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Background to Fascism and an Overview of Nazi Germany

Excerpted from the book Poverty, Wealth Dictatorship, Democracy: Resource Scarcity and the Origins of Dictatorship by Jack Barkstrom.

June 30, 1934 would come to be known as the "Night of the Long Knives." Adolf Hitler, fearful of losing power and convinced that rivals within his party were ready to betray him, ordered the murder of many of the people who had helped bring him to power. When the SS was through, perhaps as many as 100 people had been killed, some executed after being arrested and tortured, others assassinated in their homes.

It was something of an irony that many of the victims were leaders of Hitler's own SA (Sturmabteilung or Storm Detachment). The irony was that Hitler would destroy the very groups which had contributed so much to his political power. A lesser irony was that Hitler should draw his strength from working-class groups and the economic problems of workers, while being vehemently opposed to the labor movement. Unemployment, which increased in severity after the Great Depression began, caused many workers to join the SA. With increasing economic problems and unemployment, the political power of the SA and of Hitler, had grown. Yet Hitler would take decisive steps to eliminate the trade unions, even using the SA to carry out his directives. In March 1933 the SA and police began a campaign designed to destroy labor organizations, attacking and arresting union members and taking over their buildings.

Hitler's moves against the unions were only one example of the political repression which occurred under the Nazis. In its suppression of the unions, Nazi German differed little from the Soviet Union. It was a dictatorship complete with a secret police. Where Germany did differ from Russia was in the economic sphere. Nazi Germany had more resources than Russia. At the same time, its resource wealth was not at a level comparable to that of democracies, such as the U.S. or Britain. Fascist governments, if they represent a different form of dictatorship than communism, arise under resource conditions somewhere between the resource-starved economies conducive to communism and the resource-rich environment where democracies thrive.

What is Nazism or Fascism?

Those who study fascism have found it difficult to come up with a clear definition of what of fascism is. Although Germany represents the most prominent example, the fascist "phenomenon" was not confined to Germany. The reason for the focus on Germany has primarily been related to the scale of the destruction which followed in the wake of Hitler's rule - the war which he began caused the deaths of nearly 40 million people and some six million people are believed to have died in the Nazi death camps. Perhaps it is the deliberate and grotesque way in which people were killed - in gas chambers - which focuses our attention, (although Russian secret police methods of execution could be just as diabolical). Perhaps it is simply the way in which the victims - Jews or gypsies - were chosen.

There were fascist movements in many of the countries of Western Europe. They did not achieve the same notoriety as Germany; some because they were unable to seize power, others because they did not possess Hitler's single-minded obsession with a goal far beyond merely staying in power. Where they did succeed however, they employed dictatorial methods similar to those of Hitler - opposing political parties were outlawed and political dissent was suppressed. Italy, not Germany, was in fact the first fascist regime. There were also fascist governments in Spain, Hungary, Romania, and Austria.

There is a temptation to approach fascism as a single event or unique phenomenon. Everything which occurred in the political and governmental realm can be explained by the personality of the individuals who led the movements. Fascism may be better analyzed however, by treating the political and governmental aspects separately. In other words, the political forces which brought fascist leaders to power were not identical to the bureaucratic mechanisms they used once they had taken over. Clearly Hitler put his own 'Nazi' stamp on the German government, once in power. At the same time, despite the strength of his personality and the scale of devastation which followed in his wake, his actual impact on the governmental bureaucracy may be somewhat exaggerated. If Hitler took pains to inspire the Gestapo and SS with a fanatical devotion, he was largely unconcerned with the routine activities of governmental file-clerks. Explaining fascist governments, in the context of day-to-day operations, may be an easier task than understanding the political motivations and beliefs behind the movements.

The one idea which fascists were identified with (or by), in every country, was a hatred of communism. What they were for seemed to depend on the country. There was a certain nationalism involved in most cases, which combined with an expansionist foreign policy. However, dreams of military conquest were often tailored to military capabilities. If Mussolini had wanted to truly resurrect the Roman Empire he so admired, he would have looked north to challenge Germany or England. Instead he settled on North Africa where desert tribes would be no match for his tanks or machine guns. Hitler, with a fully mechanized army, could dream of conquering Europe. Franco, although an army general, recognized that Spain lacked the military resources of either Germany or Italy. Military conquest was left off his agenda.

