Fascism 6: Comparing Italian Fascism and German National Socialism: Similarities and Differences  

Russell Haggar

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Fascism 6: Comparing Italian Fascism and German National Socialism: Similarities and Differences


Click here for a detailed historical discussion of Hitler in the In Our Time Series for Radio 4


Part One and Part Two of documentary on Hitler [YouTube from National Geographic] NEW link added December 2012

Part One and Part Two of drama on Hitler [You Tube] NEW link added December 2012



Analysts of fascism use the term “generic fascism” to refer to the general core ideological characteristics applicable to all fascist regimes and then turn to the discussion of important ideological differences between Italian Fascism and German National Socialism. Various neo-fascist political parties such as the French National Front and the BNP [British National Party] have also been analysed in terms of the extent to which they incorporate the core ideological elements of fascism.


Similarities between Italian Fascism and German National Socialism


Italian Fascism and German National Socialism are similar in the following respects. In both cases the Enlightenment emphasis on individual rationality is rejected and there is much greater emphasis on the roles of will and emotion as determinants of individual behaviour. Furthermore a generally negative view of human nature is adopted in that the so-called “masses” are seen as lacking the intellectual capacities  necessary to understand complex political questions and as easy prone to manipulation by various forms of propaganda.


However there are said to be major differences between the capabilities of the masses and those of the political elite within which the individual leader plays a dominant role and it is entirely desirable that political power should be controlled by the leader and the political elite because only they can take the decisions necessary to safeguard the national interest.


The ideology of liberalism and the political institutions of liberal democracy are rejected and the ideology of Marxism is rejected even more strongly although in both variants of fascism there has been some variable theoretical support for a limited form of so-called Third Way corporatism intermediate between capitalism and communism.


Whereas conservatives , liberals and social democrats have agreed that to varying extents individuals might be inherently competitive both Italian Fascists and German national Socialists took to extremes the theories of social Darwinism [as developed by the classical liberal Herbert Spencer] arguing that  human progress is based upon a fundamental struggle for existence in which strong individuals and strong nations can justifiably adopt the most violent methods to ensure their survival at the expense of others.


Furthermore whereas the ideology of liberalism developed to include a form of liberal nationalism in which it was argued firstly that individual nations should be organised on the basis of liberal constitutional government rather than on the basis of the divine right of kings and secondly that all nations had rights to independence and self-determination, both Italian Fascists and German National Socialists adopted an extreme expansionary ultra-nationalism based upon ideas of their national supremacy and the justification of military conquest.


If liberal democratic political institutions were to be abolished it would be clear that the institutions of the state would have an important role to play in any future fascist society but it is in disputes about the nature of the state and in particular in disputes surrounding relationships between the state and the race that the most significant differences between Italian Fascism and German National Socialism can be demonstrated.


Differences between Italian Fascism and German National Socialism

  • Race
  • The State, Totalitarianism and Corporatism
  • Tradition and Modernity
  • Foreign Policy Objectives
  • The Importance of Traditional sources of Authority.


A tabulated summary appears on the following pages


[After the table I provide further information on Race, the state, totalitarianism and corporatism but the tabulated information is itself sufficient on tradition and modernity, foreign policy and traditional sources of authority]







Tabulated Differences between the Ideologies of Italian Fascism and Nazism



·      Is  strongly evident in ideology of Nazism but less so in ideology of Italian Fascism

The Nature of the State

·       In the ideology of Italian Fascism the nature of the state is analysed in terms of theories of Totalitarianism and Corporatism but in practice it is questionable how totalitarian the Italian Fascist political system actually was.

·       Italian corporatism was presented as a Third Way between Capitalism and Communism but Italian Fascism in practice sided much more with the capitalist class than with the working class.


·       In the Ideology of Nazism theories of totalitarianism were rejected and the state was seen as a vessel to promote the survival of the German Race.

·       Nevertheless it could be argued that in practice German society would become more totalitarian than Italian society although the limitations of the term totalitarian must also be recognised.

