Fascist political parties, militia and movements emerged across Europe in the years after the First World War. United by ultra-nationalist ideas and similarities of style and action, these movements shaped – and in some places remade – politics and society. They mobilised on the streets to attack their opponents and to support the accession to power of fascist parties in countries such as Italy, Germany and Austria. Later, they helped to enable German occupations and the Nazis’ policies of persecution and genocide across Europe.
Now, a new exhibition at The Wiener Holocaust Library in London aims to shine a light on the experiences of rank-and-file members of fascist movements during the interwar period. “As right-wing radicalism grows in strength in Europe and elsewhere, this timely exhibition looks back to the first manifestations of the destructive phenomenon of fascism,” says a spokesperson for the exhibition, which was produced in conjunction with the European Fascist Movements 1918–41 project.
Here, we reveal 10 fascinating images from This Fascist Life that offer an insight into interwar fascism – from a female supporter of the British Imperial Fascist League to Nazi propaganda in the years leading up to the Second World War…
Female supporter of the Imperial Fascist League, c1930s
Although fascist movements were largely male-centred and misogynistic, women were sometimes actively involved. Fascists in Britain in particular embraced women as activists. The woman in the image here was a supporter of the Imperial Fascist League, a British movement that embraced many Nazi ideas.
‘Five Policy Points of the National Socialist League’ c1937–39
Fascist movements were often influenced by fascists in other countries, in their ideas and style of dress for example. Here, a short-lived British group, founded by William Joyce in 1937, took its name from the Nazi movement in Germany.
Front page of the fascist newspaper of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, Action, 9 July 1936
Whether it was dressed up in uniforms – sculpted to reflect idealised notions of muscular masculinity – or marched through city streets, the fascist body was the most visible symbol of the movement. The above shows the front page of a newspaper published by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists; its headline ‘The return of manhood’ exemplifying the preference for ‘strong’ masculine ideals.
Alfred Josephs (standing), c1920s, a German Jew from Berlin, was murdered by the Nazis in 1942
Not all fascist movements were grounded in antisemitism, but most were. During the Second World War, Nazis systematically murdered Jews in extermination camps and mass shootings. No exact figure of how many people died during the Holocaust exists, although it is estimated that approximately six million Jews were killed by Nazi Germany and collaborators of the regime.
The above photograph shows a German Jew named Alfred Josephs standing next to his brother-in-law. Josephs, who was born in 1874 and lived in Berlin, left Germany to go to Amsterdam in the 1930s in order to try to escape Nazi persecution. In 1942, he was arrested and sent to Westerbork transit camp before he was deported to Auschwitz, where he was murdered.
A Nazi election poster from 1932, which proclaims “Women! Save the German family – vote for Adolf Hitler”
The Nazi Party actively targeted some of its campaign material at German women. Fascists idealised women as wives and mothers whose role was to raise the next generation of fascist men. The election poster below is directed at such women, and plays on their perceived duty to their family while encouraging them to vote for the Nazis. “Women! Save the German family – vote for Adolf Hitler,” it reads.
A Nazi election poster for Reichstag elections, 1928
The slogan on this Nazi Party election poster suggests that unless voters chose the Nazis at the election, German soldiers who lost their lives in the First World War died for nothing. The red text – Oder umsonst waren die opfer – translates as “or the victims were in vain”.
Members of the Nazi Party in Coburg, Bavaria, gathered to celebrate ‘German Day’, c1920s
Cultural festivals were used by Nazi propagandists to promote the party alongside German, food, music, dancing and speeches. Here, members of the Nazi Party in Coburg, Bavaria, gather to celebrate ‘German’ Day. All the members pictured are male, and most are wearing swastika armbands and Nazi lapel pins.
Students at the University of Vienna salute
Political and economic conditions in Europe after the First World War enabled fascist ideas and movements to develop and grow – including in schools and universities. Here, a group of students at the University of Vienna salute together with a Rector.
Romanian fascist students working at a brickwork as part of their summer camp activities, 1924
Many fascists in Romania came from poorer backgrounds and claimed that they did not need programmes like gymnastics as part of their summer camp activities because they were already strong, having worked in the fields all their lives. Instead, they undertook weapons training and voluntary labour on charitable building projects. This photograph was included in an album assembled after the Second World War to commemorate the activities of interwar Romanian fascists.
A group of Romanian fascist women saluting, c1935
This women’s unit, known as a ‘Fortress’, formed part of the fascist Legion of the Archangel Michael in Romania. Wearing makeshift uniforms and doing the ‘Roman’ salute, these women participated in a summer work camp where they would have served as cooks for men who were doing heavier physical labour.
This Fascist Life: Radical Right Movements in Interwar Europe – a new exhibition at The Wiener Holocaust Library, London is running from 6 October 2021 to 4 February 2022