The origins and nature of Fascism and Nazism in Europe

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), Volume 13

Reichssporttag by Ludwig Holhwein, 1934. (Stuttgart Staatsgalerie)

Reichssporttag by Ludwig Holhwein, 1934. (Stuttgart Staatsgalerie)

In March 1919 Benito Mussolini, a socialist turned nationalist, founded a new movement in Milan that became known as ‘fascism’. The fasces—a bound bundle of sticks—had been a symbol of republican unity in ancient Rome. For Mussolini they signified the unity of the nation, and in particular the incorporation into Italy of all Italian-speaking territories under Austrian rule, for which Italy had entered the Great War. In September 1919 a demobilised German corporal of Austrian birth, Adolf Hitler, joined the tiny German Workers’ Party, which had been founded in January in his adopted city, Munich, one of many nationalist groups opposing the democratic and socialist revolutions that swept Germany after the war. He rapidly became the party’s leading figure and in late 1920 modified its name to the National Socialist German Workers (or Nazi) Party.
Some historians hold that Italian Fascism and German National Socialism were different phenomena. Mussolini was a national figure in 1919, Hitler an unknown. Italy sat with the victors at the Paris peace conference, whereas Germany had been defeated and the kaiser’s empire abolished. Yet the sway that both men held over their followers soon led to Hitler being dubbed the ‘German Mussolini’, while the paramilitary features of the Fascist ‘Blackshirts’, including their adoption of the raised-arm salute of imperial Rome, were imitated by the Nazis’ brown-shirted SA (Sturmabteilung, or Stormtroop Division). Consequently, other historians have argued that fascism was a general phenomenon with different national variants. One way to explore this issue is to consider both movements up to the point where Fascism consolidated its hold on the state in the mid-1920s and the Nazis seized power in 1933.

Origins

Few of the ideas expressed by Hitler and Mussolini were original. In the late nineteenth century, as the masses pressed for involvement in national politics and industrialisation and urbanisation exposed societies to unprecedented change, the language of politics altered. Parliamentary democracy was still a crusading cause, resisted by conservatives, but socialists criticised liberals and democrats for failing to address economic injustices that seemed to negate democracy. Others, however, rejected both the levelling tendencies of democracy and the revolutionary implications of socialism while recognising that popular politics and social reform had come to stay.
This last response was expressed by a cluster of intellectuals and political activists in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, who tried to find new political forms for traditional concerns of order and hierarchy. Their chosen language was nationalism. For a century since the French Revolution, the idea of the nation had been associated with the left, as an alternative source of political legitimacy to monarchy and religion. By making it supreme over all other doctrines, exponents of the new nationalism detached it from this heritage and used it to address the ills—and opportunities—of the age.
Traditionalist and modernising, drawing on the right (authority) and the left (social reform), the new nationalists celebrated the nation as an organic community, a closed and secure world which nonetheless used aggression and war to pursue its essential interests. While reviling democracy, they felt that the nation’s élites should be renewed and inspire the masses. A modern, non-religious anti-Semitism often expressed their rather paranoid view of the world, with the Jews acting as a scapegoat for all perceived enemies.
Such ideas were important before 1914, yet they produced neither a mainstream movement nor a clear source of political authority. It was the Great War and its tumultuous aftermath that transformed them into distinct creeds with potential mass appeal. The war provided a potent example of cultural and political mobilisation. While propaganda played a part (inspiring both Hitler and Mussolini), the true lesson was the creation of an intense feeling of national community that became the stuff of subsequent legend. Added to this was the equally mythicised ‘front experience’ of the ordinary soldiers, as well as the huge loss of life in this first full-scale industrialised conflict. Politics could never be the same again once the mass of the population had fought and suffered for the nation. The war experience did not lead only to new forms of nationalism. It also generated hopes for democracy and brought the authoritarian utopia of Soviet Communism to power in Russia. But it did result in a yearning for political transformation.

