Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini: A Trifecta of 20th-Century Tyranny

Seduction, propaganda, and ultimate power and control.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 08.05.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

Benito Mussolini and Fascism in Italy (1922-1939)

Mussolini in an official portrait / Wikimedia Commons

Benito Mussolini, born into a poor blacksmith’s family, was so named by his radically socialist father (his mother was a devout Catholic schoolteacher) after the executioner of a Mexican emperor. Shortly after becoming qualified as a teacher, Mussolini taught in a small school. Mussolini was a far-left socialist and advocated a violent revolution to overthrow the parliamentary monarchy within Italy and denounced nationalism. When World War I broke out in 1914, however, he broke with his party comrades when he celebrated the entry of his nation into the war – even though he had dodged the draft. Throughout the Great War, he fought earnestly to keep Italy involved, and, financed by large arms manufacturers and the British and French governments, operated a small, pro-war newspaper. When the war came to an end in 1919, Mussolini was quick to recognize the dissatisfaction of many of the homebound soldiers and countrymen concerning the Treaty of Versailles. In an effort to persuade Italy to enter the war on their side, the Allied Powers promised Italy significant territorial gains at the expense of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The final settlement, however, was less favorable to Italian interests than that originally promised, and resulted in widespread malcontent regarding the post-war government.

In March of 1919, Mussolini created a radically nationalist and anti-communist party – Fasci Italiani di Combattimento. Mussolini, who loved the splendor and extravagance of Ancient Rome, adopted a Roman symbol of authority, the fascio (an axe wrapped in whipping rods) for his group of devotees. As inflation and economic decline spread throughout Europe and Italy following the war, factory workers began to go on strikes in northern Italy. In 1920, Mussolini’s group’s numbers were bolstered by ex-soldiers willing to break up these strikes. Mussolini marched 50,000 Fascist supporters (known as Blackshirts for their attire) in squads against the strikers and left-wing newspapers. The Blackshirts garnered their support from the financial contributions of industrialists and large landowners, who shared their anti-communist sentiments, but also believed that they could control the excesses of the Fascist party. The police often refused to stop the squads, allowing the Blackshirts freedom to inflict whatever damage they wished.

The widespread destabilization of the previous social orders throughout Europe due to economic uncertainty in the aftermath of the war and the successful establishment of the Soviet Union as a socialist state led many to believe that democracy was weak and ineffectual, while monarchy was discredited as an oppressive and unresponsive system. A command economy was thought to be a progressive and scientific method of social organization. Fascism incorporated the futuristic and populist elements of Communist ideology, but also identified itself strongly with the nationalism that had created the modern European nation-states in the late 19th Century.

Despite growing popularity and the introduction of proportional representation in the Parliament, Mussolini’s party faired poorly at the polls, winning no seats in 1920 and only 35 in May 1921 (7% of the vote). The internal political situation however, swung in Mussolini’s favor. The birth of the Communist Party of Italy, openly allied with Lenin’s Soviet regime in Moscow, polarized Italian politics. Proportional representation caused stagnation in government, until a weak coalition finally came into place in February 1922. In October of that year, as Mussolini was giving one of his soon-to-be characteristic speeches from atop a balcony, he suddenly cried, “To Rome! To Rome!” The crowd of supporters, much to Mussolini’s surprise, echoed his cry. Blackshirts to the number of 40,000 organized to march on the capital. Mussolini, however, went into hiding, afraid of the impending collapse of his movement. When it became clear that the army would not oppose his action, however, Mussolini moved decisively. As Blackshirts began to occupy key posts in Rome on 27-28 October, the king, Victor Emmanuel III, to the chagrin of his elected cabinet, appointed Mussolini as Prime Minister so long as Mussolini halted the advance to Rome. Mussolini agreed. His word was not to be trusted, however, as he soon after marched on the city anyway, creating an incredible propaganda success for the Fascists. Over the next few years, he led a slow-motion coup d’etat. By 1926, he had become the undisputed totalitarian dictator (“Il Duce,” or “the leader”) of Italy.

