The dramatic rise of Fascism in the wake of the First World War was one of the most far-reaching and consequential events of the century, and perhaps all of history. While it first showed up with the rise of Benito Mussolini in Italy, the ideology and its various implementations by other regimes in the decades to come – particularly Nazism – have since shaped the modern world in more ways than we can count.
While nowadays we tend to call every authoritarian form of government ‘fascist’, academics maintain that it has a specific meaning and characteristics that may not be in line with other forms of dictatorships. It’s characterized by a strong focus on nationalism, militarism, totalitarianism, radical anti-communism (a surprisingly common thread among all fascist movements), a singular, strong leader that promises to restore things to an old, glorious state of the nation, and authoritarianism.
However, it may also include other distinct features, like anti-Semitism – which was embraced by the Nazis but rejected by Mussolini’s Italy in 1934 (though they later adopted it to fall in line with Hitler’s objectives), a rejection of the state and its organized military as the prime authority – as seen in the decentralized neo-fascist movements of the more recent decades – and its peculiar relationship with religion, as not all fascist movements have been traditionally supported by the prevailing religious authority in their home nation.
Because of that, even if all fascist movements share common characteristics, it’s impossible to define Fascism as a singular, all-encompassing ideology. Regardless, there have been many times in history that Fascism – in one of its many unmistakable forms – has managed to overtake or manipulate the democratic process to gain power. In the spirit of reminding everyone of the cost of repeating our past mistakes, we count down the most influential ones of them all.
10. Gyula Gömbös
Gyula Gombos was one of the many nationalist, far-right leaders to take power in Europe during the interwar period, though his impact on the continent’s politics would be limited. First gaining relevance for his ability to organize paramilitary, anti-communist groups in the immediate aftermath of WW1 – as they played a major role in the fall of the short-lived communist government of 1919 – it was the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression that brought his extreme right-wing, nationalist and pro-corporate politics to the forefront.
Gombos was elected as the Prime Minister of Hungary in 1932, and immediately sought to align the country on the lines of other totalitarian powers of the time – like Italy and Austria – to get Hungary out of the economic crisis. He was known for his racist, anti-Semitic views and could be blamed for the popular turn towards Fascism in Hungary at that time, though the liberal opposition within the country to his policies proved too strong. Moreover, by 1934, the worst of the economic crisis had also come to an end in the country, and his authoritarian, radical style of politics was no longer as popular as it had been when he was first elected. He’d die in 1936 to kidney failure while in office without enacting any of his envisioned long-term policies.
9. Ion Antonescu
During the Second World War, we almost forget the role of Axis powers other than Germany, Japan and Italy, even if there were quite a few other countries that lent them the support needed to wage a war of that scale (hence ‘world’ war). Romania, under the dictatorship of Marshal Ion Antonescu, was one of them.
An officer in the Romanian army who rose through the ranks in the interwar period, Antonescu gained ultimate power over Romania in 1941. The country had already allied itself with the Axis powers well before the beginning of WW2, though his rise to power and his alignment with the Iron Guard – one of the largest fascist organizations in Europe at the time – made Romania one of Hitler’s most trusted allies.
Throughout the war, Antonescu’s dictatorship would send tens of thousands of Romanian Jews to their deaths in concentration camps across Romania, as he saw them as pro-Soviet, anti-nationalist and sympathetic to communism – all common beliefs among most European fascists at that time. He was also immensely admired by Hitler almost throughout the war – second only to perhaps Mussolini.
The dictatorship came to an end with a coup organized by King Michael – the last king of Romania – in August 1944, which also hastened the Soviet advance into the country. Antonescu was tried for his crimes and executed as a war criminal by the post-war communist government of Romania in 1946.
8. Engelbert Dollfuss
When Engelbert Dollfuss became the chancellor of Austria in May 1932, it wasn’t strictly an authoritarian takeover, even if some of his allies – such as Heimwehr, a paramilitary, far-right nationalist group – would definitely fall on the ‘fascist’ side of the spectrum. That, however, would last roughly one year when, in 1933, he forcefully dissolved the parliament and established an authoritarian, corporatist regime on the lines of Portugal’s Estado Novo.
