What Is Fascism?

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On 3 January 1925, Benito Mussolini arose in the Italian Parliament and declared himself “Il Duce” (the leader). This was announced at a time when, throughout mainland Europe, nationalist movements were rapidly gaining in strength. Just five years later, the Nazi Party won nearly 20% of the vote in German Federal Elections, while Spain was teetering on the edge of civil war. A wave was sweeping through Western Europe, a wave which led to the rise of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. While these regimes have all at times been called fascist, the differences between them in their policies on race, religion, foreign affairs and the leaders themselves are stark. These variations are so great that in his 1944 essay, ‘What is fascism?’ Orwell ultimately concluded that he could not find a concrete definition of fascism that existed within the existing political framework he was familiar with. Now, more than seventy-five years since the fall of fascist empires, and with the ideology having occupied a unique position in the popular psyche since the Second World War, it is worth re-examining what makes a nation fascist.

The Nazi Party was an openly racist and anti-semitic group, and it made no secret of this before gaining power. In Mein Kampf Hitler described Jews as “parasites” and called Slavs “inferior”, all while proclaiming the superiority of the Aryan race. Eugenics was at the heart of Nazism. In Italy, however, anti-semitism was not initially a key tenet of Mussolini’s philosophy, but two years after the Rome-Berlin Axis agreement in 1936, this began to change. In July 1938, ‘The Manifesto On Race’ was published in Italy, which declared that the Italians were descendants of Aryans, while Jews were stripped of their assets and banned from teaching or holding public office. Though less extreme than the horrific measures imposed by Nazi Germany, these measures nonetheless signified a shift in Italian policy. Reflecting on these measures in 1941, Mussolini stated that he did not “believe a bit in the stupid antisemitic theory. I am carrying out my policy entirely for political reasons.” This shows that whilst on the surface Italian fascism was becoming more closely aligned with Nazism, this was purely a product of political convenience, rather than any of Mussolini’s own deeply held beliefs about what fascism should be. In theory, Spanish Falangism rejected antisemitism, as it was in contradiction to its self-proclaimed ‘National Catholicism’. However, Franco himself was largely indifferent to antisemitism in Italy and Germany, and handed over the names of 6,000 Jews in Spain as preparation for the Final Solution in 1942, but again this was motivated less by ideology than a desire to remain aligned with Hitler.

Religion was another key area of difference between the three nationalist regimes. Franco was a devout Catholic, and he reversed the secularisation process that had taken place under the previous government. Catholicism was the state religion and it being maintained as such was part of the ‘Hispanic Pride’ initiative that the Falange aimed to achieve. In Italy, the situation was similar. Many Catholics in the nation preached ‘Clerical Fascism’ and Mussolini had a largely harmonious relationship with the Papacy (he was the leader who recognised the sovereignty of the Vatican) during his premiership. However, the situation was rather more complex in Germany, as Nazism struggled with the concept of an autonomous organisation whose authority did not spring from the government. Infamously, several high ranking Nazis had interests in various aspects of occultism, and Himmler’s SS especially was a bastion of archaic rituals and rites. Hitler himself stated in 1928 that “our movement is Christian”, but though his original intention may have been to work with religion in Germany, freedom of the church in conquered lands simply could not be tolerated. Approximately 18% of the Polish clergy was killed when the nation was under German occupation. In Germany itself, attempts to gain control of the church sparked huge backlash, and thus plans such as Operation Monastery Storm, which intended to occupy and secularise monasteries and abbeys, were shelved. However, as Germany was a more secular nation than either Italy or Spain, the Nazis never had to offer the church the open embrace of Franco.

All three nations shared similar international goals, in that they were inherently expansionist. Franco frequently spoke of his hope for the revival and re-establishment of the Spanish Empire. The Nazis pursued the policy of Lebensraum and at the very least wanted to gain control of Eastern Europe. Rudolf Hess stated in 1927 that Hitler believed world peace would only be achieved when the “racially best” had “complete and uncontested supremacy”. In Italy, Mussolini looked to the Roman Empire for his inspiration; he aimed to establish supremacy in the Mediterranean, which he called “mare nostrum” (our sea), and aimed to spread Italian fascism throughout the African continent. The key theme in all of these aims is they all look to restore their nations to their former glories, and used this as a means to justify their actions. However, where Germany differs from Italy and Spain is that it had never been a truly major empire, so Hitler had to look elsewhere in history for inspiration. Instead of one grand golden age, like that of the Caesars or of Isabella, he evoked the memory of three occasions in previous Germanic history. The first was the Prussian Kingdom (later the German Empire), which had been broken up at Versailles. Hitler’s rise was largely fuelled by a promise to restore this entity, the Second Reich, and his pre-war actions were largely in service of this cause – remilitarising the Rhineland in the west and claiming Danzig, West Prussia and Silesia in the east. He adopted Prussian music, and in the Führerbunker he hung Frederick the Great’s portrait. Upon hearing of President Roosevelt’s death, he convinced himself this was his version of the Second Miracle of the House of Brandenberg. The second source of inspiration was the First Reich, the Holy Roman Empire, which had ruled all the Germanic peoples. The Anschluss with Austria and annexation of the Sudetenland could be seen as the practical aspects of this dream, yet it more frequently manifested itself in rhetoric and imagery. It is no coincidence Hitler called his state ‘The Third Reich’ (suggesting it was a continuation of the aforementioned empires), that he referred to it as “the Thousand Year Reich” (the first Holy Roman Emperor was Charlemagne in 800, and the last was Francis II in 1806), that he named the invasion of the USSR “Operation Barbarossa” (after Frederick Barbarossa, a Holy Roman Emperor), and that he chose the eagle as its symbol (a link to the Reichsadler). The last area of history we might see Hitler draw from are the Prussian crusades of the 13th century, which saw the Teutonic Order travel to Eastern Europe, wage a brutal campaign against the Old Prussians (the native pagans), force their conversion to Christianity and establish empires in the east. The Old Prussians ultimately disappeared from history, and the surface parallels between these events and the push for Lebensraum are obvious. It is this ideological desire, that of a return to former greatness, which helps distinguish imperialism from fascism. For imperialism can be motivated by many factors, including economic needs or a desire to spread religion / ‘civilisation’ (Kipling’s infamous “white man’s burden”). Yet fascism’s justification for militarism and aggression is inevitably couched in terms of restoring an ethnic group to a greatness that it has been unjustly deprived of.

