Fascism And National Socialism Research Paper

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Italian fascism and National Socialism signify a new type of political mobilization which came into being after the end of World War I. Both movements were ideologically influenced by integral nationalism and racism, but drew their specific political impetus by exploiting the widespread anticommunism and antisocialism among the bourgeois strata of postwar society. Italian fascism in particular was taken as a model by comparable movements all over Europe, but, with the exception of that in Spain, only Italian fascism and National Socialism were able to establish a dictatorship.

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1. Italian Fascism

1.1 Origins

The origins of Italian fascism are closely connected with the extreme legitimacy crisis of the liberal regime facing protest strikes and factory occupations by rural and industrial workers. Hence, Giovanni Giolitti tolerated the use of violence against organized labour by the fascist Squadre d’azione, which resulted in the emergence of a dualistic power structure, reflected in Gabriele d’Annuncio’s expedition to Fiume in 1919 and the actionism of the Black Shirts who terrorized the countryside and socialist municipalities. Mussolini used the opportunity to create the veterans’ organization of the Fascio di Combattimento and to shape it into a non-partisan mass movement which he reorganized in November 1921 as Partido Nazionale Fascista (PNF). By holding out the threat of the revolutionary potential of quadrism and unleashing the march on Rome on October 27, 1922, Mussolini became prime minister in a right-liberal coalition cabinet, although the PNF controlled only a minority of seats in the parliament.

1.2 Fascist Dictatorship

Mussolini used his new position to establish his personal dictatorship by skilfully extending the prerogatives of the prime minister through legal means. By an ostensibly manipulative reform of the electoral system he attained an overwhelming parliamentary majority for the governing coalition in the 1924 elections. By a series of ‘fascist decrees’ the civil liberties, the freedom of the press, and the space of action for the parliamentary opposition which formed the antifascist Aventin were severely curtailed. The ensuing Matteotti crisis provided a pretext to dissolve the opposing parties and to promulgate a one-party state relying on the extraparliamentary power of the Fascist Great Council. Mussolini thus managed to maneuver both the cabinet and the parliament—which in 1938 was reshaped on a corporatist basis—into the background. The introduction of the fascist calendar and the adoption of the fascist emblems as state symbols completed the creeping process of shaping a fascist state. Mussolini achieved this by carefully evading open clashes with the constitution and achieving a modus vivendi with the conservative elite and big business.

Mussolini’s tactical flexibility climaxed in concluding the Lateran treaties which, by comprehensive concessions in social and cultural matters, secured the support of the Catholic church. The combination of social propaganda and compulsion, as reflected in the program of ‘dopo la oro,’ together with co-operation with big business, enabled him to neutralize the syndicalistic trade unions. The PNF, which in 1943 comprised 4.75 million members combined heterogeneous social and political groups and exhibited strong inter-regional tensions. By isolating the party radicals under Roberto Farinacci, who endorsed the principle of forming a cadre party, the PFN became more or less bureaucratized and was controlled through local and regional administration. Thus, despite terrorist police and the abolition of civil rights by the lege fascissimi in 1925 26 the system was not completely totalitarian, particularly in comparison to the Nazi regime. The monarchy, the army and certainly the Catholic church preserved a certain independence, and the fascistization of the administrative apparatus was only partially attained. Mussolini’s rule relied primarily on a continuous organization of consensus—his domestic policy lacked any clear direction and ideological consistency. The myth of the indispensable role of the Duce for Italian national survival kept everything together, but the disastrous consequences of Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler raised resistance among not only the conservative elite and the military, but also his own chieftains, who eventually used the instrument of the Great Council to depose him in July 1943.

1.3 The Alliance With Hitler

Mussolini’s ambition to establish a Mediterranean empire, as manifested in the Abyssinian and the Ethopian campaigns, compromised Italy’s former relations with Great Britain and France and, in 1936, implied a movement towards the Third Reich. Through the promulgation of the Axis and, in 1937, by Italy joining the Anti-Comintern-Pact, Mussolini, who over-estimated Italian military and economic capabilities, became completely dependent upon Hitler (and definitively so by signing the ‘Steel Pact’ in 1939). His decision, in June 1940, to enter the campaign against France, while waging parallel wars against Albania and Greece and starting an offensive in North Africa overstrained Italian resources and made the German intervention unavoidable. Despite these military disasters, Mussolini insisted in participating actively in the Soviet campaign. Under German pressure, he initiated racial legislation and eventually acquiesced in the deportation of Italian Jews to the annihilation camps. His fascist regime in the Salo Republic (formerly Repubblica Sociale Italiana) depended completely on German military protection and was marked by an escalating use of terror. In some respects it reverted to the radical origins of the fascist movement, before it fell asunder on April 28, 1945.