The climax of the skilfully orchestrated ‘March on Rome’, 28 October 1922. Mussolini is already out of his black shirt and in ministerial garb. (AKG, London)

The climax of the skilfully orchestrated ‘March on Rome’, 28 October 1922. Mussolini is already out of his black shirt and in ministerial garb. (AKG, London)

Circumstances and crises

Fascism and National Socialism have been compared in numerous ways. Yet since movements that resembled or imitated them occurred in many countries between the wars, including France, Spain, much of Eastern Europe and even Britain and Ireland, a key question is why such movements came to power only in Italy and Germany. What was it about these societies that allowed Fascism and National Socialism not just to take root but also to flourish?
Here we must consider some of the deeper tensions that fed the two movements. The first of these was national humiliation as a result of the war. Italy only received some of the territories that it had been promised, with certain mixed Italian and Slav areas along the north-east Adriatic being given to the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Likewise, the Treaty of Versailles stripped Germany of territories in the east in order to create an independent Poland, as well as returning Alsace-Lorraine to France, and also forbade Germany to absorb the diminutive Austrian Republic. Moreover, as a defeated power, Germany had to contend with restrictions on its armed forces, temporary Allied occupation of the Rhineland, the obligation to pay reparations for starting the war and devastating enemy territory, and the demand that the kaiser and various soldiers should be extradited and tried for war crimes.
In both countries, extreme nationalists denounced the peace, demanding that the community and aspirations of wartime be recreated and prosecuted by aggressive political and even military means. In September 1919 the flamboyant Italian poet and nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio seized the port of Fiume on the Adriatic, which had been assigned to Yugoslavia, and held it for over a year with the help of a motley group of ex-soldiers, nationalist paramilitaries and trade unionists. For nationalists, Fiume became a symbol of the national ardour that had been frustrated by the peace conference and an experiment in a new kind of organisation—simultaneously socialist and nationalist. D’Annunzio exuded a political authority based on personal charisma and aggressive masculinity with which Mussolini had already experimented during the war. Mussolini absorbed D’Annunzio’s lessons along with many of his followers, and the rectification of the ‘mutilated’ peace remained a constant preoccupation (Fiume was gained peacefully in 1924).
In Germany, Hitler electrified a growing audience by denouncing the ‘shameful clauses’ of the peace treaty and urging outright opposition to Allied demands. It is no accident that the most celebrated event of his early career, the Munich beer hall putsch in November 1923, took place during the nationwide resistance to the French and Belgian occupation of the Ruhr, aimed at forcing Germany to resume reparations. The putsch was doomed, but it enabled Hitler to claim a central place in the martyrology of national resistance and endowed the Nazis with a powerful founding myth.

In Italy in the early 1920s Fascist ‘squads’ (squadristi) such as this one regained control of the northern Italian countryside. Thus the brutalisation of war was channelled into paramilitary organisations that attacked the movement’s enemies. (Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri)

In Italy in the early 1920s Fascist ‘squads’ (squadristi) such as this one regained control of the northern Italian countryside. Thus the brutalisation of war was channelled into paramilitary organisations that attacked the movement’s enemies. (Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri)

The second type of conflict that fed both Fascism and National Socialism was social. In the aftermath of war, Italy and Germany were haunted by the spectre of breakdown, yet unlike Russia they had substantial strata of society that were prepared to resist the menace of revolution. Naturally, the dimensions and timing of what amounted to a counter-revolutionary impulse varied in the two societies. Common to both countries was inflation, resulting from excessive borrowing during the war, which particularly threatened those whose incomes were unable to match the rising cost of living. This was the predicament of many in the middle and lower middle classes, who resented the profits of the war industrialists while fearing the growing power of organised labour and its ability to use industrial militancy to extract higher wages for workers. Intense labour unrest in Italy in the two years following the war mobilised many middle-class people in the northern cities against the perceived threat of Bolshevism. Likewise, in Germany, middle-class fear of the power of organised labour—which was often (and wrongly) seen as indistinguishable from extreme socialism or communism—stamped the revolutionary period of 1918–20 and lingered throughout the Weimar Republic.

