World War I - or the Great War as it was also called - elevated some of Italy's young men who were proud to be combatants for their nation. The war also elevated national pride in people and a sense that Italy was one nation with a common cause rather than divided by class antagonisms. And one Italian so elevated and proud to have fought in the war was Benito Mussolini.
Benito Mussolini was the son of a worker-intellectual, a blacksmith - who named his son after the 19th century Mexican revolutionary, Benito Juarez. Benito Mussolini was a bright boy and a voracious reader in his youth. He suffered from poverty as a young man and hated the rich. More accurately, he envied the rich. But he sought recognition more than personal wealth. He was for a time a school teacher, and he rose to become editor of a Socialist Party newspaper.
In 1915, as Italy pondered whether to go to war, Mussolini broke with the pacifism of the socialists. He editorialized for Italy's involvement in the war on the side of the Allies, claiming that France's defeat would end liberty in Europe. He argued that Italy's involvement in the war would hasten the socialist revolution. The Socialist Party responded by expelling him. So Mussolini started his own newspaper, The People of Italy, receiving funds from the French. He did not want Italy left out of what he called a grand drama.
Mussolini was so excited about the war that when Italy declared war he joined Italy's prestigious Bersaglieri regiment as a private. He liked the trotting and getting into shape - stomach in and chest out. He was sent to the front, and in February 1917, after six months, he was wounded during hand grenade practice. He was hospitalized for months, and during convalescence he took up the cause of praising his nation's soldiers and veterans. By October 1917 he was back at his newspaper in Milan, and later that year he was blaming "defeatists" and "the politicians" for the failure at the front - the great rout after the battle at Caporetto.
Mussolini advanced himself by publishing his Diary of the War. His view of international events was Darwinistic, the masthead of his paper glorifying armed struggle and reading: "He who has steel has bread." By now he had forgotten about the liberty that might be lost with France's defeat. He attacked all those, including the Socialist Party, who called for peace.
The war had not been going as well as for Italy as Mussolini had hoped, and the nation was suffering economically. People were casting about for targets of blame, and in February 1918, Mussolini joined those who spoke with disgust about parliamentary squabbling. Mussolini described parliamentary democracy as "effete." Italy, he claimed, should set things right by making a clean sweep. Italy, he said, needed a dictator. And in advocating soldierly patriotism and Italian nationalism, he attacked what he called the "sickly internationalism" of Lenin and Wilson.
1919 - Frustration for Mussolini
Italy emerged from the war still a constitutional monarchy. And it emerged with inflation, a huge debt and unemployment aggravated by demobilization of thousands of soldiers. To stave off uprisings among the poor, the government subsidized bread. Its expenditures were three times its revenues, yet it refused to tax the wealthy.
Amid bitterness and disappointment was a widespread belief that the Old World was crumbling and that it was time to make a New World. Italy after the war was filled with an assortment of embittered veterans, republicans (anti-monarchists), anarchists, syndicalists and restless socialist revolutionaries. Many socialists and working people were impressed by the "worker's revolution" in Russia, and some of them were ready to support revolution in Italy.
The power of Italy's socialists had grown with discontent. Every month in 1919, workers in Italy's industrial north went on strike. Tenants began refusing to pay rent, and the homes of a few landlords were destroyed. Many villages had someone who wished to be a new Marat or Lenin. And every month, the Executive of the General Confederation of Labor announced in favor of the creation of a socialist republic and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Some veterans were among those who joined the ranks of the Left, and some joined the ranks of the anarchists. Some others joined groups that pushed their status as combat veterans. The Socialists helped drive some veterans into the ranks of the rightists by their verbal attacks on those who had participated in the war. Young officers of junior rank from lower middle class families who wished to hang onto their status were among those who joined the ranks of the rightists. And joining the ranks of the rightists were those who were too young to have fought in the war but who saw glory in those who had fought for their country.
Mussolini was familiar with a rightist political action group in France called Action Française, and borrowing from their example he founded a movement called Fasci di Combattimento (Combat Group) - in Milan, Italy's greatest industrial city, in northern Italy. The first meeting of the movement, in March 1919, was attended mainly by war veterans, various malcontents, some believers in a strong, machine-oriented Italy, and a few pro-war, nationalist-minded socialists.
Mussolini drew allies from those veterans who called themselves the Arditi (from ardito, meaning brave). The Arditi were in many Italian towns and organized for violence against those they called traitors. Their joy for combat found expression in street brawling. Their love for wearing a uniform found expression in their wearing a black shirt with insignia. Mussolini spoke to them as if he were their leader, boasting how he had defended them "against the slanders of cowardly philistines."
