two military dictatorships seem to have made a genuine bid to fascistize the nation from above rather than using fascism as a means of generating mass conformism and passivity: Chiang Kai-shek's (18871975) nationalist regime in China, eventually overwhelmed by Japanese imperialism, and the military dictatorship of the Grupo de Oficiales Unidos (GOU) in Argentina (19431946). GOU created a legacy that Juan Péron would build on after the war during his rule (19461955), which was in ideological and organizational terms an eclectic blend of political elements of which fascism was only a muted part.

It should also be noted that the most highly developed, dynamic, and destructive parafascist nation of all arguably emerged not in Europe but when imperial Japan entered its most totalitarian and expansionist phase between 1937 and 1945. Despite its alliance with Italian Fascism and German Nazism, it carried out its aggressive scheme of territorial expansion under a divine emperor and with its feudal social system intact rather than under a charismatic "new man" in a "reborn" nation. Nor did the defeat of Italy in 1943 and then of Germany in 1945 cause it to relent in the radicalness of its prosecution of the war, a fact that underlines the need to recognize that fascism by no means has a monopoly of right-wing totalitarian violence.

The Diversity of Individual Fascisms

We now turn to the second aspect of fascism that impinges on the history of ideas, its ideological constituents. A central premise behind the definition applied in this article is that fascism is to be treated on a par with the other major political "isms" of the modern age, such as liberalism and socialism, as an ideology in its own right with its own agenda for creating the ideal society. A corollary of this is that it can be conceived for analytic purposes as a cluster of core ("ineliminable") ideological components, which we have identified here with just two components: the conception of the people as an organic organism, and a palingenetic concept of history that envisages national decay giving way imminently or eventually to a process of regeneration and renewal. This core can become associated in particular times and places with many varied and even conflicting secondary ("adjacent" or "peripheral") concepts, with the result that fascism is externalized itself in a wide range of specific manifestations shaped by particular conjunctures of historical forces.

Another implication of this approach is that it is futile to search for the sources of generic fascism in the work of a particular thinker, such as Georges Sorel's thesis of the primacy of myth, Ernst Haeckel's organicism, Vilfredo Pareto's theory of the circulation of elites, Friedrich Nietzsche's calls for a new breed of superman, or Oswald Spengler's scheme of the decline and "Caesarist" renewal of the West, however much they may have influenced individual ideologues or movements. For the same reason it is fallacious to see all forms of fascism drawing on the same currents of thought or driven by the same process, such as Social Darwinism, eugenics, corporatism, Marxist revisionism, modernization, or antimodernity, let alone to attribute it to generic forces such as "irrationalism," "capitalism," or "moral decline," which have minimal heuristic value as explanatory concepts.

In fact, one of fascism's outstanding traits is its eclecticism, the propensity of its numerous individual variants to accommodate or synthesize ideological components from a wide range of sources taken from any part of the left-right spectrum. Italian Fascism, for example, merged elements of right-wing politics (nationalism, imperialism, authoritarianism) with left-wing syndicalist claims of creating social justice and abolishing class conflict, and the cult of the Roman past with elements of the Futurist cult of hypermodernity. It also attracted a number of former Marxists in Italy and Germany, hosted left-wing and right-wing variants of corporatist theory, and accommodated currents of philosophical idealism and technocratic modernism; clerical Fascism and neopaganism; cultural racism (which treated patriotic Italian Jews as full members of the re-born Italy, although a more "biological" current eventually led to the adoption of anti-Semitic race laws); and the full spectrum of aesthetics from neoclassicism to futurism, from anti-cosmopolitan ruralism to international modernism. Even Nazism was far from homogeneous ideologically, embracing ruralist and technocratic visions of the new order, varying degrees of paganism and accommodation with Christianity, several varieties of racism, an anticapitalist ("Strasserite") current, and even a strand of promodernist aesthetics. Fascism's animus against communism and the degenerative impact of liberalism on the organic national community nevertheless makes it sensible to locate fascism within the tradition of right-wing politics rather than simply "beyond" left and right (as it sometimes claims to be).

Fascism can also manifest itself in a variety of organizational forms. It does not necessarily take the form of a properly constituted movement, let alone a full-fledged party-political movement, and has only twice formed a regime. This is why attempts to elaborate or extend the fascist minimum identified here (for example, by adding such elements as para-militarism, the leader principle, corporatism, or territorial expansionism) severely restrict its heuristic value.


Once we move from the synoptic panorama of the whole fascist epoch to consider individual fascisms in close-up, the heterogeneity of their fascist ideology emphasized here soon becomes apparent. The sense of national identity promoted by Italian Fascism, for example, was originally little more than an antiliberal version of heightened patriotism, which attempted to present the current generation as heirs of the same genius that had created the Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church, and the artistic and scientific Renaissance. Partly because of the powerful presence of organized Christianity in social life, "modern" biological or eugenic concepts of racial purity were relegated to a subordinate position, even if they were implicit in the demographic campaign and in the laws against miscegenation introduced in the wake of the colonization of Ethiopia. Certainly an Italian equivalent of the Nazi "euthanasia" campaign to cleanse the national community of its "hereditarily ill" was unthinkable, and though a current of anti-Semitism existed in Fascism independently of Nazism, when anti-Semitic race and citizenship laws were eventually introduced in 1938 declaring the Italians to be of Aryan stock they were widely experienced as both un-Italian and un-Fascist.

Long before coming to power, Nazism was notorious for disseminating a vision of the national community based on a concept of race that included cultural, Social Darwinian, and eugenic components. As a result, decadence was considered at least partly the product of racial decay, which in turn meant that the nation had to be purged of both ideological and physical enemies before it could be reborn. It followed from the same racial concept of the nation that its boundaries "naturally" extended to cover the whole geopolitical area in which ethnic Germans constituted a majority, and ensured that the Third Reich's plans for territorial conquest were based on a hierarchical conception of racial superiority and inferiority familiar from European imperialism overseas, but never applied before to peoples in mainland Europe.

If the abortive fascist movements are taken into account, yet more permutations of the nationalist myth come into view. The Romanian Iron Guard was viscerally anti-Semitic, elaborated its own myth of Romanian racial purity, and planned to set up an anthropological institute to build up a database on the variegated racial makeup of those living on Romanian soil. Yet its outstanding feature was its stress on the importance of Romanian Orthodox Christianity as an indicator of national and cultural identity. Other fascisms that, in contrast to the overtly neopagan Fascism and Nazism, incorporated local versions of Christianity into their concept of national belonging were the Spanish Falange, the Finnish Isänmaallinen Kansanliike (Patriotic People's Movement), and the Afrikaner Ossewabrandwag.

A different permutation of fascist racial myth again is exhibited by the ABI (the Brazilian Integralist Action), whose membership grew to 200,000 before it was outlawed by Getúlio Vargas's parafascist military regime. This highly original permutation of fascism attributed the national genius and potential for rebirth not to any one of the many ethnic groups that make up modern Brazil, but to its unique blend of peoples and cultures, a concept that precluded the pursuit of racial purity through eugenic or exterminatory policies. This avenue was also barred by the powerful presence of Catholicism in Brazil's social and political culture, though it is significant that the ABI developed an elaborate form of "political religion" for its meetings and rallies. It is also consistent with the ABI's essentially pagan conception of renewal that its leader, Plìnio Salgado, published his philosophy of history according to which his movement was leading Brazilians into the "fourth era of humanity."


Although Marxists have always seen fascism as driven by a crisis of the capitalist economic system and the rise of socialism, and some non-Marxist experts identify interwar fascism with corporatism, the truth is predictably more complex. The relationship between fascism and finance capital, big business, or the bourgeoisie is far from straightforward, and there were currents within Nazism and Fascism that were anticapitalist to the extent that they took seriously the idea of a "national socialism." Contemporary fascism contains currents that are, at least on paper, extremely hostile to (Jewish, U.S., globalizing, corporate) capitalism, notably the New Right, Third Positionism, and National Bolshevism, and some prominent "Strasserite" Third Positionists, striving to develop a stance beyond both capitalism and communism, currently use fascist as a pejorative term for national revolutionaries not prepared to reject capitalism.

As for corporatism, only Italian Fascism attempted to install a corporatist state, which failed in practice to fulfill the ideals of any of the rival theories of corporatism that jostled for position under Mussolini. These included a "left-wing" syndicalist current, an authoritarian nationalist strand, and a version promoted by Catholics encouraged to do so by the Catholic Church, which saw in corporatism a way of mitigating the evils of unbridled materialism and individualism. However, such was the appeal of a "third way" between laissez-faire capitalism and the Soviet planned economy that the British Union of Fascists adopted the theory of the corporatist state, and a number of interwar fascisms (e.g., in Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Brazil, and Chile) advocated a fusion of nationalism with the power of organized labor, whether it was termed "national syndicalism" or "national socialism." It should also be pointed out that the parafascist states (both Catholic countries) of Salazar and Franco retained corporatist elements in their economic systems well into the postwar period, and during the 1940s these achieved some degree of success, though at the cost of organized labor, which was forced to forfeit much of its political and economic power.

On the other hand, Nazi Germany rejected the idea of the corporatist state except in the sphere of cultural production. Nevertheless, in tune with the spirit of the age, which favored the strong state and the planned economy, the Third Reich ruthlessly applied the principle of the primacy of politics over economics that legitimized unlimited state intervention in the running of the economy. It should be added that the British strand of one of the most consistently anticapitalist forms of postwar fascism, namely Third Positionism, attempted in the 1990s to resuscitate one of the interwar "alternative" economic theories, namely distributionism, but with no prospect of practical application to date, and that many contemporary fascisms are influenced by radical Green critiques of the unsustainability of the global economy.


Fascism's relationship with modern culture is even more resistant to generalizations than its economics. One of the more unusual features of Brazil's AIB was that its ideology grew out of currents of Latin American cultural theory developed by an intelligentsia influenced by European modernism and the "revolt against positivism." In this it had parallels with Italian Fascism, which hosted a number of currents of modernism, notably futurism, whose artists believed that the innovative dynamic or conceptual dimension of their style expressed the energy that was creating the New Italy. At the same time it was possible for the experimental, anarchic, taboo-breaking thrust of modernism to be seen as embodiments of the very decadence that it was fascism's mission to banish from modern life. As a result, fascism also attracted support from those who looked to a revitalized neoclassicism, vernacular, or ruralist art to create the iconic statements of healthy values that were to be an integral part of the reborn nation. Under Mussolini both interpretations of modernism coexisted and a rich variety of aesthetics resulted. Rather than promote an official Fascist style, the regime was content to be associated with creativity under all its aspects, a principle known as "hegemonic pluralism."

In stark contrast to Brazil and Italy, in 1935 Nazi Germany launched a campaign to purge Germany of modernism, henceforth officially declared the expression of cultural and biological degeneracy. Yet even here a campaign had been fought to have expressionism classified as Aryan, and a number of artists with highly modernist temperaments, notably Gottfried Benn and Ernst Jünger, were initially attracted to the regime. The diverse subject matter of some Nazi painting, which included motorway bridges, sporting events, factories, bombing raids, and battle scenes, also underlines the need to avoid simplistic generalizations about the antimodernity of fascism or the longing to return to the idylls of peasant existence allegedly at the heart of Nazi art. It is also significant that the Nazis paid even more attention to encouraging a "healthy" national cinema industry than the Italian Fascists, hardly the sign of a compulsive anti-modernity. While some films under both regimes were overtly propagandistic, the majority were made without direct state interference and dealt with the emotional and social comedies and dramas of modern Italian and German existence against the backcloth of the new order. By endorsing the values, normalcy, and modernity of fascist society they bear witness to the way the power of the film to create an aesthetic illusion of wholeness was seamlessly adapted to the new societies, thereby contributing to the routinization of the fascist revolution in the experience of "ordinary" Italians and Germans.


The architecture of the two regimes reflected their different relationships to modernism. Despite a marked tendency toward monumentalism and the increasing use of neoclassicism for many civic buildings by the late 1930s, Fascist architects worked in a number of styles, some of them deeply indebted to the international modernism of the day. Its protagonists saw the bold use of steel and glass as reflecting the future-oriented, hypermodern dynamic of the New Italy, its urge to throw off the dead weight of tradition. This was unthinkable in Nazi Germany, where the Bauhaus was considered the symbol of "cultural Bolshevism," and the prescribed style for civic buildings was a Spartan neoclassicism whose symmetry, lack of ornament, and gargantuan proportions supposedly evoked the "purity" and heroic "will to construct" of the Aryan.

However, the Third Reich's retention of elements of modernism for such projects as bridges, factories, high-density holiday accommodation, and power stations, as well as the fact that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe tendered an unashamedly modernist design for the Dresden Bank before leaving Nazi Germany for the United States, invites a more complex reaction to its state architecture than simply dismissing it as philistine reaction. Rather, its neoclassicism is to be seen as the expression of the aesthetic correlation to the eugenics and "racial hygiene" applied in social and demographic policy. The austere, lifeless pseudoclassical buildings and sculptures whose aesthetics it determined betoken not a nostalgia for a bygone age, but the belief in the ongoing rebirth of the German people from the quagmire of Weimar decadence. They embody in permanent plastic form the presence of "eternal values."

The anthropological revolution.

When considering individual spheres of art it is important to bear in mind that art for fascists was no longer to be a separate sphere of human endeavor remote from the mainstream of political and social life in the same category as leisure or sport and prey to the forces of commercialization. For the cultural theorists of Fascism, Nazism, the British Union of Fascists, the Falange, the Iron Guard, or the AIB, whatever their stance on modernism, realism, or the celebration of rural life, art was meant to express the uncorrupted soul of the people, and made manifest the health or decadence of the entire culture. They assumed that just as the chaos and commercialism of modern art reflected the current decadence of the West, so the regenerated nation would spontaneously produce an artistic renaissance. This would come about once artists were no longer concerned with "self-expression," innovation, or experimentation; their reunion with their people and nation naturally ensured that each sculpture, film, novel, musical composition, or building expressed the values of the new age.

Art was only one of the spheres of social activity that were supposed to contribute to this ethos of palingenesis. Schools, universities, youth and leisure organizations, mass rallies, news-reels, newspapers, sporting events, national holidays, local festivals, the organization of work, business, and industry, in fact any context in which the public sphere impinged on the private became sites for the further integration of the individual into the national community. In this sense the deepest level of the fascist revolution was not political or military, but cultural. As long as fascism remained a genuinely charismatic force in Italy and Germany it was not a revolution simply imposed on society, but was fed by the spontaneous enthusiasm of many thousands of creative individuals who wanted to contribute to the transformation. This interpretation is fully consistent with recent theories of totalitarianism that place an emphasis on its bid to bring about an anthropological revolution, and on seeing the political religion that it institutes not as an exercise in collective brainwashing but as a means to transform society's political and moral culture.

This attempted anthropological revolution had particular implications for women. True to the spirit of an age that had recently experienced World War I, the interwar fascist image of the new man embraced elements of the archetypal warrior and knight, and the celebration of militarism, war, and the new order was pervaded by values that would now be recognized as male chauvinist. The corollary of this was that fascism was hostile to feminism as a force that destroyed the "natural" roles dictated by biology, and both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany introduced legislation to remove women from the workplace, criminalize abortion, encourage big families, and glorify motherhood and domestic functions as the true vocation of women. The demographic campaign in both countries was backed up by antenatal, maternity, and childcare services that anticipated some of the best practice of the modern welfare state.

However, it is erroneous to dismiss such measures as proof of fascism's reactionary bid to turn the clock back to traditional family values. The creation of mass organizations for women of all ages and social categories, including auxiliary units for those drawn to life in the armed services, were symptomatic of an attempt to free the female population from the constraints of domesticity and motivate it into playing an active, if subordinate, role within the new national community on a par with the Soviet mobilization of women. A physically and morally healthy motherhood was celebrated as a key element in the triumph over decadence and the regeneration of the nation. A "new woman" would arise to assist the "new man" in his heroic revolutionary task. It might also be pointed out that the stereotype of women destined to breed new members of the national community is no more degrading than the stereotype that declared the destiny of men lay in their readiness to kill and be sacrificed for the sake of the new order.

A far more terrible fate than that which befell female members of the Nazi national community awaited the millions of those, male and female, adult and children, who were excluded from it on grounds of hereditary illness, asocial behavior, or membership of an inferior race, and thus were subjected to sterilization, enslavement, torture, experimentation, or extermination. It was in the fanatical persecution and mass elimination of "life unworthy of life" and "subhumans" by the Third Reich under the cover of World War II that fascism's archaic palingenetic logic of "cathartic destruction" reveals its most chilling potential for impacting on modern history.

The Survival Strategies of Postwar Fascism

The ideological definition of fascism adopted in this article leads to an interpretation of its development that sees the defeat of the Axis powers not as putting an end to fascism, but forcing it to adopt new strategies to survive in a political environment no longer characterized by the upheaval and crises that were the precondition for Fascism and Nazism to take the form of mass movements producing spectacular displays of charismatic politics. The Allied victory over fascism inaugurated the sustained recovery of liberal capitalism, which eventually outlived the state socialist experiment in creating a new order conducted by the Soviet Union and its satellites. The massive loss of life caused by World War II and the horrors committed by the Third Reich and imperial Japan in the alliance with Fascism utterly discredited the rhetoric of militarism, ultranationalism, imperialism, and new orders for all but a small, highly marginalized minority of fanatics. The mass constituency of potential trans-class support for revolutionary brands of nationalism simply evaporated (although it reemerged quickly in the chaotic conditions of post-Soviet Russia).

