Benito Mussolini and the rise of fascism

captureA few years ago fascism was a dated concept buried in the history books. Then Donald Trump came along. This week alone Salon spoke about Trump as the “president who is acting like a fascist dictator” while many opposition to him define themselves as anti-fascist.

It is a century since the original fascist leader came to power, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, and Donald Sassoon’s Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism is worth a read.

Mussolini came to power in the mythologised “march on Rome” of 1922, though prosaically he arrived in the overnight train from Milan not on horseback as he fantasised. His was no insurrection either. Though he told newspapers “we have made a revolution unparalleled”,  he was there to meet the King who appointed him prime minister of a coalition government.

Later Mussolini bent the facts to suit the legend and he wasted no time in removing the trappings of democracy. Sassoon methodically shows how he was helped by authorities all the way. Like German leaders with Hitler 10 years later, they helped him because they thought he was malleable and the socialist alternative was more frightening.

The old elites despised Mussolini, a former schoolteacher and the son of a blacksmith and schoolmistress. They recognised he could do the dirty work for them. Mussolini was a soldier in World War One, a war Italy entered reluctantly in the hope of gaining Trentino, Trieste and parts of Turkey. Mussolini was a Socialist before the war but despised the party’s timidity and he supported the war effort.

It was a brutal war for Italy which lost 650,000 dead and one million wounded. There was a staggering defeat to the Austrians at Caporetto in 1916 though they did end up on the winning side. Mussolini was wounded in 1916 and discharged. Fellow veterans were the fodder for his right-wing paramilitary association who wore black shirts inspired by Italian crack troops of the Arditi, while the Arditi hymn “Giovinezza” (youth) became the fascist party anthem. The word “fascio” (bundle or bunch) was originally used by left-wing peasants while in 1917 a group of 80 pro-war MPs called themselves Fascio nationale di azione, whom Mussolini called “the fascist deputies”.

Italy did badly out of post-war negotiations. They showed no interest in the wider picture and Woodrow Wilson was suspicious of Italian intentions. Italian negotiators overplayed their hand and failed to get their demands. At home veterans associations wanted to keep their army jobs though the economy could no longer support a large bureaucracy. A weak government stood by as poet Gabriele D’Annunzio led a rabble army to seize the free city of Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia).

Mussolini’s new National Fascist Party did poorly in the 1919 election but he did have a newspaper Il Populo d’Italia to preach his message. It was anti-parliamentarian but otherwise it’s agenda was vague. The Socialists won the most seats in 1919 but a Catholic party denied them a clear majority producing parliamentary paralysis. Through 1919-1920 there were general strikes across the North and workers councils took over the factories. But the socialists were internally divided, there was a split with Communists and none could grasp power through negotiation.

The industrialists panicked at the prospect of “workers control” and looked for help from new forces. Mussolini concentrated his efforts on the rural sector; the landlords, the peasantry below them, and the sharecroppers on the bottom. The latter were initially drawn to the socialists and worried landholders recruited fascist squads to keep their power. Fascists used violence to good effect, frightening the population away from the socialists.

Their brutal strike-breaking methods were applauded by sections of the press as a necessary task which once completed the fascisti could be controlled. Armed forces and police were also sympathetic and turned a blind eye. The Catholic Party and Socialists were too busy squabbling with each other. By the end of 1920 the fascists, bankrolled by the landlords, were a significant power ready to take on the cities.

In Trieste Mussolini used his fascists to attack the offices of the Slovenian minority to great acclaim before turning on the socialists. In Bologna they opened fire on socialists celebrating a local election victory killing nine, and burned down the Chamber of Labour. In 1921 local elites cheered on as fascists rampaged against chambers, cultural offices, land leagues, libraries, printing shops and mutual help societies. Whereever the red vote was high, socialists were terrorised, beaten and murdered. The violence paid off with areas like Ferrara turning from red to black at the 1921 election. As one fascist leader put it, “our objective was to devalue the state, destroy the present regime and all its venerable institutions. The more our actions are seen to be scandalous, the better”.

Their actions resonated with male students who enjoyed the militaristic activities, the macho solidarity and flirtation with martyrdom. Their violence was legitimised as prime minister Giovanni Giolitti included them on his electoral bloc in May 1921. Giolitti underestimated Mussolini’s warriors saying they would “make a lot of noise but leave nothing behind except smoke”.

