The Rise of Fascism



Mussolini and Fascist Italy

After aligning itself with Italian conservatives, the fascist party rose to prominence using violence and intimidation, eventually seizing power in Rome in 1922 under the leadership of Benito Mussolini.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate why Mussolini was able to seize power in Italy

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The rise of fascism in Italy began during World War I, when Benito Mussolini and other radicals formed a political group (called a fasci) supporting the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary.
  • The first meeting of Mussolini’s Fasci of Revolutionary Action was held on January 24, 1915.
  • For the next several years, the small group of fascists took part in political actions, taking advantage of worker strikes to incite violence.
  • Around 1921, the fascists began to align themselves with mainstream conservatives, increasing membership exponentially.
  • Beginning in 1922, Fascist paramilitaries escalated their strategy from attacking socialist offices and homes of socialist leadership figures to violent occupation of cities, eventually setting their sites on Rome.
  • During the so-called “March on Rome,” Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister of Italy.
  • From 1925 to 1929, Fascism steadily became entrenched in power. Opposition deputies were denied access to parliament, censorship was introduced, and a December 1925 decree made Mussolini solely responsible to the King.

Italian Fascism, also known simply as Fascism, is the original fascist ideology as developed in Italy. The ideology is associated with the Fascist Revolutionary Party (PFR), founded in 1915; the succeeding National Fascist Party (PNF) in 1921, which under Benito Mussolini ruled the Kingdom of Italy from 1922 until 1943; the Republican Fascist Party that ruled the Italian Social Republic from 1943 to 1945; and the post-war Italian Social Movement and subsequent Italian neo-fascist movements.

Italian Fascism was rooted in Italian nationalism and the desire to restore and expand Italian territories, deemed necessary for a nation to assert its superiority and strength and avoid succumbing to decay. Italian Fascists claimed that modern Italy is the heir to ancient Rome and its legacy, and historically supported the creation of an Italian Empire to provide spazio vitale (“living space”) for colonization by Italian settlers and to establish control over the Mediterranean Sea.

Italian Fascism promoted a corporatist economic system whereby employer and employee syndicates were linked together in associations to collectively represent the nation’s economic producers and work alongside the state to set national economic policy. This economic system intended to resolve class conflict through collaboration between the classes

The Rise of Fascism in Italy

The first meeting of the Fasci of Revolutionary Action was held on January 24, 1915, led by Benito Mussolini. In the next few years, the relatively small group was various political actions. In 1920, militant strike activity by industrial workers reached its peak in Italy. Mussolini and the Fascists took advantage of the situation by allying with industrial businesses and attacking workers and peasants in the name of preserving order and internal peace in Italy.

Fascists identified their primary opponents as the majority of socialists on the left who had opposed intervention in World War I. The Fascists and the Italian political right held common ground: both held Marxism in contempt, discounted class consciousness, and believed in the rule of elites. Fascism began to accommodate Italian conservatives by making major alterations to its political agenda—abandoning its previous populism, republicanism, and anticlericalism, adopting policies in support of free enterprise, and accepting the Roman Catholic Church and the monarchy as institutions in Italy.

To appeal to Italian conservatives, Fascism adopted policies such as promoting family values, including policies designed to reduce the number of women in the workforce by limiting the woman’s role to that of a mother. The fascists banned literature on birth control and increased penalties for abortion in 1926, declaring both crimes against the state. Though Fascism adopted a number of positions designed to appeal to reactionaries, the Fascists sought to maintain Fascism’s revolutionary character, with Angelo Oliviero Olivetti saying “Fascism would like to be conservative, but it will [be] by being revolutionary.” The Fascists supported revolutionary action and committed to secure law and order to appeal to both conservatives and syndicalists.

Prior to Fascism’s accommodation of the political right, Fascism was a small, urban, northern Italian movement that had about a thousand members. After Fascism’s accommodation of the political right, the Fascist movement’s membership soared to approximately 250,000 by 1921.

Fascists Seize Power

Beginning in 1922, Fascist paramilitaries escalated their strategy from attacking socialist offices and homes of socialist leadership figures to violent occupation of cities. The Fascists met little serious resistance from authorities and proceeded to take over several northern Italian cities. The Fascists attacked the headquarters of socialist and Catholic labor unions in Cremona and imposed forced Italianization upon the German-speaking population of Trent and Bolzano. After seizing these cities, the Fascists made plans to take Rome.

On October 24, 1922, the Fascist party held its annual congress in Naples, where Mussolini ordered Blackshirts to take control of public buildings and trains and converge on three points around Rome. The Fascists managed to seize control of several post offices and trains in northern Italy while the Italian government, led by a left-wing coalition, was internally divided and unable to respond to the Fascist advances. King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy thought the risk of bloodshed in Rome to disperse the Fascists was too high. Victor Emmanuel III decided to appoint Mussolini as Prime Minister of Italy, and Mussolini arrived in Rome on October 30 to accept the appointment. Fascist propaganda aggrandized this event, known as “March on Rome,” as a “seizure” of power because of Fascists’ heroic exploits.

A photo of a crowd of mostly men, with Mussolini and other fascist leaders in the center.

