|Fascism and the rhetoric of action in the romanità
It is known that fascism had roots in pre- and post-war avant-garde culture. A discourse of vitality and action was one of the direct consequences. During the entire period of fascist reign in Italy, the concepts ‘empire’ and ‘imperialism’ were used very frequently. Mussolini was certainly no exception to this. His texts and speeches could be read, seen and heard everywhere. They were propagated and elaborated. During our investigation, we have found that Mussolini’s discourse on empire reflects in the texts of ideologues and propagandists. Among these we can count many a classicist as well. The outlook of fascism changed during the fascist ventennio and the notion of empire had to follow. So it did: as fascism itself, fascist empire and imperialism were confused notions, with very wide connotations. They were mostly linked to Roman antiquity, the quintessential example of impero, at least in the Western world. The connection with Roman imperium, a fascist ideological key notion called romanità, seemed to provide a certain degree of emotional support, for which there was great need. Thus, apart from the writings of Mussolini, it is interesting to go and see how the notion of empire evolved after being filtered by fascist intellectuals. Let there be no doubt: antiquity influenced fascism as much as fascism influenced the study of antiquity, as is clear from the words of classicist Ettore Pais: “At the moment of our rebirth (the fascist rebirth of Antiquity) it would be sinful to abstain ourselves from the historical education of the people and youth, digging ourselves in, in a proud isolation of professional tecnicism, without political horizons.”
As a fascist, Mussolini struck a territorial imperial note from the very beginning. The mare-nostrumidea is at the core of fascism: as in antiquity, Italy had to return to the sea. After the Versailles Treaty (1919), claims were made to regain redeemable territories such as Fiume, occupied in 1919, an effort largely supported by nascent fascism and Mussolini who, in a 1919 speech, saw Italy’s future in the Adriatic and “fatally in the Mediterranean. Only if Italy will be strong and powerful at sea will it carry the symbol and sign of the new order and history and will it be able to form with its own hands its new, bigger destiny.” This destiny, Mussolini affirms in 1921, lies on the African continent. Fascism is at the height of its popularity and just before the March on Rome we hear, in another speech directed at the ‘Fiumans’, an echo of the risorgimental motto ‘Rome or death’: “The Roman arch, symbol of eternal Rome, is your mark for next election day, Fiumans! In all of Europe the Latin genius has left its mark, has built its arches, able to rule the mountains, undestructable and eternal symbols of triumphant Latinism.” Finally, there was not only Italy, but now there were also the Italians as one united people. In 1923 Mussolini again affirms his conception of history. The Punic Wars serve as an example of national regeneration. Mussolini tried to forge national unity during the first years of fascist rule and, when the movement became a regime and the Prime Minister a dictator, in “totalitarian” Italy the imperial ambitions would be confirmed from the very beginning. Italy was placed against the rest of the Mediterranean and again the Punic Wars and mare nostrumidea served as a historical example. This becomes very clear in Mussolini’s October 1926 speech at the Università per stranieri of Perugia. The idea of Rome’s regenerative powers and maritime destiny are clearly expressed in this short essay, which was written with the aid of the mentioned Ettore Pais. In his Roma antica sul mare, Mussolini talks about the life cycle of ancient Rome, which is seen as an almost living entity, that grew by way of the sea.
The real turning point in Mussolini’s vision of Roman antiquity is World War I. As a socialist, he sees Rome as a distant past nevertheless linked to the present, in various ways. The downfall of the Roman Empire is a negative example. During the consolidation of fascist power, Rome is an ideal of national force; the Punic Wars are invoked as example and illustration. By 1929 however, the period of “consensus” could begin, stimulated by the Lateran Pacts. Now Rome was the safe haven in which Christianity was harbored, Roma onde Cristo è romano it was said. Mussolini, an anti-clerical, did not stress this point, but various efforts can be seen, e.g. in the publications of the Istituto di Studi Romani and the thinking of the Scuola di Mistica Fascista. During the Ethiopian campaign, Rome’s Mediterranean mission and destiny again came to the core of fascist classicism. Although Mussolini without any doubt shared the idea of an ideological descendance from Roman antiquity, in his writings and speeches he didn’t explicitly refer to it in this particular context.
