Fascism is an authoritarian ideology that was popular in some countries during the 20th century. Specifically, it is often associated with the time period of World War II and countries such as Italy under Benito Mussolini and Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler. Benito Mussolini led the first fascist movement in Europe with his rise to power in Italy. Fascism rejects liberal values, such as democracy and individual rights and freedoms. Instead, fascism is the belief that society as a whole has a shared purpose and all actions by the individual must benefit the state as a whole. The word fascism comes from the Italian word fascio and the Italian word fasces. In general, they refer to the idea of a sticks being wrapped around an axe, which was a symbol of authority in Ancient Rome. This symbolism shows what Mussolini was trying to achieve with his rise to power and his use of fascism. On the political spectrum, fascism is usually placed on the extreme right. It is important to understand that there are several essential elements of fascist countries based on politics, economics and how they controlled their societies.
WHERE & WHEN DID FASCISM BEGIN?
The first fascist movement in Europe began in Italy with the rise to power of Benito Mussolini. Mussolini formed the Italian Fascist Party in 1919, and after capitalizing on the public discontent at the time Mussolini formed the paramilitary organization known as the ‘Black Shirts’ who terrorized political opponents and helped spread the influence of the Fascist Party. In 1922, Mussolini seized control of the Italian government in an event known as the ‘March on Rome’, and after a series of policies that destroyed all Italian democratic institutions, he finally made himself dictator in 1929. Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy as the fascist leader would eventually inspire Adolf Hitler to bring his own brand of fascism to Germany in the years that followed. In general, Hitler’s brand of fascism was very similar to that of Mussolini’s in Italy but he focused much more intensely on the idea of racial purity in the events of Holocaust. As such, historians refer to fascism in Nazi Germany as Nazism or National Socialism in order to differentiate it from Mussolini's fascism. Regardless, fascism emerged in the 20th century alongside other authoritarian ideologies including communism.
POLITICAL ELEMENTS OF FASCISM
Politically, fascist countries are usually an ideological one-party state. For example, in Nazi Germany the Nazi Party was the only legal political party following Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. He famously banned all other political parties following the Reichstag Fire and his obtaining of emergency powers through the Reichstag Fire Decree and the Enabling Act. Furthermore, not only are fascist countries an ideological one-party state, but they are also dictatorships. A dictatorship is a form of government in which most or all authority of the country is in the hands of a single individual; the leader. Also, fascist countries are generally based upon the ideas of extreme nationalism or ultranationalism. In a fascist country, the state expects the citizens of the country to follow the leadership of the dictator, even if it requires violence and genocide to do so. Famously, Adolf Hitler wrote about extreme German nationalism in his autobiographical book titled ‘Mein Kampf’. In it, he talked about the need for Germans to resist the principles of the Treaty of Versailles, which was imposed on Germany after World War I, and to fight back against the hardships that Germany was forced to undergo. Finally, fascist countries are based upon the ideas of militarism and territorial expansion. Fascist countries usually spend a great deal of time building up their militaries and using its military might to not only control its own citizens but expand its territory into new regions. This idea relates to the term ‘lebensraum’ which Adolf Hitler discussed in his book ‘Mein Kampf’. In the book, Hitler identified his strategy to capture more lebensraum (or ‘living space’) for the German people. Hitler believed that Germany needed more living space in order to harvest more food to allow the German population to increase at a faster rate. In his book, he stated his desire to use land to the east of Germany to fulfil this purpose, including Poland and the Soviet Union. This desire for more living space by Hitler was a major cause of World War II.
ECONOMIC ELEMENTS OF FASCISM
While fascism is often confused with other authoritarian or totalitarian ideologies, such as communism, it is fundamentally different in how it handles the economy of the country. In general, communist countries are based upon government ownership of the means of production, whereas fascism allows some private ownership. In general, fascist states allow citizens to own and operate their own private businesses so long as the business is operating for the benefit of the state as a whole. For example, Oskar Schindler was a famous Nazi Party member who is credited with saving over 1,200 Jewish people from the Nazi gas chambers and was celebrated in the 1993 movie Schindler’s List. He was able to save so many people by employing them in his factories, which produced products for the Nazi state. This example shows the underlying economic difference between fascism and communism.
SOCIETAL ELEMENTS OF FASCISM
The next essential element to understand about fascism is how the leaders of fascists states controlled the societies that they ruled over. At its heart, fascism is about maintaining control for the dictator. As such, fascist dictators used several different techniques in order to maintain control of the citizens in their country. These techniques include: censorship, indoctrination, propaganda, secret police and scapegoating. You can read our dictatorship article to learn more details about each technique and how it was important to dictatorships. In general, each technique allowed the dictator to control the information that their citizens had access to. For example, in fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini banned media publications that did not support his views or his leadership. This was a form of censorship in which he was able to control the information that Italians were able to access.
