This essay will concentrate on fascism’s generic form and identify the common factors which have accounted for the rise of fascism in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. It will address fascism’s ideology and movement and correlate the effects fascism has had on society, politics, culture, and economics. Fascism first emerged In Italy around 1920’s, It was closely followed by the Germans in 1930’s and then shortly after by Spain and other European nations. The term Fascism can be applied to the creation of new revolutionary nationalist movements which rose to power in Europe between the World Wars (Payne, 1998). The majority of European fascist states developed from the combination of and as a consequence to a multitude of significant events, including an oppressed society with weakened governments, the detrimental effect caused by the impact of World War and, by some, the disappointment caused by signing the Treaty of Versailles. Fascism was the movement and political response which offered European people the ability to rebuild their nation and escape the existing quandary.
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Woolf suggests that “European fascism is the political response of the European bourgeoisie to the economic recession after 1918” and by the “fear caused by the recession” (Woolf, 1968, p. 24). Carman Haider’s (1933, p 558) view is that fascism precedes a period of economic and parliamentary deadlock, signifying an inability to cope with the stress and strain of modern society. The working classes and middle classes had become disillusioned by the inability of socialism and existing democracies to cope with the effect of the First World War. The movement of the masses (expanded working class and newly influential middle class) began to push for greater participation in national politics and wanted greater remuneration from the expansion of industry. Kitchen writes that
“after the First World War there were movements in almost all European states which showed distinct fascist tendencies. They rejected the ideas of parliamentary democracy [and] opposed the organised working class and philosophy of socialism” (Kitchen, 1976, p. ix).
Rejection to democracy shows the hint of communism, which terrified the existing governments and pushed them towards accepting fascism. This rejection created an opportunity for fascists to promote and wield their own political power.
The Basic characteristics of fascism were present in the majority of governing bodies over Europe. (Ernst Nolte, German Historian, born 1923) created an order to describe the different concepts of fascism: “Liberals see fascism as a form of totalitarianism” whereas “Marxists see fascism resulting from the contradictions within advanced capitalism” and “Conservatives see fascism as a revolt by the masses against traditional values which are beginning to falter under the strain of social and economic change” (as cited in Kitchen, 1976, p. ix).
Haider stresses that “Fascism embodies the spirit of revolt and all fascist movements and governments are characterised by violence” (Haider, 1933, p. 559). Stereotypically, fascism is characterised by acts of Militarism, Dictatorship, Anti-Capitalism, and Anti-Semitism found primarily amongst one party leaders like Benito Mussolini (29th July, 1883 – 28th April, 1945) and Adolf Hitler (20th April, 1989 – 30th April, 1945).
Fascist leaders gave an alternative to Communist rule and provided an alternative and resolution to the gap formulated by the political, social, cultural and economic organisations. The Italians turned to Mussolini as he had promised to restore the economy, work with the mass population, rebuild a great nation and return Italy back to its former glory, whilst the Germans turned to Hitler who promised “all things to all people”. By 1933, Hitler worked to solve the economic crisis by the regeneration of trade, an investment in industry, rearmament and conscription.
Some historians like Carmen Haider (1933, p. 556) believe that the fascist movement and its strong leadership offered a way to redistribute political power and balance out the economy in an attempt to create a resilient and more unified nation, ultimately capable of solving all the world’s problems. Bilton et al., (2002, p. 217) promotes Fascism “as an authoritarian and undemocratic system of government that emerged in the first half of the twentieth century; characterised by extreme nationalism, militarism and restrictions on individual freedom. The will of the people was held embodied by its leaders”. More pragmatically, De Grand suggests that ‘fascists and Nazis came to power because of deep divisions within the political elite and a desire on the part of important economic and social interests to escape from the prolonged political crisis’ (De Grand A. J., 1995, p. 14). These conflicting views outline the philosophical approach to fascism, the totalitarian reality as expressed in Nazi Germany against the probable consensus view that fascism was a political structure appropriate to the political and economic demand at that time.
Woolf claims that “it is fashionable to explain the success of fascist movements in terms of mass middle class support in industrialised or industrialising countries”. But also suggests that in a large number of agrarian societies including those like Spain and Austria the impact of fascism was harder to identify and had limited impact in rural societies due to its delimited geographical area (Woolf, 1968, p. 5). Woolf (1968, p 1) claims that Fascism in Western Europe was due to inherent problems in the structure of the liberal politics system around 1900 – especially in terms of universal suffrage, the crisis of bourgeoisie political organisations, the development of socialist parties and trade unions. Trevor-Roper clearly states that “European fascism is the political response of the European Bourgeoisie to the economic recession after 1918” (H. R. Trevor-Roper as cited in Woolf, 1968, p. 18).
