Fascism is a hard concept to pin down, in no small part due to the many and varied ways it has been used. This is an attempt to bring some light on the subject.
For purposes of these notes, fascism will be considered as a political orientation that encompasses Italian Fascism, German National Socialism, Spanish Falangism, and similar movements that arose in the early 20th century.
Fascism as a slur
Fascist and fascism are often used as simple slurs. The most common target, besides real fascists, are probably police officers and other people who have been entrusted by the government to use and suppress violence at need. Generally, it means the target is perceived to be oppressive, authoritarian, totalitarian, intolerant, repressive, or something else that the speaker has negative feelings about.
As a political or ideological term, this usage is not terribly enlightening; more often it simply serves to muddy the waters and make future discussion impossible.
The fascism of Italy
Italy was the first country where fascists managed to create some sort of ideological program and took power. As such, the fascist movement of Italy lent its name to many other similar political movements that appeared in the early 20th century.
See the useful notes on Fascist Italy for a good overview of fascism in Italy up until 1945.
Fascism as a political movement
Now to the actual meat of these notes, and the fascist core:
Palingenetic ultranationalistic populism
Quite a mouthful, isn't it? Lets try to shed some light on it.
Palingenetic means rebirth or regeneration, more specifically a cleansing such. Once the unwanted elements are washed away, eliminated, or destroyed the remaining old core will bring about a new dawn and reach their proper place.
Ultranationalistic means that the nation, its traditions, and the corresponding sense of unity is paramount. This means that it isn't really possible to import fascism to one country from another—each nation must have its own, and it will express itself in different ways.
Populism means appeal to the masses, usually by appeals to feelings, "common sense", revanchism, or disenfranchisement, and the assertion that the speaker is the true representative of the masses. Often the established elites are the target for this. However, populism in this regard carries a highly elitist core, since the masses are not expected to themselves influence the (self-appointed) leader; they are to follow.
Or in the words of Roger Griffin, the academic who first managed to work out this definition:
Note here that these core traits can to some degree be found in many other political movements, it is the combination of all three that is unique to fascism.
This definition has now largely supplanted the older ones, that mostly focused on "mature" fascism (ie ones that had managed to establish themselves into the political mainstream and maybe even taken power) and on the characteristics of the various fascist movements. The two most well-known such were worked out by Umberto Eco and Stanley Payne. Umberto Eco's essay Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt can be recommended.
Payne, on his part, put up the following "typological definition" of fascism, which mainly is influenced by mature Italian fascism and German national socialism:
- The Fascist Negations:
- Anticonservatism (though with the understanding that fascist groups were willing to undertake temporary alliances with groups from any other sector, most commonly with the right)
- Ideology and Goals:
- Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state based not merely on traditional principles or models
- Organization of some new kind of regulated, multiclass, integrated national economic structure, whether called national corporatist, national socialist, or national syndicalist
- The goal of empire or a radical change in the nation's relationship with other powers
- Specific espousal of an idealist, voluntarist creed, normally involving the attempt to realize a new form of modern, self-determined, secular culture.
- Style and Organization:
- Emphasis on esthetic structure of meetings, symbols, and political choreography, stressing romantic and mystical aspects
- Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and with the goal of a mass party militia
- Positive evaluation and use of, or willingness to use, violence
- Extreme stress on the masculine principle and male dominance, while espousing the organic view of society
- Exaltation of youth above other phases of life, emphasizing the conflict of generations, at least in effecting the initial political transformation
- Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective
Some notes on the national fascisms
Due to the different countries they developed in, the specific problems in those countries, and the personalities of the leaders, historical and contemporary fascisms are quite different from each other. Italian fascism and German national socialism has plenty of apparent and superficial similarities because they evolved at a similar time and had close relations with each other, but also large differences.
Once one leaves the interwar era of Europe, the differences become even more pronounced. Using Paxton's list above, let's take a look at some historical fascist movements:
Major fascist movements and organizations
German National Socialism
See Nazi Germany. This is probably the archetypal example of a fascist movement.
