Both the Italian and German fascist parties had enjoyed wide-spread support among their populations because they were successful in stoking nationalist sentiments while paying careful attention to developing their respective economies – an enormously important policy in light of the misery emanating from the Great Depression.
To understand the rise of fascism in Europe, particularly in Italy and Germany, one needs to understand the historical context in which individuals like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler rose to power. The onset of the Great Depression destroyed the economic recoveries that had been underway across much of Europe following the physical and financial devastation of the First World War. Unemployment in all industrialized countries increased enormously, reaching as much as 40 percent of the work forces in some countries, including Italy. While Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, which was created in 1921, was already a growing factor in that country’s politics, the economic problems that gave rise to extremist ideologies played very much into his favor and, as importantly, nationalism was, as always a formidable force for opportunistic politicians to exploit. Mussolini’s long reign over Italy would stretch from his usurpation of total power in 1922 to Italy’s defeat in the Second World War, when he was killed by Italian partisans in 1945.
Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power was more protracted than Mussolini’s. Mussolini had been Hitler’s idol throughout the 1920s, and the Austrian Hitler had even sent an admiring letter to the Italian fascist leader and anxiously awaited his opportunity to meet with Mussolini, the first such encounter of which occurred in 1934, with the Italian leader treating the German chancellor condescendingly. Germany, of course, was emerging as a major industrial power, with the concomitant growth in military capabilities such industrial power allows, while Italy would remain a more fractious and militarily weaker companion.
In terms of differences between Italy’s and Germany’s fascist policies, the common denominators included a very strong hatred for the political left, especially the communist parties that were forming in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution that had occurred in Russia in 1917, as well as an extreme nationalistic orientation rooted in a firm and militaristic belief in the superiority of each leader’s country. Both leaders instilled in their publics a sense of national pride while maintaining a firm grip in industrial policies designed to maximize efficiency while exemplifying ethnic superiority. Where they differed, and this is key, is in the extent of Hitler’s fanatical racism. For all his dictatorial faults, Mussolini had not been driven by hatred towards Italy’s Jewish population, which enjoyed a comfortable status in Rome. Hitler, on the other hand, was driven by the most virulent racism possible, stemming at least in part from is experiences as a soldier in the enormously destructive First World War as well as by what he perceived by be an inordinate amount of influence over the Bolshevik Party now ruling in Russia. While jailed following the failed “Beer Hall Putsch,” during which Germany’s fascists attempted to seize power in 1923, Hitler began writing Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), his mammoth diatribe against the destructive influences of “international Jewry” and his statement of political intent with respect to his ambitions and vision for the future of Germany. While the destruction of the Jewish people was a core objective of Hitler’s fascism, though, Mussolini only began to persecute Italy’s Jewish population in the late 1930s, and solely in response to pressure to do so from the now-much-stronger Hitler. Mussolini’s Manifesto on Race was modeled on Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws with respect to policies dictating the treatment of Jews. While this development did not, obviously, bode well for Italy’s Jews, however, the domineering practices of Germany made many Italians resentful of their more powerful “ally,” which would ultimately weaken the alliance.
With respect to the effects of World War II on Europe’s colonies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the end of the war witnessed the official end of Britain’s role as a major world power, at least in terms of its ability and willingness to continue to administer its far-flung former empire. Similarly, France’s humiliation at the outset of World War II and its occupation by the German Army left it bereft of the resources necessary to maintain a hold of many of its most important colonies. When France tried to reclaim its former colonies in Southeast Asia, what was known as French Indochina, which had been seized by Imperial Japan until its defeat, the result was another humiliating defeat at the Vietnamese region of Dien Bien Phu, where the French garrison was badly defeated by Vietnamese insurgents, led by Ho Chi Minh. The resulting withdrawal of French troops from Vietnam marked the end of France’s role as a colonial power.
In addition to the weakened position of Europe’s former colonial powers by the end of World War II, another factor contributing to the demise of the old empires was the rise of the Soviet Union, which emerged from the war one of the world’s two major powers, along with the United States. The Soviet Union’s leaders correctly perceived in Britain and France’s and Belgium and the Netherland’s demise during the war the opportunity to advance their policy of supporting what became known as “National Liberation Movements.” These movements, guerrilla armies supplied by the Soviet Union and, in some instances, by China, became a major component of the Cold War confrontation between East and West that would end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Interestingly, both Italy and Germany (the initial partners in the Axis alliance) were struggling to unify as nations during the 1860's, following a pattern throughout Europe of establishing national unity. Beginning in westernmost Europe during the late mediaeval period with France and England, this unification trend slowly moved eastward, even into our own times, with the Balkans attempting to unify and nationalize during the 1990's.
In the mid 1800's the areas that we now consider to be Italy and Germany were still a loose confederation of city-states and regions, both far behind the rest of Western Europe in the acquisition of colonies; one of the factors that united them as the Fascist Axis powers in the 1930's was the desire to expand their own contiguous borders, as well as establishing and expanding political satellites in order to compete with their more advanced sister European states from the late 1800's up until the conclusion of World War II. Certainly the citizens of both nations from that era would share in their leader's desires to see their country succeed on the international stage; to what extremes they would go in order to accomplish that goal of unification and empire had sadly become well known by the conclusion of the Second World War.