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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

An Era of Despair

Fascism and Nazism
Behind the military pageant and public festival that made up the official image of the new regimes in Italy and Germany was to be found the decomposition of nineteenth-century liberalism. The "new orders" established a different set of values and purposes. Ideologically, the state, not the individual, counted. Politically, dictatorship from above, not consent from below, was imposed. Institutionally, repression of the rights of the citizen, not respect for them, was practiced.

Both Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), duce (leader) of Italy, and Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), fuhrer (leader) of Germany, boasted that they would provide strength where weakness had before prevailed. The anti-democratic thought of the prewar, discontented, intellectual elite now became part of a popular ideology of brute force. Mussolini offered this definition: "The Fascist state is will to power and domination." A thought like this suggested how far European political considerations had declined from eighteenth-century liberal principles. The sacrifice of civil liberties for the communal promises of the mid-twentieth-century dictators was made without a whimper by large segments of the new masses and by equally impressive numbers of the old middle classes.

This development, a contradiction of nineteenth-century social trends and popular ideology, has provoked an impressive array of historical interpretations. Yet the major factors or conditions which explain the new phenomenon of dictatorship can be briefly assembled.

Public attitudes were affected by the seemingly oppressive problem of personal responsibility and individual freedom in a world of economic insecurity. The Enlightenment ideal of the self-sufficient man, capable of determining his own destiny, now seemed fraudulent, at complete variance with contemporary social and economic conditions. Liberty was seen to result in meaningless struggle, not self-improvement. Moreover, the individual seemed to be a victim of the many adversities created by a mass-production economy within a social order made up of masses of population. Like Charlie Chaplin's tramp, the individual seemed incapable of understanding or controlling the world in which he lived. The one obvious way out was to reject individual responsibility, hence the freedom of choice, in favor of having decisions made by others, by the "leaders" willing to assume political authority. "What this collectivist age wants, allows, and approves," wrote the German novelist Thomas Mann in 1935," is the perpetual holiday from the self."

Economically, there was the "purse string" argument. Fascism and Nazism are here seen to have gained popularity as defenders against an imposing Communist menace. With the successful advent of communism to power in Russia, and with the loudly made argument that the abolition of private property would sweep away class differences and create an equitable economy, much of European middle-classdom worked up a fear of the "Bolshevik menace," the possibility of the forceful overthrow or the subversion of the existing social and political order. Both Mussolini and Hitler made opposition to communism a major element of their ideologies. For Hitler, communism and Nazism were competing world systems, locked in mortal combat. As he stated in his closing speech to the Nazi party rally at Nuremberg in September 1936: "Bolshevism has attacked the foundations of our whole human order, alike in State and society; the foundations of our concept of civilization, of our faith and of our morals—all alike are at stake."

To many intelligent observers, even those of a traditionally liberal persuasion, Mussolini seemed to have provided in the 1920s a sound political compromise between an uncontrolled capitalism on one side and an uncontrollable communism on the other. Thus Fascist Italy was described as the middle term between two untenable social conditions. It supposedly provided the necessary amount of order and state control without severe interference with the old economic system. In sum, the dictators of Italy and Germany promoted their systems as the means to reconcile the profound problems existing between labor and management so that capitalism would not be destroyed.

Historically, the two dictators also posed as upholders of glorious tradition and followers of national destiny. Mussolini stood as the colossus of the New Rome, and Hitler donned the armor of a Teutonic knight. Both men had popular appeal as they promised both new national hope and glory.

In the interwar period, it was fashionable to speak of Italy and Germany as "have-not" nations, those without sufficient national resources or territory to enjoy the privileged position of France, England, or the United States. This notion was one that the dictators of these two states were most willing to foster. They frequently blamed their supposed national containment on the diplomatic intrigue of the "have" nations. To break out of encirclement or to once again seek an important place in the sun (the Nazi hymn, the Horst Wessel Lied, contains the words, "Europe Today, Tomorrow the World") became ideological objectives. The Nazis even encouraged the development of a theory of geopolitics, in which Germany was considered to be the heartland of a great "world island" (the Eurasian land mass) and therefore destined to be its ruler. To the south, Mussolini harped on the splendor of Imperial Rome and demanded that once again the Mediterranean become mare nostrum, "our sea."

