Sociology Fascism
Marit A. Berntson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0082


Fascism dominated politics and society in the 1920s and 1930s and resulted in one of the world’s most destructive wars. The enormity of the suffering has led to an interest in fascism and its origins, with the hope that understanding what it is and why it occurred will prevent it from happening again. The sociological study of fascism is historical, interdisciplinary, and comparative. A key feature of the scholarship is the debate about fascism’s definition. Because it was the world’s first fascist regime, some claim that the characteristics of Italian fascism under Mussolini should form the basis for the definition, or that Italian fascism is the only instance of fascism. Others argue that the political ideologies and groups that marked the first half of the 20th century had a number of features in common and that, although fascism played out differently in national contexts, a generic definition is possible. Recent scholarship points to a consensus in favor of a generic definition. Fascism promised a solution to the divisions and decay wrought by liberal democracy and communism through mass mobilization, national cleansing, and national rebirth. Roger Griffin said fascism was “palingenetic populist ultranationalism” (Griffin 1993, p. 26, cited under Definitions). Whether fascism manifests as an intellectual current, social movement, political party, or regime also figures in its definition because fascism’s form affects what it can do. Some comparative research focuses on differences between fascism and other authoritarian, conservative, or right-wing groups, as well as relations between fascists and these groups. Since the rebirth that fascism promises usually entails controlling biological and cultural reproduction, women’s roles in fascist ideology and regimes have been the subject of recent studies. Scholars have also likened fascism to religion, for its reliance on myths, symbols, rituals, and commemoration in both ideology and practice, and have studied fascism as an example of totalitarianism, often in comparison to communist Russia. Debates about the definition of fascism are inextricably linked to theories of its emergence. Some scholars explain fascism’s origins by looking at intellectual, cultural, political, or economic factors. Others claim that the only way to understand why fascism occurred is to study its leaders and their intentions (e.g., Adolf Hitler), and its members, voters, and supporters. The definition of fascism and its organizational form also affect which countries are studied, whether for case or comparative analysis. Italy and Germany have received the most attention, but many other countries are the subject of inquiry too. Some scholars have examined dozens of countries in an effort to classify them as fascist or otherwise. The scope of fascist studies expands as new insights emerge, as more disciplines become involved, as new methods of inquiry are developed, and as new sources of data become available, such as archives in Russia, eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Vatican. Finally, many scholars are preoccupied by the possibility of fascism’s return in today’s far right in countries all over the world. These are studies for which questions about definition and origins are also important, but perhaps more pressing are concerns about the activities of these groups and whether they pose a threat to democracy and, if so, how to contain them.

Handbooks and Readers

There are several good handbooks, readers, and encyclopedias on fascism for students and scholars that provide overviews of research and debates about fascism. Bosworth 2009, Iordachi 2010, Iordachi and Kallis 2020, Kallis 2003, Laqueur 1976, and Pinto 2011 contain essays that mark important contributions to the scholarship on defining fascism, fascism’s origins, and other historical and contemporary debates, and would therefore be appropriate for scholars and graduate students. Iordachi 2010, Kallis 2003, and Pinto 2011 are also appropriate for both graduate and undergraduate students because of their good introductions to the field, to the evolution of scholarship on fascism, and to the methods for studying it. Thurlow 1999 contains chapters that end with questions, a chronology of fascism, and a glossary, and would therefore serve nicely as an undergraduate textbook. Another book appropriate for classroom use is Passmore 2014, for its clear introduction to the field of fascism studies, the connections the author draws between past and contemporary cases, and as a reading guide. Many works are also suitable for cross-national comparisons of fascism, such as Bosworth 2009, Iordachi 2010, Kallis 2003, and Laqueur 1976. Blamires and Jackson 2006, a two-volume encyclopedia, would be a good addition to libraries and scholarly collections. It opens with a review of the definition of and research on fascism by Roger Griffin, a noted scholar in the field. The (Copsey and Macklin 2015– [cited under the Far Right]) includes titles published since 2015 on fascism in Europe.

  • Blamires, Cyprian P., ed., and Paul Jackson. 2006. World fascism: A historical encyclopedia. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.

    A two-volume illustrated encyclopedia containing five hundred entries about past and contemporary fascist ideologies, movements, parties, regimes, and key figures and events in Europe and elsewhere, written by one hundred experts. The encyclopedia includes a chronology and opens with Roger Griffin’s review of the definition of and scholarship on fascism.

  • Bosworth, R. J. B., ed. 2009. The Oxford handbook of fascism. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Contains thirty-one invited essays on the origins of fascism, interwar fascism, and post-1945 fascism. Also included are studies of Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain, and Yugoslavia.

  • Iordachi, Constantin, ed. 2010. Comparative fascist studies: New perspectives. London and New York: Routledge.

    A well-chosen collection of edited excerpts by fascism scholars plus two new entries by Iordachi, one that reviews the scholarship on fascism and the other on Romania. Organized into three sections: definitions of fascism; cross-national comparisons of fascism; and fascism as a form of totalitarianism and a political religion.

  • Iordachi, Constantin, and Aristotle Kallis, eds. 2020. Beyond the fascist century: Essays in honour of Roger Griffin. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

    A collection of essays on the state of fascism studies by well-known scholars. Includes chapters on definitions, origins, successors of fascism, and case studies (Brazil, Britain, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Romania, and Spain).

  • Kallis, Aristotle, ed. 2003. The fascism reader. London and New York: Routledge.

    A collection of forty-eight classic and recent studies of fascism in Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Romania, and Spain from the interwar period to 1945. The collection is well suited for students because it shows the evolution of scholarship on different aspects of and methodologies for studying fascism.

  • Laqueur, Walter, ed. 1976. Fascism: A reader’s guide. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    A collection of original and influential essays by social scientists and historians such as Juan Linz’s comparative study of fascism, Zeev Sternhell’s analysis of fascist ideology, Eugen Weber’s essay on fascism as revolution, and case studies of fascism in Europe and Latin America.

  • Passmore, Kevin. 2014. Fascism: A very short introduction. 2d ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199685363.001.0001

    Passmore describes the definitions, varieties, and history of fascism, including the interwar movements, fascist regimes, and fascist movements in eastern Europe, Spain, and the Americas that failed. He also makes connections between interwar fascism and today’s far right in Europe. Appropriate for classroom use, with a reading guide on the publisher’s web page for the book.

  • Pinto, António Costa, ed. 2011. Rethinking the nature of fascism: Comparative perspectives. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    An edited volume of new essays about the theories and historiography of fascism, including the contributions of historians, political scientists, and sociologists. Essays also cover a wide range of subjects such as definitions, the role of women, religion, political violence, and genocide.

  • Thurlow, Richard. 1999. Fascism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An overview of the definition and origins of fascism, with chapters on Italian fascism, Nazism, lesser or failed cases of fascism in Europe, anti-fascism, and neofascism. Chapters end with case studies and related questions. Includes a chronology of fascism, selected bibliography, and glossary. Good for classroom use.

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