Hitler, Fascism and Mussolini in World War II

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Introduction

Throughout the course of history, we have witnessed the emergence of leaders around the world who have considerably impacted not only their own countries, but others as well. The names of Hitler and Mussolini are synonymous with tyranny, havoc, genocide and fascist regime. They came to power in their respective countries at a time when there was inflation, depression and devastation. During their rule they ruined many people’s lives and negatively impacted the countries around them. Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler would always seem to come up with the topic of the modern totalitarian regimes. Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Fascist Italy represented two-thirds of the Axis Powers during World War II. Both of these individuals projected a great deal of professional respect for one another, and their collaboration made for arguably one of the most violent imbalances in international power that our history has ever recorded. Both the tyrants share a lot in common, albeit they had their frictions and differences. Hitler’s ideology was more in accord to forward the racial superiority of the Aryan race. Mussolini advocated nationalism based on remembering Rome’s glory.

What is Fascism?

Fascism took its name from the arrangement of rods and axes — the fasces — that had been a symbol of authority in ancient Rome. Soon the term ‘Fascist’ became shorthand for any political group that combined a radical nationalist and social policy and called for dictatorial rule. Fascism is a complex ideology. There are many definitions of fascism; some people describe it as a type or set of political actions, a political philosophy or a mass movement. Although basic features of fascism are a matter of debate, most definitions would imply that fascism is authoritarian and a political ideology that promulgates nationalism at all costs. Fascism is commonly associated with German Nazi and Italian regimes that came to power after World War I, though several other countries have experienced fascist regimes or elements of them.

Mussolini’s 1919 fascism mixed extreme nationalist expansion with social programs like women’s suffrage and workers’ power. Fascist leaders quickly moderated their message, allied with conservatives and the existing governments and gained power. Fascist movements appeared in other European countries that were struggling after World War I or nervous about socialism.

What is Totalitarianism

Totalitarianism, form of government that theoretically permits no individual freedom and that seeks to subordinate all aspects of individual life to the authority of the state. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini coined the term totalitario in the early 1920s to characterize the new fascist state of Italy, which he further described as “all within the state, none outside the state, and none against the state.” By the beginning of World War II, totalitarian had become synonymous with absolute and oppressive single-party government. Other modern examples of totalitarian states include the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler, the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong, and North Korea under the Kim dynasty.

The Rise of Hitler and Mussolini

Both these individuals trace the provenance of their political careers during the First World War. Mussolini and Hitler were both soldiers during the conflict. It is ironical considering that Mussolini was a political journalist and a socialist activist before the war broke out. Hitler volunteered for the Bavarian army as an Austrian national. Both of them developed very discordant perspectives on socialism and communism during the war. Mussolini blamed the socialists for emphasizing class distinctions over nationalistic unity during a time when cohesion was needed for the war effort; Hitler believed that Marxist saboteurs destroyed Germany’s war effort on the home front. Their anti-communism belligerence would play out in their totalitarian policies later.

Although both of these ruthless leaders attained a high degree of power, they demonstrated varying levels of success in their initial efforts to revolt. Mussolini had time to create and disseminate his ideas on fascism and amass quite the following prior to his March on Rome in 1922. In late October 1922, 30,000 Fascist “Brown Shirts” forcibly removed (with the aid of King Victor Emmanuel III) Italy’s Prime Minister from power. Hitler borrowed from this event one year later. Known as the “Beer Hall Putsch,” Hitler and about 2,000 of his supporters attempted to seize power in Munich. However, police intervened which resulted in the death of several of his co-conspirators and Hitler’s imprisonment for treason. Hitler used his time in prison to write his notorious manifesto, “Mein Kampf.” It wasn’t until nearly a decade later – after years of political manipulation and legislative machinations – that Hitler officially resided over Germany.

Mussolini’s Fascism

Mussolini was able to create fear among the Italian middle-class of a Communist revolution in the state and managed to break strikes of the Socialists which made his Fascists Black Shirts popular among those who feared the revolution. Even though some conservatives were not in support of Mussolini, he was seen as the lesser of two evils because for them anything was better than Communism and Socialism.

Mussolini used his skilful propaganda and demagoguery to sway the minds of the masses into considering him a saviour of Italy. He was a charismatic speaker and evoked emotions among the people that gained him popular support. Mussolini though increasingly popular was unable to secure power through constitutional means. The Italian Fascist party only won 35 seats in the election of 1921, far less than the Socialists. Still, Mussolini was determined to win power for himself and his Party. The Black Shirts were well drilled and disciplined. This was a deliberate policy of demonstrating that the Fascists were a force that supported law and order and the opposite of the Communists and Socialists who were seen as dangerous and destabilizing. Giovanni Gentile, who was a well-known Italian philosopher, became the minister of education under Mussolini. Gentile reorganized Italy’s school system. He also wrote many articles and books, clarifying the basic ideas of fascism. Gentile argued that the private desires and interests of the individual came second to the “common will” of the people. The fascist state, he said, put this will of the people into action. Gentile, sometimes called the philosopher of Italian fascism, believed he could combine philosophy with raw power. He once praised Mussolini as being dedicated to Italy in “its honor, its glory, its security and prosperity, and, therefore, in its power and its value in the history of the world.”

