31.1.2: Italy Under Mussolini
Italian Fascism under Benito Mussolini was rooted in Italian nationalism and the desire to restore and expand Italian territories.
Describe Mussolini’s Italy
- Social unrest after World War I, led mainly by communists, led to counter-revolution and repression throughout Italy.
- The liberal establishment, fearing a Soviet-style revolution, started to endorse the small National Fascist Party led by Benito Mussolini.
- In the night between October 27-28, 1922, about 30,000 Fascist blackshirts (paramilitary of the Fascist party) gathered in Rome to demand the resignation of liberal Prime Minister Luigi Facta and the appointment of a new Fascist government. This event is called the “March on Rome.”
- Between 1925 and 1927, Mussolini progressively dismantled virtually all constitutional and conventional restraints on his power, building a police state.
- A law passed on Christmas Eve 1925 changed Mussolini’s formal title from “president of the Council of Ministers” to “head of the government” and thereafter he began styling himself as Il Duce (the leader).
- On October 25, 1936, Mussolini agreed to form a Rome-Berlin Axis, sanctioned by a cooperation agreement with Nazi Germany and signed in Berlin, forming the so-called Axis Powers of World War II.
- March on Rome
- A march by which Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party came to power in the Kingdom of Italy.
- Benito Mussolini
- An Italian politician, journalist, and leader of the National Fascist Party, ruling the country as Prime Minister from 1922 to 1943; he ruled constitutionally until 1925, when he dropped all pretense of democracy and set up a legal dictatorship.
- The paramilitary wing of the National Fascist Party in Italy and after 1923, an all-volunteer militia of the Kingdom of Italy.
The socialist agitations that followed the devastation of World War I, inspired by the Russian Revolution, led to counter-revolution and repression throughout Italy. The liberal establishment, fearing a Soviet-style revolution, started to endorse the small National Fascist Party led by Benito Mussolini. In October 1922 the Blackshirts of the National Fascist Party attempted a coup (the “March on Rome”) which failed, but at the last minute, King Victor Emmanuel III refused to proclaim a state of siege and appointed Mussolini prime minister. Over the next few years, Mussolini banned all political parties and curtailed personal liberties, thus forming a dictatorship. These actions attracted international attention and eventually inspired similar dictatorships such as Nazi Germany and Francoist Spain.
In 1935, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, resulting in international alienation and leading to Italy’s withdrawal from the League of Nations; Italy allied with Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan and strongly supported Francisco Franco in the Spanish civil war. In 1939, Italy annexed Albania, a de facto protectorate for decades. Italy entered World War II on June 10, 1940. After initially advancing in British Somaliland and Egypt, the Italians were defeated in East Africa, Greece, Russia and North Africa.
Mussolini’s Rise to Power
The Fascisti, led by one of Mussolini’s close confidants, Dino Grandi, formed armed squads of war veterans called Blackshirts (or squadristi) with the goal of restoring order to the streets of Italy with a strong hand. The blackshirts clashed with communists, socialists, and anarchists at parades and demonstrations; all of these factions were also involved in clashes against each other. The Italian government rarely interfered with the blackshirts’ actions, owing in part to a looming threat and widespread fear of a communist revolution. The Fascisti grew rapidly, within two years transforming themselves into the National Fascist Party at a congress in Rome. In 1921 Mussolini won election to the Chamber of Deputies for the first time.
In the night between October 27-28, 1922, about 30,000 Fascist blackshirts gathered in Rome to demand the resignation of liberal Prime Minister Luigi Facta and the appointment of a new Fascist government. This event is known as the “March on Rome.” On the morning of October 28, King Victor Emmanuel III, who according to the Albertine Statute held the supreme military power, refused the government request to declare martial law, leading to Facta’s resignation. The King then handed over power to Mussolini (who stayed in his headquarters in Milan during the talks) by asking him to form a new government. The King’s controversial decision has been explained by historians as a combination of delusions and fears; Mussolini enjoyed a wide support in the military and among the industrial and agrarian elites, while the King and the conservative establishment were afraid of a possible civil war and ultimately thought they could use Mussolini to restore law and order in the country, but failed to foresee the danger of a totalitarian evolution.
