Rise of Fascism in Italy

The inter-war period in Europe witnessed a number of drastic changes on the continent as a whole and specifically in some countries. One such change that occurred in Italy was the collapse of the liberal democracy and the rise of a new Right-wing ideology known as Fascism under the leadership of Benito Mussolini. It was on October 28th, 1922 that Mussolini had launched his ‘March on Rome’ that enabled him to capture power in Italy. The rise of Mussolini has become a matter of great historical debate. Some historians have seen the rise of Mussolini purely as a product of Mussolini’s opportunism, while, others have seen it as a outgrowth of Italian History and especially as a response to the problems that confronted Italy in the post-WW1 scenario.  In order to understand the rise of Fascism in Italy it is not possible to consider both these aspects in isolation from each other.

The problems that led to the rise of Fascism can be traced back to the Unification of Italy or ever since the time ‘Italy’ came into existence. The Unification of Italy had been unable to create a sound social, political and economic foundation because of which the Italian state was always suffering from a prolonged crisis that made the rise of Fascism easy. The Risorgimento had given rise to more hopes than it could fulfill and it was the pessimism that had arisen as a result of the failure of this movement was the real evil that gave birth to fascism (A.J. Thayer). The Unification politically had disastrous consequence. It was not brought about as a result of a popular movement resulting in a republic but instead was imposed from above by royal conquest. In fact, many people believed that under the garb of Unification, the ‘Piedmontization’ of Italy had taken place. This had created a great deal of discontent in the country, particularly in the South, which believed that it had almost been colonized by the North. In the last resort, the unification seemed to have been created by foreign powers and this created a sense of national inferiority amongst the Italians, which they were unable to overcome.
The new constitutional system that was created post-1871 was founded on shaky grounds. The new parliamentary regime was a typical 19th century liberal constitution comprising a monarchy of limited powers, a bi-cameral legislature made up of an appointed senate and a Chamber of Deputies elected on a narrow property franchise.  This was the foundation of Italy’s compromise-coalition politics, which at that time was necessary to stabilize the infant government, but ultimately impeded the growth of a clear-cut party system and an organized opposition. As a sound parliamentary system did not come into being it led to a frequent change of governments resulting in a great deal of political instability. Stephen J.Lee has argued that between Cavour and 1900, there were 22 changes in the government, between 1900 and 1914 9 changes and between 1914 and 1922, there were 7 changes. The entire party and political system of Italy was highly fluid in which the government was formed on the basis of a temporary consensus and this entire system came to be known as “Transformismo”. The coalition politics was aided by the fact that the liberal regime had a very narrow and regional base. Out of a population of 2 million, the electorate comprised of only half a million, of which only 300,000 voted.  Such a system could function smoothly only as long as majority of the populace was not politically mobilized and thus, this system was described by many as one with had encouraged “self-perpetuating elites”.
Giolitti was one politician, who was reelected time and again to the post of PM and made efforts to resolve the problems of the Italian state. He embarked upon reform measures in legal code, taxation and government. His tenure had also seen  some degree of industrialization but despite that Italy had continued to remain a predominantly agrarian economy. Finally, he had ignored the problem of the south due to which the gulf between the North and South had become even more pronounced. For Elizabeth Wiskemann Giolitti’s reforms were “democratic in appearance but in effect simply changed the composition of the ruling elite and favoured those adept at manipulating elections and utilizing the democratic myth”.  He has been often dismissed as an old fashioned parliamentary manager who governed by corrupt and conventional means. The perpetuation of old and tainted methods after the expectation of something better rekindled the popular spirit of cynicism and contributed to the steady debasement of the parliamentary regime which ultimately opened the door to fascism. Alan Cassels has called him the “unwilling precursor to Fascism”.
It was this situation of political instability that was causing a great deal of frustration and disillusionment among the Italians and were fed up of constantly oscillating between the left and right. They wanted a stable government that could survive for a long period of time and when Mussolini presented them with this third alternative people jumped to support him (A. De Grand). Salvotorelli has spoken about how anti-liberal and hence, anti-Risorgimento feelings had developed among the people and it was this scenario that had made the rise of Mussolini quite easy.
The absence of a social or economic revolution at the time of 1871 had also sown the seeds of tension for the future Italian state. Antonio Granici has argued that 1871 was a ‘missed revolution’ as the interests of the peasantry-the masses- and the countryside were not taken into account. In the absence of this agricultural revolution, wherein there was no redistribution of landed property except among the nobility and bourgeoisie, no increase in productivity etc the countryside remained poor. Thus, no efforts were made to link the interests of the peasants with that of the new state. A weak agrarian base in turn had led to a weak industrial base. This according to many scholars was the main reason behind Italy playing a minimal role in International politics, which in turn was a huge source of concern for the people in Italy.
Finally, the new Italian state was also characterized by a great regional divide between the North and South, which came to represent two almost entirely different levels of civilization. The South was barren, poverty-stricken, over-populated and steeped in illiteracy,malaise and backwardness. It was permanently on the verge of revolt and impeded Italy’s progress on the road to unity and material progress.  The South had a historic tradition of private justice ( mafia, camorra). In 1890s in Sicily, rebels took on the name Fasci and perpetrated the most notorious disturbances. The contrast between the North and the South resulted a deep sense of parochialism (for which both history and geography were responsible) which forever impeded the cohesion of the Italian masses into a nation.

Thus, it can be seen that on the eve of Mussolini’s rise to power Italy was suffering from a prolonged crisis in all spheres (and this was accentuated by the impact of WW1). The tendency to see the rise of fascism as the inevitable outcome of a long process of national decline is also common among Italian writers. The ‘role of history’ is outlined in what has come to be known as the ‘Revelation Thesis’. Guistino Fortunato described fascism as a revelation of the ancient vices and defects of Italy. G.M Trevelyan saw the historical causes of fascist dictatorship in Italy as residing in ‘the unbroken millennial continuity of the politics of the piazza’. In his words, “without the obscure hereditary instinct for parliamentary government, it was natural that the Italian constitutional experiment should have failed”. Others have blamed the poverty and rising economic crisis as being responsible for the rise of Fascism as it made the masses vulnerable to the Fascist propaganda. G.A. Borgese described the Italian disease that invited Fascism as a combination of ‘cultural megalomania with a political and military inferiority complex’. Thus, it would be suffice to say that the long period of instability caused by the legacy of the Italian Unification of 1871 had created a situation in which the people were desperate for a strong, stable government headed by a charismatic and powerful leader, who could help resolve all its problems. It was Mussolini, who had provided the people with this option.
Many scholars cite the First World War as the point of departure -responsible for this decisive turn of events. Initially, Italy had been a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria but this alliance could not completely fulfill the Italian ambitions in the Adriatic and the Balkans. It is for this reason that Italy in 1915 had switched over to the side of Britain and France through the secret Treaty of London (1915) on the promise of gaining Trentino, Trieste and part of Albania and Asia Minor. This was the period that had witnessed the rise of the Nationalists in Italy, who were in favour of joining the war as they believed that Italy could increase her prominence in International politics by intervening in this war. This was a view point that was supported by Mussolini, who urged the workers to fight for the country claiming that this was the only way they would be integrated with the state. This type of rhetoric was to become a part of his campaign, wherein he tried to solve all economic and social problems by appealing to the concept of nationalism.
The intervention in the war, according to many historians, marked the final episode of the liberal chapter in Italy. Firstly, the maladministration in the war had brought the parliamentary regime under strict criticism. The war reversals at Caporetto in 1917, when the Italian armies in the North east were rolled back a hundred miles in three weeks were a huge blow to the Italian national pride. However, it was the post-war scenario that seems to have antagonized the masses and in particular the nationalists the most. The Post-War foreign policy had earned the regime common discredit as the terms of the Peace Conference at Paris were translated as ‘mutilated victory’ for the Italian people. The wartime promises of handing over colonies in Africa, Middle East, Dalmati and Fiume to Italy were not fulfilled by the allies and this was looked upon as a national insult. The parliamentary regime was now blamed for entering a war that had had disastrous economic effects on Italy for gaining nothing in return. It was believed that Italy at the Paris Peace Conference had been treated like one of the defeated nations as she got nothing of the war spoils. This had become a matter of national humiliation and the people were in need for a leader, who could restore their pride and assert Italian power in the international sphere. It was once again Mussolini, who through his rhetorical, passionate and fiery speeches that highlighted his desire to assert national will abroad and to avenge this humiliation was able to infuse a feeling of confidence in the people.
Scholars like Volpe and Louigi Salvotorelli have looked upon the Fascist movement as a strongly nationalist movement, which was motivated by nationalist sentiments and fervor. Salvoterelli gave it the name of “Nazional Fascismo”. They claimed that Italy in the post-WW scenario was in a state of depression. They felt betrayed by the post-war treaties as they had gained nothing for their participation. Thus, their image as a nation was at the lowest ebb. It was in a situation like this that Mussolini through his personality and propaganda was able to give some sense of hope to the people, who began to rally around him.

Beneditto Croce has also argued that it was the internal crisis created by the war that brought Mussolini to power. The post-war Italy was suffering from a severe economic crisis and it was this destruction that was damaging to the morale of the Italian public. The gross national product and overseas trade declined steadily, massive unemployment ensued and between 1919 and 1921 the cost of living rose by more than 50 percent. Stephen Lee has pointed out that 148,000 Lira had been wasted as part of the economic budget to sponsor the war. This was more than twice the total expenditure of all the governments from 1861 to 1922. As a result, the war had caused a huge dent on the economy of Italy; many industries were shut down, the economy reverted back to the traditional means of production and there was a serious shortage of food grains, which now had to be imported from abroad. It these economic factors that have often been cited as a moving force behind the growth of fascist dictatorship, in the wake of Italy’s economic failures. The political instability and constant bickering between the existing political factions had made the people realize that a change in the political system was required if the country had to come out of its economic misery.
It is in this regard that besides Mussolini’s capability, the economic programme offered by him became an attractive pull for the people. A.J. Gregor identifies Fascism as one of the ‘developmental revolutionary regimes’ in world history. According to him, the fundamentals of Mussolini’s fascism were his economic motives, as he claimed to be committed to the modernization of the Italian economy. Fascism, prior to its advent to power did offer a specific economic program, articulated in the doctrinal literature of 1921 and 1922. Mussolini spoke of Italy’s disadvantaged position in the modern world and declared the Fascist economic program as a collaborative venture of national syndicalist organizations and private enterprise in pursuit of national self-sufficiency and “grandeur” of the Italian nation. According to Mussolini, Italy had been “enslaved” by her industrial retardation and the solution to all her problems lay in modernization and mass mobilization for rapid industrialization.
It was the rise of socialism as an ideology all over Europe and in particular after the success of the Bolsheviks in Russia that had created a hysteria against the socialists in Italy. After the war, the Italian socialist Party which always vacillated between moderation and extremism was inspired by the Russian events to make revolutionary demands both in country and town. It mocked at the intervention which had brought no glory or gains and invited widespread social and economic discontent.  A wave of strikes followed in 1919 and 1920 and this resulted in the socialists usurping administrative control in many areas in the North. This drove home the fear of a Bolshevik Coup, among industrialists, landowners and middle classes ,while further destroying the remaining prestige of the government. The success of Socialists in the local elections further aggravated the fear of the bourgeois and the elite.
Scholars like Angello Tasca have argued that it was this threat of socialism that brought Mussolini to power. Mussolini was vehemently opposed to Marxism and socialist ideas and offered to send action squads to put an end to factory and land occupations. This was in stark contrast to the declarations of the liberal regime, which urged the landowners and employers to make concessions. It was in a situation like this that Mussolini cunningly exploited this twin hatred and fear of the liberal regime and Bolshevik alternatives. The elites were frustrated by the government’s inaction and preference for narrow-minded pacifism, and began to sponsor Mussolini’s Squadristi violence against the Left. 

Mussolini’s alliance with the Bourgeois started when in the summer of 1918, he took the fateful step of accepting subsidies for his paper from big business groups, notably Ansaldo –a big shipbuilding firm. From now on, fascist expenses for uniforms, arms, transport, publication etc were all funded by the men of Property. On their part, they used Mussolini and his fascist bands against rural squatters and urban strikers. The year 1920 was the year of sit-in strikes and escalation of the class war. The Confindustria was established for the purpose of countering working class agitation and deluged the fascist treasury with funds.
Stephen Lee has argued that one of the important reasons for the rise of Mussolini in Italy was the support that he received from a wide spectrum of people. As already seen above, the big landlords and capitalists jumped on to the Fascist bandwagon due to their fear of socialism. His ruthless suppression of trade unions and the peasant leagues had won him the loyalty of this powerful group. Similarly, Mussolini was able to win the support of the lower middle class that has been termed as the “floating masses” by Seymour Lipset. They feared that if a socialist government came to power it would lead to the proletariasation of the middle class and they would be reduced to the status of a working class. The Fascist membership in 1921 was estimated at over 300,000- majority of whom included the lower middle class, small shopkeepers, clerical workers, artisans.
