Human Lives Human Rights: Fascism, political ideology and mass movement that dominated many parts of central, southern, and eastern Europe between 1919 and 1945 and that also had adherents in western Europe, the United States, South Africa, Japan, Latin America, and the Middle East. Europe’s first fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, took the name of his party from the Latin word fasces, which referred to a bundle of elm or birch rods (usually containing an ax) used as a symbol of penal authority in ancient Rome.
Although fascist parties and movements differed significantly from one another, they had many characteristics in common, including extreme militaristic nationalism, contempt for electoral democracy and political and cultural liberalism, a belief in natural social hierarchy and the rule of elites, and the desire to create a Volksgemeinschaft (German: “people’s community”), in which individual interests would be subordinated to the good of the nation. At the end of World War II, the major European fascist parties were broken up, and in some countries (such as Italy and West Germany) they were officially banned. However, since late 1940s, many fascist-oriented parties and movements were founded in Europe as well as in Latin America and South Africa. Although some European “neofascist” groups attracted large followings, especially in Italy and France, none were as influential as the major fascist parties of the interwar period.
Fascist parties and movements came to power in several countries between 1922 and 1945: the National Fascist Party (Partito Nazionale Fascista) in Italy, led by Mussolini; the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), or Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler and representing his National Socialism movement; the Fatherland Front (Vaterländische Front) in Austria, led by Engelbert Dollfuss and supported by the Heimwehr (Home Defense Force), a major right-wing paramilitary organization; the National Union (União Nacional) in Portugal, led by António de Oliveira Salazar (which became fascist after 1936); the Party of Free Believers (Elefterofronoi) in Greece, led by Ioannis Metaxas; the Ustaša (“Insurgence”) in Croatia, led by Ante Pavelić; the National Union (Nasjonal Samling) in Norway, which was in power for only a week—though its leader, Vidkun Quisling, was later made minister president under the German occupation; and the military dictatorship of Admiral Tojo Hideki in Japan.
Spain’s fascist movement, the Falange (“Phalanx”), founded in 1933 by José Antonio Primo de Rivera, never came to power, but many of its members were absorbed into the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which itself displayed many fascist characteristics. In Poland the anti-Semitic Falanga, led by Boleslaw Piasecki, was influential but was unable to overthrow the conservative regime of Józef Piłsudski. Vihtori Kosola’s Lapua Movement in Finland nearly staged a coup in 1932 but was checked by conservatives backed by the army. The Arrow Cross Party (Nyilaskeresztes Párt) in Hungary, led by Ferenc Szálasi, was suppressed by the conservative regime of Miklós Horthy until 1944, when Szálasi was made a puppet ruler under the German occupation. In Romania the Iron Guard (Garda de Fier)—also called the League of Christian Defense, the Legion of the Archangel Michael, and All for the Fatherland—led by Corneliu Codreanu, was dissolved by the dictatorial regime of King Carol II in 1938. In 1939 Codreanu and several of his legionaries were arrested and “shot while trying to escape.” In 1940 remnants of the Iron Guard reemerged to share power but were finally crushed by Romanian conservatives in February 1941.
In France the Cross of Fire (Croix de Feu), later renamed the French Social Party (Parti Social Français), led by Colonel François de La Rocque, was the largest and fastest-growing party on the French right between 1936 and 1938. In 1937 it was larger than the French communist and socialist parties combined (one scholar estimated its membership between 700,000 and 1.2 million), and by 1939 it included some 3,000 mayors, about 1,000 municipal councilmen, and 12 parliamentary deputies. Other fascist movements in France included the short-lived Faisceau (1925–28), led by Georges Valois; the Young Patriots (Jeunesses Patriotes), led by Pierre Taittinger; French Solidarity (Solidarité Française), founded and financed by François Coty and led by Jean Renaud; the Franks (Francistes), led by Marcel Bucard; the French Popular Party (Parti Populaire Français), led by Jacques Doriot; and French Action (Action Française), led by Charles Maurras. After the German invasion in 1940, a number of French fascists served in the Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain.
The British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, had some 50,000 members. In Belgium the Rexist Party, led by Léon Degrelle, won about 10 percent of the seats in the parliament in 1936. Russian fascist organizations were founded by exiles in Manchuria, the United States, and elsewhere; the largest of these groups were the Russian Fascist Party (VFP), led by Konstantin Rodzaevsky, and the All-Russian Fascist Organization (VFO), led by Anastasy Vonsiatsky.