Mussolini’s regime embarked on a campaign of militarization and political maneuvering. First, he began to ready Italy for war. One of Mussolini’s driving ambitions was to restore the hegemony of the Roman Empire in a modern Italy. To that end, he encouraged couples to have as many children as possible as he organized large-scale expansions of the agricultural sector to feed them. He extended an olive branch to the Catholic Church by way of the Lateran Accords, which recognized papal authority over the Vatican and declared Catholicism the official religion of all of Italy, ending hundreds of years of estrangement. Mussolini seemed to have been a victim of his own propaganda as, in 1935, he deemed his newly-formed army strong enough to invade Ethiopia. The Italian army invaded from Italian-held Eritrea. The underestimation of the enemy proved fatal for thousands of ill-prepared Italians as the army met face-to-face with the “Lion of the Desert,” Omar Mukhtar (whose death by hanging at the hands of the Italians ended his twenty-year resistance). The poorly-armed Ethiopians were eventually defeated primarily due to terror tactics, such as poison gas and terror bombings. Mussolini’s sense of superiority did not seem hurt by his army’s poor preparation, as, over the next few years, he became a close ally of Hitler’s. In 1939, Mussolini signed the “Pact of Steel,” creating a formal alliance between Italy and Nazi Germany. Mussolini, while publically effervescent, did not have the universal power and control enjoyed by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, a lack of gravitas which would later cost him his life. Nevertheless, Mussolini rode at the helm of the 20th century dictatorship, invented the terms Fascism and Totalitarianism, and pioneered the use of propaganda to control the masses in newspapers, posters, radio, and in movie cinemas.

The Weimar Republic (1918-1933)

Philipp Scheidemann addresses a crowd from a window of the Reich Chancellery, 9 November 1918 / German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

Following the complete collapse of Germany’s armed forces throughout the waning months of 1918, German generals and politicians desperately sought to surrender. The Allied Powers, however, would not negotiate with the autocratic Kaiser Wilhelm II, and insisted upon Germany to adopt a democratic government. In this disarray, Germany quickly fell along the slippery slope to revolution, appearing as though it might go the same direction as Russia – Marxist. After Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the throne on November 7, a new republic was declared, and a National Assembly convened at Weimar to circumvent the unrest in Berlin. The hastily-formed republican government took its name from the host city and surrendered. The Allied Powers, in turn, forced upon the defeated nation extremely harsh and punitive terms through the Treaty of Versailles. Clause 231 of the treaty, the so-called “war-guilt” clause, called for Germany to accept total and sole blame for the Great War (while, arguably, they merely joined) and to pay reparations to the “victimized” Allied Powers. Finally, it was established that Germany was to disband its air force permanently, and to have no more than 100,000 men in its armed forces. The Rhineland, along the Franco-German border, was demilitarized and put under French jurisdiction. The extremely valuable Saar region, home to most of Germany’s factories, was made autonomous.

These harsh restrictions gave the fledgling Weimar Republic unwarranted disrespect. Many Germans had opposed the treaty, and it created large amounts of resentment within Germany. (Retrospectively, the Treaty of Versailles is seen as one of the most fundamental causes of the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War II.) The newfound lack of industry compounded the reparations Germany was forced to pay. To assuage its monetary woes, The Weimar Republic began to print paper money at exorbitant rates – rates so high, that, by 1923, the American Dollar was worth 4.2 trillion German Marks. Amidst the chaos of disappearing life savings and a tumultuous economy, Gustav Stresemann came to the forefront of Weimar politik. Under his leadership, the Weimar Republic managed to regain marked stability in the period of 1923-1929. Peoples discontent about the weimar government increased day by day. Hyperinflation was corrected, but Stresemann’s death in 1929 and the catastrophic worldwide Great Depression the same year brought about the death of the Weimar Republic. This untimely fall led to the empowerment of a man who would vault Germany to an unprecedented world power, who would pursue the elimination of “undesirables” such as Jews and homosexuals, who would begin the second world war of the 20th Century. Hitler, who had been subverting many of his countrymen during the economically tumultuous 1920s, took advantage of the Weimar Republic’s fall.

The Rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany (1914-1939)

1938 portrait / Wikimedia Commons

In August 1914, as the world took the fatal plunge into World War I, an unknown and unimportant young Austrian national named Adolf Hitler enlisted in the German Army. Born on April 20, 1889 into a troubled and strict Austrian family, Hitler was a failed artist and an ardent German nationalist (Austrians are ethnically German and indistinguishable from their cousins). His anti-semitic views already in place from his early life as a vagrant (he dropped out of high school and was refused admission to a Vienna art school), Hitler was eager to serve his adopted homeland. He had an exemplary record of service and received the prestigious Iron Cross, both First and Second Class, and also achieved the undistinguished rank of Corporal. Shocked and deeply angered by the German defeat in 1918, he personally put the sole blame on the so-called “November politicians” (referring to those who formed the Weimar Republic). He also put blame on the Jews for the downfall of Germany.

After the war, Hitler remained in the army and after receiving intelligence and oratory training, became an intelligence official tasked with infiltrating political parties and reporting to his superiors on their activities. In March 1919, he was instructed to sit in on a meeting of the small nationalist German Worker’s Party. He joined the party in September, and upon his discharge from the army in 1920, soon became the leader of the party which changed its name to the German National Socialist Worker’s Party (NSDAP or Nazi for short, from its German name Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei). Over the next few years, Hitler’s oratorical skills allowed the party to expand. It soon had its own private armed forces, known as the SA led by Ernst Rohm. Another important admirer was Erich Lundendorff, a Field Marshall from the First World War, whose help proved invaluable in setting up the Beer Hall Putsch.

The Beer Hall Putsch and Mein Kampf (1923-1925)

The Marienplatz in Munich during the Beer Hall Putsch / German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

On November 8, 1923, Adolf Hitler and a group of SA raided a beer hall in Munich where the three most powerful politicians in Bavaria were giving speeches. Taking the men hostage, Hitler threatened them with death (and his own suicide) if they did not side with his intention to overturn Bavaria’s government and then to march on Berlin. The men agreed (with little other choice). Hitler then made the colossal error of leaving the hall. He left Marshall Lundendorff in command, who upon the assurances of the three politicians that they only wished to return home to their families and would continue to support Hitler, allowed them to leave the hall. The men quickly denounced Hitler and mobilized the government’s resistance to his “revolution”. Adolf Hitler was enraged. He decided to march his SA the next morning against the Bavarian government. However, army regulars were already at the War Ministry when Hitler arrived and the rebellion was quickly scattered. Hitler was arrested and tried. He spoke so forcefully at his trial however, that the head judge had to harass the other two judges into even convicting him at all. He received a five year sentence. The abortive coup Hitler tried to carry out is referred to as the Beer Hall Putsch.

In prison, Hitler dictated the book Mein Kampf (My Struggle) to his close friend and confidant, Rudolf Hess. The book was a savage “hymn of hate” denouncing Jews as “parasites” and laying down the foundation for the plan of military conquest Hitler would later attempt. It was all painfully clear: the rearmament of Germany, the invasion of Poland, the invasion of the Soviet Union; Hitler had written down for anyone who wished to read it his plan of action. Unfortunately, few non-Germans read the book, but all too many Germans did. Hitler was released after spending only eight months of his sentence, mostly because the authorities thought he was harmless. He found the Nazi party virtually moribund. In 1925, he formed the Schutzstaffel (SS) to be his personal body guard under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler.

The Nazi Regime (1933-1939)

Hitler proclaims the Anschluss on the Heldenplatz, Vienna, 15 March 1938 / German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

Through the use of propaganda, Hitler became immensely popular among the German people. To end the depressions, Hitler followed a program of massive public works, including the infamous Autobahn, dams, roads, railroads, and civil improvements. His official announcement of rearmament in 1936 (although it had actually begun much earlier) stimulated the economy further, as it would in the United States during the Second World War. Culture evolved along a strict set of party rules. Men were the heads of work and home; a woman’s place was as a cleaner and a mother. The Nazis encouraged large families to literally create men to serve in the army. The Nazis, through their policy of racism, wanted superiority in every sphere of life. When the Olympic Games came to Berlin in 1936, the Germans showed off their athletes in huge stadiums built for the purpose.