March on Rome: Benito Mussolini with three of the four quadrumvirs during the March on Rome: from left to right: unknown, de Bono, Mussolini, Balbo and de Vecchi. 

Mussolini in Power

Upon becoming Prime Minister of Italy, Mussolini had to form a coalition government, because the Fascists did not have control over the Italian parliament. Mussolini’s coalition government initially pursued economically liberal policies under the direction of liberal finance minister Alberto De Stefani, a member of the Center Party, including balancing the budget through deep cuts to the civil service. Initially, little drastic change in government policy occurred and repressive police actions were limited.

The Fascists began their attempt to entrench Fascism in Italy with the Acerbo Law, which guaranteed a plurality of the seats in parliament to any party or coalition list in an election that received 25% or more of the vote. Through considerable Fascist violence and intimidation, the list won a majority of the vote, allowing many seats to go to the Fascists. In the aftermath of the election, a crisis and political scandal erupted after Socialist Party deputy Giacomo Matteoti was kidnapped and murdered by a Fascist. The liberals and the leftist minority in parliament walked out in protest in what became known as the Aventine Secession.

On January 3, 1925, Mussolini addressed the Fascist-dominated Italian parliament and declared that he was personally responsible for what happened, but insisted that he had done nothing wrong. He proclaimed himself dictator of Italy, assuming full responsibility over the government and announcing the dismissal of parliament. From 1925 to 1929, Fascism steadily became entrenched in power; opposition deputies were denied access to parliament, censorship was introduced, and a December 1925 decree made Mussolini solely responsible to the King.

In the 1920s, Fascist Italy pursued an aggressive foreign policy that included an attack on the Greek island of Corfu, aims to expand Italian territory in the Balkans, plans to wage war against Turkey and Yugoslavia, attempts to bring Yugoslavia into civil war by supporting Croat and Macedonian separatists to legitimize Italian intervention, and making Albania a de facto protectorate of Italy, achieved through diplomatic means by 1927. In response to revolt in the Italian colony of Libya, Fascist Italy abandoned previous liberal-era colonial policy of cooperation with local leaders. Instead, claiming that Italians were superior to African races and thereby had the right to colonize the “inferior” Africans, it sought to settle 10 to 15 million Italians in Libya. This resulted in an aggressive military campaign known as the Pacification of Libya against natives in Libya, including mass killings, the use of concentration camps, and the forced starvation of thousands of people. Italian authorities committed ethnic cleansing by forcibly expelling 100,000 Bedouin Cyrenaicans, half the population of Cyrenaica in Libya, from their settlements, slated to be given to Italian settlers.

Fascism

Fascism is a form of radical authoritarian nationalism that came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe, characterized by one-party totalitarian regimes run by charismatic dictators, glorification of violence, and racist ideology.

Learning Objectives

Define fascism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Fascism is a far-right authoritarian political ideology that emerged in the early 20th century and rose to prominence after World War I in several nations, notably Italy, Germany, and Japan.
  • Fascists believe that liberal democracy is obsolete and regard the complete mobilization of society under a totalitarian one-party state, led by a dictator, as necessary to prepare a nation for armed conflict and respond effectively to economic difficulties.
  • Fascist regimes are often preoccupied “with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity,” culminating in nationalistic and racist ideologies and practices, such as the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.
  • The term originated in Italy and is derived from fascio, meaning a bundle of rods, and is used to symbolize strength through unity: a single rod is easily broken, while the bundle is difficult to break.
  • After the end of the World War I, fascism rose out of relative obscurity into international prominence, with fascist regimes forming most notably in Italy, Germany, and Japan, the three of which would be allied in World War II.
  • Fascist Benito Mussolini seized power in Italy in 1922 and Adolf Hitler had successfully consolidated his power in Germany by 1933.

Key Terms

  • fin-de-siècle: French for end of the century, a term which typically encompasses both the meaning of the similar English idiom turn of the century and also makes reference to the closing of one era and onset of another. The term is typically used to refer to the end of the 19th century. This was widely thought to be a period of degeneration, but at the same time one of hope for a new beginning. It often refers to the cultural hallmarks that were recognized as prominent in the 1880s and 1890s, including ennui, cynicism, pessimism, and “…a widespread belief that civilization leads to decadence.”
  • fascism: A form of radical authoritarian nationalism that came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe. It holds that liberal democracy is obsolete and that the complete mobilization of society under a totalitarian one-party state is necessary to prepare a nation for armed conflict and to respond effectively to economic difficulties.
  • Social Darwinism: A name given to various ideologies emerging in the second half of the 19th century, trying to apply biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest in human society. It was largely developed by Herbert Spencer, who compared society to a living organism and argued that just as biological organisms evolve through natural selection, society evolves and increases in complexity through analogous processes.

Fascism is a form of radical authoritarian nationalism that came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe. The first fascist movements emerged in Italy during World War I, then spread to other European countries. Opposed to liberalism, Marxism, and anarchism, fascism is usually placed on the far-right within the traditional left–right spectrum.