In the United States the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist organization founded at the end of the Civil War and revived in 1915, displayed some fascist characteristics. One of its offshoots, the Black Legion, had some 60,000 members in the early 1930s and committed numerous acts of arson and bombing. In 1930 Catholic priest Charles E. Coughlin began national radio broadcasts of sermons on political and economic subjects; his talks became increasingly antidemocratic and anti-Semitic, as did the journal he founded, Social Justice. After running unsuccessfully for the U.S. presidency in 1936, Coughlin became an apologist for Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. In 1942 Social Justice was banned from the U.S. mails for violating the Espionage Act, and in the same year the American Catholic church ordered Coughlin to stop his broadcasts. The pro-Nazi German-American Bund, founded in 1933, staged military drills and mass rallies until it disintegrated with the U.S. entry into the war in 1941.
Common characteristics of fascist movements
There has been considerable disagreement among historians and political scientists about the nature of fascism. Some scholars, for example, regard it as a socially radical movement with ideological ties to the Jacobins of the French Revolution, whereas others see it as an extreme form of conservatism inspired by a 19th-century backlash against the ideals of the Enlightenment. Some find fascism deeply irrational, whereas others are impressed with the rationality with which it served the material interests of its supporters. Similarly, some attempt to explain fascist demonologies as the expression of irrationally misdirected anger and frustration, whereas others emphasize the rational ways in which these demonologies were used to perpetuate professional or class advantages. Finally, whereas some consider fascism to be motivated primarily by its aspirations—by a desire for cultural “regeneration” and the creation of a “new man”—others place greater weight on fascism’s “anxieties”—on its fear of communist revolution and even of left-centrist electoral victories.
One reason for these disagreements is that the two historical regimes that are today regarded as paradigmatically fascist—Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany—were different in important respects. In Italy, for example, anti-Semitism was officially rejected before 1934, and it was not until 1938 that Mussolini enacted a series of anti-Semitic measures in order to solidify his new military alliance with Hitler. Another reason is the fascists’ well-known opportunism—i.e., their willingness to make changes in official party positions in order to win elections or consolidate power. Finally, scholars of fascism themselves bring to their studies different political and cultural attitudes, which often have a bearing on the importance they assign to one or another aspect of fascist ideology or practice. Secular liberals, for example, have stressed fascism’s religious roots; Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars have emphasized its secular origins; social conservatives have pointed to its “socialist” and “populist” aspects; and social radicals have noted its defense of “capitalism” and “elitism.”
For these and other reasons, there is no universally accepted definition of fascism. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify a number of general characteristics that fascist movements between 1922 and 1945 tended to have in common.
Opposition to Marxism
Fascists did not hide their hatred of Marxists of all stripes, from totalitarian communists to democratic socialists. Fascists promised to deal more “firmly” with Marxists than had earlier, more democratic rightist parties. Mussolini first made his reputation as a fascist by unleashing armed squads of Blackshirts on striking workers and peasants in 1920–21. Many early Nazis had served in the Freikorps, the paramilitary groups formed by ex-soldiers to suppress leftist activism in Germany at the end of World War I. The Nazi SA (Sturmabteilung [“Assault Division”], or Storm Troopers) clashed regularly with German leftists in the streets before 1933, and when Hitler came to power, he sent hundreds of Marxists to concentration camps and intimidated “red” neighborhoods with police raids and beatings.
For the French fascists, Marxism was the main enemy. In 1925, Valois, leader of the Faisceau, declared that the guiding principle of his organization was “the elimination of socialism and everything resembling it.” In 1926 Taittinger declared that the primary goal of his Patriotic Youth was to “defeat the progress of communism by any means necessary,” adding that “We defend the hierarchy of classes.…Everyone knows that there will always be different social levels, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the governing and the governed.” In 1936 French Popular Party leader Doriot announced that “Our politics are simple. We want a union of the French people against Marxism.” Similarly, La Rocque, head of the Cross of Fire/French Social Party, warned that communism was “the danger par excellence” and that the machinations of Moscow were threatening France with “insurrection, subversion, catastrophe.”
