“What if Hitler won World War II?” is a popular alternative history exercise, from research methodology classes to nerdy dinner conversations. An alternative to that exercise, I propose, could be “If Hitler had social media at his disposal, would he have won World War II?” Or, for those familiar with another monster from that war, “If Mussolini had social media, would he have won World War II?”
Let me provide some context for the question. We see ISIS producing slick videos of their heinous crimes and posting them on YouTube for propaganda materials, and an army of Twitterers reel in the curious. We see the Iranian Revolutionary Guard employ bands of bloggers posting praise for the regime on various social media platforms, and cyber bullying dissenters into silence. Al Qaeda posts “how-to” e-books on its own websites, and disperses them through its own portfolio of Facebook, Twitter, and other accounts. In all cases, it is a devastatingly effective tool, one that I am sure would have intrigued Hitler and Mussolini.
However, I don’t think this tool would have been equally effective for both regimes, based on their different levels of engagement within their civil societies. Neo-Tocquevillean sociologists – those that argue there is a link between the level of engagement of civil society, sometimes referred to as “social capital” (e.g. Robert Putnam) – sometimes discuss the ideal level of engagement of civil society. Too little and civil society results in an apathetic society, allowing a loud minority to bully their policy agendas into practice. Too much and several scenarios can occur, including, under the right conditions, a Nazi Germany (for an example of this argument was presented by Sheri Berman. You can read her article here.) Where Fascist Italy falls on the spectrum is more debatable, partly because of the distinctly different levels of engagement in northern and southern Italy. While some contend that the rise of Fascism in Italy is comparable to the rise of Nazism in Germany, most scholars concede that there was a fragmentation between elite and working class Italians, and the elite were highly parochial while the working class, having developed their civil society engagement later with the rise of Fascism, more national (these nuances are discussed in Dylan Riley’s chapter on Italy in his book The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe: Italy, Spain, and Romania, 1870–1945). While Fascism itself might have been allowed to rise because of high civil society engagement, it cannot be argued that the high civil society engagement was as prevalent and widespread as it was in Germany (E. Spencer Wellhofer did a statistical analysis of the various explanations for the rise of Fascism, finding the uneven support for Fascism an undermining factor for an argument based on a strong civil society, in the American Political Science Review; and Giuseppe Finaldi touches upon the apathetic attitudes toward Fascism in the wider Italian public in his book Mussolini and Italian Fascism.) Scholars who insist on the similarity to Germany claim that the widespread support is not necessary, but I think that the absence of Fascist support from the elite and lower socioeconomic level working class (per Wellhofer’s article) is an important distinction, since it moves Italy from the category of too much civil society engagement to something more like the category of too little civil society engagement. Hence, I think it is accurate to argue that Nazi Germany suffered from too much civil society, and Fascist Italy suffered from too little.
The case of Hitler and social media, with an overly engaged civil society, would be rather straight forward. While social media could help rally continued support for the movement, by definition there would not have been a large population of potential recruits to persuade. Any use of social media would have been mostly preaching to the choir, and therefore probably would have had little effect on the Nazi movement as a whole.
The case of Mussolini and social media would have been perhaps more profound. I would argue that the same success one sees from ISIS’s or Iran’s use of social media would have happened for Mussolini’s Italy. With very strong support in a selected segment of of society, Mussolini had potential recruits from both the lower classes and the upper classes. These non-supporters were not all against Fascism per se, but more accurately not for Fascism, and therefore more easily susceptible to more pervasive propaganda. Mussolini was an avid user of the tools available to him in his day, but the intimate bombardment capacity of social media could have been more effective for spreading his message, and perhaps allowing him to transition the civil engagement from too little to too much.
Now, if Fascist Italy had been as powerful of a force as Nazi Germany, would the Axis have won the Second World War? I will leave that for another nerdy dinner conversation.