2. National Socialism

2.1 Origins

The origin of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers Party) dates back to the period immediately after World War I, and to the Soviet Republic in Munich in April 1919. The DAP was founded by Anton Drexler and Karl Harrer who came from the volkisch ‘Thule Society,’ a clandestine affiliation of the Pangerman League which, at the same time, formed the German Volkish Protection League (Deutsch olkischer Schutz und Trutzbund) in order to mobilize racial antisemitism against the Socialist left.

Adolf Hitler acting, until the Fall of 1919, as a political informant of the Bavarian Reichswehr, shaped the early Nazi party—hitherto an insignificant splinter group among a myriad of similar olkish associations—into a fascist party by enforcing the leadership principle and streamlining the party’s propaganda. Hitler achieved unrestricted leadership in 1921 and subsequently eliminated intraparty elections and debates, focusing the party’s activity solely on propaganda which exploited the public phobia against the Versailles peace treaty as well as the growing resentments of parts of the constituency against the Weimar Republic.

With its stronghold in Bavaria, the Nazi party remained dependent upon right-wing conservative groups, which prepared a march on Berlin following the model of Benito Mussolini in October 1923, with the aim of establishing a national dictatorship under Erich von Ludendorff, the former war hero and leader of the oelkish wing of the German Nationalists. Hitler, who had gained the nominal political leadership of the right-wing opposition and its paramilitary units, ultimately decided to act independently from his conservative partners, but his attempt to proclaim his German dictatorship and to gain the approval of the national camp through his propaganda march to the Feldherrnhalle on November 9, 1923 failed. Neither the prohibition of the party and the SA (Stormtroopers), nor Hitler’s indictment for high treason and imprisonment in the Landsberg penitentiary until December 1924 did anything to quieten the activities of his followers.

After his release, Hitler, faced with competition from successor organizations, decided to dissolve the party and to reinvent it on the basis of the unrestricted leadership principle, excluding any intraparty elections and restricting its activities exclusively to unrelenting organization and agitation. Hitler succeeded, in 1926, in neutralizing the opposition of the NorthWestern group of the Gauleiter (district leaders), which was controlled by Gregor Straßer, and in preventing any alteration of the original party program of 1920, although it did not comply with the requirements of the stabilization period and did not drop its pseudosocialist ingredients. The left wing led by Otto Straßer therefore left the party in 1931.

Despite its enormous propaganda efforts, until 1928 the NSDAP remained an insignificant splinter group without any real hold on the industrial working class until 1928. Not before the spring of 1929, in conjunction with the accelerating erosion of electoral support for the bourgeois middle parties, did the NSDAP become a serious factor in German politics, especially after its breakthrough in the September 1930 elections. The sudden rise of the party into a fully fledged mass movement depended on the mobilization of divergent elements of the electorate. These comprised at first mainly protest voters, pensioners and peasants, then especially new or previous non-voters, but by 1932 the NSDAP was an omnibus party now also drawing support from upper middle strata. The high turnover of members and voters made it vulnerable in the event of a political stabilization.

2.2 The Seizure Of Power

The success of the Nazi party at the polls appeared spectacular, but at its peak in July 1932 it attracted no more than 37.3 percent of the vote and, in November, suffered a visible setback while, in the March 5, 1933 elections, it obtained a slight majority only combined with the conservative German Nationalist Party. Thus, Hitler’s nomination as Reich chancellor in the ‘Cabinet of National Concentration’ on January 30, 1933 by Reich president Paul von Hindenburg was far from being the outcome of the democratic process, being due to informal pressures exerted by conservative interest groups and the army leadership on the Reich president whose spokesman, Franz von Papen, believed that he could control Hitler within the Cabinet by a majority of conservatives. Papen convinced the reluctant president that the Hitler cabinet was virtually a majority government pretending that the catholic Centre Party would eventually join the coalition.

Hitler by scheduling premature elections used his majority to get rid of the bourgeois encirclement, compelling his conservative partners to accept the Enabling Law of March 23, 1933. This law, together with the emergency powers of the Decree for the Protection of People and State issued on February 28 after the burning of the Reichstag, invalidated civil liberties and legalized sanctions against the socialist and communist opposition, thereby paving the way for unrestricted dictatorship.

