How Fascism Works

Men of War Image Gallery German dictator Adolf Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini drive through Rome in 1938. Mussolini defined the idea of Fascism and the all-powerful State. See more pictures of men of war.
Keystone/Getty Images

In ­1922­, Benito Mussolini gained control of Italy a­nd introduced the world to fascism, a political philosophy that eventually brought the world to war. Mussolini didn't invent the idea of fascism, but he coined the term and defined it. In 1932, Mussolini wrote in the Italian Encyclopedia that fascism "believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of peace" [source: Fordham].

In fascism, the State is all that matters, and constant conquest -- war -- is a necessity for the glory of that State. The glory of the people comes by extension. "War alone," wrote Mussolini, "brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage­ to meet it" [source: Fordham].

­"Fascism" is a word thrown around a lot these days. Some people use it to describe any authoritarian person or government, especially one that pursues its will by violent means. But authoritarianism is only part of the philosophy. Communism under­ Josef Stalin was authoritarian and extraordinarily violent, but fascism stands in direct opposition to communism. It embodies a philosophy of extremism that seems completely foreign to modern values but in fact still exists today in small pockets around the world.

In this article, we'll look closely at fascism, find out what the term really means and how the ideology has been used to unite nations and divide the world. We'll also see what conditions must exist for fascism to seem appealing on a broad scale. What does it take for millions of individuals to support a philosophy that explicitly negates their personal value?

A Fascist System

Fascist regimes use violent suppression to maintain control of the State. Mussolini inspects the "Shock Troops" of the Fascist Militia during celebrations in Rome.
Fascist regimes use violent suppression to maintain control of the State. Mussolini inspects the "Shock Troops" of the Fascist Militia during celebrations in Rome.
Keystone/Getty Images

The Fascist State is itself conscious and has itself a will and a personality…

- Mussolini, "Fascism," the Italian Encyclopedia, 1932

Fascism is notoriously difficult to define, because there is no single philosophy of fascism. Mussolini's brand of Fascism (capital "F") is not exactly like Adolf Hitler's brand of fascism (lowercase "f"), which is different from the skinheads' neo-fascist and post-World War II beliefs. Still, there are some core principles that can identify a fascist movement:

  • Survival of the fittest: Some fascist philosophers were influenced by the writings of Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection. In the context of fascism, the State is only as powerful as its ability to wage wars and win them. The State is thereby selected for survival due to its strength and dominance. Peace is viewed as weakness, aggression as strength. Strength is the ultimate good and ensures the survival of the State.
  • Strict social order: Fascism maintains a strict class structure. In this way, it's the antithesis of communism, which abolishes class distinctions. Fascism believes that clearly divided classes are necessary to avoid any hint of chaos, which is a threat to the State. The State's power depends on the maintenance of a class system in which every person has a definite, unchangeable, specific role in glorifying the state. It's an absolute rejection of humanism and democracy.
  • Authoritarian leadership: The State's interests require a single, charismatic leader with absolute authority. This is the concept of Führerprinzip, "the leadership principle" in German -- that it's necessary to have an all-powerful, heroic leader to maintain the unity and unquestioning submission required by the fascist State. This leader often becomes a symbol of the State.

Fascist regimes are also typically violent. In fascist ideology, the State cannot achieve and maintain power without strict discipline and the complete unity of mind and body. In this way, physical violence is necessary to suppress anyone who stands outside the group and in the way of the State's power. The State's ever-increasing strength is, in effect, the meaning of life.

One might wonder, then, what life is like in a fascist society. How exactly does one live for the glory of the State? We'll learn how in the next section.

The Fascist Society

Fascist regimes must cultivate the State's youth and impress the people with rallies and displays of power. Hitler addresses Hitler Youth members at Nuremberg in 1938.
Fascist regimes must cultivate the State's youth and impress the people with rallies and displays of power. Hitler addresses Hitler Youth members at Nuremberg in 1938.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

… the [individual] is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone …

- Mussolini, "Fascism," the Italian Encyclopedia, 1932

While the fascist State is the center of the universe, the primary stated goal of fascism is social regeneration -- the lifting up of a particular group of people. Regeneration is achieved through national unity and a rejection of individualism. This type of society requires the people's initial support. A fascist regime generally gains this support by promoting a series of ideas through the media, public rallies and other forms of propaganda. These ideas include:

  • A nation in crisis: The State is in decline, and it's only getting worse. There are two primary causes for this decline -- the variety of racial or ethnic groups in the State, which makes the State "impure" and weakens it; and a conspiracy by certain racial, ethic or national groups to keep the State down.
  • An idealized past: The State is currently damaged but was once supreme. Fascism aspires toward the renewal of the State and its primary ethnic group to some mythical past era of glory.
  • A need for social change: The people must submit to major changes, a new social structure and way of life, in order to achieve this revival.

Fascism arises from poor socio-economic conditions -- like those of post-World War I Europe or post-World War II Japan. The countries that were defeated in World War I suffered greatly from the restrictions placed on them after the war. In Germany, the general population (the working class) suffered. A fascist form of government promised a return to a better life and a better position in the world. The German race simply needed to retake its rightful place of superiority.

