Fascism was a global cultural and political phenomenon in the 1920s and 30s. Like Communism it was a reaction to the crisis of Liberalism that we have already discussed, rushing into the cultural vacuum left by the Great War. Although it began in central and eastern Europe, it eventually extended around the world into many different countries and national traditions. Put broadly, fascism was a mass political movement that dominated central, southern, and eastern Europe between the period 1919 to 1945, as well as enjoying significant support in western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and North and South America. Fascism was never an ideological movement, but its individual national components shared a number of important characteristics. First, all fascist movements were based in the nation. Second, all fascist movements contained an element of socialism. Third, all fascist movements were popular, emphasizing the state’s concern for the people’s welfare. Fourth, all these movements were officially classless; that is, fascism adopted from communism the dream of a classless society, but dressed it up in nationalist rhetoric. Fifth, fascist movements were all centered on a single leader. The two most famous leaders are, of course, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and their respective paths to will be the basis for today’s lecture.
I will start in Italy, since Fascism originated there. Our first question is, therefore, why Italy? What was it about the Italian situation that encouraged this kind of politics? We must begin by considering Italy’s late unification. Unified only in 1870, Italy had a great deal of catching up to do, when it entered the world stage, and its political and economic development was compressed into a relatively short time. Thus, as I discussed in the lecture on Italian unification, traditional forms of social organization were rent asunder by the new economy, which meant that the country was in turmoil before fascism arrived. To this we must add Italy’s weak constitution. A product of many compromises, the post-unification constitution provided for a weak constitutional monarchy and a legislative body chosen through proportional representation. We have already seen the pitfalls of proportional representation in our discussion of Weimar. Things went no better in Italy, where finding a political consensus proved difficult. There was, thus, a rapid succession of governments after 1870, and Italy’s politics descended into political extremism.
In addition, we need to mention the broader problems of nationalism and imperialism. Like Germany, Italy entered into the imperial game late, and played it no better. In 1881, the French and the British frustrated Italian ambitions in Tunisia. (This, you will recall, was the start of the great “Scramble for Africa.”) In 1896, desperate to gain an African colony, Italy invaded Ethiopia and was defeated by the native defenders. These were both major embarrassments, but they revealed a brute fact: Italy did not have the economic resources necessary for playing the international game. Nonetheless, Italy tried to play the game repeatedly and lost each time, which irritated Italy’s wounded nationalism even further, making it both unstable and aggressive. It is no accident that Mussolini would embark on his own program of colonial expansion after seizing power in 1922.
Italy also suffered from weaknesses in its political culture. Democratic politics in Italy was famous for its venality and corruption. At the time, Italians described their political system with two terms: combinazione and transformismo. Both were pejorative. Combinazione referred to how little actually changed when new governments were elected. Italian politicians had a long-standing policy of buying off the opposition with bribes or offices. This meant that a change in government meant very little, as the same people kept showing up in the new governments. This policy of extensive and universal bribery was what the Italians called transformiso. Thus, one could transform a political opponent into a friend by buying him off. Viewing all of this, the average person was forced to conclude that the political elite merely traded favors, rather than offering any genuine alternatives. One can see how the Italians became cynical about politics.
We find a good example of the problem in the career of Giovanni Giolitti. Giolitti was a powerful political force in turn-of-the-century Italian politics, and his brand of politics heavily emphasized corruption and violence as means for influencing policy decisions. Giolitti’s reputation for using personal connections and making back room deals even inspired a new word, giolittismo. Giolitti first became Italian prime minister in 1892, but immediately became embroiled in a major bank scandal that also implicated other Italian politicians. He was out of office by 1893, but stayed in politics and had a damaging fight with his successor, Francesco Crispi, which helped to bring down that government by 1896.
Here, however, we can really begin to understand Italians’ attitudes toward their government, for Giolitti kept coming back. He was Minister of the Interior from 1901 to 1903 and prime minister again from 1903 to 1905. He resigned over a labor dispute, but then saw to it that a political supporter of his held office 1905 to 1906. In 1906, he was back again as prime minister, resigning again in 1909. In 1911, he returned and started a war with Turkey, which ended in 1912 with Italy taking Libya. In 1914, he resigned again. By 1920 he was back as prime minister, and during this administration he tolerated the Italian fascists, not because he was one of them, but because his government needed the fascists to stay in power. In 1921, he resigned again as prime minister and gave moderate support to the fascists, though he later withdrew it. Giolitti seems to have wanted to make a political comeback thereafter, but the fascists took over in 1922, finally closing the door on his career.
