Both the Fascist and Nazi regimes of Mussolini and Hitler undoubtedly changed the world and the course of modern history forever with their vast plans for state expansion, social change and their newly acquired taste for empire building. Both men had ambitious ideas which they implemented in their countries each believing their own right-wing ideology to be the true path to greatness and glory for their respective empires, and both men bought about huge social and political change within their regimes, however one must remember that although Hitler and Mussolini were both right-wing dictators, they were two very different men with differing ideological perspectives and it is important not to lump the two together when discussing or comparing their regimes or policies as many historians have tended to do in the past.To begin with I will examine the Italian dictatorship of Benito Mussolini and assess the extent to which his Fascist regime achieved social and political modernization. It is interesting to note that at this present time many thinkers in Italy are asking whether one should be wary of Berlusconi, as he too, like Mussolini has come to power as a charismatic politician promising hope and new policies to Italians, and whether he too may be hiding more radical policies up his sleeve and waiting for the right time to implement them. Benito Mussolini was born on July 29th 1883 near Como, Italy. After a troubled childhood Mussolini was originally a Socialist, was a member of the Socialist Party and wrote articles for the Socialist newspaper ‘Avanti’.
Although being a Socialist he supported Italy’s intervention into the First World War and for this reason broke his links with ‘Avanti’ and the Socialist Party and formed his own newspaper ‘Il Popolo d’Italia’ (The Italian People) and a pro-war right-wing group called ‘Fasci d’Azione Rivoluzionaria’.Mussolini was attracted to the Italian symbol called ‘fasces’ which was an ancient Roman symbol of the life and death power of the state, bundles of the lictors’ rods of chastisement which, when bound together were stronger than when they were apart, reflecting the intellectual debt that Fascism owed to Socialism and presaging the symbolism of the renewed and even greater Roman empire that Mussolini would dream about creating.1 Fascism became an actual organized political movement after a meeting took place in Milan on March 23rd 1919 and Mussolini had by then formed the ‘Fasci di Combattimento’ or what became know as the Fascist Black shirts, so called due to their distinctive black uniforms. These armed Fascist groups led by Mussolini were primarily made up of Italian war veterans called ‘squadristi’. During the early twenties in Italy the Italian Communist Party had strong support, especially among the peasants and lower working classes who were facing extreme poverty whilst a few Italians prospered.The Communists called on peasants to seize landowners property and assets across the countryside and willed on by their leaders gangs of armed peasants roamed the countryside attacking and stealing from anyone they deemed fit. To many Italians the liberal Italian government seemed powerless to stop this anarchy and Mussolini and his squads of Fascist black shirts decided to take action against what they saw as a small scale Communist uprising.
They attacked and terrorized gangs of Communists and Socialists often beating them and in some cases forcing them to drink castor oil until they were sick. Whilst fighting and looting was happening across Italy between communists and fascists, the liberal government in power had still not taken charge of the situation and after Mussolini organized the threatening ‘March on Rome’ he was invited by the King Vittorio Emanuele 3rd to form a new government.Many people believe that Mussolini became Prime Minister as a direct consequence of ‘The March on Rome’ however he was asked to become Prime Minister as the King knew that if he did not choose a new government under either the Fascist of Socialist Party Italy would be in civil war in the very near future. Because of this he asked Mussolini to become Prime Minister which in fact cancelled the need for the march on Rome however since all the Italian Fascists were already on their way to Rome the march went ahead even though it was not needed.
Fascism emerged as what was known as the ‘third way’, it was Italy’s last hope to avoid the imminent collapse of ‘weak’ Italian liberalism or a communist revolution. Unlike Hitler, Mussolini never fully outlined a coherent program or ideology for Fascism, however it evolved into a new political and economic system that combined corporatism, totalitarianism, nationalism, and strong anti-communism in a state that was designed to merge all classes together under a capitalist system, but a new capitalist system in which the state had control over the most vital industries.What political change did Mussolini institute in order to implement his desired policies? At first, surprisingly Mussolini was actually supported by the Liberals in parliament. With some of their help he was able to introduce strict censorship laws and also alter the methods of election so that in 1925-26 he assumed dictatorial powers and was able to dissolve and ban all other political parties. At various times beginning from after 1922 Mussolini personally took over and ran the ministries of the interior, of foreign affairs, of the Italian colonies, of the Army and of public works. At one time Mussolini held seven departments simultaneously as well as the premiership.
