Imagine living in an authoritarian ultra-nationalist country characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society, which promptly promotes gun violence and total control. Choking. But that’s exactly how Italy was, under Fascism.
What is fascism?
Fascism came to prominence in early 20th-century Italy. Opposed to liberalism, Marxism, and anarchism, fascism is placed on the far-right within the traditional left–right spectrum. It is a method of politics. It’s a rhetorical way of running for power – the fascist ideology centers on power and is a technique to gain power.
As an economic system, fascism is socialism with a capitalist veneer. Fascism was the happy medium between boom-and-bust-prone liberal capitalism, with its alleged class conflict, wasteful competition, profit-oriented egoism, with its violent and socially divisive persecution of the bourgeoisie.
The beliefs of fascism
Fascism believes in the superiority of the nation – a collection of people bound together by race, ethnicity, or culture. Germans and Italians are examples of people forming nations. The way to achieve national superiority is through the state. The ultimate goal of the major fascist regimes that have existed, like the regimes of the Italian Fascist Party and the German Nazi Party, was to pursue national greatness.
The type of state needed to fulfill this goal is anti-democratic and totalitarian. Such a state is anti-democratic because it eliminates democratic institutions, like the electoral, parliamentary, and multiparty systems, that frustrate this goal of national greatness.
- Democratic elections are problematic because the masses elect candidates who appeal to the masses’ self-interest. This does not guarantee that the candidates have the nation’s interests in mind. This weakens the state and, ultimately, the nation.
- Parliament is problematic because the parties in it spend more time arguing than implementing policies. Indeed, Hitler referred to Parliament as a “twaddling shop”.
- Other parties are problematic because, by competing with fascist parties to gain power, they prevent fascist parties from pursuing the ultranationalist goal.
Fascism, thus, is the ideology of nationalism upheld by an anti-democratic and totalitarian state.
It generally flourishes in countries with strong nationalism that attracts people to fascism’s ultranationalist goals and weak democracies that are incompetent and unresponsive. Consequently, citizens become disenchanted with it and were willing to abandon it for another regime type – fascism.
The rise of Fascism
From his birth in 1883, Benito Mussolini was a revolutionary. He founded his own newspaper and made it into the voice of all the elements—the veterans, the unemployed, the renegade socialists, the nationalists, and so forth—who were discontented and disillusioned with democracy. The goal was to make the citizens feel like victims, to make them feel like they’ve lost something and that the thing they’ve lost has been taken from them by a specific enemy – all the conditions that prevailed to the political and social situations in post- World War I Germany and Italy. Nationalism, in the form of national resentment, was potent. Italians and Germans believed that their national pride had been humiliated. While Italians felt this way because they believed their country had not been awarded the amount of territory it should have been awarded after War ended, the German government had accepted the Treaty of Versailles that required Germany to accept the blame for starting the War and imposed harsh reparations, on Germany. The Fascists and Nazis were appealing because they promised to restore the national greatness that citizens felt was lacking.
Around Mussolini’s banner there rapidly grew up an army of followers—from gangsters to sincere patriots. Some of them were organized into strong-arm squads, armed and uniformed as “Blackshirt Militia.”
The Fascists put up candidates in the parliamentary elections of 1921. Altogether they received only about 5 percent of the total popular vote, but they succeeded in planting the impression that they had the solution to all of Italy’s postwar ills. The existing government had none, and so the March on Rome—a Colossal bluff—turned out a colossal success.
As seeds of World War II began to germinate in the 1930s, Mussolini believed that Britain and France were doomed by low birth rates and the relatively high age of their populations, and he determined that Italy should ally itself with rapidly growing Germany. When the Germans under Hitler easily invaded Poland in 1939, Mussolini concluded that Germany would quickly prevail and entered the war on its side. Hitler planned to return the German nation to its position as the culture-founder of this earth. Thus, the Fascist and Nazi party together established totalitarian rule.
The fall of fascism
When the king had called on Mussolini to form a government in October 1922, very few people in the world had any idea of what was meant by a totalitarian form of government. Mussolini himself probably did not know what he was going to do—except stay in power. They thought Italy could later return to freedom, and in the meantime, fascism could take care of the crisis. Fascism taught the world and Hitler many of the tricks of totalitarian misrule. The final collapse of fascism, though set off when Mussolini’s frightened lieutenants threw him overboard, was brought about by allied military victories plus the open rebellion of the people.
The present state
Given that fascism was so clearly a response to the conditions of the 20s and 30s, it’s surprising that it has any purchase today. But bona fide fascism still exists in two forms. First, what you might call cultists – a religious sect generally extremist or false, with its followers living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader. They can be traced among the people who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017, a march that ended in the death of a counter-protestor. The second kind of fascist is the neo-fascist -a type of one-party dictatorship that puts a nation and often race above the individual. It stands for a centralized government headed by a dictator.
Lessons from the past
Italian and German experiments with fascism offer urgent lessons for our own day.
First, the strongest protection against the one-man rule is deep and widespread respect for democracy. Mussolini undermined free speech and freedom of the press. He weakened the legislative and judicial branches of government and tried to control what people saw, heard, and read.
A second lesson from fascism is to prevent the manufacture of emergencies. By creating a widespread sense that times were desperate, Mussolini, like Hitler, was able to suppress democratic institutions and tyrannize the population.
Another lesson is the danger of racism. In arguing that whites are superior to Africans and Asians, Mussolini laid the groundwork for exploitation, oppression, and even extermination.
Ironically, it is quite possible that had Italy’s military and the economy prospered during the 1940s, Mussolini would not have fallen.
People all over the world need to remember that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Fascism and the hatred it breeds can undermine goodness and inflame evil. Democratic convictions that required centuries to build up can be demolished within months. This cautionary tale of Mussolini’s rise to power serves as an enduring reminder of the fragility of freedom.