Investigative Question

Why did communism and fascism appeal to Europeans in the 1930s? How did propaganda contribute to the appeal of communism and fascism to Europeans and Japanese in the interwar period (1920s and ’30s)?

With the collapse of the capitalist market system that caused the Great Depression, political alternatives to liberal democracies emerged, particularly communism and fascism. Through the use of graphic organizers, debates, and position papers, students may compare and contrast how these communist and fascist governments responded to the collapse of the capitalist system during the Great Depression. With a side-by-side comparison of these political alternatives, students can provide an answer to the question: Why did communism and fascism appeal to Europeans in the 1930s?. . . . One way that some historians have compared transformations in Europe during the interwar years is through the concept of totalitarianism, or a centralized state that aims to control all aspects of life through authoritarian use of violence. This question about totalitarianism can help frame students’ comparative explorations of governments and social systems during these years: What was totalitarianism and how was it implemented in similar and different ways in Japan, Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union? Using this strategy, students can examine the similarities and differences between the political structures of the Soviet Union, Germany, and Italy in the 1930s. The Weimar Republic had emerged from World War I as an example of the implementation of liberal democratic principles. However, with the debts of World War I, soaring inflation, and the Depression, portions of the populace and political establishment who were anxious about radicals turned to the leadership of Adolf Hitler. Although Hitler’s Nazi Party never won an outright majority in any German election, he was able to exploit enough fear and uncertainty and form alliances with other parties that opposed Weimar democracy to gain the position of Chancellor in 1933. Once they had a foothold in government, the Nazis consolidated their power by limiting dissent and imprisoning opponents, homosexuals, the sick and elderly, restricting the rights of Jews and other “non-Aryans,” and re-arming the German military. Students can learn about the rise of the Nazis by addressing the questions: How did Nazis come to power? Why did ordinary people support them? Fascism provided a nationalist and militaristic alternative to both the individual rights privileged in liberal democracies and to communism. The Fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany established state-directed economies, re-armed their militaries, and imposed gender, religious, and racial hierarchies in the name of an ultrapatriotic nationalism.

In this lesson, students analyze a set of nine sources to determine how totalitarian leaders of the 1920s and '30s used propaganda as they tried to promote communism and fascism in the tumultuous years between World War I and World War II. Students should find that these extremist ideologies espoused by leaders like Hitler and Stalin spoke directly to the economic, political, and social challenges experienced by many Europeans after World War I. To expand the scope of the question to the world, two Japanese fascist/militarist sources have been included.

Understanding the reasons why totalitarian regimes gained such popularity during the interwar years is often an overwhelming task for teachers and students and cannot be achieved in only one lesson. Totalitarian regimes did not gain support and obedience only through authoritarian use of violence. They also mobilized genuinely enthusiastic support through appeals to familiar beliefs, such as nationalism and racism, and careful offering of incentives, such as welfare, recreation, and opportunities for social mobility. They also relied on mass organizations and mandatory participation. They made the state serve the party. They openly rejected the authority of the law and legal principles and promoted the sovereignty of the party, expediency, and extra-legal measures. This source set focuses specifically on the role of propaganda used by the fascist and communist governments of Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Before you teach these sources, students should already be familiar with the following events and concepts: the meaning of totalitarianism; the basic causes, course, and outcomes of the Bolshevik Revolution; the basic communist and fascist ideology (including The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf); the basic backgrounds and ideologies of V.I. Lenin, Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler; the similarities and differences between Fascism, Nazism, and Communism; and the ideas behind collectivization. One common point of struggle for students is to understand that although fascism and communism have different goals and philosophies, they have strikingly similar strategies and tactics. Both systems extensively use propaganda to encourage support of their policies among the masses and rely upon a strong leader, or at least a strong party. Teachers may want to review common propaganda techniques with students before analyzing the sources. Alternatively, teachers could focus on three key points about propaganda — its appeal to emotions, its use of symbols and references that will resonate emotionally with the intended audience, and its implicit message that either supports the creator's cause or attacks an opposing cause.

Some of the sources also have questions embedded in the context to help guide students in their analysis. As they read and analyze the sources, students should complete the graphic organizer that helps them identify how the propaganda pieces helped make each ideology popular among the masses. The goal of this handout is for students to arrive at a claim, supported by evidence from the propaganda, about the role of propaganda in the growing popularity of fascism and communism in the years between the world wars. Since this lesson will most likely be taught toward the middle of a school year, students should already have sufficient practice in identifying evidence to support a claim. However, if students have not yet practiced this skill, they will likely need additional support to find useful evidence in the sources. At the end of the graphic organizer, students will synthesize their findings about the sources to write a claim discussing how these propaganda pieces contributed to the popularity of these regimes.

Some of the sources (1, 2, 4, 6, and 8) are pieces of propaganda from one of the regimes, designed for mass consumption. With these sources, students can easily identify appeals to emotion and use of symbols and other propaganda strategies. The challenge will be in getting the students to see how these appeals address economic worries. Two other sources (5 and 9) aimed at more intellectual audiences. Students may not immediately see the propaganda because the sources sound so educated and reasoned. Two more sources (3 and 7) are memoirs; both offer evidence of the effect of propaganda on its audience as well as economic, social, and emotional reasons that propaganda was effective. Collectively, these sources cover the communist regime of the Soviet Union and fascist regimes of Germany, Italy, and Japan—propaganda written both for the masses and for intellectual consumption, as well as evidence about the outcome of that propaganda.

Literacy Support for "The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism" (Source 5)

Teacher Background:

English learners will find Source 5, Benito Mussolini's "The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism," particularly difficult because of the complex vocabulary and long sentences. This literacy strategy helps students break down the text into manageable chunks, figure out the text's structure, and decode some of the vocabulary. First, it introduces them to this style of historical text, which treats an ideology as an active subject. Then it reveals how students can identify the main idea of each paragraph and understand how Mussolini used vocabulary (negative and positive words) to support the main idea. Finally, students write a sentence summarizing Mussolini's point in each paragraph.


  1. Divide students into pairs.
  2. As a whole class, go over the introductory text, the directions, and the example for paragraph 1 on Student Handout 10.7.
  3. Have student pairs complete the rest of the handout.
  4. Go over the handout as a whole class. Discuss whether the words students select are negative or positive. You might write their summary sentences on the board or an overhead, discuss them, and have the class select the ones they like.


10.7 Appeal of Communism and Fascism Student Handout

10.7 Appeal of Communism and Fascism Teacher Key

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.
  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.