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9-08-2015, 21:39

ITALY AND THE RISE OF FASCISM

The world of the twentieth century differed sharply from that of the nineteenth. The twentieth century was the age of the masses. Those who governed had the opportunity for the first time to communicate directly with those they governed. The mass-circulation newspapers, the radio, the cinema and, after the Second World War, television, created entirely new conditions of government. Contemporaries were not slow to recognise this. Those who ruled could create images of themselves, of their policies and objectives, of society and the world around them and so seek to lead and manipulate the masses. Mass persuasion became an essential ingredient of government; and the techniques of the art were seriously studied and consciously applied by elected governments and totalitarian regimes alike; the British prime minister Stanley Baldwin used the radio effectively during the General Strike of 1926 by broadcasting to the nation; President Roosevelt started his famous ‘fireside chats’; and the totalitarian leaders, Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler, put on gigantic displays that could be ‘witnessed’ by millions through the cinema. Mussolini’s and Hitler’s raucous speeches became familiar to every Italian and German; they were amplified by loudspeakers erected in public places in case anyone turned off their radio at home. Manipulation, today’s ‘spin’, became the art of politics. The privileged felt alarmed and threatened by this new age that was dawning. In countries with strong traditions of representative government and democratically inspired institutions this new force of the ‘masses’ was successfully integrated. This is essentially what happened in Britain and the US in the 1920s and 1930s and, less convincingly, in France too. In the Soviet Union the mass of people were brought into harmony with the rulers by propaganda, appeals to communist idealism and, where this did not suffice, by force and terror. The revolution created a new class of privileged and bound these to the regime. But those who had possessed social, political and economic privilege in pre-war Russia lost it. The spectre of revolution haunted the majority of Western societies where communist parties only gained the allegiance of a determined minority. The danger from the extreme left was generally exaggerated. The weaknesses of existing representative forms of government to deal with national problems, became glaringly clear to everyone. The soldiers returning from the hardships of a long war to the unsettled conditions of post-war Europe, with its endemic under-employment as economies readjusted from war to peace, were disillusioned. The victors did not experience the rewards of victory. Neither territorial increases nor reparations could compensate for the immense human loss and material damage of the war. The defeated in any case lacked the means to compensate the victors adequately. Among the defeated powers the sense of loss now suffered made the sacrifices of war seem all the more unbearable. Unrequited nationalism was a powerful destabilising force in post-war Europe. It differed from the pre-1914 variety in that it was not just expansionist; it also was fed by the fury felt at the injustices real and imagined. Among the victorious nations the Italians particularly suffered from this malaise. They referred to the ‘mutilated’ peace that had not given them what they believed they deserved. The Ottoman Empire had been defeated by the Allies, but the Greeks, British and French were the intended principal beneficiaries. The sorest point of all was that Italy, despite its sacrifices in the war, had not replaced the Habsburgs as the paramount Balkan power. At the peace conference the flashpoint of Italian resentment came when Italian claims to the Italian-speaking port of Fiume, formerly in the Habsburg Empire, were rejected by its allies. Gabriele D’Annunzio, poet and professional patriot, thereupon took the law into his own hands and with government connivance and indications of royal support in 1919 seized Fiume at the head of an army of volunteers. The outburst of super-patriotism, bravado and violence, the dictatorial rabble-rousing techniques of balconyoratory that D’Annunzio adopted made him the duce on whom Mussolini modelled his own political style. Whenever representative institutions had no established hold there was a tendency towards authoritarian forms of government that promised to meet the multiplicity of problems. The particular movement which became known to the world as fascism first reached power in post-war Italy. It developed in response to problems and opportunities facing the West in the twentieth century and arose out of the Great War. But its success, at the same time, has to be studied in purely Italian terms. The form that fascism later took varied so much from one country to another as the movement spread in the 1930s to Austria, Hungary, Romania, France, Portugal