In such conditions any attempts to emulate the PNF or NSDAP were doomed to have even more pathetic results than those achieved by the many abortive movements in the "fascist epoch." Even the most successful postwar fascist party, Italy's Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), had to dissociate itself from any paramilitary activity and strictly abide by the democratic "rules of the game." This strategy put it in the position to emerge from the political ghetto reconstituted as the Alleanza Nazionale in 1994, though only after it had renounced any attachment to its revolutionary and totalitarian past.

Meanwhile, faced by the almost complete disappearance of its natural interwar habitat, "real" fascism demonstrated a remarkable capacity for adaptation. While at the level of the general public, xenophobia and anxieties over the erosion of national identity in some countries found an outlet in a new type of party, the right-wing populist party embodied in JeanMarie Le Pen's National Front and Jörg Haider's Austrian Freedom Party, intransigent national revolutionaries could follow several tactics to keep the revolutionary vision alive. One was to concentrate on forming small cadres of fanatics dedicated to "the cause," some of whom in the 1970s and 1980s carried out a series of terroristic outrages in pursuit of what was known as the "Strategy of Tension" designed to bring down the Italian state.

A second tactic was for fascists to abandon narrow nationalism and place their concern with the decadence of society in a wider geocultural context, whether that of the white or Aryan race, or of Europe, conceived as a federation of cultural homogeneous nations or ethnies. A third was to withdraw from the political sphere altogether and concentrate on civic space, the realm of ideas and culture, thus turning fascism into a largely "metapolitical" force, made up not of full-fledged movements, but of numerous atomized formations known collectively as the "groupuscular right." An outstanding example of this is the pan-European vision of rebirth advocated (in conflicting terms) by the European New Right and by Third Positionism. The latter still has not abandoned political activism and the use of violence in theory (or rather in rhetoric), even if the transition to a new era has by implication been indefinitely postponed, leaving a few stoic spiritual warriors to resist the forces of cultural suicide true to the principle of "leaderless resistance." The logical consequence of this process of extreme atomization is the type of "lone wolf" terrorist act committed by Timothy McVeigh (in Oklahoma) or David Copeland (the London nail bomber), both of whom internalized and acted on the fascist critique of the state without belonging to any formal organization.

The Struggle for "Cultural Hegemony"

The most sophisticated incarnation of fascism in the "postfascist" epoch is the New Right. This is an umbrella term for a movement with a local base in a number of European countries but important international linkages, and consists of both groupuscules and some high-profile cultural think tanks such as GRECE in France and networks of associations such as Thule-Netz in Germany. In Russia a particularly influential form of the New Right is known as "Euroasianism." In it the fascist attack on the degeneracy of liberalism as an increasingly globalized cultural and economic system combined with the call for an entirely new order has been thoroughly "metapoliticized," while the ultranationalist nostalgia for roots and organic ethnic communities has undergone extensive "Europeanization."

Many scholars, and certainly New Right intellectuals themselves, would strenuously disagree that an ideology that operates purely in the realm of ideas and has abandoned belligerent nationalism and racism can be classified as a form of fascism at all. However, the French New Right, which under the aegis of the extraordinarily prolific Alain de Benoist (b. 1943) pioneered the international movement, demonstrably grew out of a fascist milieu that by the mid-1960s despaired of seizing power through conventional political or violent means. Moreover, the war against decadence and longings for rebirth, which were the hallmarks of interwar fascism, can still be shown to form the ideological core of the sophisticated discourse of cultural criticism it has evolved since then, even if the palingenesis of the organic cultures and communities of Europe is no longer imminent.

By dedicating itself exclusively to the struggle to win "cultural hegemony" (a tactic known as "right-wing Gramscism"), the New Right has been able to exert influence on right-wing populism and neofascist activism at one stage removed. This it does by providing elaborate ideological critiques of the prevailing "system," as well as disseminating a subtle form of "differentialist" racism that preaches not racial superiority but the value of all cultures and the need to preserve them from the corrosive effects of multiculturalism, mass immigration, egalitarianism, and the "leveling" of society by cultural globalization.

The Conservative Revolution

In adapting itself so thoroughly to the prolonged "interregnum" before the next "rebirth," New Right fascism has systematically shed every external aspect of its interwar manifestations. There is no hint of charismatic leader, paramilitarism, expansionist imperialism, or theatrical politics. Yet fascism's ideological nucleus remains intact: the longing for a new order based on the restoration of organic communities, the defeat of liberalism, the transcendence of communism, materialism, chaos, and decadence, remains intact. It is no coincidence if the New Right draws extensively on the same ideologues of the Conservative Revolution, notably Friedrich Nietzsche, Ernst Jünger (18951998), Carl Schmitt (18881985), and Martin Heidegger (18891976), that helped prepare the way for the Nazis' war on Enlightenment values, even if one of the pioneers of the New Right, Armin Mohler (19202003), was careful to dissociate them from Nazism by calling them "the Trotskyites of the German Revolution" (Hitler being its Stalin).

Some thinkers of the New Right have also been influenced by the "Traditionalist" philosophy of history elaborated by the Italian "philosopher" Julius Evola (18981974), which posits a Hindu-like cycle of rebirth and decadence shaping human history. In his canonical diagnoses of the postwar world (which also influenced both "black" terrorism of the Strategy of Tension and contemporary Third Positionism) Fascism and Nazism are indicted with failing to inaugurate the process of rebirth, with the result that those with a sense of higher values are now condemned to stay faithful to the cause of a higher metapolitical order with no immediate prospect of inaugurating the new age. Another fruitful source of inspiration of the New Right crusade against the "decadent" Judeo-Christian, materialist, U.S.-dominated West are carefully edited liberal and far left critiques of the "totalitarianism" and metaphysical vacuousness of contemporary capitalist society. In the New Right, fascism has in a sense returned to its fin-de-siècle roots as a current of radical cultural criticism lacking any concrete political vehicle or clear strategy for gaining power other than that of taking over what one of their main spokesmen, Pierre Krebs, calls "the laboratories of thinking" (quoted in Griffin, 1995, p. 349).

The Future of Fascism

Fascists of any denomination are not alone in believing that deep structural problems threaten the sustainability of the present "hegemonic system" in the West, notably escalating ecological and resources crises, and the demographic explosion in the "two-thirds world" (often called the "third world," even though in terms of population it is far bigger than the first world). Nor can it be denied that mass immigration and globalization pose threats to established national and cultural identities. There will thus be no shortage of empirical data to convince those with a fascist mind-set that we live in an age of decadence and that "our" only hope lies, sooner or later, in a total palingenesis capable of pioneering a new type of modernity while preserving ethnic roots, cultural identity, and belonging. Given the unusual capacity of fascism for eclecticism and adaptation, it seems likely that, at least in its metapoliticized, internationalized, and groupuscularized permutations, it will continue to thrive as a permanent, though marginalized and ineffectual, part of the political and social subculture of civic society throughout an increasingly Europeanized (or Americanized) world. It will thus continue to generate a steady flow of fresh ideological specimens to occupy political scientists and historians of ideas for the foreseeable future.

See also Authoritarianism ; Communism ; Eugenics ; Nationalism ; Propaganda ; Race and Racism ; Social Darwinism .


Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and the Holocaust. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Davies, Peter, and Derek Lynch. Fascism and the Far Right. London: Routledge, 2002.

Drake, Richard. The Revolutionary Mystique and Terrorism in Contemporary Italy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Gentile, Emilio. The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Griffin, Roger. "Interregnum or Endgame? The Radical Right in the 'Post-fascist' Era." In Reassessing Political Ideologies: The Durability of Dissent, edited by Michael Freeden. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Griffin, Roger, ed. Fascism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Kallis, Aristotle A., ed. The Fascism Reader. London: Routledge, 2002.

Larsen, Stein, ed. Fascism outside Europe: The European Impulse against Domestic Conditions in the Diffusion of Global Fascism.. New York: Columbia University Press; Boulder, Colo.: Social Sciences Monographs, 2001.

Mosse, George L. Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism. New York: Fertig, 1999.

Paxton, Robert O. The Anatomy of Fascism. New York: Knopf, 2004.

Payne, Stanley G. A History of Fascism, 19141945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

Sternhell, Zeev. "Fascist Ideology." In Fascism: A Reader's Guide: Analyses, Interpretations, Bibliography, edited by Walter Laqueur. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Taylor, Brandon, and Wilfried van der Will, eds. The Nazification of Art: Art, Design, Music, Architecture, and Film in the Third Reich. Winchester, U.K.: Winchester Press, 1990.

Roger Griffin


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THE "FASCIST EPOCH": 1922–1945

Even in the early twenty-first century, the term fascism remains one of fundamental ambiguity and controversy. Unlike many other "-isms," it still invites competing perceptions of what it is and what it stood (or even stands) for. Originally a word borrowed from the ancient Roman imagery (fasces = bundle of rods surrounding an ax) coined in the Italian post–World War I context to express radical collective action in defense of the nation (Fasci della Difesa Nazionale), it was appropriated by Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) to label his nascent ultranationalist movement that eventually became the National Fascist Party (Partito Nazionale Fascista, PNF). Already in the early 1920s socialist observers ascribed a generic import to the term, as a historically specific reactionary vehicle for recasting monopoly capitalism and crushing socialist mobilization. At the same time, fellow travelers, disciples, and imitators across the Continent in the 1920s and 1930s invoked the term or alluded to a sort of ideological-political affinity with the Italian model. The alliance between Mussolini's regime and Adolf Hitler's (1889–1945) National Socialist Germany was similarly founded on the premise of such a deep kinship in search of a universal postliberal and postsocialist order. The impressive diffusion of fascism as ideology and type of regime in the interwar period led the controversial German historian Ernst Nolte to declare that the 1918–1945 period was the indisputable "era of fascism" and thus cast the phenomenon as the product of a particular continent-wide set of historical circumstances that manifested itself in a plethora of national permutations.

Yet, fascism remains superlatively hard to define in a way that generates academic consensus. One prominent analyst has described the fray of fascist studies as a "deserted battlefield." Its allegedly generic nature has been fiercely contested by those who still perceive it as either a purely Italian phenomenon or a descriptive term that relates to style rather than substance. Some would deny it any degree of ideological import, thereby reducing it to a set of ad hoc practices that have been inflated into something more by subsequent academic wishful thinking. While historians tend to agree with Nolte that 1945 represented the cataclysmic end of the "fascist era," others discerned an allegedly wider conceptual relevance that goes far beyond historical periods or geographic settings. And the catalog of controversy goes on: irrational and antimodern or an alternative radical modern formula? Antiliberal, antisocialist, or both? Revolutionary or counterrevolutionary/reactionary? Right-wing or syncretic or even a "scavenger"? What about its relation to other concepts, such as authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and dictatorship, with which it shared some crucial but partial similarities? Finally, if "fascism" had any intellectual substance, where did it come from and how did it shape its ideological content?


Even the task of searching for an intellectual origin of fascism before World War I is fraught with controversy. For, unlike other contemporary "-isms," the term was not used specifically by thinkers to designate a specific body of thought in opposition to existing doctrines. A plethora of potential derivations have indeed been suggested: the break with and revision of Marxian socialism by the French theorist Georges Sorel (1847–1922) and subsequently by the National Syndicalism movement; the concept of an all-encompassing ethical state developed by the German philosopher Wilhelm Friedrich Georg Hegel (1770–1831); the mystic conception of the "nation" professed by the Italian liberal nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872); and the fascination with heroic politics conveyed through the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). In fact, the search for fascism's origins has implicated even the critique of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment by the French theorist Joseph De Maistre (1753–1821), articulated as far back as the last years of the eighteenth century.

For some this search for fascism's intellectual derivation appears as a dubious attempt to read history backward. This, however, should not prevent seeking to locate fascism in the context of generic historical conditions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that subsequently found fertile ground in particularly national contexts. Essentially, the origins of what later came to be identified as fascism lay in a milieu of disillusionment with the condition of civilization and society at a time of a seeming liberal ascendancy and at the dawn of a radical socialist alternative. This meant that fascism was a "latecomer" as a political ideology, attempting to occupy a precarious position in the overcrowded spectrum of visions for the future of civilization. Already in the second half of the nineteenth century certain thinkers across Europe had launched a wholesale attack against the liberal focus on individualism, rights, and pluralism. The function of the liberal state as an agnostic (neutral) agent of promoting freedom had been identified as the primary source of moral decline, social malaise, and cultural degeneration. Parliamentarism and representative government became the soft target of a multiple radical critique that focused on corruption, the cynicism of political elites, the empty rhetoric of social justice accompanied by very limited reforms, the yawning gap between government and people, and the moral relativism of "modern" society. Whereas some of the critics opted for a retreat into antimodern, nostalgic prescriptions in an attempt to reset the clock of history, many had already assumed the advent of modernity and sought to recast it in a decidedly postliberal fashion. In other words, the revision of the course of history sought by disparate observers in the second half of the nineteenth century had a common target (liberalism and modern society) but explored fundamentally divergent paths for a different order.

In the four decades before World War I socialism provided the main modern alternative to liberalism, organizing and channeling radical energies across the Continent into a supranational movement in search of a postliberal society. However, by the turn of the century the ambitious prediction of collective revolutionary action predicated on socialist ideology appeared further than ever before. Thinkers initially steeped in revolutionary socialism vented their frustration through seeking a new type of modern alternative that, while still seeking a postliberal order, also antagonized Marxism's stress on materialism and class struggle. Fusing revolution, modernity, and irrational myth, they sought to identify a different vehicle for historical change. At a time of growing populist mobilization and participation in the political arena the "nation" appeared a far more potent conduit for collective action than did social "class"—the focus of socialism. This new alternative grew not only in opposition to liberalism but also as an absolute antithesis of the socialist formula in search for a "third way." It was not about simple reform or retreat into a premodern golden age; instead, it capitalized on the drive of both liberal empowerment of the masses and socialist revolutionary dynamics but sought to redirect the course of modernity in a predominantly ultranationalist direction.

The devastating experiences of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia provided crucial ammunition for an urgent synthesis of previously disparate strands of radical thought. They also further alienated large sectors of the European societies from the liberal experiment while turning the socialist alternative into a tangible—and therefore threatening—reality that could spread from Russia across the Continent on the basis of the professed "world revolution." As a chauvinistic version of nationalism was continuously being nurtured in the decades leading to the Great War and received a further boost in its aftermath (the Versailles Treaty of 1919 and the complications of redrawing the boundaries of post-1918 Europe), the appeal of radical nationalism intensified. The impression that liberal Europe had entered a phase of terminal decline at a time that the socialist experiment in Russia threatened to engulf the Continent with its internationalist revolutionary creed had two crucial effects: first, it robbed parliamentary democracy of its last vestiges of legitimacy; and, second, it afforded a sense of historic urgency to nationalist populist politics as the only effective antisocialist radical alternative.

Thus fascism emerged from the ashes of World War I as a revolutionary, radical nationalist ideology, based on the glorification of an idealized "nation" and on collective activism. It was populist in terms of its political conduct, obsessed with reversing the process of alleged national decline, and offering instead a vision of wholesale regeneration ("rebirth") for the members of the "national community"—and only them. Fascism was a particularly historical articulation of nationalism—of an extreme, radical, exclusive, and holistic nationalism that rejected violently any form of dissidence and nonconformity to its vision. Although France had been the intellectual incubator of protofascist ideologies, Italy became the testing ground for its first political articulation. Within the course of five years (1914–1919) Mussolini completed an astounding ideological transformation from renegade revolutionary socialist leader into the Duce of an ultranationalist populist movement that preached wholesale national collective action as the only meaningful path to regeneration. The synthesis that Mussolini spearheaded in Italy between 1917 and 1921 was rooted in exactly this sense of liberalism's political impasse and socialism's allegedly impending onslaught. But, rather than harking back to premodern ideals, it sought to involve the nation in a history-making collective struggle for a revolutionary break with a recent historical course dominated by liberalism and socialism. Such a synthesis was essentially negative: disparate forces ranging from conservative radical nationalists to the (ultramodern and antitraditionalist) futurists came together in an open-ended struggle for a postliberal order that ought to be spared from the socialist experiment—a struggle in which the nation as an organic, culturally homogenous, and indivisible unity would be the uncontested protagonist.

THE "FASCIST EPOCH": 1922–1945

The period between the political formation of the fascist movement and the appointment of Mussolini as head of a coalition government in October 1922 was too brief to allow the resolution of ideological ambiguities or even tensions. By 1925, when the Duce ushered Italy into the era of the Fascist dictatorship, fascism had already been arbitrarily associated with disparate trends: a generic reactionary offspring of monopoly capitalism for the Communist International; a new, highly promising system of rule for antiparliamentary elites across the Continent; and a source of inspiration for a novel style of politics that could be appropriated by radical movements beyond Italy in search of the same goal of a postliberal transformation. It took Mussolini himself a bit longer to declare a wider relevance for his Italian experiment: in 1929 he spoke of fascism as an "export product" and a few years later (1932) went so far as to claim that the twentieth century would be a truly fascist epoch, just like the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries belonged to liberalism and socialism respectively.

But what did it mean to be a fascist? Unlike socialism in the Bolshevik Soviet Union, there was no Marxian gospel or Leninist scripture from which to draw dogmatic inspiration. Even Mussolini's attempt to codify the fascist doctrine in 1932 in cooperation with the prominent philosopher Giovanni Gentile (1875–1944) came too late to have a real impact on the formation of the fascist experiment in Italy. What the doctrine emphasized, however, was fascism's emphasis on open-ended, heroic collective action for the spiritual regeneration of the nation. This goal was the necessary condition for the realization of Fascist Italy's historic mission: as a "third Rome" (heir to the universalist legacies of the Roman Empire and of Catholicism) the rekindled national spirit would be the harbinger of a global political, socioeconomic, and cultural revolution. The absence of a sacrosanct doctrine was regarded as a blessing, for a fixed ideology could curtail the spontaneity of collective action. Instead, fascism promised an openended, "holistic" radical utopia-in-the-making of which the whole nation would be the primary agent and the beneficiary.

