The First World War has significant consequences for European governments and economies. The destruction caused by this war sparked the creation of a major political shift that spread through Europe. The philosophy of fascism was a revolutionary idea that was developing in a number of European democracies. Fascism seemed to be a response to a string of tough economic conditions and political discontent in these nations. Fascism is an ideology that refers to a form of government that is marked by extreme nationalism as well as authoritarianism or tyranny (Kallis 2). Particularly, fascism can also be described as an intensely nationalist, anti-communistic, and anti-democratic ideology or movement that laid the foundation for dictatorial regimes in Europe, especially in Italy and Germany.
A good number of countries in Europe were left devastated during the aftermath of WWI. A series of harsh economic challenges caused by the conflict left many governments in a position that they could not easily escape. Italy became the first European democracy to become overwhelmed by the pressure and adopt a fascist form of government. After existing as a unified state for just over five decades, Italy experienced severe political divisions within its republican system (Vajda 4). Furthermore, Italy was sidelined from the peace talks of the First World War which meant that it could not receive substantial compensation for aiding the war against Germany.
These were the major factors that attracted Benito Mussolini, the founder of the Italian Fascist Party, to adopt the fascism ideology (Knox 5). Fascism would help Mussolini to grab power. In 1922, Mussolini led his Fascist army to attack Rome with the goal of taking over the then government and establishing a Fascist regime in the country. The march by Mussolini’s “Blackshirts” proved successful as it threatened King Victor Emmanuel to step down from power (Vajda 6). The threats ultimately paved the way for Mussolini and his fascist movement to take power.
Similarly, the aftermath of World War I saw Germany face more devastating economic conditions. Notably, the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to surrender large portions of her territory to Allied nations, including France, Belgium, Poland, and Denmark (Brustein 247). Furthermore, the Treaty took German overseas colonies and divided them among the Allies, compelled Germany to pay heavy reparations and restricted her army to one lakh (Knox 11). The unbearable provisions of the treaty coupled with the economic crisis of 1929 essentially dilapidated the German economy.
These factors made the Germans extremely bitter to the point of looking for a chance for revenge. Adolf Hitler took advantage of the chaos to start building the fascist Nazi party. Hitler openly encouraged the Germans to discard the Treaty of Versailles, to rebuild the German empire, and take back her overseas possessions that she had lost to the Allies (Brustein 248). Hitler successfully pushed for the adoption of the fascism in Germany, which culminated in the establishment of the fascist Nazi regime.
Both the fascist Italy and Nazi Germans saw the fascism as the solution to their cause because the fascist style of government was intensely nationalistic and was strictly opposed to communism and democracy (Koopmans and Paul 225). The primary goal of the fascists was to make their nation stronger, more powerful, more prosperous, and expansive. Fascism articulated and reaffirmed their national identity and promised national unity and strength in a time of widespread chaos and disorientation in Europe. Mussolini and Hitler believed fascism would help their quest to re-create the Great Roman Empire and German Empire because the ideology is firmly anchored on the use of the totalitarian rule and feeding off the fear of communism (Kallis 5). Because fascists perceive national strength as only and most effective strategy to make a nation “good,” the ideology allowed the Nazi Germans and Italians to use any means possible and necessary to realize that goal of rebuilding their countries.
Mussolini and Hitler proved successful in adopting the fascist ideology. As identified earlier, both leaders managed to establish fascist regimes in their respective countries. After appointment to the position of the Prime Minister, Mussolini established a coalition government that pursued economically liberal policies. Through considerable violence and intimidation, the fascists managed to entrench fascism in Italy. This success led Mussolini to declare himself dictator of Italy, assume full responsibility for the government, and dismiss the parliament. Between 1925 and 1929, fascist rule steadily became entrenched in power that opposition leaders were denied access to parliament, besides the introduction of censorship (Vajda 13).
Just like in Italy, the fascism proved successful in Germany. The radical ideology led the Nazi Party to win almost a third of the seats in the German legislative body in 1932 and appointment of Hitler as the chancellor (Koopmans and Paul 225). Upon the demise of the then President Hindenburg, Hitler rose to the throne by declaring himself the Furor of Germany. Hitler’s ascendance to power led to the official fascist rule of the Nazis.
One major problem the fascists faced was resistance. In Italy, both the opposition and the Catholic Church were considerable barriers to the establishment and spread of the fascist movement. In fact, it took enormous Fascist violence and intimidation to deny the liberals and the Socialist Party access to the parliament and dismiss the legislative body and the Catholic Church altogether. Equally, Hitler used threats to overthrow President Hindenburg (Koopmans and Paul 225). Another serious challenge the fascist’s encounter was the Great Depression. The Great Depression caused extremely harsh economic conditions that wrecked the German and Italian economies. Also, the depression triggered social unrest, which also stimulated the diffusion and expansion of fascism in Europe (Vajda 3).
The success of the fascist rule in Germany and Italy saw Hitler and Mussolini sign the “Pact of Steel” in 1939, which led to the formation of an alliance that is commonly referred to as the Axis powers. Through the alliance, Mussolini and Hitler pursued territorial expansionist and interventionist foreign policy agendas from the 1930s onward (Kallis 7). For example, Mussolini established Italian domination of the Mediterranean Sea, secured her access to the Atlantic Ocean, and invaded Ethiopia. Similarly, Hitler led the Germans to reclaim the industrial Rhineland, annexed Austria, and invaded and partitioned Czechoslovakia in 1939 (Knox 21).
The territorial expansion and interventions by the two fascist regimes aggrieved other nations particularly the Allies. For example, Britain, France, and their allies perceived German invasion of Poland in 1939 as actions of aggression, which made them declare war against Germany, triggering Second World War (Kallis 25). Mussolini and Hitler’s fascist’s regimes became the primary architects of the Second World War. The Steel Pact emerged as a competent adversary to Britain, France, and their allies during the conflict. Mussolini matched Italian troops to aid the Germans, but the Axis powers lost to the Allies. Upon the defeat of the Axis powers, a lot of fascist groups in Italy and Germany disassembled and banned in some parts.
Brustein, William. “The Political Geography of Fascist Party Membership in Italy and Germany, 1918-1933.” Social institutions: Their emergence, maintenance, and effects (1990): pp. 245-264.
Kallis, Aristotle. Fascist ideology: territory and expansionism in Italy and Germany, 1922-1945. Routledge, 2002.
Knox, MacGregor. “Conquest, foreign and domestic, in fascist Italy and nazi Germany.” The Journal of Modern History 56.1 (1984): pp. 2-57.
Koopmans, Ruud, and Paul Statham. “Ethnic and Civic Conceptions of Nationhood and the Differential Success of the Extreme Right in Germany and Italy.” How social movements matter 10 (1999): p. 225.
Vajda, Mihaly. “Crisis and the Way Out: The Rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany.” Telos 1972.12 (1972): pp. 3-26.