Why is fascism an ideology in its own right?
The term fascism describes a number of political movements and systems that emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and have characteristic similarities: a pronounced orientation towards a leader, nationalist, anti-communist, anti-democratic and anti-pluralist attitudes as well as a violent will to power and glorify the Military. The fascist movements see themselves as ideologies that are concerned with shaping the way people think and act in an ideological way. The people are understood as a willless “mass” that can be shaped at will. Anti-Semitic and racist ideas can be found in all fascist movements, most pronounced in Germany. The word fascism is derived from the Italian “fascio” or Latin “fascis” (Eng. “Bund”). "Fasces" were originally the bundles of rods that the Roman lictors wore in antiquity as a symbol of their authority.
History of the Fascist Movements
The origin in Italy
In 1919 around 200 radical nationalists and social revolutionaries under the leadership of Benito Mussolini founded the “fasci Italiani di combattimento” (Italian combat leagues). Such “fasci” had already existed in Italy before, predominantly with a left, social-revolutionary thrust. As early as 1890, a farm workers' movement in Sicily called itself “fasci revoluzionari”. Mussolini, too, was initially active in the radical left, but developed strong nationalist ambitions as early as World War I without giving up his revolutionary approach. The disappointment of many Italians about the outcome of the world war and the unfulfilled territorial wishes, especially in Dalmatia and the Yugoslav city of Fiume, gave the fascists a boost. In September 1919, the writer and World War II fighter Gabriele D`Annunzio conquered Fiume with a private army of dismissed soldiers and dissidents. For 15 months, D`Annunzio led a private dictatorship and created the first model of a fascist state. He let himself be celebrated by the masses from the balcony of his seat - with the fascist greeting of the raised right hand. The later fascist uniform of the “black shirt” was also used here.
This success gave the “fasci” a tremendous boost in the determined use of force: by 1921 they had around 250,000 members. To an even greater extent than later the SA, they - formed as a so-called "squadri" - determined the political climate in the early 1920s. From January to May 1921 alone, more than 200 people were killed in attacks by the fascists. Mussolini's attempt to achieve parliamentary majorities, however, failed. In the first election in 1919 he did not even get into parliament. In the May elections in 1921, Mussolini only got 35 of 535 seats in parliament. When he threatened a “march on Rome”, ie a coup, in October 1922, King Viktor Emanuele appointed Mussolini Prime Minister in a minority cabinet. The march on Rome, which he then staged, is only used for propaganda. In truth, Mussolini was brought to power by right-wing conservative forces who lacked both the courage and the will to resist. Italian fascism, which will rule the country until Mussolini's assassination in 1945, can only gradually expand its power base. First there is a parliament, an opposition and critical newspapers. In the party, too, the “Duce” (Führer) Mussolini is not as unreservedly recognized as Hitler was later. It was not until 1925 that he succeeded in banning the socialist party and anti-fascist organizations. However, the formal head of the king remains until the end. The “fascist Grand Council” with which Mussolini rules is also less compliant than, for example, the entourage that Hitler gathers around him. Italian fascism created the model for later fascist movements with its distinctive leadership cult - the “mussolinismo”. Military mass marches and large rallies determined the image of the dictatorship. The "Duce" presented himself as a real people's leader: pictures show him as a harvest worker, family man, sporty swimmer and skier, even as a racing driver and airplane pilot. In between there were presentations with uniform and martial appearance. The "Ministry of Popular Culture" - the Italian Ministry of Propaganda, was primarily concerned with demonstrating the ubiquity of the "Duce". The orientation point for Italian fascism remained the prestige and model of the ancient Roman empire.
National Socialism and Italian Fascism
Even in the time before the seizure of power, National Socialism appeared in its external appearance like a copy of Italian fascism. The paramilitary groups of the SA with their brown shirt uniforms and the violent street battles they provoked look like an imitation of the fascist black shirts. Hitler's violent rhetoric, which is both nationalistic and social revolutionary, is also reminiscent of Mussolini's view. Last but not least, Hitler's attempted coup of November 9, 1923 with his staged “March on the Feldherrnhalle” appears like a copy of Mussolini's March on Rome. However, Hitler would not come to power until 10 years later than Mussolini. But here, too, there is a parallel: Like Mussolini, Hitler too was lifted to power primarily by the old elites, and like them he transfigured this as a seizure of power. However, there are also clear differences: anti-Semitism, which was not particularly pronounced in Italy, became an essential ideological element under National Socialism. The racial idea and the blood and soil mythology only became a key element of politics under National Socialism up to the war of extermination and annihilation in Eastern Europe against the inferior Slavic races. While the Italian “Duce” initially saw the German “Führer” at best as a junior partner, he later came under increasing influence from the German Empire. After 1943, when Mussolini was first deposed and then liberated by German troops and reinstalled, he was only a puppet of Hitler. Italy is only an ally for propaganda purposes, in fact an occupied country for a long time.
Fascism in other countries
In October 1936 General Franco succeeded in becoming dictator after several months of civil war between republican Spain and the extreme right. Not least, he owed this to the German military aid (Condor Legion). In terms of form and practice, the Franco dictatorship was very similar to Italian conditions. The Catholic Church, both supporter and corrective, retained its influence even more than in Italy. In contrast, Spanish fascism showed no ambitions in European foreign and war policy. Despite numerous diplomatic contacts and efforts, neither Hitler nor Mussolini succeeded in persuading Spain to enter the war. This enabled the fascist system to continue after 1945.
In Austria there were already a large number of nationalist and proto-fascist groups towards the end of the First World War - albeit with a predominantly diffuse program and a partial pro-Catholic attitude. The most important of these groups was the "Heimwehr", which was also supported by Mussolini, while the Austrian section of the NSDAP had less influence. However, at the beginning of the 1930s it achieved double-digit electoral successes at state parliament level. Programmatically, they represented a connection to Germany. However, there were also many supporters of Othmar Spann in their ranks, who wanted to establish a backward-looking corporate state. This was rejected by the German Nazis and especially by Hitler himself. The Austrian National Socialists also attempted a coup against the right-wing extremist dictatorship Dollfuss, which, however, spoke out against an annexation of Austria to Germany. Dollfuss was murdered, but the coup failed. Leading Austrian Nazis, if they did not die, fled to the German Reich. His successor was his previous deputy Kurt von Schuschnigg. Domestically, the period between 1933/34 until the invasion of German troops and the annexation of Austria to Germany in 1938 is characterized by a dictatorial style of leadership that increasingly approached fascist methods: Opposition groups and parties as well as trade unions were ruthlessly suppressed. Many of their representatives were arrested. Some historians speak of an “Austro-Fascist dictatorship” for this period.
A number of right-wing extremist parties and organizations already existed in Hungary after the First World War. In some cases, there were paramilitary groups based on the example of the German SA and SS. The most important and clearly fascist formation was the Arrow Cross movement (Hungarists) under its leader and Hungarian general staff officer Férenc Szálasi. It was under him that the "Hungarian National Socialist Party" was founded, which in many ways was based on German National Socialism. However, Szálasi continued to profess Catholicism and saw his Hungarism as a religious movement. He believed in a "Carpathian-Danubian Great Fatherland", which was nationally determined by its own race. National Socialism in Germany had to accept this sphere. Szálasi supporters also knew about biological racism and organized racial skull measurements. The Jews should have to leave the country after the seizure of power. The takeover of power did not succeed, despite great popularity and great influence in politics. Szálasi failed because of an existing authoritarian regime that was not National Socialist, but formed itself as a right-wing military dictatorship. It was only towards the end of the war, on October 16, 1944, that Szálasi was finally able to become head of government after the Germans had forced the Horthy government to resign by means of a coup.
Romania had emerged from World War I with territorial gains, but it was economically backward. A stable political situation could not develop. After the Hungarian Arrow Crossers, the fascist "Archangel Michael Legion" ("Iron Guard") under its leader Codreanu was the second largest fascist movement outside Italy and Germany in the 1930s. Like the SA or the Italian "Squadri", it also contributed to the destabilization of the Romanian state through terror. The "Iron Guard" has all the elements typical of fascist movements: It sees itself as an ideological movement, therefore as a religious fighting community, it has a pronounced cult of leadership and a glorification of the military and the struggle. Cultic rituals of a pseudo-religious community are perhaps even more pronounced among the Romanian fascists than in other regions. There was an admissions ceremony where the newcomers had to suck blood from cuts on the arms of other members. And there was an oath obliging members to kill on command. The Romanian "Iron Guard" was the only fascist movement that represented a similarly radical anti-Semitism as the German National Socialism. However, in her striving for power she met the Romanian King Carol, who in turn had authoritarian claims. In his own coup d'état, he banned all parties and installed a cabinet at his grace. Codreanu is murdered. In September 1940, the chief of staff, Ion Antonescu, took power and ruled the country dictatorially. Romania becomes an ally of Germany and is of strategic importance mainly because of its oil reserves. The "Iron Guard" is smashed and its new leaders sentenced to death. However, at the price of a quasi-fascist dictatorship.