Next, fascist dictators also made use of secret police in order to terrorize their citizens into obeying and following the rules and expectations of the leader. For instance, Adolf Hitler created the Gestapo which was a secret police whose main task was to maintain the Nazi regime in Germany and later in the occupied countries. For his part, Benito Mussolini established his own paramilitary force called the 'Black Shirts'. The early mission of the Black Shirts was to attack Mussolini’s enemies. Later, in 1927, Mussolini established the Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism (OVRA). OVRA was essentially, the secret police of Italy that carried out actions against the people of Italy that were considered to be acting anti-fascist.
Third, fascist regimes made extensive use of propaganda campaigns to inform their citizens about issues important to the nation. Propaganda is any information that tries to change your opinion or view on a particular topic. Propaganda took many forms during World War II, including: posters, pamphlets, radio addresses, etc. As well, fascist dictators also tried to establish a cult of personality. A cult of personality is a form of propaganda in which the leader of the country is presented in a positive manner. In fact, a cult of personality usually present the leader as almost god-like in nature. This is evidence in how Mussolini had himself presented to the people of Italy. For example, he was always displayed as a strong and powerful figure that commanded the authority of the people.
Fourth, fascist regimes also made use of indoctrination as another means of controlling their people. Indoctrination involves the dictator using formal means to “educate” the citizens in the ideology and importance of the leader or leaders. It is important becomes it allows the dictator and his leadership to more easily spread their ideology to the citizens and to help control the ideas and information that the citizenry consumes. For example, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Adolf Hitler developed the Hitler Youth, a youth organization in Germany dedicated to educating young Germans in the ideology and leadership of the Nazi Party.
Finally, fascist dictators also make use of scapegoating in order to maintain control in their countries. Scapegoating refers to the concept of blaming specific groups of people for the issues facing a country. Historians often refer to this as ‘redirecting popular discontent’ since the dictator or the government in charge use it as a means of controlling the anger of the citizens. For example, in Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler placed a great deal of the country’s economic hardship on Jewish people. Following World War I, Germany was made to agree to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and as a result suffered through a period of intense hyperinflation. In turn, Adolf Hitler and other prominent Nazi officials blamed the economic hardship on Jewish people for having cost Germany the war. For example, in the lead up to the Holocaust, the Nazi regime produced propaganda images that portrayed Jewish people as the reason for Germany’s issues. All five of these techniques used in fascist countries go directly against the principles of modern democratic countries which are based upon the principle of liberalism.
The techniques used by fascist dictators discussed above also highlights another key difference between fascism and other authoritarian or totalitarian ideologies; fascism is inherently based upon the principles of racism. In a fascist state, the government is often very concerned with promoting racial purity. As discussed previously, fascist states often use scapegoating as a means of controlling and directing the anger of their citizens. For example, in Nazi Germany the Jewish (along with other groups) were often persecuted and blamed for the hardships that the country was forced to face. This anti-Semitic technique emerged out of the racist belief in Germany that people of German ancestry where naturally better or more superior to other groups. As part of the Holocaust, the Nazi regime classified and discriminated against different groups of people based on certain characteristics, including: ethnic heritage, mental and physical disability and genetic background. In his book, ‘Mein Kampf’, Adolf Hitler promoted the idea that Germany should actively seek to create a master race which he referred to as ‘Aryans’. For Hitler, Aryans were northern Europeans who had certain genetic traits, including blonde hair and blue eyes. Hitler believed that Aryan genetic traits should be promoted and that all others should be restricted or removed from society. In order to achieve this, the Nazis practiced the theory of eugenics, which is the idea that certain genetic traits should be promoted while others should be removed through selective reproduction. This belief of racial purity and the use of violence and genocide to achieve it was generally unique to fascist regimes.
FASCISM VS. COMMUNISM
While fascism and communism share many similarities, they are usually placed on different ends of the political spectrum. For example, fascism is generally placed on the extreme right of the political spectrum while communism is placed on the extreme left. As stated previously, the two ideologies share many similarities. For instance, they are both totalitarian ideologies that are led by strong dictators. The dictatorships in both countries are generally very similar and share several techniques, including: censorship, propaganda, and secret police. Also, both ideologies reject the values of liberalism such as basic human rights and freedoms. This is why they are both placed at the extremes of the spectrum, because they fall outside of the ‘umbrella’ of liberalism. Although they share many similarities, they are also strikingly different. For example, fascism includes elements of racism centered around a notion of racial superiority. For example, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party famously carried out the events of the Holocaust in an attempt to create the perfect race, which they referred to as Aryan. Communist nations generally do not contain this element. For instance, although the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin contained labor camps (referred to as Gulags), they did not imprison people based upon their racial or ethnic heritage and instead focused on threats to Stalin’s power. Another key difference was how each country handled the economy. In the Soviet Union, as in all communist countries, the means of production was owned exclusively by the government. This meant that citizens in communist countries were not allowed to own their own businesses and the government handled all aspects of the economy. In contrast, fascist countries allow some private ownership, so long as the business is geared towards the larger goals of the state. These two differences show why fascism is a right-wing ideology while communism is a left-wing ideology.