In very basic ways, fascism, like communism or any other political movement, depended on 'great' ideas to inspire a mass of people. Communism was more universal in its appeal - its goal was to help the masses in their struggle against capitalist oppression. It provided workers with a sense of belonging to a larger movement. If fascism provided a similar sense of belonging, the appeal was couched in terms of the individual country involved. Hitler's group was the mystical Nordic race to which all true Germans belonged while Mussolini rallied Italians to the ancient Roman Empire created by their ancestors.(1)

Those who have wrestled with the definitional problems surrounding fascism have tended to focus on the "crowd mentality," summarized bluntly by the question "Why did so many Germans blindly follow Hitler?" If the question suggests some trance-like crowd mentality, it is misleading in its factual assumptions. Not all Germans blindly followed Hitler or believed in his programs. Although Josef Goebbels' films of mass rallies gave the impression of fanatical adherents, behind the scenes it was the secret police who maintained order. If Hitler found mass support helpful on the road to power, he did not find it necessary once power had been achieved. A democratic majority was not necessary to the exercise of political power.

While the makeup of Hitler's followers gave him a powerful political base, the Nazi phenomenon cannot be explained in purely psychological terms. There were economic forces at work as well. Hitler came to power against a backdrop of hardship and unemployment. These conditions were not unique to Germany. In fact democracies, such as England and the United States, had to endure them.

There was one ingredient in the political equation which was present in greater amounts in the 'fascist' countries - violence. Whether it was caused by unemployment, the worst periods of violence seemed to coincide with some of the highest periods of unemployment. In Germany in 1932, there were some 5,575,000 unemployed, out of a total work force of 18,093,000, or a 30.8 percent unemployment rate. In the two months leading up to the Reichstag elections in July, there were 461 political riots reported by the Prussian police. In these riots 82 people were killed and 400 seriously injured. The number of deaths in 1932 was 84 Nazis and 52 communists. It is believed that the number of injured in 1932 totaled 9,715. (2)

Italy had gone through similar economic problems and a similar period of violence some ten years before. Mussolini made his famed March on Rome on October 28, 1922. During the two years which preceded the march as many as 300 fascists and 3,000 anti-fascists were killed in political fighting. Italy's unemployment rate was not as high as Germany's would be, but it was substantial. In the early part of 1922, it stood at 602,000, out of a total industrial work force of 4 million, or an unemployment rate of 15 percent. For those who were working, particularly agricultural laborers, the wages were just a little above subsistence levels.

In Italy the violence had an almost comical aspect. Rather than throwing stones or engaging in fist fights, the fascists brought in artillery and tanks. In some cases they threatened towns with these weapons to force elected officials out. In the autumn of 1922, political assaults occurred at the rate of 12 a day. In one incident in 1921, a group of fascists invaded the house of a local co-operative and forced the workers to run a gauntlet of knives and clubs. Thirty-eight people were stabbed, including old men, disabled soldiers, and a 14-year old. In February 1921 fascists murdered a communist leader in Florence after their afternoon procession was the object of a bomb attack. In one battle at Scandicci, the police and fascist squadistri attempted to storm positions held by workers. After being driven back they returned with artillery and armored cars, broke down the barricades and demolished the People's House. Workers in the town of Empoli became so nervous, that they fired on a lorry containing naval mechanics, simply on the rumor that it was a force of fascists. Eight were killed and ten were wounded. In August 1922, the fascists captured the city of Milan after three hours of fighting, burned the socialist presses and buildings, and threw the socialist government out. At Fiume they not only attacked the city but captured a destroyer, in retaliation for the killing of a fascist.

Spain experienced a period of violence not unlike that in Italy. In October 1934, the Socialists had tried to overthrow the government. By the time the revolt was put down over 1,000 people were dead. In the next eighteen months there were violent street demonstrations and strikes which culminated in the actual outbreak of Civil War in July 1936.

On the other side of the world, Japan, with its seemingly docile and conformist society, was rocked by political violence in the 1930s. Right-wing radicals killed the prime minister in 1931, along with other government officials. Still dissatisfied with official policy in 1932 they again targeted the prime minister for assassination, and were successful. In what was called the February 26 Incident in 1936, army officers went on a murder spree in which they killed the Lord Privy Seal, the Finance Minister, a Naval Admiral, the Inspector General of Military Training, the brother-in-law of the Prime Minister, as well as guards and servants.

Economic Transformation and the Emergence of Fascism

The violence associated with the fascist period represented the extremes to which political expression would go, although it was symptomatic of deeper societal problems. On the economic side, unemployment, itself a serious problem, was also a symptom of a more serious problem underneath - the basic economic structure was undergoing change. Small businesses and merchants were losing wealth and power to large banks and industrialists. Small artisans and workers were losing out to large factories, with their increasingly automated methods of production. The strength of the labor movement and the level of unrest may have been different in each country, but labor problems existed, in one form or another, in each country where fascism made an appearance, whether in Germany or Italy, or in Spain or Japan.