The growing idea that Mussolini alone incarnated the fascist doctrine bred an overreliance on the "cult of the duce" and a consequent monopolization of the movement by him. Mussolini made a series of fundamental choices in the second half of the 1920s that established the broad parameters of the fascist political experiment and provided a more tangible definition of what fascism stood for. The institutional-judicial reforms of Alfredo Rocco (1875–1935)—a prominent nationalist with far more conservative leanings than many early fascists (fascisti della prima ora) would have desired—set the foundations for an all-encompassing state that would function as the primary vehicle for national mobilization. As a result, the party was formally placed under the institutional tutelage of the state and of the Duce. Furthermore, calls from more radical members for a "continuous revolution" and a wholesale break with the past were crushed under the institutional rigidity of Rocco's reforms and the doctrine of "all within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." The signing of the Lateran Pacts with the Vatican in 1929 also sent mixed signals: on the one hand, the agreement settled the only remaining obstacle to the full legitimation of the Italian state by resolving the "Roman Question" (the schism between church and state that had beset the Italian state ever since the completion of its national unification in 1870); on the other, it appeared as a crucial step further away from revolution and in the direction of "normalization," that is accommodation with the establishment forces that fascism was meant to fight.

The emerging blending of order and change that fascism came to encapsulate involved a careful balancing act, as exemplified in the case of the experiment with "corporatism" in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Corporatism professed a fundamental socioeconomic transformation of societal relations, promising new, radical modes of collective action as well as a total framework for negotiating differences in a truly organic manner. Yet, its eventual failure and abandonment in the 1930s signified the impasse of fascism's formula of a controlled revolution "from above." By the early 1930s Italian fascism appeared to manage what the Italian historian Renzo De Felice (1929–1996) termed a totalitarian state but appeared to have lost a large part of its earlier radical edge.

By that time a pan-European trend away from liberal-parliamentary democracy had already been in motion. The majority of this generation of dictators did not hide their admiration for—or even imitation of—Mussolini's experiment in Italy. Even conservative observers across the Continent recognized the developmental utility of fascism, even if some of them acknowledged that this sort of political system was not perhaps suited for all countries. Winston Churchill (1874–1963), who visited Rome in 1927 as Chancellor of the Exchequer, remarked "If I were an Italian, I am sure that I would have been with you entirely from the beginning of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and the passions of Leninism." Even in the United States the fascist experiment found admirers, with the New York Congressman Sol Bloom (1870–1949) going so far as to state that fascism "will be a great thing not only for Italy but for all of us if he [Mussolini] succeeds." An array of antiliberal and anticommunist regimes that started to replace unstable parliamentary systems embarked on partial borrowing, appropriating fascist ideas such as the single mass-party, the emphasis on parades and ritual celebrations, the cult of the leader, and the myth of national renewal. Within less than a decade from Mussolini's appointment in 1922, Italian fascism had been established in the eyes of contemporary observers as a genuine political alternative to both liberalism and socialism; for many in the right, it was indeed the most effective and modern political solution. Mussolini cherished his role as the public face of a new political creed that had been pioneered in Italy: Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) visited; so did the renegade British member of Parliament Oswald Mosley (1896–1980), who immediately afterward experienced a deep ideological conversion that turned him into the purveyor of fascism in Britain.


The second crucial watershed in the history of interwar fascism came in 1933. On 30 January, Hitler, the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistisches Deutsches Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP), was appointed chancellor of the German Republic, in a form of power-sharing with Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934), the veteran nationalist and World War I hero who had held the office of president since 1925. The political arrangement was strikingly reminiscent of the coalition government over which Mussolini had presided between October 1922 and January 1925. Hitler's subsequent measures against the more radical segments of his party (for instance, the leadership of the SA [Sturm Abteilung], purged during the "Night of the Long Knives" in June 1934) echoed Mussolini's less violent but comparably determined suppression of the fascist squads and militia (squadri, MVSN) in the 1920s. For many contemporary observers (particularly on the left) the assumption of power by Hitler constituted further evidence of the wider pan-European shift away from liberalism, in fundamental opposition to socialism and in search of a new type of populist politics.

Hitler's movement shared many crucial ideological themes and priorities with Mussolini's regime: the emphasis on national regeneration; the vision of an organic, indivisible nation; the belief in the need for a different, postliberal and antisocialist, modernity; the fetishization of spectacle; the cult of leadership; and the stress on spontaneous collective action as the vehicle for history-making. Unlike fascism in Italy, however, it featured an obsession with racial engineering and anti-Semitism—both notoriously absent or even derided in the Italian case. Furthermore, the geopolitical interests of the two countries, although broadly concordant with regard to revising the Versailles settlement, collided over the issue of Austria. Nazi Germany wished to absorb Austria into a new pan-German Reich while Italy, fearing secessionist demands from its own German-speaking minority in the newly acquired province of South Tyrol, preferred it to remain independent as a bulwark against further German expansion southward. Thus, in spite of Hitler's intense admiration for Mussolini and the latter's funding of German radical nationalist parties (including the NSDAP) in the pre-1933 era, the two regimes found themselves at loggerheads until 1935–1936. In fact, an abortive coup in July 1934 in Vienna against the Austrian fascist-like government of Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss (1892–1934) brought the two countries to the verge of a military confrontation that was avoided only after Hitler backed down.

Although relations between the two regimes improved in the aftermath of Italy's military campaign against Ethiopia (1935–1936) and generated a dynamism that led to their eventual military alliance in 1939 (the "Pact of Steel"), their fundamental ideological divergence could not be easily glossed over. The majority of the fascist leaders in Italy viewed the rapprochement with Nazi Germany as not only unjustified but also harmful to the spirit of fascism. The Nazi obsession with race and anti-Semitism found very few disciples in the ranks of the PNF and the seeming fascination of the NSDAP with the rigid volkisch tradition appalled many fascists who had been steeped in modernism and a more eclectic attitude to culture. Equally, many of Hitler's colleagues did not share their leader's loyalty to Mussolini, seeing in the Fascist regime a half-baked experiment compromised by an overreliance on the state, power-sharing with the monarchy, and concessions to the church. Even after the introduction of anti-Semitic legislation in Italy (1938, Manifesto for the Defense of the Race), such misgivings did not abate. Apparently, the Italian racial laws had nothing to do with any form of German pressure; in fact, they could have been partly derived from the racial legislation that Italy had introduced in occupied Ethiopia in 1936. However, the perceived emulation of Nazi Germany left unconvinced Fascists even more disgruntled, whereas the milder, watered-down version of Italian racial politics and its less fanatical pursuit by the fascist authorities failed to allay the doubts of Nazi observers about the overall radical dynamics of Italian fascism.

The issue of "race"—and the subsequent anti-Semitic terror that was unleashed in the context of the Nazi "new order"—raises reasonable doubts about the aptness of the term fascism for the case of National Socialist Germany. Even if fascism is recognized as a generic phenomenon with relevance to the whole of European—or even global—history, race remained fundamental to the Nazis in a way that found no parallel in any other movement or regime. In fact, National Socialism can be viewed as the political vehicle for a genuine racial revolution with an open-ended scope that went far beyond the boundaries of even the most extreme version of a pan-German (Gesamtdeutsch) Reich. As a result, National Socialism appeared to diverge from the Italian model in both degree and kind.

Differences, however, do not mean that comparison is futile. Broadly speaking, fascism acquired its particular ideological and political shape in the circumstances of a particular generic "crisis" situation that affected different European societies in ways that could not possibly be identical. The rise of interwar fascism was rooted in the ambiguous combination of generic (supranational) and specific (national) historical factors. Its emphasis was on action, radical experiment, and self-generating dynamism. This did not mean that fascism did not possess a vision in itself; but it meant that its particular manifestations in each case were far more contingent on national specificities than in the cases of either liberalism or socialism. Racism, anti-Semitism, religious mysticism, Catholic-inspired corporatism, and imperialism were not related to fascism per se; they became part of the fascist prescription only to the extent that the latter found such trends in national traditions and then radicalized them in the search for a new framework for collective action for the whole (regenerated) nation.

It is therefore essential to distinguish between three potential understandings of fascism. The first, located in the pre–World War I crisis of liberal modernity, revolved around the search for a radical alternative model for national collective action but was far too open-ended and diverse to constitute a defined ideology. The second—what may be called "generic fascism"—captured this trend at a particular historical moment in the immediate post–World War I period, establishing a more concrete ideological framework (negations, expectations, prescriptions) for a radical modern alternative to the existing triptych of conservatism-liberalism-socialism. The third understanding involved the plurality of national manifestations of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, their devices of collective action, experiments, limitations, successes, and failures; in other words, fascism's aggregate political record of the interwar period. While the first two perceptions of fascism had to do with ideas and intentions, the latter notion involved the result of political agency so diverse and particular that it requires an acute awareness of each context in order to separate the specific from the generic.


The impressive spread of fascist ideas and influences across the Continent in interwar Europe generated an array of country-specific manifestations, as fascist movements began to appear in almost all countries. In Romania the League of Archangel Michael (founded in 1927 and later known as the Iron Guard) combined the goal of national rebirth with a strong emphasis on religious Christian mysticism and an extreme cult of self-sacrifice. Fascist variants in many Catholic countries displayed a similar conceptualization of "rebirth" along (dissident) religious lines: in Belgium the main fascist movement glorified Christus Rex as the vehicle for national regeneration (hence the common collective name Rexists for its membership). Equally, corporatism (in itself an idea rooted in Catholic doctrines of self-organization) proved particularly popular in countries with a similar religious background (Italy, Portugal, Belgium) but left fascists in Germany and elsewhere decidedly unenthusiastic. The institution of the state, so instrumental in the process of "fascistizing" society under Italian fascism, was also used by António de Oliveira Salazar (1889–1970) in Portugal (with his model corporatist constitution for the "New State"), General Francisco Franco (1892–1975) in Spain, and Ioannis Metaxas (1871–1941) in Greece, but was rejected by National Socialists in Germany and the Legionaries of the Iron Guard in Romania as an impediment to the spontaneous collective action of the movement.

Biological racism was nowhere as strong as in the case of National Socialism in Germany, but anti-Semitism remained a common focus of many movements; in fact, its cultural roots stretched too far beyond the constituency of fascists for it to be considered a strictly fascist contribution. Again, prescriptions varied greatly: Italian fascism welcomed "Jewish Italians" to the ranks of its movement until the late 1930s; in Hungary the Arrow Cross movement espoused the doctrine of "a-Semitism," which entailed in theory the nonviolent excision of the Jews from the national body; in Greece, Jews fared much better under the fascist regime of General Metaxas in the second half of the 1930s than under its liberal predecessor that had advocated a far more ethno-exclusive notion of nationalism; in Britain, quite like in Italy, anti-Semitism for Mosley's British Union of Fascists started as a nonissue but became a bizarre knee-jerk obsession in the years before the outbreak of World War II that convinced few and galvanized even fewer. Although Italy joined Germany in the Axis alliance in 1939, other fascist movements and regimes refused to join an alleged fascist alliance: in France fear of German expansionism kept many fascists away from declaring an ideological and political loyalty to National Socialism, and those who did so committed political suicide; the Francoist regime that was established in 1939 after a bitter civil war that became a proxy confrontation between the emerging Axis alliance and Soviet Union remained stubbornly neutral during World War II; General Metaxas in Greece saw his policy of "equidistance" (even-handed diplomatic attitude to both western and fascist coalitions) collapse after the Italian attack in 1940 that eventually delivered the country to the western Allies.

Fascist movements and regimes appropriated or adapted the emerging fascist style of politics. Most of them shared the fascist emphasis on leadership: Mosley in Britain, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu (1899–1938) in Romania, Léon Degrelle (1906–1994) in Belgium, José Antonio Primo de Rivera (1903–1936, leader of the Falange fascist movement) in Spain, and even such uncharismatic leaders as Franco, Metaxas, Dollfuss in Austria, or the head of the collaborationist regime in Norway, Vidkun Quisling (1887–1945), were charismatized and glorified by propaganda, supported by carefully choreographed rituals of popular adulation. They displayed a striking fascination with militarism, order and discipline, parades and uniforms, spectacle, symbols, and collective rituals. They endeavored to combine ultranationalist ideology with populist mobilization and activism, cultivating the impression of a society in constant flux and unity. They recast particular national traditions as devices for communal action and consensus. The variety of these national traditions and historical circumstances bred variation and specificity. The inherent paradox of fascism as a generic trend rooted in—and articulated by—national agency may explain the failure of Mussolini to establish a sort of Fascist International in 1934 (an initiative that was boycotted by Nazi Germany from the very start). It may also help us understand why Italy and Germany remained locked in mutual suspicion and competition, not only before the rapprochement of 1935–1936 but also as allies in the buildup to, and the conduct of, the war.


In spite of fascism's ideological diffusion across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, the number of fascist regimes was relatively small. Apart from Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany, other examples of fascist rule may be found in countries of southern, central, and eastern Europe (Spain, Portugal, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Poland), with western Europe proving to be rather resistant to the fascist political challenge. A further wave of regimes that were sympathetic to the Nazi "new order" and appropriated many fascist ideological and political elements were installed in the Axis-occupied countries after 1939, but the circumstances in which the latter climbed to power were determined by military developments and external (German) pressure rather than by the dynamics of the domestic political field.

One of the paradoxes of fascism's transition to political power was that, in spite of its professed "revolutionary" orientation, it never seized power in opposition to established political and economic elites. In fact, even in the cases of Italy and Germany, the fascist movements cast aside many of their original revolutionary demands (e.g., anticapitalist rhetoric) in order to become more acceptable to potential elite sponsors and thus acquire power through seemingly legal means. Both Mussolini and Hitler were finally appointed through constitutional channels (the latter having won a decisive victory in parliamentary elections) as heads of coalition governments and under the supervision of established institutions (monarchy in Italy; presidency in Germany). It was only in January 1925 that Mussolini took the crucial steps toward the establishment of a fascist dictatorship and embarked on the construction of a "totalitarian state" through suppression of freedoms, the establishment of secret police, censorship, and one-party rule. Hitler had to wait until President Paul von Hindenburg's death in August 1934 before abolishing the institution altogether and assuming full control of the German government. From that point he oversaw the gradual transformation of the existing state structures into a "totalitarian" system geared to the needs of racial revolution.

In both cases, the same established elites that had been so instrumental in propelling the fascists to power in a seemingly legal/constitutional arrangement did so in the belief that they would be able to control fascism or "normalize" it under the weight of government responsibility. When, however, they realized in the process that their controlling powers were limited (and rapidly shrinking), they did not oppose the fascist regimes; in fact, on many occasions powerful elite interests continued to work relatively smoothly with the fascist regimes until the very end. In Italy, King Victor Emmanuel III (r. 1900–1946) oversaw the dismantling of the liberal system and the pursuit of aggressive foreign-policy goals by the Fascist regime until July 1943, when—in the shadow of the Allied invasion of Sicily and disquiet among leading Fascists—he took the initiative to remove Mussolini from power.

Others proved equally accommodating, with powerful industrial interests working in tandem with the Fascist regime to offset the impact of the 1929 world economic crisis or supplying the Italian armed forces with military equipment in support of the regime's expansionist policies. In Germany, too, powerful industrial giants, such as Krupp and IG Farben, benefited from the National Socialist regime's autarkic policies from 1936 onward, as well as from the drive toward rearmament that Hitler authorized in contravention to the provisions of the Versailles Treaty. The composition of bureaucracy, industry, diplomacy, and the military displayed relative continuity between the prefascist and the fascist period; a process of "fascistization" did take place but it was gradual, often aided by the compliance of the institutions themselves, and never truly "revolutionary." What is instead striking about all fascist regimes was the degree of elite complicity in bringing fascists to power and tolerating their excesses until the very end.

Barely a year after Mussolini's appointment, in September 1923, a military coup d'état in Spain headed by General Miguel Primo de Rivera (1870–1930) ushered in a seven-year dictatorial rule, during which many of the features and ongoing experiments of Italian fascism were adopted. Indeed, coup d'état, whether military or political, proved another popular avenue to fascist rule. In Portugal in May 1926 a similar pronunziamento brought the military to power, with General António Óscar Carmona (1869–1951) becoming president of the republic. Six years later he appointed his former finance minister, António de Oliveira Salazar as head of the executive. Salazar, an economics professor, had been instrumental in creating a single national movement/party (União Nacional, National Union) along the lines of the Italian Fascist mass party. As prime minister, he appropriated the fascist rhetoric of "corporatism" and launched a new constitution heavily influenced by the Italian experience, which was approved in 1933.

Salazar described his political reforms as an attempt to create a "new state" (Estado Novo), promising to regenerate modern Portugal and resolve all socioeconomic tensions on the basis of national unity. His combination of fascist and conservative (for example, religious) elements emerged as an alternative route to the more blatant radicalism of the Italian and German variants of fascism—and an example for many subsequent dictatorships in southern Europe and in Latin America. Interestingly, his "fascism from above" did not have any space for "revolutionary" fascist alternatives: instead of co-opting it, Salazar violently suppressed the more radical Blue Shirt (National Syndicalist) movement, headed by Rolão Preto (1893–1977), and embarked upon building his "new state" in virtual continuity with preexisting sociopolitical structures.