In the period up to 1915, Italy was run by Liberal politicians. However they were unable to form a majority or resolve the crisis faced by their country, after the unification of Italy. Italy had few natural resources, a high debt, and limited transportation or industries. Difficulties within rural areas resulted in regression of government (www.lifeinitaly.com). The social and economic divide between the North and South kept the “Agrari” rich and prosperous whilst the lower classes and peasants suffered. (Macdonald, 1999, p. 12). Italian fascism with its policy to appeal to all, introduced totalitarianism whilst accepting funds from the “Agrari” to suppress unrest amongst the peasants.
Woolf (1968, p 6) reports of agrarian strikes (1901 – 1902) in the south, slow economic growth throughout Italy (1908) and unemployment in the North (1919): illuminating the tensions and anxieties of a mixed nation. Workers became discontent with rising prices and food shortages which in turn produced more strikes – observed during biennio rosse (two Red Years 1919-1920 – when organised strikes by trade unions gripped Italy and Socialists took control of local government). Woolf emphasizes that Italy had been a country experiencing social, political, cultural and economic unrest since the beginning of the twentieth century and the present Liberal Government was unable to cope with the pressure caused by its disgruntled population.
S William Halperin states “that the birth of fascism was produced out of the ferment and propaganda produced by the ‘Mutilation’ of Italy’s victory” in which Mussolini witnessed the “testiness of the masses” and growing tension amongst the “two million jobless in Italy (November 1919)” (Halperin, 1964, p 28). Italians now recognised that the “Socialists had betrayed the proletariat” which spurred Mussolini to push his party forward to conciliate and satisfy the dissatisfaction felt by the workers and the peasants Mussolini was subsequently hailed as ‘Il Duce’ and founded the fascist movement ‘Fascio de Combattimento’ in Milan on the 23rd March 1919.
S J Woolf claims that the ‘March on Rome’ on 29th October 1922, heralded the time when fascism came to power in Italy (Woolf, 1968, p. 39), which was seen as a significant turning point for Italians and gave Mussolini the power to act out his extreme right-wing ideologies and uphold his ideal of patriotism and nationalism. David Willey and John Horne validate that the rise of fascism emerged when Mussolini signified the unity of the nation when he led his “March on Rome” (Willey, 2002; Horne, 2005). The significant of the ‘March on Rome’ signifies the early beginnings of dictatorship when Mussolini proved his ability to become a great leader for the people of Italy and took up office as Prime Minister (29th October 1922) promising to help rebuild the economy and assemble the ‘Blackshirts’ as his new armed force (Militarianism). The king of Italy, in common with many other European monarchs, terrified by the spectre of communism, agreed to let charismatic leaders like Mussolini lead their governments (seen primarily as an act to save their dynasties). Mussolini could now not only control and run the state but use his force to exhibit power to eliminate all those who oppose him.
An early characteristic of fascism was its ability to support multiple causes particularly if there was financial support attached. Mussolini supported and assisted businessmen in Northern Italy. He broke up the strikes by sending in the Squadre d’azione (action squads-Mafia) in which Mussolini was rewarded with money which helped transform Fascism into a mass movement in Northern and Central Italy.
By the 28th June, 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed to commemorate the end of the First World War. The Treaty created further hardships and inhibited recovery as the conditions enclosed were overly restrictive and impacted greatly on the economy of many European countries, in particular – Italy and Germany. This Treaty fuelled yet helped nurture the rise of fascist ideology. The Italians and Germans were aggrieved and disappointed with parliamentary decisions after signing the Treaty of Versailles which led to humiliation and resentment predominantly felt by all (people and governments). In Italy, the promise of territorial gains (by way of social and land reform) as laid out in the agreement set up by the Treaty of London (1915) were not delivered, even though Italy had agreed to support Britain and France by fighting on the side of the allies in exchange for this impending expansion of territory.
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The Treaty of Versailles blamed Germany for starting World War One and punished them accordingly. The sanctions authorised by the treaty were excessively harsh which greatly humiliated the German’s, especially during a time of major crisis. The German’s relied heavily on loans for stability from the American government as an aid to help rebuild their reduced economy but the impact of the great depression (1929) meant that American monies were withdrawn. However, this treaty not only reduced Germany’s economic status but legitimatised Hitler’s opportunity to rise to power as a fascist. The onset of the great depression pushed Germany and other countries further into debt and led to the failure of the old democracies in most European countries when millions of people turned to strong rulers, to solve their economic problems (fascists).
Mussolini’s advance on Rome was followed a year later in 1923 by Hitler’s abortive Munich Putsch. It wasn’t long before many other fascist parties sprang up in Europe around 1930’s either by conspiracy or civil war but as Trevor-Roper suggests always under the patronages of Hitler and Mussolini.
