Fascism: Origins and Ideology

Post War Chaos

The social and political upheaval that accompanied the end of World War I fused the various attitudes (elitism, racism, irrationalism, anti-modernism) that characterized the radical right of the early years of the century into a cohesive political movement, fascism.

Fascism was nurtured in the atmosphere of chaos, uncertainty, disillusionment, and rebellion that swept the world in 1919.  Demobilized soldiers returned home to face unemployment, bread lines, strikes and riots.  The successful communist revolution in Russia and the growth of an international communist movement panicked the established order, especially business interests who felt that their social, economic, and political positions were directly threatened.  Many thought that a force willing and able to resort to unlimited counter-revolutionary violence was necessary to remedy the situation.

Mussolini Comes to Power in Italy

Just such a force appeared in Italy.  Seemingly coming out of nowhere, black-uniformed paramilitary groups led by a former socialist turned ultra-nationalist Benito Mussolini stepped into the fray.  Nicknamed the “Blackshirts,” Mussolini’s squads brutally attacked socialists, communists, trade unionists and their sympathizers.  Soon, Mussolini’s squads attracted the attention of Italian businessmen who saw them as their best guarantee against the rising tide of revolution.  Support and money started to flow to Mussolini’s Fascisti di Combattimento or “Combat Units.” Making full use of the prevailing mood of chaos, the fascists combined extreme violence, passionate anti-communism and brute force to propel them to the forefront of Italian politics.  By 1921, the socialists and communists had been routed; and, backed up by his private army of Blackshirts, Mussolini becomes Italy’s main power broker.  Hailed by his followers as Il Duce (“the Leader”), Mussolini rallies the fascists to march on Rome on October 22, 1922; an act that intimidates Italian King Victor-Emmanuel into naming Mussolini as Prime Minister. Mussolini used his Blackshirts to brutalize any and all opposition, and, by 1925 his power was complete. The fascist dictatorship had begun.

The Fascist National Party, as it called itself after 1921, was governed by a Fascist Grand Council headed by Mussolini. In fact, however, power was much more diffused in Fascist Italy than appeared on the surface. The base of the fascist movement was the Blackshirt foot soldiers, the ‘squadristi.’ These fascist squads were controlled by a local boss or ‘Ras’ – curiously, this term comes from an Ethiopian term for a chieftain. Every neighborhood, city, and province had a Ras who operated as a near independent power in his region. Thus, despite Fascist propaganda which loudly claimed a monolithic unity behind its Duce, Mussolini never had complete freedom of action and always had to take into account the wishes and rivalries of the fascist bosses.

More effective at propaganda than at actually ruling, the fascist government quite often operated as more of a Mafia-like patronage structure than as an efficiently running state.  This despite fascist claims of establishing a modern, streamlined, disciplined system.  As for the name ‘fascism’ itself, there is some dispute as to its origin.  On the one hand there is the Italian word fascio, meaning a unit or detachment; on the other there is the fasces, a symbol of state authority in ancient Rome, that consisted of an axe in a bundle of rods.  The fascists will take this ancient symbol and make it their emblem.  Often contradictory, fascist thought claimed to reject liberalism and communism and to embrace authority, hierarchy and perpetual action and mobilization.  The fascist slogan of “Credire! Obbedire!  Combattire!” (“Believe!  Obey!  Fight!) embodied this sense of militarization as did the Fascist Decalogue, which every school child had to memorize:

  • Know that the Fascist and in particular the soldier, must not believe in perpetual peace.
  • Days of imprisonment are always deserved.
  • The nation serves even as a sentinel over a can of petrol.
  • A companion must be a brother, first, because he lives with you, and secondly because he thinks like you.
  • The rifle and the cartridge belt, and the rest, are confided to you not to rust in leisure, but to be preserved in war.
  • Do not ever say “The Government will pay . . . ” because it is you who pay; and the Government is that which you willed to have, and for which you put on a uniform.
  • Discipline is the soul of armies; without it there are no soldiers, only confusion and defeat.
  • For a volunteer there are no extenuating circumstances when he is disobedient.
  • One thing must be dear to you above all: the life of the Duce.
  • Mussolini is always right.

The fascist regime touted its achievements in expanding the educational  system and leisure-time activities, giving monetary bonuses to large families and embarking on major construction projects. Especially prestigious was an agreement with the Catholic Church which, for the first time, recognized an Italian government as legitimate. In economics, fascism promoted the idea of national self-sufficiency and large labor unions which were merged with corporate management, the corporate state. In reality, production declined, wages fell and big business and industrial interests dominated the fascist state.

