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What factors contributed to the rise of fascism in Europe?

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The rise of fascism during the twentieth century has attracted the attention of countless distinguished academics from all over the world. Fascist movements and governments have emerged in many forms and in many countries throughout the twentieth century, and although the most memorable fascist dictatorships surfaced in the form of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, it should be borne in mind that fascism also appeared elsewhere. For example, Spain endured many years under Franco; Austria and Portugal succumbed to similar fascist fates during the Second World War era; abortive fascist movements existed in countries such as the United Kingdom; France and the Benelux region encountered fascism through Nazi occupation during World War II; and in more recent years, the Balkans have experienced fascist dictatorships during the wars of the 1990s.

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Hagtvet and Rokkan assert that during the run-up to and the duration of the Second World War, five nations (Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain and Portugal) all succumbed to the same fate of monolithic control after the failure of mass democracy in these countries.

1 They argue that these countries were all historically, economically and politically pre-disposed to fascist forms of government. However, in this relatively short essay we do not have the time or space to examine this rather bold assertion, as it deals with too many countries and too many factors. Instead, we shall focus on the two key examples of fascism in Europe: Germany and Italy. As Merkl argues, ‘The NSDAP and the PNF far surpassed other fascist movements in their impact on the domestic political system and the world; they proved more disastrous and brutal than most other similar movements.’

2. Let us start by examining the classic story of the emergence of a fascist state: the rise of Nazi Germany. In The Rise of the Nazis, Conan Fischer asserts that ‘Hitler’s rise to power was neither straightforward nor inevitable’.

3. This is an important idea to be borne in mind when we reconsider the history of Germany in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s: that Hitler’s seizure of power depended on various factors, from the economic situation to World War I’s political legacy; from the use of force to having to rely on one’s luck. One factor that was of huge significance to the rise of fascism in Germany was the Treaty of Versailles. The Social Democrats, who were the main party of influence in the post-war government, were blamed for accepting a peace treaty which economically crippled and morally condemned Germany for being the instigators of World War I. Despite President Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’, formulated in January 1918, the Allied powers excluded Germany from negotiations over the peace settlement, allowing only limited written comments on a draft version of the treaty, and put forward a much harsher deal than had been anticipated. Germany suffered huge territorial losses, and reparations were essentially open-ended. Article 231 of the treaty moreover forced Germany to accept moral responsibility for the First World War; this, public opinion found very hard to stomach: ‘the feeling was widespread in Weimar that the republicans, by signing the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, had caved in cravenly to false accusations and demands.’

4. The Social Democrats’ governments and coalitions were always mistrusted because of their ‘betrayal’ at Versailles. It was easily and quickly forgotten, particularly by those on the right of the political spectrum, that the armistice (which paved the way for the severity of the Treaty of Versailles) was in fact signed by Max of Baden and not the Social Democrats. Whenever the Weimar Republic ran into trouble, rumblings about the failures at Versailles would reemerge; the Social Democrats never regained their authority due to popular perception of their accountability in 1919. The fascists were quick to seize on and exploit this public and political uneasiness about the Social Democrats, and offered an alternative form of government with extremely strong leadership in the form of Adolf Hitler, and one that campaigned vociferously for the ‘national interest’. Ian Kershaw argues that the Kaiser era had left Germans predisposed to desire strong, one-man governments; Germans were not used to or inclined towards Western models of rule.

5 If this is the case, then Hitler certainly fitted the image of the one-man ruler, particularly in comparison to the shaky political structures, parties and figures in place under Weimar. Another major contributing factor in the rise of fascism in Germany was the economic problems from which the Weimar Republic suffered, and in particular, the effects of the Great Depression. The economy had been left in tatters after the enormous expenditure, borrowing and exploitation of all available resources during the First World War. The reparations agreed upon after the War were colossal; approximately 80% of non-borrowed revenues in 1922 went on the reparations bill.

6. Higher taxes were never going to bridge the gap between revenues and reparations expenditure, so the Weimar government was forced to borrow massively from the Reichsbank and the US private sector. In 1923, the French invasion of the Ruhr precipitated an economic crisis epitomised by the disastrous hyper-inflation of the same year. The human cost was also huge: as resistance to the invasion continued, the French occupation forces mounted pressure, often resorting to arbitrary brutality. There were huge shortages of food and epidemics were rife, particularly among the working classes. The reliance on borrowing, especially from the USA, continued throughout the 1920s, until a change in monetary policy in the States in 1928, and more importantly the Wall Street Crash of 1929, put pay to German dependence on America. Fischer asserts: ‘The worsening economic situation triggered the slide towards some form or another of authoritarian government’.

7. Unemployment soared: estimates suggest that during the winters of 1931-2 and 1932-3, half the economically active population were out of work8. Smaller farms and businesses went bankrupt, salaries were cut for those who remained in employment, and diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia, reminding the population of the worst suffering during World War I, began to spread amongst the impoverished populus. In such circumstances, public and political outcry demanded change. In 1930, Article 48 of the Constitution was invoked, which effectively gave the President powers of decree (this article had been intended for use only temporarily in an emergency). The SPD were slowly excluded from power as the government exercised its newly extended powers, often acting without parliament and simply proclaiming its conservative laws. During the period between 1929 and 1933, the economic crisis led to a period of increased success for the Nazi Party. By 1933, Hitler was Chancellor and had begun implementing his policies of creating a one-party state. Fascism had arrived in Germany.