Nazism (Germany’s equivalent to Fascism) developed in Germany after World War One. In its extreme, German fascism was more violent, abrupt and more vigilant. Horne writes that Adolf Hitler, a national of Austria, joined the German Worker’s party in September 1919 and due to his strong paramilitary predisposition he was subsequently dubbed the “German Mussolini”, and although classed as ‘an unknown’, rapidly became involved in the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nazi Party) and eventually became the leading figurehead of Fascism/Nazism in Germany. (Horne, 2005, p. 36). His first attempt to gain control of the government in 1923 failed and he was subsequently imprisoned. Whilst in prison he wrote his book “Mein Kampf” in which it describes his concept and future for Germany; incorporating his ideas of racism, expansionism and himself as supreme leader. On his release, the Nazi Party was still a minor political entity. It wasn’t until after the Great depression (1929) that it emerged into a major mainstream political force and assisted in the collapse of the Weimar Government when the Nazis promised “all things to all people”. The workings of a significant and sophisticated propaganda technique doubled the Nazi’s vote and by July 1932, they became the largest party.
Continued propaganda and censorship influenced all people; the young were indoctrinated at school, women discouraged from working, ‘law and order’ suppressed crime rates and ‘outsiders’ were persecuted (Harvey, 1998, pp. 6-9). It was through these extremes which heightened and changed legislation of government bodies into major fascist movements, emphasising the benefits of Nationalism, Patriotism and Militarianism.
Although Hitler’s economic program of public works (the regeneration of trade, investment into industry, rearmament and conscription) gave work to millions, his totalitarianism took away their individual freedom and suppressed their ability to form a union. Hitler gains his highest order, during the latter days of the Weimar Republic when President Hindenburg appoints Hitler as Chancellor of a coalition government. On Hindenburg’s death Hitler become Führer. With a mixture of naked force and pressure and by using presidential decrees, Hitler’s government gains full power: The Nazis seize the opportunity to control state, ban trade unions and other political parties.
Hitler’s political stance was unique in emphasising racial superiority (Germans were the Master Race) and blaming other races for weakening Germany. Anti-Semitism was incorporated into Nazism as one of its major policies. Hitler used the Jews as “scapegoats”; to him they weakened the country. Anti-Semitism was more localised to German fascists. Hitler became head of the nation, sole arbitrator and source of supreme power. He soon controlled culture, youth and the economy.
Although, Fascist dictators took control in other areas, like Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria and Romania, only Czechoslovakia remained a democracy in Eastern Europe. Also democracy survived in Britain, France and the Scandinavian countries; in some Eastern countries the success of fascism was less evident as these countries were already tending towards single party states under the guise of communism.
Historically, fascism has been widely documented to have risen to power in Europe as a direct consequence to weakened governments and a lack of national identity. Ernst Nolte (as Cited in Kitchen, 1976, p. ix) claimed that “Liberals see fascism as a form of totalitarianism” – one party rule. It can therefore be argued that European fascism evolved due to weak nations, with depressed economies and unstable and inflexible political governments, which saw the propertied class plagued by the prospect and fear of Communism by the Bolshevik revolution” and by Socialism. A period when businesses and landowners felt endangered and recognised the threat to existing traditional values, in so doing helped formulate the fascist movement; the property classes believed that a strong government would reinstate law and order.
In retrospect, it is easy to see why fascism became so successful in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. Throughout this essay all factors of fascism has been documented by the period of dissatisfaction of both governments and society, which ultimately produced raised tensions and mass movements across Europe. Social unrest in agrarian societies, the clamour for representation by workers in industrial societies and an increased insecurity of the bourgeoisie – middle classes, led to fears of a communist takeover. All these in an already depressed economy helped set the scene for a totalitarian government which was provided by the fascist party leaders – in Italy by Mussolini and by Hitler in Germany. The fascist’s sudden rise to power was through their policy to represent the worker’s interests which would ultimately lead to a more equitable system and a united nation.
All European countries experienced the impact of the great depression in 1929, which exacerbated the continuation of political strife and economic difficulties. The process of political and economic change through all parliamentary processes helped ferment the shift from liberalisation to socialism and then to nationalism. Furthermore, although neither Mussolini nor Hitler created the initial ideologies of fascism, they both used them to guide themselves to power as the “Il Duce” and as the Führer. Both became notorious and powerful leaders and were honoured by their followers.
In comparison to Italy, Germany, with its limited recovery, primed by American loans which were consequently quashed by the impact of the global depression experience in 1929 in conjunction with the terms laid out in the Treaty of Versailles; subsequently impacted on the economy to the extent that Germany initiated World War Two, which seemed the only way they could reclaim land and power. Hitler’s regeneration attempt, through public works not only helped kick-start the economy (industry and trade) but it also assisted in the creation of mass armies and a new youth culture (Militarianism).
In Italy, the geographical sectors within a newly unified nation, separated and divided the agrarian South from the urbanised and industrialised North, and created a totalitarian yet fascist government, which catered for and appeased all walks of society. Mussolini presented fascism as a stabilising movement influential in restoring law and order. This approach was ultimately successful as it pacified and facilitated most class structures albeit with the acceptance of funds, which kept the fascist movements active until it demise in 1945. It is important to note that although Hitler and Nazism had a significant impact on politics, the origins of Fascism in Europe, in the main, were spearheaded by the Italian fascist party in 1921.
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