Italian fascism developed into a much less racist ideology than national socialism. More accurately, instead of a biological view of race and national unity, they used one that was mainly based on culture. If someone spoke Italian, embraced the Italian culture and the Roman heritage, they were viewed as good Italians no matter what their genetic heritage was. The main exceptions were Croats (who, strangely enough, were firmly allied with German Nazis) and Slovenes, both of whom were placed in concentration camps. Jews, on the other hand, were comparatively well treated.
Another difference was that some Italian fascists were strongly oriented towards the Catholic Church, in what is known as "clerical fascism", even thought the Holy See's relations with Fascist Italy were strained at best.
The Falangism of Spain was one of the political movements that took part of the Spanish Civil War, though they were later integrated into and suborned under The Franco Regime (which was a more classic far-right dictatorship).
Like the Italian fascists, they had a cultural view of race. Like the German National Socialists, they were proponents of eugenics. It is quite possible that they (or at least some segments of them) were fiercely anti-Semitic, but due to Reconquista and the Inquisition, there were hardly any Jews present anymore, so that didn't develop. Falange is also believed to have had strong ties to the Spanish Catholic Church.
Austrofascism was the ideology espoused by the Fatherland Front, the ruling political organization of the Federal State of Austria. Merged together from multiple political parties and paramilitary organizations, the Fatherland Front ruthlessly suppressed its opponents on both the left (the communists and social democrats) and the right (the Austrian branch of the Nazi Party). While the regime survived a putsch that killed its first leader, Engelbert Dollfuss, it couldn't survive the Anschluss (the Nazi German annexation of Austria), and the Fatherland Front was banned the very next day.
Though Austrofascism claimed to be a unifying movement and sought to overcome political and social divisions, it never enjoyed the full support of Austrian society. Nevertheless, it was more inclusive than many other fascist movements, and even had Jewish paramilitaries incorporated into it. The Austrofascists advocated continued independence from Germany on the basis of protecting Austria's Catholic identity from what it saw as a neighboring country dominated by Protestantism, and was strongly linked with the Austrian Catholic clergy.
The Hungarian Arrow Cross Party
Founded in 1937 by Ferenc Szálasi, the Arrow Cross Party was one of many fascist political parties and factions in Hungary. However, thanks to an effective recruitment system, it was by far the most prominent. When it contested the May 1939 elections, it won 15% of the vote and gained 29 seats in the Hungarian Parliament. This success was short-lived; when World War II broke out later that year, Hungary's government — led by Admiral Miklós Horthy, who acted as the country's regent — banned the Arrow Cross Party, forcing it to operate underground. The party's fortunes changed again when the German military occupied Hungary in March 1944 and forced Horthy's prime minister Miklós Kállay to flee, replacing him with Nazi proxy Döme Sztójay; Sztójay legalized the Arrow Cross Party, enabling it to gain significant influence in Hungary's government and military. Their efforts, however, were frustrated by Horthy, who used his own influence to oppose the efforts of the party and other radical anti-Semites.
But the party's fortunes briefly improved later that year. When Horthy's attempts to secretly negotiate a ceasefire with the Red Army were discovered in October 1944, the Arrow Cross Party overthrew his government in a Nazi-backed coup called Operation Panzerfaust. Szálasi replaced him as head of state. His rule lasted only 163 days before he fled to Germany to escape capture as the Soviet and Romanian forces began closing in, and Arrow Cross rule over Hungary didn't last much longer. Szálasi was convicted of war crimes and high treason by a Hungarian tribunal in 1946 and hanged later that year.
Ideologically, the Arrow Cross Party added elements of Hungarian Turanism to a mix of "classical" fascism and Nazism. Not content with merely hating Jews, the Arrow Cross Party extended its bigotry to all Semitic peoples. It was also more economically populist than many other fascist movements, advocating for workers' rights and land reform. Despite the party's Nazi influences, it often disagreed with certain aspects of Nazism and many of the Nazi regime's policies and plans.