Although Mussolini introduced the Press Laws in 1925 which stated that all journalists had to be registered Fascists, not all newspapers were taken into public ownership and the popular ‘Corriere della Sera’ sold around ten times as many copies as Mussolini’s own Fascist newspaper ‘Il Popolo D’Italia’. It is interesting to note that although Mussolini ran an authoritarian Fascist regime with its own secret police service and institutionalised militia, newspapers were allowed to remain in private ownership and even occasionally print criticisms of Mussolini or his government. In Hitler’s Nazi Germany this would never have been allowed to happen.Hitler, like Mussolini was a Fascist dictator who came to power at a time when his country was in a terrible economic situation coupled with violent civil unrest, which bought about a need among most people for what they saw as strong governance from a powerful leader that would, in their eyes rescue the situation and restore hope to them.
In Germany, Communist party members were battling in the streets with the Nazi’s SA storm troopers, property was being destroyed and the public did not feel safe, innocent people were getting caught up in pitched battles in the streets and killed, for example when eighteen civilians were killed when they were caught up in the crossfire between KPD and SA members in the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Altona on 17th July 1932.2 At this tense time of civil unrest, coupled with massive unemployment and widespread poverty, Hitler with his talk of restoring hope and pride to a weakened Germany was what many people saw as the antidote to Germany’s disease.In 1931 Heinrich Bruning was the Chancellor of Germany, trying to sort out problem after problem, whilst President Hindenberg was becoming increasingly frustrated at Bruning’s seeming inability to deal with Germany’s economic and social problems. German’s were not satisfied with the government, something highlighted when Bruning travelled around Germany his train had to have the blinds permanently drawn as whenever crowds caught sight of him they would often throw rocks.
Bruning’s political career abruptly ended when he was wrongly identified with plans put forward by the Minister for Labour, Adam Stegerwald, which included proposals to nationalize heavy industry. His enemies accused him of Bolshevism and after a curt interview President Hindenberg asked for his resignation. His replacment was Franz von Papen, a petty aristocrat with un-democratic views.After making no headway with new policies and being roundly humiliated in parliament by the Communists, Papen secretly met Hitler on the 18th January 1933.
He agreed to let Hitler have the Chancellorship, in exchange for Papen becoming Vice-Chancellor, leaving Papen well positioned for when Hitler cracked under the strains of power. Von-Papen truly believed that he would be able to control Hitler and the Nazi’s, who now had a few cabinet positions as well but were vastly outnumbered. This lay the pieces in place for Hitler to begin his rise to eventual dictatorship and began the Nazis gradual but ultimately thankfully only temporary change and modernization they were to bring to the German political system. Elections had been called for the 5th March 1933 and these were to be marked by terror and repression.
On the 17th February Goring incited the Prussian police to use firearms on political opponents, and on the 22nd he augmented the police with 50,000 ‘auxilaries’ from the SA. Six days later the Reichstag Fire provided the pretext for the Decree of the President for the Protection of People and State of 28 February, which totally abolished rights guaranteed by the Weimar Constitution. The new decree suspended freedom of assembly and expression and sanctioned search and indefinite detention without warrants. The formed the new basis of Nazi police power, until eventually the police became so powerful they required no written authorization at all. After this new decree the police and the SA embarked on waves of arrests, many of which were settling scores with political opponents of the Nazis. People arrested during this time, political opponents especially were often subjected to appalling brutality. This repression was accompanied by a Nazi election campaign in which Hitler made a virtue of having no concrete policies at all.The campaign had no definite programme, more of a hopeful mood, promising a re-establishment of the once great German nation, and a certainty of revenge upon the various groups that had supposedly brought about Germany’s downfall.