Before fascism came to power, empire and imperialism, spiritual as well as aggressive and territorial, did not play a substantial part in the fascist play. When talking about foreign policy in 1921, Mussolini defined it as “peaceful expansionism.” Two months later he struck a more aggressive note: “The foreign policy program of fascism is in one word: expansionism. Wherever the interests of the human kind are at stake, Italy has to be present. It’s also time to quit living off the glories of the past. Finally we have to live, fight and work for the great future.” The word peaceful has already been left out; Italy now stands for humanity and has to look forward. As Prime Minister, Mussolini repeated this idea at the first anniversary of the Birthday of Rome, however still without mentioning ancient Rome. Tenaciousness is now the basic Roman virtue, the well from which Rome drew its force, expansion and greatness. It was also the underlying idea in Mussolini’s Roma antica sul mare. A military side was added to foreign policy and expansionism and, although the need for territorial imperialism was denied, it was implicitly affirmed by the description of British imperialism: “But the goal is this: empire. To found a city, detect a colony, create an empire, are the prodigies of the human spirit. Empire is not only territorial. It can be political, economic, spiritual. Empire by the way is not an improvized creation. England has had Gibraltar after the Peace of Utrecht, has had Malta after Waterloo,…” Between the lines one can already detect territorial aspirations, as is the case in Mussolini’s 1925 United Press interview: “The word ‘empire’ does not have one single meaning in the Italian language. It can mean a form of government and, more particularly, that marvellous state organization which from Rome, in the first centuries of the Christian era, dominated the civilized world. So, when one speaks of an imperial Italy, no allusion is made to a determined territorial conquest, but to an attitude, to a norm of virile conduct, resolute, combative…” Even in 1932, Mussolini was not trapped by Emil Ludwig and avoided to make territorial, even militarist claims. For Mussolini, imperialism doesn’t become radically territorial until the second half of the thirties, when he sends Italian armies to Ethiopia to effectively conquer an ‘empire’, a Lebensraum. Fascist Italy will now fulfill its ‘civilizing mission’, as becomes clear in a rare ‘romanità speech’: “Fascist Italy, like Rome before, transforms the conquered lands into images of itself, and for this reason sends its best men there. Its subjects do not ask for autonomy, but, with pride, for Italian citizenship.” Imperialism is not so much a scourge of God as it is a gift to the new subjects. Despite the atrocities of war, it is the quintessence of peace, and the fulfilment of the mission of ancient Rome, as in the famous Proclamation of Empire: “This is an empire of peace, because Italy wants peace for itself and for all and decides to go to war only when forced by imperious, irrepressible necessities of life. Empire of civilization and humanity for all the people of Ethiopia. […] In this supreme certainty, hold high, legionnaires, the signs, the steel and the hearts, to salute, after fifteen centuries, the reapparition of the Empire on Rome’s fatal hills.” In the end, even racism is backed by imperialism. Never before have these two been linked by Mussolini. According to the 1938-Mussolini however, one goes with the other and has always done so.
In Mussolini’s discourse, impero is a sort of passe-partoutword. The dictator tended to speak in blurry concepts. When fascists made attempts to define the notion, they usually ended up with “universalism”. Never have we found a clear explanation or definition of this notion, which nearly always accompanied the notion of empire. All of fascism became eternal and ‘universal’, from the beginning, as in the words of Emilio Bodrero: “These words are as Diana who announces the march which was to take place a month later [he talks about the March on Rome]. Not a city, nor a party was conquered, not a government taken by force, not a coup d’état, something far more important: a millennary tradition was revalued to create the new spirit of a victorious people. From that moment on, the idea of Rome has been dominant in the genius of Il duce. Because of him it has acquired a profetical character and today one of reality, because fascism has become that idea which Mommsen foresaw to be the model for the whole world, for those who believe in the eternal value of human and Roman principles.” Around about the second half of the thirties, fascism had become rusty, and began to see itself as a belief. It now was the teleological outcome of history. This idea is painfully clear in L’idea latina e la latinità di Virgilio, a 1931 text by Carlo Galassi Paluzzi, president of the Istituto di Studi Romani. When talking about Virgil, he characterizes Rome as an almighty alma mater: “Rome is the only assimilating force that can render hungry, aggregate and assimilate the whole world, creating in the assimilated, transformed elements, latin and Roman spirit, which means as much as ordered love for the universal.” Love for the universal, and in so writing, Galassi Paluzzi remains on known, safe ground. Luigi Arimattei even justifies racism and colonization by way of the etherial universalism, when he writes, in his 1937 La missione civilizzatrice di Roma: “Rome in all of history shows us the superiority of the race and the Roman idea on other peoples which have conquered, before and after. Rome, you have always placed your imperialism against the economic imperialism of Carthage [as you have done with Asian barbarians] your imperialism of spiritual dominion which carried in itself the principle of universal justice!” Rome now was fatal and sacred, hence the vocative. It was a nearly divine justice which counted for the whole world and could be considered universal. Rome was the law and fascism, which presented itself as lawful inheritant of Roman Antiquity, had to lend it the same connotations it used on itself. No wonder then that Giuseppe Cardinale, even in his fairly good Amministrazione territoriale e finanziaria, published in Augustus (on the occasion of the bimillennary of the first emperor in 1937-1938), could not retain himself and wrote the following: “And from the second of the fundamental principles of Augustan provincial politics came the impulse for another historical cycle, that of the foundation of universal empire, which made Rome the spiritual fatherland of the world. It gave an adequate solution to the need for civil and political order with a universal character, which had dominated the evolution of antiquity, but up until then had not found sufficient ground to thrive in.” Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, Rome remained the spiritual fatherland of the world, “an idea and a responsibility” it was said. Now there was the Third, fascist Rome, which carried the spiritual, universal heritage of antiquity from the Risorgimento and was inspired by antiquity, as can be seen in the words of D’Ambrosio: “Some of the elements we consider universal are immanent, eternal, essential. Others are contingent, accessory. The first will immediately be absorbed by all of civil humanity, but the second will be valued by those peoples which, at that moment, are more oriented to that economic need, towards that determined political ideality. Who could deny the universal character of order, authority, solidarity, equity, justice? When a revolution uses these ideas, these principles, which have their roots in the same laws which rule the life of the universe, it has to universalize itself, transform itself into civil and humane conscience for every people.”