Believing in brute force in international affairs over what was thought to be the sickly, effete, pacifistic idealism, Mussolini complained that at the Paris Peace Conference Italy was being cheated out of its just reward for participating in World War I. Mussolini proclaimed that Italy had a right to its place in the world and that it needed colonies like Britain's.
In addition, Mussolini proclaimed his opposition to the monarchy; opposition to the Catholic Church and in favor of a minimum wage, an eight-hour day; worker participation in management, confiscation of excessive war profits, and giving the vote to women. Mussolini was presenting himself as a progressive nationalist - or, put another way, as a national socialist.
Mussolini's movement needed enemies, and Mussolini's main enemy was the Socialist Party - which had expelled him in 1915. In May 1919, Mussolini's group attacked the headquarters of the Socialist newspaper Avanti! During 1919 Mussolini tried to intervene in labor disputes, but he failed to attract factory workers away from their socialist led unions.
In September, Mussolini's movement was upstaged by action taken by a nationalist rival, a former World War I aviator and a romantic poet, Gabriele d'Annunzio. D'Annunzio and his private army of about 1,000 took power in the small city of Fiume - about forty miles southeast of Triest, on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea. Fiume had a large Italian population, and D'Annunzio and many other Italians wanted Fiume to be a part of Italy. Leaders of the newly formed Yugoslavia wanted Fiume to be a part of their state. Italy's young army officers (rather than its older and wiser leadership) backed d'Annunzio. So too did Italy's navy. These Italians were displeased that the Treaty of Versailles did not give Fiume to Italy.
Mussolini found it opportune to praise d'Annunzio, describing him as the only man who had "dared to revolt against the plutocracy" that had created the Versailles Treaty. Mussolini was bent upon adopting some of d'Annunzio's style: balcony speeches, colorful rituals, and focus on international issues.
But in elections in Milan in late 1919, Mussolini and his Fascists won nothing. The voters were more concerned with domestic issues than they were the international issues that Mussolini had been addressing. In the elections, Catholic reformist politicians and Mussolini's enemy, the Socialist Party, were the clear victors. And like some other losers in politics, Mussolini resorted to acts of terrorism: he sent bombs through the mail, and he incited a gang of his Arditi supporters to throw a bomb at a procession of socialists celebrating their election victory. Nine people were wounded. Mussolini was tried for his role in the assault. But like those veterans in Germany who committed crimes from "patriotic" motives, Mussolini received a light sentence, and he spent only a couple of days in prison.
By the end of 1919, Mussolini's movement had fewer than a thousand members. Discouraged, Mussolini considered giving up politics to travel the world playing his violin. But he decided to stick it out, and 1920 would be a big year for him, thanks largely to agitation from the Left.
1920 - Failed Revolution and a Good Year for Mussolini
By spring of 1920, d'Annunzio's support in Italy was waning. The Italian government of Francesco Nitti, with an uncertain majority in parliament, chose not to use force against d'Annunzio, hoping that d'Annunzio's occupation of Fiume would wear itself out. Of greater significance was Italy's slide deeper into economic depression.
In June 1920, Nitti resigned. In August and September came a wave of strikes in Italy. A sit down strike in Milan spread to the city of Turin (80 miles or 100 kilometers to the west) and to factories in other cities. In rural areas, especially in the Po Valley and in Tuscany, land seizures were on the rise. Mobs of demobilized peasant soldiers were overrunning estates. In these rural areas, socialist and populist leagues, cooperatives and trade unions were active, and local elections in November gave socialists and populists control in many rural town councils. Landowners felt threatened by dispossession. They and other farmers, and shopkeepers, resented demands that they pay more in wages, and they resented what they saw as leftist authoritarianism. Property owners joined together to defend their positions. With the sympathy of the new government of Giovanni Giolitti, landlords hired groups of Fascists to protect their lands against land-grabbing peasants. In places, violence from the Right crushed the Left. Leftist town councils there were forcibly dissolved, and buildings owned by socialists were wrecked or burned to the ground.
The conflict between management and labor remained, with factory owners resenting worker demands, including the creation of worker councils (soviets) within their factories. The prime minister, Giolitti, was for compromise between management and labor, and his government pressured employers to make concessions to the workers. The strikes ended, but the owners were resentful and felt humiliated, and they began to look elsewhere than the government for help - namely to the Fascists.
Mussolini had already been receiving financial support from a few rich admirers, and in the 1920s that support increased substantially, mainly from industrialists and landowners. Mussolini abandoned his leftist programs. He abandoned his stands against the Church, which he realized had not helped his movement. He faced accusations of being a tool of the capitalists from the anti-capitalists within his movement, but he could afford to ignore or turn against his movement's Left - as Hitler would in Germany - in exchange for increased power. Coming into the Fascist movement in the place of anti-capitalists were young men from the lower middle class, from civil service, from respectable bourgeois families, and students from the universities - some who had been junior officers during the war.