and Spain that historians dispute the usefulness of applying a common label. What can it be said to have had in common before the Second World War? Fascism was a movement designed to secure the support of the masses for a leader without the intermediary of a democratically elected parliament. It was a substitute for democracy, giving the masses the illusion of power without the reality. Thus, though violently anti-communist, fascism appeared to support the existing social and economic hierarchy of society and so appealed to the right. Fascism made a virtue of destroying the powers of parties and divisions in the state. It stood for ‘strength through unity’ at the expense of civil liberties. The cult of the leader was fostered, above all, by the leader and his principal lieutenants. Fascism was a chauvinist male-oriented movement assigning women to the role of child-bearing and raising a family. It was stridently nationalist. The leader, with virtually unlimited powers, stood at the apex of a party, a private army and a bureaucracy. Violence against opponents cowed possible opposition. The fascist army and bureaucracy, of course, ensured that tens of thousands would have a vested interest in preserving the fascist state. Here loyalty to the movement, not social standing, provided an avenue of advancement to the unscrupulous and the ambitious. In Italy, as elsewhere, fascism derived its strength as much from what it was against as from what it was for. In detail this varied according to the tactical need of the movement to attain and then retain power. It was a totalitarian response to new social forces and to change and to discontents real and imagined, both personal and national. Parliamentary government had functioned very imperfectly already before the war. The conduct of the war did not enhance parliament’s prestige. The disaster of the battle of Caporetto was blamed on civilian mismanagement. The mass of impoverished Italians in the south, and the agricultural and the urban workers in the north, half a century after unification still did not identify themselves with the parliamentary state set up by Piedmont, depending as it did on local favours and corruption. Government was by personalities rather than by leaders of parties. Manhood suffrage, introduced in 1912, and proportional representation in 1919, undermined the way in which parliament and government had previously been managed. The two biggest parties, which emerged from the elections of 1919 with more than half the seats between them, the Catholic Popular Party (100 seats) and the Socialists (156), were both incapable of providing the basis of a stable coalition with the Liberal and Nationalist parties to the left of centre or the right of centre. The Socialists were divided between the communists and the more moderate socialists in 1921. Since 1919 neither wing wished to collaborate with government and both spoke the language of revolution. The Catholic Popular Party had been formed with the tacit support of the Pope to fight socialism. But it was not a class party. The majority were genuinely reformist, advocating the distribution of the landed estates to the peasantry. It was a mass party relying on the support of the agricultural labourer in the south, just as the Socialist strength lay in the industrial towns of the north. But the Popular Party also included conservative and extreme-right supporters. Their support of government policies was accordingly unpredictable. The five governments between 1918 and 1922 were consequently faced with parliamentary paralysis and no sound base on which to build a majority. Giovanni Giolitti dominated the last years of Italian parliamentary life. Against the Catholics and Socialists, Giolitti enlisted the help of Mussolini’s Fascists who, in the elections of May 1921, with his electoral support, gained thirty-five deputies out of more than 500. It was a modest parliamentary beginning for the Fascists. But, without Giolitti, Mussolini and his party would have remained a negligible constitutional force. In the streets, however, the Fascists had already made their violence felt. They flourished on the seed-bed of industrial and agricultural discontent. There was large-scale post-war unemployment. On the land the peasantry took possession of uncultivated parts of the large landed estates. In the towns militant unionism demanded higher wages and in some instances in 1920 occupied factories. It was not the beginning of revolution. Higher wages were conceded, the standard of living of the urban worker rose appreciably despite higher prices. Real wages were between a quarter and a third higher in 1922 than in 1919, and by the autumn of 1922 unrest subsided. It was at this point that Mussolini came to power, claiming to have saved the country from the imaginary threat of Bolshevism and offering fascism as an alternative. Mussolini succeeded in attracting attention to himself in his pose as statesman and duce. He made Italy seem more important