Fascist Ideologies

Fascists saw World War I as a revolution that brought massive changes to the nature of war, society, the state, and technology. The advent of total war and the total mass mobilization of society had broken down the distinction between civilians and combatants. A “military citizenship” arose in which all citizens were involved with the military in some manner during the war. The war resulted in the rise of a powerful state capable of mobilizing millions of people to serve on the front lines and providing economic production and logistics to support them, as well as having unprecedented authority to intervene in the lives of citizens.

Fascists believe that liberal democracy is obsolete, and they regard the complete mobilization of society under a totalitarian one-party state as necessary to prepare a nation for armed conflict and respond effectively to economic difficulties. Such a state is led by a strong leader—such as a dictator and a martial government composed of the members of the governing fascist party—to forge national unity and maintain a stable and orderly society. Fascism rejects assertions that violence is automatically negative in nature, and views political violence, war, and imperialism as means that can achieve national rejuvenation. Fascists advocate a mixed economy with the principal goal of achieving autarky (self-sufficiency) through protectionist and interventionist economic policies.

Historian Robert Paxton says that fascism is “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

Since the end of World War II in 1945, few parties have openly described themselves as fascist, and the term is instead now usually used pejoratively by political opponents. The terms neo-fascist or post-fascist are sometimes applied more formally to describe parties of the far right with ideologies similar to or rooted in 20th century fascist movements.

The term fascist comes from the Italian word fascismo, derived from fascio meaning a bundle of rods, ultimately from the Latin word fasces. This was the name given to political organizations in Italy known as fasci, groups similar to guilds or syndicates. At first, it was applied mainly to organizations on the political left. In 1919, Benito Mussolini founded the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento in Milan, which became the Partito Nazionale Fascista (National Fascist Party) two years later. The Fascists came to associate the term with the ancient Roman fasces or fascio littorio—a bundle of rods tied around an axe, an ancient Roman symbol of the authority of the civic magistrate carried by his lictors, which could be used for corporal and capital punishment at his command. The symbolism of the fasces suggested strength through unity: a single rod is easily broken, while the bundle is difficult to break.

Early History of Fascism

The historian Zeev Sternhell has traced the ideological roots of fascism back to the 1880s, and in particular to the fin-de-siècle (French for “end of the century”) theme of that time. This ideology was based on a revolt against materialism, rationalism, positivism, bourgeois society, and democracy. The fin-de-siècle generation supported emotionalism, irrationalism, subjectivism, and vitalism. The fin-de-siècle mindset saw civilization as being in a crisis that required a massive and total solution. Its intellectual school considered the individual only one part of the larger collectivity, which should not be viewed as an atomized numerical sum of individuals. They condemned the rationalistic individualism of liberal society and the dissolution of social links in bourgeois society.

Social Darwinism, which gained widespread acceptance, made no distinction between physical and social life, and viewed the human condition as being an unceasing struggle to achieve the survival of the fittest. Social Darwinism challenged positivism’s claim of deliberate and rational choice as the determining behavior of humans, focusing on heredity, race, and environment. Its emphasis on biogroup identity and the role of organic relations within societies fostered legitimacy and appeal for nationalism. New theories of social and political psychology also rejected the notion of human behavior being governed by rational choice, and instead claimed that emotion was more influential in political issues than reason.

At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, the Italian political left became severely split over its position on the war. The Italian Socialist Party (PSI) opposed the war but a number of Italian revolutionary syndicalists supported war against Germany and Austria-Hungary on the grounds that their reactionary regimes had to be defeated to ensure the success of socialism. Angelo Oliviero Olivetti formed a pro-interventionist fascio called the Fasci of International Action in October 1914. Benito Mussolini, upon expulsion from his position as chief editor of the PSI’s newspaper Avanti! for his anti-German stance, joined the interventionist cause in a separate fascio. The term “Fascism” was first used in 1915 by members of Mussolini’s movement, the Fasci of Revolutionary Action.

The first meeting of the Fasci of Revolutionary Action was held in January 1915 when Mussolini declared that it was necessary for Europe to resolve its national problems—including national borders—of Italy and elsewhere “for the ideals of justice and liberty for which oppressed peoples must acquire the right to belong to those national communities from which they descended.” Attempts to hold mass meetings were ineffective, and the organization was regularly harassed by government authorities and socialists.

Similar political ideas arose in Germany after the outbreak of the war. German sociologist Johann Plenge spoke of the rise of a “National Socialism” in Germany within what he termed the “ideas of 1914” that were a declaration of war against the “ideas of 1789” (the French Revolution). According to Plenge, the “ideas of 1789” that included rights of man, democracy, individualism and liberalism were being rejected in favor of “the ideas of 1914” that included “German values” of duty, discipline, law, and order. Plenge believed that racial solidarity (Volksgemeinschaft) would replace class division and that “racial comrades” would unite to create a socialist society in the struggle of “proletarian” Germany against “capitalist” Britain. He believed that the “Spirit of 1914” manifested itself in the concept of the “People’s League of National Socialism.”

After the end of the World War I, fascism rose out of relative obscurity into international prominence, with fascist regimes forming most notably in Italy, Germany, and Japan, the three of which would be allied in World War II. Fascist Benito Mussolini seized power in Italy in 1922 and Adolf Hitler had successfully consolidated his power in Germany by 1933.