Decisive to their growth was the support of police and carabinieri and the army often supplied them transport to rallies, with higher ranks viewing them with “cautious benevolence”. Giolitti’s attempts to stop them were half-hearted. After the election the left was divided between Socialists and Communists, while the fascists won 35 seats which left them as a minor force. Now in parliament Mussolini calmed down the violence and signed a peace pact with new prime minister Ivanoe Bonomi. While violence continued, Mussolini had acquired a veneer of respectability.

He appeased industrialists by saying their economic policy would be liberal not socialist. By 1922 everyone was paying attention and he used his paper to denounce “the state maintained at the expense of taxpayers”. He appeased the Church, looking forward to a reconciliation between Italy and Vatican and condemning the anti-clericalism of “charlatans”.

Through 1922 his party grew as the state tolerated unpunished violence. In August fascists took over Milan city hall and expelled the socialist council, with the local magistrate instructed not to intervene. There were similar actions in Trento and Bolzano. When the Socialists went on strike in protest, the fascists intervened, and authorities more afraid of red than blacks, supported the crackdown. Mussolini’s deputy Cesare Rossi looked on the state with contempt. “It is not conceivable that a state with its own army and police could allow the existence of armed bands with their own military-style hierarchy and regulations… It is useless. We are forced to take over”.

Milan’s Corriere della sera offered support for fascism as “the most extreme example of a resurgent national consciousness”. It too feared the socialists more and demanded strong government. When the likelihood of a march on Rome emerged in 1922 the Corriere defended it as “a spiritual march, entirely legal”. It wanted the fascists inside the tent in a Coalition government.

By the time the final pre-Mussolini government was installed in August 1922 under reluctant prime minister Luigi Facta, the fascists controlled central Italy as a counter-state, publishing its own “regulations”. The movement had hundreds of thousand members and was so big it would either need to strengthen the state or replace it. In October Mussolini decided to march to Rome. At their party conference in Naples, there was a carnival atmosphere with uniforms and war songs and cries of “To Rome!”. Mussolini told them they had created their own myth: “Our myth is the greatness of the nation”.

With a march looming, Facta proposed martial law. But King Victor Emmanuel III did not sign the decree. Instead he asked Mussolini to form a government. He knew the next government would have to accommodate the fascists and signing a decree to crush them was politically unpopular. As Sassoon put it, although there was no real march on Rome or revolution, appeasement of fascist violence created a psychological climate to make them appear stronger than they were. The King knew high-ranking generals supported the fascists (Mussolini appointed Admiral Thaon di Revel as Navy Minister).

The King’s decision was supported by the political establishment including the press. Industrialists were delighted when liberal Alberto De Stefani became finance minister, and other liberals lined up for Cabinet posts. There were no protests or strikes at the news of Mussolini’s elevation. Milan was calm. The mood oscillated between enthusiasm from supporters and resigned acceptance from enemies. Few realised democracy was dying.

When Mussolini was appointed PM, the fascists camping outside Rome were allowed to enter the city and parade. Mussolini warned them not to be violent now their objective was reached. They cheered the Duce and marched in perfect order breaking discipline only to vandalise socialists’ homes. Mussolini used his inaugural speech to say he would develop the revolution of the Blackshirts. “With 300,000 armed youth ready for anything, I could have punished all those who talked ill of fascism…I could have locked up parliament,” he warned.

He dismantled the state in five years. He introduced a new act giving the party with the most votes two-thirds of the seats. A race took place to join his party list. In the April 1924 election, the fascist-led Coalition won by a landslide in an election marred by irregularities and violence, with police ordered not to intervene. Mussolini forced 40 police commissioners and 340 deputies to resign.

When reformist Giacomo Matteoitti spoke in parliament against violence and corruption, he was kidnapped and killed, likely on Mussolini’s orders. The old parties were dissolved, trade unions forced to become fascist, the press was muzzled and special fascist courts decided on laws in a new legal code enforced by the secret police. By 1928 only fascist deputies could stand for election and the parliament became so useless it was dissolved in 1934. A dictatorship was established one step at a time.

Mussolini made peace with Yugoslavia and the Vatican with Pope Pius XI calling him the man “Providence sent us”. The economy improved thanks to American loans with the international community willing to do business with Mussolini. Churchill was charmed and in 1928 the Daily Mail called him the “Napoleon of modern times”.

Mussolini’s merit, Sassoon says, was to exploit to the full the hand history gave him. His good hunches did not come unstuck until his miscalculation about the probable outcome of the Second World War. His original instinct was to stay out but in 1940 Hitler looked a good bet. If the rise of Mussolini and Italian fascism was attributable to the First World War they were both wiped out by the Second.