The Romanian Iron Guard
Officially named the Legion of the Archangel Michael, the Iron Guard was founded in 1927 by Corneliu Zelea Codreanu. Garnering a large support base from among the country's peasantry and intelligentsia, the Iron Guard rejected Romania's traditional Francophile tendenciesnote ; instead promoting a xenophobic, exclusive ultranationalism where Romania would follow its own path opposed to French ideas about universal values and human rights. After eleven years of struggle with the Romanian government, culminating in Codreanu's death in suspicious circumstances while in government custody, Romania's King Carol II decided to crush the Iron Guard. Within a year, most of the Legion's original leadership had either been eliminated or fled into exile in Germany and Italy.
However, in 1940, Romania began leaning towards the Axis Powers after France fell and Britain was forced to retreat from Continental Europe. Reluctantly, Carol offered to let the Iron Guard — now led by Horia Sima — take part in Romania's new government. When Carol was forced to abdicate by Ion Antonescu, who assumed the title of Conducător, the Iron Guard declared its full support for Antonescu's vision of an authoritarian and ultranationalist Romania. Antonescu allied with the Iron Guard, and as a reward for being the only party to support his ambitions, he made them the country's only legal political party. Nevertheless, Antonescu and Sima began to quarrel, due to Antonescu viewing the Iron Guard as subordinate to the state while Sima wanted to make the Guard and the state one and the same. Fearing (probably correctly) that Sima would try to overthrow him, Antonescu began trying to curtail the Guard's powers and privileges. In response, the Guard rebelled, but despite some initial successes, it proved no match for the Romanian military and was decisively defeated.
Unlike most fascist movements, the Iron Guard was explicitly tied to a specific religion — in this case, Orthodox Christianity. Its founder, Codreanu, was a religious nationalist who aimed for a spiritual resurrection of Romania. While the Guard promoted the idea of a revolutionary "new man", it was defined in spiritual terms rather than physical ones. Like the Nazis, the Guard was extremely anti-Semitic, antiziganistic, and anti-Masonic; but it was also anti-Magyaristic partially due to resentment over Hungary's territorial claims against Romania.
The Croatian Ustae
Quite possibly the most infamous of the non-German, non-Italian fascist movements, the Ustae started out as a Croatian separatist terrorist organization. Their most famous terrorist attack was the assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia while he made a state visit to France. As the Axis Powers invaded Yugoslavia, the Ustae seized control of Zagreb and declared themselves the government of an independent and sovereign Croatia. The Independent State of Croatia was officially established shortly thereafter. Once in power, the Ustae waged a campaign of severe ethnic and religious persecution, especially against Serbs, Jews and Romani. Their sheer sadism during these acts of genocide at times horrified even Nazis.
However, the regime never received widespread support from ordinary Croats. While it tried to force support by persecuting dissident Croats and Bosniaks, this and its other brutal practices turned more and more people against it. Occupied Yugoslavia had some of the largest and most effective resistance movements during the war, with the Yugoslav Partisans being especially successful. When the Partisans eventually won, the remaining Ustae would attempt to either go underground or escape to other countries. A small resistance group called the Crusaders attempted to re-establish the Independent State of Croatia, but they accomplished very little and were effectively defeated by 1950. Other Croat ultranationalist terrorist organizations likewise failed to achieve much of note. The Ustae's founder and leader Ante Pavelić tried to form a Government in Exile in Argentina, but as was the case with the surviving Ustae in general, it was plagued by infighting and he died from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt.
Religiously, the Ustae tended to be fiercely Catholic, at least initially, and persecuted Orthodox Christians. However, from the very beginning, they praised Islam and had no problems with Bosniaks practicing it. They adopted Nazi racial theories, even endorsing the ideas that Croats were a Germanic ethnic group, not a Slavic one, and that Bosniaks were "Muslim Croats" rather than a distinct ethnicity. Because of this, they were willing to allow Bosniaks to join up.
The Slovak People's Party
Established in 1913, when Slovakia was part of Austria-Hungary, the Slovak People's Party sought to earn the Slovaks democratic liberties, along with sovereignty or even independence. While not initially fascist, it swung towards the far right after losing its faith in democratic procedures and institutions, with one faction becoming openly pro-Nazi. After the invasion and division of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the party governed the First Slovak Republic, a partially-recognized client state of Nazi Germany.
