Last week, we brought you the first part of our Essential History feature on the rise of fascism, where we discussed the features of fascism. And today, we bring you the second part of our weekly feature on the history of inter-war fascist states in Italy, Germany, and Spain.
If you haven’t read last week’s story, where we defined the various features of fascism that will guide us through our journey to understand the history of fascism. This, along with an examination of historical examples of fascist states in the inter-war period, while looking at post-war and contemporary examples of fascist ideologies, is what we’ll be covering in the following instalments of this feature.
A (not so) brief history of fascism in the 20th Century
The father of fascism, Benito Mussolini, derived the word fascismo from the Italian word, fascio, meaning “a bundle of sticks”. It was used to name political organisations called fasci, which is similar to the English concept of a guild or syndicate. The Fasces of Revolutionary Action were founded in Italy in 1915, while Mussolini founded the Italian Fasces of Combat in Milan in 1919. The latter transformed into the National Fascist Party two years later.
Inter-War fascist states
As part of the socialist movement in Italy and as a political journalist, Mussolini burst onto the political scene in Italy as an advocate for Italy’s entry into the First World War in 1915, after a surge of Italian Nationalism led to pro-war sentiments being held by a wide variety of political factions in the country, which was largely in support of expansionary policies. However, Mussolini’s political aspirations stretched beyond a secondary role, and he capitalised on the growing dissatisfaction among Italians over the World War I peace settlement.
Drawing inspiration from the Russian Revolution, Mussolini leveraged the circumstances of “an economy bankrupted by war, mismanagement, and the end of allied aid,” according to Weber. “A series of strikes were putting the fear of revolution into the Italian property classes.”
The working class distrusted Mussolini, and he left the socialist movement, opting opted to appeal to other dissatisfied elements such as “students, soldiers [and] discharged veterans unable to readjust to civilian life”, who also disliked the established order. However, these groups were also opposed to replace it with a class dictatorship.
With grandeur visions of a resurgence of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance, Mussolini opted neither to preserve the existing order, nor promote a “red revolution”.
“The Fascios wanted to disassociate themselves from classical reactionaries in the “red” revolution, but their own program was almost as radical: they would put an end to the monarchy, abolish the senate, the aristocracy, compulsory military service, banks and stock exchanges, confiscate unproductive revenues, attack the money power, decentralise government, protect and educate the poor,” Weber writes.
Mussolini also established a paramilitary wing, which would use violence for political ends, known as Blackshirts, a.k.a. the MVSN or Squadrismo, in 1919. They were tasked with leading fights against their bitter enemies – the Socialists – and they may have numbered as high as 200,000 by the time Mussolini carried out his March on Rome in October 1922.
Mussolini served as the Prime Minster of Italy after the fascist coup d’état all the way up until his deposition in 1943 in the midst of the Second World War. After removing all political opposition and outlawing labour strikes, Mussolini consolidated power by transforming Italy into a single-party dictatorship and Italy would become a complete totalitarian state within five years through a series of laws passed by Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. Mussolini would also become the man to create peace between Italy and the papacy when he signed the Lateran Treaty with the Vatican, formally recognising the Independence of Vatican City, in 1929.
He also launched numerous military campaigns in an effort to expand the influence of Italian Fascism. He invaded Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Albania and he ordered a successful intervention in the Spanish Civil War to consolidate power for Francisco Franco. Mussolini may be the father of fascism, but in the annals of the history of fascism, he will always take a back seat to the man on the other end of Mussolini’s most significant alliance: The “Rome–Berlin–Tokyo Axis” (Axis powers) – a military alliance that fought in World War II against the Allies.
Much like Italy, Germany’s enthralment with their own brand of fascism, National Socialism (please note – again – that the two are not interchangeable), began with World War I and a failed Austrian artist, who would come to be an icon for German pride.
Having been rejected twice by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, the aspiring artist, Adolf Hitler adopted a bohemian lifestyle and became a vagrant, following the death of his mother in 1907, when he was 18-years-old, earning money as a casual labourer and a painter. It was in the men’s dormitories in which he was forced to live that Hitler first became exposed to racist, anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Following the receipt of what remained of his father’s estate, he moved to Munich in 1913. Hitler was deemed unfit for service when conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. After his trip to Salzburg, he returned to Munich, where he would later voluntarily enlist in the Bavarian Army after the outbreak of the First World War. Serving as a dispatch runner on the Western Front, Hitler was present at the First Battle of Ypres, the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Arras, and the Battle of Passchendaele, and was wounded at the Somme. He was awarded with an Iron Cross for bravery after being temporarily blinded by a mustard gas attack.
However, the war ended in disgrace for Germany, who were forced to surrender in November 1918. And the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was perhaps the culprit behind the economic disaster that ultimately served as the catalyst for Hitler’s rise to power.
A massive chunk of the reparation costs for the First World War would fall upon the newly-established Weimar Republic as a consequence of the Treaty of Versailles. The Weimar Republic was forced to pay 132 billion gold marks (then $31.4 billion, today USD$442 billion), decommission a large portion of their army and surrender their control of various territories.