Photo of Hitler and Mussolini in official military uniforms overlooking a crowd of people.

Hitler and Mussolini: Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were the two most prominent fascist dictators, rising to power in the decades after World War I.

Fascism in Japan

During the 1930s, Japan moved into political totalitarianism, ultranationalism, and fascism, culminating in its invasion of China in 1937.

Learning Objectives

Examine how fascism manifested itself in Japan

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Similar to European nations like Italy and Germany, nationalism and aggressive expansionism began to rise to prominence in Japan after World War I.
  • The 1919 Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I did not recognize the Empire of Japan’s territorial claims, which angered the Japanese and led to a surge in nationalism.
  • Throughout the 1920s, various nationalistic and xenophobic ideologies emerged among right-wing Japanese intellectuals, but it was not until the early 1930s that these ideas gained full traction in the ruling regime.
  • During the Manchurian Incident of 1931, radical army officers bombed a small portion of the South Manchuria Railroad and, falsely attributing the attack to the Chinese, invaded Manchuria.
  • International criticism of Japan following the invasion led to Japan withdrawing from the League of Nations, which led to political isolation and a redoubling of ultranationalist and expansionist tendencies.
  • In 1932, a group of right-wing Army and Navy officers succeeded in assassinating the Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi.
  • The plot fell short of staging a complete coup d’état, but it effectively ended rule by political parties in Japan and consolidated the power of the military elite under the dictatorship of Emperor Hirohito.

Key Terms

  • statism: The belief that the state should control either economic or social policy or both, sometimes taking the form of totalitarianism, but not necessarily. It is effectively the opposite of anarchism.
  • Shōwa period: The period of Japanese history corresponding to the reign of the Shōwa Emperor, Hirohito, from December 25, 1926, through January 7, 1989. This period was longer than the reign of any previous Japanese emperor. During the pre-1945 period, Japan moved into political totalitarianism, ultranationalism, and fascism culminating in Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. This was part of an overall global period of social upheavals and conflicts, such as the Great Depression and World War II. Defeat in World War II brought radical change to Japan.
  • Shinto: A Japanese ethnic religion that focuses on ritual practices carried out diligently to establish a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient past. Its practices were first recorded and codified in the written historical records of the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki in the 8th century. This term applies to the religion of public shrines devoted to the worship of a multitude of gods (kami), suited to various purposes such as war memorials and harvest festivals.
  • Meiji Restoration: An event that restored practical imperial rule to Japan in 1868 under Emperor Meiji, leading to enormous changes in Japan’s political and social structure and spanning both the late Edo period (often called the Late Tokugawa shogunate) and the beginning of the Meiji period. The period spanned from 1868 to 1912 and was responsible for the emergence of Japan as a modernized nation in the early 20th century, and its rapid rise to great power status in the international system.

Statism in Japan

Statism in Shōwa Japan was a right-wing political ideology developed over a period of time from the Meiji Restoration of the 1860s. It is sometimes also referred to as Shōwa nationalism or Japanese fascism.

This statist movement dominated Japanese politics during the first part of the Shōwa period (reign of Hirohito). It was a mixture of ideas such as Japanese nationalism and militarism and “state capitalism” proposed by contemporary political philosophers and thinkers.

Development of Statist Ideology

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I did not recognize the Empire of Japan’s territorial claims, and international naval treaties between Western powers and the Empire of Japan (Washington Naval Treaty and London Naval Treaty) imposed limitations on naval shipbuilding that limited the size of the Imperial Japanese Navy. These measures were considered by many in Japan as refusal by the Occidental powers to consider Japan an equal partner.

On the basis of national security, these events released a surge of Japanese nationalism and resulted in the end of collaboration diplomacy that supported peaceful economic expansion. The implementation of a military dictatorship and territorial expansionism were considered the best ways to protect Japan.

In the early 1930s, the Ministry of Home Affairs began arresting left-wing political dissidents, generally to exact a confession and renouncement of anti-state leanings. Over 30,000 such arrests were made between 1930 and 1933. In response, a large group of writers founded a Japanese branch of the International Popular Front Against Fascism and published articles in major literary journals warning of the dangers of statism.

Ikki Kita was an early 20th-century political theorist who advocated a hybrid of state socialism with “Asian nationalism,” which blended the early ultranationalist movement with Japanese militarism. Kita proposed a military coup d’état to replace the existing political structure of Japan with a military dictatorship. The new military leadership would rescind the Meiji Constitution, ban political parties, replace the Diet of Japan with an assembly free of corruption, and nationalize major industries. Kita also envisioned strict limits to private ownership of property and land reform to improve the lot of tenant farmers. Thus strengthened internally, Japan could then embark on a crusade to free all of Asia from Western imperialism.

Although his works were banned by the government almost immediately after publication, circulation was widespread, and his thesis proved popular not only with the younger officer class excited at the prospects of military rule and Japanese expansionism, but with the populist movement for its appeal to the agrarian classes and to the left wing of the socialist movement.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the supporters of Japanese statism used the slogan Showa Restoration, which implied that a new resolution was needed to replace the existing political order dominated by corrupt politicians and capitalists, with one which (in their eyes), would fulfill the original goals of the Meiji Restoration of direct Imperial rule via military proxies.

