In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Challenge of Fascism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Thematic Studies with a Multinational Focus
  • Collections of Primary Sources
  • Antecedent Ideas, Ideology, and Political Religion
  • Works Treating Both Italy and Germany
  • The Wider European Holocaust and the Question of Fascism
  • Fascism beyond Europe during the Era of the Two World Wars
  • Entangled Histories: Fascism in International Interaction During the Era of the Two World Wars
  • Neo-fascism and the New Right after World War II: Europe and the Western World
  • Neo-fascism and the New Right after World War II: The Non-Western World
  • Memory, Controversy, and History
  • Ongoing Uses of “Fascism” as a Category

International Relations The Challenge of Fascism
David D. Roberts
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0158


Although fascism did not enter our vocabulary until 1919, it is highly controversial, partly because the range it encompasses, both geographically and chronologically, is hard to pin down. Fascism was hostile to both liberal democracy and Marxism, and it called for a strong state and tight national solidarity. But what counts as fascism remains much disputed. Fascism was invented in Italy and first came to power with Benito Mussolini’s government in 1922, so surely the Italian case must be included. Although Adolf Hitler’s movement in Germany went by a different name, National Socialism or Nazism, it recognized a strong kinship with Mussolini’s Fascism. Most take the Italian and German cases as central to “generic fascism,” the term used for the wider phenomenon, as distinguished from the specific Italian case. Still, striking differences existed between Italian Fascism and German Nazism, and some authorities insist that Nazi Germany was so singular that it is best excluded (see Ian Kershaw’s essay in Iordachi 2010, cited under Anthologies). For a powerful counterargument, see Eley 2013 (cited under German Nazism and Nazi Germany). Both regimes inspired movements elsewhere, and some are widely considered fascist whether or not they came to power. Still, the applicability to other regimes, such as Francisco Franco’s in Spain, is much disputed because our criteria of differentiation remain in dispute. Fascism is sometimes taken as “totalitarian” as opposed to merely “authoritarian,” but the utility of the authoritarianism/totalitarianism distinction has increasingly been called into question. Moreover, totalitarianism itself proves a problematic category, especially as it has been used to lump fascist with communist regimes, most notably the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. As for fascism’s chronological range, it is surely anachronistic to apply the term before it was coined early in 1919, although antecedents can be found in earlier thinkers and political innovations. Most basically at issue is the applicability of “fascism” after the crushing defeat and dissolution of the Italian and German regimes in World War II. The term “neo-fascist” (or “neo-Nazi”) is used to refer to postwar political phenomena to distinguish them from the “classic” or “original” fascism of the era of the two world wars. Some dissidents embrace the neo-fascist label, but it remains highly charged politically, and it is sometimes applied as a term of abuse to political opponents who reject it. “Fascism” seems to have entered our political vocabulary for good, but whether it is an ongoing possibility or the product of a particular epoch that has passed into history remains disputed.

General Overviews

Many relatively comprehensive studies accept the notion of generic fascism and are not limited to Italy and and/or Germany. Those that are included here consider short-term and longer-term preconditions for fascism, asking why it took root more readily in some countries than in others. However, this dimension is of special concern in works with a social science orientation, such as Mann 2004, Eatwell 2001, and Griffin 1993. With no implication of approval or long-term success, all reflect the tendency in recent decades to take fascism more seriously, as having revolutionary and modernizing aspirations of its own, and not to be dismissed as merely reactionary, as merely irrational, or as some misguided revolt against modernity. Griffin 1993 has been especially influential, partly through its definition, but, though Griffin himself subsequently claimed to discern a new consensus around his own culturalist approach, his book draws criticism in Paxton 2005, Eatwell 2001, and Mann 2004. Mann 2004 partly endorses the emphasis in Eatwell 2001 on the hard-headed, practical side of fascism as opposed to Griffin’s emphasis on myths of renewal. Written by a historian, Paxton 2005 differs with Griffin 1993 in eschewing definition up front and with Mann 2004 on the need and scope to establish some overarching framework or taxonomy for placing fascism. Paxton seeks first simply to tell the story, then to draw out what proved to be fascism’s defining features. Though this approach promises a certain openness, Paxton 2005 is less subtle and flexible than several of the others in its grasp of fascist aspirations. This includes Payne 1995, the author of which is especially willing to question the conventional wisdom, though Payne’s judgments have occasionally provoked controversy. Still, at 613 pages, Payne 1995 is not only the lengthiest but arguably the most comprehensive and authoritative overall. In contrast, Passmore 2002 is quite brief but provides a sophisticated introduction to the topic. Differences of emphases are found in all these studies. For example, Mann 2004 places more stress on violence than does either Griffin 1993 or Eatwell 2001. All have comparative dimensions, though the sustained comparison of the Italian and German regimes in practice in Morgan 2003 is especially helpful (see also Works Treating Both Italy and Germany). However, Morgan 2003 offers less than the others on the question of historical specificity and the scope for neo-fascism after 1945. Laqueur 1996 and Paxton 2005 are especially good in incorporating that dimension, and each notes that what might subsequently be called “fascism” is likely to take new and unforeseen forms. In contrast, Mann 2004 finds fascism dead and buried, at least in western Europe; contemporary populist anti-immigrant parties are simply too different from genuine fascism to count. Blamires and Jackson 2006 takes an especially expansive view of what might count as “fascism.” Mention should also be made of Philip Rees’s Biographical Dictionary of the Extreme Right since 1890 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), which covers a wide variety of major fascists. In recent years there have been calls for a new agenda in fascist studies, with less emphasis on definition and classification and greater attention to the uncertainty and fluidity surrounding the political experiments of the period. A major corollary has been a focus on the web of transnational interaction in which fascist formations were embedded (see Entangled Histories: Fascism in International Interaction during the Era of the Two World Wars).