Fascists and National Socialists declared themselves the foes not of workers but of the revolutionary parties and trade union movements that purported to speak in their name. Communism was the political arch-enemy for both Mussolini and Hitler. Additionally, class warfare extended to the countryside in parts of central and northern Italy, where small peasants and landless labourers occupied agrarian estates in order to seize the land that they had been promised during the war. Here Fascism emerged as a paramilitary movement defending the landowners against the take-overs. It is true that in Germany the economic stabilisation of the second half of the 1920s reduced class conflict, but it flared up anew under the impact of the Great Depression, which swelled the ranks of the German Communist Party with unemployed workers while swinging support behind the Nazis from the economically threatened middle classes and a peasantry hit by falling farm prices.
Nonetheless, frustrated national aspirations and class hostilities were insufficient by themselves to bring either Fascism or National Socialism to power since neither movement achieved an electoral majority. At the height of their influence, in the elections of July 1932, the Nazis achieved 37 per cent of the vote, while the Fascists in 1921 (in the last free election in Italy) gained only 35 out of 535 parliamentary seats. Hitler and Mussolini became dictators because a political crisis brought them into government.
The parliamentary monarchy, which Italy had known since unification, proved increasingly fragile before the war as the political élites struggled to accommodate successive extensions of the suffrage. Post-war frustrations and upheaval resulted in the old parties being swamped by the socialists and a new radical Catholic party. In October 1922 King Victor Emmanuel III offered Mussolini the leadership of an anti-socialist coalition. At the same time, the Fascist paramilitary forces staged a dramatic ‘March on Rome’ that created the impression of a mass nationalist mobilisation. Possessing a party willing to employ violence, Mussolini was able to use his position as prime minister to rig the electoral laws and secure a Fascist majority in 1924, before instituting a party-backed dictatorship.
In the case of Germany, the collapse of the system inherited from Bismarck at the end of the Great War left a deeply fractured political culture. Old institutions (such as the army) survived, while the more conservative political parties remained profoundly resentful of both national defeat and the parliamentary republic. Nonetheless, extreme nationalists were a minority, and without the economic slump it is impossible to say how the system would have evolved. As it is, the crisis paralysed parliament by 1932, leading to a search for an alternative form of government, with the old élites and the army imagining they might return to something reminiscent of the kaiser’s empire. The belief that Hitler could be incorporated into this solution was a mistake. Once he became chancellor, like Mussolini he used violence and electoral manipulation to achieve a majority, on the basis of which he installed a dictatorship and entrenched the power of the Nazi Party. In each case, therefore, those who considered themselves the traditional power-holders faced a crisis when more or less democratic institutions threatened to empower what were seen as subversive or revolutionary groups. Lacking mass support themselves, the conservatives allied with the new nationalist movements, little understanding that they were opening the way to a new form of regime.

‘Only Hitler’, proclaims this 1932 campaign poster, emphasising the cult of a charismatic ‘leader’, Duce or Fuhrer. (Imperial War Museum, London)

‘Only Hitler’, proclaims this 1932 campaign poster, emphasising the cult of a charismatic ‘leader’, Duce or Fuhrer. (Imperial War Museum, London)

Social appeal

Clearly, Fascism and National Socialism responded to a combination of tensions in Italian and German societies that culminated in an implosion of the political system. But the question of how they gained enough influence to shape the outcome in the way they did—and whether this made them a single phenomenon—requires closer attention to the movements themselves and to kindred organisations that failed to take power in other countries.
One of the most influential explanations has been in terms of social appeal. The view that fascism was rooted in a crisis of the capitalist economy and that it acquired its mass base from the middle and lower middle classes, who were threatened by economic change and the rise of working-class politics, has a long pedigree, originating with the contemporary anti-fascist resistance and communist intellectuals such as Antonio Gramsci. It underlay much of the research that social historians devoted to fascism in the 1970s and 1980s. According to this approach, even if fascism began by drawing on the left as well as the right, the radicals who saw it as a social revolution conducted within the nation (like D’Annunzio’s experiment in Fiume) were gradually marginalised as Mussolini and Hitler made compromises in order to come to power. The reactionary thrust of fascism won out because it expressed middle-class hostility to socialism and communism while providing the industrial and financial élites with a tool for disciplining labour and focusing national attention on policies of imperial aggrandisement.
There is much empirical support for this view. The membership and electorate of fascist parties, especially when they broke through to mass support, was disproportionately middle and lower middle class. Workers were under-represented, though by no means non-existent, and the more radical militants were indeed sidelined or eliminated. Ernst Röhm, the leader of the SA, who continued to believe in the ‘Second (social) Revolution’ after the Nazis seized power, was the victim of a bloody purge in 1934 (the ‘Night of the Long Knives’), which Hitler had promised top military leaders he would carry out in return for their support.
Yet a closer look also reveals difficulties in locating the key to fascist support solely or even mainly in its social appeal. Some elements of fascism were significantly working-class (62 per cent in the case of the SA), undermining the idea of any simple or exclusive class logic. Similarly, there is no evidence that business and financial circles massively supported the Fascists or Nazis before they came to power, although both Hitler and Mussolini certainly had their backers. Rather, funding was disbursed to various potentially useful parties, rather like an insurance policy. Only once Fascism and National Socialism had achieved power were businessmen bound to deal with them. Above all, the fact that National Socialism alone became a genuinely mass movement before coming to power, and then only in the early 1930s, means that the link with entire social formations remains unconvincing and cannot by itself explain the nature of fascism since the same social groups also supported very different political parties.

