Fascism, 20th-century form of totalitarian dictatorship that sought to create a viable society by strict regimentation of national and individual lives; conflicting interests would be adjusted by total subordination to the service of the state and unquestioning loyalty to its leader.

Fascism emphasized nationalism, but its appeal was international. It flourished between 1919 and 1945 in several countries, mainly Italy, Germany, Spain, and Japan. Fascist regimes also existed for varying lengths of time in Austria, Poland, Bulgaria, Greece, Portugal, Romania, Hungary, Finland, Norway, and Argentina. Even such liberal democracies as France and England had important Fascist movements.


Before World War I, several writers, among them Gabriele D'Annunzio, an Italian, and Georges Sorel, Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras, and Comte Joseph de Gobineau, all French, had expressed Fascist ideas, but it took postwar economic dislocation, the threat of communism arising from the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Great Depression of the 1930s to transform fascism into a serious political force.

The term fascism was first used by Benito Mussolini in 1919 and referred to the ancient Roman symbol of power, the fasces, a bundle of sticks bound to an ax, which represented civic unity and the authority of Roman officials to punish wrongdoers. Mussolini, the founder of fascism in Italy, began his political career as a Marxist. In 1912, as the editor of Italy's leading socialist newspaper, Avanti!, he opposed both capitalism and militarism. By 1914, however, he had changed his attitude, calling on Italy to enter World War I and moving toward an accommodation with the political right. Influenced by the ideas of Sorel and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he glorified "action" and "vitality" and denounced antiwar Marxists for their lack of "pragmatism." After the war, when a series of socialist-backed strikes broke out in Italy—both workers' strikes in the cities and peasants' strikes in the country—Mussolini put his movement at the service of conservative business and landlord interests that, together with the Roman Catholic church and the army, wanted to check the "red wave." Mussolini's about-face brought him the political and financial backing he needed, and his own considerable oratorical powers did the rest (like Hitler in Germany, he was a highly effective demagogue).

Italy Under Fascism

In 1922 Mussolini seized control of the Italian government and established a dictatorship. All political parties except the Fascist Party, were banned, and Mussolini became Il Duce—the leader of the party. Labor unions were abolished, strikes were forbidden, and political opponents were silenced.

Lowered Living Standard

Once in power, Mussolini had no immediate program for solving Italy's social and economic problems other than giving free rein to big business (both urban and rural), being "pragmatic," and preaching the need for discipline. The result was that Italian workers lost (1926) the protection of the eight-hour-day law, and a general wage reduction was decreed by the government. Between 1928 and 1932 real wages in Italy were reduced by almost half; by 1930 they were already the lowest in Western Europe. Between 1926 and 1934 the purchasing power of farm workers declined by 50 to 70 percent, partly as a result of a government policy that restricted migration to the cities—a policy that pleased landowners, who thereby could keep farm wages low. Mussolini acknowledged (1930) that under his regime the standard of living had indeed fallen, but he also stated that "fortunately, the Italian people were not accustomed to eat much and therefore feel the privation less acutely than others."

Deficient Social Services

Foreign tourists were impressed by the way Mussolini made the trains run on time, ended public begging, and offered well-publicized social services to his people. What they ignored was the decline in the nutrition of the lower class, the increase in child labor, and the fact that a smaller share of the national income was spent on social services than in most other European countries. Despite the land hunger of the peasantry, Mussolini did nothing to divide up the large estates, the latifondi; some 15 noble families held among them more than 400,000 hectares (1 million acres) of land. Infant mortality in Mussolini's Italy was more than twice as high as that in Scandinavia.

Role of Women

Despite the decline in food consumption, Mussolini launched a campaign to increase the birth rate ("battle for births"). This, he felt, was needed to demonstrate national "virility" and provide future personnel for the Italian armed forces, for by 1936 the conquest of foreign lands had become Mussolini's final solution to the economic problem.

Women's role in this plan was to bear as many babies as possible. In 1940 Mussolini reviewed a parade of 180 married couples, who had produced 1544 children (an average of eight children per couple), and gave the mothers gold medals for their service to the nation. The regime made a concerted effort to exclude women from the white-collar professions and higher education so they could stay home and care for their children. All education regarding birth control was banned by a law of 1927. Feminists were condemned for diverting women from their assigned role of breeding—a role that included obedience to male authority. "Woman," wrote the Italian Fascist Ferdinando Loffredo, "must return under the subjection of man—father or husband—and must recognize therefore her own spiritual, cultural, and economic inferiority."

French Fascists echoed the same sexism. Associating militant feminism with Marxism and class struggle, they called for conciliation between the sexes as well as between economic classes—but on male terms. Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, a novelist who later became an apologist for the Nazi occupation, damned feminism as a "pernicious doctrine" and claimed that women, lacking the spiritual qualities of men, were a source of decadence.

Fascist Methods

Like Communists, Fascists employed totalitarian methods, but for conservative rather than socialist ends. Far more totalitarian toward the left than toward the right, Italian Fascists crushed the labor movement but allowed big business to run its affairs with a minimum of government interference. Cartels flourished in Fascist Italy at the expense of small business and the consumer, despite Mussolini's earlier promises that he would protect the latter. His anticapitalist rhetoric was contradicted by his policies, such as reducing taxes on big business, when he came to power. Eventually, however, corruption in the Fascist bureaucracy and the need to increase taxes, even on the rich, to support military spending alienated some conservatives from the regime.

From the beginning, the philosophy of Italian fascism heralded the virtues of war. Not only was military conquest seen as the way to solve the nation's economic problems, but military values were praised as good for their own sake. Among the favorite slogans of the regime were "Nothing has ever been won in history without blood-shed!" "A minute on the battlefield is worth a lifetime of peace!" Mussolini himself was to be obeyed in a military manner: "Believe! Obey! Fight!" "Mussolini is always right!" The Fascist male was to be Darwinian, not humanitarian; tough, not soft; masculine, not feminine. Concerned with the moral health of society, Fascists denounced "decadence" in all its forms: hedonism, materialism, individualism, democracy, and sexual laxity.

In 1929 Mussolini signed the Lateran Accords with the Vatican, naming Roman Catholicism the "only state religion." Tension developed later between the state and the church over which of the two was to control Italian education.

Fascism Elsewhere

Fascism in other countries differed from the Italian variety in certain respects. For instance, in Germany (see National Socialism) it was more racist; in Romania it was allied with the Orthodox church rather than the Roman Catholic church. In Spain, the radical Fascist Falange was originally hostile to the Roman Catholic church, although later, on the direction of dictator Francisco Franco, it merged with a reactionary and pro-Catholic group. Fascism in Japan was closely akin to that of Nazi Germany. Led by the military, it emphasized the traditional warrior virtues and an absolute dedication to the divine emperor. Like their German counterparts, Japanese Fascists also launched a fanatic drive for expansion by military conquest.

In France fascism was divided into several movements. Whereas fascism in most cases flourished in countries that were economically backward or marked by strong authoritarian political traditions, French fascism made headway in one of Europe's most established democracies. In 1934 an estimated 370,000 people belonged to the various French Fascist organizations, such as the Jeunesses Patriotes, the Solidarité Française, the Croix de Feu, the Action Française, and the Francistes. More than 100,000 of these were concentrated in Paris. Many prominent intellectuals and thousands of university students were attracted to Fascist ideals during the 1920s and '30s, in France and England as well as in Italy and Germany.


Contributed by:

Robert J. Soucy