Internal tensions between the party's "conservative" and "radical" wings had been building for some time, and reached new heights in 1939. While the conservatives triumphed in this internal power struggle by 1942, Germany supported the radicals and used them to pressure the conservative-dominated government. Never fully regaining its authority after the Slovak National Uprising, the party ceased to exist after the liberation of Slovakia in Spring 1945.
Minor fascist movements and organizations
The British Union of Fascists
After becoming disillusioned with mainstream politics, Oswald Mosley grew increasingly convinced that fascism was the way forward. In 1932, he merged his nascent New Party with the British Fascists to create the British Union of Fascists. Initially a rising party, the BUF gained support from multiple prominent individuals as well as the Daily Mail and garnered a membership of at least 50,000. Despite opposition from anti-fascists, the party found a following in the East End of London. While it failed to gain any seats in Parliament, it was successful in electing a few councilors at the local government level, and it seemed like its early success and growth would only continue.
However, the party's growing tendencies towards violence proved increasingly controversial, and clashes with its political opponents began to alienate many in the middle classes. Not helping matters was the party developing an increasingly anti-Semitic slant due to the growing influence of Nazi sympathizers within it, leading some high-profile members of the party to resign from it in protest. These factors caused its membership to decline. However, it managed to temporarily reverse its downward trend, enough to be a specific target of government concern. Even so, the party began to decline again, and was eventually banned by the government in 1940. Mosley and over 700 of its other members were interned for most of World War II, and the party was never revived.
Unlike many other fascist parties, the BUF was known for its support of women's rights, and women constituted at least 25% of its membership. In fact, many of its female members were former suffragettes. The BUF promised equal pay for men and women, an end to restrictions on the employment of married women, support for new mothers, and representation of homemakers in their planned corporatist state. While these policies are believed to have stemmed more from pragmatism than any ideological support for feminism or female equality, they still proved a draw for many women who believed in greater rights for their gender.
The French Popular Party
Founded by former members of the French Communist Party under the leadership of Jacques Doriot, the French Populist Party (PPF) gained backing from Italy in 1937, advocating for closer ties with the fascist powers of Europe in a grand alliance against the Soviet Union. After the French defeat in 1940, the PPF increased its activities. It was critical of Vichy France under Philippe Pétain, viewing the neotraditional authoritarian state as too moderate and advocating it collaborate more closely with Nazi Germany. Seeking to model French government after Germany's, the PPF collaborated with the Gestapo in persecuting Jews and the Nazi's political enemies. Some of its members volunteered to fight on the Eastern Front and even joined the Waffen-SS.
Ironically, the rise of the more pro-Nazi Pierre Laval resulted in the marginalization of the PPF. While Laval failed to have the party absorbed into his own support base, him bringing Vichy France into a closer relationship with the Nazis meant the PPF's advocacy for greater collaboration was no longer needed by the German government, and so its role was seriously diminished and it found itself sidelined. By late 1944, the PPF was effectively non-functional as a political movement. Doriot's death in an Allied strafing attack finished off the party, and no attempt was made to revive it after the war.
The German-American Bund and American Silver Shirts
There were a number of fascist groups in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, though few gained national power or influence. The most famous was the German-American Bund, an organization of primarily German-Americans that explicitly modeled themselves after the Nazis,note holding mass political rallies (one in Madison Square Garden), educational camps and occasionally engaging in violence against Jews and other minority groups. Although boasting 25,000 members at its peak, the Bund's violent activities and the financial improprieties of their leader, Fritz Kuhn, led it to be quickly discredited; Kuhn's arrest for income tax evasion caused it to unceremoniously dissolve.
More representative of the type was the Silver Legion of America, more commonly known as the Silver Shirts, an underground American fascist movement founded by novelist William Dudley Pelley. An ultranationalist group modeled after Mussolini's blackshirts, the Silver Shirts hoped to seize power in a "silver revolution" and set up Pelley as dictator of the United States, whereupon he would claim the title of "Chief". Pelley crafted an elaborate pseudo-religious ideology which featured a bizarre mixture of fundamentalist Christianity, Eastern-inspired reincarnation and, of course, violent anti-Semitism in its beliefs. However, the Silver Shirts never managed to gain the widespread support of fascist organizations in Continental Europe, and it's generally believed that they never had more than about 15,000 members. The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the police raided and occupied the Silver Shirts' national headquarters in the Los Angeles hills, effectively dissolving the group.
