The Illusion of Control: A Historiographical Essay on the Capabilities and Limits of Fascist Authority

In response to the growth and spread of neo-fascisms and -authoritarianisms in North America, Europe, and beyond during the preceding decades, many scholars have begun incorporating the various secondary and primary source materials made available via the New Fascism Syllabus‘ website into their History classrooms. From time to time, those scholars’ students have produced particularly insightful essays pertaining to the history of fascism and/or authoritarianism. In highlighting these student achievements, we will be featuring a select number of these essays here in our ongoing “(Under)Graduate Perspectives” series. The New Fascism Syllabus‘ “(Under)Graduate Perspectives” series is being coordinated and edited by Jennifer Evans, Brian J Griffith, and Sophie Wunderlich. If you would like to have one of your students’ essays featured in this series, please get in touch with our weblog editors via our “Contact” section.

This review essay was originally written for Dr. Brian J Griffith’s upper-division reading seminar, “Comparative Fascisms: 1920s to the Present,” at University of California, Los Angeles.


Works Reviewed

  • Corner, Paul. The Fascist Party and Popular Opinion in Mussolini’s Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Franzinelli, Mimmo. “Squadrism.” In R. J. B. Bosworth, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Fascism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Gentile, Emilio. The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
  • Koonz, Claudia. Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics. New York: Routledge, 1987.
  • Lüdtke, Alf. “The Appeal of Exterminating ‘Others’: German Workers and the Limits of Resistance,” Journal of Modern History 64 (1992): 46–67.
  • Welch, David. “Manufacturing a Consensus: Nazi Propaganda and the Building of a ‘National Community’ (Volksgemeinschaft),” Contemporary European History 2:1 (1993).
  • Willson, Perry. “Women in Mussolini’s Italy, 1922-1945.” In Bosworth.


In the years leading up to the Second World War, nations across Europe underwent dramatic transformations – particularly in the realm of politics. Growing out of a series of ultra-nationalistic and populist principles, among various other defining ideologies, fascism began to germinate and take root. Benito Mussolini, a former socialist, headed a fascist movement that took Italy by force. Further north in Germany, Adolf Hitler led the newly renamed National Socialist German Workers’ Party that seized and secured power during the 1920s and 1930s. In looking at this period, historians throughout the past half-century have often attempted to pin down a precise definition of fascism or analyze its origins in different national contexts. Another trend in the literature of historical fascism, however, has evaluated fascist governments and the extent of control they supposedly exercised over their respective populations. Spotlighting consensus and resistance in these allegedly totalitarian regimes, this perspective delves into the everyday lives of ordinary civilians and investigates the actual limits of state power, moving away from the promises of propaganda and allowing for a more genuine depiction of life under fascism.

This paper falls squarely within the latter trend and will examine the historiography of governmental power and opposition in fascist Italy and Germany during the mid-20th century. It should be noted that, in exploring the capabilities and limitations of these regimes, scholars have addressed different aspects of the same fundamental question: how much did the ruling party actually change or regulate society? On one hand, prominent historians have focused on the preeminence of fascist authority, analyzing its ideological strengths and ability to subvert or exploit prevailing institutions to secure total control. On the contrary, other historians have pointed out the weaknesses of allegedly authoritarian states and examples of defiance among citizenry. Yet another conception of fascist power falls somewhat between the previous two interpretations, recognizing the widespread conformity it imposed but separating self-interested acquiescence from true agreement. While there are undoubtedly countless more approaches to assessing the extent of totalitarian rule under fascist regimes, it would not be feasible to discuss them all within the scope of this essay; that being said, let us first consider the proficiency of fascist ideology in garnering and enforcing consensus.


Supremacy of the State: Fascist Successes in Imposing Control

In evaluating the nature of governmental power in Italy and Nazi Germany from the interwar period through WWII, a number of historians have emphasized the substantial ability of fascist ideology to shape day-to-day life in these regimes. Notably, Emilio Gentile explored fascist mysticism and its contributions to order and organization, while Mimmo Franzinelli and Alf Lüdtke both examined how fascism’s strategic adaptability furthered the development of consensus.