With no real career prospects or formal education, Hitler entered the world of politics and was appointed as a Verbindungsmann (intelligence agent) of an Aufklärungskommando (reconnaissance unit) of the German Armed Forces (the Reichswehr). He was assigned to infiltrate he German Workers’ Party (DAP) and influence other soldiers.
He would apply to join the DAP on the order of superiors and was admitted to the party a week later. It was in September 1919 when Hitler first raised “the Jewish question” in a letter Adolf Gemlich, where he wrote that the aim of the government “must unshakeably be the removal of the Jews altogether”.
Hitler rose through the ranks of the DAP and met Dietrich Eckart, among other prominent DAP members. Through his relationship with Eckart and other members of the occult Thule Society, Hitler would even design the party’s banner of a swastika in a white circle on a red background, while the DAP was rebrand and reorganise into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP or Nazi Party). After being discharged from the Army, Hitler began working full-time for the party in 1920.
The Nazi Party was headquartered in a stirring pot for anti-state German nationalists – Munich. The sentiment in Munich was also very much anti-Marxist, with a critical mass of people desperate for an alternative to the Marxist vs Capitalist dichotomy that had come to dominate political conversations at the time. With the power of exceptional oratory skills, Hitler was able to manipulate crowds incredibly effectively and would give speeches in front of crowds up to 6,000. In 1921, Hitler formed the Sturmabteilung (SA), a paramilitary group providing protection for Nazi rallies and assemblies, disrupting the meetings of opposing parties and fighting against the paramilitary units of the opposing parties
Through the distribution of leaflets and by handing out Nazi flags to dozens of supporters, Hitler rose to notoriety for his speeches on the Treaty of Versailles, rival politicians, and especially against Marxists and Jews.
In 1923, Hitler enlisted the help of World War I General Erich Ludendorff for an attempted coup known as the Beer Hall Putsch. The Putsch was fashioned after the Italian Fascists’ March on Rome, with a view to seize control over Bavaria and, later, Berlin. However, the Putsch ended in failure and Hitler was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment at Landsberg Prison, where he was treated well and was allowed mail from supporters and regular visits by party comrades.
He was eventually pardoned by the Bavarian Supreme Court and ended up serving just a year of his sentence. Significantly, however, Hitler used his time in prison to write the vast majority of the first volume of Mein Kampf (My Struggle), the book which serves as his autobiography and an exposition of his ideology.
After his release, Hitler delivered charismatic speeches promoting Pan-Germanism, anti-semitism and anti-communism, frequently denouncing both capitalism and communism as Jewish conspiracies, which captured the imaginations of Germans who were looking for a scapegoat in the inter-war economy characterised by hyper-inflation and mass unemployment.
Hitler was eventually appointed as Chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg in January 1933, after the Nazi Party won a plurality, but not a majority, of seats in the German Reichstag. Shortly afterwards, Hitler passed the 1933 Enabling Act that led to the transformation from the democratic Weimar Republic to a single-party dictatorship, Nazi Germany.
His vision for a one-party dictatorship based on the totalitarian and autocratic ideology of Nazism turned to reality as Hitler turned his attention to eliminating the Jews from Germany and establish a New Order – a thousand year Reich promoting German exceptionalism – with Hitler taking on the title of Führier.
After achieving what is referred to as the German “economic miracle” (a rapid recovery from the Great Depression through various state interventions and infrastructure projects, Hitler slowly began to break with the conditions set out by the Treaty of Versailles, expanding the size of the German army and annexing various regions containing millions of ethnic Germans, such as Austria and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Hitler sought Lebensraum (“living space”) for the German people in Eastern Europe, and it was this aggressive foreign policy that is considered the primary cause of World War II, with the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 resulting in Britain and France declaring war on Germany. The rest is history…
The history of Spain in the 20th Century is a rather complex one and the ideology that drove the military dictatorship of Generalísimo Francisco Franco is vague and nuanced. To call Franco a fascist is an oversimplification. Franco held office as Spain’s Head of State for nearly 40 years and Francoist Spain was not much like the authoritarian regimes run by Hitler and Mussolini, but also showed distinct similarities.
Much like Italy, Spain was one of Europe’s poorest nations the early stages of the 20th Century, with its glorious colonial empire reduced to all-but non-existent while Britain and France maintained control over territories all over the world. Gone were the days of Isabella I of Castile when the Spanish Empire stretched across the majority of the Western Hemisphere and “The Indies”.
It was during the first few years of the 20th Century when the son of a Spanish naval officer, Francisco Franco, was unable to gain admission to the Navy, following the loss of the Spanish-American War and a non-existent demand for additional officers. Instead, he joined the Spanish Army, where he excelled. He ascended the ranks of the Spanish Army to become the youngest General in Spanish history, at the age of 33 in 1926.