Generally, the 1930s witnessed an overwhelming shift to dictatorial rule across the Continent; and this was a shift, coupled with a fundamental rejection of liberalism and an uncompromising, violent opposition to communism, that had an increasingly fascist flavor. Coups d'état put an end to democratic rule in Poland (1926), where Marshall Józef Piłsudski (1867–1935) used his popularity and the support of the armed forces to overthrow the elected government and in 1930 eliminated any form of political opposition; in Austria (1933), after the elected chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss suspended the constitution, outlawed political parties, and introduced a corporatist system under the tutelage of Mussolini; and in Greece (1935–1936), where an unstable liberal system faced the concerted opposition of the military, the royalists, and the nationalist Right, eventually succumbing after two coups to the hands of retired General Ioannis Metaxas.

But it was in 1930s Spain that the most symbolic shift from democracy to dictatorship and fascism occurred. Five months after the electoral victory of the Left and the formation of a Popular Front government in February 1936, the military staged a coup in Spanish Morocco that soon spread into the Spanish mainland under the leadership of General Francisco Franco. The ensuing three years of civil war became a genuine proxy confrontation between fascism and socialism. As Italy and Germany became increasingly involved on the side of the Nationalists, and the Soviet Union did the same for the Republican camp, the conflict became internationalized and highly symbolic of the continent-wide shift toward dictatorship, antiliberal/antisocialist rule, and fascism. By April 1939, with Barcelona and Madrid eventually capitulating to the siege of the Francoist forces, the Nationalists could declare victory and set about constructing a fascist-like state in close cooperation with the indigenous Falange Español movement. Ideologically and socially conservative, affording a new lease of power to traditional elites (particularly the powerful families, including the landowning aristocracy and the Catholic Church), but ruthless toward its political opponents to the point of suppressing freedom, the Francoist regime remained in effect until its figurehead's death in 1975.

The "fascist epoch" reached its peak between 1938 and 1941. By the time the war broke out only the British Isles, France, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia had not succumbed. Austria eventually gave in to Nazi pressure under the threat of military invasion in March 1938, thus paving the way for its incorporation (Anschluss) into the "Greater German" Reich (this time, unlike in 1934, Mussolini did not stand up for Austrian independence). Even Czechoslovakia—for many a model of democratic transition for the "successor states" of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—was first dismembered in September 1938 and finally erased from the map in March 1939. In this case, the assault on the state emerged from a combination of Nazi expansionism intent on incorporating the Czechoslovak lands inhabited by a sizable German-speaking minority (Sudetenland) and internal Slovak designs for independence, spearheaded by the fascist-like Hlinka party headed by Josef Tiso (1887–1947).

In the course of the subsequent two years, most European countries were subjugated to the Axis "new order" in Europe, supervised by installed collaborationist regimes. Vidkun Quisling, erstwhile head of the small Nasjonal Samling (National Union) fascist party, declared himself head of the Norwegian state in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi invasion of the country, thereby setting an example of how domestic collaborators could be deployed by the Axis occupiers as puppet administrators of the occupied states. Marshall Philippe Pétain (1856–1951)—a World War I hero—was installed by the Nazis as head of the dismembered Vichy state of France. After Germany had invaded and occupied the Balkans in spring 1941, collaborationist regimes were installed in all countries under Axis control and borders were shifted in order to reward those who had contributed to the success of the operation. Notorious among them was the "Independent State of Croatia," headed by Ante Pavelić (1899–1959), the leader of the indigenous fascist movement, Ustaše, which immediately embarked upon a genocidal policy of ethnic cleansing against Serbs, Jews, and Sinti/Roma (Gypsies). Even in cases of milder occupation policies that tolerated a degree of civilian self-government (Denmark, the Netherlands), the trend after 1941 was for tighter control by Nazi Germany, more oppressive measures against the populations, and loss of even the last remaining vestiges of independence.

With the launch of Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union in June 1941 the moment of triumph came very close but eluded the fascist alliance: in December 1941, within a few miles from Moscow, the military coalition headed by the German Wehrmacht failed in the end to capture the capital of the Soviet Union—and, through it, to bring about the collapse of international socialism confidently predicted by Hitler. Military defeat proved impossible for interwar fascism to survive: first on the freezing Russian steppe, then on the beaches of Normandy and Sicily, finally inside the territories of the German Reich and of Italy, the fascist epoch came to a shattering end. One by one previous allies and fellow travelers abandoned the sinking boat and sought separate agreements with the advancing western Allies and the Soviet Union. Underground resistance movements became emboldened and fought even more resolutely against the domestic fascist order. The almost simultaneous demise of Mussolini and Hitler, in the last two days of April 1945, proved a fitting epilogue to the disaster that fascism brought upon Europe and eventually upon itself: the former was arrested on his way out of Italy by partisans and executed on the spot along with his mistress, their bodies ending up in a public display of hatred in a Milanese piazza; Hitler at least chose the manner and moment of his death, committing suicide inside the labyrinth of his Berlin bunker.


Thus the fascist epoch came to an end, symbolically defeated by a peculiar wartime coalition between its two ideological archenemies, western liberalism and Soviet communism. The postwar endeavors to understand why such a radical ideological phenomenon moved from the intellectual fringes of the late nineteenth century to a position of hegemony during the interwar period have produced a plethora of insights but also of ambiguities. The horrifying evidence from the killing camps of occupied Poland, where millions of Jews, Sinti and Roma, Poles, and other minority groups considered as "nonconformist" by the Nazi authorities perished, the chilling awareness of the so-called euthanasia program against disabled people and the overall brutality of the Nazi occupying forces across the Continent have proved painfully difficult to explain. Although branding fascism as a parenthesis in the otherwise assumed progress of Enlightenment-derived reason has afforded some measure of reassurance for post-1945 humanity, the unnerving hypermodernity of the Nazi genocide and its realization under the auspices of an utterly technological and bureaucratic system are hard to dispel.

Far from "nihilistic" or confined to conditions of "deviant personality" or located in particular national traditions, interwar fascism was popular, even fascinating to many. The disenchantment with the particular management of the transition to the modern world that liberalism had epitomized had led even certain liberals to the path of alternatives from within the modern project. For example, the prominent Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) experienced a short-term conversion to fascism's promise of a new type of democratic alternative to the one that representative democracy had betrayed. Whereas many read fascism as an unacceptable assault on individualism and plurality, others welcomed its emphasis on voluntary mobilization and collective action on the basis of clearly defined and emotive grand schemes.

The agnosticism of the liberal state, unable or unwilling to adjudicate social tensions or anchor individual action in comfortable ideological havens, beset by a fixation with negative freedom even if this entailed paralyzing conflict and division, was a soft target for many—and not just those inhabiting the extreme right-wing fringe of the ideological spectrum. Prominent modernists, such as the French architect Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, 1887–1965), saw in fascism (in his case, of Mussolini's experiments with corporatism) the design for a more harmonious, creative, and sustainable social arrangement. Others, such as the futurist movement in Italy, embraced fascism as a radical break with the ghost of tradition, offering new, legacy-free alternatives for an ultramodern civilization. Its leader, Filippo Tommasso Marinetti (1876–1944), rejected nationalism, imperialism, and heritage in favor of a wholesale embrace of timeless modernity, succumbing to the exhilarating possibility for new, previously unthinkable modes of action and expression in its pure context.

But fascism's early ideological versatility attracted further admirers from other unlikely backgrounds. It was primarily Italian fascism and the Mussolini of the 1920s that appealed to intellectuals including Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and the American poet Ezra Pound (1885–1972). The latter moved to Italy and remained an unapologetic admirer of the Italian fascist experiment until the end of his days. Pound admired fascism's radical potential and ability to generate a sense of dynamism that was in sharp contrast to the alleged stagnation of liberal democracy. In cooperation with Wyndham Lewis (1884–1957)—with whom he founded vorticism as an avant-garde movement preaching a revolutionary break with obsolete tradition in search of a novel, radical aesthetic and dynamic synthesis—Pound rejected the internationalism of the capitalist system and castigated the absence of humanism in the particular kind of modernity epitomized in western civilization. However, he was vehemently anticommunist and thus a fierce critic of the Soviet experiment, while Lewis saw the desired transgression in a combination of fascist and Soviet methods of power centralization. Similarly, the British playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) identified fascism and communism in tandem as a joint genuine solution to the perceived disintegration of the modern world, praising the two doctrines' emphasis on activism and collective mobilization.

Fascism also recruited admirers from the ranks of the political theorists who sought an alternative to the representative model of liberal democracy and a radical prescription against the alleged decline of western civilization. From the ranks of the "conservative revolution" movement that gathered momentum in the first half of the twentieth century a series of thinkers courted fascism; some, like the prominent sociologist Robert Michels (1876–1936) and the philosophers Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and Julius Evola (1898–1974), ended up heavily involved in the development of fascist political experiments, lending crucial intellectual support to them. Others, such as the theoretician of "total mobilization" in Germany Ernst Jünger (1895–1998) and the politician and writer Edgar Jung (1894–1934) (who was assassinated during the "Night of the Long Knives" after having assumed an openly critical stance toward the Nazi regime), followed the rather familiar path of initial attraction followed by disillusionment and alienation. What is interesting in all these cases was the promise that fascism appeared to hold in the far-reaching quest for a postliberal order, steeped in fundamental anxiety about the moral collapse of modern civilization and in a deep pessimism about the ability of the masses to effectively control their own fate. Fascism appeared to them for a variety of reasons to offer a viable, ethically and historically superior, pathway to the rebirth of European culture and society.

The variety of backgrounds from which fascism recruited or received ideological support, as well as the diversity of motives that underpinned such support in each case, highlight a central problem in defining the concept and reconstructing its intellectual history. Fascism appeared so flexible and open-ended in the 1920s that it was co-opted by highly disparate parallel projects, from the Left and Right alike. Becoming closely identified with the particular evolution of Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany produced a far narrower and restricted understanding that has obscured its ambiguous intellectual matrix. As a historically specific articulation of anxiety and search for alternatives, the concept of fascism remains tied to the political experiments of the 1920s and 1930s, with 1945 as a definitive watershed. As a particular instance, however, of a wider search for radical alternatives, constantly updated in the light of shifting supranational and national circumstances, fascism remains highly relevant—not necessarily as an ongoing project in itself but as a diachronic reminder of how widespread disaffection with established norms and directions may breed radical alternatives and of how these alternatives may appear dangerously fascinating to many.

See alsoAnticommunism; Antifascism; Anti-Semitism; Communism; Corporatism; Franco, Francisco; Hitler, Adolf; Metaxas, Ioannis; Mussolini, Benito; Nazism; Racial Theories; World War II.


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Aristotle A. Kallis


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Historical development

The fascist regime–ideal and reality




“Fascism” is used primarily to identify the political system by which Italy was ruled from 1922 to 1945. It is also used to identify a prototype of totalitarianism and is applied to variations of political systems thought to parallel the Italian one.

Historical development

Historically, fascism has its origins in the crisis of Italian parliamentary institutions. This crisis was caused in large part by a failure in the process of adjustment of the traditional parliamentary parties to new mass parties. It occurred at a moment of intensified difficulties caused by World War I, as deep economic and social upheavals were complicated by an upsurge of nationalism and the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Thus, the combination of the weakness of the liberal ruling class, the revolutionary aspirations of the working classes, the extremism of patriotism, the dissatisfaction with the 1919 peace settlements, the psychological dislocation of war veterans, the fears of property-owning classes, and the political role played by the army and the crown produced, four years after the armistice of 1918, the episode known as the March on Rome and the beginnings of a 23-year dictatorship of the Fascist party under the leadership of Mussolini.

As fascism sought, not without difficulty but with final success, to organize itself for the seizure of power, the clash of different ideological trends and the contradictions that were to mark its entire life stood out clearly. In the beginning, fascism showed a strong socialist inspiration. Many of the leaders had come to fascism from socialist and syndicalist movements, but they had differentiated themselves from orthodox socialists by maintaining an aggressive nationalistic attitude that had caused them to favor Italy’s intervention in World War I, to be against what they described as the “unjust” peace settlements, and to support the political adventure of D’Annunzio’s seizure of Fiume. Mussolini backed the occupation of the factories by the workers as part of a revolutionary program intended to give to the industrial working classes the political role they did not have. But, by playing on the themes of national grandeur and power, he was also enlisting the support of nationalistic activists, who thought in terms of territorial expansion and colonialism.

By the end of 1920, however, nationalism rather than socialism was providing the main driving force of fascism. The government of the time, headed by the liberal leader Giovanni Giolitti, rightly thought that a specific revolutionary danger did not exist and that prudent handling of the situation would lead, as it did, to a peaceful resolution of that particular conflict. But Italy’s middle classes, the landowners, the business world, the army, and the crown saw in fascism the militant movement that, properly led, could make Italy safe from the Marxist peril. In 1921/1922 the original, and small, fascist movement was swamped by hundreds of thousands of new members, most of them of middle-class provenance, while it received subsidies from industrial quarters and weapons from the military establishment.

Fascism reoriented itself along fresh lines, with policies that stressed, above all, the need to restore the authority of the state at home and abroad. The state was conceived as the defender of law and order and as the unyielding supporter of the national interest in foreign affairs. The younger party members were organized into blackshirted squads that proceeded to destroy the physical structure and to liquidate the leadership of socialism and communism, which by then had become the chief targets.

When, after the 1919 elections, Giolitti failed to reach agreement with either the Socialists or the Christian Democrats, he imagined that fascism would see Italy through the political impasse by taming these two mass parties and that in the end liberalism would return to power. Liberal Italy greeted October 28, 1922, the day of the fascist seizure of power, as the beginning of an interlude that would stabilize political life, restore the authority of the state, and prepare the return to tradition shortly afterward.

The second period in the history of fascism goes from 1922 to 1925. In the course of these three years the fascist regime sought to answer a number of questions about its own direction and purpose. After the bloody violence of the preceding two years, these years appeared mild enough on the surface, and some of the liberal leaders even thought that their forecasts would be realized. Laissez-faire was the prevailing economic policy. Parties and the press seemed to function almost normally. The word “totalitarian” had not yet been invented.

But the inherent logic of the system was already at work. First, the blackshirted army had not been dissolved, and the dualism typical of a totalitarian state was born, with two sets of institutions–one answerable to the government, the other to the Fascist party. Second, the use of violence accepted as normal since 1922 could not be given up. Force was still the foundation of the regime. One after the other, the voices of the opposition were stilled. The climax was the murder of Matteotti, the Socialist party leader. For the old ruling class, this proved to be the final test of its sense of responsibility and its understanding of the nature of the modern political process. In the summer of 1924 the crown might still have succeeded in obtaining Mussolini’s resignation. The advice it received was that no change should be attempted. The Vatican joined in this appraisal when it drove Luigi Sturzo, the leader of the Christian democratic movement, into exile.

In 1925, exploiting this extraordinary vote of confidence, fascism built the totalitarian structure. The press was silenced or taken over. All parties were abolished except the Fascist party. Constitutional changes were begun that created the unique figure of the leader embodying in his person the sum total of power.

The next ten years, from 1925 to 1935, represented a period of both practical consolidation and theoretical doctrinal development. With power safely in his hands, Mussolini began to consider the problem of the place of fascism in history. Fascism had been criticized as being a naked, pragmatic movement. It was necessary to acquire ideas and to develop an overview on the nature of man and of nations that could promise the recognition of fascism as one of the important revolutionary movements of the twentieth century.

The enemies were identified with great precision. Marxism still was the foremost opponent. But liberalism became another enemy to be fought. Showing little regard for those who had put him in office, Mussolini began to cultivate the ideas that led by 1927 to the labor charter, by 1930/1931 to the beginnings of the corporate state, and by 1934 to the establishment of the corporations themselves.

Some of these economic ideas did provide a certain amount of lively discussion at the time among those whose aim was primarily to find some third way between Marxism and liberalism. The key notions were that (a) the community alone was to have the right to determine what the national interest required; (b) therefore, the conflicting interests of owners, workers, technicians, and the state were to be brought together in a single unit, the corporation, operating under public control; (c) strikes and lockouts were to be forbidden; and (d) the doctrine of the primacy of the politician over the expert was to be abandoned. The divisiveness of politics was to be eliminated by the unity of expertise.

The world-wide depression that had hit the Western world after 1929 facilitated Mussolini’s task. By 1931 the industrial and banking systems of Italy were in serious trouble. The totalitarian regime made possible a quick salvage operation, which placed the key industrial and financial sectors of the country under direct government ownership or control. By 1935 fascism had realized, at least on paper, the goals of a state-controlled society. In its repression of the individual and of social groups, fascism was steadily strengthening and centralizing its power, which was exercised in the name of an ideology that had become a key operational tool in the hands of the new elite.

In its third period, 1935 to 1943, violence and war became the substance of fascism. The first important manifestation of this totalitarian characteristic took place in 1935 with the aggression against Ethiopia, which provided the regime with a testing ground for its military policies, challenged the League of Nations, and furnished German Nazism with evidence of the might of fascist Italy. The second act was played on the battlefields of Spain, where both Nazism and fascism joined hands against republican Spain. Historically, this armed clash was of great significance, for it gave the enemies of Mussolini some idea of their strength and of guerrilla-warfare techniques. The third act was played in 1940, when Mussolini entered World War II on the side of Hitler after the defeat of France. Italy’s defeat came soon, and by 1943 the fascist regime collapsed, as it had begun, through an intervention of the crown.

From 1943 to 1945 the Fascist Social Republic came feebly and fleetingly to life under the control of the Germans. The only point worthy of note is that Mussolini, on the eve of the final collapse and of his own death, tried in a clumsy way to go back to his syndicalist origins and appear as a defender of the proletariat. Industrial plants were now to be turned over to the workers themselves. But it was 1945 and too late.