Hitler was acutely perceptive of what his audience wanted to hear, and catered his speechs and policy ideas to whatever crowd he was talking to. Peasants and farmers would hear how they were the backbone of the German nation, workers were told about how the Nazis would liberate them from the hold of their capitalist employers, and conversely industrialists and heads of industry were lured by promises of a new more efficient German economy. Hitler’s personal and inclusive style gave the German people hope and many of them began to believe that Hitler could be the one to rescue Germany. In the March elections the Nazis polled 52% of the national vote, which worked out as 340 of the 647 Reichstag seats. Contrary to Hitler’s propaganda talk this clearly indicated that support for the ‘national uprising was less than total.The once peaceful Reichstag had now turned into little more than one of the Nazis rowdy meetings, and with SA and SS men lining the walls, taking their turns to shout threats and insults at opposition politicians as they entered the building, the fateful Enabling Law was passed with a majority of 444 to 94.
This new Enabling Law gave the Nazis the power to pass budgets and laws, including those that altered the constitution, for four years without parliamentary approval. There was no need to bring about a new Nazi constitution as most parts of the Weimar Constitution had been now nullified and keeping the old constitution also gave the Nazis an air of legality and also continuity.Opposition parties were either eliminated or dissolved themselves. The Communist Party was banned on the 7th March 1933, the Social Democrats on the 22nd June and all related trades unions were ‘co-ordinated’ by the Nazis. In real terms this meant their leaders being arrested, assets seized and members being forcibly enrolled in the German Labour Front. Suddenly the rich political culture of Weimar Germany had gone in an instant.
On the 14th July the NSDAP became the only legal political party in Germany, on the grounds that opposition to the Nazis was illegal. Was this political modernization from Hitler and the Nazis? In a sense, yes as to achieve their goals and implement their policies the Nazis needed to dramatically change the German political landscape, and with guile and cunning, Hitler, by passing the Enabling Law had achieved this dramatic change and was now able to begin to implement his own twisted ideology. Although modernization is generally associated with improvement and looking towards the future, for the German people this Nazi modernization was looking more towards the past than the future in their ideologies, and in the long term the Nazi regime was certainly not an improvement for the German people and their country.
In terms of social modernization what did the Nazis bring to Germany? Like in Italy, the government realized that the media was an immensely powerful propaganda tool, and by March 1933 Goebbels had gained control of the state radio, with a proportion of the licence fee being channelled directly into his Ministry of Propaganda, which now provided news bulletins directly to the regional stations. The Nazis mass produced radio sets and they were so cheap that between 1933 and 1941 German radio ownership had gone up from four to sixteen million. For the few people that could not afford radio sets, there were six thousand loudspeakers in public places. Germanys immensely large and varied press was also about to be taken over by the Nazi’s. Jewish owners of newspapers were bought out at tiny fractions of their businesses worth as part of Nazi ‘Aryanisation’ measures, and industrialists that were friendly with the Nazis were able to buy up struggling regional newspapers so that eventually one company Eher Verlag and its associates controlled 82.
5% of the German press.There was now a Reich Association of the German Press which all journalists were now part of, excluding the thirteen hundred Jewish and ‘Marxist’ journalists that had been sacked or fled the country by 1935. Only those who passed the Nazis racial and political screening could work as journalists at all, and they could not write anything even slightly critical of the government for fear of severe punishment. Under the October 1933 Editors Law the responsibilities of editors to the government became absolute and now whatever was published became the editors own legal responsibility, therefore placing the onus upon editors themselves not to let anything critical become published. The Nazis, unlike Mussolini and the Italian Fascists, had complete and utter control over the German media, and through such strong repressive measures they were able to achieve the changes they wanted to bring about. However although the Italian Fascists did arrest and execute opponents, their repression was not on the same scale as the Nazis, and I believe this was why they could not achieve the same level of change and modernization as the Nazis.
To put it simply I belive the more repressive the regime and the more fear amongst the population, the easier it is to engineer social and political change.