The Rise of Fascism, National Socialism, and Communism in the Interwar Period
Hitler in the 1930s
World War I devastated Europe economically and made Europeans of many nationalities question their political systems, paving the way for World War II.
The rise of fascist and totalitarian states in Europe and Russia was a critical step on the path to war. The fascists rose to power in Italy under the leadership of Benito Mussolini. He promised to create a well-organized, efficient, and militaristic state that promoted nationalist pride. Upon becoming prime minister in 1922, he built a strong staff around him, banned criticism of the government, and used violence against opponents in the parliament.
Adolf Hitler watched Mussolini’s rise to power with respect, and he used many of the same strategies himself. Angered and frustrated by the surrender of Germany in World War I—believing the surrender to be a betrayal of the German people—Hitler’s rise was assisted by the chaos of the world depression, which was much worse in Germany because of the Versailles Treaty. The National Socialist (Nazi) party gained support for similar reasons as the fascists in Italy. Their adamant and violent opposition to Communism and their embrace of militaristic nationalism generated popular support across classes from the poor to the rich. As the German government proved unable to deal with the worsening economic crisis, criticism of the government increased, as did support for the Nazis. Hitler’s rhetoric of blaming Jews, Communists, the government, and the Versailles Treaty for Germany’s ills helped generate even more support. In the election of 1930 the Nazi Party won almost 20 percent of the seats in the Reichstag and in 1932 doubled that. Hitler continued to consolidate power, killing opponents, creating the Gestapo and the SS as well as beginning to fill concentration camps, starting at Dachau, in March, 1933, by imprisoning Jews, homosexuals, Communists, and political dissenters.
Hitler became popular in part because he was able to end the depression in Germany. He did this by creating massive public projects, like road systems, and by spending government money on the military industrial production of tanks, airplanes, and other goods. Productivity increased dramatically, unemployment decreased, and the economic crisis seemed solved. This bolstered the public’s opinion of Hitler. He mastered the use of radio, parades, and publicity even more effectively than Mussolini, creating a propaganda machine to raise support for the Nazis.
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Watch a Nazi parade in Nuremberg, Germany.
The rise of a Stalinist Communist state paralleled the rise of fascist regimes, and a strongman dictator—Joseph Stalin—was at the center of this as well. He created a totalitarian regime that collectivized agriculture and emphasized the central control of the government, making rapid industrial growth the central goal of the government. This repressive, violent regime was not as militaristic as the Italian and German fascists, but its control over its citizens was just as total, if not more so. Stalin also used a propaganda and publicity machine to build support for the state. While five-year plans did create explosive industrial growth, the collectivization of agriculture led to a series of famines in which millions of Soviet citizens starved. Stalin is most famously known for the violence of his regime. The false accusations, show trials, executions of opponents, and the purges of people at all levels of society who were believed to be enemies of the state easily resulted in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens prior to the invasion by Germany in 1941. In total, at least 8 to 12 million citizens died under Stalin before the war. The actions of the Soviet Union before and during World War II destroyed what little Communist sentiment remained in the United States. Click and drag the World War II Timeline for 1939 to learn more about the events that led to the war’s start.