What Was Fascism?

Why is fascism such an elusive object of inquiry? As Robert Paxton notes at the outset of his study, the image of fascism has a deceptive clarity:

Everyone is sure they know what fascism is. The most self-consciously visual of all political forms, fascism presents itself to us in vivid primary images: a chauvinist demagogue haranguing an ecstatic crowd; disciplined ranks of marching youths, colored-shirted militants beating up members of some demonized minority….

But it has proved uncommonly hard to define the nature of fascism, to determine how widely the notion can usefully be applied, or what differentiates it from other political movements and regimes. Historians are mostly in agreement that fascism was a phenomenon of pan-European significance. One of the first important comparative studies of fascism, Ernst Nolte’s Three Faces of Fascism, wrote of interwar Europe as the “epoch of fascism.” Even grouping together the two major regimes commonly described as “fascist,” Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, is far from uncontroversial.

The late Renzo De Felice, the author of a monumental biography of Mussolini and the most influential historian of Italian fascism, denied that national socialism could legitimately be classed as a type of fascism. Although Hannah Arendt refused to consider Italian fascism as a form of totalitarianism, De Felice pointed out that “the totalitarian state” was a central feature of the Italian regime’s definition of itself. But he was skeptical of any general concept of totalitarianism applied to the Italian case. Mussolini’s “totalitarian state” was sui generis. It is understandable that Italians should wish to distance themselves from the horrors of national socialism, but the amount of killing and terror is not an altogether satisfactory basis for classifying regimes. We can describe Kadar’s Hungary as “communist” without implying that it was similar to Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China.

Paxton argues that in both fascist Italy and Nazi Germany the exercise of power was originally based on a similar coalition consisting of the leader, the party, the bureaucracy, and traditional institutions. But he writes that the results were different:

It was the relative weight among leader, party, and traditional institutions that distinguished one case from the other. In Italy, the traditional state wound up with supremacy over the party, largely because Mussolini feared his own most militant followers….In Nazi Germany, the party came to dominate the state and civil society, especially after war began.

It is possible that this conclusion underrates the importance of race to Nazi thinking, which had its logical corollary (here Hannah Arendt was right) in the doctrine of the supremacy of the movement and its leader—as the embodiment of racial ideology—over the legal and administrative state. Mussolini’s totalitarianism might appear a very ramshackle and incomplete affair if one compares it to Hitler’s …

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