From this brief review, the major elements of appeal that were gathered around the swastika or the fasces can be seen. As guarantors of order and economic security, as defenders against the threat of an impending bolshevism, as upholders of sacred national purpose, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany offered an alternative to the supposed indecision and immediate ineffectiveness of parliamentary democracy. That the alternative would prove to be both false and horrendous was not anticipated by many of those who followed the flags of these new systems.

The New Social Order
Visitors to Italy after 1922, when the Fascists came to power, were often shown the swamps that Mussolini had drained and the public buildings he had ordered constructed. Visitors to Germany after 1933, when the Nazis had come to power, frequently commented on the cleanliness of the city streets. These New Orders outwardly appeared to be efficient systems where, as one critic commented, "The trains run on time." If there were all too many people parading around in black and brown shirts, and if the profile of the jutting-jawed Duce of Italy or the mustached Fuhrer of Germany appeared in tasteless photographic profusion, these were matters of no major consequence. Even Winston Churchill remarked in the mid-1920s that, had he been an Italian, he would have been a Fascist.

Initially, then, there was a popularly entertained thought that the dictators would get their countries back on an even keel, and the national communities would therefore be all the better for their brief rule. Even the soon apparent nastiness of the servants of the New Orders was frequently discounted as a temporary inconvenience.

The truth was soon learned, however: the dictatorships were not very orderly, and they were extremely oppressive. Political opposition was exterminated or imprisoned; censorship was rigidly imposed, and earnest effort was made at thought control by strict supervision of the education of the young and by the elevation of propaganda into a new popular art form. Lastly, police forces were used, not for the maintenance of public order, but for its destruction.

If these general characteristics appeared in varying degrees of intensity in all countries that were dictatorially ordered in the 1920s and 1930s, they were most pronounced in Italy and Germany. And yet there were obvious distinctions between the two national societies that qualify any simply historical comparison that might be made.

Italian Fascism produced a less effective, less repressive, and, hence less socially destructive "new order" than did Nazism. At the most inconsequential level, the Fascists tolerated jokes about the regime which the Nazis did not. In Italy, the Catholic Church played an institutional role which forced some accommodation by the new regime. More important, the Italians never generated a spirit of racism such as that which was profoundly important in the ideology and practices of Nazi Germany. Finally, the Italian army never enjoyed the unique position nor gained the reputation for efficiency that the German army had in modern history. Add to these social differences the industrial capacity of the German state, the effectiveness of its bureaucracy, and the sense of national frustration over defeat in the world war, and the differences in the real power and the public attitudes existing in both countries are discernible.

Yet Hitler had stated that Mussolini was his model, his early political idol. Mussolini enjoyed this dubious honor because he was the first individual to make dictatorship successful in a modern, large-scale European state. Taking advantage of the parliamentary crises that had disturbed Italy in the immediate postwar era, crises brought on by disappointment over the Italian war effort, and by labor strikes, war scandals, and a multiparty system that could find no clear majority by which to govern effectively, Mussolini "marched on Rome" in 1922. (He actually took a night sleeper from Milan.) The Fascists, organized as a political party but active in street fighting, now threatened to overthrow the regime by force. Rather than risk this, the political leadership in Rome gave in; the king, Victor Emmanuel II, invited Mussolini to be prime minister and to form his own government.