The fascist regime–ideal and reality

As a movement based on a pragmatic appraisal of the conditions necessary to retain power, fascism was never too preoccupied with the task of a theoretical definition of its own origins and goals. The philosopher Giovanni Gentile sought to link it to Hegelian idealism, the jurist Alfredo Rocco attempted to develop a heavy-handed theory of the state, while Mussolini himself sought to provide the ideology of totalitarianism.

Instruments of power . But the real drive of fascism was in the building of instruments of power and not in the building of theory. Between 1925 and 1939, four main tools of power were developed and refined: charismatic leadership, single-party rule, terror, and economic controls.

Leadership. Around the leader, Benito Mussolini, a series of institutional privileges were built, intended to make his position unchallenged. Constitutionally, he was chief of state and, as such, was placed in a position that was not subordinate to that of the king. Although the monarchy was kept, the Great Council of Fascism had been given certain rights on questions affecting the succession to the throne which placed the monarchy in a dependent position. Politically, the constant rotation in office of Mussolini’s subordinates kept competitors out of the way. Psychologically, the unique position of the leader was carefully maintained by all the devices of communication and propaganda typical of totalitarian states. The identification of fascism with Mussolini was made compulsory in meetings of parliamentary assemblies, of the Fascist party, of economic bodies, of schoolchildren, of every form of group life.

Party rule. The party became a capillary instrument of power going from its highest body, the Great Council of Fascism, which met from time to time to decide major questions of policy, through the secretary of the party and the provincial federations to the thousands of party units, which at the communal level were the daily instruments of propaganda and contact with the country. The party reached out in all directions with its subsidiary organizations, affecting the activities of schoolchildren and the cultural and sport activities of the people. The party became the carrier of the ideology and slogans of the leader, and, more important, the channel through which most of the life of the country had to flow. Jobs, advancement, and preferment had to be cleared in most instances through the party. Membership in the party was, at first, a right belonging to the small elite group that in the pre-1922 days had supported the party’s fight for power; in a second phase which lasted into the early 1930s, membership was made available to all who applied; in a third and final phase, one could become a member only by moving up through the youth organizations that by then had been created. Thus, membership in the Fascist party was reserved at first to the fighters, later to the opportunists, and finally to the perfect citizens of a fascist state nurtured on the ideals of fascism from their most tender age.

Terror. Although between 1925 and 1943 the party was the chief vehicle for the consolidation of the regime, it was no longer the chief instrument of terror, as it had been between 1920 and 1925. “Legalized” repressive functions were carried out by the Special Tribunal for the Safety of the State and by the secret police under the Ministry of the Interior. But from 1943 to 1945, the years of renewed bloody civil war between fascist militias and the resistance groups, the party again undertook the task of meting out summary justice to the increasingly rebellious population and was guilty of massacres that exceeded in scope anything that had been witnessed between 1920 and 1925.

Economic controls. As the pseudo liberalism of the initial years gave way to controls on economic life equaling those on political life, fascism developed two principal instruments of policy. The first was the Institute for Industrial Reconstruction (IRI), which, started in 1931 as an antidepression device, was soon changed into an agency to pursue the military goals that after 1935 became the heart of the dictatorship. Controlling all major financial institutions and nearly all heavy industry through the IRI, the regime transformed it into an ever-expanding industrial complex on which fascist war production plans were based. The second was the corporation, which imposed central controls over all forms of economic activity, including all remaining so-called private activities. Before becoming a “political” tool in 1939, with the establishment of the Chamber of Corporations, the corporation had helped the government control both labor unions and employers’ associations by bringing them all under the rule of a central bureaucracy. The corporations were the best example of a basic tenet of fascist doctrine: the supremacy of the expert over the politician. They were the evidence of the triumph of economics over politics, as parliamentary institutions, made up of representatives of the general interests of the community, were superseded by experts talking the language of economics and technology, given to the hard-headed discussion of facts and not to the empty rhetoric of parliamentarism.

Fascism in operation . All told, this structure represented something new. As Mussolini said, “A party holding ‘totalitarian’ rule over a nation, is a new departure in history. There are no points of reference nor of comparison” ([1932] 1935, p. 36). Later analysts were to agree in large part with this statement and to say that totalitarianism did, indeed, represent a twentieth-century departure in the political evolution of mankind. In addition, the essence of totalitarianism was to be found in a combination of leadership, an ideologically inspired mass party, and violence, and in so total a claim by the ruling group over the lives of the individuals that no separateness, no autonomous legal system, and no group life could survive.

The totalitarian pattern of fascism, however, falls short of this model, in part because Mussolini gave too much weight to the state: “For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative. Individuals and groups are admissible insofar as they [cannot attack the state]. … The Fascist state … has a will of its own. For this reason it can be described as ‘ethical’ “([1932] 1935, pp. 37-38). And in article 1 of the labor charter of 1927 the Italian nation was described as an “organism having ends, a life and means superior in power and duration to the single individuals or groups of individuals composing it” (National Fascist Party [1927] 1935, p. 53). These were Hegelian influences that reflected the early role of the idealism of Gentile, whose presence could not be fully reconciled with the nihilism of authentic totalitarianism.

The party itself was one additional field in which fascist totalitarianism did not ring true. The party efforts to maintain ideological coherence, discipline, and a sense of mission were thwarted by the Italian belief in relativism, the spirit of compromise, and the refusal to take ideology seriously. The history of other totalitarian parties has shown that the party purge is of the essence in a totalitarian system. A domesticated totalitarian party, not wracked by fear, not cowed by the brooding image of the leader, but rather reduced to a mere vehicle for the securing of jobs, is no longer a revolutionary movement. The events from 1943 to 1945 showed that the behavior of blackshirted killer squads, the trial and execution of a few high-placed fascist leaders, including Mussolini’s own son-in-law, were evidence only of the extremes of panic to which the surviving fascists were driven under the twin pressures of partisans’ attacks and of German controls. The ease with which the country shed its fascist trimmings showed that in 25 years an effective hard core of fascist militants had not developed.

Hence, terror on a large scale and for preventive or repressive purposes never quite materialized. Fascism suffers by comparison with the apocalyptic liquidations for which Hitler and Stalin will be known to history. Instead of millions, Mussolini had on his conscience only a few tens of thousands of dead, excluding casualties due to direct military action during World War II. The will was lacking. Mussolini’s cynical boasting was nearly always accompanied by a most lively sense of his inadequacy. The assured appearance of the leader on the public square was not matched by equal confidence in his private political activities. He had been a member of a democratic socialist party for too long to forget entirely the habit of doubt and skepticism. Hidden admiration for certain traditional forms of Italian culture stopped him from exercising his powers to the fullest extent. His ignorance made him avoid direct confrontation with established forms of conducting public business, which could therefore continue as before.

Mussolini’s most persistent feeling probably was that of the crisis of the modern capitalistic order. He kept asking certain questions over and over again, without necessarily providing the answers. In 1932 he had asked, “Is this crisis, which has held us in its grip for the past four years ... a crisis ‘within’ the system or ‘of the system?” (1935, p. 10). He felt he could not give an answer then, but in November 1933 he was to say, “Today my answer is: the crisis has sunk so deep into the system that it has become a crisis ‘of’ the system. … We can now assert that the capitalistic mode of production has been superseded” (pp. 10-11). Why is this so? Because by its very size capitalism has turned “into a social phenomenon, and it is precisely at this moment that capitalistic enterprise … falls like a dead weight into the arms of the State” (p. 16).

This is a purely Marxian analysis of the problem (the dominant socialized characteristics of a highly developed capitalistic system, the sudden crisis) up to the point at which the heir of capitalism is not the armed proletariat sitting on the ruins of the institutions of the bourgeois state, but is the “ethical state itself.”

Mussolini tried hard, with the labor charter and the laws on the corporations, to give some unity to the new system. He made large theoretical claims for the corporations, which were to unite workers, owners, experts, the state, and the party and to which powers had been given extending from wage fixing to the regulation of production, the settlement of disputes, the drafting of collective labor contracts, and the prevention of strikes and lockouts.

But in his vaguely socialist dream, he was limited, on the one hand, by his recognition of private property as necessary to the fulfillment of the human personality and, on the other, by the overwhelming bureaucratic complexities of the all-ornothing paper structure of the corporate state, and this made it necessary for him to appoint to the governing boards of the corporations representatives not only of wine but also of vinegar producers, not only of umbrella but also of button manufacturers. The resistance of the property owners who had put Mussolini in power was subtle and stubborn. They saw, in the immense Roman bureaucracy and in a party where the stout of heart and the believers were few, the chance to use the state capitalism of fascism in the same way in which public systems in other countries have been used by anxious capitalists in trouble, that is, as a prop to keep them going until better times.

The easy way out for everybody was military adventure. Again, the final flare-up of the Social Republic in the spring of 1945 is evidence of the decay of a system on the eve of its liquidation. Until then, the vast structure of the production system had been used only to prepare for war and to enable the regime to find overseas the outlets not found at home.


As a phenomenon that, having spread from Italy to other countries, affected the course of history between the two world wars, fascism has been subjected to a 40-year effort at interpretation. The variety of analyses has been correspondingly great, with sharp contrasts among the points of view depending on the time, the interests, and the approaches of those dealing with it.

The fascists themselves, those with a more speculative frame of mind and able to write with some detachment after the event, have tended to see in fascism one phase of the world-wide shifting of the political discourse from multiparty to one-party systems and of the transfer of power from the legislative to the executive, in which violence was discipline and military aggression was reaction to foreign hostility. They still believe that some of the trends and programs foreshadowed by the fascist era should be developed in the future as part of the needs of modern government. Fascism without ideology, war, and concentration camps could find expression in a depoliticized society that would turn its back on the rhetoric of the nineteenth century, but not on deeply felt national sentiments, and seek its way under the guidance of stable and efficient leadership.

The parties in power at the end of World War I, when the crisis began, saw the fascist movement in a different light. To them it was the unavoidable reaction of the “healthier” political forces in the country to the process of disintegration of the community and the constitutional system, caused by forces largely identified with Marxism. Marxism, in its twin embodiment of socialism and communism, loomed as a many-sided assault on the traditional institutions. The infrastructure agencies (cooperatives, peasants’ leagues, trade unions) moved against the state with excessive economic claims and with a systematic onslaught on the processes of production. The authority of the state itself was being weakened by a series of strikes that affected vital public services. Fascism was a reaction of certain social groups, primarily the middle classes and the well-educated urban youth, intended to restore law and order.

But the undermining of the liberal constitutional order was not carried out at this level alone, for at the national political level Marxist parties were acting in alliance with another large and new political formation, the Christian Democratic party. Marxism and Christian democracy as mass parties joined hands here in their attempt to deprive the parliament and cabinet of their traditional roles by imposing rigid programs, which, the liberals thought, were not in keeping with the discussion and compromise typical of a constitutional democracy. Party bosses, who were constitutional “outsiders,” sought to dominate political life. Fascism was to restore the constitutional system through the destruction of mass parties, those intruders which, since 1919, had upset the apple cart. Hence, a dual purpose was attached to fascism: the immediate restoration of normalcy against communist subversion and the long-range return to parliamentary government freed from the obnoxious influence of mass party rule. In brief, fascism was an interlude at the end of which the forward march of liberalism could be resumed.

This view did not survive the events of 1924/1925, when the institutions of totalitarianism were set up and a fuller view of fascism stood revealed. The realization by the liberals of the illiberal realities of single-party dictatorship took place by stages between 1923 and 1925. By then, from Giolitti to Croce, Italian liberalism presented a united antifascist front. But what stood out most clearly was the liberals’ singular attachment to certain constitutional values that ruled out modern variations, chiefly the constitutional transfer of power to mass democratic parties. Liberal elitism was in the end confronted and defeated by brutal and stronger varieties of fascist elitism. The critics of the liberals’ position have pointed out that this was a historical mistake of which they were the first victims.

Many of the spokesmen for the new mass parties, from Sturzo to Tasca, have pointed out that it was the refusal of the old ruling class to come to terms with the new elite emerging from the mass upheavals of postwar Italy that was at the root of the triumph of fascism. Socialists and Christian Democrats, far from seeing in themselves the agents for the destruction of the state, saw in their programs the only hope for a democratic renovation of Italian life and institutions. Their view was that the liberals were the accomplices of fascism in an attempt to stop the normal democratic evolution of a society in rapid transformation.

The Marxists follow orthodox lines. Fascism was the defender of capitalistic society, threatened by the steady widening of the power of the Russian Revolution and of the influence of Marxism in Italy. Fascism was a repressive movement developing along the lines Marx had anticipated for the final phase of bourgeois society.

This understanding of fascism as a class phenomenon, deprived of mystery and uncertainty, simplified the task of the Marxist opposition, which, after 1925, was to be essentially communist opposition. The socialists were no longer an effectively organized force, whereas other Marxist groups, aware of the evolution of Stalinism, had moved toward the center with reformulation of a modern liberal-socialist faith. Through their firm rejection of fascism, the communists were to derive great political benefits after 1945, for they could then identify themselves with one clear alternative in which they claimed to have believed all along. However, the communist interpretation of fascism did run into some difficulties. At the beginning the difficulty lay in the fact that the clear-cut class lines which would have had to be present as capitalism engaged in a supreme attempt at survival were not there at all. Fascism drew mass support from lower middle classes, intellectuals, peasants, and workers. Ten years later the noncapitalistic inclinations of fascism had become apparent, at least in theory, even though the fledgling corporate state was submerged by the requirements of fascist military policy. At this stage, however, the communists could point to war as the logical outcome of a capitalistic-ally inspired tyranny. But at the end the lines were confused once more as fascism tried to revert to one of its ideological roots, socialism. These difficulties, however, did not substantially weaken the appeal of the communist interpretation, because its key element was the condemnation of the bourgeoisie, which it made responsible for fascism. And to this analysis many non-Marxists found it possible to accede. Moreover, the Marxist interpretation had the advantage of appearing to deal seriously with the phenomenon of fascism. Whatever it was, it was not to be taken lightly. It was a phase in the development of certain contemporary societies.

Such views stand a better chance of withstanding the test of history than predominantly literary interpretations, widely accepted at times, of fascism as a bad dream, as an inexplicable and certainly short-lived aberration that would fade away with a return to rational behavior. This caustically ironic attitude was justified perhaps by the frequency with which fascism appeared clothed in grotesque garments or supported policies that, because they were unacceptable on the basis of tradition, could not be sustained. But it suffered from an incomplete analysis of the crisis of Italian society and from a belief that Italian history since 1870 had shown nothing but favorable progress along the lines of modern democracy and that the anarchy prevailing deep in the hearts of so many Italians had been conquered by a growing sense of community.

Related to the bad-dream school was the historical one of fascism as a periodic phenomenon of Italian history. Mussolini was linked to the long series of tyrants, large and small, adventurers, and Machiavellian princes, who for many centuries had dotted the Italian landscape. Italy was the victim of one more manifestation of an endemic disease. A lack of discrimination, a tendency to vague generalizations, and a belief in cyclical recurrence afflicted an account that later could not explain the unprecedented catastrophic events marking the end of fascism and the difficulties that have continued to beset Italy since 1945.


No adequate review of the fascist era, from the point of view of the social scientist, has been undertaken since 1945. The literature has tended to be reminiscent, episodic, and introspective. At best we have detailed narratives of short critical periods in the history of fascism. Slowly, however, general reflections and lines of agreement appear to emerge and suggest some preliminary conclusions.

The first concerns the weakness of Italy’s pre-fascist ruling class, a class whose credit ledger in the years from 1848 to 1922 was certainly not a mean one. But between 1912 and 1922 that class had been guilty of a series of decisions taken outside the liberal constitutional system and against the interests of the country. The Libyan war was a surrender to nationalistic and colonial interests. The parliamentary manipulations of the spring of 1915 had brought the country into World War I under unfavorable conditions and against the inclinations of the country at large. The acceptance of the dismal rhetoric of D’Annunzio as the official ideology of a country at war released the worst aspect of the sentimental patriotism and aggressive nationalism that formed such a large part of the post-1919 crisis. The failure of the machinery of the state and of the administration to maintain order and, worse still, the arming by the government of the Black Shirts were the final evidence of the liquidation of a ruling class that no longer ruled, had no views of what it should do, and was ready to step aside in the hope of recovering the past sometime in the future.

The second is the recognition of the depth of a phenomenon that today is playing a decisive role in the transformation and behavior of social groups, that of anomie. World War I had imposed an altogether excessive and cruel effort upon Italy. The idiocy of generals who sent hundreds of thousands of young men to a useless death, the social upheavals caused by war industries and profiteering, the opening up, under the strains of conflict, of regions that for centuries had been cut off from communication not only with the rest of the world but almost with their neighbors, and the lack of any recognition after 1918 of the seriousness of the problems which peacetime Italy would confront caused an unendurable strain on the weak texture of Italian society. This created large and vague expectations on the part of millions of unemployed and uprooted peasants, war veterans, frontline heroes, and dissatisfied students. Liberal Italy was not prepared to meet them or even to recognize them.

Under such anomic conditions, the appeal of mass movements–Marxism, Christian democracy, fascism–was bound to be great. That of Marxism was notable, even though the Socialist party dated back to the late nineteenth century. Although the theoretical weaknesses of the old warrior had been exposed, its half-hearted revolutionary enthusiasm could not be concealed. The mass appeal of Christian democracy was based on yet untested slogans and on new men, and it quickly gathered strength. But Italian liberalism had lumped Christian democracy together with Marxism. Both were forms of the revolt of upstart political elites against the majesty of the liberal state. The last of the three, fascism made its appearance as something new, promising shelter, food, stability, jobs, and a vigorous political system to those who were looking for such assurances. It had the advantage over Marxism and Christian democracy of being helped by the ruling class and by the weapons placed at its disposal.