Now we can understand more clearly, perhaps, the popular yearning for something different, for amidst all the supposed changes, nothing seemed to change. In this context, we see the development of hyper-nationalist movements and also the desire for a different future. One cultural example of this desire was Futurism, an Italian artistic movement that emphasized energy, power, speed, and violence rather than feelings or abstract philosophical concepts. Like the other movements we have discussed, its roots go back to before the Great War. It was first officially announced on February 20, 1919 in a manifesto published in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro by an Italian writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Marinetti coined the term Futurism, wanting with it to look beyond static and plodding art to a future full of motion and energy. The Manifesto emphasized the recent burst of technological progress, glorifying things such as the speed and power of the automobile. Marinetti also praised the virtues of violence and conflict, calling for people to repudiate institutions such as museums and all traditional values that tied people to the past. Marinetti then became the center of a brief but powerful artistic movement that always yearned for more, though it was never sure what the more was. Some Futurists became fascists, and it is no accident the Futurist movement became the official art of the fascists.
Now we can turn to Benito Mussolini. Before World War I, Mussolini had been a socialist. He edited the socialist newspaper Avanti and was publicly against Italy’s war with Turkey, calling it a capitalist conspiracy. But during World War I he, like some others who went to the front, became an extreme nationalist. In a story that we have heard before, Mussolini’s wartime service left him feeling alienated from post-war society. In particular, he was disappointed with how little Italy got out of Versailles. All of these factors made him a prime candidate to become an opponent of the status quo. After 1919, he moved toward syndicalism, a type of socialism that emphasized union organization and strikes as a way to control the nation’s economic systems. At this point Mussolini was still a socialist, but syndicalism allowed him to include nationalism within socialism. This was the first real step on a new and dangerous political path.
In 1919, Mussolini founded a new movement that he called Fasci di Combattimento (Fighting Groups). He took the name and the party’s symbol from an ancient Roman emblem in which a bundle of sticks is tied around two axes. This is an appropriate symbol, in so far as it stressed violence and conformity to a larger group. Unfortunately for many Italians, just as there is no room at all between any of the sticks, there was no room in fascist Italy for those disagreed with the fascists. In this respect, Mussolini’s timing was impeccable, as 1919 was a tumultuous year for Italy. Peasants and workers rose up in various parts of the country against post-war economic deprivation. The government was weak and could not stop the violence. Thus, the fascists, who had their own private army and were more than willing to knock heads, came to be seen as the only hope for order in Italy.
By March 1922, feeling that his time had come, Mussolini organized what he called his “March on Rome,” sending 17,000 fascists to Rome in a bid for power. The government collapsed and Mussolini simply assumed political control. By 1924 he had written a new constitution that eliminated both the king and parliament and put the entire country under the rule of a so-called “Grand Fascist Council.” Violence became ever more central to daily life in Italy, as Mussolini and the fascists jailed or simply beat to death their political opponents. Then, during the 1930s, and having dispensed with his internal enemies, Mussolini turned to foreign policy adventurism. In 1935, he sent Italian troops into Ethiopia, using poison gas on the native defenders to avenge Italy’s earlier defeat. An emerging relationship with Adolf Hitler then made Mussolini even more aggressive and dangerous. Between 1936 and 1939 he intervened in the Spanish Civil War, and in 1940, he declared war on France. This was Mussolini’s final mistake, since it dragged Italy into a war that it could not win. By 1940, Italy had been reduced to an appendage of the much larger and more dangerous German fascist state.
Now, we turn to the other example of fascism, Nazi Germany. Germany offers some significant parallels to the Italian situation. As you know, there was great disappointment among Germans over World War I’s outcome. The economic dislocation of the inter-war years fatally wounded what little credibility Weimar’s democratic government had left. There was, however, also a significant difference. Nazi Germany exploited a rising tide of anti-Semitism that dated back to the economic difficulties of the 1870s. Mussolini never needed anti-Semitism to gain power. In Germany, however, when economic problems became completely unmanageable, the Nazis were able to use anti-Semitism an organizing principle. Thus, Germany was a troubled and unstable state—a bad recipe if the state had great economic potential, as did Germany.
