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Dictators Seize Power

In the years known later as the interwar years, the people looked for strong leaders to take command and lead them to a better life. Three men in particular rose above all others and took command. In Russia, Germany, and Italy, dictators rose and took control of the national governments. The circumstances of each dictator’s ascension differed from nation to nation, as did the politics of each dictator, but each ruled with an iron fist, trampling human rights—and human life. In the end, their citizens were not sad to see them go.

The Rise of Stalin

In the new Soviet Union, Lenin and Trotsky pulled off the unimaginable. The trick was not taking power but keeping it. On their way to the top, though, they and the Bolsheviks ruined the economy. To rebuild, Lenin instituted the NEP or New Economic Policy to replace the War Communism or command economy during the Civil War.

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Joseph Stalin's original surname was “Dzughashvili." In 1913 he adopted “Stalin" which in Russian means “man of steel."

The NEP allowed some economic freedom, something the Bolsheviks did not allow in their rise to power. As a result, the Soviet economy grew, repression eased slightly, and things seemed to be turning around for the Soviets.

In 1924, however, Lenin died, with no plans for a successor. At the time Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) was the general secretary of the Communist Party, a position that didn’t actually hold much power. Stalin and two others, Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938), vied for leadership of the Soviet Union. Stalin positioned himself politically between Trotsky on the left and Bukharin on the right. By 1928, Stalin emerged from the group with the most power. He did this by first aligning against Trotsky. Once Trotsky had been eliminated as a political threat, Stalin aligned with Bukharin’s enemies, the moderates.

As a Matter of Fact

Amidst the power struggle with the Stalin-led Communists, Trotsky and his followers were expelled from the Communist Party in 1927. In 1929 he was expelled from the Soviet Union and forced to live in exile. Trotsky spent time in Turkey, France, and Norway before retiring permanently to Mexico. While in exile, he wrote extensively against Stalin's communism and expounded on his own version of communism, which featured a state of permanent revolution. In 1940, Stalin sent an assassination squad to kill Trotsky but he survived. Later that year, though, an assassin drove the pick of an ice axe into Trotsky's skull, mortally wounding him. Within days, Trotsky was dead.

In 1928, Stalin instituted the first of the Five Year Plans, the economic replacement for Lenin’s NEP. Stalin’s goal was a new, industrialized Soviet Union. He would achieve this goal with Five Year Plans that specifically defined what the goals were for the nation’s heavy industry, agriculture, and so on. The first Five Year Plan, to run from 1929 to 1933, set very high goals. Industrial production was to increase over twofold and agricultural production one and a half times. To accomplish the agricultural goals, Stalin arranged for about one out of every five peasants to give up their own land and work on collective farms. Stalin hoped to boost the economy and simultaneously get rid of any lasting economic freedoms left over from the NEP.

Stalin also wanted to deal with the problem of the peasants. The hard-core socialists believed that landed peasants would one day drift toward capitalism and pose a threat to the communist state. In a process known as collectivization, Stalin moved the poorest peasants to collective farms. The better-off peasants, though, often met a different fate. Known as kulaks, the better-off peasants became targets for Stalin’s brutality. Stalin wanted the kulaks gone—all of them. Many were deported to Siberia or to forced labor camps. Those who offered the least bit of protest or resistance were shot immediately. Most were never heard from again.

This plan did not pay off. The first Five Year Plans saw virtually no increase in agricultural efficiency. Nevertheless, within 10 years, 9 out of every 10 peasant families had been removed from their land. The loss of life in the process of collectivization boggles the mind. Stalin actually told Winston Churchill that he estimated 10 million of his own people died during the process. The process of industrialization, however, greatly improved under the plan. Steel production alone increased five-fold during the first two plans. Society suffered, though, and dealt constantly with food shortages, harsh conditions, and repressive measures from Stalin.