Dollfuss occupies a peculiar place on this list, as even despite his anti-communist, nationalist, pro-corporate and extreme right-wing stance – the usual fascist stuff – he was vehemently anti-Nazi. It was a period of a uniquely Austrian style of Fascism backed by Mussolini’s Italy, with all the features of other fascist states at the time, though it resisted Austria’s entry into Nazi Germany’s sphere of influence. His regime was also way less brutal than most other entries on this list, though that may just be because it didn’t last very long, as he was assassinated in an attempted coup by members of the Austrian Nazi Party in July 1934.
7. Augusto Pinochet
While September 11 may mean something completely different for the rest of us, for Chileans, the date would always be remembered for General Augusto Pinochet’s violent, US-backed military takeover of Chilean democracy in 1973. Elected as the Commander-in-Chief by the democratically-elected, socialist government of Salvador Allende barely 19 days days before the coup, Pinochet’s regime would go on to become a benchmark for dictatorial, neo-fascist, CIA-backed regimes in Latin America throughout the Cold War era.
During his stint as the President from 1974 to 1990 – even if he stayed on as the chief commander until as late as 1998 – the regime would be remembered for its torture and assassination of tens of thousands of political opponents, which included trade unionists, leaders of socialist organizations at home and abroad, student organizations, and really just anyone who publicly opposed his authoritarian, militaristic style of governance.
Pinochet’s legacy endures in the form of the aggressively free-market, neoliberal policies still enshrined in the Chilean constitution. However, thanks to the widespread protests of 2019 and a subsequent popular referendum in 2020, the government agreed to rewrite it; a decision that was unanimously celebrated across the country.
6. US Capitol Attack
The attack on the US Capitol – perhaps the most important federal building in the United States after the White House – in January 2020 may not have succeeded, though it still constituted one of the biggest challenges to the country’s democratic process in a long time. Fueled by Donald Trump’s charged-up speech challenging the verdict of the 2020 Presidential elections immediately before the attack, it has since been called an insurrection by many.
While it’s true that not all takeovers of government buildings are fascist in nature – as quite a few popular, democratic movements around the world have followed a similar course – this one definitely was. Many of the groups involved in the attack – such as the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, etc. – have been quite open about their inspiration being European fascist movements, with their stated goals being the establishment of a white supremacist state, anti-immigration, violence against minorities, and other stuff we usually only associate with one side of the political spectrum.
5. The Regime Of The Colonels
While the 1967 coup in Greece was different from other fascist movements on this list due to its lack of classic fascist features – like imperialism and one-man leadership – academic sources from the time squarely place it as a fascist regime due to its general nature. Organized by a bunch of – you guessed it – colonels from the Greek military that wanted to subvert the democratic process in the upcoming general elections, it was the focal point of the years-long political battle between the right and left that had been brewing in Greece at the time.
The takeover was swift, carried out with military installations set up at strategic locations across Athens and a swift arrest of all political opponents, mostly anarchists, communists and others from the left of the spectrum, but also democratic socialists and centrists. The ‘Regime of the Colonels’, as it’s colloquially called in Greece and elsewhere, ruled until 1974 with an iron fist, with widespread reports of torture and political assasinations against those opposed to it.
One of the many worrying features of the regime was its antagonism towards student movements, as it regularly suppressed elections and other democratic movements in colleges across the country. One particularly gruesome example was the uprising at the Athens Polytechnic college, resulting in the military entering the campus with a tank and other military-grade weapons, and killing at least 34 students and protesters (even though unofficial casualty numbers are far higher).
4. Ante Pavelic
When Hitler’s forces successfully invaded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1941, a large part of it was partitioned among major Axis powers like Germany, Italy, Romania, Hungary, etc. Croatia, however, was turned into a puppet state directly under German control, owing to the recent resurgence of the Ustashe within its borders – a far-right, pro-Nazi movement founded by Ante Pavelic.
From 1941 to the end of the war in 1945, the Independent State of Croatia included the present state of Croatia, almost all of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and some part of Serbia. It was a crucial ally in the Axis war effort, as it not only militarily supported them on almost every front in the Western Theater, but the Ustashe were also instrumental in countering perhaps one of the most successful anti-fascist rebellion movements in history: the Yugoslav Partisans.
The puppet state endured until the ending phases of the war in 1945. During that time, Pavelic was directly responsible for the genocide of anywhere between 300,000 to 700,000 Serbs, Romas, Jews, partisans, prisoners of war and other political opponents in Croatia’s own parallel version of the Holocaust, though we’d never know the true extent of the tragedy. Pavelic never stood official trial for his crimes, though, as he escaped to Argentina via channels used by many other fascist and Nazi war criminals in the post-war era.