In 1919–20 the Heimwehr in Austria performed the same function that the Freikorps did in Germany, its volunteer militia units (Heimatschutz) doing battle with perceived foreign enemies and the Marxist foe within. Many of these units were organized by members of the landed gentry and the middle class to counter strikes by workers in the industrial districts of Linz and Steyer. In 1927 violent clashes between the Heimwehr and the Schutzbund, a socialist defense organization, resulted in many deaths and injuries among the leftists. In 1934 the Heimwehr joined Dollfuss’s Fatherland Front and was instrumental in pushing Dollfuss toward fascism.
Many Finnish fascists began their political careers after World War I as members of the anticommunist paramilitary group the White Guards. In Spain much of the Falange’s early violence was directed against socialist students at the University of Madrid. Portuguese Blue Shirts, who called themselves “national syndicalists,” regarded systematic violence against leftists to be “revolutionary.” During the Spanish Civil War, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and German fascists united to defeat the Popular Front, a coalition of liberals, socialists, communists, and anarchists who had been democratically elected in 1936.
Despite the fascists’ violent opposition to Marxism, some observers have noted significant similarities between fascism and Soviet communism. Both were mass movements, both emerged in the years following World War I in circumstances of political turmoil and economic collapse, both sought to create totalitarian systems after they came to power (and often concealed their totalitarian ambitions beforehand), and both employed terror and violence without scruple when it was expedient to do so. Other scholars have cautioned against reading too much into these similarities, however, noting that fascist regimes (in particular Nazi Germany) used terror for different purposes and against different groups than did the Soviets and that fascists, unlike communists, generally supported capitalism and defended the interests of economic elites.
Opposition to parliamentary democracy
Fascist movements criticized parliamentary democracy for allowing the Marxist threat to exist in the first place. According to Hitler, democracy undermined the natural selection of ruling elites and was “nothing other than the systematic cultivation of human failure.” Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, maintained that the people never rule themselves and claimed that every history-making epoch had been created by aristocrats. Primo de Rivera wrote that “our Spain will not emerge from elections” but would be saved by poets with “weapons in their hands.” In Japan the Tojo dictatorship dissolved all political parties, even right-wing groups, and reduced other political freedoms.
Before they came to power, Hitler and Mussolini, despite their dislike of democracy, were willing to engage in electoral politics and give the appearance of submitting to democratic procedures. When Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933, he abandoned his military uniform for a civilian suit and bowed profusely to President Paul von Hindenburg in public ceremonies. In 1923 Mussolini proposed an electoral reform, known as the Acerbo Law, that gave two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to the party that received the largest number of votes. Although Mussolini insisted that he wanted to save Parliament rather than undermine it, the Acerbo Law enabled the Fascists to take control of Parliament the following year and impose a dictatorship.
In France, La Rocque declared in 1933 that no election should take place without a preliminary “cleansing of [government] committees and the press,” and he threatened to use his paramilitary squads to silence “agitators of disorder.” In 1935 he called elections exercises in “collective decadence,” and early in 1936 he told his followers that “even the idea of soliciting a vote nauseates me.” A few months later, faced with the prospect that the Cross of Fire would be banned by the government as a paramilitary organization, he founded a new and ostensibly more democratic party, the French Social Party, which he publicly claimed was “firmly attached to republican liberties.” He privately made it clear to his followers, however, that his conversion was more tactical than principled: “To scorn universal suffrage,” he said, “does not withstand examination. Neither Mussolini nor Hitler…committed that mistake. Hitlerism, in particular, raised itself to total power through elections.” With the collapse of the Third Republic in 1940 and the creation of the Vichy regime, La Rocque returned to condemning democracy as he had before 1936: “The world situation has put a halt to democracy,” he wrote. “We have condemned the thing as well as the word.” In 1941 La Rocque insisted that the French people obey Vichy’s new leaders the way soldiers obeyed their officers. Anti-Semitic fascists associated liberalism with Jews in particular—indeed, one precursor of Nazism, the political theorist Theodor Fritsch, claimed that to succumb to a liberal idea was to succumb to the Jew within oneself.
Although Hitler had not revealed the full extent of his totalitarian aims before he came to power, as Führer (“Leader”) of the Third Reich, he attempted not only to control all political power but also to dominate many institutions and organizations that were previously independent of the state, such as courts, churches, universities, social clubs, veterans groups, sports associations, and youth groups. Even the German family came under assault, as members of the Hitler Youth were told that it was their patriotic duty to inform on anti-Nazi parents. In Italy, Mussolini adopted the title of duce (“leader”), and his regime created billboards displaying slogans such as “The Duce is always right” (Il Duce ha sempre ragione) and “Believe, obey, fight” (Credere, obbedire, combattere). It should be noted that, despite their considerable efforts in this direction, neither Hitler nor Mussolini succeeded in creating a completely totalitarian regime. Indeed, both regimes were riven by competing and heterogeneous power groups (which Hitler and Mussolini played off against each other), and the Fascists in Italy were significantly limited by the wishes of traditional elites, including the Catholic church.