The peasantry weren’t the only ones who suffered in the Stalin regime. Those closest to Stalin were never safe, especially once the Great Purges began in the 1930s. In order to become an absolute, autocratic ruler, Stalin had to eliminate people around him, and anyone else he could find who opposed his regime. He launched an offensive against enemies of the state beginning with his closest advisor. Stalin had his secret police make literally millions of arrests. Those arrested included government officials, workers, peasants, intellectuals, and members of the military. In all, Stalin purged several million Soviets. Some estimates place the number of dead near 7 million; other estimates soar as high as 10 million. These deaths were the result of executions as well as deaths in labor camps. Those targeted in the purges either died, suffered torture, or found themselves in Siberian labor camps. While there certainly were those who opposed Stalin, especially once he reached the pinnacle of Soviet power, Stalin’s paranoia got the best of him, costing countless Soviets their lives.

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The head of the secret police was finally relieved of his duty, tried for treason, and shot. Some historians believe Stalin had this done to shift the blame for the purges away from himself.

The Soviet Union under Stalin’s iron-fisted regime certainly wasn’t what millions of Communist followers envisioned when Lenin took control years before. The people had wanted a government unlike the one under the long line of czars, which would be sympathetic to the workers, a government that would create a people’s state. Though Lenin and Stalin steered the Soviet Union away from the old czarist Russia and got the economy moving again, they abandoned the Marxist philosophy that would have eventually caused the government to disappear and be replaced by a classless society. Stalin was power- hungry and would never consider relinquishing control. The result, Stalin’s purges, was one of the worst tragedies in all of human history.

The Rise of Mussolini

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) was the original practitioner of the form of government known as fascism. Hitler, like Mussolini, would turn to fascism as his political system of choice. Fascists, unlike Communists, had no interest in elevating or equalizing the classes. Fascists had as their primary motive the promotion and glorification of the state. Industry and war were two of the primary ways fascists glorified the state.

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The word fascism derives from the Latin fasces, or an ax with a bundle of sticks tied around it, the symbol of civic unity in ancient Rome.

War held great Romantic value for the fascists. To incite the people to support the state in its endeavors, fascists used intense nationalism, in particular the theme of the common enemy. The use of government propaganda and government control of the media were highly effective tools for fascists. The elimination of second and third parties also helped unite the people to the common cause of the state. Also unlike Communists, fascists had no interest in state- controlled means of production. When the state needed industrial production it simply commanded the private sector to do what was necessary. Individuals were subordinate to the state in every aspect of their lives.

Benito Mussolini created the Fasci de Combattimento, or the League of Combat in 1919. Mussolini and many others were glad that Italy finally entered the First World War but they felt betrayed and let down by the Treaty of Versailles. The Facsi gave like-minded Italians a voice for their frustrations. Most of the members feared the spread of communism and socialism into Italy from Europe, too; for fascists, there was always an enemy somewhere.

Despite being frustrated with the parliamentary system under King Victor Emmanuel III (1869-1947), Mussolini joined parliament in 1921. Parliament proved inefficient and, in Mussolini’s opinion, inept. Mussolini organized a squadron of thugs known as squadristi, who terrorized and threatened socialists and Communists not to run for election. In 1922, Mussolini and his fascists organized a massive march on Rome to demand a new government. Though not really threatened by the march, King Victor Emmanuel III knew that he had to give power either to the fascists or the socialists in order to prevent a civil war between the two groups. In October 1922, Victor Emmanuel named Mussolini prime minister, the youngest ever in Italian history. Victor Emmanuel remained king of Italy, although the power lay with Mussolini.

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In 1929, to secure the support of Italian Catholics, Mussolini recognized the sovereignty of the Vatican in return for papal recognition of the fascist Italian state.

Mussolini’s first order of business was to establish complete control. With the help of the Parliament, Mussolini assumed dictatorial powers for one year to fix Italy’s problems. He changed voting methods, rigged elections, instituted strict censorship, and bullied opponents with his brigands, the Blackshirts. In 1925, he assumed complete control of the government. He used propaganda to spread the message of fascism and to hype himself as “the great leader,” or Il Duce. He used the schools, taught by teachers who had taken an oath of allegiance to fascism, to indoctrinate the schoolchildren of Italy and he encouraged fascist youth organizations. He used dramatic speeches to instill fascist values, especially intense nationalism, in crowds who cheered him wildly.