The wave of strikes had ended and the threat of revolution appeared to have subsided, but Mussolini continued to speak against the threat of Bolshevism and to attack the Socialists. He saw his challenge as separating industrial workers from their socialist, Marxist, union leaders. His street fighters destroyed newspapers and occupied the headquarters of the Socialists, justifying their violence on the grounds that it was the only way to combat Communism.
In the streets, the Socialists were intimidated and were losing. The fascist squads were better armed than the Socialist Party squads, and more willing to attack with violence. The homes of socialists, their printing presses and party headquarters were being pillaged at will. Trade union organization was being crushed piecemeal, while conservatives in government stood aside, perhaps pleased to see the fall of their political opponents.
Meanwhile, Giolitti joined in the settlement of territories in the East Adriatic - the Treaty of Rapallo. Fiume was to be an independent city contiguous with Italian territory, and Yugoslavia received Dalmatia. D'Annunzio refused to recognize the treaty, and, styling himself as the dictator of Fiume, he declared war on Italy. In December 1920, Giolitti sent an army to Fiume, and after a few hours of fighting it overwhelmed d'Annunzio's forces. D'Annunzio's army dispersed, many of them joining Mussolini's force, which by the end of 1920 was around 20,000 and growing fast.
The Road to Power - 1921 and '22
Mussolini's fascists were growing in number, to around 250,000 in 1921. Some disillusioned leftists were siding with success and going over to the Fascists. Italy was still more rural than urban, and, like France's right-wing movement, Mussolini's movement had more appeal in rural areas and little among those the unionized workers of the cities.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Giolitti had done much to alienate conservatives. His government was in need of additional strength, and, after dissolving parliament in April 1921, he tried to make an electoral alliance with the political Right, hoping this would give him a majority. In May, Fascists were invited to join with Giolitti in a coalition - a "national block." Mussolini saw an opportunity for entering national politics and securing power by legal means. He joined the coalition, disturbing some of those within his movement who disliked and distrusted politicians and wanted the Fascists to gain power through a coup. In elections for Parliament there were 535 seats to be filled. In these elections, representatives of the reformist Catholic Popular Party increased their representation to 108. The socialists held on to 135 seats and Communists won 15 seats. The Fascists won only 35 seats. But the Fascists became a part of the coalition that governed. And it was the Fascists who controlled the streets.
Disorders initiated by the Left had been declining, but Mussolini continued his warning against the evils of Bolshevism and of Bolshevism's possible expansion westwards from Russia - a theme he was to repeat the rest of his life. What Mussolini really feared was a coalition among non-Fascists that would leave his Fascists politically isolated - as some liberal, centrist and conservative politicians favored. To stave off such an opposition, Mussolini began leaning on his squadron leaders to hold back their violence. Now that he was into legitimate politics, Mussolini was seeking more respectability. And he knew that he and his Fascists had to have allies.
Prime Minister Giolitti was unpopular, and Mussolini felt free to join with others in withdrawing support from him. The Fascists denounced Giolitti for supporting the League of Nations and for his support of parliamentary democracy. Not having majority support, Giolitti resigned. His successor, Ivanoe Bonomi, formed a coalition with the Catholic Popular Party, and Mussolini and his Fascist Party were no longer a part of a coalition government.
The Bonomi government also failed, its cabinet resigning in February 1922. For several weeks Italy had no government. Then a weak government was formed by Luigi Facta, which dithered and was in and out of power in the coming months. In contrast to this weakness in parliamentary government, Mussolini was a picture of strength. Mussolini spoke of restoring Italian power and prestige, reviving the economy, increasing productivity, ending harmful government controls and furthering law and order. Also, he declared his support for the monarchy, and he had the admiration and support of Italy's Queen Mother, Margarita.
Again the question arose of bringing the Fascists and Mussolini into a coalition government, while leaders among the Fascists were pressuring Mussolini for taking power by the Fascists and their supporters "marching on ." Knowledge of the possibility of such a march became public. Facta's government appeared unwilling to defend against a Fascist coup or to curb the Fascist violence that was still occurring. The Left saw itself as the only force that could stop the Fascists, but they were divided and without a militia that could stand up to the Fascists. In late July, in an attempt at a show of force, the Socialist Party and Railwaymen's Union declared a general strike. The strike gave Mussolini renewed opportunity. Immediately, his armed Fascists, took on the role of heroes of social order: they began running the essential services abandoned by the strikers. The strike was poorly supported, and it was called off on its fourth day, with the Fascists having won the praise of Italy's middle classes.
