The Rise of Fascism in Europe During The Depression Years
This article discusses the political shift towards the right that occurred in Europe during the Depression years of the 1930s, focusing on the rise of fascist movements and how they were able to attract support from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds. The article examines the economic conditions in Italy and Germany, as well as the effects of political instability and weak elites on the rise of fascism in smaller movements throughout Europe. It also looks at the factors that prevented the extreme right from gaining power in countries like Britain, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France.
Table of Contents
- The Economic Context in Italy and Germany
- The Rise of Fascism and the Politics of Europe
- The Allure of Fascism and Its Support Base
- The Structure of Support in Smaller Fascist Movements
- The Resilience of Existing Political Structures in Northwestern Europe
Q: What were the main factors that contributed to the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany during the Depression years?
A: In Italy, the standard of living and industrial production worsened during the Depression, leading to a slow and dangerous recovery. In contrast, Germany experienced a rapid economic recovery due to the reshaping of political conditions for industrialists, including the destruction of leftist parties and trade unions. Work-creation schemes helped reduce unemployment, and tax relief and a road-building program boosted the car industry. However, Germany’s refusal to devalue the Reich mark led to expensive imports and a shift towards bilateral trade agreements and autarchy. Recovery in Germany became subordinated to a political program directed at rapid rearmament and military expansion, becoming the central driver of the economy.
Q: What was the effect of the Depression on the politics of Europe?
A: The shift of Europe to the political Right during the Depression was a complex and layered phenomenon. While social democracy in Scandinavia was an exception, the Right was on the march elsewhere. The economic crisis provided conditions in which populist movements of the radical Right were able to garner support and in some cases destabilize already fragile systems of rule. Some of the movements copied the methods, symbols and language of the followers of Mussolini and Hitler, calling themselves ‘fascist’ or ‘national socialist,’ while others shared some, even most, of the ideas of the openly fascist movements while rejecting the label for themselves.
Q: What factors made fascism popular during the Depression years?
A: Fascism’s message of national renewal, powerfully linking fear and hope, was diverse enough to be capable of crossing social boundaries. Fascism’s emotional, romanticized, idealistic side, its violent, adventurous activism, held disproportionate appeal for young males who had been exposed to such values in middle-class youth movements. The disaffected middle classes were generally drawn to fascism out of proportion to their numbers in society. Workers, skilled and unskilled, supported fascism in far greater numbers than once thought. Overall, the allure of fascism was able to attract people from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds, making its social base quite heterogeneous.
Q: What was the structure of support for smaller fascist movements throughout Europe?
A: The structure of support had similarities in countries such as France, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, and Britain, consisting of a middle-class core and a substantial component of workers not previously attached to Left parties. Fascism’s triumph depended on weak political elites, the fragmentation of party politics, and the freedom to build a movement that promised a radical alternative. Italy and Germany turned out to be the only countries where fascist movements became so strong that they could reshape the state in their image.
Q: Why was the extreme right unable to gain power in countries like Britain, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France?
A: In Britain, the dominant social and political values resting on the monarchy, the nation, the empire, parliamentary government, and the rule of law were widely accepted with no major Marxist party posing any threat to the political order. The strength of conservatism in Britain blocked any opening to the extreme right, with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) having minimal impact on mainstream politics. In north-western Europe, the radical right found the route to power blocked by the resilience of existing political structures. Fascist movements gained derisory popular backing in Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway, while in other countries such as Switzerland, the fascist National Front gained up to 27% of the vote between 1933 and 1936 but fell sharply thereafter. In countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium, the strength of existing social and political milieux closed off political space that far-right movements might have occupied. France’s Third Republic seemed for a time more seriously menaced by the far right.
The rise of fascism in Europe during the Depression years was a complex and layered phenomenon, with the economic crisis providing conditions in which populist movements of the radical Right were able to garner support and in some cases destabilize already fragile systems of rule. While the success of social democracy in Scandinavia was an exception, the Right was on the march practically everywhere. The structure of support for smaller fascist movements throughout Europe consisted of a middle-class core and a substantial component of workers not previously attached to Left parties, as well as weak political elites and the freedom to build a movement that promised a radical alternative. Despite its allure, the extreme right was unable to gain power in many European countries due to the resilience of existing political structures.