As in other European countries, there were a number of nationalist and partly anti-Semitic groups in France. The most important of these groups, which gained a certain importance in the 1920s, was the "Action francaise" under its leader Charles Maurras. From this movement, the movement "Le Faisceau" split off under Georges Valois, which openly propagated a national socialism and emulated the Italian model. Similar smaller groups also emerged, some of which - with moderate success - stood for election. All groups were more or less anti-Semitic. There were no attempts to take power, and the French fascists could not shake the political system. With the occupation of France by National Socialist Germany, the fascist movement automatically found itself in an internal contradiction: the more or less pronounced role model effect of the fascist regimes Italy and Germany did not get along well with the propagated French nationalism.
In 1932, Oswald Mosley - a former leader of the Labor Party - founded the British Union of Fascists (BUF). This organization also tried to install a leader cult and staged public marches. With thugs she tried, like the fascists everywhere in Europe, to destabilize the political system, but she did not succeed. Programmatically, she emphasized superhumanity and the importance of Great Britain in the world. However, their focus was on restructuring the country from an economic point of view. Initially hardly anti-Semitic, an increasingly harsh anti-Jewish course developed, but never reached the dimension of German National Socialism. With the beginning of World War II, Mosley not only lost more followers, his movement was disbanded and he himself was imprisoned.
There were strong fascist movements in the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. In Sweden since 1930 the SNP (Swedish National Socialist Party), later NSAP (National Socialist Workers 'Party), in Denmark the DNSAP (Danish National Socialist Workers' Party) and in Norway the “Nasjonal Samling” (National Collection). All oriented themselves more towards German National Socialism than Italian fascism. As a self-appointed representative of the Nordic master race, she was able to find larger programmatic points of contact here. In all three states they ran in elections without even achieving double-digit results. They remained meaningless in the political systems. Only with the occupation of Denmark and Norway by the German Wehrmacht did the fascists gain political influence. The Nazi regime was able to recruit compliant cooperation partners from these movements. Notorious in this context is the example of the Norwegian Nazi leader Quisling, who led a puppet government by Hitler's grace.
For a fascist movement to gain strength, certain conditions must be met: strong domestic political problems such as tensions from economic problems or conflicts between ethnic groups. Or the feeling of being depraved after the war. This explains why fascism hardly had a chance in England or Sweden, for example. Second: No fascist movement - in line with its own ideal - has managed to come to power through an act of violence, that is, through a real seizure of power. Wherever fascists tried such a coup, like in Germany or Austria - they failed. Where they came to power, it was with the help of old elites and right-wing governments.
Immediately after the emergence of the first fascist movements, philosophy and political theory were challenged to interpret the new phenomenon. In an overview, the following theories about fascism can be distinguished, which in turn differ from one another into different sub-concepts.
Fascism as capitalism
According to this theory, fascism is not an independent movement, but a special form of capitalism. From the perspective of some Marxist thinkers, at the beginning of the twentieth century class antagonisms were so strong that a revolution of the proletariat became probable. To prevent this, the bearers of finance or monopoly capital installed fascism. At the same time, fascism had the function of covering up real class antagonisms with its talk of "national community". Large arms production, which secured new profits, was also in the interests of the capitalists. As the Comintern (Communist International) already stated in 1924, fascism is the “open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, chauvinist and imperialist elements of financial capital”.This thesis was also represented in the official historiography of the real socialist states. However, a precise analysis showed that big industry relied more on the conservative national forces and only gave more clear support to the fascist right with its increasing successes. The emphatically anti-capitalist attitudes of the early movements also speak against systematic control by capital.
Fascism as a phenomenon of an era
According to this interpretation, fascism is a product of the specific political conditions of the early 20th century. The intellectual and political upheavals resulting from World War I and the emergence of the Bolshevik Soviet Union are of particular importance. The best-known proponent of this thesis is the historian Ernst Nolte, who had already formulated it in the 1960s. In essence, it is based on a comparative interpretation of Italian fascism, the French "action francaise" and National Socialism. Nolte's method is based on phenomenology, which means that fascism should not be interpreted through externally applied patterns of interpretation - for example economic or philosophical-historical ones, but rather from the self-understanding of this movement itself. Fascism thus appears primarily as a counter-movement against communism and Marxism, in particular against the socialist revolution in Russia and its threatened spread to Western Europe. On this basis, fascism could also make use of fears with liberals and conservatives and ultimately destroy them itself in an alliance with them. Fascism, according to Nolte, is therefore “counter-revolution with revolutionary means”. Nolte's theses triggered a fierce historians' dispute in the 1990s, which culminated in the accusation, especially outside of academic circles, that Nolte relativized fascism and thereby played it down. Because historicization also means the lack of relevance to the present at the same time.