Another important group that rallied around Mussolini was that of the war veterans. This group consisted of people, who had fought for Italy during WW1 and wanted some form of monetary compensation so that they could re-start their life. However, this form of compensation was not sanctioned by the liberal government given the economic situation of the country in the post-war period. It was Mussolini’s assurances of compensation to this group of people that won him their support.
Mussolini’s attempts to win over these scattered groups of people are a fine example of his phenomenal sense of opportunism. He even signed a pact of pacifism with some of the labour leaders and called off the attacks of the squadristi, even at the risk of causing friction with his rural leaders, the ras. The Queen mother Margherita was an avid pro-fascist and other members of the royal house too harboured ulterior motives , in support of Mussolini.  Once an angry atheist, Mussolini even began to make conciliatory gestures towards the Catholic Church and won the Pope Pius XI’s support, who led the catholic chapter to believe that between the twin evils of socialism and fascism, the latter was far less threatening. The values of nationalism, revolution, economic democracy etc endeared him to the Italian intelligentsia.  Thus, it can be seen that Mussolini was able to exploit the situation as per his own convenience and was able to muster a strong support base for himself and by 1922, almost all segments of the Italian establishment were ready to collaborate with fascism.
One must finally turn to the personality and methods adopted by Mussolini that enabled him to come to power. As already seen above Mussolini was a great opportunist, who was able to exploit the existing situation for his own purpose and interests. It was in this way that he was able to create a strong support base for himself that represented every shade of opinion. His capability as a shrewd strategist was extremely evident when he exploited the fears of communism and the hatred of the liberal democracy to pull people into his camp. In the same way he had aligned himself with the Nationalist party during the 1921 elections to project his Fascist party in a more respectable light in order to win over the more educated sections of society. However, it was his oratory skills and fiery, passionate speeches that seems to have worked the most in his favour as they were able to instill a sense of confidence and hope into the people during a time of crisis.
As far as his methods are concerned, Louigi Salvoterilly has argued that it was the use of violence by Mussolini against his rivals and the anti-fascist that seems to have made his intentions very clear. This had become clear during the Matteotti affair, who was kidnapped before his house and a few days later his mutilated body was found dumped somewhere. This showed the harsh, brutal measures that Mussolini was willing to adopt and increased the confidence of the people in him. While, the use of force had alienated a few people, majority of them believed that Fascism was a better alternative than liberalism or socialism. It was the constant use of force that had convinced the royal court and the government that it would be difficult for them to hold off against a Fascist onslaught, while, at the same time Mussolini’s strategic creation of a support base had created a large pool of pro-Fascist factions within the court. As a result, Mussolini was invited to form the government and was thus, able to usurp power through constitutional means. As Alan Cassels writes, the transfer of power was hardly a coup d’etat because the authorities surrendered before the blow could be struck. Mussolini came to power by constitutional tactics.
The intellectual humus of fascism has been associated with the ‘irrationalist or reactionary’ tendencies of an age otherwise inspired by progressive, humanitarian and idealistic goals. The philosophical challenges to the Western traditions of Moderation and Reason by thinkers such as Nietzsche, Rosenberg and Schopenhauer, are said to have been decisive influences on Mussolini and the like. Ernst Nolte sees fascism as arising from the survival of regressive ideals in a progressive era, where they played an alien and destructive role. According to him, fascism was an extension of the French counter-revolutionary tradition. Jacque Martain sees the growth of fascism in the context of the decline of religion, while Freudian thought, to no one’s surprise, concerns itself with ‘centuries of emotional deprivation’ that culminated in such a violent response.

Thus, to conclude one can see that the rise of Fascism in Italy could not be attributed to one single factor. It was a combination of both Italy’s progressive decline, which was an outcome of its historical legacy and the opportunism and personality of Mussolini. Mussolini was able to exploit the political vaccum that had been created by the feebleness of the liberal Risorgimento government in domestic and foreign affairs along with the twin myths of Bolshevik danger and ‘mutilated victory’, which pushed Italy into the embrace of fascism. It was with the rise of Mussolini to power that a new era had started in the history of Italy and the world that was to have disastrous consequences.