Fascism can thus be seen as a mass movement to which an anomic society turned in a period of crisis for reassurance and the promise of satisfaction of essential community needs. But the promise was not kept. Behind the seemingly innovative façade, economic and social stagnation prevailed. Perhaps the most typical fascist law was the one that attempted to stop internal migrations. By freezing population movements, by keeping the peasant on the land, fascism strengthened the anarchism of individuals and acted directly contrary to the needs of the country, preventing the modernization of its ancient, quasi-feudal structures.

Thus, fascism did not resolve the anomic state of Italian society that had made its rise possible in the first place. The process of integration and modernization could start in earnest only after 1945. Among all the industrialized countries of western Europe, Italy is still the one most substantially removed from the conditions of a modern state. This, in part, is the result of the long frost of fascism.

At the same time, however, fascism functioned as if it had understood the new conditions of economic life. Bits of the largely unused machinery and ideas of the corporate state have been retained in post-1945 Italy in such fields as collective bargaining, where national and compulsory uniformities are now imposed. Labor agreements binding even on those who have not participated in their negotiation and massive state intervention in the settlement of labor disputes are part of the practice of republican Italy. Equally significant has been the resurfacing of fascist corporativism, the acceptance of its features in Gaullist France. The controlling factor everywhere is found in the deep malaise of European capitalism, which in its support of monopoly practices, sharp dealings with public authority, secrecy of managerial decisions, and drive for sheltered markets has deepened many of the accepted defects and realized few of the expected promises of the industrial revolution.

Mario Einaudi

[See alsoCaudillismo; Dictatorship; Falangism; National socialism; Socialism.]


Alatbi, Paolo 1956 Le origini del fascismo. Rome: Editori Riuniti.

Deakin, Frederick W. 1962 The Brutal Friendship: Mussolini, Hitler and the Fall of Italian Fascism. New York: Harper; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Delzell, Charles F. 1961 Mussolini’s Enemies: The Italian Anti-Fascist Resistance. Princeton Univ. Press.

Dorso, Guido 1949 Mussolini alla conquista del potere. Edited by C. Muscetta. Turin: Einaudi.

Felice, Renzo De 1965– Mussolini. Volume 1: II rivo-luzionario, 1883–1920. Turin: Einaudi.

Finer, Herman (1935) 1964 Mussolini’s Italy. Ham-den, Conn.: Shoe String Press.

Gahosci, Aldo 1943 La vita di Carlo Rosselli. 2 vols. Rome: Edizioni “U.”

Gobetti, Piero 1960 Scritti politici. Edited by Paolo Spriano. Turin: Einaudi.

Gramsci, Antonio 1947 Opere. Vol. 1– Turin: Einaudi. → Eleven volumes published up to 1966.

Megaho, Gaudens 1938 Mussolini in the Making. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Mussolini, Benito (1932) 1935 The Doctrine of Fascism. Florence: Vallecchi. → First published in the Enciclopedia italiana. Reprinted in 1942 in Michael Oakeshott (editor), The Social and Economic Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, published by Mac-millan.

Mussolini, Benito 1935 Four Speeches on the Corporate State. Rome: “Laboremus.”

National Fascist Party, Grand Council OF FascisM (1927) 1935 The Labour Charter. Pages 51-62 in Benito Mussolini, Four Speeches on the Corporate State. Rome: “Laboremus.”

Rocco, Alfredo 1926 The Political Doctrine of Fascism. New York and Worcester, Mass.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Rosselli, Carlo (1930) 1945 Socialismo liberale. Rome: Edizioni “U.”

Salvatohelli, Luigi; and Mira, Giovanni (1956) 1962 Storia d’ltalia nel periodo fascista.4th ed. Turin: Einaudi.

Salvemini, Gaetano 1936 Under the Axe of Fascism. New York: Viking; London: Gollancz.

Salvemini, Gaetano 1961 Scritti sul fascismo. Edited by Roberto Vivarelli. Milan: Feltrinelli.

Sturzo, Luigi (1919-1926) 1956-1957 Il Partita Popo-lare Italiano. 3 vols. Bologna: Zanichelli.

Sturzo, Luigi (1926) 1927 Italy and Fascismo. New York: Harcourt; London: Faber & Gwyer. → First published in Italian.

[Tasca, Angelo] 1938 The Rise of Italian Fascism, 1918-1922, by Angelo Rossi [pseud.]. London: Me-thuen. → First published in French in 1938. Translated into Italian in 1950 as Nascita e avvento del fascismo.

Valehi, Nino (1956) 1958 Da Giolitti a Mussolini: Mo-menti della crisi del liheralismo. 4th ed. Florence: Parenti.


views updated Jun 08 2018






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 communisms 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 nations 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.


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.


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 classesSlavs in the Habsburg Empire and Jews everywhere in Europealso 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 periodItaly, 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 governmentthe Vichy regimeenjoyed 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 Mussolinis 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 Italys 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. Italys 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, Mussolinis fascism defined history as constant struggle through constant war. The necessity of action required the adulation of a leader who would manage his countrys 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 Italys weakened economic state after the war as proof that such a leader was necessary for Italian recovery.

In 1922, Mussolinis 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. Hitlers fusion of race doctrinethe belief in the natural inequality of human races and the superiority of the Teutonic racewith Mussolinis 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. Hitlers fascist National Socialist Party, begun in 1919 as the German Workers Party, was an anti-Semitic, 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.


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 individuals right to social mobility. This interpretation puts the rise of fascism in an international context of the struggles of European modernity.

SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Capitalism; Censorship; Colonialism; Communalism; Great Depression; Hierarchy; Hitler, Adolf; Imperialism; Liberalism; Mussolini, Benito; Nationalism and Nationality; Nazism; Propaganda; Property; Racism; Right Wing


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 Mussolinis 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, 19141945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Smith, Denis Mack. 1982. Mussolini. New York: Knopf.

Tracey A. Pepper


views updated Jun 11 2018


Fascism played a major role in twentieth-century European and world history, especially in its attempt to develop a particular nonliberal and nonhumanistic modern perspective on science and technology. Fascism, in power, was a form of rule where key societal resources were monopolized by the state in an effort to penetrate and control many aspects of public and private life, through the state's use of propaganda, terror, and technology.

Fascism also remains a highly complex and illusive political phenomenon. Classical fascism (the small f for comparative purposes) can be described in terms of a number of loosely-related early-twentieth-century political parties, movements, and regimes, especially in Germany (Adolph Hitler's National Socialism), Italy (Benito Mussolini's Fascism proper, from which the generic term fascism is derived), and Spain (Francisco Franco's more radical wing of Falangism).

All fascisms oppose communism, the values of liberal democracy, rationalism, and scientific positivism, with assertions of bellicose nationalism, and each variety of fascism has sought in its own manner and cultural context to adopt advanced military, penal (including in the Nazi variant genocidal), and communication (propaganda) technologies, while criticizing the universalism and humanism of liberal science and technology. Some suggest that a palingenetic and inherently revolutionary mythology of rebirth ultimately binds all authentic forms of generic fascism together and separates them from authoritarian and reactionary military dictatorships, and totalitarian regimes such as that of Stalin (Griffin 1993).

In spite of fascisms' ritualistic invocation of an idealized past—the Nazi Aryan myth; the Italian myth of Rome, the preoccupation with the glorious age of Elizabeth I among interwar British fascists—fascism actually emerged from a background steeped in pseudoscience and social Darwinism, and the high-tech myths of futurism, and as such can be seen as an authentically modern movement, especially in terms of its attitudes toward, and application of, science and technology.

Fascism has also persisted since the collapse and defeat of the Mussolini and Hitler regimes, in various manifestations of neo- or post-fascism, operating as a sometimes influential, but often marginalized, opposition movement within liberal democracy. Latter day fascists often deny their fascist roots, or operate clandestinely, because of the negative and reviled nature of fascism because of its well known and understood connection with the systematic process of Nazi war and genocide. Others have been partially absorbed into liberal democracy and deradiclalized.

Fascism in Italy (1922–1943)

In 1932 the fascist dictator Mussolini, with the considerable help of the neo-Hegelian philosopher Giovanni Gentile (1875–1944), contributed an entry to the Encyclopedia Italiana on the definition of fascism. Italian conceptions of the work of Georg Hegel derived largely from Benedetto Croce (1866–1952), a philosopher of international repute. Mussolini asked Croce to write this doctrine of fascism for him, but Croce refused. But in Gentile's writings, Mussolini discovered a serviceable philosophical peg of neo-Hegelian idealism on which to hang his brutal, vitalistic doctrines.

The famous entry contains elements of Gentile's personal criticisms of liberal and post-enlightenment science and technology, depicting the state as the source of all ethics, individual as well as collective. A key passage reads:

The State, as conceived and realized by Fascism, is a spiritual and ethical entity. ... which in its origin and growth is a manifestation of the spirit. The State ... safeguards and transmits the spirit of the people, elaborated down the ages in its language, its customs, its faith. The State is not only the present; it is also the past and above all the future. ... the State stands for the immanent conscience of the nation. The forms in which it finds expression change, but the need for it remains. ... it transmits to future generations the conquests of the mind in the fields of science, art, law, human solidarity; it leads men up from primitive tribal life to that highest manifestation of human power, imperial rule. ... Whenever respect for the State declines and the disintegrating and centrifugal tendencies of individuals and groups prevail, nations are headed for decay. (Mussolini 1932, p.26)

Aside from this perverted Hegelian notion that the state equals life itself, the entry usefully emphasizes other core themes of Italian Fascism: a firm belief in the concrete reality of life, anti-individualism, antiliberalism and liberal democratic sentiments, antisocialism, the call for action and revolution, a denial that happiness is achieved through comfort and well-being, the belief that fascism is ultimately a spiritual force, and the idea that fascist ideology was a far stronger ethical basis for existence than any mere rule of law (on this last point see the writings of Carl Schmitt).

A major strand of Italian fascist technologism emerged from the prewar futurist movement in art, founded in 1909 by the poet Filippo Marinetti. Futurism arose as part of the general modernist artistic ferment that characterized the intellectual life of Europe, and particularly France and Italy, in the period before 1914. The futurists' goal was to celebrate modern technology and to free Italian art from the psychology of the past. In 1910 Umberto Boccioni published the Manifesto of the Futurist Painters. The cult of the machine age was central to futurism and from the beginning futurist ideology was saturated with violence and aggression. The infatuation with speed, change, and modernity soon became intertwined with ultranationalism and in 1915 Marinetti published War—the Sole Hygiene of the World, placing science and technology at the service of war and brutal imperialism. What had started as the rejection of stagnation in art became an all-encompassing, authoritarian political message, in which all decadent (code for liberal and leftist) manifestations of the old Italy were to be overthrown. Under Mussolini's regime, futurism lost its radical edge and was largely confined to producing extravagant plans for buildings in the futurist style, very few of which were actually built.

But the tenor and relentless propaganda of the regime remained focused on placing the latest science, technology, and management techniques at the disposal of the Italian people—hence grand public buildings such as the Milan and Florence railway stations, the Autostrada, and electrification of the main railways network. There was also a ceaseless drive to embrace the dynamism of the second industrial revolution embodied in the Fascists' Third Rome, the exploitation of hydroelectric power, the propaganda surrounding the launch of any new Fiat vehicle, and Italo Balbo's daring flying antics in the United States. Fascist propagandists also strove tirelessly to emphasize the link between technology, science, modernization, and the regime. In addition, attempts were made to create new institutions for managing the modernization process, institutions of an authoritarian, technocratic character such as the Confederazione Generale dell'Industria Italiana and the Gruppi di Competenza. In addition, genuinely innovative institutions were created to manage the modernization process: Confederazione Generale dell'Industria Italiana, Gruppi di Competenza, Consigli Tecnici, and Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale. The highly technocratic Guiseppi Bottai, Minister of Corporations and also editor of Critica Fascista, used every opportunity to emphasize the technocratic and scientific core of the "New Italy" and its third way "Corporate State"—a process that rapidly ran out of steam when he ceased to be Minister in 1932. (For the best account of fascist modernism, see Griffin 1994.)

Germany (1933–1945)

Fascism in Germany was, in almost every aspect, the most radical and extreme manifestation of fascist ideology, putting science and technology to the most unethical of uses, including mass genocide achieved through Ford-style, efficient factory methods The German regime eventually waged a brutal, and for the period, high-tech war through the development of weapons of mass destruction and rocket-propelled delivery systems. From the road construction of the Todt Organization to the development of the V3 rocket bomb, there is no question that Nazi Germany promoted a culture of advanced technology (Griffin 1994). As Roger Griffin cogently puts it, "the Third Reich was saturated with technocratic values. ... The V3 rocket bomb could hardly have been developed by an anti-technological culture" (Griffin 1994, p.10).

Part of the reason for this was that Nazism emerged from a cultural climate imbued with the idea that the West was degenerating, a fear dating back to Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1787), and an associated sense of the urgency of the task of regeneration and rebirth. The rise of Nazism also coincided with the period of the most influential writings of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and Schmitt (1888–1985). Heidegger favored a form of antimodern rule that would restore Being to its proper role in Western affairs. Mistaking the Nazis as the political basis for a rebirth of technology and humanity, he threw in his lot with Hitler's regime, and never repudiated Nazism, continuing to speak of its inner truth and greatness.

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who famously fathered a distinctly Germanic critique of decadent European society. He affirmed that a regenerative instinct for the Will to Power realized through the blond beast could destroy weak institutions and beliefs, blazing a trail for the vital, the powerful, and the creative. German interwar thinkers and public intellectuals adopted Nietzsche's Zarathustra in a bastardized and popularized form, as a symbol for a rejuvenating Kultur capable of overcoming the effects of decadent commercial and wasteful technological civilization. Nietzsche's writings influenced many of the leading German cultural pessimists, especially Ernst Junger (1895–1998) and Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) who, in turn, influenced Heidegger.

As Michael Zimmerman has argued, "Jünger claimed that the soft, decadent, and unmanly European bourgeoisie was being displaced by der Arbeiter (the Worker), a new type of humanity combining the steely hardness of modern technology with the iron will of a proto-Nietzschean blond beast. Jünger foresaw a powerful new upsurge of Will in the face of Western decrepitude" (p. 14). Adopting Junger's rhetoric of struggle and hardness, Heidegger appeared to the less sophisticated minds to be exhorting all Germans to submit to a technological Will to Power in order to overcome decline and despair (uberwinden).

But in fact he criticized the technological Will to Power and argued for its transcendence through Volk politics and Gelassenheit (detachment)—a highly misplaced hope in the case of the Nazis. Heidegger's ontological language was pitched at such a high level of linguistic and philosophical abstraction that it was impenetrable to most intellectuals, and his solution was an equally obscure and backward-looking spiritual renewal far too abstract for his Nazi masters to grasp. He was naturally predisposed toward Nazi ultranationalism through the special destiny he assigned to the German people because of their language, which he saw as the natural heir to classical Greek—a pure philosophical language, a quality that had disappeared from all other Western European languages. In addition, Heidegger's key concept of Dasein (a combination of the words being [sein] and here [da]) was based on the belief that the real is also rational, and, after 1933, the here was nazism and the obvious concrete power of National Socialism was, for him, an uncovering of authentic Being.

Heidegger's initial enthusiasm for nazism was soon reduced by the complete lack of interest the Nazis showed in his philosophy. As rector of Freiburg University in 1933, Heidegger delivered a famous address in which he announced that he had the correct philosophical understanding of National Socialism, but the Nazis did not understand him. His exclusive form of philosophical National Socialism was not based on any concept of race or imperial conquest and was, therefore, completely irrelevant to his political bosses.

Schmitt, a pupil of Max Weber, was a leading German thinker on constitutional law who wrote several seminal studies during the Weimar period and became known as the enemy of liberalism. Like Heidegger he entered the Nazi university establishment after 1933. Schmitt rejected cosmopolitan ideals and the intrinsic goodness of humankind and argued that the law was ultimately subservient to politics. Liberalism, meanwhile, offered a false universalism, which obscured the existentially paramount nature of politics and replaced it with the struggle for abstract notions of rights. Political reality ultimately transcended all legal norms for Schmitt, who supported the existential over the theoretical. Thus war lacks any normative justification, its reason lying not in ideals of justice, democracy, or economic prosperity, but in preserving the very existence of the sovereign and sacred polity when it is threatened—in this case a Germany threatened by decadent liberals, Jews, and communists.

Despite his openly Nazi ideals, Schmitt's work proved influential on later authoritarian conservatism outside Germany; Raymond Aron referred to him as a great social philosopher in the tradition of Weber. His writings continue to influence the left, as demonstrated by the content of the journal Telos, and to fascinate poststructuralists, including Chantal Mouffe (1999) and Jacques Derrida.

Spanish Falangists (1936–1975)

The Falange was a quasi-fascist political organization, which constituted the single official party in Spain between 1939 and 1975, making it the longest-lasting fascist-style regime. This minor party was founded in 1933 by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, and, with other parties, became the Spanish Phalanx of the Assemblies of National-Unionist Offensive.

During the Spanish Civil War, the Falangists fought on the nationalist side against the left-led Republicans. When Franco seized personal power, he united the Falange with the Carlist monarchists, forming the Movimiento Nacional—thus purging the Falange of its more radical and modernizing fascistic elements. After the war, moderate Falangist ministers had an important role in Francoism, but Franco turned increasingly to younger politicians thus allowing Spain be dominated by the technocratic wing of Falangism, whose policies arguably promoted a return to democracy.

