Benito Mussolini and Fascist Italy

Italy was a liberal state with a constitutional monarchy and civil rights in the early twentieth century. Parliament had granted universal male suffrage just before the outbreak of World War One. Even so, Italy had problems, as much of the populace were poor and peasants were more interested in local politics and events than in national politics. The Church, the pope, and many devout Catholics as well as landowners and conservatives were strongly opposed to liberal institutions. The heirs of Cavour and Garibaldi ran the country largely to line their own pockets. Church/state relationships were tense and class differences were extreme. Italy was the only European country in which a radical left wing of the socialist party gained a leadership position in 1913. Italy was also the only country in which the Socialist party unanimously opposed World War I.

Matters had gone from bad to worse because of the War. Italy had entered World War One primarily because of promises of territorial expansion; however the Treaty of Versailles awarded Italy only modest gains, which bitterly disappointed nationalists. Workers and peasants had been promised social and land reforms in exchange for their support of the war; but these promises were also not kept.

Italian socialists gained inspiration from the Russian Revolution. They quickly sided with the Bolsheviks and began to occupy factories and to seize land in 1920. Property owners were scared by these actions. Also, after the war, a ban on participation in Italian politics was lifted by the Pope, and a Catholic political party emerged. By 1921, revolutionary socialists, anti-liberal conservatives and frightened property owners were all opposed to the liberal Italian parliamentary government, although for different reasons.

This was fertile ground into which Benito Mussolini (1883-1845) stepped. Mussolini was the son of a blacksmith and village school teacher who had been a Socialist party leader and radical newspaper editor before the war. He was powerfully influenced by antidemocratic cults which often used violent techniques, and urged Italy to join the war on the side of the Allies. His actions got him expelled from the Socialist party. He fought in the war and was wounded in 1917. After the war, he formed an organization known as Fascists (named after a Roman war axe and Italian for "union of forces") comprised of bitter war veterans. Mussolini himself was bullying and blustering who often moved in jerky, spasmodic movements, and who styled himself Il Duce (Ďthe leader.)

Mussolini often used violent verbal attacks to gain converts. When he noticed that his attacks on rival socialists won support from conservatives and the middle class, he shifted gears and became a right wing conservative. He epitomized the turbulent uncertainty of the age of anxiety. He soon had his own private army of Black Shirts who often resorted to violent means. Many would ride off in trucks at night and attack Socialist organizers. Their victims were beaten and often force fed large doses of castor oil. Few people were killed, but socialist party headquarters and newspapers as well as union halls were destroyed. The Black Shirts managed to force Socialists out of city government in Northern Italy. Mussolini led his followers to believe that they were creating a revolution of their own while opposing Communism at the same time. They convinced themselves that they could help the "little people" break the control of established interests. He appeared as the savior of order and property.

After he had gained promises of neutrality from army leaders who were sympathetic to his cause, Mussolini demanded that the existing Italian government resign and that he be appointed by the King. In October, 1922, a group of fascists marched on Rome to threaten the King and call on Mussolini to form a government. King Victor Emmanuel III, who did not like the old liberal politicians with whom he had been forced to deal, asked Mussolini to form a new cabinet. Through widespread violence and the threat of an armed uprising, Mussolini managed to seize power "legally." He was granted dictatorial power by the king and parliament for a period of one year.

Under Mussoliniís rule, a new electoral law was passed which gave two thirds of the representatives in Parliament to the party what won the most votes. This allowed the Fascists to win a majority in 1924. Shortly thereafter, the leader of the Socialist in Parliament, Giacomo Matteotti, was kidnapped and murdered by some of Mussoliniís thugs. Mussolini then moved forward with his plans. He abolished freedom of the press, elections were fixed, and the government ruled by decree. He had his political opponents arrested, disbanded all independent labor unions, and put dedicated Fascists in all of Italyís schools. He also created fascist labor unions and a fascist youth organization. Mussoliniís famous slogan appeared in 1926: "Everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." By that time, Italy was under a one party dictatorship of which he was the leader.

Even so, the Fascist party did not become all powerful. He never destroyed the old power structure, as had the communists in Russia, nor did he succeed in dominating it as the Nazis did in Germany. Membership in the Fascist party was considered a sign of respectability rather than a commitment to radical change. Mussolini never tried to purge the conservatives who controlled the army, the economy, or the state; nor did he move vigorously against them. He controlled labor, but left big business alone and there was no land reform. He also drew support from the Catholic Church. He recognized the Vatican as an independent state by the Lateran Agreement of 1929, and agreed to give the church heavy financial support. In return, the pope expressed his satisfaction and urged Italians to support Mussoliniís government.

Mussolini was no great believer in the equality of women; rather he told them to stay at home and have children. He decreed a special tax on bachelors in 1934 and in 1938 issued a decree which prohibited women from securing more than ten per cent of the higher paying jobs in industry and government. As a result, Italian women did not change their behavior or attitudes in any significant way.

Mussolini also passed no racial laws and did not persecute Jews to any great extent until late in the Second World War when Italy was controlled from Berlin. He did not establish a ruthless Police Force and only twenty three political prisoners were sentenced to death between 1926 and 1944. Although he posed as a chauvinistic leader, encouraged mass meetings and copied Hitlerís aggression in foreign policy after 1933, Italy under Mussolini never became a completely totalitarian state as was the case in Germany and the Soviet Union.