Into this milieu, we must place Adolf Hitler. Hitler was born Braunau am Inn, in a small town that is located in upper Austria. His father, Alois, was a distant man and died while Adolf was young; his mother, Clara, spoiled him. In 1909, Adolf Hitler moved to the great city of Vienna and tried to enter the Vienna art scene. He failed twice to gain admission to the prestigious Vienna Academy of art. (You need to recall here that along with Berlin, Munich, and Dresden, Vienna had become a leading city for the arts in the world.)
Vienna is particularly important for understanding Adolf Hitler, because it is here that he was first exposed to political anti-Semitism. During the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries, Vienna changed dramatically, as Jews and Slavs from across the Austro-Hungarian Empire moved there in search of work. The demographic change sparked a nativist movement, which had strong anti-Semitic and racist overtones. The most famous example of this movement’s importance is the career of Vienna’s long-time mayor Dr. Karl Lueger, who though neither a racist nor an anti-Semite himself, was still willing to exploit these trends to keep his party, the Christian Social Union, in power. It was during Lueger’s tenure in office that Hitler first saw the power of anti-Semitism.
In 1913, Adolf Hitler left Vienna for Munich, where he lived the life of a penniless artist, painting postcards for sale. In the summer of 1914, his life was changed by the outbreak of World War I. Hitler had been denied admission into the Austrian Army earlier that year, due to his small stature. But after the war’s outbreak, he enlisted in the German army. Hitler was a brave soldier, working mainly as a messenger in the front lines. In combat he earned two iron crosses for bravery, one of which was “first class,” an unusual distinction for a corporal. When Hitler returned to Munich after the war, like so many others, he found a world to which he could not connect.
In 1919, Adolf Hitler entered politics, joining a new party, the German Worker’s Party (DAP), which had been founded by Anion Drexler. Hitler was both a great orator and fundraiser for the party. By 1920, he was one of the party’s leaders, even laying down what became its fundamental principles. In April 1920, under Hitler’s leadership, the party changed its name to National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP), and he personally chose the party’s emblem, the swastika. Also important was the acquisition of a newspaper the Völkischer Beobachter (The People’s Observer) in that same year, because it served to distribute Nazi propaganda. In 1921, Hitler assumed complete control of the party, bringing modern party discipline and organization to what had, until that point, been a bunch of drunks. It was during this time that he attracted an inner core of supporters whose names would become infamous: Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, and Julius Streicher.
In 1923, Hitler and a former Prussian General Erich von Ludendorff led the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, declaring the Weimar government deposed and trying to take over the city. Unlike in Italy, however, the government fought back, arresting the conspirators and trying them for treason. As we have seen, however, the German legal system was no threat to right-wing extremism, as Hitler was sentenced to only five years in jail, of which he served a mere six months, and that in the relative comfort of a castle. These six months were crucial, however, as they gave Hitler the leisure to dictate his infamous text Mein Kampf, a long rant against a long list of imaginary enemies.
Although Mein Kampf was hardly a roadmap to Hitler’s success, it does offer an early glimpse of the worldview that would later wreak such destruction. In Hitler’s view there was a basic hierarchy of races, with the “Aryans”, of course, at the top. The people (Volk) were the basic unit of humanity, and the state served the Volk. Weimar did not serve the needs of the Volk. Even worse, it was democratic, which meant that individual voters determined policy, and the individual was completely unimportant for Hitler. As far as he was concerned, only a single leader (Führer) could lead a people to greatness.
Of course, you may imagine that Hitler also took aim at the other great totalizing worldview, Marxism. If democracy was bad, Marxism was pure evil. Internationalist and class-based, it had no place for race. In addition, since many prominent Marxists in Germany and the Soviet Union were also Jews, Hitler railed against the Jews while going after the Marxists. You may have already noted that this is hardly a consistent position, since Hitler’s ideology also saw Jews as capitalist parasites. This was a contradiction, but coherence was not Hitler’s greatest concern.
When Hitler returned to the streets after his five-month sentence ended, he did so having learned a very important lesson. Power could not be seized by force, but had to be acquired through legal means. Between 1924 and 1932 Hitler built his party into a large, national organization. Much as we did with Weimar, we can consider the Nazi party’s rise in terms of stages. The first stage was 1924-1928. This was a difficult time for the Nazis, as growing economic prosperity made it difficult to get votes. Between 1924 and 1928 the Nazi vote tally dropped from 2 million to 800,000, leaving them with only 12 seats out of the Reichstag’s 491. During the second phase, however, between 1928 and 1932, the Nazi party’s growth was explosive, as the economic and social chaos of the post-crash period proved to be a vote getter. As the credit market dried up in Germany huge layoffs followed and many of the jobless turned to the Nazis. In 1930, the Nazis polled 6.4 million votes, becoming the second largest party behind the Center Party.
