The development of sharp ideological divisions in European politics -- which eventually led to World War II -- can be explained not only by the rise of communism and socialism but also by the collapse of the established conservative order in much of Europe and the emergence of mass nationalism.
Many World War I ex-soldiers returned home angry at failure in the war and resentful of the workers and wealthy who had stayed behind. They preached a new kind of nationalism that was hostile to the old order and fanatically anti-Communist. They were attracted to new forms of authoritarian and collectivist rule. The first evidence of what this new politics meant was seen in Italy, where a young, militant veteran, Benito Mussolini, established the Italian Fascist movement in 1919.
Fascism took its name from the arrangement of rods and axes -- the fasces -- that had been a symbol of authority in ancient Rome. Soon the term "Fascist" became shorthand for any political group that combined a radical nationalist and social policy and called for dictatorial rule. In Munich in southern Germany, another veteran -- young Austrian agitator Adolf Hitler -- assumed leadership in 1921 of a small political party, the National Socialist German Workers' Party. Its name made clear a joint commitment to national revival and radical social change.
If fascism had just remained a small fringe movement, the history of the post-Great War years would have been very different. But Mussolini's new party, through a combination of effective propaganda and street violence, soon became a contender for power. In October 1922, after threatening a march on Rome, Mussolini was offered the premiership. Within four years, he had subverted parliamentary rule, destroyed the Italian left, and established a one-party state with himself as Il Duce (The Leader).
Fascism was imitated in every European state. It traded on each country's grievances but also promised a bright utopian future. Militarism was a central feature of Fascist appeal, and thousands of young Europeans flocked into the movements and their paramilitary organizations.
In 1923, at the height of the European inflationary crisis, Adolf Hitler moved to imitate Benito Mussolini. In addition to planning a march on Berlin, he staged a coup in Munich on November 8-9 as a prelude to a national seizure of power. His putsch was suppressed, and Hitler was imprisoned. However, he emerged a year later, reestablished his leadership of the National Socialist movement, and launched a campaign of violent anti-Marxism side-by-side with a struggle for parliamentary seats. Both Mussolini and Hitler were unwilling to accept the postwar settlement. Their rhetoric suggested that a "new order" was needed to replace a liberal international system that they regarded as decadent.
On the next page, learn how economic woes throughout Europe and the world led to an unstable atmosphere ripe for World War II.