Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
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Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
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.
In the 20th century, however, this nationalism grew increasingly aggressive, especially in central Europe. In the first half of the 20th century, Italy, Spain, Japan and other states around the world instituted fascist regimes, which often persecuted ethnic and religious minorities within the state. Being a foreigner in any of these countries became increasingly dangerous. In order to fully understand the strict authoritarianism and often aggressive nationalism, xenophobia and racism that these fascist governments often exhibited, let's look at an example.
The most notorious example of a fascist government was Adolf Hitler's regime in Germany, which held power from the mid-1930s until the end of WWII. Hitler rose to power due to his party's heavily nationalist rhetoric, which encouraged Germans to have pride in Germany at the exact moment when German pride was likely at its lowest levels of the 20th century. Economically crippled by the sanctions imposed upon it after WWI, Germany had stumbled through the 1920s and early 1930s, and Hitler's nationalist message quickly gained many adherents.
By 1932, Hitler's fascist Nazi Party held the most seats in the German Bundestag and when the president of Germany died in 1934, Hitler merged the president's powers with his own and systematically dismantled the German democracy. With newly unquestioned power enforced by his secret police, the Gestapo, Hitler's aggressively nationalist platform eventually caused the beginning of WWII after several annexations and invasions of Germany's neighbors.
Within Germany itself, the nationalism Hitler had instilled in the German people coincided with a rabid anti-Semitism that was just as prevalent. Violence against Jews escalated in the 1930s, and laws were enacted that restricted Jewish life, laws and discriminated against Jewish businesses and people. The culmination of these developments was the Holocaust, when approximately six million Jews were sent to concentration camps where they were either worked to death or murdered.
As Germany in the 1930s and 1940s portrays, a successfully fascist regime can ultimately have devastating effects. Fascism has succeeded because it capitalizes upon emotions and ideas already prevalent in most members of society: a certain amount of national pride and a fear of the unknown. What fascism does, however, is it takes these normal emotions and inflates them through powerful rhetoric and intense propaganda that drives and whips the public into a nationalist frenzy.
With the state no longer capable of doing wrong in the eyes of the public, economic and social problems are deflected onto a scapegoat: often a foreign or minority population, which fascist leaders claim are the root of all the country's problems. The vitriol directed at the population often erupts into popular or state-sanctioned violence.
Moreover, this poor situation for that population is unlikely to change, as fascist states are never democracies. Even if they were once democracies, the institution of fascism often coincides with the institution of a dictatorship or oligarchy, which maintains a firm, authoritarian control on all aspects of life. Perhaps the most unnerving thing for us today is that this brutal form of government has such a recent historical past.
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Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
27 chapters | 244 lessons