The Mexican Gold Shirts
Revolutionary Mexicanist Action, better known as the Gold Shirts, was a Mexican fascist paramilitary in the 1930s. Founded by general Nicolás Rodríguez Carrasco, a former supporter of Pancho Villa, the Gold Shirts opposed the reforms of president Lázaro Cárdenas and were protected by former president Plutarco Elías Calles. The Gold Shirts called for the expulsion of Jews and Chinese from Mexico and frequently clashed with far-left paramilitaries and supporters of the Mexican Communist Party. In 1936, Calles was deported to the United States, followed by Carrasco a few months later. Carrasco continued to lead the Gold Shirts from his exile until his death in 1940. When Mexico declared war on the Axis Powers in 1942, the Gold Shirts were officially banned.
Groups and movements often mistaken for fascist
Associated with Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas and his 4th of August Regime, Metaxism was devoted to the idea of creating a "Third Greek Civilization" that would be a worthy successor to the Ancient and Byzantine Greek civilizations. While its emphasis on renewal and cultural homogeneity certainly give it a surface-level appearance of fascism, in reality, it was a more conventional right-wing authoritarian ideology. It lacked the radical dimensions of fascism and was essentially reactionary rather than revolutionary. Moreover, the dictatorship strongly supported traditional institutions, and in turn derived its authority from them rather than from the masses. While Metaxas did like some elements of fascism, he was overall a critic of the ideology, considering it too "progressive" (in the broader sense of embracing the future) and believing it prioritized ideological over practical concerns. Despite its advocacy for a culturally pure Greek nation and intent to exclude ethnic minorities from Greek citizenship, Metaxism was a religiously tolerant ideology, and Metaxas even ordered newspapers not to publish anti-Semitic content.
The Portuguese National Union
Founded in July 1930, the National Union was the sole legal political party under the Estado Novo regime led by Salazar. Unlike most political parties in one-party states, it was an arm of the government rather than holding power over it. While some consider it to be fascist, it's generally considered an authoritarian conservative party. Even though it borrowed some ideas from Italian fascism (most notably corporatism), Salazar was a noted critic of fascism, considering it a Caesarist system that recognized no limits on its power. There were many key differences between it and fascism. For one thing, it lacked the radicalism inherent to fascism; while a fascist party acts as a revolutionary vanguard, the National Union was set up to control and restrain public opinion rather than mobilizing it. It also lacked the totalitarian tendencies of fascism, as government officials were not compelled to join the party. Perhaps the biggest factor preventing it from being considered fascist is the fact that it had no real consistent political positions or philosophy outside supporting the regime. Because of this lack of ideology, it disappeared after the Carnation Revolution of 1974. No attempt has been made to revive it, and no party claiming to be its heir holds any political power.
The Ku Klux Klan
Some have claimed that the Ku Klux Klan holds the distinction of being the first fascist movement. However, while there are some similarities, most reject this idea. This due to three major differences. First, while fascism is generally secular (at least in theory), the Ku Klux Klan was heavily intertwined with religious or at least supernatural influences from the very beginning. Second, while many fascist movements have made appeals to nostalgia for a real or imagined past, fascism is a revolutionary ideology at its core, not a reactionary one. The Klan, on the other hand, was aimed at recreating the old order of the South by putting the freed slaves, carpetbaggers and scalawags in their place. Finally, fascism is very statist, while the First Klan was born out of a regionalist backlash against the statist policies of Reconstruction. Because of this, the Klan has historically had a very adversarial relationship with fascism. This includes Nazism, despite the Klan and the Nazis both being white supremacists.
So, what about TV Tropes?
Basically, be careful when using the term fascist and its different variations. Do not use fascist when you mean totalitarian, authoritarian, militant, repressive, or some other thing.
Perhaps the most comprehensive and easily understood study of fascism on the Internet is written by journalist David Neiwert, as Rush, Newspeak and Fascism: An exegesis. Especially part III, The Core of Fascism, is very much recommended.