12 mins read

Over the last decade, several countries around the world have elected right-wing governments. Opponents of these governments and concerned commentators have described the swing to the right as the rise of Fascism. I have often wondered whether this is an accurate description or hyperbolic alarmism on the part of liberal and left-leaning critics.

A big difficulty to note upfront  is that Fascism is notoriously hard to define precisely. Umberto Eco, the Italian philosopher and author (of The Name of the Rose fame), in a 1995 essay on Fascism, captures this well:

Fascism was a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions. 

George Orwell noted, as early as 1944, that the term had already been applied to conservatives, socialists, communists, Trotskyists, Catholics, war resisters, war supporters, and anti-imperial nationalists. Today,  it retains that flexibility: the first insult that is hurled at anyone showing authoritarian tendencies is “fascist pig”.

In order to use the phrase accurately, it seems worthwhile to explore the early history of the two cases that set the template: fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
Fascism first arose in Italy, around the time of the first world war, and came to the world’s attention in the 1920s, when the Nationalist Fascist Party rose to  power.  It emerged as an offshoot of socialist politics in Italy, but turned rabidly anti-socialist and anti-marxist. It’s economic platform kept changing. The term itself arises from the Italian word fascio, used in Italy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for a political group or league of workers. The word means  a bundle of sticks, ultimately from the Latin word fasces. The idea was that a bundle indicates strength in its unity.
In 1914, Benito Mussolini founded the Fasci d’Azione Rivoluzionaria (League of Revolutionary Action), supporting Italian intervention in the first world war with the Italian nationalist goal of reclaiming lands with Italian speaking populations (such as Trieste and Dalmatia) from Austria-Hungary. In 1919, after the end of the war, the name was changed to Fasci italiani di combattimento (Italian league of combatants). The league gained the support of Italian war veterans, among them the Arditi (The Daring), shock troops used during the war. The black shirts worn by the Arditi were later adopted by Mussolini’s paramilitary.  In November 1921, the league was renamed the Partito Nazionale Fascista (National Fascist Party). This was the organization that helped Mussolini to power in 1922 after the March on Rome.  Over the course of the next few years, Mussolini converted Italy into an ultra-nationalist, totalitarian and militaristic state, with himself as the dictator.

In Germany, a related ideology emerged in the aftermath of the first world war. In January 1919, the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers’ Party) was founded by Anton Drexler. The party’s views were ultra-nationalist: it opposed the Treaty of Versailles, it believed in the superiority of Germans as part of an Aryan master race, and it was strongly antisemitic. Even though it was a small party, with fewer than 60 members, the German army grew suspicious, and sent Adolf Hitler to infiltrate it. He attracted the attention of the party leaders with his oratory and soon joined them. In early 1920, he became chief of propaganda for the party.  In February 1920, the party was renamed the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (“National Socialist German Workers’ Party”) or NSDAP. The term “Nazi” was a short form of of the German male name Ignatz and used as slang for a peasant,  or clumsy person. Political opponents shortened a part of the party’s name, Nationalsozialistische, to the derogatory “Nazi”.  Party members generally did not call themselves Nazis.

The party’s program clearly laid out its major themes of extreme German nationalism and antisemitism. In 1921, Hitler became the sole and absolute leader of the party, and took the title of Führer (“leader”). In the same year, the paramilitary wing of the party, the Sturmabteilung (“Storm Detachment”) or SA was formalized. It consisted of ex-soldiers and others used for protection at meetings as well as for violent attacks against other political parties and opponents. They wore brown uniforms, which led to them being called Braunhemden, or Brownshirts. In 1925, the Schutzstaffel (“Protection Squadron”) or SS was established. The SA and SS were the organizations responsible for intimidation, violence, torture, murder, and eventually, genocide.

Germany’s economic problems during 1921 to 1923 coincided with increasing membership of the Nazi party. Hitler and his party decided to mount a coup, starting with Munich in Bavaria, with the hope that the army would support their takeover of power. This did not happen, and Hitler was arrested in the aftermath of the failed attempt. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but served only nine months before being released in December 1924. During his prison term, he wrote his book, Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”).

Over the next few years, the reconstituted Nazi party continued to grow significantly. It even participated in elections, but didn’t do very well, getting only 2.6% of the vote in 1928. However, its vote share grew to 18.3% in 1930, its support rising due to the severe economic disruption caused by the Great Depression – from 1929 to 1933, nine million people were thrown out of work, and wages fell drastically. The Nazis blamed all of this on Jews and communists and promised economic revival and a return to German greatness. In the July 1932 elections, the Nazis won 37.4% of the vote. Since no party had obtained a majority, another round of elections were held in November 1932, with similar results. In January 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Following a fire at the Reichstag (Legislature) building in February 1933, the Nazis claimed that a communist conspiracy planned to overthrow the government. Hitler moved rapidly towards suspending civil liberties and dismantling any trace of democracy. The Enabling Act of March 1933 allowed him to rule via decree for four years. All other political parties were abolished in July 1933.  After the President’s death in August 1934, Hitler combined the offices of President and Chancellor, thus becoming both head of state and head of government.

Both Fascism and Nazism led to aggressively expansionist military dictatorships. Today’s right wing governments are unlike fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in those respects, but share other characteristics with the two primary exemplars of Fascism. I list some of these below:

  • Extreme nationalism

Central to both Italian Fascism and Nazism was a belief in national glory. They justified their territorial claims and military adventures with a purported need for “living space”, using the  terms spazio vitale  and lebensraum respectively.

  • Group identification of enemies

The Nazis were rabidly antisemitic, and thought that the Jews were responsible for everything wrong with their world. The Italian fascists were not as rabid as the Nazis regarding the Jews, but they regarded all left-wing movements as their enemies. This had its roots in their belief that all socialist political movements opposed Italian intervention in World War I and Italian nationalism in general.

  • Employment of violence and intimidation

The fascists had their Blackshirts, the Nazis their Brownshirts.  During the years 1920 to 1922, the fascists carried out thousands of acts of intimidation and violence, which included beatings, killings, and humiliations (see this for a brief, but vivid description).  In Germany, the SA fought in the streets with political opponents, intimidated Jews, Roma, and any other groups described as “enemies of Germany.” In 1931, more than 8,000 people were injured or killed in political violence in Germany (more details about the SA here).

  • Veneration of a glorious past, strong sense of current decline, promise of revival

Italian Fascism saw an Italian empire as a successor of the Roman empire and Renaissance Italy. The Nazis believed that they descended from the master race of the Aryans, who, through migration, had been responsible for most cultures and civilizations, including the Greek, the Iranian, and Indian.

  • Extensive use of propaganda and a cult of the leader

Mussolini was glorified ceaselessly in fascist Italy, which made extensive use of propaganda. Among its slogans was Mussolini ha sempre ragione (“Mussolini is always right”).  The Nazis used propaganda even more extensively, if anything. Hitler recognized its value in Mein Kampf

Propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people. … All propaganda must be presented in a popular form … The receptive powers of the masses are very restricted, and their understanding is feeble. On the other hand, they quickly forget. Such being the case, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward. 


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