Within this historiographical theme, fascism in and of itself contributed to state control. In his book The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, Gentile characterized the burgeoning Italian fascist movement as a syncretic “civic religion” with myths, mass rituals, appeals to emotion, and unique symbolisms – all of which strengthened a sense of belonging to a greater cause and feelings of allegiance to the movement.1 Franzinelli showcased an example of the profound loyalty to this new secular religion, highlighting squadrism in Italy. According to Franzinelli, squads of blackshirts paved the way for Mussolini’s coup d’état through intimidation and violence in the early 1920s, doing so by attacking political enemies to ‘cleanse’ the nation and forcibly ensuring conformity.2 Gentile furthermore described how fascism exalted and mythologized violence – especially by the squadristi – as a means of spreading its dogma, indicating that the actions of these paramilitary groups themselves were tangible manifestations of fascist rhetoric.3 Both historians therefore endorsed the dominance of the state: party doctrine was sacrosanct and fascism itself became a social movement that inspired not only adherence to its teachings but fanatical devotion. Additionally, Franzinelli noted that squads capitalized on fears of communism and support from agrarian landowners to terrorize socialist newspapers and rural peasantry alike, imposing a mob-like rule over parts of the country to reinforce fascist influence and challenge the authority of the liberal ruling coalition.4 In essence, fascism opportunistically exploited existing elements and institutions while subverting others, a sentiment Lüdtke echoed in his scrutiny of the German working class. Lüdtke illustrated the effectiveness of National Socialist propaganda on national community and the ‘otherness’ of supposed enemies, stating that German industrial workers outright agreed with party rhetoric or at least willfully complied with Nazi actions before and during WWII, in part due to ingrained xenophobia.5 Franzinelli and Lüdtke thus acknowledged fascism’s flexible nature and the role it played in furthering regime control, as movements could take advantage of existing situations or inclinations to better resonate with popular attitudes and usurp institutionalized resistance. Moreover, because Lüdtke based his analysis on letters sent by soldiers to their former employers – primary sources which largely reveal internal thoughts and opinions – he highlighted how ordinary Germans genuinely accepted and internalized Nazism, allowing it to shape their mentalities.6


Defects and Defiance: Failings in Fascist Authority

Another perspective in the study of fascism and totalitarian power focuses instead on the limitations of regime control. Despite recognizing the undeniable social, cultural, and political changes produced by fascist movements, scholars adhering to this outlook refute notions of an all-powerful state, with Paul Corner and Perry Wilson investigating the weaknesses in bureaucratic administration and instances of subtle or explicit resistance in their research on fascist Italy.

Within this historiographical approach, both fascist ideals themselves and their implementations into policy were flawed, hindering or preventing regimes from obtaining absolute control. Corner emphasized the failure of Italy’s National Fascist Party to garner sincere loyalty, noting that while it glorified violence and ostracization as instruments to impose its will, such coercive methods mostly resulted in passive resignation among individuals – not fervent devotion – and were continued even after its ascendancy to power, suggesting that pockets of opposition persisted in the country.7 Similarly, Wilson highlighted how Mussolini’s promotion of motherhood, along with the efforts of pro-natalist propaganda and programs such as Opera Nazionale Maternità ed Infanzia, did not prevent birth rates from continuing to decline in Italy.8 Here, Wilson acknowledged the significance of the regime extending its influence into the private sphere with these measures, but once again, ideology could not be comprehensively translated into reality. Accordingly, and contrary to the claims of fascist regimes, Corner and Wilson concluded that the state was unable to unconditionally shape both behavior and psyche, instead continuing to leave some freedom of choice to the people. In addition, even the outward appearance of consensus was not necessarily representative of true agreement with fascist ideals. Corner detailed the attitudes of attendees at mandatory pro-government demonstrations during the onset of the Second Italo-Ethiopian war, noting that many displayed clear apathy and indifference.9 Resistance therefore could be discreet, coming in the form of non-compliance with fascist ambitions; however, it could also express itself more overtly. Wilson described the ways Italian women opposed fascism during WWII, stating that large numbers likely joined the Resistance to fight as partisans or to provide essential support through other means.10 Thus, although fascism undoubtedly commanded meaningful control over many aspects of daily life, its authority was far from perfect.


Opportunistic Obedience: Transactional Relationships with Fascist Rule

Lastly, some historians in the study of fascist power have reinterpreted consensus through a transactional lens, arguing that fascism achieved social hegemony more by satisfying peoples’ desires and ambitions than by the intrinsic strength of its ideology. In particular, David Welsh and Claudia Koonz examined the effectiveness of German incentives in securing the support of several different demographics.

