The rise of fascism

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A Level History M. Nichols, SCIE 2011





The Nature of Italy 1870-1914
Italy had only truly been a nation from the 1870s, when Rome became its capital. Even then, the Pope, in the Vatican, had refused to recognise the Italian state and would not formally do so until 1929.
Even though Italy was a now a nation-state it could hardly be described as unified in anything other than name. There were massive disparities between the North and South, for example.
The North was wealthy, sophisticated and the home of the new Kings of Italy. It was where the majority of Italian industry was concentrated and saw itself as the power-house of the new country.
In contrast, the South was disparagingly known as il mezzogiorno. It was poor, rural and backward. In 1871, in the region of Basilicata, 88% of people were described as illiterate. Many southerners (some figures say 20-30%) were continuing to die of malaria, a disease largely under control in the rest of Europe. On top of this, there was constant strife between landowners and peasants, the former often hiring the services of thugs belonging to the various organised criminals societies of the South (the Camorra in Naples; the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria and most famously La Cosa Nostra in Sicily).
Democracy had only shallow roots, not helped by the Pope banning all Catholics from even taking part in elections. This was a ban that was only (partially) lifted in 1904. There were various qualifications for voting rights anyway and at best, Italy was only a pseudo-democratic state. Up until 1882 only 2% of males were entitled to vote, and even after 1882 the suffrage was extended to only 25% of men. Universal male suffrage was only granted in 1912.
Even the Italian language was not standardised with many versions dominating in the initial decades of unification. In 1870, it has been calculated only 2% of people spoke what we would recognise as Italian. Even the King spoke Piedmontese, not Italian! Sicilians giving evidence in a famous Mafia case in Milan, had to have their dialect translated so the court could understand them!
Government was not something that was trusted in Italy, especially in the South where there had been centuries of Bourbon misrule. Even under the new, Liberal constitutional system, Italian politics was still factional and personal, with even dominant Liberal politicians like Giovanni Giolitti compiling dossiers on opponents. John Dickie in his excellent work on Coas Nostra even implicates government in the rise and continued existence of the criminal organisation. Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, the Italian PM at Versailles, it is said was actually a fully inducted member of the Mafia!


Il Mezzogiorno was the poor, backward, rural, malaria-infested part of Italy neglected by the government in Rome and the politicians of the North

Northern Italy and the cities of Milan and Turin were the centres of Italian industry. Northern Italy was the wealthy part of the nation

North-East Italy was where most of Italy’s battles in the First World War were fought.

Sicily, was an especially poverty-and crime ridden part of the nation

Emilia, Romagna and Tuscany were centres of fascist violence in the early 1920s

Rome was the capital of the new nation from 1870

The Adriatic was an area Italy wished to dominate but the ‘mutilated victory’ failed to fulfil Italy’s imperial ambitions

Libya, since 1911, part of the Italian empire
overnments were rarely stable and there were 29 PM’s between 1870 and 1922. Religion complicated the issue, with Catholic groups being vociferously opposed by the socialists. Giolitti managed to balance the forces of radicalism and conservatism to an extent, but his policy of transformismo had effectively collapsed by 1914. WWI would only make Italy’s many problems much worse.

World War One and Its Impact On Italy

Italy entered WWI in 1915. It did so in rather nefarious circumstances. It had been a formal ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary, but chose instead to fight against them, and with GB, Russia and France.

Italy’s motives were nationalistic and imperialist. It had signed the secret Treaty of London, promising to attack Austrian forces in return for territory in the South Tyrol, the Balkans (Trentino, Istria, Fiume, Dalmatia) and for certain islands in the Mediterranean. Italian aims were to dominate the Adriatic and to unite all Italian speakers, where-ever they were.
The War also helped to convert a former firebrand socialist and journalist-editor of the left-wing Avanti newspaper, into a rabid nationalist. His name was Benito Mussolini.
Italy suffered appalling casualties during the war with 650 000 dead, and millions wounded and made homeless. Thousands had been shot by their own side supposedly for cowardice, but in reality to disguise the incompetence and failure of Italian generals. Defeat at the battle of Caporetto was traumatic for the nation, but victory eventually came in 1918 at the bloody battle of Vittorio Veneto.
The end of the war, however, brought only further social, economic and political problems. Italy was bankrupt. The national debt stood at 85 billion lire in 1919; Italy owed money to the USA and GB; inflation had quadrupled prices hurting the lower and middle classes especially. An industry, which had been doing well out of supplying war materiel, now started laying off workers. Strikes and unemployment rose, the latter reaching 2 million by 1919. The extremist, pro-revolutionary Socialist Party (PSI) saw a massive rise in electoral support, which only alarmed the conservative elements in society. The peasants in the countryside were also starting to seize land and this alarmed the landowning classes. Italian society seemed to be unravelling.
On top of these woes came the Paris treaties, which refused to provide the rewards Italy was expecting from the Treaty of London. Italy was awarded the South Tyrol and Trentino, but got little else it had been promised in 1915 (nor were they given any of the German colonies being shared out in Africa). Italian nationalists not only blamed the allies for all of this, but also the Liberal politicians who had negotiated the treaty in the first place. Conservative and reactionary elements took to calling the end of WWI, ‘the mutilated victory’. Disbanded officers felt humiliated and angry with both their own politicians and perfidious foreigners.
One fanatical nationalist and war-hero, called Gabriele D’Annunzio, even went to the extreme of marching into the port of Fiume and occupying it for over a year. He was only removed, by an ineffectual Italian government, at the demand of the League of Nations.

The one-eyed D’Annunzio was certainly an impressive figure: man of action, orator, charismatic leader and role model for another far more dangerous individual who shared his extremist views: Benito Mussolini.