Another key aspect of fascism was that it often relied on a cult of personality. Mussolini declared himself “Il Duce”, Hitler the “Führer” and in Spain children were taught that Franco had been sent by God to save them from “chaos, poverty and atheism”. This, however, isn’t a unique tenet of fascism, as it is prominent in every authoritarian state. A personality cult is created to give legitimacy and a means to govern. From Mao to Stalin and beyond, all authoritarian leaders try to create an atmosphere of awe and fear around them, as this is the only way that they can maintain power, so this similarity is by no means exclusive to fascism. As in all totalitarian states, fascist leaders often sought to use their people as expendable resources. Children in Nazi Germany were enlisted into either the Hitler Youth, a paramilitary organisation for boys (with its Italian counterpart being the Gioventu Italiana del Littorio), or the Band of German Maidens, which sought to teach young women to embrace “traditional”roles in society and to be healthy, so they would give birth to future soldiers for the Wehrmacht. At the same time, this cult of personality was coupled with a state terror apparatus. Secret intelligence organisations were designed to purge opposition, and enforce discipline through fear. The Gestapo plagued Germany, while Spain endured Franco’s White Terror.

On economic policy, Italy and Spain adopted a very similar approach. Wages were set by the state in consultation with workers’ syndicates, and there was strong co-operation between government and business. Franco and Mussolini believed that their nations should be as self-sufficient as possible and that globalisation was the cause of the Great Depression (an analysis Hitler agreed with), though Mussolini relied on food imports. Both launched ambitious public works projects, running huge deficits in an attempt to lower unemployment and shore up support. Adolf Hitler regarded economics as unimportant and believed that prosperity was achieved through war and expansion, not by macroeconomic fiscal policies. Still, the Nazis also funded vast construction efforts, most famously the autobahn, though the true success of these policies has been debated. In actuality, Hitler had little understanding of industry, as seen by his amateurish attempts at modernising vehicle production. Though his party was officially labelled National Socialist, Hitler was very much against Marxian Socialism, declaring that “Marxism is anti-property; true Socialism is not.” However, unlike in Spain and Italy, the Nazis never approached autarky due to Germany’s reliance on raw materials from abroad. This policy was due more to necessity than Hitler’s wishes, and he would have preferred a more ‘Italian model’ of self reliance if that were achievable. Generally speaking all three fascists favoured the centralisation and dedication of all resources (including people) to the cause of the good of the state, yet the fascist regimes were often hampered in these efforts by their aforementioned economic illiteracy. Consistently, the dictators found their populations to be the resource easiest to harness. The most sinister examples of this were in Nazi Germany, which monstrously utilised concentration camps for economic benefit.

These three nations are often penned in the same category as the three major fascist powers in 1930s Europe. However, their numerous differences are often stark, from Franco’s embrace of the church to Hitler’s dislike of it and Hitler’s final solution to Mussolini’s recognition that he only went along with this for political purposes. The similarities, however, are also prominent, from expansionism, a desire to return to former glories and striving for economic self-reliance. It must be understood that fascism was not one unified, fully coherent ideology, but existed on a sliding scale. France, the UK and the United States are all liberal democracies, but have wildly different economies, foreign policies, electoral systems, government agencies etc. Similarly, we should not seek to view fascism as a strict series of policies or as an economic formula. To achieve the goal of fascism, it is necessary to mobilise the entire resource of the state, to establish a totalitarian dictatorship and to wage wars of expansion. Yet it is the goal which is the key. This goal it is to restore a nation to a mythologised version of its history, which is inevitably fixated on the centrality of one social group at the expense of all others. It is this idea, of a people once great who shall be great again, that distinguishes fascism from utopian totalitarian states, as these reject the sinful past in favour of creating an entirely new world order. Fascism emphasises return. This helps explain the other reason why fascist movements are so dissimilar and hard to identify – the symbols and institutions favoured will vary depending on the history of a specific country. Of the three major fascist powers, only Mussolini led a party called ‘fascists’, as he was referencing the fasces, the symbols of power in the Roman Empire he admired so much. The swastika was favoured by the Nazis as a symbol of the Aryan race. Franco similarly viewed Spanish history as that of a Catholic people, and so the church was a core part of the golden age he wished to rebuild. Fascism is the totalitarian offshoot of nationalism, and is distinguishable by the ends it pursues more than the means it employs to achieve those ends.













Eatwell, R., 1996. Fascism: A History. Pimlico

Hite, J., and Hinton, C., 2000. Weimar and Nazi Germany. Macmillan

Shirer, W., 1991. The Rise and Fall of Third Reich. Arrow

Smith, G., 1989. Politics in Western Europe. Fifth Edition. Gower

Tipton, F., and Aldrich, R., 1987. An Economic and Social History of Europe From 1939 to the Present. Macmillan