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- The Decisive Influence of World War I
- Fascist Ideology
- A Regime of Mass Mobilization
Fascism has become a generic term used to represent a political movement that developed between the two world wars principally in Europe, with a few extensions notably in Latin America. This term was employed for the first time as a partisan label in Italy in 1919 by Benito Mussolini, who appealed to younger veterans to establish Fasci di combattimento. In Italy, a new type of political organization emerged, developed, and was eventually imposed— one that more or less indirectly foreshadowed and inspired a set of movements and political regimes, including Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism in Germany, Leon Degrelle’s Rexisme in Belgium, Oswald Mosley’s Fascist Union in Great Britain, Corneliu Codreanu’s Iron Guard in Romania, Ferenc Szalasi’s Arrow Cross Party in Hungary, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera’s Falange in Spain, Plinio Salgado’s Integralist Action in Brazil, and Jacques Doriot’s French Popular Party in France. Within this group, important differences persisted among movements. Some of them remained minority opposition forces, while others formed political regimes; some ruled in coalition, while others gave rise to dictatorships based on a single party. There are also important differences in the ideology or the social basis of these fascist-inspired movements as these emerged and took shape in very different socioeconomic and cultural contexts. Important variables include the degree to which their setting was industrialized and secular and the extent of nationalization and politicization of the masses. It is nevertheless possible to classify a group of movements and regimes into a category labeled fascism. These share some major typical traits, formed in the context of the political laboratory represented by the Blackshirts in Italy. This research paper analyzes fascism through its connections with World War I, its ideology, and finally the way in which it produced a new kind of regime.
The Decisive Influence of World War I
The first common feature lies in relation to war. In Europe, World War I is indeed the cradle of fascism. It represents a critical element of context, for both the birth of fascist leaders and the organizational and ideological forms that characterized this political movement. Whether in Italy or in Germany, the most committed elements of fascism and National Socialism were, for the most part, young veterans for whom the war proved to be a fundamental initiation experience. Like their respective leaders, Mussolini and Hitler, they supported the war and, above all, gloried in the “spirit of the trenches”; they also suffered from postwar demobilization. Their political trajectory, their values, the ideology they claimed, the political organizations they would frame, and the regimes they sometimes succeeded in creating cannot be understood outside of this initial context: The Great War led to the brutalization of societies.
The influence of the war could already be seen in the type of partisan organizations set up by those who would become fascist leaders. First in Italy, then in Germany and other European countries, they forged a new type of organization: the militia party. This organizational model was a synthesis of the mass party, previously unique to the labor movement, and of the military organization systems developed in the front lines of World War I. The result was a form of political organization unlike any other, driven by agents who, in the case of Italy, came mainly from the middle class, often fought in the ranks of the extreme Left (left-wing Socialist Party, revolutionary syndicalism), and were most often veterans of the Italian Army elite troops (Arditi). This militia party was designed to assemble an avant-garde group organized around a military model: uniforms, strict hierarchical organization, inculcation of discipline, and maintenance of military sociability modeled on the camaraderie of the front. Thanks to this organization, the fascists introduced methods of war into the political arena. In the context of latent civil war that characterized immediate postwar Italy and parts of Europe in the 1920s as well as the climate of political radicalization caused by the crisis of the early 1930s, the fascist militias (including death squads, Storm Troopers, green shirts, etc.) carried out violent attacks on labor movement organizations, which included attacks on the Socialist and Communist parties’ public meetings, ransacking of left-wing municipalities, burning down local trade union offices, and intimidating the red league of farmers. During this fierce struggle against labor organizations, the fascists won the sympathy and even the active support of some economic elites and ruling circles, a development that would greatly facilitate their coming to power in a coalition government with Center and Right traditional parties.