The changes the Fascists proposed were never fully realized; the New Order existed on paper far more than in reality. What changes did occur came as much in response to intensifying economic difficulties as to well thought-out plans. The Fascists did acquire international appeal by their theory of a "corporate state," one in which labor and management would act together, or "corporately," in nationally organized labor cycles, bringing together all of the factors of production, from acquisition of raw materials to distribution of finished products. Thus, potential class conflict was to be removed by governmentally sponsored institutions forcing labor and management to work in unison. Most critics of the regime like to point out that only in the movie industry was anything of this sort seriously tried. In fact, the Fascist regime remained inefficient and disorganized.

Nazism in Germany was of quite a different order. The regime was ruthless, the effects of its activities inhumanly destructive. In his remarkable novella On the Marble Cliffs, published in 1938, the German author Ernst Junger, captured the grotesque spirit of the regime in a medieval allusion: "Such are the dungeons above which rise the proud castles of the tyrants. . . . They are terrible noisome pits in which a God-forsaken crew revels to all eternity in the degradation of human dignity and human freedom."

This degradation was awesomely horrible. Political opponents, whatever their religious or ethnic background, were tortured and exterminated. Terror was institutionalized, given dreadful public expression in the infamous "Crystal Night" (November 1938), when Jewish synagogues and shops were attacked by the Nazis, who broke windows and store fronts (hence the name of the event.) Culture was barbarically despised, with books burned and censorship ruthlessly imposed. More significant was the creation of racist doctrine and policy. The official ideology of the regime assumed the existence of an "Aryan race," destined to rule the world. There was also the "Judenfrage", the "Jewish question," as it was coldly called. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 denied the Jews citizenship and forbade "intermarriage" with them. Finally, six million Jews died during the history of this regime - and by calculated state policy. They were forced into concentration camps, like Dachau and Auschwitz, where they were worked and beaten to death—or exterminated in gas chambers, with their remains cremated in mass-production ovens.

These matters must be remembered and understood in order to achieve a meaningful appraisal of the basic inhumanity of Hitlerian Germany. But to further appreciate the social significance of the Nazi regime, the contemporary observer must look at Nazism as an expression of discontent with modernity. In its semi-religious pageantry, its mystical concern with nature, and its ideological fabrication of a medieval spirit of guild and community, Nazism was culturally backward looking. It deprecated the secular and material spirit of modern urbanism—and renounced the Jew for supposedly representing that spirit. Confused, superficial, and most frequently tawdry in expression (as in the official pageants), this anti-modern attitude suggests that Nazism was in part a reaction against the new industrial system.

And yet, it was this very industrialism that made the Nazi regime successful. The radio, the machine gun, the armored car were among those technologically created devices which assured the oppressiveness of the new police state. And so, for the first time in history, the potential of dictatorship and despotism was realized. The agencies of the state could reach into all matters of private life with the intention of regulating them by force or by control. In this sense, the state became totalitarian. Most distinctions between the private and the public sectors of human activity were ideologically removed, and so they frequently were in actual practice. The individual was now significant only insofar as he or she was integrated into the total system, political and social, and made to serve it.

Although the totalitarian effects of Nazism were not so pervasive as the regime and its early critics suggested, Hitler's followers did succeed in destroying a variety of intermediary public institutions, such as labor unions, rival political parties, and professional organizations, that stood between the individual and the state.

Only the monolithic party stood beside the monolithic state. If imagined as a large, vertically posed column (hence the use of the term "monolithic") that paralleled the state in its activities, the monolithic party is seen as distinct from its nineteenth-century parliamentary predecessors. Indeed, the most unique political institution of the totalitarian state, whether Fascist, Nazi, or Stalinist, was the single, legal party that alone accounted for organized political activity.

To succeed in this new system one needed to be a member of the "party," much in the way one needed to be a member of the aristocracy in the eighteenth and preceding centuries. Unlike the democratic political party, which was a voluntary association open to anyone who wished to inscribe and to support its purposes, the party in the "one-party" state was entered by special admission only, and for younger people, such entrance was often preceded by initiation through a party-sponsored youth group (like the Hitler Jugend). The single party thus served both a social and political purpose, filtering members of the society and determining who would serve the state.