in international affairs than its weak industrial resources and military strength warranted. It was an image built up with skill to mislead a gullible world. The success of fascism lay largely in creating such myths which, after 1925, became identified with the public personality Mussolini created of himself. Benito Mussolini was born to ‘proletarian’ parents on 29 July 1883 in the small town of Predappio in the poor east-central region of Italy, the Romagna. His father was a blacksmith and named his son Benito after the Mexican revolutionary leader Juarez. From youth onwards, Mussolini admired rebellious violence against the ‘establishment’ of schoolmasters; and as he became older he rebelled against the better off and privileged. He experienced poverty, and his hatred of privilege turned him into an ardent socialist. He left Italy and spent some time in Switzerland under socialist tutelage. He then accepted both the internationalist and pacifist outlook of the socialists. Yet in 1904 he returned to Italy to serve his obligatory time in the army and clearly enjoyed army life and discipline. It was the first and not the only inconsistency in his development. For a time he took a post as a teacher. But above all Mussolini saw himself as a socialist political agitator. He rose to prominence in the pre-war Italian Socialist Party, belonging to the most extreme revolutionary wing. He denounced nationalism as a capitalist manifestation and was briefly imprisoned for his activities in seeking to hinder the war effort during Italy’s Libyan war with Turkey, 1911–12. His imprisonment brought him into favour with the revolutionary socialists who controlled the Socialist Party in 1912. They appointed Mussolini to the editorship of Avanti, the socialist newspaper. Consistency and loyalty to friends and principles was not a strong trait in Mussolini. War, that is international violence, later attracted him. Mussolini was no pacifist by nature. All went well with his efforts as a socialist editor until shortly after the outbreak of the Great War. Then, to the anger of the Socialists who condemned the capitalist war and demanded non-intervention, Mussolini switched and started banging the drum of nationalism and patriotism in Avanti. The Socialists thereupon ousted him from the editorship. Mussolini then founded his own paper in November 1914, the Popolo d’Italia, and campaigned for intervention. Without political connections his influence, however, was negligible. He served in the army from 1915 to 1917, was wounded and, on release from the army, returned to patriotic journalism. Mussolini observed the impotence and weakness of parliamentary government after the war and saw it as an opportunity for him to form and lead an authoritarian movement; with its help he might then play an important role in the state, something he had so far failed to do. A meeting in Milan, addressed by Mussolini, of some 200 of his followers in March 1919 marks the formal beginning of the Fascist movement. The movement in the beginning expressed its hostility to property and to capitalist industry and followed the line of French syndicalism in advocating worker control of industry – ‘economic democracy’ – and so tried to win the urban workers’ support. Yet in its early years the money flowing in to support it, and to fund Mussolini’s own newspaper, came from Milan industrialists. The landowners too intended to use his bands of ruffians – the squadristi – against peasants. Mussolini’s personal inclinations were probably socialist still in 1919, but in his bid for power he was ready to trim his sails and operate in the interests of property to secure the support of industrialists and landowners. He had become a pure opportunist and adventurer. Fascism was the main beneficiary of the ineffectual trade union activities, the occupation of the factories in the summer of 1920 and the Socialists’ appeals to workers to engage in a general strike. During the winter of 1920 and the following spring, bands of Fascists in their black shirts, both in the towns and in the countryside, attacked all forms of labour organisations, socialist councils, socialist newspapers, even cultural societies. Opponents were beaten and tortured. The ‘red shirts’ offered resistance and street battles ensued. Liberal Italy and the Church, while condemning all violence, connived at the destruction of socialist organisations by the Fascists. Since the government appeared powerless to restore law and order, the Fascists came to be regarded as the protectors of property by the middle classes and not as the principal disturbers of the peace, which they were. The rapid growth of violent bands of Fascists, swelled by the followers of D’Annunzio, whose escapade in Fiume had collapsed, could no longer be effectively controlled by Mussolini and at this stage, in 1921, was unwelcome to him. Mussolini had entered parliament as the leader of a small party and sought power in alliance with either one of the two large parties, the Catholic