Restructuring the Social and Political Order: Fascism
Between the world wars, dictatorships hostile to both Marxism and liberal democracy came to power all across Europe—in Poland, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Portugal, and Spain. While they sometimes incorporated fascist elements or allied themselves with fascist movements, many of these regimes were not truly fascist.
After societies had been turned upside down by World War I and the Great Depression, many traditionally anti-revolutionary groups, such as small business people, small farmers, and self-employed artisans, were now ready to consider drastic political change. These groups felt crushed between the pressures of big business on the one hand and the radical working class on the other. They often felt that parliamentary politics was a sham manipulated by various interest groups. In addition, young people coming of age after the war had little memory or understanding of prewar politics. When times were hard, they had little chance to move ahead in the world. Fascism played on these fears by glorifying a simpler, purportedly more honest pre-industrial past. Fascism also drew on the emotional experiences of ex-soldiers. In some countries, these men had moved from the army into street-fighting gangs, which often formed the core of fascist organizations.
The strongest fascist regimes developed in Italy and Germany. Both countries became unified states only in the second half of the nineteenth century; traditions of democratic, parliamentary politics were relatively weak. In addition, both Italians and Germans felt cheated by the Treaty of Versailles―Germans because they felt they had not really lost the war and Italians by their nation’s meager territorial gains. Fascism first came to power in Italy. Although the country had for more than a generation considered itself one of the great powers, the truth was that it existed on the fringe of industrialized Europe. The poverty-stricken Italian south was split between peasants and landowners; the industrial north divided between workers and factory owners. In addition, the church and socialist parties were locked in a continual struggle—yet another source of instability.
Amid these problems, Benito Mussolini came to power. Originally a socialist, Mussolini became a fanatical nationalist in the course of World War I. In 1919, he founded the Italian Fascist movement. Fascism championed the ideal of corporatism, in which representatives of trades and industries (both workers and employers) would meet to solve the problems of the country. However, corporatism became a glorified form of cronyism in the service of the traditional elites. The working class, whose own organizations had been stifled, lost rights while their real wages declined. Middle-class supporters were given sinecures in the huge government and party bureaucracies.
Mussolini’s early successes came in the wake of the general strike of 1920. Fearful of revolution, the middle class, factory owners, and large landowners increasingly turned to Mussolini and his street fighters for protection. Conservative groups thought he could best serve their interests. In 1922, the king invited him to head a coalition government, an opportunity Mussolini used to become dictator.
Despite the propaganda proclaiming his triumphs, Mussolini never achieved total control of Italian society. The Catholic Church and the royal court remained independent of him. Mussolini’s economic policies, despite some widely publicized successes, were often contradictory. So in the 1930s, turning from frustrations in domestic politics, Mussolini began his adventures abroad, most notably the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.
In the wake of World War I, Germany experienced the same kind of instability as Italy. Throughout the first years of its existence, the Weimar Republic suffered constant attacks from both right and left. The right in particular accused the civilian politicians of having stabbed the German army in the back at the end of World War I. The republic might have survived if it had had strong support from the middle class, but this group had lost its savings in the disastrous hyperinflation of the early 1920s. Once hyperinflation had been brought under control, Weimar Germany did enter a period of recovery and even prosperity. For a time, it seemed that extremist parties were not a serious threat to the republic.
Soon, however, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power. In the despair of the Great Depression, parties at both extremes of the political spectrum grew in power. Between 1929 and 1932, the Nazis moved from holding 12 seats in the 550 member Reichstag, to holding 230. In January 1933, President Hindenburg asked Hitler to form a government, which would result in a coalition between the Nazis and a number of smaller conservative parties.
Hitler and the Nazis quickly monopolized power. When the Reichstag building burned down less than a month after Hitler’s inauguration, the Nazis blamed the conflagration on a communist plot. With communist members under arrest, the Reichstag voted to give Hitler emergency powers. The Nazi leader then outlawed rival parties or persuaded them to dissolve themselves. He abolished the federal system, making Germany for the first time in its history a country with an all-powerful central government. When President Hindenburg died early in 1934, Hitler absorbed the president’s office into his own.
The Nazis tried to organize every aspect of German life under the aegis of their party. The Protestant denominations were consolidated into a single church; the labor unions were dissolved, and workers were forced to join the Nazi Labor Front. Until 1938, the army high command seemed to be the one area of German life to escape this process of nazification, but in 1938 Hitler managed to take command of that, too.
The path to World War II grew out of the Nazi plan to unite all Germans in a single nation. Since many ethnic Germans lived in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, these countries would have to be truncated or absorbed outright. In addition, Hitler claimed that Germans must conquer additional Lebensraum, or living space, in the Slav lands to the east.
During his first years in power, however, Hitler proceeded cautiously. In 1933, Germany withdrew from the League of Nations and from international disarmament talks. In 1935, he announced the formation of the German Air Force, which had been forbidden by the Versailles Treaty, and he expanded the army to five times its permitted size. In 1936, German troops reoccupied the Rhineland, which was supposed to remain demilitarized. At each step, the failure of Britain and France to do more than protest seems to have heightened Hitler’s confidence.
His moves became more daring. In 1938, Hitler annexed Austria. Also in that year, he moved against Czechoslovakia, where three million ethnic Germans lived in the area known as the Sudetenland. In 1939, following a secret agreement with the Soviet Union to share the spoils, Hitler invaded Poland. Britain and France finally declared war on September 3, 1939.
The history of the Nazis’ rise to power is perhaps the most dramatic of all fascist movements. But movements similar to European fascism sprang up in other parts of the world, including Spain, Hungary, Rumania, Brazil, and various Middle Eastern societies. Nowhere did they enjoy the same success as Hitler’s Nazis.
Fascism, the authors argue, appeals to peoples and groups who feel oppressed or cheated by history. It offers seemingly simple answers to the problems and uncertainties of modern life. In place of often corrupt parliamentary politics and the jockeying of interest groups for advantage, it claims to offer national solidarity, effective government, and abrogation of self-interest in the name of the larger community. It combines distinctively modern features—the mania for futuristic technology and mass mobilization¾with protests against the erosion of traditional cultural values. In place of class conflict, doubt, and compromise, it offers belief in a set of absolute values¾above all loyalty to the nation, loyalty to the leader, and the sacred connection between the land and the nation.
THE THEMES IN CHAPTER 6
Global interrelatedness. The spread of nationalism outside Europe lead to the development of fascistic movements outside Europe. Global impact of the Great Depression catalyzes fascist movements worldwide, although the fascist movements in Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula, the Middle East, etc. remained relatively weak.
Identity and difference. Hitler’s ambition to create a state that would include all Germans, even groups that had long been living in other countries, was based on his belief in racist and Social Darwinist theories. After World War I, racist ideologies spread throughout the world.
Rise of the mass society. Hitler and Mussolini were able to mobilize and coordinate their respective societies, often relying on techniques of mass propaganda. Fascism is a form of mass politics substituting for modern democracy.