Early Shōwa statism is sometimes given the retrospective label “fascism,” but this was not a self-appellation and it is not entirely clear that the comparison is accurate. When authoritarian tools of the state such as the Kempeitai were put into use in the early Shōwa period, they were employed to protect the rule of law under the Meiji Constitution from perceived enemies on both the left and the right.

Nationalist Politics During the Shōwa Period

Emperor Hirohito’s 63-year reign from 1926 to 1989 is the longest in recorded Japanese history. The first 20 years were characterized by the rise of extreme nationalism and a series of expansionist wars. After suffering defeat in World War II, Japan was occupied by foreign powers for the first time in its history, then re-emerged as a major world economic power.

Left-wing groups had been subject to violent suppression by the end of the Taishō period, and radical right-wing groups, inspired by fascism and Japanese nationalism, rapidly grew in popularity. The extreme right became influential throughout the Japanese government and society, notably within the Kwantung Army, a Japanese army stationed in China along the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railroad. During the Manchurian Incident of 1931, radical army officers bombed a small portion of the South Manchuria Railroad and, falsely attributing the attack to the Chinese, invaded Manchuria. The Kwantung Army conquered Manchuria and set up the puppet government of Manchukuo there without permission from the Japanese government. International criticism of Japan following the invasion led to Japan withdrawing from the League of Nations.

The withdrawal from the League of Nations meant that Japan was politically isolated. Japan had no strong allies and its actions had been internationally condemned, while internally popular nationalism was booming. Local leaders such as mayors, teachers, and Shinto priests were recruited by the various movements to indoctrinate the populace with ultra-nationalist ideals. They had little time for the pragmatic ideas of the business elite and party politicians. Their loyalty lay to the Emperor and the military. In March 1932 the “League of Blood” assassination plot and the chaos surrounding the trial of its conspirators further eroded the rule of democratic law in Shōwa Japan. In May of the same year, a group of right-wing Army and Navy officers succeeded in assassinating the Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi. The plot fell short of staging a complete coup d’état, but effectively ended rule by political parties in Japan.

Japan’s expansionist vision grew increasingly bold. Many of Japan’s political elite aspired to have Japan acquire new territory for resource extraction and settlement of surplus population. These ambitions led to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. After their victory in the Chinese capital, the Japanese military committed the infamous Nanking Massacre. The Japanese military failed to defeat the Chinese government led by Chiang Kai-shek and the war descended into a bloody stalemate that lasted until 1945. Japan’s stated war aim was to establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, a vast pan-Asian union under Japanese domination. Hirohito’s role in Japan’s foreign wars remains a subject of controversy, with various historians portraying him as either a powerless figurehead or an enabler and supporter of Japanese militarism.

The United States opposed Japan’s invasion of China and responded with increasingly stringent economic sanctions intended to deprive Japan of the resources to continue its war in China. Japan reacted by forging an alliance with Germany and Italy in 1940, known as the Tripartite Pact, which worsened its relations with the U.S. In July 1941, the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands froze all Japanese assets when Japan completed its invasion of French Indochina by occupying the southern half of the country, further increasing tension in the Pacific.

Emperor Shōwa riding his stallion Shirayuki alongside other military officers riding horses during an Army inspection, August 1938.

Statism in Japan: Emperor Shōwa riding his stallion Shirayuki during an Army inspection, August 1938. By the 1930’s, Japan had essentially become a military dictatorship with increasingly bold expansionist aims.

Franco’s Spain

Several historians believe that during the Spanish Civil War, General Francisco Franco’s goal was to turn Spain into a totalitarian state like Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which he largely succeeded in doing.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the rise of the Franco regime in Spain

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • As in Germany and Italy, fascism gained prominence in Spain during the interwar period, especially from the 1930s through World War II.
  • Francisco Franco, a Spanish general, rose to prominence in the mid-1930s, but his right-wing party failed to gained power in the 1936 elections.
  • Franco and other military leaders staged a failed coup that led to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936-1939.
  • Franco emerged victorious and established a one-party military dictatorship, naming himself the leader under the name El Caudillo, a term similar to Il Duce (Italian) for Benito Mussolini and Der Führer (German) for Adolf Hitler.
  • Franco’s regime committed a series of violent human rights abuses against the Spanish people, causing an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 deaths.
  • The consistent points in Franco’s ideology (termed Francoism) included authoritarianism, nationalism, national Catholicism, militarism, conservatism, anti-communism, and anti-liberalism.

Key Terms

  • Falangism: A Fascist movement founded in Spain in 1933 and the one legal party in Spain under the regime of Franco.
  • Spanish Civil War: A war from 1936 to 1939 between the Republicans, who were loyal to the democratic, left-leaning and relatively urban Second Spanish Republic in an alliance of convenience with the Anarchists, and the Nationalists, a falangist, Carlist, and a largely aristocratic conservative group led by General Francisco Franco.
  • personality cult: When an individual uses mass media, propaganda, or other methods to create an idealized, heroic, and at times worshipful image, often through unquestioned flattery and praise.
  • Francisco Franco: A Spanish general who ruled over Spain as a dictator for 36 years from 1939 until his death. He took control of Spain from the government of the Second Spanish Republic after winning the Civil War, and was in power 1978, when the Spanish Constitution of 1978 went into effect.