Non-European Fascisms

Minor potential examples of generic fascism and neofacism have existed elsewhere in Europe and around the world both before and since 1945. But the only other continent that has witnessed significant concentrations of quasi-fascist parties, movement, and regimes is Latin America, principally Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile.

Between 1954 and 1989, Alfredo Stroessner's authoritarian Colorado Party made Paraguay a safe haven for Nazi war criminals such as Josef Mengele. However the most significant neofascist regime existed in Argentina under Juan Perón (president from 1946–1955 and 1973–1974) who fostered a powerful populist, authoritarian personality cult initially with the assistance of his beautiful but ill-fated wife Eva.

Islamic Fascism

Some claim that Islamic Fascism exists and is also a phenomenon of modernism (see Wistrich 2001). In this thesis it is basically a twentieth-century totalitarian movement—like fascism and communism. Islam existed before Islamic Fascism, and will exist after it.

Islamic Fascism is designed—like fascism and communism—to appeal to idealistic young people with a utopian future where the world will be cleansed. It really started with the Iranian revolution in 1979, and was formerly called Islamic fundamentalism. Other names for it include Islamofascism or Islamism. And—like fascism and communism—its only solution, according to its adherents, is the total and utter destruction of western liberal and Christian culture and philosophy. This may, of course, require a long cold war, lasting for perhaps the next two or three decades, punctuated by perhaps one or two more hot wars, but Islam will prevail.

Broader Issues for Science, Technology, and Ethics

Among other things, the rapid rise of fascism illustrates the severe problem of cultural disorder created by radical and rapid scientific and technological change in the early-twentieth century and the associated difficulty of moving from essentially premodern traditional societies to modern rationalistic, scientific, and technological societies with mass democratic systems.

By nature fascism is clearly opposed to those aspects of modernity linked with decadence, particularly cultural-pluralism, liberalism, and materialism. There are obvious examples of premodern thought within fascism—for instance the Blood and Soil movement, ideals in both Germany and Italy of regeneration of the peasantry and the restoration of the ancient bond between Germans and Italians and the land. Yet fascism is by no means entirely antimodern, as Gentile suggested:

... as a descendant of early twentieth-century modernist nationalism, fascism does not identify with anti-modernism, but in its own way ... it had a certain passion for modernity not inconsistent with its harking back to the traditions of the past ... The fascists saw themselves as the modern "Romans" ... compatible with the myth of the future and with fascism's ambition of revising modernity in order to leave its mark on the new civilization in the age of the masses. (Gentile 1993, p. 24–25)

At one level fascism clearly represented a rejection of liberal scientific positivism. But equally, as Roger Griffin (1994) argues, it contained a readiness to employ the latest scientific and technological techniques to destroy liberalism and communism and achieve its irrationalist and dystopian ends.

Many varieties of fascism also tried to replace orthodox religion with a perverted secularized and spiritualized modernism, based in part on developing and deploying the dazzling potential gains of modern science and technology and offering the chimera of an economics of plenty—a technological heaven on earth. Indeed Gentile has depicted Italian Fascism as the first and most highly developed form of modern mass political religion—offering a new ideology to fill the void left by the decline of traditional religion in Italy. Earlier cults and myths of Italian ultranationalism forged the basis of a civic religion that was then colonized and adapted by the Fascist party. As such, Italian Fascism was a vital catalyst for contemporary Italian mass politics (Gentile 1996).

Fascism clearly demonstrates the considerable negative as well as liberating functions of modern science and technology, with the state entirely taking over its promotion, direction, and end use for the deeply unethical purposes of brutal imperialist wars and, in the case of Nazi Germany, systematic mass genocide. It is, perhaps, useful to speculate on what latter-day Nazis would do with current cloning techniques and biotechnology, or with the latest weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological and nuclear based. And with regard to the miracles of modern mass communications: the frightening image of tall men in stylish black Nazi uniforms waiting at Heathrow, or JFK, talking animatedly into their exclusive SS-issue mobile phones and opening their sleek black SS laptops in a wireless-zone, to contact the web and read their encrypted emails, comes all too readily to mind.


SEE ALSO Arendt, Hannah;Authoritarianism;Critical Social Theory;Socialism;Totalitarianism.


De Grand, Alexander. (1995). Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany: The Fascist Style of Rule. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Eatwell, Roger. (1992). "Towards a New Model of Generic Fascism." Journal of Theoretical Politics 4(2): 161–194.

Eatwell, Roger. (1996). "On Defining the Fascist Minimum: The Centrality of Ideology." Journal of Political Ideologies 1(3): 303–319.

Gentile, Emilio. (1993). "Impending Modernity: Fascism and the Ambivalent Image of the United States. Journal of Contemporary History 28(1): 7–29.

Gentile, Emilio. (1996). The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Griffin, Roger. (1993). TheNatureofFascism. London: Routledge.

Griffin, Roger. (1994). Modernity under the New Order: The Fascist Project for Managing the Future. Oxford: Thamesman Publications. Part of the series Modernity and Postmodernity: Mapping the Terrain.

Griffin, Roger. (2002). "The Primacy of Culture: The Current Growth (or Manufacture) of Consensus within Fascist Studies." Journal of Contemporary History vol. 37(1): 21–43.

Herf, Jeffrey. (1984). Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. (1977). "Only a God Can Save Us Now," trans. D. Schendler. Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 6(1): 5–27. Interview originally published in Der Spiegel.

Heidegger, Martin. (1985). "The Self-Assertion of the German University," trans. Karsten Harries. Review of Metaphysics 38(March): 470–480.

Kershaw, Ian. (2004). "Hitler and the Uniqueness of Nazism." Journal of Contemporary History 39(2): 239–254.

Laqueur, Walter. (1996). Fascism: Past, Present, and Future. New York: Oxford University Press.

Linz, Juan J. (2000).Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Mosse, George L. (1979). "Towards a General Theory of Fascism." In Interpretations of Fascism, ed. George L. Mosse. London: Sage.

Mosse, George L. (1999). The Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism. New York: H. Fertig.

Mouffe, Chantal, ed. (1999). The Challenge of Carl Schmitt. London: Verso.

Payne, Stanley G. (1980). Fascism: Comparison and Definition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Payne, Stanley G. (1995). A History of Fascism, 1914–1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Paxton, Robert. (1998). "Five Faces of Fascism." Journal of Modern History 70(1): 1–23.

Prowe, Diethelm. (1994). "Classic Fascism and the New Radical Right in Western Europe: Comparisons and Contrasts." Contemporary European History 3(3): 289–313.

Renneberg, Monika, and Mark Walker, eds. (1994). Science, Technology, and National Socialism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Zimmerman, Michael E. (2001). "The Ontological Decline of the West" In A Companion to Heidegger's "Introduction to Metaphysics," ed. R. Polt and G. Fried. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Mussolini, Benito. (1932). "The Doctrine of Fascism." Complete text available from http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/mussolini.htm.

Wistrich, Robert S. (2001). "The New Islamic Fascism." Israel Science and Technology Homepage. Available from http://www.science.co.il/Arab-Israeli-conflict/Articles/Wistrich-2001-11-16.asp.


views updated May 29 2018


"Fascism" was the ideology of the movement that, under the leadership of Benito Mussolini, seized power in Italy in 1922 and held power until the Allied invasion of Italy in World War II. Mussolini was a socialist until 1915, and fascism is a paradoxical but potent mixture of extreme socialist, or syndicalist, notions with a Hegelian or idealist theory of the state.

An attempt to provide fascism with a fully articulated theory was made by an Italian neo-Hegelian philosopher of some distinction, Giovanni Gentile, who was converted to fascism after Mussolini's coup. But as a former liberal and collaborator of Benedetto Croce, Gentile was opposed by the anti-intellectual wing of the Fascist Party, and his draft for a manifesto of fascist ideology was rewritten by Mussolini himself and published in 1932 in the Enciclopedia italiana as La dottrina del fascismo. However, no adequate conception of fascism could be derived from these theoretical sources alone; the actual behavior of the Italian fascists during their twenty years of power must also be taken into account.

The word fascism is often used, especially by left-wing writers, not only for the Italian doctrine but also for the similar, if more fanatic, national socialism of Adolf Hitler and for the altogether less coherent ideologies of Francisco Franco, Juan Perón, Ion Antonescu, and other such dictators. But however justifiable the wider and looser use of the word, the present article is confined to the system and ideology that called itself Fascismo and that flourished in Italy under Mussolini.

Gentile in his two books Che cosa è il fascismo (1925) and Origini e dottrina del fascismo (1929) stressed, as one might expect, the Hegelian elements in fascism. He argued that fascism was essentially idealistic and spiritual. Whereas liberalism, socialism, democracy, and the other progressive movements of the nineteenth century had asserted the rights of man, the selfish claims of the individual, fascism sought, instead, to uphold the moral integrity and higher collective purpose of the nation. And whereas liberalism saw the state simply as an institution created to protect men's rights, fascism looked on the state as an organic entity that embodied in itself all the noblest spiritual reality of the people as a whole. Fascism opposed the laissez-faire economics of capitalism and the bourgeois ethos that went with it. But fascism equally opposed socialism, which preached class war and trade unionism and thus served only to divide the nation. Fascism could tolerate no organized sectional groups that stood outside the state, for such groups pressed the supposed interests of some against the true interests of all. Hence, in place of trade unions, employers' federations, and similar organizations, fascism set up corporations that were designed to integrate the interests of particular trades, industries, professions, and the like into the wider harmony of the state.

Fascism, said Gentile, understood all the defects of bourgeois capitalism that had led to the rise of socialism, but fascism revolutionized society in such a way that the socialist critique was no longer relevant. For fascism replaced the old, competitive, hedonistic ethos of liberalism with an austere, stern, rigorous patriotic morality in which "the heroic values of service, sacrifice, indeed death itself were once more respected." Fascism did not deny liberty, but the liberty it upheld was not the right of each man to do what he pleased but "the liberty of a whole people freely accepting the rule of a state which they had interiorised, and made the guiding principle of all their conduct."

Fascism was proud of its comprehensive nature, of its totalitarian scope. For fascism, Gentile argued, was not just a method of government; it was a philosophy that permeated the whole will, thought, and feeling of the nation. "The authority of the state," Gentile wrote, "is absolute. It does not compromise, it does not bargain, it does not surrender any portion of its field to other moral or religious principles which may interfere with the individual conscience. But, on the other hand the state becomes a reality only in the consciousness of individuals." The state was "an idea made actual."

When Mussolini revised Gentile's draft for his La dottrina del fascismo, he retained most of the neo-Hegelian idealistic talk about the ideal nature of the state, but he had more to say about fascism's debts to the more extreme and fanatic elements of the nineteenth-century left wing. Mussolini named Georges Sorel, Charles Péguy, and Hubert Lagardelle as "sources of the river of Fascism." From these theorists, especially from Sorel, Mussolini derived the idea that "action is more important than thought"; by "action" he meant, as Sorel meant, violence. The extremists of the anarchist movement in the nineteenth century were obsessed by what they called la propagande par le fait (propaganda by deed); this "deed" tended to take the form of undiscriminating acts of revolutionary violence, such as throwing bombs into crowded cafés. The exhilaration of this policy soon blinded several of its champions to the end they were supposed to be pursuingoverthrowing the stateso that anarchism produced a movement of revolutionary disciplinarianism that Mussolini recognized as the source of his own inspiration.

Fascism was thus a movement that not only accepted, but also rejoiced in, violence. It had no patience with parliamentary or democratic methods of changing society. Indeed, Mussolini believed that the violent seizure of power, such as his own movement accomplished when it marched on Rome in 1922, was a necessary part of the moral rejuvenation of the nation; it was needed in order to create that "epic state of mind" (a phrase of Sorel's) that fascism prized so highly. Thus rejoicing in violence, fascism was, as Mussolini explained, hostile to all forms of pacifism, universalism, and disarmament. Fascism frankly acknowledged that "war alone keys up all human energies to their maximum tension, and sets a seal of nobility on those persons who have the courage to fight and die." The fascist state would have nothing to do with "universal embraces"; it "looked its neighbour proudly in the face, always armed, always vigilant, always ready to defend its integrity." Schemes such as that of the League of Nations were anathema to fascism.

With some reason Mussolini also claimed that fascism derived historically from the nationalistic movement of the nineteenth century. Nationalism, he insisted, owed nothing to the left. The German nation was not unified by liberals but by a man of iron, Otto von Bismarck. The nation of Italy, too, had been created by such men as Giuseppe Garibaldi, a man of revolutionary violence; the first great prophet of Italian unity was Niccolò Machiavelli, the archenemy of liberal, pacifist scruples. Mussolini had the highest regard for the author of The Prince. Machiavelli's desire to rekindle in modern Italy all the military virtues and military glory of ancient Rome was also Mussolini's ambition, but Mussolini's version of Machiavelli's dream was a much more vulgar one, and his achievements would have struck Machiavelli as tawdry, shabby, and corrupt.

Mussolini argued that it was the Italian state that had created the Italian nation. Indeed, it was the state, as the expression of a universal ethical will, which created the right to national existence and independence. Mussolini rejected the racism that was so central a feature of Nazi teaching in Germany. "The people," he wrote, "is not a race, but a people historically perpetuating itself; a multitude united by an idea." It must be recorded in favor of fascism that it never taught race hatred, and even when Mussolini entered the war on Hitler's side and introduced anti-Semitic legislation to please his ally, the Italian fascists were far from zealous in the enforcement of the laws against Jews.

Indeed, Mussolini's glorification of war and violence had never more than a limited success with the Italian people. Accustomed to rhetoric and appreciative of any kind of display, the Italians accepted the showier side of fascism more readily than the "austere, heroic way of life" that it demanded. Slow to conquer the backward Ethiopians in Mussolini's colonialist war against Abyssinia in 1935, the average Italian conscript soldier was even less eager to meet the Allied forces in World War II. Likewise, despite the cruelty of Mussolini's henchmen to his numerous political prisoners, there was never in Italy anything approaching the genocide that was faithfully enacted by Hitler's followers in Germany; even at its worst fascism never robbed the Italians of their humanity.

Mussolini earned a reputation, even among critical foreign observers, for the "efficiency" of his administration; he was popularly supposed abroad "to have made the Italian trains run on time." This achievement was largely mythical, for economic growth was minimal, but Mussolini was able, by forbidding strikes and subordinating industries to his state corporations, to prevent any of the more easily discernible manifestations of economic disorder. In any case his rule was never a mere personal dictatorship. He built up a powerful party with an elaborate hierarchy of command that served him much as the Soviet Communist Party served Joseph Stalin. Fascism was in a very real sense the dictatorship of a party, and the effectiveness of the party organization in a country by no means notable for good organization was one secret of fascism's twenty years of success.

See also Anarchism; Croce, Benedetto; Democracy; Gentile, Giovanni; Machiavelli, Niccolò; Marxist Philosophy; Nationalism; Political Philosophy, History of; Socialism; Sorel, Georges; Violence.


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Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)


views updated Jun 11 2018


Fascism refers to a set of movements and political ideologies that emerged after World War I, first in Italy. Fascism also refers to sufficiently similar movements in other countries, notably German National-Socialism or Nazism. Fascist movements were nationalist, authoritarian, anti-egalitarian, anticommunist, and antidemocratic mass movements that also adopted corporatism in economics, a cult of violence as a cure for decadence, the leadership principle, and the use of uniforms and paramilitary formations in politics.


Fascist movements blended modernizing with traditional and reactionary elements. On questions of gender, it was most often the traditional and reactionary strands that came to the fore, at least in theory if not always in practice. Fascism sought to exploit the mass mobilization and industrialization of modernity without the accompanying push for emancipation. Aggressive opposition to feminism and women's rights were ideologically ideal. The demands of national mobilization for war, however, pulled in the other direction. Yet fascist regimes, like that of Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) in Italy and Adolph Hitler (1889–1945) in Germany, were less successful at exploiting female labor than either the communist Soviet Union or the liberal democratic Great Britain and United States.

The radical rightists that provided much of the intellectual basis for fascism, like the followers of Georges Sorel (1847–1922) in France and Italy, or radical Italian nationalists (later fascists) like Giovanni Papini (1881–1956), touted an antifeminism heavily colored with misogyny. Even the futurists, like Emilio Marinetti (1876–1944) known for his "scorn for women" (De Grazia 1992, p. 25), who represented the most modernizing aspects of fascist ideology, had no place for women's rights. Instead their cult of speed, machinery, noise, and war had a strong hypermasculinist tendency.


Not surprisingly, Mussolini's regime (1922–1945) sought to strengthen the family and traditional sex roles. Its pronatalist policies (somewhat illogical in a country that regularly had to export population) led to policies and institutions to support women and children, promoting motherhood and discouraging female work outside the home. Some of these social welfare measures were similar to steps taken in non-fascist countries. Others bore the imprint of Italian Fascism, like the (openly homophobic) tax on bachelors, which grew greater as the unmarried man grew older (and exempted those in military service). Family allowances were provided for large families; and especially prolific women (twelve or more children) were paraded in special public rituals as the regime sought to promote the female ideal of the pretty, nubile, peasant girl as a counter to the Hollywood starlet or selfish bourgeois woman. Other public rituals mobilized women in parades of uniformed gymnasts or in ceremonies during which women sacrificed their gold wedding bands for the nation. Given the compromises (as with the Church) and contradictions of Italian fascist governance, the effects of these policies on marriage and fertility patterns were modest.


