by ProfDave, ©2020

(Nov. 1, 2020) — “Fascist” is a word still used in the twenty-first century for people we don’t like – a weapon word.  Fascism was the dominant political movement of the two decades following World War I, growing out of the crucible of war, societal collapse, and democratic failure.  It took World War II and the atom bomb to put the genie back in the bottle – or is it?  We need to know what that genie really was, lest democracy be tested again.

Fascism is typically associated with conservatism and nationalism, but contemporary European conservatives and nationalists had very different social and ideological origins.  Rather, Fascism sought to co-opt (to absorb and exploit) traditional ideologies (like Conservatism, Nationalism and Socialism) into a mass movement focused on one charismatic leader in a one party totalitarian state.  It differed from previous forms of authoritarianism in being thoroughly based in modern mass society, in which each citizen relates directly to the state – as embodied in its head.  Latin American caudillos represented established elites.  Medieval kings were responsible to God and ruled in the context of a universal religious structure.  Fascist dictators came from outside the elite, from the most alienated elements of society, and attempted to co-opt religious structures.  In the end, they supplanted God in claiming ultimate allegiance to their own person.

The Italian Original

Now let’s take a closer look at Italy.  The war brought nothing good to Italy.  The bribes offered by the allied powers to induce Italy to enter the war against Austria had been renounced at the peace table under the influence of Woodrow Wilson.  The promises of wartime propaganda were unfulfilled.  Visions of gain and glory had turned to revulsion, frustration, debt, and loss.  Both German and Italian veterans felt a sense of national humiliation and a civilian stab-in-the-back.  The war was followed by violent strikes and the red menace of Bolshevism. Political parties failed to rise to the challenge.  The Socialists were divided, the Catholics lacked direction (the Pope forbade participation in the Italian state), the liberals were laissez faire (wishing to do nothing), and all parties were now anti-war.  Landowners, industrialists and nationalists all felt alienation from the parliamentary regime.  Veterans particularly felt alienated from civilian life and that their sacrifices were unappreciated.  Many were unemployed. 

By March 1919, groups of veterans, youth, Romantics and crack-pot extremists began to gather in paramilitary political vigilante units, called fascio di combattimento.  They styled themselves as guardians of order against socialist demonstrations.  By November 1921, they had found a renegade socialist journalist, Benito Mussolini, as a leader (Il Duce).  Over the next months the movement and the party grew rapidly, gaining attention and popularity by breaking up socialist demonstrations with paramilitary discipline.  The army and the king were sympathetic, because they were doing what the conventional forces of law and order were not able to do.

Mussolini got his big chance when the Socialists called a general strike in August 1922.  It proved suicidal.  The response was like a military campaign and Socialist mobs were no match for Fascist formations.  Demonstrations were dispersed, party headquarters attacked and destroyed, cities taken over and a Fascist March on Rome launched, October 27 – 30.  The Italian parliament appealed (at last) to the King for martial law.  The King refused to grant it, the government resigned and the King appointed Mussolini as Prime Minister.  He won the ensuing elections.

Mussolini was not a very decisive leader, but over time what he called a “corporate state” emerged.  By 1925 it could be called an authoritarian, fully totalitarian state.  The “fasci,” or party army, was put on the state payroll.  Labor peace was secured by organizing businesses into syndicates, with equal representation of labor, management and party bureaucrats.  Mussolini negotiated a Concordat with the Pope – peace with the church for the first time since 1871.  Social disorder was eliminated, lavish public works launched, and a huge military establishment built.  “The trains ran on time.”  Ideologically, Fascism was a void – a loyalty without content.  It projected vague ideas of community and the glory of Rome.  It co-opted both socialism and business interests.  It mobilized and channeled the frustrations of the veterans, the unemployed, and the bored.  More than any other single idea, it embodied Futurism: action for action’s sake was more important than the philosophy behind it [See Duiker & Spielvogel 732-34].