Francisco Franco: El Caudillo

Francisco Franco (December 4, 1892 – November 20, 1975) was a Spanish general who ruled over Spain as a dictator for 36 years from 1939 until his death.

As a conservative and a monarchist, he opposed the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic in 1931. With the 1936 elections, the conservative Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-wing Groups lost by a narrow margin and the leftist Popular Front came to power. Intending to overthrow the republic, Franco followed other generals in attempting a failed coup that precipitated the Spanish Civil War. With the death of the other generals, Franco quickly became his faction’s only leader. In 1947, he declared Spain a monarchy with himself as regent.

Franco gained military support from various regimes and groups, especially Nazi Germany and the Kingdom of Italy, while the Republican side was supported by Spanish communists and anarchists as well as the Soviet Union, Mexico, and the International Brigades. Leaving half a million dead, the war was eventually won by Franco in 1939. He established a military dictatorship, which he defined as a totalitarian state. Franco proclaimed himself Head of State and Government under the title El Caudillo, a term similar to Il Duce (Italian) for Benito Mussolini and Der Führer (German) for Adolf Hitler. Under Franco, Spain became a one-party state, as the various conservative and royalist factions were merged into the fascist party and other political parties were outlawed.

Franco’s regime committed a series of violent human rights abuses against the Spanish people, which included the establishment of concentration camps and the use of forced labor and executions, mostly against political and ideological enemies, causing an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 deaths in more than 190 concentration camps. Spain’s entry into the war on the Axis side was prevented largely by, as was much later revealed, British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) efforts that included up to $200 million in bribes for Spanish officials to keep the regime from getting involved. Franco was also able to take advantage of the resources of the Axis Powers and chose to avoid becoming heavily involved in the Second World War.

A close-up photographic portrait of Francisco Franco in a military uniform.

Francisco Franco: A photo of Francisco Franco in 1964. Franco strove to establish a fascist dictatorship similar to that of Germany and Italy, but in the end did not join the Axis in WWII.

Ideology of Francoist Spain

The consistent points in Francoism included authoritarianism, nationalism, national Catholicism, militarism, conservatism, anti-communism, and anti-liberalism. The Spanish State was authoritarian: non-government trade unions and all political opponents across the political spectrum were either suppressed or controlled by all means, including police repression. Most country towns and rural areas were patrolled by pairs of Guardia Civil, a military police for civilians, which functioned as a chief means of social control. Larger cities and capitals were mostly under the heavily armed Policía Armada, commonly called grises due to their grey uniforms. Franco was also the focus of a personality cult which taught that he had been sent by Divine Providence to save the country from chaos and poverty.

Franco’s Spanish nationalism promoted a unitary national identity by repressing Spain’s cultural diversity. Bullfighting and flamenco were promoted as national traditions, while those traditions not considered Spanish were suppressed. Franco’s view of Spanish tradition was somewhat artificial and arbitrary: while some regional traditions were suppressed, Flamenco, an Andalusian tradition, was considered part of a larger, national identity. All cultural activities were subject to censorship, and many were forbidden entirely, often in an erratic manner.

Francoism professed a strong devotion to militarism, hypermasculinity, and the traditional role of women in society. A woman was to be loving to her parents and brothers and faithful to her husband, and reside with her family. Official propaganda confined women’s roles to family care and motherhood. Most progressive laws passed by the Second Republic were declared void. Women could not become judges, testify in trial, or become university professors.

The Civil War had ravaged the Spanish economy. Infrastructure had been damaged, workers killed, and daily business severely hampered. For more than a decade after Franco’s victory, the economy improved little. Franco initially pursued a policy of autarky, cutting off almost all international trade. The policy had devastating effects, and the economy stagnated. Only black marketeers could enjoy an evident affluence. Up to 200,000 people died of starvation during the early years of Francoism, a period known as Los Años de Hambre (the Years of Hunger).

Falangism: Spanish Fascism

Falangism was the political ideology of the Falange Española de las JONS and, afterwards, of the Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista (both known simply as the “Falange”), as well as derivatives of it in other countries. Falangism is widely considered a fascist ideology. Under the leadership of Francisco Franco, many of the radical elements of Falangism considered fascist were diluted, and it largely became an authoritarian, conservative ideology connected with Francoist Spain. Opponents of Franco’s changes to the party include former Falange leader Manuel Hedilla. Falangism places a strong emphasis on Catholic religious identity, though it held some secular views on the Church’s direct influence in society as it believed that the state should have the supreme authority over the nation. Falangism emphasized the need for authority, hierarchy, and order in society. Falangism is anti-communist, anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, and anti-liberal, although under Franco, the Falange abandoned its original anti-capitalist tendencies, declaring the ideology to be fully compatible with capitalism.

