Fascism: Characteristics, History & Rise

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  • 0:01 Fascism
  • 0:55 Authoritarianism
  • 2:22 Nationalism
  • 3:16 Xenophobism
  • 4:06 Example
  • 6:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the characteristics of the form of government known as fascism, including briefly examining history's best example of fascism: Hitler's Germany.


When you were a teenager, did you ever clash with your parents? Perhaps they didn't let you stay out as late as you wanted or go to that movie with that boy or girl you had a crush on. Chances are you called them all sorts of names in the heat of the moment, claiming their parental decisions were unfair or ruining your budding social life. If you were a particularly well-read teenager, you may have even called them fascists - though likely without really knowing what you were saying. Well, today we are going to change that.

Fascism is a form of government that has cropped up at various times throughout history, most recently in the mid-20th century in Europe, and its definition is still a hotly debated topic today. However, three basic tenets that nearly all fascist governments exhibit are authoritarianism, nationalism and xenophobia, and the rest of this lesson will detail just how fascist regimes institute and utilize each of these things.


The first aspect fascist states often possess is authoritarianism. This means that fascist states are ruled by a strong central government and the public or other branches of government are given no avenue for removing the central authority, whether that authority is made up of a single person or a large group of politicians. As such, fascist states are often dictatorships or oligarchies.

The nature of this singular leadership structure often leads to the development of cults of personality around the leader or leaders and his ideals. Indeed, fascist leaders often depend on popularity and the popularity of their message to first gain notoriety or grab onto power.

In order to strengthen the fascist central government's authority, fascist states often also possess a personal detachment of foot soldiers or spies apart from the regular military. These special police are often tasked with maintaining the central government's authority through intimidating or arresting opposing politicians. At times, these forces will often even terrorize the country's own citizens, especially those with a history of political activism or family members with such histories.

Omnipotent power and unquestioned authority are often required for fascist states to remain in power, and this authoritarianism often extends to the economy as well. The economy under fascist dictatorships is usually tightly controlled, and although businesses are not owned by the government, what they can and cannot produce and who they can and cannot conduct business with is often firmly regimented.


The second aspect most fascist states possess is nationalism, or the pride in one's country. The ideals of most fascist states are founded upon a fervent and intense nationalism espoused by the fascist leaders and their followers. The nationalism fascists often exhibit is unbending and imperturbable; whatever the state does - be it helping the poor or murdering innocents - is right, and whatever the central government says is the law.

Now nationalism, of course, is fine in small doses - everyone, after all, likes to wave a flag now and again. Indeed, it is this fact of modern human nature on which fascists often capitalize. Fascist leaders often take the nationalism prevalent in most members of the public and inflate it through heavily nationalist propaganda, speeches and other rhetoric, which encourages the public to have an increased sense of pride in one's nation and therefore agree more often with the rest of the fascist party's beliefs and platform.


The nationalism encouraged by fascist leaders and parties is often complimented by a third leg of fascism: xenophobia. Xenophobia is the fear of foreigners, strangers or otherwise unknown people or entities. Again, as with nationalism, everyone is a little afraid of things that they don't understand or recognize, and fascism capitalizes on this natural human reaction. Indeed, at the same time fascists are often expounding upon the virtues and greatness of the nation and its citizens, fascist leaders are often decrying foreigners and proposing plans to disenfranchise, deport or otherwise harass foreign people and businesses within the country.

Throughout history, this tendency has been fascism's most dangerous and destructive component, as xenophobic rhetoric is often accompanied by racism and hate-based violence directed against ethnic or religious minorities.


Fascism was an outgrowth of the new European nationalism of the 19th century. Indeed, in the 19th century, nationalism led to the creation of states that had previously only been regions with ethnically and linguistically similar populations, such as Germany and Italy.

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