By October, the march on by Fascists to bring order and good government to Italy appeared imminent, and the government responded to this threat by moving toward the declaration of martial law. The king's signature was required for a declaration of martial law, but the king, Victor Emmanuel III, refused. To avert a civil war, the king sought the creation of a strong coalition government made up of rightists, including the Fascists. The Socialists and the Popular Party were to be ignored despite the majority that they, together, had in parliament. Mussolini refused to join the coalition unless he was made its leader, and the king was obliging. He invited Mussolini to to become prime minister. Mussolini, at 39, accepted. Fascists from around Italy were already arriving from the march on , and Mussolini turned what had been a threat to seize power into a victory parade. Some among the Fascists believed that a new order, or revolution, was in the making, while some others believed that what was taking place was the restoration of what was good about the past.
Unlike previous governments, which had been unable to hold onto power, Mussolini's coalition government lasted through the whole of 1923 and beyond. Mussolini was committed to an ambitious modernization program: draining swamps, developing hydroelectricity and improving the railways. And, unhampered by hostile labor unions, Italy's economy made impressive gains. Italy was still basically a nation of small farmers, forty percent of its gross national product being small-scale agriculture, which involved half of its labor force. But, under Mussolini, Italy's GNP was growing at two percent a year, about twice the growth rate of its population. Italy's automobile production was increasing, and its aeronautical industry was making impressive advances.
The Fascists continued to be a minority in Parliament, holding only forty seats. Then, in the elections in April 1924, with the Fascists employing terror and illegalities, they won a parliamentary majority: 374 seats. Despite the intimidation, 19 Communists won seats, as did 46 Socialists and 39 from the reformist, anti-fascist, Catholic, Popular Party.
Mussolini had a secret police force led by a clique of high-ranking fascist officials, a force he affectionately called the Cheka, a force that was in the habit of attacking anyone who made themselves obnoxious to Mussolini's interests. They kidnapped and murdered a popular Socialist member of parliament, Giacomo Matteotti. And 150 deputies protested the killing by quitting Parliament - a mistake. It left Parliament without anyone supporting democracy.
Mussolini then strengthened his regime by signing an agreement with the industrialists, assuring them control over their own industries. He made a similar agreement with the large employers in agriculture and commerce. Unions were crippled further. They could not strike and they were denied the right to the leaders of their choice.
Mussolini found it opportune to make an agreement with the Catholic Church. He was no longer making anti-religious pronouncements. The Church gave its approval to Mussolini's regime in exchange for holding territorial sovereignty at the Vatican, for a privileged position in matters of education and for Italy maintaining marriage laws in accordance with Church teachings. Religious education was reintroduced into Italy's schools. Crucifixes were displayed in the courts of law.
Mussolini was able to shut down hostile newspapers and to make the remaining press subservient to his government's authority. And the Fascists were strong enough as a parliamentary force that they were able to outlaw rival political parties. To the applause of the nation, Mussolini spoke of the putrefying corpse of liberty. His government emphasized the virtues of militarism along with the fascist credo, "Together we are strong!" Boys and girls of all ages were enrolled in semi-military formations, given black shirts, toy machine guns and taught loyalty to the state.
Mussolini's Italy was described as a corporate state, and the declared objective of the corporate state was both social revolution and national cohesion - as opposed to the class warfare of Marxism and the Bolshevik Revolution. The notion of "permanent revolution" or a "second wave" with a more socialist bent was suppressed within the Fascist movement. In the new corporate state, employers, managers and workers were supposed to be united within the same legal framework. The monarchy, the army, government bureaucracy, the Church and the middle class were supposed to play a role in strengthening state power, each group with a prescribed role, with the state as the ultimate arbiter of the national interest. And it was everyone's duty to contribute to the strength and glorification of the state.
Many in Italy were inclined to the old habit of devotion to figures of authority, and Mussolini was becoming an object of adulation. Many admired Mussolini for having saved Italy from Bolshevism. In many households across Italy, people pasted his picture, cut out of newspapers, on their wall. His birthplace became a place of pilgrimage. Given their belief in miracles, it became rumored that the blind could see again after Mussolini embraced them. And it was believed that those who kissed his hands would die in peace.
Praise for Mussolini came from beyond Italy's borders, and a stream of admirers came to visit him. From Argentina came Juan Peron. George Bernard Shaw came, as did Winston Churchill in 1927. Churchill caused an uproar in Britain's Labour and Liberal press by having described himself as charmed by Mussolini's "gentle and simple bearing" and saying that if he were an Italian he would have given Mussolini his "whole-hearted" support "from start to finish" in Mussolini's "triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism."