On October 28, 1922, Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party marched on Rome. A reactionary political movement with a nebulous ideology, the Fascists gained power the following day when King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini as Prime Minister. Over the following decade, generic fascist movements would rise all over Europe, most prominently in Germany with the Nazi Party, and in Austria, Romania, Hungary, and Spain. Minor movements would appear in a great number of other European countries, including France, Great Britain, Portugal, and Greece. Most studies of fascism and totalitarianism look at those ideologies as a primarily European phenomenon, thereby overlooking the numerous fascist movements that appeared simultaneously in the United States. American historians similarly tend to downplay the role of fascism in United States history, relegating such groups and their “paranoid style” to the lunatic fringe of the political spectrum.
American fascist groups, while varied in motives, methods, and vision of a future society, recruited hundreds of thousands of members in the interwar years from either specific ethnic and immigrant groups or from among “native” Americans. Though most of these groups evaporated following the American entry into the Second World War and thus never came close to achieving any of their wide-ranging political goals, much of their literature and ideology exists and continues to be diffused among present-day members of the far right.
This study seeks to place American fascist movements within the context of their own time, as having emerged alongside European fascism from the same cultural antecedents. In doing so, this study analyzes three of the largest “native” American fascist groups – the Black Legion, the Silver Shirts, and the Christian Front – and applies a theoretical model of fascism for comparison to generic European fascist movements. The thesis argues that in viewing fascism as the end result of a “cultural phenomenon,” as historian Zeev Sternhell has argued regarding European fascism, American fascism can similarly be seen as the culmination of several cultural, social, and intellectual antecedents rather than an obscure political aberration. By measuring the significance of American fascist movements only by their (lack of) political effectiveness, historians have overlooked many of the broader implications of such groups not only having existed but also having gained such a large following of adherents.