Adolf Hitler practiced a policy of racial superiority of the Germans, whom he called Aryans, and people were sorted by the correct ethnic “purity”. The ideal was the tall, blond, blue-eyed, muscular, and handsome Nordic youth (ironically, Hitler had brown hair). Hitler’s regime followed a totalitarian policy; the SS and the secret police, the Gestapo, ruthlessly enforced loyalty to Hitler and rounded up the Nazi’s enemies. In 1934, when the army had demanded as the price of its support the dissolution of the SA, Hitler had Ernst Rohm assassinated. Heinrich Himmler became the chief of secret police activities and the mastermind behind the terror. In 1935, the Nazis enacted the Nuremberg Laws, which placed extreme restrictions of Jews and their freedoms as human beings. The economic lives of the Jews were smashed. At this stage however, Hitler was not actively killing Jews but deporting them. The Nazis operated concentration camps at this time to deal primarily with political prisoners.

The propaganda machine of the Nazis was similar to that of Stalin in the USSR. However, the Nazis, under propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, used their propaganda to acquire not only acquiescence to Hitler’s schemes, but also to convince the Germans of their policy of racial purity and antisemitism. Goebbels saw to it that, like in the Soviet Union, a picture of the Führer appeared in every building and home, and in many public places. Posters were one of the favorites of the Nazis. They also used the theater extensively to bring in support for the party’s goals.

Joseph Stalin takes power in the Soviet Union (1924-1934)

Joseph Stalin in an authorised image taken in 1937 and used for state publicity purposes / Wikimedia Commons

When Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, he left a power vacuum behind in the wake of his death, centering on the continued use of the New Economic Policy (NEP). The primary contenders for political power were Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. Leon Trotsky was a brilliant politician, and had been Commissar of War during the Civil War. He was a gifted orator and a dedicated Communist, especially to the cause of causing Marxist revolutions internationally, through the use of arms if need be. Ironically, Trotsky had originally been a member of the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Workers Party, until Lenin, recognizing his genius, had won him over to the Bolshevik camp. Stalin, on the other hand, was a gifted organizer. He was referred to by many of his contemporaries in the party as “Comrade Index-card”. However, Trotsky was obviously the more popular choice for the job as the head of the new communist state. Unfortunately for Trotsky, Stalin was also the party’s General Secretary. Although primarily a bureaucratic job, the General Secretary actually held the most power in the party because he appointed regional and local party posts in government. Stalin was therefore in a position to appoint those who would support his bid for power.

Stalin initially allied himself with the right and center factions of the Communist Party (if any part of a far-left party may be called “right”) which supported the continued existence of the NEP. Allying himself with Lev Kamenev and Grigori Zinoviev, he threw his might against Trotsky, who was removed from his post as People’s Commissar of War. Stalin now turned against Kamenev and Zinoviev, allying himself with Nicolai Bukharin. Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party on November 12, 1927, and expelled from the Soviet Union in 1928. He eventually found his way to Mexico, where he was murdered in 1940, probably on Stalin’s orders. Now Stalin turned on his allies again, abandoning Bukharin and calling for the abandonment of the NEP. By now, Stalin was the undisputed leading figure of the Communist Party. By the early 1930s, Stalin would truly become the dictator of the Soviet Union.

The First Five-Year Plan and Collectivization (1927-1939)

Propaganda stand dedicated to the first five-year plan in Moscow. 1931 colour photo by Branson DeCou / Wikimedia Commons

At the Fifteenth Congress of the Communist Party, Stalin openly advocated the end of the NEP and introduced a plan for rapidly industrializing the largely rural Soviet Union, remarking that the country was “fifty to one hundred years behind the advanced countries”. The government then introduced Gosplan (The State General Planning Commission) which came up with basis for the Five-Year Plan, aimed to turn the country into a major industrial power within five years. The plan set ridiculously high quotas for development. Nonetheless, terrific economic growth was achieved, especially in the areas of coal and iron output. As a result, steel production grew exponentially. However, harsh penalties for not making quotas caused large-scale misrepresentation of growth to occur. Harsh totalitarian measures were introduced. Miners were expected to put in 16 and 18 hour work days, unheard of even the strictest parts of the major capitalist countries. Poor and hazardous working conditions caused countless deaths. Most of the massive industrial complexes constructed for the Five-Year Plan were built by slave-laborers, sentenced for trivial and often completely false crimes. Approximately 3.7 million people were sentenced for counter-revolutionary crimes, approximately 0.6 million were put to death, 0.7 million were expatriated, and 2.7 million were sent to forced labor camps (called the Gulag), often itself a death sentence.