Before fascists came to power, however, they often disavowed totalitarian aims. This was especially true in countries such as France, where conservatives were alarmed by reports of the repression of dissident conservatives in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. After Hitler’s crackdown on Roman Catholic dissidents in Germany in 1934 and 1935, French fascists took pains to deny that they were totalitarians, lest they alienate potential Catholic supporters in France. Indeed, they attacked “statism” and advocated a more decentralized government that would favour local economic elites. However, La Rocque’s claim in 1936 that he supported republican liberties did not prevent him in 1941 from demanding “unanimity” under Pétain and a purge of practitioners of Freemasonry from all government departments.
Hitler envisioned the ideal German society as a Volksgemeinschaft, a racially unified and hierarchically organized body in which the interests of individuals would be strictly subordinate to those of the nation, or Volk. Like a military battalion, the people’s community would be permanently prepared for war and would accept the discipline that this required. The Italian, French, and Spanish versions of this doctrine, known as “integral nationalism,” were similarly illiberal, though not racist. The Japanese version, known as the “family-system principle,” maintained that the nation is like a family: it is strong only when the people obey their leaders in the same way children obey their parents.
Fascists specifically sought to gain popular support and consolidate their power by mobilizing the population in mass meetings, parades, and other gatherings. Exploiting principles borrowed from modern American advertising, which stressed the importance of appealing to the audience’s emotions rather than to its reason, fascists used such gatherings to create patriotic fervour and to encourage fanatic enthusiasm for the fascist cause. The Nazi rallies at Nürnberg, for example, were organized with theatrical precision and featured large banners, paramilitary uniforms, martial music, torchlight parades, bonfires, and forests of fascist salutes accompanied by prompted shouts of “Sieg Heil!” Hitler believed it best to hold such gatherings at night, when audiences would be more susceptible than in the daytime to irrational appeals. Fascists also sought to regiment the population, especially young people, by infiltrating local social networks—tavern groups and veteran, sports, church, student, and other organizations—and providing soup kitchens, vacation outings, and nationalistic ceremonies for townspeople. In France, La Rocque’s French Social Party dispensed meals to the unemployed and offered workers access to swimming pools, social clubs, and vacation grounds in order to entice them into the movement.
The leadership principle
Fascists defended the Führerprinzip (“leadership principle”), the belief that the party and the state should have a single leader with absolute power. Hitler was the Führer and Mussolini the Duce, both words for the “leader” who gave the orders that everyone else had to obey. The authority of the leader was often enhanced by his personal charisma.
The leadership principle was also conceived to apply at lower levels of the political and social hierarchy. Fascist organizations sometimes exhibited the so-called “corporal syndrome,” in which persons willingly submit to the authority of those above them in exchange for the gratification they derive from dominating those below. Japanese fascists believed that owners of stores and workshops should exercise “paternal” authority over their assistants, clerks, workers, servants, and tenants. Subordinates were not permitted to organize themselves into unions, and the small bosses assumed the leadership of town and village councils. As historian Masao Maruyama notes, this mind-set affected the way many Japanese shop masters viewed their nation’s foreign policy in the 1930s: “The resistance of the East Asian peoples to Japanese imperialism aroused the same psychological reactions among them as the resistance of their subordinates in the shops, workplaces, and other groups under their control. Thus, they became the most ardent supporters of the China Incident [the Mukden Incident (1931), in which Japanese troops seized the Manchurian city of Mukden] and the Pacific War.”
During World War II, in a speech to an SS unit that had executed many Jews, SS chief Heinrich Himmler reminded his “new men” that they needed to be emotionally as well as physically hard: “Most of you know what it means when 100 corpses are piled up, when 500 or 1,000 are piled there. To have gone through this and—with exceptions due to weakness—to have remained decent, that is what has made us hard. I have to expect of you superhuman acts of inhumanity.…We have no right to be weak.…[Our men] must never be soft. They must grit their teeth and do their duty.”