In the first phase of his chancellery, Hitler was preoccupied with the consolidation of his power through a systematic policy of Gleichschaltung (coordination) of public and private institutions: subduing them to party control and placing leading Nazis in high administrative positions without changing the governmental apparatus and its conservative persuasion—except for the instalment of Joseph Goebbels as Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. The radical wing of the party, especially the huge paramilitary organization of the SA under Ernst Rohm, who called for a ‘second revolution’ and demanded to interfere in the economy as well as taking control of the armed forces, were neutralized by the events of June 30, 1934, when Hitler under the pressure of the SS, Hermann Goring and the army command ordered the immediate liquidation of the Supreme SA leaders. This action led his conservative partners to believe that he was basically a moderate and would put an end to the party’s influence on the political system.

2.3 The Nazi State

The process of consolidation of power came to an end with Hitler’s decision to combine the presidency and the chancellery after Hindenburg died in August 1934. This was particularly significant because Hitler thus became the official leader of the armed forces which, in order to prove their loyalty, swore an oath of personal allegiance to the Fuehrer. At the same time, Hitler ceased to attend the Reich cabinet and eventually prohibited cabinet meetings altogether, thereby depriving the Reich of its old-established governing body, without replacing it by comparable advisory boards on the party level. In fact, he showed less and less interest in day-to-day politics and refrained even from interfering in internal feuds so long as his personal prestige was not affected by them. Instead of using governmental institutions, Hitler preferred to rule on the informal basis of oral information supplied by various—mostly irresponsible—advisers, whereas the Reich chancellery, the task of which was above all to coordinate the department, was circumvented by ad hoc agencies established interposed between party and state—such as the SS empire, the German Labour Front and Hermann Goring’s Four-year Plan Office. Contrary to Goebbels’ propaganda slogans, the Nazi system of government was not characterized by any ‘unity of will’ or clear-cut subordination patterns, but by the principle of far reaching freedom of action for individual office-holders as long as they did not interfere with Hitler’s personal prestige. This system of ‘government without administration’ instigated a quasi-socio-Darwinist struggle between competing agencies and never-ending personal rivalries among the chieftains, a feature which during the combat period had intensified the party’s dynamism. In the regime phase, where mere mobilization was no longer sufficient, this system turned out to be counterproductive and utterly detrimental for any rational governmental process, creating a process of cumulative radicalization. In the long run, the system was destined to bring about the complete dissolution of any regular decision-making process and an escalating tendency to self-destruction, which accelerated particularly after 1943 under the pretext of implementing the party revolution that had been erroneously stopped in 1933 34 for tactical reasons.

2.4 The Politics Of Military Aggression And Racial Annihilation

Analogous to his domestic policy, Hitler dealt with foreign affairs by adapting a ‘trial and error’ method. Initially he pursued the path of a revision of the Versailles treaty, although being resolved from the start to establish a German hegemony over Europe beyond the territorial limitations of Versailles and to conquer ‘living space’ (Lebensraum) in Eastern Europe. His first steps, however, consisted in breaking the diplomatic isolation of the German Reich which had been increased by her retreat from the Geneva disarmament conference and the League of Nations in October 1933. By signing the German–Polish nonaggression treaty which ran counter to previous conservative foreign policy, and by concluding a naval agreement with Great Britain, Nazi foreign policy succeeded in undermining the Stresa front. Despite conflicting interests with respect to Austria’s independence, Mussolini entered the Axis alliance in 1936 and joined the Anti-Comintern Pact thereafter.

The domestic corollary of the transition to active foreign policy lay in stepping up the clandestine rearmament which was already on the way before the seizure of power. Financial and economic policies both gave overall priority to rearmament, culminating in 1936, when the four-year plan required the German army to be capable of waging war within a period of four to six years. The remilitarization of the Rhineland as well as the introduction of conscription in 1935 were also accepted by the Western powers, despite the fact that they obviously violated the demilitarization provisions of Versailles.

The Western powers still believed it was possible to reach an agreement with Hitler and tame his territorial ambitions, even after having acceded to the annexation of the Austrian Republic in March 1938. Not November 1937, but the spring of 1938 became the climacteric of the progress towards open aggression. Whereas Hitler had played a rather passive role in the Austrian crisis (which had been pushed ahead by Hermann Goring), he was resolved to settle the Sudeten conflict by military means, and his decision to take over the war ministry himself enabled him to act. Neville Chamberlain’s decision to continue the policy of appeasement and Mussolini’s mediation forced the dictator to reluctantly accept the provisions of the Munich conference in September 1938, however, any expectation that the cession of large parts of Czechoslovakia would curb Hitler’s aggressive appetite proved to be utterly wrong—as was proved by the conquest of independent Czechoslovakia and the establishment of the Reich protectorate Bohemia– Moravia in March 1939.

