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Fascism centered on the glorification of the state, the rejection of liberal individualism, and an incredible emphasis on hierarchy and authority. Fascist movements sprung up right as the war ended. The term fascism was invented by the Italian Fascist Party itself, based on the term fascii: a bundle of sticks with an axe embedded in the middle. Symbolically, the sticks are weak individually but strong as a group, and the axe represented the power over life and death. In ancient Rome, the bodyguards of the Roman consuls carried fascii as a badge of the authority over war, peace, law, and death, and that symbolism appealed to the Italian Fascists.
By the early 1920s, there were fascist movements in many European countries, all of them agitating for some kind of right-wing revolution against democracy and socialism. One place of particular note in the early history of fascism was France. There, a right-wing monarchist group called Actione Française had existed since the Dreyfus Affair, but it transformed itself into a French fascist group despite still clinging to monarchist and traditional Catholic ideologies. When Germany defeated France in World War II, the Nazis found a large contingent of right-wing Frenchmen who were all too happy to create a home-grown French fascist state (a fact that many in France tried their best to forget after the war). Likewise, when the Nazis seized power in various places in Eastern Europe, they often found it expedient to simply work with or appoint the already-existing local fascist groups to power.
Fascism was a twentieth-century phenomenon, but its ideological roots were firmly planted in the nineteenth century. Mostly obviously, fascism was an extreme form of nationalism. The nation was not just the home of a “people” in fascism, it was everything. The nation became a mythic entity that had existed since the ancient past, and fascists claimed that the cultural traits and patterns of the nation defined who a person was and how they regarded the world.
The confusing jumble of what defined a nation in the first place often took on explicitly racial, and racist, terms among fascist groups. Now, Germans were not just people who spoke German in Central Europe; they were the German (or “Aryan,” the term itself nothing more than a pseudo-scholarly jumble of linguistic history and racist nonsense) “race.” French fascists talked about the bloodlines of the ancient Gauls that supposedly survived despite the “pollution” of the Roman invasions in the ancient past. Likewise, Mussolini and the Italian Fascists claimed that “the Italians” were the direct descendants of the most glorious tradition of the ancient Roman Empire and were destined to create a new, even greater empire. The pseudo-sciences of race had arisen in the late nineteenth century as perverse offshoots of genuine advances in biology and the natural sciences. Fascism was, among other things, a cultural movement that found in “scientific” racism a profoundly compatible doctrine: the “scientific” proof in the rightness of the racial nation’s rise to power.
At first sight, one surprising aspect of fascism was that many fascists were former communists – Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Italian Fascist Party, had been a prominent member of the Italian Communist Party before World War I. What fascism and communism had in common was a rejection of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. They both sought transcendent political and social orders that went beyond “mere” parliamentary compromise. The major difference between them was that fascists discovered in World War I that most people were not willing to die for their social class, but they were willing to die for their nation. Fascism was, in part, a kind of collective movement that substituted nationalism for the class war. All classes would be united in the nation, fascists believed, for the greater glory of the race and movement.