Fascism as a Political Religion
This thesis is based on the basic situation of the secularization of the world in modern times, i.e. the loss of generally binding recognized religious beliefs. This process, consciously or unconsciously experienced by contemporaries as a loss, advanced particularly dramatically in industrial societies towards the end of the 19th century. Fascism appears - in the opinion of its followers - as a compensation for the loss of faith. Through external ritualization and a claim to worldview, he imitates the lost religion. In fact, it turns out that the public staging of fascism in particular copied religious rituals. In place of the community of believers in Christianity, the national community came together, united by an ideological belief. The Führer was staged as a kind of messiah and was revered as a god-like superman. The German Nazi party rallies in particular were reminiscent of religious ceremonies in many elements: the raising of the flags, ritualized oaths and creeds that were chanted by tens of thousands at the same time served this purpose. The flag consecration, during which the blood flag - allegedly carried during Hitler's failed coup in 1923 - sanctified all other party flags by simply touching it, imitated the Christian cult of relics. The speeches of many Nazi leaders also have echoes of religious ceremonies. Hitler was even able to end a speech at a party conference with an "Amen". The propaganda emphasizes again and again that Hitler was sent by “Providence” or even “Heaven”. The greeting "Heil-Hitler" should also be seen in this context. "Heil" in the context of "Heil Christi" itself was removed from the religious context and should now signal that "Heil" now comes through Hitler. Incidentally, contemporaries had already noticed this connection between religion and politics. The Jewish religious scholar Hans-Joachim Schoeps, like the Catholic philosopher Romano Guardini, criticized the imitation of the religious by fascism.
Fascism as totalitarianism
One of the earliest and most influential interpretations of fascism is that of totalitarianism. Based on the premise of a liberal democracy, which is determined by individual freedom, pluralism and a clear separation between state, economy and private life, fascism appears as a negative counter-concept. A single ideology is declared to be generally binding and, more importantly, it should pervade all areas of social, state and economic life. For example, under National Socialism, not only were the state and administration oriented towards the world view and organized according to the leader principle; in the economy too, the relationship between employer and worker became a relationship between “manager” and “followers”. In private life, too, the “Volksgenossen” was required to be entirely National Socialist. The family should be a comradeship association and children were a required contribution to the national community. The interpretation of totalitarianism aptly describes some of the basic principles of fascism. Mussolini already saw the concept of the “stato totalitario” in fascism. As captivating as this argument is, it harbors the danger that the specifics of fascism will be overlooked. Above all, this concept does not explain extreme anti-Semitism or even the Holocaust of German National Socialism. The concept of totalitarianism thus harbors the risk of relativizing precisely this. The concept of totalitarianism was particularly popular during the Cold War, as it enabled fascist and communist regimes to be equated and thus their particular devaluation.
Fascism and modernity
A particularly heated discussion in research is the question of the relationship between fascism and modernity and the Enlightenment. There are basically two opposing positions: The first assumes that fascism, with its pseudo-religious rituals, its dubious racial theory and ideological mysticisms, is a relapse into premodern conditions. In this perspective, fascism appears almost as an antipole to enlightenment and reason. On the other hand, fascism itself - apart from a few politically insignificant splinter groups within the movement - did not seek a decline into premodern, say medieval times. On the contrary: his outspoken progress and technology fanaticism, his youth and body cult, his belief in almost any feasibility embody rather modern tendencies. Propaganda Minister Goebbels, for example, called for “steel romanticism” as a dedication and technique to the old, retrograde romanticism. The development of an efficient bureaucracy that carries out the Holocaust and the extermination of the mentally handicapped on a large scale without the emotional involvement of the individual actors are more modern elements. If one understands the development of liberal, individualistic and pluralistic social models as the achievement of the Enlightenment and modernity, then fascism is unquestionably a reactionary movement. If one sees in the modern age above all a development towards technology and efficiency and the claim not to see a society given by God, but to shape it arbitrarily, then fascism will have to be seen as a movement of modernity.
All theories about fascism - and there are a multitude of variants for each - have their strengths and weaknesses. Each covers a certain aspect of fascism, none has so far been able to adequately explain fascism as a whole. But even a simple mix of theories doesn't make sense because their approaches are too incoherent. One should therefore understand the conceptions of fascism primarily as questions, as research approaches that help to clarify certain problem areas. In this context, the question of the relationship between fascism and modern society is particularly important. For the question of whether fascism is a closed historical system or - at least in some aspects - a modern phenomenon, determines how far fascism or fascist styles of thinking will continue to pose a real threat to society in the future.
Author: Dr. Bernd Kleinhans
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