But here's the twist: While the race is superior, the members of that race mean nothing. In fascism, individuals exist only in relation to the State. The principles of democracy and capitalism, which stemmed from the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, stood in the way of the power of the State. In fascist terms, these trends based on concepts of individuality, equality and positive self-interest, limited the unity and the drive for survival necessary for social renewal. Mussolini wrote in 1932, "Fascism denies […] the absurd conventional truth of political equality […] the myth of 'happiness' and indefinite progress" [source: Fordham].

By dispelling the myth of happiness as absurd, the fascist society is able to constrain its people and convince them to submit for the greater good. People cannot gather without permission, and they can't say anything negative against the State. Instead, they are submerged in an extreme sense of national and ethnic unity. Political youth groups recruit the youngest members of society, teach them about the State and entrust them with its survival and its power. Fascism glorifies youth, which makes sense if you consider the ideal of survival of the fittest -- the young are the strongest and the fittest.

State-sponsored rallies and parades dominate social life, national flags and imposing monuments loom over the landscape, and State holidays fill the calendar. These symbols and celebrations have a religious quality. They encourage absolute faith only this faith is in the State, not in God. Fascism in general is against any religion besides nationalism.

Of course, not all societies aspire to the same goals. How did Mussolini's Fascism differ from Hitler's? How has fascism evolved with the times and changing world conditions? Find out in the next section.


Fascism History

Fascism relies on not only on the people's fear, but on their enthusiasm as well. These girls cheer for Mussolini in 1935 after the end of their summer camp.
Fascism relies on not only on the people's fear, but on their enthusiasm as well. These girls cheer for Mussolini in 1935 after the end of their summer camp.
Keystone/Getty Images

Fascism was at its height between 1918 and 1945 -- the end of World War I through the end of World War II. Europe's general upheaval during that period left it receptive to fascist ideology. But there were differences between in the ideology's implementation. In Italy, for instance -- the home base of the Catholic Church -- complete rejection of organized religion was unwise. Mussolini claimed ties to the Catholic Church when it suited the State's best interests, and the Catholic Church was at times accused of being part of Fascist rule. Hitler occasionally proclaimed himself a protector of the Church. Yet he openly destroyed members of religious minorities -- most notably Jews but also Jehovah's Witnesses and others outside of the mainstream.

Another difference between the two most powerful fascist regimes in history was the primary driving force behind their respective military pursuits. While Mussolini focused on conquest primarily to show the strength of the State, Hitler made conquest more of a race issue. Hitler strove to unite the entire Aryan race, a supposed master race from northern European descent. This was a primary drive behind the invasion of neighboring countries like Austria. Hitler believed that Austrians were part of the Aryan race and should thus be part of the German State. With the Aryan race united under his rule, they could conquer the world.

In the end, Hitler failed. When the Axis powers, including Germany and Italy, lost World War II, their fascist regimes became widely viewed as evil. Fascism fell out of favor, inextricably tied to genocide and world war. After World War II, with economic upturns around the world, a sense of having defeated "the bad guys," and the Allies' tight control over defeated countries, the chaos that fascism relies on was mostly gone. Fascism in its original form never again got a strong enough foothold in any country to take control of the government.

But is fascism completely dead? What fascist ideals live on today as fringe movements? Read on to find out about neo-fascism.­


Neo-Nazi groups flourished in the early 1990s after German re-unification led to high unemployment in the former East Germany.
Neo-Nazi groups flourished in the early 1990s after German re-unification led to high unemployment in the former East Germany.
Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

Today, governments that ascribe to some traditionally fascist ideals like racial purity and the dominance of State interests now pursue these ideals in forms like:

  • Anti-immigration laws
  • Small, progressive limitations on civil rights in the name of giving a democratic state more power to protect the populace from external aggressors
  • Isolationist foreign policy
  • Government intervention in means of production to secure the state from shortages and economic downturns.

One fascist value that's now universally rejected is that of military aggression for conquest's sake. That ideal was never successfully transformed into a more middle of the road philosophy.

However, the fall of true fascism in 1945 didn't destroy the movement. Neo-fascism (sometimes "neo-Nazism" if it's specifically based on the views of Hitler) is alive and somewhat well. Mostly, neo-fascism is a variety of small, separate movements through the world that espouse the ideals of power, supremacy and ethnic purity. These groups don't have the power to pursue the military component of fascism, but they do sometimes maintain the violence.

Neo-fascists took responsibility for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995; a series of bombings in Germany in the 1990s targeting immigrants; and several bombings in London in 1999 against racial minorities and homosexuals. On the other hand, there are neo-fascist movements that are strangely sensitive in their pursuit of fascist ideals. Some espouse of a "love of difference" instead of a belief in racial supremacy. They claim to want to prevent inter-racial mingling because difference is a good thing, not because one race is better than another [source: Encyclopeadia Britannica].

While neo-fascism is widespread, so far it hasn't become powerful enough to take hold in any significant way. But not for lack of trying. Neo-fascists attempt to gain support and power the same way other political groups do: legitimate political involvement, literary publications and all sorts of Internet marketing.

For lots more information on fascism and other political philosophies, look over the links on the next page.­

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Benito Mussolini: What is Fascism, 1932. Modern history Sourcebook.
  • Fascism. Encarta.
  • Fascism. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  • Fascism. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
  • Fascism. Oxford University Press.