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READ: Fascist Histories, Part II — Exercising Authoritarianism

Leadership looks different in various times and places. During a frightening and unstable time, fascist leaders saw an opportunity to experiment with the extremes of authoritarianism. A few people might have realized that these experiments were shaping horrors to come, but most people barely recognized the danger.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. In what ways did Mussolini pursue an aggressive foreign policy?
  2. How were German and Italian justifications for expansion similar?
  3. How was Stalin similar to and different from Hitler and Mussolini?
  4. How did Japanese leaders justify Japan’s imperial expansion?
  5. How were the Italian, German, Japanese, and Soviet authoritarian efforts in the 1920s and 1930s similar?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Why do you think so many people in Italy, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union embraced fascist or authoritarian ideologies and actions, even those that were violent and repressive?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Fascist Histories, Part II: Exercising Authoritarianism

A photograph of a large, organized parade in the center of a town. Several men in uniforms and helmets stand watching the parade.
By Amy Elizabeth Robinson
Leadership looks different in various times and places. During a frightening and unstable time, fascist leaders saw an opportunity to experiment with the extremes of authoritarianism. A few people might have realized that these experiments were shaping horrors to come, but most people barely recognized the danger.


Looking back on history, we can often see patterns emerging just before dangerous or terrible events occurred. One example is the Holocaust during the Second World War. It's obvious to us—now—that the rise of authoritarianism, including fascism, was paving the way for leaders in many countries to command the obedience of whole populations, even when these leaders began to order the killing of civilians. We can see how Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and others began to attack journalists, control the flow of information, and stir up nationalism by persecuting ethnic minorities or invading desirable lands. In some ways, their actions were like experiments, pushing the boundaries of authoritarian rule to see what they could get away with. When nobody stopped them, they became bolder and more aggressive. This article details some of those experiments.

Italian East Africa

Mussolini, founder of the Italian National Fascist party, was among the first to experiment in this way. Within Italy, Mussolini promoted the ideas of la razza and la stirpe ("the race" and "the lineage"). Italians were members of both, but outsiders and immigrants were not. These were important elements of his rule. His government also argued that Italians needed colonies, which would provide national Spazio Vitale, or "vital space." This meant that Italians needed more space to live and this policy had deadly consequences for Africans in Libya and Ethiopia.
A postage stamp features an image of a modern Italian soldier, dressed in an animal skin.
A postage stamp from Italian-ruled Libya. The modern Italian soldier on the stamp is dressed like a Roman legionnaire. The Fascists argued that in invading Libya, they were creating a new Roman Empire, thus playing to Italian nationalism. Public domain.
In the 1920s, Mussolini pursued an aggressive foreign policy. First he attacked the Greek island of Corfu. He had plans to expand into the Balkans and acquire Albania as a territory. He also supported the brutal suppression of anti-colonial resistance in Libya. His military leaders used chemical weapons, forced starvation, concentration camps, and mass resettlement of African Libyans to make space for Italian settlers. In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia, and used similar harsh tactics.
Historians Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Mia Fuller argue that the Italian colonies provided "testing grounds for strategies of governance and repression". Colonial aggression also contributed to the rise of Italian racism. In 1938 Mussolini published a "Manifesto of Fascist Racism." It declared a state policy of overt discrimination against Africans, Arabs, and Jews. These groups, he claimed, were biologically different from "western Mediterranean" and European people. They had to be conquered or excluded from the Italian nation.

German Lebensraum

German imperialism was long based on a theory of colonial growth, called Lebensraum, meaning "living space". Lebensraum was popular before and during Nazi rule. In the 1890s and 1900s, Germany expected its colonies in South West Africa (modern-day Namibia) and the Pacific to provide wealth and "habitat" for German settlers. Between 1904 and 1908 the German military used concentration camps and slave labor in South West Africa. They managed these camps and labor using techniques that would later be used against Jews and Soviet prisoners-of- war in WWII.
Under Adolf Hitler, the idea of Lebensraum became clearly connected to race and antisemitism. The Nazis tried to define who belonged in the German "nation", and to expel and discriminate against those who they believed did not. For example, Hitler's eugenicstart superscript, 1, end superscript forced sterilization program began in 1933. Before World War II even began Nazi doctors sterilized over 350,000 people. These were people they judged to be exhibiting "social deviance," disability, or who had conditions they thought to be hereditary.
In 1935, the Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws. These laws defined who had "German" blood and who did not. They regulated marriage and sexual intercourse between the two groups, and stripped citizenship from both Jews and Roma. By 1938, the Nazis were physically expelling some Jews and debating massive resettlement plans.