The totalitarian state stood as the antithesis of the liberal state. Whereas the latter upheld the importance of the autonomous individual who was to enjoy a maximum of personal freedom guaranteed by the state's benign maintenance of domestic order, the former denied all personal freedom and demanded complete political submission. In sum, the liberal state depended on the principle of parliamentary compromise, while the fascist state depended on force and terror.

But such categorization of purposes and functions was not crisply clear to those people in Europe who turned to the Nazi or Fascist parties out of sheer desperation. These parties represented for many the last hope, the only apparent alternative between economic chaos and communism. And as each party used a vocabulary replete with socialistic terms (after all, "Nazi" was an acronym for "National Socialist German Workers' Party"), many adherents initially assumed that they would find social justice as well as national purpose and full employment in this new order of things.

Although the late nineteenth century was no doubt the "seedbed of fascism," in that it was the time when ideologies protesting democracy, emphasizing race, and extolling elites were disseminated, it was the conditions caused by the First World War that generated the climate in which fascism and Nazism were to thrive.

No European country-the Soviet Union obviously excepted- was without a form of fascist party, its members bedecked in uniforms, its "leader" promising strong-handed rule. Outside of Germany and Italy, the most successful of these fascist regimes was that introduced by Francisco Franco in Spain. Waging a long and bitter civil war against the legitimate republican government, between 1936 and 1939, Franco promised national regeneration and defense against communism, but he was personally without much ideology, other than a disposition to traditionalism. What he gave Spain was a military dictatorship, the one that endured the longest in Europe, dying only with him in 1976.

Even the democratic states witnessed the rise of fascist groups within their midst. More nuisances than threats, these organizations nonetheless demonstrated the yearning felt by many citizens for authoritarian government. In Great Britain there was the "British Union of Fascists"; in the United States there was a Long Island-based group calling themselves the "Silver Shirts." And in 1936 Lawrence Dennis wrote a book entitled The Coming American Fascism, which many readers thought was prophetic. Even in South Africa, a group of "Black Shirts," directly modeled on the Nazis, added to the growing racist condition of that state.

All of these dictatorial parties and regimes were primarily expressions of political discontent with economic conditions, but they were also responses to the confusing complexity of modern existence. The democratic industrial order had become intricate and convoluted: international finance, the world marketing system, parliamentary debate, and political party factionalism— these were aspects of an elaborate system which few understood well and which many saw as a conspiracy against the "little man." Hitler sensed this and admitted his responsive tactic in an interview of 1936: "I . . . simplified the problems and reduced them to the simplest terms. The masses realized this and followed me."

They followed as well because they sought strong leadership. Democracy appeared to many critics to be inefficient, cumbersome, and therefore unsuited to the pressing problems of the times. The liberal historian Benedetto Croce stated in the 1920s that perhaps a few years of Mussolini were necessary to get Italian affairs in shape. And the industrialists of the Rhineland, who financially cooperated with and supported Hitler just before he assumed power, thought likewise. They intended to get rid of Hitler once economic and political order was assured. That the political fortunes of the Nazi party, as determined by the number of votes acquired, increased as German unemployment increased is a statistical correlation that says much.

In many analyses of Europe in the 1930s contemporaries employed two metaphors, "cancer" and "twilight", to describe the state of European civilization. "Cancer" was used in reference to totalitarianism. Fascism and Nazism were seen as malignant outgrowths of modern society, slowly consuming it. The metaphor "twilight", most frequently applied to the state of affairs in France, suggested the end of an era. The high noon of liberal democracy was past, and now Europe was basking in the last light of a glorious day before the night of fascism would fall.

Neither metaphor was new nor particularly subtle in nuance. But each clearly conveyed the sense of despair, of tragic conclusion that so many observers foresaw for the European civilization that had been part of their prewar youth.

The Depression of the 1930s was, therefore, not just economic but also psychological. European society had lost its confidence.

NEXT:  Chapter Eleven: The Precarious Peace

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