The Falange’s original manifesto, the “Twenty-Seven Points,” declared Falangism to support the unity of Spain and the elimination of regional separatism; established a dictatorship led by the Falange; used violence to regenerate Spain; promoted the revival and development of the Spanish Empire; and championed a social revolution to create a national syndicalist economy to mutually organize and control economic activity, agrarian reform, industrial expansion, and respect for private property with the exception of nationalizing credit facilities to prevent capitalist usury. It supports criminalization of strikes by employees and lockouts by employers as illegal acts. Falangism supports the state to have jurisdiction of setting wages. The Franco-era Falange supported the development of cooperatives such as the Mondragon Corporation, because it bolstered the Francoist claim of the nonexistence of social classes in Spain during his rule.

The Decline of European Democracy

The conditions of economic hardship caused by the Great Depression brought about significant social unrest around the world, leading to a major surge of fascism and in many cases, the collapse of democratic governments.

Learning Objectives

Formulate an explanation for the decreasing number of democratic governments in Europe during this period

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Mussolini’s seizure of power in Italy with the March on Rome brought fascism international attention.
  • One early admirer of the Italian Fascists was Adolf Hitler. Less than a month after the March, he began to model himself and the Nazi Party upon Mussolini and the Fascists.
  • The Nazis, led by Hitler and the German war hero Erich Ludendorff, attempted a “March on Berlin” modeled upon the March on Rome, which resulted in the failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in November 1923.
  • Other early admirers of Italian Fascism were Gyula Gömbös, leader of the Hungarian National Defense Association, and Milan Pribićević of Yugoslavia, who led the Organization of Yugoslav Nationalists (ORJUNA).
  • The Great Depression, which caused significant social unrest throughout the world, led to the major surge of fascism.
  • Economic depression was one of the major causes of the rise of Nazism in Germany.
  • Fascism was also popular during the Depression era outside of Europe, in Japan, Brazil, and Argentina among other nations.
  • Historian and philosopher Ernst Nolte argues that fascism arose as a form of resistance to and a reaction against modernity.

Key Terms

  • Beer Hall Putsch: A failed coup attempt by the Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler to seize power in Munich, Bavaria, during November 8-9, 1923. About two thousand men marched to the center of Munich where they confronted the police, resulting in the death of 16 Nazis and four policemen.
  • Iron Guard: The name most commonly given to a far-right movement and political party in Romania in the period from 1927 into the early part of World War II. It was ultra-nationalist, antisemitic, anti-communist, anti-capitalist, and promoted the Orthodox Christian faith. Its members were called “Greenshirts” because of the predominantly green uniforms they wore.
  • modernity: A term used in the humanities and social sciences to designate both a historical period as well as the ensemble of particular socio-cultural norms, attitudes, and practices that arose in post-medieval Europe and have developed since, in various ways and at various times, around the world. As a historical category, it refers to a period marked by a questioning or rejection of tradition; the prioritization of individualism, freedom, and formal equality; faith in inevitable social, scientific, and technological progress and human perfectibility; rationalization and professionalization; a movement from feudalism (or agrarianism) toward capitalism and the market economy; industrialization, urbanization, and secularization; and the development of the nation-state and its constituent institutions (e.g. representative democracy, public education, modern bureaucracy).

Initial Surge of Fascism

The March on Rome, through which Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy, brought Fascism international attention. One early admirer of the Italian Fascists was Adolf Hitler, who, less than a month after the March, had begun to model himself and the Nazi Party upon Mussolini and the Fascists. The Nazis, led by Hitler and the German war hero Erich Ludendorff, attempted a “March on Berlin” modeled upon the March on Rome, which resulted in the failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in November 1923. The Nazis briefly captured Bavarian Minister President Gustav Ritter von Kahr and announced the creation of a new German government to be led by a triumvirate of von Kahr, Hitler, and Ludendorff. The Beer Hall Putsch was crushed by Bavarian police, and Hitler and other leading Nazis were arrested and detained until 1925.

Another early admirer of Italian Fascism was Gyula Gömbös, leader of the Hungarian National Defence Association (known by its acronym MOVE) and a self-defined “national socialist” who in 1919 spoke of the need for major changes in property and in 1923 stated the need of a “march on Budapest.” Yugoslavia briefly had a significant fascist movement, the Organization of Yugoslav Nationalists (ORJUNA), that supported Yugoslavism, supported the creation of a corporatist economy, opposed democracy, and took part in violent attacks on communists, though it was opposed to the Italian government due to Yugoslav border disputes with Italy. ORJUNA was dissolved in 1929 when the King of Yugoslavia banned political parties and created a royal dictatorship, though ORJUNA supported the King’s decision.

Amid a political crisis in Spain involving increased strike activity and rising support for anarchism, Spanish army commander Miguel Primo de Rivera engaged in a successful coup against the Spanish government in 1923 and installed himself as a dictator as head of a conservative military junta that dismantled the established party system of government. Upon achieving power, Primo de Rivera sought to resolve the economic crisis by presenting himself as a compromise arbitrator figure between workers and bosses, and his regime created a corporatist economic system based on the Italian Fascist model. In Lithuania in 1926, Antanas Smetona rose to power and founded a fascist regime under his Lithuanian Nationalist Union.