2.5 World War II

Historians disagree as to whether the British guarantee of Polish independence was an adequate response to Hitler’s expansionist policy because it reduced the already limited readiness of the Polish government to join negotiations over the ‘Corridor’ and Danzig. At any rate, it confirmed Hitler in his conviction that he had to extinguish Poland first before a military conflict with the Western powers could be envisaged. Backed by the German–Soviet non-aggression pact, he gambled on the likelihood that Britain and France would disregard their obligations toward the Polish Republic and eventually took the risk of a war on two fronts—something he had always vowed to avoid.

Despite the tremendous military success of the German armed forces—especially the occupation of the Scandinavian states and the unexpectedly rapid victory over France—the long-range perspective was more than uncertain. After Winston Churchill had rejected Hitler’s allegedly generous peace offer and Germany had lost the air battle over the English Channel, her strategic situation could not but deteriorate despite short-term military successes all over Europe and North Africa. Hitler tried to overcome the strategic stalemate by attacking the Soviet Union in June 1941, thereby overextending the German military resources and manpower. The defeat of the German army before Moscow destroyed any expectation of an imminent collapse of the Soviet Union; and in other theatres of war, especially in North Africa, Greece, and Yugoslavia, the Germans were forced onto the defensive.

2.6 Racial Annihilation

Jews were the foremost target of Nazi violence, especially after the abolition of organized labour and the replacement of the trade unions by the German Labour Front. Between the boycott of April 1 to the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935, and the pogrom of November 1938, antisemitic hardliners pressed for the disappearance of the Jews from Germany; but, despite the expropriation, social segregation, and lawlessness of the Jews, the number of Jewish emigrants remained insignificant compared with the assimilation of the Austrian, Czech and Polish Jewry into the German power bloc. Thus, enforced emigration of Jews reached an impasse in 1939, although emigration continued to be fostered by the regime until October 1941. The Polish and Russian campaigns gave rise to plans for establishing Jewish reservations, starting with the Nisco project and followed by the Madagascar plan, but all these schemes came to nothing because of opposing domestic and strategic interests or the ongoing war.

Hitler was resolved to wage the campaign against the Soviet Union as a war of unrestricted racial annihilation. A war which would lead not only to the defeat of the Bolshevik regime, but also to the complete destruction of Russian statehood and to a systematic ethnic cleansing of wide parts of the Soviet territory in order to provide living-space for German and Germanic settlers—a goal explicitly pursued by Heinrich Himmler’s ‘General Plan East.’ In conjunction with this, the deportation and elimination of the indigenous Jewish population was put in motion on the basis of a close cooperation between special mobile killing units, established by the SS and the Wehrmacht in the occupied territories. The killing instructions of the task units originally embraced only Soviet functionaries and Jews in leading positions, but were subsequently extended to the murder of whole Jewish populations. The majority of indigenous Jews had already been liquidated by October 1941, when the establishment of annihilation camps and the use of gas vans created the foundations for systematic implementation of the ‘Final Solution,’ including Jews in the General Gouvernement and other parts of Germandominated Europe.

The implementation of the Holocaust, that was argued upon at the Wanusee Conference on January 20, 1942, resulted not so much from a premeditated concept, but from an interaction between proceedings on the local level and the Reich Main Security Office. There was no need for any formal order by the dictator whose part consisted mainly in instigating radicalization, without being directly involved in the concrete destruction measures for which the close cooperation of the SS, the Wehrmacht and civil administration was indispensable and which caused the murder of at least 5.5 million Jews. Official secrecy regarding the killing operations did not prevent news about the atrocities being widely distributed, although a concrete picture of the systematic liquidation was not attained before the war ended.

2.7 The Dissolution Of The Third Reich

The capitulation of the 6th army in Stalingrad on January 31, 1943 marks the definite turn of tide against the Axis powers. Because of its lack of manpower, ammunition and technical equipment the Wehrmacht did not regain the strength necessary to continue strategic operations, and was forced onto the defensive. The breakthrough of the Red army at the middle sector of the Eastern front in the summer of 1944 opened its road into the Reich despite unremitting German attempts to stabilize the front. After the Allied invasion of France and the Allied air offensives the military situation became hopeless, and it was just a question of time until the Reich was defeated.