3. Francisco Franco
When we talk about the Second World War, Spain’s role in it is conspicuously absent from the record, even if most of us know for a fact that it involved almost all of Europe (save for a handful of countries that could manage to stay neutral, like Switzerland). It’s not because it didn’t want to take a side, but because it was just recovering from a sort of a microcosm of the war – at least in terms of the ideological bent of the belligerents and its brutality, if not its scale – that recently concluded within its own borders.
The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 to 1939, and was fought between the ruling Republicans – a loose alliance of anarchists, communists, social democrats, and other left-leaning groups supported by the Soviet Union – and aristocratic, nationalistic and other conservative sections of the country that were backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It was a brutal, armed conflict, and while the precise extent of the destruction is hard to quantify, records put the casualty numbers to be anywhere between 500,000-1,000,000.
The result was an overwhelming victory for the right wing rebels, providing grounds for Italy and Germany to test many military maneuvers they’d end up deploying – often to great success – during WW2. It paved the way for the regime of Fransisco Franco – perhaps the longest lasting fascist leader on this list, who was responsible for the deaths of anywhere between 200,000-400,000 of his political opponents in more than 190 concentration camps of his own. While he kept Spain officially out of WW2, he did send around 50,000 volunteers to aid the Germans on the Soviet front.
In the almost four decades that his regime lasted, Franco would rule Spain with his unique style of Fascism that promoted militarism, anti-communism, trade protectionism, and suppression of women’s rights.
2. Benito Mussolini
While Fascism has shown up in a ridiculously-wide variety of forms across the world since the early ’20s, its origins could be unambiguously traced back to Benito Mussolini and his Blackshirts – a loosely organized, armed, and mostly voluntary squad under his direct command that attacked and repressed the Bolshevik-inspired left movements cropping up across Italy in the aftermath of WW1.
Much like the rest of the powers aligned with Germany, post-WW1 Italy went through years of economic hardship along with an unfavorable peace treaty – conditions ripe for the rise of the style of governance advocated by Mussolini. From 1919 to 1922, Mussolini and the Blackshirts were responsible for the violent, often public suppression of socialist and communist groups throughout Italy, with a worryingly-high degree of public support. He gained ultimate power over Italy following his infamous March on Rome, which toppled the government of Luigi Facta and made him the Prime Minister until his death at the end of WW2.
The rest, as they say, is history. Benito Mussolini would go on to align Italy along his extreme-nationalist, authoritarian and militaristic style of rule that we’ve since come to associate with Fascism. His eventual alliance with Hitler (who – spoiler – we’ll get to momentarily) would end up plunging the world into the Second World War – the largest, most destructive conflict the world has ever seen.
1. Adolf Hitler
While Mussolini’s Fascism and Hitler’s Nazism were almost identical in their stated goals – restoring old glory of ancient empires, re-organizing society along militaristic virtues, arbitrarily picking a group of people and blaming them for every problem ever, and the usual – historians have always maintained that there are some key differences between the two, even if they didn’t mean much in the larger scheme of things.
As opposed to the skewed racial theory of the Nazis, Italian Fascists weren’t too keen on the ‘biologically superior’ aspect of the Nazi ideology, as Mussolini had quite a few Jewish aides up until a bit before the war (many Jews even participated in the March on Rome). They also differed on religion. While the Nazis were, at best, at odds with the Church – as they considered religion to be a weakening force for the Aryan instincts of native Germans, even if many Germans and Nazi officials were staunchly religious – Mussolini, at least in the early years of his rule, actively formed an alliance with the Church, with often public shows support to the institution and reintroduction of religious symbols in public spaces after years of secularism being the state policy.
Regardless, as we said above, those differences wouldn’t mean much for the victims of both of these ideologies and their eventual impact on the world. Unlike many other Fascists on this list, Hitler didn’t strictly grab power in an insurrection or violent takeover. Instead, he was handed the role of Chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg in 1933, which he used to turn Germany into the authoritarian, one-party state of Nazi Germany – and himself into the Führer – in 1934.
Without repeating everything most of us have already grown up studying, Adolf Hitler – along with other Axis powers aligned with him during WW2 – would end up being responsible for close to 75 million deaths around the world. That included around 12 million Jews, Roma, Slavs, Poles, prisoners of war and other political opponents that died in the Holocaust.