Fascism in interwar Central Europe

Fascism can without doubt be called one of the most difficult terms to use, since there are innumerable definitions, both those already existing during its existence and after 1945[1]. This essay, however, pursues the question of what made the various movements of the extreme right so popular in the time between 1918 and 1945, rather than discussing the different definitions. In geographical terms, the answer to this question is limited to Central Europe, a region of which also a variety of definitions exists. In general terms, the essay examines the successor states of the Habsburg Monarchy. In particular, the fascist movements of Hungary and Romania will be analysed, for two simple reasons: for one thing, only in those two countries, except for Austria, the fascist movements became mass movements, and for another, the argument of fascism being only successful in the countries defeated in the First World War and territorial ambitions resulting from this defeat is weakened.

Although not even the variety of historiographical definitions and theories on fascism can be summarized here, a working definition of fascism is necessary, both to define the object of the study and to give a theoretical background to the concrete arguments. On the one hand, Roger Griffin’s concept of fascism as a “palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism” shows how all fascist movements are built around the idea of a resurrection of the nation in times in which the old order seems doomed and should thus be replaced by a nation which is not based on any tradition of Enlightenment humanism or any form of “traditional” or “rational” forms of politics.[2] On the other hand, Noël O’Sullivan’s concept of fascism as an “activist style of politics” provides an important addition to the idea of re-building the nation: it is based on the cult of violence and performed in a theatrical way, which should help replace rational politics with a political myth based on emotion.[3]

In addition, antisemitism is understood as an integral part of fascism in Central Europe. According to Stephen Beller, it was part of a social and economic modernization. By rejecting both the socialist and the capitalist versions of modernity, which they both associated with “Judaism”, antisemites built their own irrational modernity. The rebirth of the nation did in Central Europe per se entail the exclusion of the Jewish fellow citizens, since they were, in the eyes of the antisemite movement, part of another “race”, whose rational modernity was rejected.[4] Yet, fascism was not only exclusive in respect to Jews, it also included all classes of society and intended to combine a worker’s cult with a capitalist nationalism (thus National Socialism). This claim of reuniting the alienated parts of society explains the support of fascism by intellectuals, workers, peasants and, most importantly, members of the petty bourgeoisie.

To begin with, the appeal of fascism cannot be explained without the First World War, which was used to generate a cult of violence and the new concept “that war itself would be the mother of radical transformation and revolution by achieving mass mobilization, the shattering of institutional barriers, and an opening for new social and cultural forces.”[5] In this concept, war was a liberating, positive force which revealed the power of the state. In addition, the war had brought broad domestic alliances, or “truces”, which were then, in the fascist reading, destroyed by the “stab-in-the-back” by communists and Jews.

The war also entailed communist uprisings in both Hungary and Romania and can generally be seen as a time of mass political culture, in which modern political and social ideologies became mass movements. In both cases, the identification of the short left-wing uprisings, especially Béla Kun’s Hungarian Soviet Republic, with “Judeo-Bolshevism” is crucial to understand the importance of anti-Communism for the appeal of fascism. As Payne puts it, fascism thrived “on its opposition to socialism and communism, to such an extent that it is appropriate to inquire whether fascism could have succeeded without the opportunity to play off that opposition.”[6] This fear of communism was in Romania even strengthened by a fear of the Soviet Union’s territorial ambitions.[7]

Apart from anti-Communism, the appeal of fascism consisted to a large extent of the unsolved land question in mostly rural Central Europe. The problem remained unsolved by the conservatives after the war and the Left was unable to solve it, since Communist parties – in consequence of the left-wing uprisings – were prohibited and the Social Democrats, although in Hungary part of the parliament until 1944, did not even try to organize the agricultural labourers due to their weak position.[8] In this situation, the extreme Right seemed the only possibility for the mass of impoverished peasants to improve their situation. In Romania, Codreanu’s Iron Guard depicted the peasantry as the essence of Romania and thus used the social situation to announce the palingenesis of the (peasant) nation.[9] In addition, the absence of a communist or powerful social-democrat alternative in the political spectrum of both countries can also explain the support of the various fascist movements by workers. A part of the appeal of fascism might thus for some simply have been the absence of an alternative.

Especially in Hungary also the success of Germany in its foreign policy from 1938 onwards contributed to the popularity of fascism, since Germany was – not only by the fascists – seen as the force which could help Hungary reverse the terms of the treaty of Trianon and regain at least parts of its pre-war territories. Interestingly, even in Romania, where fascism arose before the loss of territories due to the Second Vienna Award in 1940, the Legion as pro-German force gained strength after France’s defeat and thus the loss of Romania’s traditional protective power.

Yet, the appeal of fascism in Central Europe was not its importation from and its links to Italy and Germany, but rather that it appeared native and natural from within, which is essential for the fascist’s argument that they would rebuild the eternal nation, which of course only Hungarians or Romanians, respectively, could do.

To understand the above mentioned concept of antisemitism as a rejection of a supposedly Jewish rational modernity, we must have a closer look at the history of pre-war anti-Jewish thought in both countries and Central Europe in general. Most importantly, in the nineteenth century a shift occurred from the Enlightenment idea of Jewish emancipation by means of losing a Jewish identity and gaining a new national identity instead to a racial thinking, underpinned by biological “science”, that Jews were a separate “race” which could by no means participate in the national project. In broader terms, the definition of modernity had shifted to a more collectivist model and race had become the defining category of the idea of the nation state. In Hungary this kind of antisemitic and proto-fascist propaganda had been tackled by the elites before the war, which saw the Jews as the economic backbone of modernization and a means of gaining a Magyar majority in Transleithania. After 1919, however, Jews were seen – not only by fascists – as communist traitors and no longer needed to be labelled Magyars, and thus became the main victim of the fascist propaganda. In Romania, Codreanu could build on the discrimination against Jews of pre-war governments, which declared that most Jews in Romania were foreign and hence not citizens. This exclusion of one group of the Romanian society became even more radical after the gain of new territories in 1920, where many only Yiddish-speaking Jews were living.[10] The idea of Jews not being part of the nation emerged thus in both cases in the long nineteenth century and can be – in spite of the different reaction to Jews of pre-war governments – considered a central part of the building of a new society.

In conclusion, the appeal of fascism can be explained not only by the direct effects of the war – the short-lived communist uprisings and the economic situation –, but rather in the fascist modernity with its roots in pre-war European thought and its association of both capitalist and Marxist modernity with the “Jewish question”. In addition, long-term problems as the land question remained unsolved in the rural societies of Central Europe and an argument for the fascist revolution, which would rise phoenix-like out of the ashes of the old state. Jews could by racial definition not be part of this new and at the same time eternal Volksgemeinschaft.


Beller: Antisemitism. A Very Short Introduction, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Carsten, F. L.: The Rise of Fascism, Second Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

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

O’Sullivan, Noel: Fascism (London: Dent, 1983).

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

Payne, Stanley G.: Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[1] For an overview see: Griffin, Roger: The Nature of Fascism (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 1-8.

[2] Ibid.

[3] O’Sullivan, Noël: Fascism (London: Dent, 1983).

[4] Beller: Antisemitism. A Very Short Introduction, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[5] Payne, Stanley G.: Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 18.

[6] Ibid, p. 68.

[7] Passmore, Kevin: Fascism. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 85.

[8] Carsten, F. L.: The Rise of Fascism, Second Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 172.

[9] Passmore: Fascism, p. 83.

[10] Beller: Antisemitism, p. 11-87.