The Soviet Union

Josef Stalin ruled the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953. He used authoritarian tactics to solidify communist control of the Soviet Union. These tactics worked at a time when communists felt threatened by both fascists and capitalist democracies in Europe. Much like Hitler and Mussolini, Stalin used violence and propaganda to maintain order and power. However, he was not a fascist leader. Communist ideology was explicitly internationalist and anti-racist. It was committed to regarding all people (both men and women) as workers. This defied traditional ideas about gender. But in practice, communism did not always match its ideology. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union under Stalin was a place of intense violence and fear.
A poor harvest in 1931-32 was made worse by Soviet economic policies. This created famine conditions. The government responded inadequately, and blamed the situation on kulaks. Kulaks were better-off peasants who now faced persecution and property confiscation. It is estimated that between 3.3 million and 7.5 million people died in Ukraine during this famine. Another 2 million died in Kazakhstan. This catastrophic man-made famine is known as the Holodomor.
Stalin and his supporters identified their enemies in political and social ways. They did not use race. The kulaks are just one example. Stalin was obsessively focused on getting rid of enemies. This resulted in the Great Purge of 1936-38. During this time, about one-third of the Communist Party's three million members were killed. Another million were sent to prisons called Gulags. The purge created an environment of intense political terror. The state decided who was an enemy quickly, arbitrarily (randomly), and irreversibly. These decisions affected political officials, army members, peasants, ethnic minorities, artists, scientists, intellectuals, foreigners, and ordinary Soviet citizens.


In the 1930s, the Japanese government increasingly came under the control of authoritarian governments. Although not really fascist, these governments were heavily influenced by military and industrial leaders because both sectors wanted Japan to take over territories in Asia. Japan still had a problem of too few natural resources, and they needed minerals, timber, and oil from abroad. Japan already had some colonies, including Korea, but many military and business leaders argued that Japan deserved to rule most of Asia. They believed Japan had a superior culture, and could rule other Asians better than the European empires had. They would call their empire the "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere".
Detailed, black and white drawing of people fleeing. One is carrying a large package, one is loading a wagon with belongings, and several others are following behind.
An etching of refugees fleeing Manchuria after the Japanese invasion. By Albert Lloyd Tarter, Wellcome Collection gallery, CC BY 4.0
In 1931, Japanese forces invaded Manchuria, in China. Five years later they conquered Inner Mongolia as well, and a year later pushed into northern China. Resistance was muted (unnoticed) at first, but grew rapidly as Japanese forces attacked the Chinese capital of Nanjing. Angry at the growing resistance, Japanese troops killed as many as 300,000 civilians. Though this massacre was never acknowledged, some Japanese leaders privately justified it as necessary to "pacify" ("make peaceful") the Chinese population, whom they saw as members of an inferior nation.
At home, meanwhile, the Japanese government increasingly pushed down any opposition to their war effort. Although many Japanese civilians were not supportive of these military efforts, it became dangerous to question the government or the military. Many other Japanese citizens, however, embraced the cause of nationalism and military expansion.


The Italian, German, Japanese, and Soviet authoritarian efforts in the 1920s and 1930s had their differences. But we can also see similarities in the ways that they emerged. For example, all of them embraced nationalism, and they all found ways to justify violence against civilians. And despite their differences, the fact that they all happened in a similar time period suggests that there was some global pattern making them all possible. By the early twentieth century, events in one place could have widespread political, economic, and cultural consequences. And indeed, rising instability, aggression, racism, and fear triggered the eruption of the Second World War.
Author bio
Amy Elizabeth Robinson is a freelance writer, editor, and historian with a Ph.D. in the History of Britain and the British Empire from Stanford University. She has taught at Sonoma State University and Stanford

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