These militia parties mobilized their members around a set of values, creeds, and myths that formed the common ideological basis of fascism. This was primarily an ideology of action that found its immediate extension in a style and in a quite singular aesthetic. As in organizational matters, fascisms practiced hybridization in ideological matters. They created a synthesis of influences from the ultra-Right (the most radical nationalist and racist standards) and influences from the ultra-Left (e.g., revolutionary syndicalism inspired by Sorel). France was one of the first laboratories of this new ideological alchemy. The result was a cult of action, violence, and youth and a revolutionary rupture with the parliamentary system and liberal society. Fascist ideology initially involved hostility to the political currents of the Enlightenment; liberalism and Marxism were its targets of choice. It was based on a radical denunciation of social egalitarianism as well as of bourgeois society, presenting itself as a third-force ideology, different from both capitalism and communism. On economic and social development, this third position would find its solution in the corporatist principle of harmonious cooperation between labor and capital for the benefit of the nation; nationalism—not class consciousness—was the backbone of the fascist ideology. This ideology, accordingly, was organized around the myth of the nation conceived as an organic and compact community. Fascism’s mission was to purify the nation politically, anthropologically, and even racially with a view to the assertion of its power. Most fascist movements, beginning of course with National Socialism, put racism and anti-Semitism at the center of their doctrine and political plan. Even Italian fascism, which was initially based on a more political conception of the nation, ended in the mid-1930s by putting the issue of race in the foreground and adopting anti-Semitic legislation in 1938. This homogeneous national community was destined to be permanently mobilized for the goal of conquest. The fascist ideology was guided by an imperialist teleology: conquest of Lebensraum in the case of National Socialism and construction of a new world order in the case of Italian fascism. Fascism was not just born from war, it was also born for war: Its intention was to ideologically mobilize the population, with a view to forming a combatant community fit for military conquest.
A Regime of Mass Mobilization
In the Italian and German cases, fascism as a rising power aimed objectively to establish a system of permanent mobilization in which society was seen as an army and the citizen as a soldier. Along with this initiative of a militarized society, the development of fascism into a regime started a political sanctification process; its ideology was introduced into “civil religion,” which citizens were called to practice with ardor. This was accompanied by a massive production of liturgies, ceremonies, and political customs. Accordingly, fascism’s goal of the “New Man” included both a believer and a soldier: an ideal summed up by one of the most famous programmatic slogans of the Italian fascist regime—”believe, obey, fight.”
This mobilizing regime is based on a very specific mechanism. The mass party was the essential element, the central institution of fascist society. Fascist movements came to power in coalition, formally respecting constitutional executives. But very quickly, they implemented strategies to monopolize power by violently destroying labor movement organizations and causing dissolution or taking over the traditional right-wing parties. This process quickly led to a situation of a one-party dictatorship. The dynamics of fascism then operated as a dual process of further state and civil society penetration. The capture of power set in motion a symbiotic process of nationalization of the party and partisan penetration of the state. The state party proved to be an effective tool for the regime’s objectives. In particular, it allowed deep penetration into a civil society that was heavily supervised by youth organizations, unions, associations, and governmental agencies in areas such as sports, culture, and recreation. Thanks to the millions of members in fascist organizations, the system could organize the ultra-supervised mobilization of the population, ensure the dissemination of fascist values and ideology, and organize the faith in the regime and its leader. This leader (Duce, Fuhrer), “Almighty” and “infallible,” was also one of the typical elements of fascist domination. His seemingly limitless power was inextricably linked to the strength of the party. This is because the leader had quasi-absolute control over a party that itself had an unrestricted influence over the population. The leader’s power was thus a direct reflection of the power of the fascist movement as it became a political regime. Fascist organizations were also formidable instruments that were used to control political conformity. Spread over the whole territory, present in all spheres of social life—in the workplace as well as in recreational activities, in factories as well as in families—they contributed to the establishment of a social and political control exerted on the entire population with intensity unlike any other, finding an equivalent only in Stalin’s Soviet Union.
This situation leads to the question of the nature of fascism and, more precisely, its place within the typologies forged by political science to situate the political regimes of the 20th century. The answer to the question of whether fascism should be classified as an authoritarian regime or a totalitarian regime depends, in part, on what principles of logic and restrictive definitions are implemented. If we adopt a restrictive definition of fascism and say that only Italian fascism and Nazism fully qualify, we can consider fascism to be one component of the totalitarian phenomenon. This is indeed a form of domination based on the mobilization of the population through a mass political organization around a civil religion, generating a level of control of individuals that is unprecedented in its intensity, resulting in the eradication of all forms of organized political opposition and functioning even in tandem with any dissenting public expression. Nazism and, to a lesser extent, Italian fascism largely corresponded to this totalitarian type by the time they collapsed under the weight of their military defeats.
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