Hitler’s Nazism

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Nazism had many facets in common with Italian fascism i its intense nationalism, appealing the masses and dictatorial regime. However, it was far more extreme both in its ideas and its practice; and was emphatically an anti-intellectual and atheoretical movement. The Nazi Party gained huge support after the Depression and by 1932, they were the largest political party in Germany with Hitler as the Chancellor who was given the right to rule by decree. Civil liberties such as habeas corpus and the freedoms of speech and assembly were eliminated, along with all other political parties. Hitler committed mass genocide of the Jews in concentration camps and gas chambers to uphold his notion of Aryan supremacy, known as the Holocaust.

He achieved great popularity by dismantling elements of the hated Versailles Treaty, rearming the German military, expanding the armaments industry, which stimulated economy and provided jobs. He was seen as restoring German honour and strength by rectifying a great injustice. After the outbreak of the war in 1939, Hitler’s popularity eroded but Hitler’s control of Europe through the advances of the Wehrmacht early in the war meant that he also had access to Europe’s Jewish population. By the time his popularity began to erode, the Holocaust had been underway for several years, and the majority of the 6 million Jews who would die in the Holocaust were already dead.

The Alliance Between Them

Hitler was a great admirer of Mussolini, especially in his early years as leader of the Nazi party. The Nazis were also given some financial support by Mussolini from the late 1920s. The Sturmabteilung, which was a paramilitary wing of the Nazi party, benefited from this as their brigade was allowed to train with his own paramilitary brigade, the Blackshirts. When Hitler finally ascended into power in the 1930 German election, he was publicly praised by Mussolini, who hailed it as a victory for his own fascist ideology and he began giving Hitler advice on tactics. This was just for the cameras, though, because in private Mussolini criticised Hitler and his party. He described them as “boring” because of their “unrefined” and “simplistic” ideas. Mussolini was known to be self-obsessed and an egomaniac. He also thought that his ascension to power was more glorious than Hitler’s.

Hitler and Mussolini developed policy around their fascist principles in a very similar fashion. Dissent was treated with violent repression by an overwhelming strong police state in both Italy and Germany. Regime friendly propaganda was widely distributed amongst and consumed by the public. Large scale public works and infrastructure projects propelled both Italy and Germany out of the Great Depression, and laid the foundation for the burgeoning militarization of both countries. The creation of compulsory, nationalist youth indoctrination programs were both landmarks of these totalitarian leaders. Both individuals carried a sense of megalomania too, best demonstrated by their expansionist foreign policies. Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia and supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Hitler’s Third Reich took on the shape of a cancerous tumour on Europe, slowly absorbing mainland Europe through violent occupation.

Their Differences

Despite the above mentioned similarities, Hitler and Mussolini weren’t always on the same page. Mussolini wasn’t as fixated on ethnic or religious identity for the creation of the Italian state. Mussolini didn’t embrace Hitler’s pursuits for a “pure race” of his citizenry. He took a swipe at the Nazis in one of his speeches describing it as a “pity” how the Nazi’s expressed their racial views since the Germans were “the descendants of those who were illiterate when Rome had Caesar, Virgil, and Augustus.” Although several anti-Semitic laws were put into place during Mussolini’s regime, many didn’t occur until the late 1930s as more a “tip of the hat” toward the ever-increasing regime of Hitler. Although Mussolini’s regime is easily characterized by its violent nature, his reign will never hold a candle to the large scale mechanization of death that Hitler manifested during the Holocaust. In fact, Mussolini allowed thousands of persecuted Jews to seek refuge in Italy during Hitler’s reign.

Despite their personal differences, Hitler and Mussolini did manage a degree of co-operation. Germany offered support to Rome during and after the Abyssinian crisis of the mid-1930s. Mussolini had grandiose visions of building a new Italian empire, to replicate the glories of ancient Rome. His first target was Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia), one of the few African kingdoms not yet under European control. In October 1935 Italian troops invaded and occupied much of Abyssinia. Italy was strongly criticised in the League of Nations, however, Hitler – who had pulled Germany out of the League in 1933 – backed Mussolini’s action. German-Italian relations were later boosted by their joint involvement in the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

Another key difference between the two leaders could be observed in their fall from power. After all opposition had been violently squashed, Hitler enjoyed a broad base of support by the German people. Mussolini’s popular appeal waxed and waned over the course of his 21 year reign. In fact, Mussolini was ousted from power in 1943 by his peers through a vote of no confidence. Two years later, Mussolini was murdered alongside his mistress; then their bodies were displayed publicly and desecrated by onlookers and detractors. Only a few days later, with his regime in disrepair following a military surge by the Allied Forces, Hitler committed suicide (also alongside his mistress) in a bunker. Their bodies were carefully carried out of the bunker, and then burned as Soviet forces closed in on Hitler’s headquarters.

Hitler and Mussolini were kindred spirits in the creation, propagation, and decline of dictatorial rule in modern Europe. Their violent rise to power was met with violent ends. Though their similarities were more profound than their differences, it’s hard to argue against the lasting impact both of these historical figures made on how we view the centralization of political power.

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