The rise of Fascism and Nazism: does it correlate with the emergence of modern-day right-wing populism?

Hitler and Mussolini in 1940: Nazism and fascism were closely related, but do they share any similarities with the right-wing populism of today? (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

In the 1920s and 1930s, the transformation of Italy and Germany into their respective fascist and Nazi regimes left a dark legacy over history in the 20th century with the damage caused by the seemingly promising leaders and ideology of each movement. It can even echo into the present, especially as many would argue there are arising similarities between Nazism and fascism, and the right-wing populism that is emerging most prominently in western Europe and the United States. The similar nationalistic appeal and failures of past governments are glaring features that connect this set of ideologies despite the substantial gap in time. But when we take into account the specifics of Nazism and fascism, and right-wing populism, in terms of their ideologies and contexts, we can see that there are also sharp differences that challenges how comparable they are.

The emergence of all these political ideologies can be directly traced to the failures of previous liberal, democratic governments to address the issues that their nations faced. With the Nazis and fascists, the former democratic governments especially struggled to deal with rising political divisions, in which, these extremist movements exploited extensively through their calls to restore stability and tradition. The Weimar governments throughout the short lifetime of the Republic were plagued with problems from reparations from World War I (mostly evidently seen with hyperinflation) to the overwhelming economic and eventually social and political issues from Great Depression (spikes in unemployment, political divisions in government under Chancellor Muller). Also, the Italian government following World War I also faced immense social and political divides, as well as a major economic crisis. Right-wing populism today has similarly grown considerably under the failure of liberal democratic governments in the Western world to solve problems including unemployment, immigration, and others which vary from country to country. One glaring similarity is the economic crises that have preceded both the rise of Nazism (Great Depression) and populism (GFC), which have been the source of critical economic and social issues, especially with rises in unemployment. As a result, populists have been able to take advantage of these issues, which has been seen in the US, with Trump rising to power with a populist agenda including his aim to build a wall on the US-Mexico border and to deport millions of illegal migrants to deal with immigration. In Europe, this right-wing populism has arisen from Brexit (and also with parties in France, Austria, Netherlands and Hungary), which undoubtedly has been an effective brand that has been able to garner great levels of support, especially as it seems to offer a powerful voice and  some solutions to the problems that the establishment is not offering.

The full extent of right-wing populism in Europe – dark blue represents those in government, while others are in parliament or regional parliament (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Another parallel between Nazism and fascism, and right-wing populism is the underlying patriotism and even nationalism that is integral to their movements and has played a key role in their successes. With the Nazis, German nationalism was a core part of their ideology and  their exploitation of the Weimar governments’ inability to address the evident nationalism that existed before the Republic, mainly from the older generation, and especially the conservative elite, was crucial to their success, which was even notable with Hitler’s lenient 5 year jail sentence from sympathetic judges for his role in the 1923 Munich Beerhall Putsch. With the Italian Fascists, nationalism was a core part of their appeal, especially with the emphasis on Italian unity, strength and culture that was constantly reinforced, as seen through propaganda. This importance on nationalism is also evidently reflected across right wing populist figures and parties currently. Most notably, it was with Trump’s slogan and overarching call to “Make America Great Again”. Even in France, Marine Le Pen’s proposals are motivated by prioritising French citizens, from limiting migrant numbers to opposing the European Union. The opposition to Islam is a re-occurring feature of these populist movements that also appeal and reflect this emphasis on nationalism. 

However, these two sets of political movements are far from being exact replicas, as they can be differentiated well by looking at the specifics of the ideologies. During the 1930s, the full extent of Nazism and fascism was seen with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Both ideologies were characterised by totalitarianism, extreme nationalism and militarism. Also, as far-right wing ideologies, there was also strong emphasis national traditions, and racist themes, most evidently seen with the Nazis’ increasingly radical persecution of the Jews. On the other hand, right-wing populism incorporates both right-wing and left-wing elements, with its strong anti-establishment theme. Across populist movements in the US and Europe, there is a right-wing, anti-immigration and often anti-globalisation stance, while many have incorporated more leftist economic policies, with greater support for the welfare state. Unlike the traditional right-wing and even far right-wing of the past, populism doesn’t necessarily call for the maintenance of the status quo, which does make it distinct from Nazism and fascism. Furthermore, there is no sign that right-wing populism has any links to the authoritarianism, militarism or aims to overthrow democracy, which was at the heart of Nazism and fascism in the past. At most, populist regimes may restrict some social and economic freedom (as they reject liberalism and look to create a more homogeneous society), especially in countries such as the US and France, where there has been a democratic tradition and thus, it is unlikely that their democratic systems will be re-worked or changed drastically. It is thus clear, that right-wing populism is notably different from these past far-right movements.

Another key aspect that distinguishes between these ideologies is the different social circumstances that they have emerged under. Nowadays, levels of connectivity and education far surpass that of the 1920s and 1930s in Italy and Germany. With highly accessible technology in the form of the internet and smartphones, it is easier than ever to see global politics, especially with the media highlighting the rise of right-wing populism. Unlike Nazism and fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, there is a far clearer view and understanding of populism. This difference was notable with the policy of appeasement in the late 1930s which was adopted by Britain and France, in which the Nazi Germany was able to achieve Anschluss with Austria and take over Czechoslovakia without the outbreak of war, as the British failed to understand the true nature of Nazism and Hitler’s foreign policy aims. With the increased level of connectivity (and information) that is available today, such flaws in international negotiations would be unlikely. Also, greater levels of education in the modern Western world has made the rise right-wing populism different from that of Nazism and fascism, especially as there is a clearer and greater awareness of politics in general. Thus, these two sets of political movements have emerged under varying situations, and although we have not seen the full extent and development of populism yet, it is unlikely to go down the same path as Nazism and fascism.

When we compare the rise of these ideologies together, they are notably similar from a more general perspective, but there are also clear details that differentiate them. Ultimately, we have not yet seen the full scope of right-wing populism and although it may seem partially like a revival of past Nazism and fascism, it is clearly unique and the results of it will most likely not be a reflection of these past ideologies, despite some features resembling them. The near future will offer a greater insight into populism, especially with Trump’s presidency in the US and the development of similar populist movements across Europe, which would allow for a clearer re-assessment of this issue.


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