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How did Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin rise to power and maintain it?

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Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin each rose to power through a combination of strategic political maneuvers and ruthless tactics. Mussolini utilized both legal and violent methods, capitalizing on the fear of communism to gain support from conservatives and ultimately establishing a dictatorship through force. Hitler, inspired by Mussolini, initially attempted a failed coup but later achieved power democratically, exploiting economic instability and forming advantageous alliances, before dismantling the Weimar Republic to establish Nazi rule. Stalin, building on his reputation for efficiency and ruthlessness, manipulated his way to power following Lenin's death, consolidating his control through terror and purges within the Communist Party.

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Stalin

Stalin was involved in revolutionary activities as a young man. Right from the start of his political career, he was a common criminal, staging daring bank robberies to help raise funds for the Bolshevik cause. Stalin soon gained a reputation for ruthless efficiency and hard work. This endeared him to Lenin, who personally oversaw the Georgian's rapid rise through the Party ranks.

When Lenin was incapacitated by a debilitating stroke, Stalin stepped into the breach, building up a powerful network of support within the ruling Communist Party. Upon Lenin's death, Stalin was well-positioned to take over, as he had gradually taken control of all the Party's administrative organs. It was Stalin's skill as an administrator, more than anything else, which allowed him to outmaneuver more experienced rivals such as Trotsky in the power struggle that followed Lenin's death. Having established himself in power, Stalin proceeded to consolidate his control through a ruthless campaign of terror against anyone he perceived as a threat, both inside and outside the Party. At the same time, he built up a loyal base of political clients, a new generation of ambitious young Party cadres who owed their positions of power to Stalin personally.

Mussolini

Mussolini achieved power in Italy through a combination of legal, and not so legal, methods. Mussolini encouraged his fascist shock-troops to engage in acts of violence and intimidation against his enemies such as Communists and his former comrades in the Socialist Party. Much to Mussolini's satisfaction, Fascists soon gained a fearsome reputation for mindless thuggery. But at the same time, Mussolini knew that the Fascists would also have to participate in the existing political system if they were to make real headway.

Mussolini actively courted the support of Italian conservatives, who were increasingly concerned by the growing militance of the Left. Industrial strikes, the forced seizure of agricultural land, and other serious disturbances led many on the so-called respectable Right to see Mussolini's Fascists as the only force in Italy capable of holding back the rising red tide. Conservative politicians and figures around King Victor Emmanuel III helped smooth Mussolini's path to power by convincing the King that only the Fascists could be relied upon to restore order. (Ironically, it was the Fascists themselves who were responsible for much of the violent disorder plaguing Italy at that time).

Although the Fascists presented their "March on Rome" as a forced takeover of power, in actual fact, it was no such thing. Apart from the fact that Mussolini, like many of his fellow blackshirts, actually took the train to the Eternal City that day, the King had already agreed to appoint Mussolini as Prime Minister.

Once in power, Mussolini used violence, murder, and intimidation to destroy the existing system of parliamentary democracy and establish in its place a one-party dictatorship with himself as Duce or leader. This ruthless use of force set the tone for how Mussolini was to rule Italy for the next twenty years.

Hitler

Inspired by the March on Rome—or rather the Fascists' propaganda version of it—Hitler wanted to emulate Mussolini and seize power in an armed coup. At that time, however, Hitler was a virtual nonentity, a fringe figure on the periphery of the extreme Right. Nevertheless, Hitler was nothing if not supremely self-confident, and he passionately believed that it was his destiny to make Germany great again.

Exploiting the chronic weakness and instability of the Bavarian state system of government, Hitler and an ill-assorted gang of right-wing armed officers, adventurers, and sundry other desperadoes staged an attempted coup known as the Beer-Hall Putsch, as it was from one of Munich's many beer-halls that the coup was launched. The plan was to take over the Bavarian government in Munich and then use it as a stage from which to launch a nationalist revolution, complete with a march on Berlin to emulate Mussolini's March on Rome.

However, the coup turned out to be an absolute fiasco, ending in bloodshed on the streets of Munich. After a treason trial, Hitler was sent to prison, albeit a very cushy one, to serve a shockingly lenient sentence for leading what was, after all, an armed attempt to overthrow the government. From inside the walls of Landsberg Prison, Hitler got down to work, dictating—appropriately enough—his rambling political testament, the notorious Mein Kampf.

Once released from prison, Hitler set about showing that he'd learned lessons from the failure of the Beer-Hall Putsch. From now on, there'd be no more armed uprisings; the Nazis would achieve power democratically. They would get involved in elections, field candidates, and build temporary alliances with other parties. The strategy paid off, especially when the German economy started to tank, and many voters flocked to the extremes of Left and Right in search of easy solutions to seemingly intractable social and economic problems.

The more established Nationalist Party, which represented Germany's social elite, were happy to get into bed with the Nazis, as Hitler's party had the kind of mass appeal that they could only dream about. For the Nazis, the Nationalists offered an entrée into the upper echelons of high society among the senior army generals and captains of industry, the very people that Hitler needed to convince if he was to achieve power for himself.

Other parties greatly underestimated Hitler, believing that they could control him. Just when support for the Nazis appeared to have peaked, Nationalists such as von Papen threw Hitler a lifeline and invited him to form a coalition cabinet. Von Papen privately boasted that he'd "hired" Hitler, but the Nazi tail soon began to wag the Nationalist dog. Despite being in a minority in the cabinet, the Nazis set about dismantling the Weimar system of government, using the ever-present threat of Communist violence as a pretext to place more and more power directly into Hitler's hands. Before long, the Nazis had established themselves as the only legal party in Germany, with Hitler as the unchallenged Führer or dictator.

Although the Nazis had largely turned to legal, democratic means to achieve power, they never stopped resorting to thuggery and violence to get their own way, even when they were in coalition with the Nationalists. Once the Nationalists had been elbowed out of power and the Nazis had established one-party rule, the full force of Nazi violence was unleashed on anyone who dared to challenge the new regime. It was this unconstrained lust for violence, now given official legal sanction by the state, that formed the basis of the Third Reich's iron grip on power for twelve long years.

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Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) came to power as the head of the National Socialist German Workers Party (the Nazi Party). He first gained power as Germany's Chancellor in 1933 before naming himself the Führer from 1934 to 1945. He was imprisoned after attempting a coup d'etat in 1923, but eventually rose to power through his political leanings supporting anti-Semitism, anti-Communism, and anti-capitalism mixed with a zealous support of totalitarian pro-Germanism--all backed by his rousing oratory skills and mass propaganda. He rebuilt the German armies, who responded with blitzkrieg attacks against the other European nations, beginning with Poland, and Germany eventually controlled all of mainland Europe.

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) rose to become Prime Minister of Italy in 1920 and eventually achieved a rank of power equal to that of the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III. Mussolini was one of the founders of Facisim, and he managed to coexist with Hitler's Nazi Germany until his fall in 1943. Like Hitler, Mussolini was a charismatic speaker who used widespread propaganda and censorship to maintain power.

Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) took control of Soviet Union politics following the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924. He became the  General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922 and ruled the nation with an iron fist until his death. Stalin eliminated all personal opposition to his rule through execution, deportation and exile to Gulag internment camps. He also turned the Soviet Union into a modern, industrialized nation. Initially, Stalin allied the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany, but when Hitler violated their non-aggressive pact and invaded Russia, the Soviet Union joined the side of the Allies. Following his death, the Soviet Union officially denounced Stalin, whose tyrantial reign caused the deaths of millions of civilians.

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