Mussolini never created the totalitarian regime of Hitler and Stalin, though, and he never committed the atrocities of the other two. He hoped to help the peasants and workers, although he often gave special concessions to big business and industry. He never even destroyed the monarchy, and he went to the pope for support.

The Rise of Hitler

Perhaps the most infamous man in all of history, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) actually may rank second behind Joseph Stalin in terms of lives taken. Nevertheless, Hitler definitely made his mark on the world through brutality and iron-fisted rule. Ironically, Hitler’s rise to power was not what might be expected of a ruthless dictator. Born in Austria, Hitler spent much time in Vienna, where he fell under the influence of the mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger (1844-1910), an anti-Semite, and Hitler was set upon his path toward fierce nationalism and anti-Semitism.

Hitler joined the German army in 1913 and served in World War I. After the war, Hitler developed the idea that a Jewish and Communist conspiracy had cost Germany the war. Hitler became politically active and joined the German Workers’ Party. Within just a few years, Hitler had taken control of the party and had attracted many new party members. He took his party and marched on a beer hall in Munich in an attempt to overthrow the local government and then the failing government of the Weimar Republic; the attempt was known as the Beer Hall Putsch. When the storming of the beer hall failed to produce the desired effect, World War I General Ludendorff convinced Hitler and his men to march on the Defense Ministry building, where things deteriorated. The takeover didn’t go so well and Hitler ended up being tried and jailed. In jail, having plenty of time to think, Hitler planned a legal rather than a forceful takeover of the government.

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In 1918, Hitler suffered temporary blindness as a result of an attack with poisonous gas.

Hitler worked hard to find members for his National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi Party, and managed to get membership to about 100,000. That membership won twelve seats in the German legislature, or Reichstag, in 1928. Only four years later, as the Great Depression took hold in Germany, Hitler’s pro-socialism and anti-capitalism message reaped big rewards to the tune of having the largest party in the Reichstag. His message appealed especially to the lower and middle classes of workers and to the disillusioned German youth.

Hitler ran for president in 1932 but lost. Then in 1933, unable to cooperate with the Nazi-dominated Reichstag, President Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934) appointed Hitler chancellor and appointed two other Nazis to key positions. In February, the Reichstag fell victim to arson and Hitler persuaded Hindenburg to suspend civil liberties “until further notice.” The March 1933 elections once again put Nazis in control of the Reichstag, which in late March passed the Enabling Act, giving Hitler dictatorial powers. Shortly thereafter the government banned all other political parties. When President Hindenburg died in 1934, the government combined the offices of president and chancellor, and Hitler had total control of the government as Fuhrer for four years.

With supreme power, Hitler declared “A Thousand Year Reich,” or empire, and proceeded to win the favor of the German people. To rein in all threats to his power, Hitler arrested and executed some 1,000 SA or storm trooper leaders. The storm troopers were the Nazi paramilitary organization often known as brownshirts; the brown uniforms distinguished them from the blackshirts, the Nazis’ protective squadron known as the SS. The execution of the SA leadership took place on what has become known as the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. The SS eventually became the premier Nazi fighting force and, under the direction of Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945), assumed the responsibilities of the Gestapo, or the German secret police. Hitler required that the military swear an oath of loyalty to him personally. Hitler stood as the supreme commander of the government and the military.

Under the Third Reich, the first two empires being the Holy Roman Empire and the Prussian Empire, Hitler instituted a system of fascism much like Mussolini in Italy. Hitler greatly expanded the German economy, mostly through the expansion of the military and industry. He also constructed numerous roads, highways, dams, and other public works projects. Whether the average German actually enjoyed a better standard of living as Hitler promised has been debated, however. Hitler controlled the culture of Germany in the same way he did the economy and the politics. Like a good fascist, he encouraged men to work and women to stay home where they could have and raise children. By sending women home from the workplace, German propagandists claimed that unemployment reached an all-time low; that fact remained true only because the workforce had been reduced drastically.

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