·      Corporatist theories were also rejected since the German economy was to remain under private ownership and control although its objectives[increased efficiency and promotion of German rearmament] were set for in by the Nazi government

Tradition and Modernity

·       The Nazi rise to power was aided by traditional conservatives who sympathised with the Nazi opposition to parliamentary democracy and to liberalism, socialism and particularly Marxism.

·       The Nazis also claimed initially to oppose the expansion of large scale industry and large department stores which added to their popularity among self-employed workers and small shopkeepers who felt that their prospects were limited as a result of the growth of large scale industry on the one hand and socialist trade unions and political parties on the other.

·       Nazi ideology praised the rural peasant way of life as reflecting long standing German racial traditions of closeness to nature, good health and absence of urban materialism partly but not entirely for the electoral reasons that it was seeking to offset its relative unpopularity among the urban working class by an appeal to the rural peasantry.

Tradition and Modernity Continued

·       In practice, however, the Nazis recognised that if they were seeking to fight a large scale war they would be able to do so only with the support of large scale industrialists using modern technology.

·       Furthermore although some concessions were made to the rural peasantry when the Nazis first came to power rural living conditions remained difficult and the population drift from rural to urban areas actually accelerated under the Nazis.

·       Italian Fascists attempted to identify themselves with modernity rather than tradition. They recognised the underdeveloped backwardness of the Italian economy relative to France, Germany and the UK but argued that under a Fascist regime technical progress would accelerate.

·       However military failure in Greece and Northern Africa demonstrated that Mussolini’s modernisation plans were rhetorical rather than real and contributed to his fall from power.

Foreign Policy Objectives

·       Italian foreign policy objectives could be said to be based upon expansionary ultra-nationalism but were limited to desires to gain additional territories in the Balkans and in Northern Africa.

·       In practice the Italian Military forces were ill-prepared for war which pointed to the overall limited achievements of the Italian Fascist regime in modernising the economy

·       German foreign policy objectives were huge in scope and related to their racially prejudiced attitudes especially toward Jews and Eastern European Slavs.

·       The German army had successfully been rearmed but their war effort was hampered by the chaotic processes of decision making within the Nazi state. Hitler’s interventions in military strategy were often haphazard and misguided.

The Importance of Traditional Sources of Authority

·       Italian Fascism had a more limited overall impact than German National Socialism because it faced greater opposition from traditional sources of authority.

·       The Italian Catholic Church was in a more powerful position to oppose fascist ideology than were the German Protestant and Catholic Churches.

·       The Italian Civil Service and the Military were infiltrated less by fascist personnel and ideology than was the case in Nazi Germany.

The Importance Of Traditional Sources of Authority continued

·       King Victor Emanuel continued as Head of State when Mussolini came to power as effectively a “prime minister”. Although the King supported Mussolini at certain key points he never seemed to be an enthusiastic supporter of fascism and this may have limited Mussolini’s freedom of manoeuvre to some extent.









  • German National Socialism, Italian Fascism and Race [You already have a document called Fascism4 which describes the racism involved in German National Socialist ideology. Here I shall work with a summary of the main points of this document.]


In relation to the role of racism in National Socialist ideology we must note the following key points.


  1. So-called theories of scientific racism became increasingly prevalent in the C19th and early C20 in work of De Gobineau and Houston Chamberlain. In these theories it was argued that different biological races could be identified on the basis of differences in their physical characteristic such skin colour, hair texture, and eye or nose shape and that these observed physical differences were correlated with differences in intellectual abilities and cultural tastes such that, whatever the classification used, the conclusion was drawn that the white race or races were intellectually and culturally superior to all other races. In the case of the UK such notions of racial superiority were used to justify the expansion of the British Empire while in the ideology of National Socialism they were used to justify extreme anti-Semitism and anti-Slavism.
  2. According to Nazi ideology there were 3 broad races : the Aryans who as the master race were described by the Nazis as “the founders of the culture” and as “responsible for all creativity whether in art, music, literature, philosophy or political thought”; other races who were bearers of culture: “people who were able to utilize the ideas and initiatives of Aryans but were themselves incapable of creativity” and  the Jews who were described as “the destroyers of culture pitted in an unending struggle against the noble and creative Aryans.” {All quotations form Andrew Heywood.}
  3. Hitler argued that the future of the German nation depended upon the maintenance of the racial purity of the Aryan race and its dominance over all other races and in particular its dominance of the Jewish race. The Nazi desire to safeguard the racial purity of the Aryan race resulted in the passing of laws to allow for the sterilisation of the apparently hereditarily ill and in the secret murder of individuals deemed likely too sick to produce healthy offspring if they were allowed to breed. It is estimated that between 1933 and 1945 approximately 555,000 people were sterilized and 200,000 people secretly murdered in the interests of racial purity. This euthanasia programme can also be seen as a prelude to the subsequent Holocaust in which 6, 000, 0000 Jews were killed.

