While socialism (particularly Marxism) came into existence as a clearly formulated theory or program based on a specific interpretation of history, fascism introduced no systematic exposition of its ideology or purpose other than a negative reaction against socialist and democratic egalitarianism. The growth of democratic ideology and popular participation in politics in the 19th cent. was terrifying to some conservative elements in European society, and fascism grew out of the attempt to counter it by forming mass parties based largely on the middle classes and the petty bourgeoisie, exploiting their fear of political domination by the lower classes. Forerunners of fascism, such as Georges Boulanger in France and Adolf Stöker and Karl Lueger in Germany and Austria, in their efforts to gain political power played on people's fears of revolution with its subsequent chaos, anarchy, and general insecurity. They appealed to nationalist sentiments and prejudices, exploited anti-Semitism, and portrayed themselves as champions of law, order, Christian morality, and the sanctity of private property.
The Russian Revolution (1917), the collapse of the Central Powers in 1918, and the disorders caused by Communist attempts to seize power in Germany, Italy, Hungary, and other countries greatly strengthened fascism's appeal to many sections of the European populace. In Italy, particularly, social unrest was combined with nationalist dissatisfaction over the government's failure to reap the promised fruits of victory after World War I. The action of Gabriele D'Annunzio in seizing Fiume (Rijeka) was one manifestation of the discontent existing in Italy. Appealing to the masses and especially to the lower middle class through demagogic promises of order and social justice, the fascists could depend upon support, financial and otherwise, from vested interests, who could not muster such popularity themselves.
Governmental paralysis enabled Mussolini in 1922 to obtain the premiership by a show of force. As leader of his National Fascist party, he presented himself as the strong-armed savior of Italy from anarchy and Communism. Borrowing from Russian Communism a system of party organization based on a strict hierarchy and cells, which became typical of fascism everywhere, he made use of an elite party militia—the Black Shirts—to crush opposition and to maintain his power.
In Germany at about the same time a fascist movement similar to that in Italy steadily gathered strength; it called itself the National Socialist German Workers' party (Nazi party). Its leader, Adolf Hitler, won support from a middle class ruined by inflation, from certain elements of the working class, especially the unemployed, and from discontented war veterans; he also gained the backing of powerful financial interests, to whom he symbolized stability and order. However, it was not until 1933 that Hitler could carry through his plans for making Germany a fascist state and the National Socialists the sole legal party in the country.
The military aggression so inherent in fascist philosophy exploded in the Italian invasion (1935) of Ethiopia, the attack (1936) of the Spanish fascists (Falangists) on their republican government (see Spanish civil war), and Nazi Germany's systematic aggression in Central and Eastern Europe, which finally precipitated (1939) World War II.
The Italian Social Movement (MSI), a minor neofascist party, was formed in Italy in 1946. It won wider support when the pervasive corruption of the governing parties was exposed in the early 1990s, and it became a partner in the conservative government formed after the 1994 elections. In 1995, however, the MSI dissolved itself as it was transformed into a new party headed by former MSI leader Gianfranco Fini and including the majority of former MSI members. Fini's right-wing National Alliance rejected fascist ideology, including anti-Semitism, and embraced democracy as one of its principles and has participated in center-right governing coalitions.
In postwar West Germany, neofascism appeared in the form of the temporary growth of the nationalistic National Democratic party in the mid-1960s. Following German reunification, neo-Nazi groups in the country gained increased prominence, with new members being drawn to the organization as a result of social upheaval and economic dislocation, and the nation experienced an increase in related violence, especially attacks on immigrants and foreigners. Neo-Nazi groups also exist on a small scale in the United States, and right-wing nationalistic movements and parties in countries such as France, Russia, and some republics of the former Yugoslavia have political groups with elements of fascism. For many of these parties, however, ethnic and racial animosity is often more significant than fascist philosophy.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.