Under this perspective, individuals possessed a business-like relationship with the government, as fascist regimes offered various benefits in return for compliance. Welsh addressed Nazi social welfare programs such as Strength Through Joy or Beauty of Labour, observing that while they were largely unsuccessful in pushing key tenants of fascist ideology, their efforts to offer foreign vacations and other perks to German workers nevertheless improved popular support for the regime.11 Koonz reiterated this sentiment, highlighting how the German state seduced women into joining the Frauenwerk by offering subsidies, household products, and more.12 In addition, she asserted that Gertrud Scholtz-Klink – a leader within the Nazi women’s organization – purposely attached little importance to full indoctrination into Nazism, instead promoting docile flexibility in members to comply with changing party demands.13 Evidently, both historians agreed that the aforementioned programs functioned more as schemes to buy popular submission than institutions promoting enthusiastic loyalty to fascism. Moreover, the offered benefits or incentives were not always material. Welsh pointed out how multitudes of German youth responded to Nazi propaganda because it gave them a sense of identity and purpose.14 Koonz similarly wrote that many German women supported the regime, despite its openly anti-feminist and misogynistic stance, because of the Nazi ideal of ‘traditional’ family organization and its promise to provide a safe refuge from the outside world.15 Thus, Welsh and Koonz suggested that it was not fascist rhetoric itself, but the fulfillment of physical, emotional, or psychological needs through its ideals that incentivized consensus.



In summary, three general themes have emerged in the historical literature on fascist power, each extending a different view on the degree of control and authority these supposedly totalitarian regimes exercised over their respective societies. On one hand, some historians have focused on the strengths inherent to fascist ideology itself, with its highly emotional, energetic rhetoric creating zealous devotion and its flexible expression allowing it to thrive within any social, cultural, or political context. With this understanding of fascism, the state truly enjoyed dictatorial power over aspects of everyday life. However, other scholars have claimed the fascist framework was flawed from both a conceptual and practical level, allowing for the existence of subtle or open resistance where governmental power and physical violence could not always reach: notably, the attitudes and conduct of individuals outside the party. This view thus rejected the idea of totalitarian control under fascism, instead suggesting that the state commanded impressive – but by no means absolute – authority over its citizenry. Lastly, a third historiographical perspective synthesized elements from the two previous camps, advocating for a quid pro quo interpretation of fascist power. While many scholars have recognized a middle ground between total submission and unequivocal resistance to fascist rhetoric, advocates of this theme additionally and pragmatically considered how material or other interests characterized decisions to comply, rather than the ideological persuasiveness of fascism itself. Therefore, fascist states enjoyed near-hegemonic control only as long as they satisfied the will of the people by providing the desired incentives.

These historiographical themes reveal that the relationship between fascism and totalitarian power in Italy and Germany during the mid-20th century was complex and nuanced. Within some contexts, the state had free reign to impose its will. However, more often than not, regimes could not achieve complete control through ideology and policy alone, forcing them to rely on incentives and benefits to maintain the image of consensus. Fascist regimes may have aspired to be totalitarian, but in the end, they were left dreaming.


Dylan Du is an undergraduate student in History and Psychology at University of California, Los Angeles



  1. Emilio Gentile, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 19-22.
  2. Mimmo Franzinelli, “Squadrism,” in R. J. B. Bosworth, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Fascism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 2-5; 15-16.
  3. Gentile, pp. 22-24.
  4. Franzinelli, pp. 4-6.
  5. Alf Lüdtke, “The Appeal of Exterminating ‘Others’: German Workers and the Limits of Resistance,” Journal of Modern History 64 (1992), pp. 49-52.
  6. Lüdtke, pp. 64-67.
  7. Paul Corner, The Fascist Party and Popular Opinion in Mussolini’s Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 176-178.
  8. Perry Willson, “Women in Mussolini’s Italy, 1922-1945,” in Bosworth, pp. 5-6.
  9. Corner, pp. 192-195.
  10. Willson, pp. 14-15.
  11. David Welch, “Manufacturing a Consensus: Nazi Propaganda and the Building of a ‘National Community’ (Volksgemeinschaft),” Contemporary European History 2:1 (1993), pp. 8-10.
  12. Claudia Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics (New York: Routledge, 1987), pp. 178-179.
  13. Ibid., pp. 179-181; 183.
  14. Welch, pp. 13-14.
  15. Koonz, p. 189.

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