Nazis in Munich during the Beer Hall Putsch. It depicts a crowd of people outside surrounded by tall buildings. Several Nazis in uniforms are up on a platform.

Beer Hall Putsch: Nazis in Munich during the Beer Hall Putsch, a failed coup attempt by the Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler to seize power in Munich, Bavaria, during November 8-9, 1923. About two thousand men marched to the center of Munich where they confronted the police, resulting in the death of 16 Nazis and four policemen.

The Great Depression and the Spread of Fascism

The events of the Great Depression resulted in an international surge of fascism and the creation of several fascist regimes and regimes that adopted fascist policies. According to historian Philip Morgan, “the onset of the Great Depression…was the greatest stimulus yet to the diffusion and expansion of fascism outside Italy.” Fascist propaganda blamed the problems of the long depression of the 1930s on minorities and scapegoats: “Judeo-Masonic-bolshevik” conspiracies, left-wing internationalism, and the presence of immigrants.

In Germany, it contributed to the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, which resulted in the demise of the Weimar Republic and the establishment of the fascist regime, Nazi Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. With the rise of Hitler and the Nazis to power in 1933, liberal democracy was dissolved in Germany, and the Nazis mobilized the country for war, with expansionist territorial aims against several countries. In the 1930s the Nazis implemented racial laws that deliberately discriminated against, disenfranchised, and persecuted Jews and other racial and minority groups.

Fascist movements grew stronger elsewhere in Europe. Hungarian fascist Gyula Gömbös rose to power as Prime Minister of Hungary in 1932 and attempted to entrench his Party of National Unity throughout the country; he created an eight-hour work day and a 48-hour work week in industry, sought to entrench a corporatist economy, and pursued irredentist claims on Hungary’s neighbors.

The fascist Iron Guard movement in Romania soared in political support after 1933, gaining representation in the Romanian government, and an Iron Guard member assassinated Romanian prime minister Ion Duca. During the February 6, 1934 crisis, France faced the greatest domestic political turmoil since the Dreyfus Affair when the fascist Francist Movement and multiple far-right movements rioted en masse in Paris against the French government resulting in major political violence. A variety of para-fascist governments that borrowed elements from fascism were formed during the Great Depression, including those of Greece, Lithuania, Poland, and Yugoslavia.

Fascism Beyond Europe

Fascism also expanded its influence outside Europe, especially in East Asia, the Middle East, and South America. In China, Wang Jingwei’s Kai-tsu p’ai (Reorganization) faction of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party of China) supported Nazism in the late 1930s. In Japan, a Nazi movement called the Tōhōkai was formed by Seigō Nakano. The Al-Muthanna Club of Iraq was a pan-Arab movement that supported Nazism and exercised its influence in the Iraqi government through cabinet minister Saib Shawkat, who formed a paramilitary youth movement.

Several, mostly short-lived fascist governments and prominent fascist movements were formed in South America during this period. Argentine President General José Félix Uriburu proposed that Argentina be reorganized along corporatist and fascist lines. Peruvian president Luis Miguel Sánchez Cerro founded the Revolutionary Union in 1931 as the state party for his dictatorship. It was later taken over by Raúl Ferrero Rebagliati who sought to mobilize mass support for the group’s nationalism in a manner akin to fascism. He even started a paramilitary Blackshirts arm as a copy of the Italian group, although the Union lost heavily in the 1936 elections and faded into obscurity. In Paraguay in 1940, Paraguayan President General Higinio Morínigo began his rule as a dictator with the support of pro-fascist military officers, appealed to the masses, exiled opposition leaders, and only abandoned his pro-fascist policies after the end of World War II. The Brazilian Integralists, led by Plínio Salgado, claimed as many as 200,000 members, although following coup attempts it faced a crackdown from the Estado Novo of Getúlio Vargas in 1937. In the 1930s, the National Socialist Movement of Chile gained seats in Chile’s parliament and attempted a coup d’état that resulted in the Seguro Obrero massacre of 1938.

Fascism in its Epoch

Fascism in its Epoch is a 1963 book by historian and philosopher Ernst Nolte, widely regarded as his magnum opus and a seminal work on the history of fascism. The book, translated into English in 1965 as The Three Faces of Fascism, argues that fascism arose as a form of resistance to and a reaction against modernity. Nolte subjected German Nazism, Italian Fascism, and the French Action Française movements to a comparative analysis. Nolte’s conclusion was that fascism was the great anti-movement: it was anti-liberal, anti-communist, anti-capitalist, and anti-bourgeois. In Nolte’s view, fascism was the rejection of everything the modern world had to offer and was an essentially negative phenomenon. Nolte argued that fascism functioned at three levels: in the world of politics as a form of opposition to Marxism, at the sociological level in opposition to bourgeois values, and in the “metapolitical” world as “resistance to transcendence” (“transcendence” in German can be translated as the “spirit of modernity”). In regard to the Holocaust, Nolte contended that because Adolf Hitler identified Jews with modernity, the basic thrust of Nazi policies towards Jews had always aimed at genocide: “Auschwitz was contained in the principles of Nazi racist theory like the seed in the fruit.” Nolte believed that for Hitler, Jews represented “the historical process itself.”