As another part of the Five-Year Plan, the government began to forcibly collectivize agriculture (that is, to create large-scale farms where peasants worked the land collectively). The state sought not only an increase in agricultural output, but also to export grain abroad, in order to gain financial capital to buy important technologies for the industrial parts of the Five-Year Plan. By 1936, 90% of the nation’s farms had been collectivized. However, this was not done without cost. Peasants almost universally actively opposed collectivization. In the Ukraine, the peasants killed off livestock rather than give it to the authorities. Stalin was so incensed that he allowed a famine to occur which led to the deaths of millions of innocent Ukrainians. As a result, throughout the period of 1924-1953, agricultural output was generally low, not regaining output levels of the period of the NEP until 1940, and rising only marginally in the following years. In addition, Stalin saw fit to deal with richer peasant farmers (known as Kulaks) by deporting them to forced labor in Siberia. In practice however, any person critical of collectivization was deemed a Kulak and summarily deported. It is estimated that at least 2.5 million peasants (in addition to the above industrial workers) were deported, though the true number is believed to be much greater.

The Great Purges and Politics in the Soviet Union (1930-1939)

Excerpt of NKVD Order No. 00447 / Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the period of collectivization and the Five-Year Plan, the Soviet government became increasingly tyrannical. Stalin, was extremely paranoid, began to turn on important members of the party he had once called supporters. In 1934, the last person who might have rivaled Stalin, Sergei Kirov, was shot in his office, most likely on Stalin’s orders. Using the murder as a pretext, he began to engage in ruthless purges of the party membership. Ironically, most of the purged members were original members of the party and colleagues of Lenin, known as the Old Bolsheviks. Through a series of show trials, the defendants were sentenced to death and to forced labor in the Gulag. Often, after using torture to extract signed confessions and agreeing on lenient sentences for a confession of false charges in the court, Stalin would turn on his word and have the defendants executed. Zinoviev and Kamenev, Stalin’s old allies, both met this fate. Through 1936-1937, a period known as the Great Terror, Stalin supposedly personally signed 40,000 death warrants.

Stalin’s dictatorship held incredible control over the general populace of the nation. Intense propaganda campaigns tried to indoctrinate the society with Communist thought. Stalin wanted to replace the national identities, such as the Russians, Ukrainians, or Belarussians, with the idea of a purely “Soviet” citizen. He also stipulated that all ethnic groups be treated equally. Under the Tsars, the Russians had been given preference. Now the heavy hand of Stalin was given equally to all nations. However, this did not prevent him from forcing the speakers of every language in the USSR to convert to the Cyrillic alphabet. Religion came under intense pressure as well, as atheism was the official policy of the state. Priests were rounded up and shipped to Gulag or executed. By the end of the terror, less than 1,000 churches remained out of at least 20,000. The NKVD, the Soviet secret police, hunted down citizens suspected of “counter-revolutionary” or “subversive” crimes. During the Great Terror, as many as 1 million people (the NKVD’s own records admit 0.681 million) were executed for simply “opposing” Stalin’s ideas and plans. False confessions were routinely extracted through torture and intimidation. The penalty for countless others (numbering by the most conservative estimates in the millions) was the Gulag. Fear was the order of the day in the Soviet Union. In addition, the Soviet state cultivated an extreme cult of personality around Stalin. Pictures of the dictator appeared at every street corner and in every building, including people’s homes. School children ended the pledge of allegiance at the beginning of each day by saying “…and thank Comrade Stalin for this happy life”. To be fair, social conditions did improve under Stalin. Unemployment fell to practically zero, and large bounds in the public health were introduced. However, there was no freedom whatsoever in Soviet society.

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