Popular Party or the Socialists. He chose the Socialists temporarily to capture the mass votes of the urban workers. But the leaders of the Fascist bands were outraged at this ‘betrayal’. Mussolini even lost the leadership of the party for a short time. The Fascists continued their violence in the cities and the countryside. Mussolini also nourished the belief of the parliamentary Liberals that he would cooperate with them against the socialist left. Mussolini played the anti-Bolshevik card for all he was worth. The call by the Socialists in July 1922 for a general strike in a bid to stop the increasing lawlessness and drift to the right provided a semblance of justification for Mussolini’s claims. The strike call was a failure but increased the desire for tough measures against the workers. The support the Fascists were given was particularly strong from those groups – artisans, whitecollar workers and shopkeepers, the lower-middle class – who saw their status threatened and usurped by the demands of the workers. The army despised the parliamentary regime, which was obliged to reduce their swollen wartime strength. Mussolini’s strident nationalism naturally appealed to them. Prefects and civil servants in the provinces, too, connived at Fascist violence and were hedging their bets in case the Fascists should one day come to power. Giolitti’s policy of non-interference in disputes which he believed would blow themselves out was a clever tactic as far as weakening the strength of the trade unions and socialists was concerned. Strikes diminished. Any danger the left had posed was rapidly vanishing. But the low government profile also created a power vacuum which the Fascists filled until they themselves openly defied law and order and even threatened the state itself. Without government weakness, without the parliamentary paralysis which prevented the liberal centre from forming a stable coalition, the Fascists could never have gained power. While the politicians connived and jockeyed for power, divided as much by ambition as policy, administration throughout the country was becoming anarchic. The Fascists chose the month of October 1922 to seize power from the unstable Liberal administrations. Their plan was first to stage uprisings in the provinces which would capture prefectures and post offices and cut off Rome from the surrounding countryside thus paralysing government, and then to march on Rome with armies of ‘blackshirts’ and throw out the government by force if intimidation did not suffice. Conveniently for Mussolini, his one rival duce, D’Annunzio, who might have claimed the leadership, fell on his head from a balcony after quarrelling with his mistress. It was rumoured that the poet’s fall had been assisted. A touch of opera was never entirely absent from the dramatic moments of Italian history. Yet a Fascist victory was far from certain. It was a great gamble, as Mussolini knew while he waited in Milan, a Fascist stronghold not too far from the Swiss frontier, in case of failure. The king, Victor Emmanuel III, held the key to the situation. Loyalty to the dynasty was strong and it seems most probable that the army, though infiltrated by Fascists from the highest-ranking officers to the most junior, would have responded to his lead and command. But there was nothing heroic about Victor Emmanuel. He did not put army loyalty to the test. Although a constitutional monarch, he must increasingly have lost confidence in the jockeying politicians and in the corruption of the electoral system. When his ministers finally found the courage to resist the threats of the Fascists, the king refused them his backing and, in doing so, handed Italy over to Mussolini. The government in Rome, after receiving news of the Fascist uprising, of the seizure of government buildings in the provinces, was at first undecided how to act. It had already resigned in the process of another reshuffle but in the interim remained in charge. After a night of alarm, Luigi Facta, the temporary prime minister, having secured assurances of the loyalty of the army garrison in Rome, decided with the support of his ministers on a firm stand. The army was ordered to stop the Fascist attempt to seize Rome. Early on the morning of 28 October 1922 an emergency decree was published that amounted to a proclamation of martial law. The king refused his assent to this decree and so it was revoked. The way was now open to Mussolini to state his terms. He demanded that he be asked to head the new government. The king’s action had left the state without power at this critical moment. The government was discredited and so was the Crown when Mussolini, arriving comfortably in Rome in a railway sleeping-car on the morning of 30 October, accepted from the king the commission to form a new government. Thus, the march on Rome occurred after and not before Mussolini’s assumption of the premiership. There was never, in fact, a ‘seizure’ of power – though Fascist historiography embroidered and glorified the event – only a threat to seize power. The Fascists also did not march on Rome but were conveyed in special trains to the capital and there reviewed by the king and the duce before being quickly packed off home on 31 October. Yet without the threat of seizing power Mussolini would not have achieved his ends. The threat was real, though whether he would have succeeded if he had attempted to seize control of Rome is another, much more debatable, question. Now that Mussolini was in power he had no programme to place before parliament. He had concerned himself solely with the problem of how to attain power. Should he complete the ‘revolution’ now, as the Fascist militants expected, or should he manipulate the parliamentary system and seek to govern at least pseudo-constitutionally? Should the Fascist Party replace the state or should it be subordinated to the state? These important questions, often asked, are in fact somewhat unreal. What mattered to Mussolini now that he had attained power was to retain as much of it personally in his hands for as long as possible. He had no principles or methods and despite talk of a new corporative state, all relationships with existing institutions and organisations possessing some power in the state were subordinated to his will. His own Fascist backers in this sense posed as much of an obstacle to him as political opponents, the monarchy, the papacy, the army and the bureaucracy. ‘Policy’ was what Mussolini felt best served his interests in dealing with every group. Did Mussolini establish a ‘totalitarian’ regime? The monarchy was preserved, and the Church and the armed forces enjoyed some independence, while the independence of parliament was virtually destroyed. But Mussolini avoided a sudden revolutionary break; he allowed some degree of independence, believing this to serve his interests. He lacked in any case the iron will, utter ruthlessness and total inhumanity of Hitler. Rather than make the Fascist Party supreme, Mussolini preferred to leave some delegated power in the hands of rival interest groups so that his task of domination would be made easier. Mussolini understood in his early years, before self-delusion blinded him, that some voluntary limits on his exercise of power would make him more acceptable and so strengthen his hold over government. The duce was a complex character whose undoubted arrogance and insensitivity was complemented by intelligence and unusual political skill. In October 1922 Mussolini made himself the head of a government which looked not so different to previous government coalitions based on personal bargaining. Included were the Catholics and Conservatives. Mussolini, in addition to holding the premiership, was also minister of the interior and his own foreign minister. He won an overwhelming vote of confidence in parliament for this government. His objective of breaking the political power of other parties by inveigling the majority to cooperate with him in national tasks was attained slowly but surely. When he felt sufficiently strong and secure, he backed a Fascist bill for parliamentary ‘reform’, the Acerbo Bill. In place of proportional representation this bill established that the party gaining most votes (as long as these amounted to at least 25 per cent of the total) should automatically secure two-thirds of all the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Since the Fascists were infiltrating and taking over the provincial administrations, they would be able to ensure in any case that more than a quarter of the votes were cast for the list of government candidates. The bill passed in November 1923 made certain that Mussolini would have at his disposal a permanent majority of deputies ready to do his will. The morale of any intending opposition parties was consequently undermined. Intimidation played its part in persuading the deputies lamely to consent to Mussolini’s retention of power by legal and constitutional means. He always hinted he could act differently, especially as he now had a private army, the former Fascist bands, which had been transformed into a voluntary militia of national security paid for by the state and swearing allegiance to the duce, not the king. The elections of April 1924 were a triumph for Mussolini. Intimidation and corruption to a degree not practised before secured for his candidates two-thirds of all the votes cast. The year 1924 was the last, nevertheless, in which Mussolini could have been driven from power. There was a feeling of revulsion in the country when a socialist deputy, Giacomo Matteotti, was murdered by a Fascist gang after he had attacked the corrupt elections in parliament. Mussolini was taken aback by the sense of outrage; he was accused in parliament in June 1924 of being an accomplice to murder, and a group of opposition deputies withdrew in protest. But the king did nothing. Mussolini rode out this, his first and last serious storm before his fall in 1943. In 1926 his regime became more openly totalitarian with the