  • Blamires, Cyrian P., ed., with Paul Jackson. World Fascism: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.

    Comprehensive two-volume work by a multinational roster of contributors. Includes entries on individual countries, including China, Iran, and others outside Europe, on particular topics, from “the new man” to occultism; on discrete events, from the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938 to the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995; and on individuals, including precursors and opponents as well as major functionaries.

  • Eatwell, Roger. “Universal Fascism? Approaches and Definitions.” In Fascism outside Europe: The European Impulse against Domestic Conditions in the Diffusion of Global Fascism. Edited by Stein Ugelvik Larsen, 15–45. Boulder, CO: Social Science Monographs, 2001.

    The author of a highly regarded overview, published in 1995, offers an effective way of understanding the fascist claim to offer a “third way” beyond both liberalism and social democracy. As opposed to myth, activism, or political religion, he stresses the elements of rationality in the fascist effort to address genuine modern problems in the socioeconomic sphere. See also Eatwell’s essay included in Iordachi 2010 (cited under Anthologies).

  • Griffin, Roger. The Nature of Fascism. London: Routledge, 1993.

    Innovative study proposing an “ideal type” intended not to specify some essence of fascism but merely to provide a heuristic tool, recognizing that every manifestation will be both typical and atypical. Takes as the mythic core of fascism “a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism,” redeeming the nation from decadence (pp. 26, 38). But argues, at the same time, that the fascist revolutionary project, linked to dynamism and myth, was inherently unrealizable.

  • Griffin, Roger. Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230596122

    Relates the fascist regimes to wider currents of cultural response to the seeming inadequacies of the modern world. Although initially suggests that modern culture was genuinely open and subject to contest, ends up implying that those fastening upon the myth of palingenetic national regeneration were those most subject to anomie and the need for rootedness: those least able to adjust to modernity.

  • Laqueur, Walter. Fascism: Past, Present, Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    While providing a good concise account of classic European fascism, emphasizing what differentiates it from ordinary dictatorship, it is especially helpful in considering neo-fascism and what the author calls “post-fascism” in certain clerical regimes and in the new Right in post-communist Russia. Notes that whereas we should not expect some second coming of classic fascism, we can still learn from it in order better to understand novel forms.

  • Mann, Michael. Fascists. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511806568

    A widely admired effort at reconceptualization and synthesis by a leading sociologist. Insists that the fascists genuinely sought a more harmonious social order and offered some plausible diagnoses and prescriptions. But reducing to five keys—nationalism, statism, transcendence of class differences, cleansing, and paramilitarism—and filtering through a contextualist macroframework taking liberal democracy as the norm proves to delimit the range of frequencies encompassed.

  • Morgan, Philip. Fascism in Europe, 1919–1945. London: Routledge, 2003.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203448229

    Although the chronological organization, distinguishing two waves that are separated by the advent of the Great Depression, is occasionally a bit awkward, this is usefully comprehensive, encompassing intellectual antecedents and a wide variety of cases. Very clear on what distinguishes fascism from conservatism or authoritarianism and especially good in comparing the Italian and German regimes in practice. Offers little on the question of historical specificity and the scope for neo-fascism.

  • Passmore, Kevin. Fascism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199685363.001.0001

    Though oversimplified on occasion, pinpoints many of the key issues in a brief, accessible way. Argues that whereas fascists sought a mobilized national community, fascism was inherently contradictory, at once radical and reactionary. Yet, the contradictions can be understood if we get beyond such binaries as tradition versus modernity and do justice to the unpredictable contingencies of the evolution of each instance of fascism.

  • Paxton, Robert O. The Anatomy of Fascism. New York: Vintage, 2005.

    Especially effective in eschewing a priori definition or taxonomy and treating as an open-ended dynamic, with each stage the outcome of prior choices. And on that basis provides a clear, accessible account. But quick to dismiss innovative recent approaches and to repair to relatively conventional categories, such as a desire for spoils, when accounting for fascist aspirations and for the twists in the fascist dynamic.

  • Payne, Stanley G. A History of Fascism, 1914–1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

    Especially well organized. Includes a section on the pre–World War I cultural background and the impact of the war; substantial chapters on Italy and Germany; and further chapters on diverse aspects of fascism during the era of the two world wars. Offers comparisons with non-fascist authoritarianism in Europe during the same period and addresses the question of fascism outside Europe by the 1930s. Concludes with a briefer second part on interpretations, including his own views.

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