A Brief History of Dictatorships

Last year I was asked to do a paper on dictatorships in Europe since the beginning of the twentieth century and to find relevance to South Africa’s political history. This is an abridged and serialised account of what I presented.

With the current turmoil in our world today, I feel it is necessary to be reminded of our past and, instead of resorting to conflict to settle disputes over land, culture and ideologies, seek out ways to mend the fences which are burning now.

In the paper that I wrote, focus was placed on Benito Mussolini of Italy and Francisco Franco of Spain, and the regimes that sprouted from their rise to power. I made comparisons with other regimes, particularly Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and South Africa’s apartheid governments.


Some background information was given to Mussolini and Franco as well as the rise of the Third Reich and the Nationalist governments of apartheid South Africa. I am also drawn towards commenting on the historical and political contexts of Italy and Spain which contributed to the rise and fall of their dictatorships. We also find significant differences.

While there are similarities to the dictatorships of Mussolini and Franco, their personal backgrounds differ. The conditions in which these men found their countries and its citizens were similar. Both nations and its societies were divided in the belief of which political ideologies suited them best. Against such a background, the defeat of Imperial Germany and its allies during the First World War and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, as well as the emergence of the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution of 1917 as a threat to self-determination and democracy, was taken into account.

Economic hardship among the nations’ majorities worsened as a result of the first World War and the Great Depression of 1929, and played heavily on the hearts and minds of civilians, or proletariat, as the Communist revolutionaries referred to them.

Both Italy and Spain were previously ruled by royal houses and aristocrats which were influenced by Vatican legations and its hierarchical style of leadership under one leader, namely the Pope. Such rule was successful because it was authoritarian and law and order was maintained militantly. The loyalty of military corps was vital to in ensuring that royal houses could rule and enjoy the fruits of its nations’ economic riches, unhindered by the growing resentment of its subjects. As the royal houses’ powers were diminished and the divisions between the socialist left and nationalistic right grew, the hands of power of the Fascist movements unified into one single union and were strengthened by the growing support from the armed forces.

As the fascist dictatorships of Mussolini and Franco evolved, relations with the Vatican were merely a means to an end. In Mussolini’s case, previously anti-clerical and atheistic in outlook, his volte face with the Vatican was political rather than personal.

A dissertation by Larry Hartenian on Mussolini’s fascist regime explains how relations between Mussolini and the Vatican were sealed. The Lateran Agreements were signed in 1929. Under these agreements the Vatican, secure as a state within Italy, could turn a blind eye to Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship and, in principle, anti-Christian and anti-democratic system of government.

In Franco’s case, however, the distancing between State and Church occurred before he assumed power over Spain. It was during the Second Republic that the first Republic government sought to destroy religion in Spain. Note too that the Catholic Church was corrupt in its governance where official appointments were made or influenced by the Spanish king rather than the Vatican. Owing to such a corrupt relationship, the diocese accepted the nature of existence of the Spanish Republic with an instruction from Cardinal Segura to ‘the faithful’;

respect and obedience in the maintenance of order for the common good” 

Western democratic nations Great Britain, France and the USA were supportive of the Fascist movements, recognising it as a lesser evil against the looming dangers that Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union posed to their democratic ideologies and notions of freedom for all and economic power, and lent support to the Fascist movements by providing economic aid and military materiel.

As both Mussolini and Franco concretised their hold on power through constitutional and forceful means, they replicated the Imperial states in their command of the military’s loyalty for the purposes of ruling their nations and maintaining law and order in order to avert any further social and constitutional upheaval.

Next week; Mussolini’s Early Years, Franco’s Early Years, Puppet Regime, Salo Regime, Franco’s Regime.

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