Let us now turn to the rise of fascism in Italy. Significantly, the Treaty of Versailles and economic factors also played in important role in the rise of fascism here. Firstly, the ‘Mutilated Victory’ at Versailles saw Italians react bitterly to a treaty which they saw as lacking in significant rewards for Italy’s large Allied role in the War. Although she gained territorial to some extent, she did not receive any territory from Germany or Turkey through the peace settlement, and the public reacted very badly to the news that Fiume, which was over 50% Italian, was to be given to the newly founded state of Yugoslavia. The nationalists and the fascists were quick to seize on this, and criticized Orlando’s government for being weak, and for dragging the country into a war that was economically damaging for Italy and disappointing at the peace settlement. Italy had not been sufficiently rewarded for her part in the War, and Mussolini’s emerging fascist party increased their public support by voicing the criticisms of the people.

Economic and social problems after World War I also lead to the increasing support of fascism in Italy. Unemployment reached a figure of 2 million by 19209. Inflation increased and the value of the lira steadily dropped after the armistice. The unionized working classes were protected to an extent, but poverty quickly hit the middle classes. Professionals and academics in particular found themselves without work, and so the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia also became drawn by the allure of the Fascists. Demobilisation also occurred very rapidly in Italy, probably more rapidly than in the other Allied nations, and so many soldiers returned from the trenches unprepared for civilian life. The population felt under-represented and unsupported by the government, and turned to alternative, more dramatic political movements for hope.

Italy also found itself after the War with a highly politicized working class. Trench warfare had generated huge social mixing, with the less educated classes being exposed to intellectuals and professionals, sometimes for the first time. The result was a post-war working class with much more political clout than before, and the years following the War saw a number of strikes occurring during the ‘Red Two Years’. During the ‘Occupation of the Factories’, fascist support increased as the Socialist Party was seen to be failing to seize on the popular mood for revolution; Pollard quotes the Socialist newspaper, Avanti!, as using the headline ‘All we have to do is wait’ in November 1919.10 This passivity quickly disillusioned the working classes. Between 1918 and 1920, numerous strikes and protests happened, but the Socialists simply failed to seize the moment and bring about a popular revolt. The Socialist movement on a popular level was therefore seriously undermined during these years, with many workers finding themselves seeking alternatives political parties to help them in their struggles.

The role of violence in the rise of fascism in Italy has been hotly debated. On the one hand, squadrist brutality intimidated the population into submitting to fascist policies. On the other hand, the violent seizure of power that the March on Rome of October 1922 was portrayed as being was in fact relatively bloodless: ‘Mussolini did not actually seize power by force’.11 Instead, Mussolini kept his distance from the March on Rome and stayed in Milan, presumably doubting the March’s chances of success. Facta and the King, on observing the March’s progress, had resolved to respond with the use of force (and if this hadf happened the Italian army would certainly have won). Facta had prepared a decree of martial law to enable the employment of the army, but at the last minute, the King changed his mind and ordered Mussolini to come to Rome, where he formed a government.

Therefore, did the Fascists seize power, or was it given to them? It is clear that the threat of force was a factor in the emergence of Mussolini as Prime Minister. Yet the Fascist squads did not arrive in Rome until after his appointment by the King. The King simply gave Mussolini power, and as Cassels has argued ‘By 1922 there was hardly any segment of the Italian establishment that was not ready to collaborate with Fascism either for nationalistic or anti-Bolshevik reasons, or both’.12 While Fascism in Italy had clearly got a reputation for the use of brutal force through squadrist activity in the provinces, the ultimate arrival of Mussolini in government was due to a fortunate turn of events, rather than immediate violence: the King did not call the Fascists’ bluff.

To conclude, it is clear that the two pre-eminent examples of European Fascism were brought to power by complex but similar forces. World War I, the subsequent economic problems, and resentment towards the Treaty of Versailles all had an influence on the increasing popularity and power of the NSDAP and the PNF. Yet thie does not explain why other European states did not see Fascist governments emerge. Unfortunately, there has not been space here to examine these questions more thoroughly, or to look into other experiences of Fascism in Europe, such as in Spain, Austria and Portugal, or the Benelux countries and France, or Eastern Europe and Great Britain.

All these countries have experienced Fascist movements over the twentieth century; some were abortive, yet others, such as Franco’s Falange, rose to power. It is a pity that this brief study has not been able to examine these nations further. However, it is clear from the examples of Germany and Italy, who had the strongest fascist movements in Europe during the twentieth century, that popular discontent on social, economic, political and nationalistic levels fed a need for radical change in government (and these are only some of the multitude of factors on the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany). On a structural level, perhaps Hagtvet and Rokkan are right when they assert that the five nations which succumbed to Fascism were those who were too attached to an imperialist past and too quickly exposed to mass democraticisation13. Or perhaps Hagtvet and Rokkan’s article is an example of academics trying desperately to explain away and rationalise a terrible aberration from Western democracy and its values, in order to reassure us that such a deviation from the democratic norm shall not happen again.

Cite this What factors contributed to the rise of fascism in Europe?

What factors contributed to the rise of fascism in Europe?. (2017, Jul 22). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/factors-contributed-rise-fascism-europe-229/

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