What Is Fascism?
Learn how Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler rose to power and the lessons their political journeys hold for today.
Over the past few years, people have thrown around the word "fascism" to criticize any number of issues—stay-at-home orders during a global pandemic, proposed environmental regulations aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and even legislation limiting the size of soft drinks.
But the word’s origins point to something far more serious than Big Gulps. Fascism is rooted in a history of highly divisive and destructive European movements that arose in the era between World Wars I and II.
So what exactly does fascism mean, where does it come from, and to what extent do leaders today display fascist tendencies? This lesson explores those three questions by diving into the history of the world’s most notorious fascist leaders: Benito Mussolini of Italy and Adolf Hitler of Germany.
What does fascism mean?
Many experts agree that fascism is a mass political movement that emphasizes extreme nationalism, militarism, and the supremacy of both the nation and the single, powerful leader over the individual citizen. This model of government stands in contrast to liberal democracies, which support individual rights, competitive elections, and political dissent.
In many ways, fascist regimes are revolutionary because they advocate the overthrow of existing systems of government and the persecution of political enemies. However, when it advances their interests, such regimes can also be highly conservative in their championing of traditional values related to the role of women, social hierarchy, and obedience to authority. And although fascist leaders typically claim to support the everyman, in reality their regimes often align with powerful business interests.
Let’s unpack a few of these hallmark characteristics of fascist leaders and their movements:
Click on a fascist to learn more about them.
Extreme nationalism: Fascist leaders believe in the supremacy of certain groups of people based on characteristics such as race, religion, ethnicity, and nationality. Hitler and his Nazi Party, for instance, advanced the idea of Aryan (essentially white Germanic) racial superiority. The most extreme example of this ethnocentric nationalism was the Nazis' state-sponsored mass murder of six million Jews. The Holocaust, as it came to be known, involved eleven million murders total, including five million gay people, Roma people, people with disabilities, and others whom the Nazis deemed inferior.
Cult of personality: Fascist regimes cultivate images of their leaders as great figures to be loved and admired, often through mass media and propaganda. In Italy, Mussolini’s photograph hung on the walls of classrooms while his political party encouraged all good citizens to purchase a Mussolini-themed calendar each year. Masculinity was central to this cult of personality. To maintain a powerful image, Mussolini prohibited journalists from reporting on his age or health issues and often took photographs posing with a lion or riding a horse. Mussolini, or Il Duce (“the leader”), took on a mythical status, and even the pope chalked up Il Duce’s survival of assassination attempts to divine intervention.
Popular mobilization: Although both authoritarian and fascist governments are anti-democratic, leave little room for dissent, and strive to centralize power, the two types of regimes are not the same. Authoritarian governments want the population to remain passive and demobilized, whereas fascist regimes demand public participation in society through government-organized channels. Both Mussolini and Hitler, for instance, drew massive crowds in rallies intended to stir up enthusiasm for the country, the party, and the leader. Indeed, citizens could come under suspicion for refusing to take part in such activities. In this regard, fascist regimes often exhibit totalitarian tendencies by attempting to not just dominate politics but also control the hearts and minds of their citizenry.
How do fascists come to power?
Mussolini and Hitler rose to power swiftly, but their countries’ transformations from constitutional governments to fascist regimes did not take place overnight. Rather, the two countries experienced a similar pattern of a fascist party gaining a foothold in government through initially democratic methods, consolidating power, and ultimately dismantling democratic institutions and securing a dictatorship for its leader.
In this section, we’ll walk through the five stages of fascism—a framework coined by historian Robert Paxton to illustrate the similar steps through which individuals like Mussolini and Hitler came to power.
Stage one: Emerging out of disillusionment
Mussolini and Hitler rose to prominence in the aftermath of World War I, capitalizing on the political and economic fallout of the Great War and popular dissatisfaction with their countries’ leaders.
Hitler pointed to the harsh and humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which forced Germany to accept blame for the conflict, give up its overseas colonies and 13 percent of its European territory, limit the size of its army and navy, and pay reparations (financial damages) to the war’s winners. He would gain followers by promising to tear up the Treaty of Versailles and restore the country’s honor.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis that followed World War I further eroded public confidence in the existing political establishment. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Germany suffered hyperinflation—a situation in which prices skyrocketed so quickly that German currency lost much of its value—and Italy experienced a two-year period of mass strikes and factory occupations, with millions unemployed.
Stage two: Establishing legitimacy as a political party
Fascist leaders capitalized on popular disillusionment by creating their own political parties to challenge the ruling establishment through the ballot box and, often, violence in the streets.