Italian Fascism came to power in a society in which women had not yet achieved the vote (Fascists both blocked women's suffrage and rendered it irrelevant). Nazism rose in the ultra-democratic Weimar Republic which gave women full political rights. Seeking women's votes meant downplaying misogyny and stressing how Nazi policies would address traditional women's concerns (like public morality or getting their unemployed husbands back to work). Hitler consistently did better among female than male voters, though in this German women echoed a general tendency in that country as well as elsewhere in Europe for women to vote more to the right (and have greater religious participation) than their husbands and fathers.

In power from 1933 to 1945, the Nazi government was pro-natalist and pro-family (and it also drew these policies from earlier, Völkisch, currents) but Hitler's eugenicist and exterminationist racism resulted in different applications. (Racism in Fascist Italy was a late and imitative phenomenon.) In Nazi Germany, the male/female gender dichotomy was bisected by the racialist one of Aryan/non-Aryan—in practice the latter meant Jews, Gypsies (Roma and Sinta), and non-Europeans. Men and women were also divided into the valuable or life worthy versus the life-unworthy, which included both those deemed asocial or criminal and those with hereditary mental or physical diseases or conditions. Combining the eugenicist with the racist models (non-Aryans were automatically unhealthy), Nazi natality policy sought to promote healthy Aryan births while discouraging all others. Promoting the birth-rate, in general, while restricting reproduction among many was an inherently difficult policy. Nazi policies also reflected the contradictions between those who sought a more biological approach (derided as zoo-politics by its opponents) and those who favored traditional family values, in line with the teachings of the Catholic and Lutheran churches.

The 1935 Law for the Protection of the Hereditary Health of the German People sought to ban marriages of the unfit (including those with unfit relatives), by requiring a Certificate of Suitability of Marriage, though this was not always enforced in practice. Merely unfit couples could sometimes marry if they produced a guarantee (e.g., through sterilization) that they would not reproduce. Often a medical examination for a potential marriage could lead to forced sterilization. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 extended the marriage (and sex) ban to racially mixed couples. Similarly abortion was prohibited for Aryans but encouraged for Jewish women. The availability of contraception was also systematically reduced. Institutionalized handicapped individuals were methodically killed due to a combination of economic and eugenicist concerns, though this policy was cut back in Germany after the Catholic Church vigorously objected.

A series of social welfare measures were meant to encourage large families: from subsidies (including loans and tax breaks), visits by social workers, and education for expectant and new-mothers to public honors including awarding military-style medals for prolific mothers. The definition of asocial (for purposes of either denial of marriage or sending to a concentration camp) tended for males to reflect criminal activity. For women, it usually meant sexual profligacy, reinforcing traditional sexual double standards. Though Nazis insisted that woman's place was in the home, Hitler was not above using female talent (like the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl) when it served his purposes.

The more radically Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) sought to promote racially healthy children whatever the marriage status of the mother. To this end, the SS opened retreats where racially valuable single-women could have their children. In a few cases, SS men could assist in conception. Finally, during the war, unwed mothers could retroactively legalize their marriages with dead soldier-fathers. Plans were even afoot to encourage bigamy after the war to make up for the loss of males.


The close male bonding in Nazi organizations could easily slide into homosexuality. Ernst Röhm, leader of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi storm troopers or brown shirts, was generally considered to be at the center of a homosexual clique. Hitler exploited this reputation when he destroyed Röhm and the leadership of the SA in 1934 for completely political reasons. The bureaucratically competing police agencies of the Nazi state actively repressed male homosexuality while largely ignoring (technically illegal) lesbian activity. Though differing psychosexual fears and attractions may have played a role, the stated reason was the allegedly more passive role of women in sex and the belief that lesbians might become mothers. Male homosexuals were subject to arrest and deportation to concentration camps where they wore the particularly dishonoring pink triangle badge. At the camps, homosexuals could be worked to death, executed, or sometimes forcefully re-educated through sex with women in the camp brothel (among such women were lesbians, sent to the brothels as punishment).

If Nazi pro-natalism had only limited success, its policy of extermination was devastatingly effective. The reproductive logic of Nazi racism was also responsible for what, to many Europeans, was a horrific innovation: the systematic murder of Jewish and Gypsy women and children along with their menfolk. Families arriving at extermination camps were separated, the men from the women and children, since breaking up the family group made the prisoners easier to control.


Fascists always touted their virility. But there is much that is classically feminine in the Fascist emphasis on uniforms, on organized display, and on an aestheticizing of politics. Some have seen this as an indication of a redirected sexual energy, linked to Fascism's cult of the irrational. Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) gave this theory its fullest formulation, including an analysis of the swastika as an ancient sex symbol representing two intertwined bodies.


De Grazia, Victoria. 1992. How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy 1922–1945. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Koonz, Claudia. 1987. Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Passmore, Kevin, ed. 2003. Women, Gender and Fascism in Europe, 1919–45. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Reich, Wilhelm. 1970. The Mass Psychology of Fascism, ed. Mary Higgins and Chester Raphael, trans. Mary Higgins. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Stephenson, Jill. 2001. Women in Nazi Germany. New York: Longman.

                                              Allen Douglas


views updated Jun 27 2018


The fascist movement in Latin America is not easily equated with such movements in Europe or elsewhere. European fascism emerged before 1914 amid the alienation caused by rapid industrialization. At first an intellectual mood comprising rejection of positivism, liberalism, and (in the arts) bourgeois formalism, it grew mightily owing to the psychic and social mobilization, military experience, sacrifice, and disillusionment of World War I. Its salient characteristics were charismatic leadership; rituals, costumes, and symbols; an ethic of voluntarism, struggle, and instinct; nationalisms that sought to restore folk communities (often mythologized); and the belief that social justice could be achieved only through those folk communities. It comprised a youth revolt and the project of creating a moral, integral New Man. It rejected Marxism and class-based politics as well as bourgeois parliamentarism and democratic institutions generally. In power, fascists proved incompetent and corrupt; some movements (as in Italy) resorted to irredentism and foreign conquest to sustain revolutionary élan. Fascist leadership was middle class; however, mass followings were built among war veterans, uprooted and alienated individuals, and preexisting labor organizations disillusioned with or forcibly wrenched away from Marxism. In central and eastern Europe, fascism was markedly racist and anti-Semitic. In Hitler's Germany the genocidal "Final Solution" was the consequence.

Latin American movements called "fascist" lack many of these attributes; their closer affinities are with populism and authoritarian nationalism. Populist movements emerged before 1914 from the conjunction of increased rural-urban migration and the ambitions of reformist, upper-status politicians (such as Guillermo Billinghurst in Peru and José Batlle y Ordóñez in Uruguay); they arose in part from the "ruralization" of the cities, that is, transplantation of the personalistic patron-client relationships of the countryside. The context of these movements was municipal politics and the content pragmatic, not ideological, issues. Between the world wars the several strains of Latin American populism embraced nationalism, seeking to establish the idea of national identity ("Peruanidad," "Mexicanidad"), to create integrated modern nation-states, and to make the state—not low-level clientelism—the vehicle for social justice. This inclusive nationalism embraced, if only rhetorically, hitherto repressed or marginalized peoples; it denounced as "vendepatrias" (those who sold out their country) those elite groups that had collaborated in the annexation of Latin America's economies to the European- and U.S.-dominated world trade system.

When in the crisis-ridden 1930s the military seized power in several countries, some military politicians (such as Luis Miguel Sánchez Cerro in Peru) combined traditional repression with expedient labor alliances, trading public works projects, housing, and beneficial legislation for political support. Others (such as José Félix Uriburu in Argentina) envisioned the military corporation as the only competent, dedicated agent of national integration, a concept adumbrated by the Brazilian tenentes ("lieutenants"), restless, nationalistic young officers who staged the first of a series of minor revolts in July 1922. Although the utility of such projects in thwarting opposition Marxists or Apristas (in Peru) was obvious, they proved unpopular at the time, even among the military; but they would reappear in various guises after 1945.

In the early 1930s a number of fascist groups were founded in emulation of those in Antonio de Salazar's Portugal, Benito Mussolini's Italy, and José Antonio Primo de Rivera's Spain. "Mediterranean" fascisms, which evoked past imperial grandeur and drew strength from conservative Roman Catholicism, were preferable to German Nazism, which harbored strains of irreligion and "Aryan" racial exclusivism. Among rightist intellectuals, particularly in Colombia, corporatism became fashionable; it also figured in the theorizing of Catholic intellectuals who, reacting against the anticlericalism of the Spanish Republic (1931–1936) and the outrages of the Civil War (1936–1939), promoted clerical fascism in the style of Engelbert Dollfuss's Austria or the Spanish CEDA (Confederation of Autonomous Rightist Organizations) of J. M. Gil Robles. Following General Francisco Franco's triumph in 1939, Spain's Nationalist regime promoted the doctrine of "hispa-nidad" throughout Latin America; it, too, enjoyed a vogue.

The most important Latin American fascist movements of the 1930s were the Brazilian Integralistas and the Chilean Nacistas—both of which staged abortive putsches in 1938, then went into decline—the Mexican Sinarquistas; factions among the Bolivian veterans of the disastrous Chaco War (1932–1935), some of whom later helped form the Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario (MNR); and a congeries of authoritarian nationalist groups in Argentina. The latter, unable to gain either a mass following or the unconditional backing of the traditional right, specialized in street fighting and anti-Semitic terrorism. They later attached themselves to Peronism; notwithstanding the vicissitudes of Peronism itself, anti-Semitic violence has remained the hallmark of the Argentine right.

The seeds—and charismatic leaders—were present, yet none of these movements developed into a full-fledged European-style fascism. This can be explained in part by the Axis defeat in 1945, in part by socioeconomic and political factors. The former include the inherent difficulties of creating national identities in societies still strongly rooted in primary local, or ethnic solidarities, much less of mobilizing those societies; and the fact that although European capitalists had sheltered within their respective fascisms and supported them, many Latin American capitalists chose to work within foreign systems. Political factors include the emphasis in populist regimes on redistributive—rather than ideological—politics; and the postwar success of Christian Democratic parties (as in Chile and Venezuela), which offered to conservative electorates nonviolent modernizing alternatives to Marxism. In regimes slow to modernize, the Right retained its privileges through traditional means, which did not include the mobilizations characteristic of fascism. In regimes fractured or paralyzed by modernization—as in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay in the 1970s, and in Central America in the 1980s—the new military relied on state terror to suppress dissent rather than on demagogy to mobilize and deflect it.

The fundamental structure of fascism is sometimes taken to be an authoritarian, centralized state apparatus sustained ideologically by nationalism, economically by state capitalism, and socially by a dependent syndically organized mass following. If so, five regimes since the 1930s—Getú lio Vargas's Brazil, especially after 1937; Juan Perón's Argentina; the Bolivia of the MNR after 1952; Fidel Castro's Cuba since 1959; and the Mexico of the PRI since 1928—merit possible inclusion under the fascist rubric. The first two—which were characterized also by charismatic leadership, ritual, and (in Argentina) anti-Semitism—most closely approximated European fascisms. In Brazil, regimes subsequent to Vargas's death in 1954—particularly the military regimes from 1964 to 1983—have dismantled the mass base of varguismo; Argentine Peronism, however, despite its vicissitudes during intervening years, retains some of its earlier dynamic. Bolivia's MNR leadership was uncharismatic; its social mobilization was incomplete and was soon reversed by the military. Cuba's Castro has proven an effective leader; the Cuban people have been mobilized for nationalistic or social justice purposes. However, the regime's affirmation of egalitarianism and rejection of irrationalisms and of capitalism place it outside the fascist category. Mexico's leadership is uncharismatic by design; in recent decades the practice of revolutionary nationalism and populism has drifted far apart from the rhetoric. Even the latter may disappear altogether as the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented after 1 January 1994.

A revival of Latin American fascism is possible, perhaps in response to the swallowing up of national economies in globalization; violence will undoubtedly remain endemic. Elites appear, however, to have learned from the fascist experience that it is easier to create caudillos than to dismiss them, easier to mobilize masses than to demobilize them.

See alsoCaudillismo, Caudillo; Military Dictatorships: 1821–1945; Military Dictatorships: Since 1945; Tenentismo.


John D. Wirth, The Politics of Brazilian Development, 1930–1954 (1970).

Alistair Hennessy, "Fascism and Populism in Latin America," in Fascism: A Reader's Guide, Analyses, Interpretation, Bibliography, edited by Walter Z. Laqueur (1976).

James D. Cockcroft, Mexico: Class Formation, Capital Accumulation, and the State (1983).

Frederick C. Turner and Enrique Miguens, eds., Juan Perón and the Reshaping of Argentina (1983).

Carlos Waisman, Reversal of Development in Argentina: Postwar Counterrevolutionary Policies and Their Structural Consequences (1987).

Max Azicri, Cuba: Politics, Economy, and Society (1988).

T. Halperin Donghi, La historia contemporánea de América Latina, 2d ed. (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Deutsch, Sandra McGee. Las Derechas: The Extreme Right in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, 1890–1939. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

García Sebastiani, Marcela. Fascismo y antifascismo, peronismo y antiperonismo: Conflictos políticos e ideológicos en la Argentina (1930–1955). Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2006.

                                     Ronald C. Newton


views updated May 23 2018


The Communist International in 1933 defined fascism in power as "the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, most imperialist elements of finance capital." Others have interpreted fascism as a middle-class radical movement, a cultural revolution, a state power independent of classes, and as a reaction to or a force for modernization.

Fascism is an ultra-right movement that emerged in a period of crisis in European society. Like other right-wing parties and movements before World War II, fascism opposed democracy, liberalism, socialism, and communism and emphasized support for hierarchy, nationalism, militarism, aggressive imperialism, and women's subordination. In seeking power, fascist movements were organized around a charismatic leader, used the techniques of mass politics to win support from the middle strata of war veterans, shop owners, artisans, and white-collar workers, and sought to control the streets with the use of paramilitary bands. When they came to power, fascists ended parliamentary systems and terrorized their opponents. The Nazi variant claimed a race-based superiority for "Aryans" and embraced a virulent anti-Semitism both to designate a scapegoat for Germany's problems and to be able to bribe supporters with property and positions taken from German Jews.

The first fascist movement was that of Italy's Benito Mussolini, who came to power with the aid of conservative elites seeking to put down the revolutionary workers' movement arising after World War I. The international influence of fascism greatly increased when the Nazis assumed power in Germany in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression. Significant fascist movements arose in Hungary, Austria, and Romania, and smaller fascist movements, such as the Falange in Spain, became important with support from Germany and Italy. Germany's power led many authoritarian leaders in Europe to ally with the Nazis. Support for the fascist example existed in Latin America, but only Argentina favored the Axis in World War II. The third Axis power, Japan, was authoritarian, militaristic, nationalist, anticommunist, and aggressive, but its attempt at a fascist mass politics, the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, had limited impact.

Fascism had limited appeal in the United States in the 1930s, but, given its growth internationally, liberals and leftists were worried about the potential for it. Important cultural manifestations of this fear were Sinclair Lewis's play It Can't Happen Here, performed simultaneously by seventeen Federal Theatre Project troupes in 1935, and such films as Anatole Litvak's Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and Frank Capra's Meet John Doe (1941).

Small, distinctly fascist organizations in the United States included the Silver Shirt Legion and the Defenders of the Christian Faith, but more important were ethnic-based groups. Mussolini received favorable press coverage in the United States before his alliance with Adolf Hitler, and there was majority support for his government in Italian-American communities on nationalist grounds. Most Italian-American newspapers supported Mussolini, and fascist organizations were influential in the community. However, Italian Americans opposed the anti-Semitic decrees issued by Mussolini in 1938. The German-American Bund, which emphasized anti-Semitism, anti-communism, and alleged unfair treatment in the United States of German Americans, gained a degree of control over some German-American community groups. Recalling the negative attacks on everything German in the World War I period, German-American organizations were slow to criticize the Nazis. In 1938, with increased criticism of Nazi anti-Semitism and fears rising that Nazism was an external and internal danger to the United States, German Americans spoke out against Nazism.

Important movements that may be regarded as semi-fascist include the National Union for Social Justice led by Father Charles Coughlin. Emerging as an important radio personality in the early Depression years, Coughlin's organization was anti-communist and organized around devotion to him personally. Coughlin was stridently anti-Semitic and hostile to the Allied cause in World War II. Whether the movement led by Huey Long can also be characterized as fascist or semi-fascist is in dispute. Long was authoritarian in his conduct of the government of Louisiana, anti-communist, and demagogic in his calls to make "Every Man a King" and "Share Our Wealth." On the other hand, Long opposed the oligarchy in Louisiana, called for taxing the rich, and did not appeal to racism in a region in which movements of the political right usually emphasized racism.

Important Americans who lent support to fascism included Henry Ford, who disseminated the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion forgery in the 1920s, employed the leader of the Bund, and accepted a medal from Nazi Germany in 1938. Famed aviator and isolationist Charles Lindbergh likewise accepted a medal, as did IBM president Thomas J. Watson, although Watson returned his in 1940.



Baldwin, Neil. Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate. 2001.

Bayor, Ronald H. Neighbors in Conflict: The Irish, Germans, Jews, and Italians of New York City, 1929–1941. 1988.

Bennett, David H. The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History. 1988.

Brinkley, Alan. Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. 1982.

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991. 1994.

Jeansonne, Glen. Messiah of the Masses: Huey P. Long and the Great Depression. 1993.

Levine, Lawrence W. The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History. 1993.

Payne, Stanley G. A History of Fascism, 1914–1945. 1995.

Warren, Donald. Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, the Father of Hate Radio. 1996.

Martin Halpern