suppression of the free press. Just as Mussolini did not wish to be dependent on a genuine representative assembly, so he did not intend to be at the mercy of Fascist followers more revolutionary than he. In December 1922 he created a Grand Council of Fascism over which he presided and which he dominated. In October 1926 it was the turn of the independence of the Fascist Party to be undermined; all elections within the party were henceforth ended; the party was organised from above with Mussolini as its supreme head. Within two years the party was bureaucratised and its violent activities outside the law curbed. The Pope and the Catholic Church were another powerful and independent focus of power in the state. With remarkable skill, Mussolini, an avowed atheist, succeeded in reducing the political influence of the Church. It had not been as hostile to fascism as might have been expected, since it saw in fascism a bulwark against atheistic communism and socialism. The threat of socialism had already brought the Church back into the politics of the Italian state before the war. Mussolini built on this reconciliation of state and Church. The outcome of long negotiations from 1926 to 1929 was the Lateran Accords; by recognising papal sovereignty over the Vatican City, the state returned to the papacy a token temporal dominion in Italy; furthermore, Catholicism was recognised as the sole religion of the state, and much of the anti-clerical legislation was repealed. The treaty won for the Church a position in Italy it had not enjoyed since unification. Judged as Realpolitik, Vatican diplomacy was successful. But what of the moral standing of the Church? This was to be compromised even more when the Vatican attempted to preserve Catholic interests in Germany by concluding a concordat with Hitler in 1933. Temporary advantages led to long-term damage. The Church was inhibited from taking a clear moral stand and from condemning outright the crimes against humanity which the dictators in the end committed. Official Catholic protest tended to be muted (more so under Pius XII after 1939 than under Pius XI) though individual priests, including the Pope, sought to protect persecuted individuals. The positive contribution of fascism was supposed to be the introduction of the ‘corporate state’. This was based on the idea that, instead of being fought out, conflicts of interest were to be negotiated under the guidance of the state in bodies known as corporations. Thus, in 1925 the employers’ federation and the fascist trade unions recognised each other as equal partners, and corporations to settle differences in many different branches of industry, agriculture and education were envisaged. A huge bureaucratic structure was built up under a Ministry of Corporations. The industrialists, nevertheless, largely preserved their autonomy from the state. Not so the representatives of labour – labour was now represented in the corporations by fascist bureaucrats. The workers were exploited and even their basic right to move from one job to another without official permission was taken away. Real wages fell sharply, and fascism, despite some spectacular schemes such as the expansion of wheat-growing in the 1930s, and drainage of marsh land, could not propel the underdeveloped economy forward. Economically, Italy remained backward and labour ceased to make social advances. The increasing fascist bureaucracy, moreover, was a heavy burden to bear. Massive propaganda showing happy Italians and the duce stripped to the waist in the fields might fool foreigners but could not better the lot of the poor. The cult of the duce was substituted for genuine progress. He posed as world leader, as the greatest military genius and economic sage, as the man who had transformed the civilised Italian people into conquering Romans. His conquests in the 1920s were meagre, however. In Libya and Somalia his troops fought savagely to reduce poorly armed tribesmen. After ten years of fighting they were subjected. In no way was this a glorious military episode. In the Balkans and the Middle East there was little he could do without British and French acquiescence. He tried in 1923, defying the League of Nations by seizing the island of Corfu from the Greeks, using as a pretext the murder of an Italian in Greece. But Britain and France intervened and, after finding a face-saving formula, Mussolini had to withdraw. He did, however, secure Fiume for Italy in the following year. All in all it was not very heroic. For the rest, Mussolini unsuccessfully tried to exploit Balkan differences and sought the limelight by signing many treaties. So, abroad, he was mistakenly judged as a sensible statesman. Conservatives even admired the superficial order he had imposed on Italy’s rich and varied life. The 1930s were to reveal to the world what his opponents in Italy and the colonies had already learnt to their cost – the less benevolent aspects of Mussolini’s rule.

 

 

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