Labor unrest could be attributed, in part, to increasing industrialization. With an increase in the size of the labor force there would be an expected increase in the number of problems. Ancient Rome and Revolutionary France were proof of that. At the same time the turmoil surrounding the fascist period is not totally explained by the growth in the labor force, or a market economy increasingly dominated by industry. There was something else - an economic circumstance which made the labor market unstable. It was all in the timing. The problem for workers was, not so much that they would enter the labor market, but that they would enter it at a time when the markets for the goods they produced were growing weaker. Specifically, markets were at the saturation point. If workers had come to rely on the market for survival, the level of dependence was out of all proportion to what the market could sustain. Employment, at a level desired by workers, in other words, was becoming a burden which the market could not support.

Whether the term instability could be accurately applied to the overall economic situation is not clear. Market saturation is simply an economic phenomenon, not in every case an indication of economic turmoil. However, when one particular sector of an economy experiences radical swings which make it unreliable as a predictor, it could be considered unstable. That would clearly be the case with labor markets when workers could not depend on them to provide employment from one day to the next. In the case of the fascist period, economic instability had the potential to spill over into the political realm, creating instability there.

Germany, in modern eyes, has been seen to be a model for mechanization and industrialization. Perhaps part of the reason is that the superiority of its technology was self-evident as German armies marched across Europe in the Second World War. Yet, technological advancement was a relatively recent development. In the 1800s Germany was still a largely rural society. In 1849 sixty-four percent of the population of Prussia lived in rural areas.(3) At the same time it was growing more difficult to survive by working the land. Peasants, as well as land owners, were struggling.

The growing market for industrial goods seemed to offer a solution. If weaker agricultural markets were eliminating the need for agricultural workers, those displaced were welcome to work in the factories. The urban working class began to grow in numbers. If the newly emerging markets of the industrial revolution seemed invincible at the time, it was only by comparison to weakening agricultural markets. Markets, which were strong in 1860, could weaken over time, creating problems which would appear in the 1930s. The problem was neither unique to Germany nor limited to a particular time period. Italy experienced similar problems in the 1920s. Both the German and Italian economies had the capability to physically produce enough to sustain their populations but neither economy could sustain the market demand necessary to keep workers fully employed.

In Italy, weakness in the market for goods and for labor evidenced itself, not so much in the lack of jobs, but in low wages. Factory owners would have argued that there were plenty of jobs available for those willing to work - suggesting that market demand for manufactured goods was, in fact, quite strong. Yet, if demand was strong and people could find jobs, why was there so much dissatisfaction among workers? Over a million industrial workers participated in 1,663 strikes in 1919 and their agricultural counterparts, some 500,000 laborers, participated in another 208 strikes. In 1920, the number of farm laborers who participated in strikes had grown to around a million, although there were only 189 agrarian strikes.  The number of industrial workers who struck in 1920 remained the same, about a million, but the number of strikes had increased to 1,881.(4)

Why would strikes be an indication of market weakness? The large number of workers involved suggests just the opposite. If demand for goods had not been strong, why would factories have hired so many people in the first place? That fact alone would normally settle the argument. Unfortunately, it must be reconciled with the high level of discontent, which was related to low wages. How can strong market demand be reconciled with low wages? There was clearly some basic demand for manufactured goods or they would not have sold at all. Yet demand was only there so long as prices remained low. When prices were raised demand disappeared or was seriously weakened. Can demand really be described as "strong" if the market places price conditions on demand?

A political movement, such as fascism, is not explained away by suggestions that labor unrest was the cause. At the same time, fascist movements seemed to draw strength from a worsening economic situation. In Germany, the Nazis benefited directly from unemployment. As the number of unemployed grew, membership in the SA increased. In Italy sluggish economic conditions contributed to an increase in fascist ranks. Ironically, it was defections from labor which contributed to fascist support. Labor had proved to be an early and formidable opponent of Mussolini.

If labor unrest served as the backdrop to the fascist movement, there was a certain paradox in its operation. Hitler was openly antagonistic to labor, focusing particularly on its hated communist associations, while appealing to industrialists and large landowners. Mussolini adopted a more conciliatory stance toward, even forming his own organization of trade unions, which claimed some 500,000 members in 1922.(5) If he was less openly antagonistic he eventually took steps to curb their power. Hitler developed a strong following among the middle class - small shopkeepers, teachers and professionals - not necessarily unemployed, but threatened by economic circumstances.

If fascism grew out of economic difficulties, what was at its center? Was it primarily a belief system with economic origins? It has been said that people were seeking an answer to the chaos and destruction of the Twentieth Century. The technological advances which had promised to better mankind had instead produced massive battlefield deaths in the First World War and widespread unemployment and depression in the period after. Whether Hitler was right or wrong, he at least provided his followers with a sense of purpose. Certainty was one defense against a chaotic world. On the other hand, was fascism, at heart, an economic program which adopted certain beliefs to lend legitimacy to its goals. That view suggests it was just another political program, whose success could be attributed more to leadership skills, than to real problem-solving. Hitler, the consummate politician, was simply adept at tailoring his message to a particular audience. That may better explain why he could attract support from groups with potentially conflicting views. Workers and industrialists, traditionally at war with each other, found common ground in Hitler's message. They were joined by individuals from the middle class.