It must be noted that nowadays the concept of race has been heavily discredited because it can be shown that if we choose say two black individuals and one white individual at random it is perfectly possible that the overall genetic similarities between the white person and one of the black people may well be greater than the genetic similarities between the two black people .For example it seems likely that John Terry and Rio Ferdinand have more genetic similarities than John Terry and Rowan Atkinson. More seriously the limitations of the concept of race are illustrated in the following UN Declaration:


1.UN Statement on Race and Racial Prejudice 1978

Any theory which involves the claim that racial or ethnic groups are inherently superior or inferior, thus implying that some would be entitled to dominate or eliminate others, or which bases value judgments on racial differentiation has no scientific foundation and is contrary to the moral and ethical principles of humanity.

Racism and anti-Semitism was much less significant in the ideology of Italian Fascism than in the ideology of National Socialism.


There were about 50,000 Jews resident in Italy in the 1930s; they were disproportionately middle class; disproportionately involved in academic life and also more likely than the rest of the Italian population to be members of the Italian Fascist Party. Theories of so-called scientific racism did not attract wide support in Italy and when they did they were usually expressed in irrational prejudices against Africans and Arabs rather than against Jews.


However once the Italians invaded Ethiopia racist anti-Ethiopian laws were imposed there and some fascists argued increasingly that if the fascist transformation of Italian society was to be successful it would be necessary to generate for the Italians a greater sense of their own race. In 1938 anti-Jewish laws were introduced in Italy banning Jews from the teaching profession, preventing Jews from marrying “Aryan Italians” and banning them from the Italian Fascist Party.


Nevertheless Roger Eatwell argues that although the imposition of anti-Jewish Las created hardship and anxiety for Italian Jews the Italian people themselves showed considerable sympathy toward the Jews. In addition, the King, sections of the Military and the Catholic Church and even some fascist leaders were known to oppose anti-Semitism.


Yet when Mussolini was made aware of the extermination policies being carried out by the Germans in Eastern Europe he did nothing to oppose them and once German military forces moved into Italy they deported approximately 7,000 Jews to concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, however 80% of Italian Jews evaded arrest often with the help of the Italian people.




  • Italian Fascism and the State [The concept of Totalitarianism will prove to be important here. Once again you have detailed information in another document although not some of the comparative information presented here. However, luckily, there is not much which is new.]


It was the Italian Fascists who developed the theory of the totalitarian state whereas the German National Socialists argued instead that the state should merely be seen as a mechanism to ensure the continued domination of the Aryan race.


The Italian Fascists developed a positive conception of totalitarianism in which the concentration of power in the state dominated by a powerful charismatic leader will result in a form of totalitarian democracy which is actually superior to liberal democracy.


It is superior because the totalitarian state will foster a sense of national unity by transcending the social divisions associated with competing political parties and pressure groups and by replacing self-interested liberal individualism by greater national solidarity in the support of the national interest as defined by the political leader [in this case by the Duce  [=Italian for Leader] Mussolini.


Furthermore national unity will enable the nation to pursue its national interest more effectively and more forcefully almost certainly by military means.


Totalitarianism and the Corporate State


[Italian fascists were sympathetic to the theory of the corporate state but in practice, the introduction of some corporate style institutions in Italy did little or nothing to advance working class interests. German National Socialists rejected theories based upon the corporate state]


It is claimed also by the Italian fascists that totalitarian rule will promote the growth of the corporate state in which the state encourages cooperation rather than confrontation between business and trade union leaders as a means of fostering greater national unity and greater economic efficiency. Cooperation is therefore seen as preferable by far to the negative class conflict which is promoted in Marxist ideology.