Fascism as a European Phenomenon 

Fascism was an international phenomenon.  There were no less than five Fascist parties in France, some of them inspired by Royalist rejection of the French Revolution.  There were two in Belgium and one in Great Britain.  In Turkey, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Bulgaria they formed the government [Nolte 27ff].  Yugoslavia was similar, but led by the King himself.  Austria was very close to a Fascist regime [Nolte 30-33].  In the desperate times of the post-war years there was a general retreat from democracy all across Europe.  In Germany, the “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923 combined Bavarian separatists, retired General Ludendorff, and ex-soldier Adolf Hitler (“the German Mussolini”) in an abortive March on Berlin.  When the Great Depression hit, there was a second wave of Fascism.  Spain and Germany joined the list, and some say America’s New Deal moved in the direction of Mussolini’s “corporate state.”  Indeed, even Stalin’s Five-Year Plan had some of the marks [Nolte 23].

The Basic Characteristics of the Fascist State

1. An end is made of government by law and constitution.  They remain on the books but become insignificant.  The will of the Leader trumps everything.

2.  There is some degree of personal tyranny.  The Leader embodies the movement and the nation.  He persuades himself and others of his infallibility.

3.  Individual freedom is destroyed.  There are no inalienable rights.  The individual is an atom of the state.

4.  Totalitarianism permeates society.  All initiative is state sponsored, all activity is state coordinated, and there are no autonomous organizations.  Even the chess club is state sponsored.

5.  Autonomous groups and minorities (for example Jews) are persecuted.  Anything that resists “coordination” must be eliminated.  Religion is problematic.

6.  Terror is a tool of the regime.  Fascism thrives on continuous revolution and crisis.  It cannot survive peace and stability.

7.  All media is controlled.  All sources of information and means of communication must be “coordinated.”

8.  Imperialism rises.  There is usually a commitment to social Darwinist expansion.  War is seen as ennobling and a validation of the Leader [Deutsch 1968].

There are other features that are probably circumstantial, rather than fundamental to Fascism. Two circumstances attended the rise of the most successful versions: the human debris of an unsuccessful war and the seriousness of a “red menace.”  Fascists were not the first or the last to have a party army, but the prominence of unassimilated veterans, uniforms, and military techniques became a trademark.  Further, anti-bolshevism was perhaps the most popular plank in the Fascist platform.  Fascism fought revolution with revolution [Nolte 19].  Opposition to the Communist threat gave them critical access to the deep pockets of industrialists on the way to power.  Their very visible street battles with Socialism gave them free publicity.  Even in 1945, the German General Staff was offering to ally itself with the West to continue the war against Communism [Deutsch]. 

For these reasons, we have come to regard as Fascist the use of systematic violence and intimidation as political weapons, and to regard Fascists as right-wing extremists.  However, please note that both Italian and German Fascists attempted to co-opt socialism into their movement, and that violence, intimidation and many other “Fascist” techniques were incorporated into the Soviet Union and Communist movements worldwide.  Right and Left meet on the other side of the circle [Nolte 40]!  Both, however, are anti-democratic.


Sources:  The above is primarily an interpretation of my own research unless otherwise noted. 

Deutsch, Harold.  “World War II,” lectures at the University of Minnesota, c. 1968-69.

Duiker, William L. and Spielvogel, Jackson J.  World History, 6th edn., Boston:

Wadsworth, 2010

Heughins, David W.  “Nazis in the News,” unpublished, in partial fulfillment of MA,

University of Minnesota, 1969. (a survey of German newspapers, 1930)

“Roots of Tragedy: a survey of some of the interpretations of the Origins of

National Socialism,” unpublished, 1970.

Hitler, Adolf.  Mein Kampf, edited by J. Chamberlain et al. (New York: Raynal &

Hitchcock, 1941)

Nolte, Ernst.  Three Faces of Fascism.  Trans by Leila Vennewitz (New York: New

American Library, 1965).


David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College.  He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020).  He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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