Heinrich Himmler, future leader of the SS, holds the German imperial flag behind a barricade during the 1923 Munich ‘beer hall’ putch. The putsch was doomed, but it enabled Nazis to claim a central place in the martyrology of national resistance and endowed them with a powerful founding myth. (Ullstein Bilderdienst)

Heinrich Himmler, future leader of the SS, holds the German imperial flag behind a barricade during the 1923 Munich ‘beer hall’ putch. The putsch was doomed, but it enabled Nazis to claim a central place in the martyrology of national resistance and endowed them with a powerful founding myth. (Ullstein Bilderdienst)

Politics and culture

Without discarding the social dimension, historians have increasingly turned to political and cultural explanations for the distinctive appeal of fascism. The nationalist ideas of the pre-war period achieved their full impact only when the nation, which had been given new substance by the war, seemed threatened from without and inadequately protected within. What Fascism, National Socialism and similar movements elsewhere promised was nothing less than a permanent political mobilisation to recreate the idealised community of wartime, making the nation secure and pursuing a national destiny which the return to peace seemed to have frustrated. War, imagined or real, was never far from the surface, and the politics of fascism borrowed a good deal from it. This included a black-and-white world-view, with the nation surrounded by hostile forces and threatened by internal enemies, and the ideal of a disciplined, coordinated national effort.
The form taken by this political mobilisation was perhaps the most original feature of fascism. The personalities of Mussolini and Hitler were significant, but far more important was the very cult of a charismatic ‘leader’—as indicated by the use of the Italian and German words for ‘leader’ (Duce and Fuhrer) to describe both men’s role. In the face of waning traditional values and the collapse of established authority, the fascist leader promised to recreate an enchanted world in which authority once more assumed heroic proportions, though now in the guise of the common man. Both Hitler and Mussolini had fought in the war as soldiers, not commissioned officers, a persona they embodied as leaders. And the orchestrated rallies and party ceremonial in which the regimes specialised portrayed the leader as a colossus, both incarnating and leading the masses—as did the new media of film and radio.
Yet the masses were far from uniform in the fascist vision. On the contrary, traditional concerns with hierarchy and community were reconceptualised in terms of a highly differentiated party structure. The brutalisation of war was channelled into the paramilitary organisations that attacked the movements’ enemies. It was on this basis that Fascist ‘squads’ (squadristi) regained control of the northern Italian countryside and that the Nazi SA fought communists for control of the streets in the early 1930s. Violence was endemic in Fascism and National Socialism. The parties themselves articulated a structure (adapted from pre-war socialism) that addressed many aspects of contemporary society—with specific organisations for youth, women, workers, farmers and teachers, and for specific activities, such as leisure and social welfare. It was as if the movements aspired to create a parallel society, structured around the leader, in preparation for the day when they might substitute it for the existing one.
The particular version of the nation in whose name this social mobilisation was envisaged varied considerably, representing one of the most cogent reasons for considering the Italian and German cases as distinct. Italian Fascism stressed the fascist state, with its historic antecedents in classical Rome, as the ‘life force’ that (according to Mussolini in 1932) would enable the Italian people to ‘rise again after many centuries of abasement and foreign servitude’. National Socialism, by contrast, was built on the ideal of a pure ‘racial community’ (Volksgemeinschaft), based on a biological struggle between different peoples which justified the Germans (and other ‘Aryans’) seizing the territory they needed for survival. One consequence of this was a visceral anti-semitism on the part of Hitler personally and the Nazi élite, since Jews were considered sub-human and the ultimate enemy. ‘None but those of German blood, whatever their creed, may be members of the nation’‚ declared the Nazi programme in 1920: ‘No Jew,