Did the answer come down to only two choices - between fascism, the belief system, and fascism, the economic program - or was the answer even simpler? Was fascism simply a political luxury which urban societies could afford to indulge from time to time? Why did Russia, which experienced economic difficulties, labor unrest, and political turmoil, not evolve into a fascist dictatorship? If Stalin's Russia has been classified as a dictatorship, what emerged in Russia has never been confused with the dictatorship of Hitler's Germany. In fact, the political concept of fascism is somehow foreign to Russia. What made the Soviet dictatorship different? The basic answer is Joseph Stalin. He looked to a bureaucratic solution rather than an uncontrollable mass movement, when it came to a political base of support.

Joseph Stalin aside, there are other obvious differences between Russia and Germany. Where Hitler had drawn support from both the middle class and industrialists in Germany, their power was inconsequential in Russia, for two reasons: first, there was no middle class to speak of in Russia and second, if the industrialists had once held any power, it was now in the hands of the state. Another difference was in the need for popular support. It played a smaller role in political decision-making in Russia. Where Hitler made an effort to enlist popular support through public rallies, Stalin focused more on maintaining Party support, while ignoring public opinion. Finally, unemployment or uncertainty about the job market, was the least of economic worries for the typical Russian worker. Russia did not avoid all problems with unemployment. In 1924 there were 1.46 million unemployed out of an urban labor force of about 8.5 million workers, or 17 percent. In 1929 there were 1.6 million unemployed. (6)

Russia, for all the industrial development which the Five-Year plans imply, remained largely rural. Even in 1939, the urban population of Russia was only 33 percent of the total. In 1926, the urban labor force in Russia was 22.6 million, out of a total population of around 147 million, or 15 percent of the population.(7) Germany, in 1932, had a total labor force of around 18 million, out of a total population of around 65 million people or roughly 27 percent of its population. The fact that Russia's work force was smaller did not prevent labor problems. Strikes had been a serious problem during the 1905 Revolution and in the February Revolution of 1917.

Russia seemed disadvantaged in nearly every way, when it came to industrialization. For all its problems however, Russia's weakness gave it one clear advantage. Because industry was incapable of producing enough it was unlikely that market demand could ever be satisfied. Market saturation was an unlikely possibility, given the fact that resources were scarce and industrial capacity limited. The same could not be said of the industrialized economies of the West. Market saturation was the problem for German industry. One other factor combined with market saturation to threaten the worker - in a word, automation. Even as German factories came close to achieving market saturation, that "goal" could be accomplished with fewer and fewer workers.

If there was a spiritual dimension to these economic circumstances, one that might tempt people to follow a Hitler, it lay in the psychological impact on those most vulnerable to economic pressures, the workers and middle class. German workers not only faced unemployment, but a society which provided them no alternative means of survival. By implication, those who were unemployed and ignored by the economy, were unneeded by  society as a whole. If the Russian worker risked starvation in hard economic times, if he risked death or imprisonment at the hands of the secret police, he at least was needed by the Soviet economy. So long as that economic need existed his place in Russian society was secure.

Surprisingly, there was one area in which the economic policies of Nazism and communism was similar, that of industrial syndicates or trusts. Following the nationalization of industry in Russia in June 1918, production had been organized into trusts, based on the type of industry involved. Nazi Germany stopped short of nationalization, but it did authorize the government to create industrial cartels in July 1933. Some 30 existing cartels were reorganized under the law and 28 new cartels had been formed by November.(8) The government set production quotas, determined prices, and controlled wages. Italy, in September 1926, organized industry into twelve national syndicates, which were converted into 22 national corporations in 1934.(9)


(1) Stanley G. Payne, "A History of Fascism: 1914-1945," The University of Wisconsin Press, (Madison, WI 1995), p. 217.

(2) Stanley G. Payne, "A History of Fascism," p. 171.

(3) William Carr, "A History of Germany: 1815-1990," Fourth ed., Edward Arnold, (New York, NY 1991), p. 171.

(4) Stanley G. Payne, "A History of Fascism," p. 89.

(5) Stanley G. Payne, "A History of Fascism," p. 104.

(6) Alec Nove, "An Economic History of the U.S.S.R.: 1917-1991," 3rd ed., Penguin Books, (New York, NY 1992), p. 112.

(7) Moshe Lewin, "The Making of the Soviet System," p. 219.

(8) Daniel Guerin, "Fascism and Big Business," Pathfinder Press, (New York, NY 1973), p. 104.

(9) Stanley G. Payne, "A History of Fascism," pp. 115-116.