The artificial prolongation of the fight relied upon the total suppression of domestic opposition, since the army had lost its relative autonomy after the abortive putsch of July 20, 1944. Unlike in Italy, there was no institution left which could take an initiative. The renewed efforts of fanatical party functionaries to take over public administration and to urge for fighting to the last man by means of a progressively tenuous hold over propaganda, and a rule of terror by martial law, signified the last phase of the war—during which Hitler and his chieftains in Berlin had clearly lost any grasp on reality. The end of the Third Reich comprised not only total military defeat, but also the complete collapse of its institutional framework.

3. European Fascist Movements

Fascist movements originated in most parts of Europe during the interwar period, but only in exceptional cases were they able to exert any great political influence or to establish—as in Italy and Germany—a regime of their own. Most of these fascist parties never developed into mass movements, especially within the rural societies of Southeastern and Eastern Europe. Only the Romanian ‘Iron Guard’ and the Hungarian Nemzeti Akarat Partja (‘Arrows of the Cross’) achieved temporarily significant popular support comparable to the PFN. In two cases, fascists were able to rule for a limited period: the Ustasha under Ante Pavelic in Croatia in 1941; and the Arrows of the Cross under Ferenc Salazi in Hungary in 1944—both relying on the German occupants. The Hlinka Guards in Slovakia were amalgamated in the authoritarian Rassemblement of Josef Tiso and lost their independence. In Austria competing fascist movements—National Socialists and the Heimwehr (Home Guard)— attracted considerable portions of the electorate, but were suppressed (like the National Socialists) or became absorbed by the state-controlled Vaterlandische Front (Patriotic Front).

In Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, as well as in Norway, fascist groups played an insignificant role. In Spain, the influential fascist Falange was tamed by the authoritarian rule of General Franco and lost its original impetus. Similar developments prevailed in Southeastern Europe where parliamentary democracy was replaced by authoritarian regimes with varying populist leanings. The majority of the fascist movements remained splinter parties and stood in opposition not only to the left, but also to the ruling conservative forces and could share power only with the support of the German occupants. Those fascist groups that sympathized with National Socialism—such as the Partie Populaire Francaise of Jacque d’Doriot in France, the Front Populaire des Rex of Leon Degrelle in Belgium, the NationalSocialistische Beweging of Adriaan Anton Mussert in the Netherlands, and the National Samling of Vidkun Quisling in Norway—exerted only marginal influence, and this was even more true for Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.

3.1 Structural Elements

Italian Fascism provided the model for similar movements, especially for National Socialism which copied techniques, symbols and political strategies from its Italian counterpart. Although some historians reject the use of a general typology of fascism including National Socialism, the similarities between them cannot be disregarded, although the extremely destructive and inhuman character of the Nazi experiment appears to be exceptional. The varieties of fascism are characterized by their rigorous antiliberal and anticommunist stance as well as by their extreme nationalism and racism, their specific populist ideology, and voluntarist and decisionist political style. They can be distinguished from right-wing bourgeois parties by their techniques of exploiting resentments and prejudices of the electorate, especially nationalism and antisemitism or—as in the case of Italy—racism, for mass mobilization, and of avoiding any choice between contradictory programmatic targets, thus replacing actual political issues by purely propagandistic slogans, although many of their goals are similar to those of the bourgeois right.

The ‘cult of the will’—the arbitrary pursuit of utopian visions first articulated by Georges Sorel— and the myth of the unity of the people (‘people’s community’) are specifics for the fascist variety of politics, that added a new element to the political process. Whereas the antiliberal and anti-enlightenment impetus is a general criterion, there exist differences with regard to the degree of parasitic disruption of the inherited state apparatus which culminated in the National Socialist regime in Germany, caused by their technique of mobilizing non-synchronous popular resentments and prejudices.

Fascist movements tend to replace liberal organizational principles by means of amorphous personal legacies culminating in the leadership cult. Mass mobilization is regarded by them as an end in itself, even at the price of a chameleon-like propaganda. As genuine protest movements, their membership and constituency are characterized by an over-representation of youth, of marginal social strata, and of social outcasts. Frequently modernization crises provide a fertile ground for emergent fascist movements. They are specifically a phenomenon of the inter-war period, although a series of successor organizations did emerge after 1945, such as Peronism in Argentina.


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