The following essay was written as part of a series of historical analyses attempting to understand lesser known impact mechanisms of what is considered today as “popular history.” The essay was written in 2001, at North Park University, for a course in World History taught by Professor Theodora Ayot.
The title of this essay is a German phrase meaning “socialism of the chair.” In 1872, a group of German economists argued for the use of state funds for the bettering of the working classes, and were labeled as the Katheder Socialismus in satire. I mean, in this essay, to speak of the national socialistic movements in Italy and Germany after World War I, but first you, the reader, must understand some very basic concepts of this present world that I speak.
After the period of time historians call the Reformation, the Church was no longer the Church, but now the church, in lower case letters. A central authority was broken across the landmass of Europe, and secular governments began to advertise nationalism in the stead of the church. Nationalism became a cry across the shattered fragments of Europe, a cultural unification of people with the same history, the same family, and the same blood. Nationalism replaced religion in many countries, and although the church was still supported, the power of God became less and the power of a supreme leader of the country became the ruling construct.
Nationalism began a breakdown of divine rule slowly, first by a gentle subjugation into the population of thought, and finally with violent revolution and war. After the Napoleonic wars and the Council of Vienna, it became obvious that with the breaking of the church, monarchy as a statement of rule was impossible. Even in monarchies, nationalism arose and threatened to topple the governmental regimes. Such regimes as the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II were a common occurrence in the post Napoleonic world – a monarchy under the control of a nationalistic ideal. Just because the national government is destroyed does not mean that nationalism was going to die – nationalism was not only a governmental institution, but primarily nationalism began as a philosophy and still continues to this day as a policy – a unifying and centralized philosophy of borderland importance.
The Council of Vienna was a disaster because the leaders were afraid of a new world. They were afraid of a world without the monarchy and the aristocracy and the church – but already the Catholic church had been broken, the various denominations had formed beneath the Reformation, and people viewed themselves not as Christians but now as French, English, Italians, Germans, and other nationalistic creations.
So what does any of this have to do with national socialism? One of the principal causes of World War I, in my opinion, was the separatist movement of nations. Countries needed to discover their limits of power, and therefore war was inevitable. Countries took the philosophy of mannerism to an extreme, and created national mannerisms, not only in social realms but also economic, political, and religious realms. Countries began to hold grudges against each other – but this time, on a massive, nationalistic scale. Philosophy and political ideology differed from the country to country, and the sparks began to grow from a single grain of ancient ash until a firestorm engulfed all of Europe when the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. A leader had been maliciously murdered, and countries felt threatened. The nationalists gathered their arms, and prepared to lay down all those grudges they had kept hidden in their hearts for years.
So they fought. Bravo, you nationalistic pigs. At the end of the war, these pigs had grown so weak and so limp from the wounds of each other’s bullets that they slumped down into the mud and almost gave up. And the countries of Italy and Germany were in the lead – fallen, aged, and weak. The cost of arms for the war, and the cost of the lives of the men who had died in the war shook these two countries to the core. Their governments struggled with the economy, but could not even protect their own streets from vandals and bandits. This is where the story begins, first on the balmy shores of Italy, and then into the wooden plains of the shattered, Germanic tribes.
Italy was still a monarchy at the end of the war. Rome was the political capital of Italy, ruled by a King. The Pope still ruled the church from the Vatican after World War I, and had significant power over the activities of the church throughout Europe. However, the country was in shambles. After the war, the Italian treasury was depleted, and could not support even the most menial of protection. Jobs could not be properly compensated for; so many people did not work. The veterans of the war were left without help, thrown back into Italy with only their shirt and a pair of slummy shoes. Capitalism began to rise as a source of money, and the aristocracy still clung wildly to their land.
With the creation of the industrial state (a state relying on industry as a source of income), capitalism rose like a flood. The mass marketing of material became commonplace, and required a need for general workers. One could say that industrialism replaced serfdom, in a sense, because the workers were generally given low wages and were not compensated for their families, often forced to work 12 to 18 hour work days without a break, at extremely poor rates of pay. Out of this environment rose Marxism and communism – or a form of government in which the workers (or majority) rule instead of a noble aristocracy. Marxism was a common threat to nationalistic governments and especially to nationalistic philosophy, and as most countries were nationalistic, communism was not an idle threat. With the expansion of industrialism and the increase of workers, Marxism became a popular ideology among the common man. Workers joined together in Socialist (or Marxist) organizations, often political but also revolutionary, and rebelled against the industrial, capitalist system.
With the additional lack of Italy’s treasuring, and the common occurrence of a worker’s strike (refusal to work), Italy was in the slumps. A young man, a political activist by blood, gathered together bored and agitated veterans from the surrounding Italian countryside and formed a brute squad to put down these worker strikes. This man’s name was Benito Mussolini, and his specialized task force of ex-soldiers was known as the Fascists. The term fascism is derived from the fasces, an ancient roman symbol of authority and power – a bundle of rods strapped around an axe-head. Mussolini and his group were extreme nationalists, and enemies of communism. Eventually, his group grew to such strength that he marched into Rome and in a seizure of fear or perhaps enlightenment, the weak King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini as a Premier in the government, ruling over much of the government.
During Mussolini’s rule as a premier, he began to drastically alter the Italian governmental influence over the people. He held a strict policy of discipline and control over the government, and increased governmental power to include power over economic, social, and eventually religious (he made a treaty with the Pope). He created what is called, the corporate state, or a government that controls everything economic and political. He controlled wages of the factories. He controlled the import and export of goods. He silenced all opposition to the Fascist party. He controlled and aided the capitalistic classes of Italy, and moved forward in modernization and production. His ideology was focused on the national symbol of Italy, strung together with a militant organization and a disciplined philosophy.
