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Essential History

Essential History: The Rise of Fascism (Part 1/3)

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In the first instalment of our brand new weekly feature, we take a look at the complicated history of fascism. From its origins to its demise, and all of the destruction that came between, we’re holding the ideology that is on the rise, once again, under the microscope.


The term fascist is often thrown around in political conversations today, due to the the association of the political ideology with the man who has become a universal stand-in for pure evil in any discussion about the political ideologies: Adolf Hitler.

Anybody that has a remote interest in history will agree that Hitler was a truly fascinating figure and we may forever look at him as this mystical figure who managed to galvanise an entire nation in pursuit of his goals to eradicate the world of Jews and for European domination. The scale upon which Hitler and his associates were able to commit some of the most horrifying atrocities in history makes the lessons that we need to learn from fascism of the utmost importance.

What is fascism?

Before we embark on our journey through the history of fascism, we need to define it – a task far easier said than done. Look up a definition on Google and you’re likely to run into one like this on wordnik, “[Fascism is] a system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, a capitalist economy subject to stringent governmental controls, violent suppression of the opposition, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.”

However, for a broader definition, I’d prefer to look at Eugen Weber’s Varties of Fascism (1964):

[Fascism is] a system of revolutionary nationalism in a modern state context – the totalitarian subjugation of all society, economic, social and spiritual, under a state defined first by its ethnicity.

Eugen Weber (1964)

It is very important to analyse this definition, because Weber’s entire book focusses on a number of case studies of fascist or National Socialist movements in Europe between the World Wars in Italy, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Britain, Spain, Belgium, and France. He takes a deep dive into the origins, particular characteristics of recurring aspects of fascism, and how they relate to the movement as a whole. And I’d highly recommend it if you plan to read more about the history of fascism. And you also need to read Umberto Echo’s Ur-Fascism. Echo lists 14 characteristics of fascism:

  1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”
  1. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
  1. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
  1. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”
  1. Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”
  1. Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
  1. The obsession with a plot. “Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged.”
  1. The enemy is both strong and weak. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
  1. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
  1. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
  1. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
  2. Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”
  1. Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
  1. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

The important thing to note here is that fascism does not and, almost necessarily, cannot have a clear, one-size-fits-all definition. This is why you’ll frequently hear, on both ends of the political spectrum, one side almost ultimately ends up labelling opposing views a fascist or label their beliefs as comparable to Hitler’s.

And you’ll often encounter insufferable myths on social media that the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National-Socialist German Workers’ Party) or Nazis were socialists because “it’s in the name” (duh). So it’s also important to point out that national socialism, socialism and Fascism simply are not terms that can be used interchangeably. And to understand why, we have to look at the history of fascism.


The key to truly understanding the history of fascism is in your ability to understand what it is, as a political ideology that played such a massive role in the 20th Century’s most bloody conflicts. Next week, we will take a look at the rise of fascism in inter-war Italy, Germany and Spain. And check back every Monday for more fascinating takes on History or visit our Essential History section for more.


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