Ernst Röhn, the leader of the SA, continued to believe in the ‘Second (social) Revolution’ after the Nazis seized power and was consequently the victim of a bloody purge in 1934. (Bundesarchiv, Koblenz)

Ernst Röhn, the leader of the SA, continued to believe in the ‘Second (social) Revolution’ after the Nazis seized power and was consequently the victim of a bloody purge in 1934. (Bundesarchiv, Koblenz)

therefore, may be a member of the nation’. Another consequence is that war was seen as a sign of racial vitality, in contrast to the more theatrical aggressivity of Fascism.
Nonetheless, the belief-systems of National Socialism and Italian Fascism had much in common. Both despised the decadence of parliamentary democracy and eyed with fascinated revulsion the communist heresy that opposed anarchy to order and materialism to the ideal of the nation. Both were critical of the excesses of capitalism (the Nazis ascribing this to an international Jewish conspiracy), but believed that protection and coordination could reconcile it with the nation. Each in its different way claimed to be carrying out a cultural or spiritual revolution—to be creating a new, fascist man.

There is, in conclusion, sufficient similarity between Fascism and Nazism in the eyes of this historian to justify us considering them as variants of a broader fascist phenomenon. On any individual aspect there were important differences. Fascism, for example, did not adopt anti-semitism until after it had come to power, and mainly at the behest of its German ally. Yet the capacity to mount an exclusionary mobilisation against a demonised internal enemy was common to the two movements, enabling Italy’s deeply assimilated Jewish community eventually to be targeted. Likewise, the scale of Nazi support enabled it to exert a more sweeping effect on German society than did Italian Fascism. In reality, both movements were constrained by their negotiated access to power and fell well short of their totalitarian aspirations. Yet they shared the ambition to fuse state, society and party, and also the conviction that a new society—and a new world—was being created. In this sense, fascism formed part of the three-cornered ideological conflict with democracy and communism on whose fate the history of Europe turned in the twentieth century.
By extension, fascist ideologues, activists and movements existed in other countries too, especially in the 1930s and during the Second World War. In some cases they amounted to little more than trappings on a more traditional authoritarian conservatism, such as Colonel de La Rocque’s Fiery Cross movement in France. In other cases, such as the Falange of José Antonio Primo de Rivera in Franco’s Spain or Codreanu’s Iron Guard in Antonescu’s Romania, explicitly fascist organisations proved too radical for conservative dictators, and were respectively absorbed and liquidated. Crucially, no crisis of political development such as those in Germany and Italy provided independent access to power for these fascist movements. Their influence remained subordinate to a national politics dominated by others, or emerged only during the Second World War as part of the constellation of authoritarian and fascist regimes summoned into existence by Nazi hegemony in continental Europe.

John Horne is Professor of Modern European History at Trinity College, Dublin.

Mutter und Kind (Mother and Child), one of the many Nazi organisations for youth, women, workers, farmers and teachers, and for specific activities, such as leisure and social welfare. (Bundesarchiv, Koblenz )

Mutter und Kind (Mother and Child), one of the many Nazi organisations for youth, women, workers, farmers and teachers, and for specific activities, such as leisure and social welfare. (Bundesarchiv, Koblenz )

Further reading:

R. Bosworth, Mussolini (London, 2002).

P. Fritzsche, Germans into Nazis (Harvard, 1998).

E. Gentile, The sacralization of politics in Fascist Italy (Harvard, 1996).

I. Kershaw, Hitler 1889–1936, vol. 1 (London, 1998).

This article is relevant to the elements ‘origins and growth of the fascist regimes in Europe’ and ‘the Nazi state in peace and war’ of topic 3 (‘Dictatorship and democracy in Europe 1920–1945’) of the later modern Europe and the wider world field of study (1815–1993) of the Southern Leaving Cert syllabus, and to module 1, option 5 (‘The Nazis and Germany 1919–1945’), and module 2, option 5 (‘Fascism and Italy 1918–1943’), of the Northern A-level syllabus.

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