The rise of Fascist Italy is of no surprise. Just as Napoleon was able to wrest power away from France into a single dictatorship, Italy has copied the idea. When a country is weak and the government cannot protect nor aid its people, the people seek a new government. And in times of weakness people will always cling to strength, such as Mussolini’s Fascist brute squads. In addition, Italy’s surviving soldiers, the veterans, prowled the countryside trying to gain back what they once had. Unable to find a job, they landed themselves on plots of unused or rarely used land, and started to build a life for themselves, but they were not accepted. The landowners and the capitalists vied to throw them off the land and turn them to beggars. Mussolini offered these veterans a way out of the slums of Italy and into the big picture, where they believed they belonged (after all, they had given their lives for Italy). Hundreds of thousands of veterans prowled the Italian countryside, and eagerly embraced Mussolini’s cure. In addition, the economy was being hurt – in the winter of 1920 several hundred factories went on strike. Production halted dramatically, and the people felt it. So Mussolini began to put down these rebellions against the industrial state, and he was not only accepted by the capitalists and the aristocracy, but by the common people who were not in the factories, but rather needed the products that the factories put out. He was a hero. He was Italy’s hero, and they embraced him like a father.
Germany followed in suit, although they traveled on a much more difficult path. Since Germany had been a leader in World War I, and was defeated by the Allies, Germany was harshly treated after the war. Large chunks of Germany were handed off to different member countries of the Allies, and severe restrictions on the German economy were enacted to prevent any future threats of battle. Germany was surrounded by raving dogs that bit and clawed at Germany, just to itch the wounds more. And Germany was also affected by nationalism; just as every other country was affected.
Germany was humble in the face of the rest of the European nations that hated her. Leaders like Gustav Stresemann and Friedrich Ebert were calm, and tried to reconcile with the surrounding nations of France, Russia, England, and the League of Nations. Eventually, Germany was even admitted into the League of Nations, and was also a major economic supporter of this new world after the major world war.
However, the internal Germany was not doing well – the economic loss after the war coupled with the impositions of the League of Nations upon Germany as war repercussions led Germany down a bad road with money. Many veterans were unemployed, like in Italy, and much of Germany had been cut off, such as the Ruhr Valley, one of Germany’s most prosperous economic fields. People were disenchanted with life, and communism was a major threat in the political spectrum. As I said before, when countries are weak, the people search for a new government. Germany was divided into a number of prevalent governmental powers vying for control: a communist party, a Roman Catholic party, a socialist party (different from the communist party, mostly composed of small business and professional workers), the nationalist party, and the national socialist party (the Nazi party).
In the elections after Hitler had become Chancellor of the Parliament, his Nazi party gained 17 million votes – more than half of the proper votes for political power. Thus, the Nazi party came into power – the national socialists, to be more exact.
Hitler is complicated. He was a sign of his culture – he was an ardent nationalist, a believer in the superiority of his blood and his country. He understood the problems of his country and sought to remedy them by making Germany strong and economically independent. Like much of Europe at the time, he was also an advocate for the superiority of his own kind and the people who supported him – his country. He sought to destroy any person who stood in his way. Hitler is infamous for the destruction of almost half of the population of the Jews during World War II – noted solemnly today as the Holocaust. The Nazi Party is demonized and Hitler is set in the same room as the Devil himself.
Adolf Hitler began his political life much like Mussolini. He was a political activist, a rebellious thinker, and an artist. He frequented taverns and beer halls, where the veterans, the ex-soldiers of Germany would drown themselves into a cup of mead, and tell them that their lives were not lost. Hitler would frequent the universities and would speak with the always disenchanted university students, and tell them he had a solution for Germany’s problems. He eventually, with this cast of veterans and students, formed a popular political party, and some of his closest friends became power players such as propagandists, managers, and idea gurus. He advocated extreme nationalism, and sought to unify people under a common banner, as well as playing the superiority tactics of the contemporary world.
It is interesting to me how modern historians still view an age only fifty years ago with such twisted notions of the truth. I’ve read books over my life on the Fascist and Nazi parties, and of the characters of Mussolini and Hitler. These books have utterly demonized these two men and their ideas for what they believed to be truth – and never have the historians questioned their own ideas of truth and their own countries. I view Mussolini and Hitler as pieces of their culture – not demons, but rather advents and examples of the world they lived in. When Hitler was placing Jews in concentration camps, Russia was doing the same thing to their own Jews and the Gypsies in their special, unique way. They were also staunchly against writers, musicians, and artists, who had a different opinion of the world than they themselves held. France placed foreigners and Jews in concentration camps. The United States placed their own citizens in concentration camps, and also sent atomic bombs over cities of thousands, and perhaps even millions, and decimated an entire culture. Turkey slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Arabs, and Italy even sent their own citizens and Jews to concentration camps.
I will continue to be amazed, I think. Italy and Germany were united of out nothing extraordinary. They were united because of a shambling population, and an unused soldiery. Their militant governments happened because the soldiers of the first war were left without anything, much like the Vietnam War in the recent decades of the United States. They were united out of nationalism, and a spreading ideal of a population placed within segmented borders trying to discover who they were and why they were. Perhaps today, after the two major world wars, we have discovered that our nationalistic dreams were nothing but the beginning of the world trying to discover who they truly are.