As Prime Minister, the first years of Mussolini’s rule were characterized by a right-wing coalition government composed of Fascists, nationalists, liberals, and two Catholic clerics from the Popular Party. The Fascists made up a small minority in his original governments. Mussolini’s domestic goal was the eventual establishment of a totalitarian state with himself as supreme leader (Il Duce) a message that was articulated by the Fascist newspaper Il Popolo, now edited by Mussolini’s brother, Arnaldo. To that end, Mussolini obtained from the legislature dictatorial powers for one year (legal under the Italian constitution of the time). He favored the complete restoration of state authority with the integration of the Fasci di Combattimento into the armed forces (the foundation in January 1923 of the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale) and the progressive identification of the party with the state. In political and social economy, he passed legislation that favored the wealthy industrial and agrarian classes (privatizations, liberalizations of rent laws, and dismantlement of the unions).
Between 1925 and 1927, Mussolini progressively dismantled virtually all constitutional and conventional restraints on his power, thereby building a police state. A law passed on Christmas Eve 1925 changed Mussolini’s formal title from “president of the Council of Ministers” to “head of the government” (though he was still called “Prime Minister” by most non-Italian outlets). Thereafter he began styling himself as Il Duce (the leader). He was no longer responsible to Parliament and could be removed only by the king. While the Italian constitution stated that ministers were responsible only to the sovereign, in practice it had become all but impossible to govern against the express will of Parliament. The Christmas Eve law ended this practice, and also made Mussolini the only person competent to determine the body’s agenda. This law transformed Mussolini’s government into a de facto legal dictatorship. Local autonomy was abolished, and podestàs appointed by the Italian Senate replaced elected mayors and councils.
Mussolini’s foremost priority was the subjugation of the minds of the Italian people and the use of propaganda to do so. A lavish cult of personality centered on the figure of Mussolini was promoted by the regime.
Mussolini pretended to incarnate the new fascist Übermensch, promoting an aesthetics of exasperated Machism and a cult of personality that attributed to him quasi-divine capacities. At various times after 1922, Mussolini personally took over the ministries of the interior, foreign affairs, colonies, corporations, defense, and public works. Sometimes he held as many as seven departments simultaneously as well as the premiership. He was also head of the all-powerful Fascist Party and the armed local fascist militia, the MVSN or “Blackshirts,” who terrorized incipient resistances in the cities and provinces. He would later form the OVRA, an institutionalized secret police that carried official state support. He thus succeeded in keeping power in his own hands and preventing the emergence of any rival.
All teachers in schools and universities had to swear an oath to defend the fascist regime. Newspaper editors were all personally chosen by Mussolini and no one without a certificate of approval from the fascist party could practice journalism. These certificates were issued in secret; Mussolini thus skillfully created the illusion of a “free press.” The trade unions were also deprived of independence and integrated into what was called the “corporative” system. The aim (never completely achieved), inspired by medieval guilds, was to place all Italians in various professional organizations or corporations under clandestine governmental control.
In his early years in power, Mussolini operated as a pragmatic statesman, trying to achieve advantages but never at the risk of war with Britain and France. An exception was the bombardment and occupation of Corfu in 1923, following an incident in which Italian military personnel charged by the League of Nations to settle a boundary dispute between Greece and Albania were assassinated by Greek bandits. At the time of the Corfu incident, Mussolini was prepared to go to war with Britain, and only desperate pleading by Italian Navy leadership, who argued that Italian Navy was no match for the British Royal Navy, persuaded him to accept a diplomatic solution. In a secret speech to the Italian military leadership in January 1925, Mussolini argued that Italy needed to win spazio vitale (vital space), and as such his ultimate goal was to join “the two shores of the Mediterranean and of the Indian Ocean into a single Italian territory.”
Path to War
By the late 1930s, Mussolini’s obsession with demography led him to conclude that Britain and France were finished as powers, and that Germany and Italy were destined to rule Europe if for no other reason than their demographic strength. Mussolini stated his belief that declining birth rates in France were “absolutely horrifying” and that the British Empire was doomed because a quarter of the British population was older than 50. As such, Mussolini believed that an alliance with Germany was preferable to an alignment with Britain and France as it was better to be allied with the strong instead of the weak. Mussolini saw international relations as a Social Darwinian struggle between “virile” nations with high birth rates that were destined to destroy “effete” nations with low birth rates. Such was the extent of Mussolini’s belief that it was Italy’s destiny to rule the Mediterranean because of the country’s high birth rate that he neglected much of the serious planning and preparations necessary for a war with the Western powers.
On October 25, 1936, Mussolini agreed to form a Rome-Berlin Axis, sanctioned by a cooperation agreement with Nazi Germany and signed in Berlin. At the Munich Conference in September 1938, Mussolini continued to pose as a moderate working for European peace while helping Nazi Germany annex the Sudetenland. The 1936 Axis agreement with Germany was strengthened by the Pact of Steel signed on May 22, 1939, which bound Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in a full military alliance.
- Italy Under Mussolini
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