Here we need to consider how exactly the Nazis were able to take advantage of this unstable situation. The Nazis successfully styled themselves the party of the future. The Nazis used mass rallies, music, speeches, flags, and posters to get their target audience. These were pioneering political techniques and many are still in use today. The message was not so much the political content, but the sense that the party was where the action was. The Nazis made politics a fun social gathering, with plenty of beer and knockwurst to go around.
Of course, these are not the only reasons that the party became so successful; they also spoke directly to people’s economic concerns. For workers they promised full employment, and when they came to power they delivered. The building of the Autobahn was an example. In 1934, 52,000 people were at work on the project, and this was just beginning of state-led employment projects. The Nazis also spoke to farmers, promising to support their farms. They also promised Germany’s middle and lower middle class a more stable economic world, where money would retain its value. The centrality of economic concerns is important here, because economics opened the door for the Nazis’ vicious anti-Semitic politics. The average worker or shopkeeper was desperately afraid of speculators and market manipulators, people who in their view competed unfairly and did not produce anything. These people were usually Jews in their minds, since Jews had a long history in financial markets, and the Nazis played on these fears, encouraging people to blame their problems on Jewish speculators.
As we take note of the concerns that the Nazis addressed in their political platforms, we should also note another problem the Nazis resolved, though in an ironic way, street violence. It is more than ironic that the Nazis would promise to end the violence, since they were causing it. But as a form of politics, programmatic hooliganism was effective. Throughout the 1920s Germany had seen a series of violent street battles, in which Nazi and left-wing private armies beat each other up. A saying even appeared which ran roughly “Better and end to fighting, than fighting without end.” Thus, for many people, it did not matter who won, just as long as the fighting stopped. In these ways, the Nazis addressed a great many needs, while using all the tools at their disposal to gain political power.
This brings us to Hitler’s actual rise to power. In February 1932, Hitler ran for Weimar’s presidency against Paul v. Hindenburg, the popular war hero. In March 1932, after a runoff, Hindenburg won with 53% of the vote to Hitler’s 36.8%. But the political situation remained unstable. Recall from the Weimar lecture how the electorate progressively polarized. By June 1932, with all the economic and political problems that Germany confronted, the incumbent Chancellor, the Center politician Heinrich von Brüning resigned. Paul von Hindenburg then appointed Franz von Papen to become the next Chancellor and set the next elections for July. In this vote the Nazis made yet more gains at the polls, winning 13,745,000 votes and 230 of 608 seats in the Reichstag. Hitler demanded to be named chancellor, but Hindenburg refused, fearing what Hitler would do in office.
The situation then went from bad to worse. In September 1932, Hermann Goering was elected speaker of the Reichstag and then engaged in a series of parliamentary maneuvers that forced von Papen’s resignation on November 17. Again Hindenburg refused to appoint Hitler chancellor and turned to a conservative schemer Kurt v. Schleicher to make a government. Schleicher could not find a majority in the Reichstag, so he resigned on Jan 28, 1933. On Jan 30, with seemingly no other option Hindenburg reluctantly named Hitler Weimar’s last chancellor.
At this point Hitler was still merely Chancellor. But then on February 27, 1932 the Reichstag burned. The Nazis probably set the fire, but Hitler immediately blamed the Communists, and the Nazis arrested some poor Dutch Communist, Marius van der Lubbe, who had been living in Berlin, and blamed the blaze on him. Next all the communist deputies in Reichstag were arrested, and Hitler got President Hindenburg to declare a state of emergency, which gave Adolf Hitler broad powers to crush dissent and shut down Germany’s free press. Hitler used to opportunity to call for new elections and engaged in a brutal repression of all opposition. On March 5, 1933 elections were held and the Nazis got 44% of the total vote. This was not enough, however, as Hitler needed a 2/3 majority to change the Weimar Constitution. In order to get around this problem, Hitler had the increasingly docile Reichstag pass the Enabling Act on March 23, 1933. This act gave Hitler complete dictatorial power for four months. He only returned it twelve years later.