In 1919, Mussolini created Italy’s Fascist Party, which unabashedly supported Italian nationalism and opposed socialism (even though it often incorporated socialist values and goals at first, such as creating better conditions for the lower class and putting people back to work). The group militarized politics by attracting fervent followers—including many returning World War I veterans—who organized armed militias known as the squadristi (or “Blackshirts,” per their uniforms) and skirmished with Italian socialists in the streets.
Germany’s Nazi Party (originally founded in 1920 as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party) also emerged in the aftermath of the war. With many Germans shocked by the country’s defeat in World War I, the Nazis pushed a narrative that argued Germany could have won the war if not for unrest at home. This myth falsely accused Jewish people and left-wing activists of stabbing the country’s war effort in the back and blamed Germany’s new democratic government for giving up on the conflict. Propelled by this vision, the Nazis went from winning 3 percent of the vote in the 1928 parliamentary elections to 44 percent in 1933. They also received support from their own paramilitary wing known as the Sturmabteilung (or “Brownshirts”) who—like the Italian Squadristi (or “Blackshirts”)—clashed with the party’s rivals.
Stage three: Gaining power via right-wing partnerships
During the interwar period, the economic collapse brought on by the Great Depression pushed many European centrists more to the political extremes of conservatism and socialism. A third option—fascism—would gain influence when its representatives partnered with conservatives, who advocated for traditional values, including nationalism and law and order. Conservatives recognized that Fascists wanted to overthrow the political establishment; however, the two groups found common cause over their shared hatred and fear of left-wing socialists.
In Italy, conservatives combined forces with Fascists to form a governing majority in parliament in 1921. Meanwhile, in Germany, the country’s conservative leaders allied with the Nazis, believing it would be a temporary compromise to prevent socialists from taking power. After the Nazis won the largest share of votes in 1932, the country’s president appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany. Even still, conservatives expected to control government affairs while taking advantage of Hitler’s charisma. That expectation, of course, would turn out to be a miscalculation.
Stage four: Using power to dominate institutions
Upon rising to power, Fascist parties attempted to consolidate political authority.
Mussolini’s Fascist Party won elections in 1921 as part of a coalition. The following year, the Italian king appointed Mussolini prime minister after a mass fascist demonstration known as the March on Rome, which provoked fears of civil war if Mussolini were denied power. The Fascists, however, did not seize absolute authority, as traditional institutions like the Catholic Church still retained a certain degree of independence.
The Nazis, on the other hand, took total control over government and society. Hitler removed all non-Nazis from government shortly after becoming chancellor in 1933. He would go on to pass laws stripping Jews of citizenship, expelling anti-Nazi professors from universities, banning rival political parties, and enabling him to rule by decree (meaning he could single-handedly—and without oversight—create future laws). Germany became a one-party country: the Nazis claimed to have won more than 90 percent of the vote in subsequent unfree and unfair elections, and after 1938, they ceased holding elections altogether.
Stage five: Implementing radical reforms
With near-total or absolute control over society, fascist leaders exercised their power in increasingly radical ways both at home and abroad.
Mussolini’s Italy carried out violent colonial campaigns across Africa. In Libya, colonial troops employed chemical weapons against local resistance movements and imprisoned their members in concentration camps. And in 1935, Italy invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), where virulent racism led to mass instances of rape and the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of thousands of people. Although Mussolini’s regime did not carry out the same scale of ethnic violence at home, his government proclaimed white, Christian Italians to be descendants of the Aryan race and banned Black and Jewish people from marrying them.
Hitler’s Nazi Germany remains the only example of full radicalization of a fascist movement. As Germany’s absolute ruler, or führer, Hitler destroyed all political opposition; invaded countries across Europe; launched World War II in partnership with Mussolini; and ordered the genocide of millions. Three-quarters of a century after Hitler’s death, his rise to power and Germany’s fall from democracy into fascism serve as frightening reminders of the dangers of racism and extremism in politics.
Does fascism exist today?
Most scholars understand fascism as a phenomenon that existed between World Wars I and II, with Mussolini and Hitler as its primary exponents. But that doesn’t mean that the characteristics of fascism can never reappear or that leaders and groups can’t replicate the fascist playbook to consolidate power.
Even if a group or movement does not progress through all five stages of fascism, it can still exhibit elements of fascism. This is evident in authoritarian countries like Russia and also increasingly apparent at a time of global democratic backsliding, in which democracies are under siege—not by foreign invaders but by domestic leaders who are using their countries’ own democratic institutions to subvert and destroy political freedoms, civil liberties, and democracy itself.
Although no full-fledged fascist movement has existed since World War II, it’s imperative to understand the stages of fascism in order to recognize when the conditions that once enabled the rise of such destructive regimes could be reappearing.