Fascism was born as aggressive, militarist squadrismo. Mussolini presented his movement as a combination of socialism and reactionary nationalist protectionism, born from the hangover of the First World War. It was above all the petite bourgeoisie which was attracted by the new movement. Fascism radiated youth and virility and used the motto me ne frego, at the same time literally fighting socialist strikes. It was a movement of angry young men wanting to shake society, existing, liberal society as well as proletarian. It was a bit of everything, left and right. Sometimes the left side was stressed, sometimes the right. In a certain sense, the combination of both discourses was the very nature of fascism. Rhetoric was an integral, constituent part of fascism.
This tension we also found when fascists talked about military imperialism on the one side, and about the quest for peace on the other side. It is a fact that in a lot of the texts we consulted, there is a great incongruence between combative militarism and a sometimes even soft, sweet discourse on peace. This could even be seen before the advent of fascism, when Mussolini hesitated between Italy’s entry in World War I and absolute neutralism. We will try to render this a bit clearer through our analysis of the notion of empire.
When talking about fascist military imperialism, one always has to place it in its context. Fascism presented itself initially as a revolution, a position from which it drew a lot of its success. The people were in need of change and a revolution could procure this. The proletariate was calmed by the so-called revolutionary character of fascism, which saw itself as an army marching forward and used antiquity to enforce this image. A climate of unstable balance was created, balance between military threat and political stability. The enemy lured around the corner, always. The nation had to be kept in a state of mobilization. Fascism created a permanent state of fear in order to control Italy. Italy was placed against the rest of Europe and an imminent conflict was prepared. This is all the more clear in Michele Campana’s L’impero fascista, written in 1933: “We do not have to forget that, if fascism is above all an idea of love, it is not a fraternity. It is a Revolution moving on, behind it an armed people. No illusions. We have to prepare for the contrary. War is in the air in Europe. It has never been looming like in our days, after treaties have created the absurdity of a peace, that is not peace, with the desperate necessity to defend and arm itself. Then it will be good to obtain Victory, to dictate fascist peace.” In this sort of writings we are not far from the military imperialism which would be propagated near the end of the thirties. The goal: peace. Here as well, the example of antiquity, of the Rome of antiquity, was used as illustration and legitimisation, as in the educative texts of Armando Lodolini, who wants to soften the aggressive, expansive character of Rome’s imperial thrive for conquest by pointing out that energy, work, are at the basis. Roman soldiers, according to Lodolini, were armed engineers and farmers, who conquered Africa to present it the gift of their civilization. Even if it is not literally said in the following, the reader understands that here, in a 1939 text on the Italian race from Augustus to Mussolini, the author writes about fascist colonization, the fulfilment of what was called Rome’s civilizing mission in Africa: “All around humanity lived by its instincts: it conquered, looted, used and destructed. Nature was abandoned to itself: savage, marshy, killing. The idea which fascinated people was work. Rome did not diffuse itself through military need for spoils: its spades turned into ploughs. Roman legions directly got to work.” In this way the message of alertness and the possibility of a growing conflict were, in ‘educative’ texts such as this one, conveyed to Italian youth.
Our investigation into the roots of the notion empire in Italian fascism learns us as much about fascist imperialism as it does about fascism itself. Fascist imperialism was sometimes universal, sometimes militarist-territorial, sometimes colonial. Antiquity in many cases was the touchstone, in some cases the direct inspiration. It gave substance to the political reality which found a readily available justification in the political greatness of the past. When we bring into account that fascism – and not in the least Mussolini himself - did not always really know where to go, the confusion around the notion impero can easily be explained: fascism was a nationalist ideology, an ideology of action, greatness and power. Since these in reality were absent, they were only present in the world of language, of words. Action and empire, as to a large extent fascism itself, were words, rhetoric – which worked - . Fascism was a discourse that followed the context without being able to fully dominate that context.