Thus while radical socialists argued that class conflict was inevitable under capitalism and that socialist parties and trade unions should use their political power to overthrow or at least significantly reform the capitalist system fascists rejected such views. Instead working class people and their political representatives should reject theories based upon class conflict, give up their independent political roles and in the case of Italian Fascism contribute to national unity by participating as partners in the corporatist institutions set up by the state to secure social progress via national unity rather than via class conflict. Capitalist classes to should be prepared to make concessions to workers in accordance with the national interest as a whole and the state itself would itself introduce social reforms designed to regulate capitalism and improve the economic position of the working classes.


However closer investigation suggests that in practice the Italian fascists references to the corporate state simply involved the incorporation of some of the rhetoric of socialism into political programmes which were based primarily on expansionist nationalism and a willingness to make important concessions to capitalist interests while quietly discarding the “socialist” content of their political programmes not least because they needed capitalist and conservative support to take and retain power. When spread by talented propagandists this mixture within fascist ideology of nationalist and moderate non-revolutionary socialist elements could appear attractive to a large proportion of lower middle class and working class people while the limited practical interference with the capitalist system enabled the fascists to retain the support of the business classes


German National Socialists, Race and the State



Contrastingly, however, in the ideology of German National Socialism the state is seen merely as a mechanism to ensure the continued domination of the Aryan Race.  If the German nation is to pursue its national interest involving massive territorial expansion it must first of all become a more united and hence amore powerful nation and this stronger sense of national unity is to be created primarily by a strong emphasis on the alleged biological superiority of the Aryan Race. Once Aryan workers come to believe that they are part of the “Master” race and that they are locked in a life or death struggle especially with the Jews they will forget foolish Marxist-inspired notions of class conflict and unite in the pursuit of the national interest as determined by Hitler and his close supporters.


Thus as noted by Andrew Heywood the “Nazis did not venerate the state as such but viewed it as a means to an end. Hitler, for instance described the state as a mere vessel implying that creative power derived not from the state but from the race, the German people.” The following quotations from Hitler’s own auto biography Mein Kampf [=My Struggle] provides very direct support for Andrew Heywood’s conclusion.


 The State is only a means to an end …. Above all, it must preserve the existence of the race . We must make a clear-cut distinction between the vessel and its contents. The State is only the vessel and the race is what it contains


German National Socialism and Corporatism


German National Socialists gave much less emphasis to corporatist theories of the state. They envisaged that the ownership and control of the economy would remain in private hands and their abolition of all independent political parties opposing the NSDAP and of independent trade unions undermined the abilities of working class people to defend their living standards.


Totalitarianism in Practice



It has been argued that although the German National Socialists said little about theories of totalitarianism the German Nazi regime was in practice more totalitarian than the Italian Fascist regime.


In both Germany and Italy competing political parties and independent trade unions were abolished but it could be argued that the scope of totalitarianism was greater in Germany for the following reasons.


  • Hitler had become Head of State as well as Chancellor whereas in Italy King Victor Emanuel remained as Head of State with only relatively weak support for Mussolini’s policies.
  • The State Civil Service and the Military were under greater National Socialist Control than was the case in Italy.
  • The police and security services were more repressive in Germany than in Italy.
  • The mass media were controlled more strictly in Germany than in Italy.
  • Actual and potential opposition from the Catholic Church was greater in Italy than in Germany.


However these factors should not be taken to imply that Germany itself was a fully totalitarian state or that Hitler was a supremely dominant leader. It has been argued that even though the German police and security services were more repressive they were also relatively small and that Hitler’s regime survived because it was relatively popular with many although certainly not all of the German people.


Furthermore Hitler’s overall approach to leadership was disorganised and chaotic which meant that political power was dispersed to other Nazi leaders although it is clear that Hitler’s extreme anti-Semitism did provide the ideological context for Germany’s sickening anti-Semitic policies


[We have studied elsewhere the dangers of applying the concept of totalitarianism to both fascist and communist states: though both types of state in some respects dictatorial, there are important differences between them….see other document on totalitarianism]