Mussolini and Early Fascism
Mussolini had been born in Northern Italy, in 1883. Of humble origins, he was a committed revolutionary socialist up until WWI. However, the War (in which he served as a corporal) turned him not only into a nationalist, but also an advocate of a strong man as the only individual able enough to fight a war and run a country properly.
Post-War, Mussolini became ever more right-wing, allying himself with disgruntled ex-servicemen. He founded his own political movement: Fasci di Combattimento in Milan in 1919, which, with its original rather disparate membership, could only agree on its hatred of the Liberal state and socialism. Even so, its agenda still contained radical leftist, as well as nationalist elements. Initially, Fascism did not garner much support, performing badly in the November 1919 elections and not winning a single seat in parliament. However, fascism would be redeemed by the threat of socialism and communism, and by the government’s failure to placate the conservative classes in Italian society and their worries about such revolutionary elements. In other words, it was circumstance, luck and government incompetence, as much as through anything he actually did, which would help Mussolini’s rise to prominence.
Italian politics was becoming increasingly polarised with the moderate parties being squeezed in the middle. The Liberal Italian PM, Nitti was under pressure from both left and right. The left saw his government as too moderate and un-dynamic; the right despised it for not taking tough enough action against strikers and land reformers. When Nitti’s successor, Giolitti, also failed to take harsh action against what the right saw as revolutionary elements, exasperated landowners, shop-keepers and industrialists started to turn to local fascist groups to take action. Small fascist bands (known as ‘black shirts’) took to assaulting trades unionists, burning down Socialist Party (PSI) offices and pouring castor oil down the throats of political opponents. Fascists at this stage tended to be: ex-army officers and NCO’s, shop-keepers, farmers and the richer peasants. The northern provinces of Emilia and Tuscany saw most fascist outrages with 200 dead and 800 wounded by the end of 1921. Italy seemed to be lapsing into a state of anarchy, but a chaos caused, ironically, largely by those most demanding of law and order–the fascists themselves.
Fascist associations also had on their side dynamic leadership in the form of ruthless and callous individuals like Italo Balbo and Dino Grandi. Mussolini himself, through sheer force of personality, was able to assert his overall dominance over these local ras. Mussolini also had the oratorical and journalistic skills to present fascism as a national crusade that would save Italy. He managed to justify its use of violence as “surgical” and directed against not only the revolutionary elements within the state, but against the Liberal state itself. Even with such overt threats though, Giolitti was convinced Mussolini was still only a mere political opportunist who could be worked with. In May 1921, the Liberals and fascists co-operated in the general election. The Liberal establishment, therefore, has to bear some of the blame for the rise of a fascist dictatorship in Italy. In these elections, the fascists won a credible 7% of the vote and gained 35 deputies, despite murdering 100 of its opponents during the election process.
However, Mussolini astutely refused to work with Giolitti in government; he also presented Fascism as the only credible bulwark against communism and he erased the leftist elements from the party’s ideology. Mussolini was helped by the factionalism of the Liberals and the reactionary sentiments of the Popolari, the Catholic party, which also distrusted the Liberal state. Along with this, Fascist violence against the left increased, as did Mussolini’s power within the Fascist movement, which became officially a political party in October 1921, with Mussolini confirmed as its leader one month later. Mussolini made overtures to the Popolari (including concessions on issues like divorce) and stressed in his speeches what fascism was most opposed to: bolshevism and Liberalism. Fascist ideology, in fact, was never fully developed and always remained rather negative. Fascism would certainly never have the thinkers and ideologues communism attracted. Mussolini himself said: “Our programme is simple: we wish to govern Italy”. Rather like a messiah figure, he aimed to be all things to all men. Vagueness about policy would help in this matter.
By the end of 1921, fascism had 200 000, mostly, middle class members. The party, however, was developing a rather dichotomous nature. Split between conservatives who hated disorder and the radically violent, Mussolini had to balance the conflicting demands of both cliques. It can never be denied that Mussolini was not, if nothing else, a consummate politician. Violence against the left increased in 1922, with the police often supplying the Fascisti with weapons. The socialists called for a general strike, which was both ineffective and a disaster for them, as the Fascists gained further support from those fearful of revolution. The left were virtually handing Mussolini support and power. As Robson states, Mussolini could represent his forces as the sole guardians of law and order and this was “a crucial development”.
Mussolini became PM in October 1922. He always claimed he had seized power through a courageous coup d’etat, namely the ‘March on Rome’, which henceforth became a prominent event in fascist mythology.
In reality, and as with Hitler, Mussolini was appointed to power with the connivance of the establishment. He was handed the premiership by the King, after consultation with Liberal politicians. He had arrived in Rome for his audience with the King dressed smartly in a suit, rather than at the head of thousands of paramilitary forces. The latter were in reality mobilised as the ultimate form of political blackmail. Given that the police and army were prepared to oppose them if ordered to do so, it is doubtful if Mussolini could ever have achieved power by force anyway.

Mussolini in one of his typical propaganda poses - where uniforms were an obvious feature
ing Vittorio Emmanuele, gave in to Mussolini, perhaps, because of the fear of civil war; perhaps because his nearest rival to the throne, the Duke of Aosta was a Fascist and close ally of Mussolini; but more probably because he was in sympathy with fascism and disliked Liberalism. Robson is kind to him and says he certainly didn’t know he was opening the gates to a Fascist dictatorship. The admittedly Marxist, Antonio Gramsci would be more critical referring instead to a “cowardly ruling stratum”. Dennis Mack Smith prefers to hold all sections of Italian society to blame and not just Liberal politicians, pointing out the lack of widespread support given to the Italian state from its very inception.

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