Fascism Defined

In 1935, the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International famously defined fascism as “the openly terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital.” This definition, termed the Dimitrov Formulation (after Georgi Dimitrov, head of the Comintern) provides a solid Marxist foundation for understanding the nature of fascism.  Some further fleshing out, though, is needed in order to fully distinguish fascism from other forms of bourgeois repression; for fascism is a very specific type of bourgeois dictatorship with its own unique features.

A problem here arises because, unlike other ideologies, fascism does not have a coherent body of thought behind it.  This is, perhaps a consequence of fascism’s origins in the various attitudes that constituted the eclectic radical right of the 19th century.  The closest that fascism comes to having a “Bible,” Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, is very specific to early 20th century German issues and does not function as a unifying text.  Many individuals from different backgrounds and concerns will come to fascism for different reasons.  Thus, there will be what has been termed “hyphenated fascism”:  radical-fascism, clerical-fascism, monarcho-fascism etc. It is often easier to say what fascism is against than to discern what fascism is for.  Moreover, the image fascism projects as a movement is often at variance with the reality that fascism imposes once it comes to power.  There will be two closely related, yet distinct variants of fascism:  Italian fascism and German fascism (National Socialism or Nazism).  However, it is possible to outline some of the qualities which all fascist movements have in common:

  • Fascism claims to be anti-liberal; anti-conservative and anti-communist.
  • Fascism claims to be a ‘Third Way,’ rejecting both capitalism and communism.
  • Fascism strives to establish a nationalist, authoritarian regime.
  • Fascism rejects the idea of class struggle, offering nationalism in its place.  The idea of melding labor and management into a nationalist whole is variously termed, in fascist terminology, National Corporatism (the Corporate State), National Socialism, or National Syndicalism.
  • Fascism actively pursues imperialism and territorial expansion.
  • Fascism rejects reason and rationality, and embraces irrationalism and romanticism.  As such, fascism makes extensive use of symbols, emblems, and uniforms.
  • Fascism encourages the total militarization of society and espouses a philosophy of ‘romantic violence.’
  • Fascism creates private paramilitary militias.
  • Fascism is extremely male supremacist, relegating women to subservient roles in society.
  • Fascism sees itself as a movement of the young, emphasizing energy, health, vitality and generational conflict.
  • Fascism promotes a charismatic, personalist, dictatorial style of leadership; with the leader worshipped as a god-like figure.

Although most of its first adherents were demobilized soldiers and street “toughs,” fascism broadened its appeal – otherwise it would have remained a marginal movement.  Industrialists were attracted to fascism for its intense anti-communism.  Large segments of the petty-bourgeois, office workers and small business owners, saw fascism as both protecting them from big business (note the contradiction with the fact of big business support for fascism) and saving them from falling into the working class.  Many in rural areas saw fascism as providing opportunities for advancement.  Thus, fascism became a mass movement.

Fascist movements aping Mussolini’s Italy and, later, Hitler’s Germany, spread throughout the world.  Falangism in Spain, Rexism in Belgium, Peronism in Argentina, the Arrow Cross in Hungary, the Iron Guard in Romania, and ex-Labour Party member Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the United Kingdom.  Of the two variants of fascism, the Italian and German, some fascists claimed loyalty to the one, some to the other.  The difference between the two lies in that racism and anti-Semitism, while not a necessary component of Italian fascism, is central to German fascism (Nazism.)

The Weimar Republic in Germany

After the German surrender in World War I, and the Kaiser’s exile to Holland, a new liberal democratic government was established, the Weimar Republic.  Led by moderates, the new German government managed to survive threats from both the left (the Spartacist Rebellion) and the right (an abortive attempt to establish a military dictatorship, the “Kapp Putsch”).  However, the Weimar Republic was discredited in the eyes of many for agreeing to the provisions of the Versailles Conference. This conference dismantled Germany’s oversees empire, took German territory and handed it over to the newly created state of Poland, placed French troops on German soil, forbade the existence of a German submarine fleet and air force, strictly limited the size of the German army, ordered that Germany pay billions of dollars worth of reparations to the British and French and decreed that Germany bear the sole blame for the outbreak of World War I.  Indeed, many refused to believe that Germany had even been defeated in the War; preferring, instead, to claim that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by Jews, Liberals, politicians and socialists.

This conspiracy theory, that Germany had been betrayed during the War, coupled with the failed communist revolution of 1919 led to rise of ultra-nationalist paramilitary gangs, such as the Frei Korps.  After helping destroy the communist rising and murdering its leaders, groups such as the Frei Korps now directed their anger at the Weimar Republic itself.  Assassination, political violence and right-wing plots to overthrow the government were rife in the early years of the Republic.  One such attempt, the Beer Hall Putsch “uprising” of 1923 took place in a Munich beer hall, hence the name, when a group of conspirators kidnapped leading city politicians who were holding a public meeting in the beer hall.  The conspirators’ plan was to seize the politicians, force them to call out the army, then march to Berlin and overthrow the Republic.  The plot was a dismal failure.  The army refused to play along, and most of the conspirators were caught or killed.  The leader of the conspiracy, an Austrian-born ex-corporal in the German army, was tried for treason and jailed.  His name was Adolf Hitler.

Hitler and the Origins of Nazism

Born the son of an Austrian customs officer in 1889, the young Adolf Hitler originally wanted to be an artist.  Portfolio in hand, he traveled to Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1905 to enroll in the Academy of Fine Arts.  Hitler’s application was twice rejected by the Academy, and, penniless and homeless, he was compelled to eke out an existence on the streets of Vienna.

Many historians and biographers have emphasized the importance of Hitler’s Vienna years (1905 – 1913) in the formation of his thought and personality.  It is in Vienna that Hitler first encounters racist and anti-Semitic literature.  Alone, bitter, resentful, too proud to work, surrounded by “hordes of alien races” (Slavs, Hungarians, Jews); Hitler moves from flop house to flop house, making a meager living by drawing post cards for tourists and spending the little money he had on racist literature and attending performances of Richard Wagner’s  mediaeval-heroic German operas.  Moving to Munich in 1913 to be among “real Germans” likewise ends in failure, and Hitler ends up on the streets again.  It is here, in Munich, that the declaration of war finds him in 1914, and Hitler joins the German army.

In many ways, the army provided Hitler with a sense of belonging that he had not known since leaving home in 1905.  He is several times cited for bravery in combat, and is awarded the Iron Cross, First Class, Germany’s highest military decoration.  This is interesting in that the Iron Cross, First Class, was a decoration usually given only to officers; yet Hitler never rises beyond the rank of lance-corporal.  The fact has caused some biographers to wonder if there was something about the moody loner who preferred to stay in barracks reading anti-Semitic literature rather than engaging in the usual carousing of young soldiers on leave that made his superiors not want to promote him.  In any event, the end of the War finds Hitler in a military hospital recovering from a mustard gas attack.  Like many others, Hitler is shocked at the news of Germany’s surrender and believes that Germany could only have been stabbed in the back by Jews and socialists.  Peacetime leaves Hitler with few options, and, rather than returning to the streets, he takes a job working as spy for the German military police.

It is in this capacity that Hitler is sent to spy on a newly formed political group in Munich, the German Workers Party.  In the hothouse atmosphere of 1919 Munich, the military authorities assumed that a group calling themselves the “German Workers Party” would be another communist grouping.  After attending some meetings, Hitler is pleased to report back to his superiors that the German Workers Party is not a communist organization; rather, it is an ultra-patriotic nationalist group.  The group’s name is explained in that it intended to win German workers away from socialism and steer them into right-wing politics.

Hitler joins the group he was originally sent to spy on.  While attending meetings of the German Workers Party, Hitler discovers a previously unknown talent, a gift for public speaking and the ability to enthrall an audience with oratory.  Soon, the one-time spy becomes the organization’s most valuable member, and then its leader (“Fuhrer”). Once assuming leadership, Hitler changes the name of the group to the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP).  The Nazi party, as it became known, is born.

Modeling his party on Mussolini’s fascists (in fact, at this time Hitler wrote a fan letter to Mussolini asking for an autographed picture, the Duce never replied – Hitler would later remind Mussolini of this), the newly formed Nazi Party acquired a potent symbol in the ancient Hindu/Buddhist swastika (in the eyes of some racist theorists, the “Aryan” or white race originated in northern India), an ideology that combined Italian-style fascism with virulent racism and anti-Semitism and built up a private paramilitary militia.  This brown shirt wearing paramilitary force, the “Storm Troopers,” (SA) would be Hitler’s instrument in bullying his political opponents and engaging in street fights with the communists.  Rising to the position of SA Chief of Staff would be one of Hitler’s first political followers, the battle-scarred ex-army captain Ernst Röhm.

After the debacle of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler is sentenced to five years imprisonment.  The court was lenient on him, and it’s worth remarking that Hitler was only sentenced to five years for treason and, actually, only served eight months of that sentence before being pardoned and released.  During his confinement, Hitler is encouraged by his personal secretary, Rudolf Hess, to put his ideas down on paper.  As a result, Hitler writes Mein Kampf (My Struggle), the action plan of the Nazi movement.  In Mein Kampf, Hitler outlines his philosophy of extreme nationalism, anti-Semitism, and his plans for a new German Empire to be had in the East.  Today, historians debate exactly how much Hitler’s later actions can be traced to Mein Kampf, but the fact remains that much of it is there – from the invasion of Russia to statement that German would have been better off if a “hundred thousand Jews had been gassed at the beginning of World War I.”

Hitler also used his enforced leisure time to do some thinking about the future of his movement.  He concludes that attempts at a violent seizure of power, such as the Beer Hall Putsch, were wrong-headed.  Instead, he now insists that the Nazis must come to power constitutionally, by gaining the support of the two most important groups in German society: the industrialists and the military.  However, after his release, he finds it almost impossible to reign in the rowdy, street-brawling SA.  More and more, Hitler finds that he cannot trust the SA to moderate their actions, and he more and more he finds them an embarrassment and an impediment to winning the support of the German elite.  Thus, Hitler creates a new, disciplined, paramilitary force to serve as his personal army.  Personally loyal to him and only him, this new force from the beginning thought of itself as an elite, imperial guard – in contrast to the beer drinking, back alley fighting SA.  Sporting an all black uniform, this new force would be known as the “Schutzstaffl” (“honor guard”), the SS.  Although at first constituted as only a part of the much larger SA, the SS, and its new leader Heinrich Himmler would play a major role in Hitler’s later regime.

After coming out of prison, Hitler rebuilds his movement and actively courts the army and big business.  Followers such as war hero Hermann Göring, and the intellectual – and master propagandist – Paul Josef Göbbels are instrumental in getting Hitler the support of influential German circles.  The Nazi Party grows in size and strength, but it will take the crisis of the Great Depression to propel Hitler into power.

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

The poverty, despair and labor militancy sparked by the Great Depression were the factors that led to Hitler’s coming to power.  Nazi strength had grown throughout the late 1920s.  However, many of the people whose support Hitler wanted still kept aloof from “the vulgar little Austrian corporal,” and disdained his band of uniformed ruffians.  The Depression would win them over to Hitler’s camp.  The daily scenes of unemployment and homelessness and the increased militancy of the Communist Party (KPD) caused many members of the German elite to fear that the events of 1919 were about to be repeated.

By the end of 1932, just as the Nazi Party’s electoral strength was declining, a group of conservative businessmen and politicians, led by the Conservative Catholic Party (Zentrum) leader, Franz von Papen, pressured President Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Chancellor (Prime Minister).  According to the Weimar constitution, the German Presidency was a largely ceremonial office; but the President did have one critical power, he appointed the Chancellor, the official who effectively ran the government.  President Hindenburg was seen by many Germans of all political stripes as a bulwark of no-nonsense, traditional German values – besides, he was publicly known to detest Hitler and the Nazis.  But Papen and the politicians were persuasive; they convinced Hindenburg that Hitler was the perfect foil to use against the rising popularity of communism.  Once Hitler and his thugs had gotten rid of the KPD, Papen argued, then the Conservatives would no longer need him, and Hitler would be shunted aside.

Thus, on January 30, 1933, President Hindenburg named Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany.  Within two months the Nazis would establish their dictatorship.

The Nazi State

In the early morning hours of February 27, 1933, the city of Berlin was shocked to discover that the German parliament (Reichstag) was on fire.  Blaming the Reichstag fire on the communists, Hitler asked for, and was granted, sweeping powers in order to deal with the “emergency.”  The very next day, the constitution was canceled, the right of habeus corpus was suspended and the KPD and SPD outlawed.  Hitler was given dictatorial power almost overnight.  A reign of terror was unleashed as the Nazis rounded up and suppressed communists, socialists, trade unionists and liberals.

The press was silenced; and the first concentration camp, Dachau, outside of Munich, was opened to receive the incoming tidal wave of political prisoners.  Although several communists were arrested and tried for setting the Reichstag fire – including a Bulgarian Communist living in Berlin, Georgi Dimitrov, who managed to refute the charges and later became head of the Comintern – it was soon evident that it was the Nazis themselves who set the fire.  In short, a false crisis was created to justify Hitler’s dictatorship.  In order to expedite the increasing repression, Göring formed a new police organization, the Geheime Staatspolizei (“Secret State Police”).  Eventually becoming part of Himmler’s SS-empire, the Geheime Staatspolizei became the main instrument of Hitler’s terror.  It fell upon some unknown clerk in the Berlin post office to devise a postal mark for the new police agency, and unable to fit “Geheime Staatspolizei “ on to a stamp, decided to abbreviate.  In this way, one of the most fearsome words of the 20th century came into existence: “Gestapo.”

Over the next year, Hitler ‘Nazified’ German institutions.  In a process known as Gleichschaltung (“getting into line”), the German government bureaucracy, military, and civil society – even leading elements of the Catholic and Lutheran Churches – were brought into line with Nazi policy.

By the beginning of 1934, most of Germany had been brought to heel.  Only one institution remained in opposition to Hitler: ironically, this was to be his own organization, the SA.  As the Nazi regime extended its hold on German society; the SA felt more and more disenchanted.  Spouting a “share the wealth” attitude, the SA had hoped that a “national revolution” would have reaped benefits. It became more and more evident that this was not going to happen.

Seeing their Fuhrer rubbing shoulders with the elite and wearing white tie and tails as he attend the opera in the company of millionaires infuriated the rough and rowdy Storm Troopers.  The SA Chief of Staff, Ernst Röhm, one of Hitler’s oldest confidantes, started making ominous speeches stating that “Adolf sold us out,” calling for a “second revolution,” and demanding that the SA should become a new German “Peoples’ Army.”  This was definitely not what Hitler’s military and industrial sponsors wanted to hear.  They had cast their lot in with the Fuhrer to prevent just such radical talk.  Moreover, the conservative German military bristled at the thought that an open homosexual such as Röhm, and his gang of thugs, would dare to displace them.  Hitler stands to lose the support he worked so hard to get.  Internal faction-fighting within the Nazi leadership also played a part, as Göring coveted Röhm’s “number two position,” and Himmler’s SS would never get anywhere so long as it continued to be merely a segment of the SA.

Hitler decides to act.  On the night of June 30, 1934, while the SA leadership was on vacation at a small German resort, Hitler strikes.  SS troops surround the hotel where the SA leaders are staying.  The SA men are dragged from their beds, taken into the hotel courtyard and summarily shot.  Many, having no clue what is happening to them, go to their deaths shouting “Heil Hitler!”  Röhm is placed under arrest, taken to Stadelheim prison outside of Munich, and invited to commit suicide.  When he refuses, he’s cut down by the SS.  The bloodbath, known as the Night of the Long Knives, continues until July 2, as the SA leadership is decimated.  There will be no “second revolution” in Hitler’s Germany.


Territorial Expansion

Three consequences stemmed from the Night of the Long Knives:   The SS becomes a state-within-the-state as Himmler’s black uniformed band assumes all police and security duties (the disciplined SS will become more of a threat to the conservative German officer corps than Röhm’s SA hooligans could ever be); Hitler’s power is now absolute. President Hindenburg’s death later that year gave Hitler the opportunity to abolish the office of President and concentrate all power in himself as “Chancellor and Fuhrer.”  Hitler is now free to pursue his territorial ambitions.  The events leading up to World War II soon will follow.

After World War II was over, an American officer asked Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller, an opponent of Hitler recently liberated from a concentration camp, how all this could have happened.  “How could this have happened, in Germany of all places?  Germany, one of the most cultured and civilized nations in Europe, the land of Mozart and Beethoven, the land of science and philosophy.  How could this have happened in Germany?” the officer asked.  Niemoller’s reply has become legendary.  The Pastor said:

“First they came for the Communists; and I didn’t speak up – because I wasn’t a Communist.

“Then they came for the Jews; and I didn’t speak up – because I wasn’t a Jew.

“Then they came for the trade unionists; and I didn’t speak up — because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

“Then they came for the Catholics; and I didn’t speak up – because I was a Protestant.

“Then they came for me – and by that time, no one was left to speak up.”


Categories: Colonialism, Economic Exploitation, Germany, History, Imperialism, Imperialist War, International, Italy, Racism, Racist Oppression, Second World War, Statements, Theory, Workers Struggle, World History

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