Franco was a conservative and a monarchist and regretted the de facto abolition of the monarchy in the 1931 municipal elections, and the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic. The Republican-Socialist alliance failed to win the majority of the municipality cities in Spain, but won landslide victories in almost all provincial capitals – speaking volumes about the split between conservative, monarchist political ideologies in the rural areas and the pro-democracy, pro-worker principles espoused in urban regions. During this time, Franco had risen to director of the General Military Academy in Zaragoza, which was closed after the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic. A disgruntled Franco did, however, continue serving in his role as brigadier general in the Republican Army.
Franco’s career thrived again upon the election of right-wing parties, CEDA and PRR in 1933. Franco briefly served as Chief of Army Staff before the leftist Popular Front into came into power, after which he was relegated to serve in the Canary Islands.
Reluctantly, he joined the unsuccessful 1936 Military coup that sparked the Spanish Civil War.
Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil War is one of the most understated moments in world history and requires far more context than I can fit into a blog post.
In short, the 1936 coup was designed to overthrow the Spanish Second Republic. It led to the government fleeing from Madrid to Valencia, with Franco’s rebel armies (made up mostly of cadets from the General Military Academy) marching on the city’s defences.
Republicans loyal to the left-leaning Popular Front government of the Second Spanish Republic, in alliance with communist and syndicalist anarchists, fought against the Franco-led alliance of falangists, monarchists, conservatives, and traditionalists in a conflict that claimed the lives of roughly half a million people over the span of just less than three years.
The Civil War has been viewed as a “class struggle, a war of religion, a struggle between dictatorship and republican democracy, between revolution and counter-revolution, and between fascism and communism”, writes Spanish Historian Juliá Santos. Many consider the brutal conflict to be the “dress rehearsal” for World War II. It became notable for the passion and political division it inspired and for the many atrocities that occurred, on both sides. Franco, who led the Spanish forces in Morocco during the Civil War, was particularly brutal in his practices during the War and his military dictatorship afterwards.
Having finally defeated opposing forces and capturing the last remaining Republican stronghold, Barcelona, in 1939, Franco consolidated power in Spain, with the support of his allies, Mussolini and Hitler. Forces from France, the Soviet Union, and Mexico were driven out of the country, while non-interventionist countries such as the United States recognised the Franco regime as the formal government of Spain.
Franco consolidated all nationalist parties into the FET y de las JONS during the Civil War and created a one-party state after the Nationalists declared victory, which extended Franco’s dictatorship over Spain through a period of repression of political opponents.
Between forced labour, concentration camps, and executions, Franco’s regime resulted in the deaths of between 30 and 50 thousand people, primarily Catalans and socialists. The period between 1936 and the end of the Second World War, in which Spain and Franco played no role, as neutrals, was known as the white terror. It was the most brutal chapter in Franco’s bloody reign over Spain. While many theorise that the Spanish Civil War served as a testing ground for the modern military technology that led to the devastation of World War II, there is no question that Franco’s brutality, which was likely exacerbated by his military tours in Africa, where he witnessed brutal colonial practices.
Franco was “deeply conservative”, as discussed in History Extra‘s interview with Professor Paul Preston, and having previously served with the Spanish Army in North Africa, “had the mental furniture of a Spanish colonial officer”. This had seemingly imbued him with a shocking disregard for human life.
However, in that same interview, Preston argues that it would be incorrect to call Franco a fascist.
“It gets us into the whole area of what ‘fascist’ means,” says Preston.
“If people are looking for a quick and easy insult to those on the right, then fascist is your go-to term. If you’re asking an academic political theorist what constitutes a fascist then you’d have to say Franco isn’t.”
“I caused quite a stir in Spain a few years ago when asked this question,” Preston recalled, “and I said Franco wasn’t a fascist … he was something much worse.
“What I meant by that is that the only absolutely indisputable fascist leader is Mussolini and the only indisputably fascist regime is Mussolini’s regime. And, there are so many ways in which Franco is different.”
The reasons for which we can’t describe Franco as a fascist lies not in his anti-communist, anti-Catalan, violence-fuelled political actions, but in his governance
The post-war era
When we look back on our definitions of fascism from last week and analyse the similarities and differences between Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and Franco’s Spain, we notice key differences that clearly demarcate how fascism varies and why it’s irresponsible to use “fascist” as a cheap accusation to describe opposing viewpoints in contemporary society.
Fascism is complicated. And one of the most important facets of fascism, governance, can only be properly addressed when we look at how fascist states governed after World War II ended. And the topic of the post-war history of fascism will be covered in next week’s Essential History feature.
Come back next week for the third installment of our three-part series on the Rise of Fascism and keep following our Essential History features every Monday for more fascinating takes on the history of the world.
Caprotti, Federico. (2007). Mussolini’s Cities: Internal Colonialism in Italy, 1930–1939, Cambria Press.
Evans, Richard. (2005). The Third Reich in Power. Penguin Books.
Gilmour, David. (1985). The Transformation of Spain: From Franco to the Constitutional Monarchy. Quartet Books.
Hakim, Joy (1995). A History of Us: War, Peace and all that Jazz. Oxford University Press.