Fascism was a nationalist and dictatorial ideology that developed in Italy after the World War I as a reaction to the growth of left-wing parties, especially the Italian Socialist Party and the trade unions. In a climate of political and social violence between 1919 and 1920 (Red Biennium) Fascism prepared for the assault on power. The rise of Fascism to power in Italy took place in October 1922, after the celebration of the “march on Rome.”
The answer to the conflict: Fascism in Italy
Political and social context in Italy during the first decades of the 20th century
Fascism was proposed as a solution to the crisis of liberal democratic regimes during the 1920s. In the Italian case, the origin of Fascism includes a series of antecedents to the First World War:
- The existence of a popular nationalism, which in the 19th century promoted the reunification of Italy as a State (outstanding figures are: Giuseppe Garibaldi, Giuseppe Mazzini…) under a liberal-type monarchy, which was superimposed at the end of the 19th century with an expansive imperialist-type nationalism, which arose from the desire of the monarchical government to join the colonial division. Nationalism of the last arrival. The Italian government was interested in Ethiopia (with exit to the Red Sea). In 1896 there was an attempt of conquest that ended with the defeat of the Italian army. Eritrea was the only territory it could conquer;
- The frustration produced by the defeat of 1896 in the Battle of Adwa, little by little it was generating a pressure to reform the liberal census political system, in the same moment that a process of industrialization of the North of Italy was initiated. In 1912 a reform of the electoral law took place, promoted by Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti and presented as a prize to the Italian population after the military confrontation against Turkey in 1911, which led to the conquest of Libya.
For the first time in Italy, with the electoral reform of 1912, universal suffrage was introduced for men, but under certain conditions: they had to be over 21 years of age and had elementary education (they had to know how to read and write) or they had served in the military. Illiterates could vote from the age of 30. The middle classes were in full swing.
A politicized society
Even before the outbreak of the First World War, there were two truly mass political parties in Italy, as opposed to the very minority elite parties. They were:
- The Socialist Party of Marxist identity;
- And the Popular Party of Catholic identity.
At the beginning of the world conflict, the President of the Government, Giovanni Giolitti, decided to keep Italy out of the First World War. It was also unclear on which side the country should position itself:
- Alliance with the Central Powers: this was the preferred option for the economic powers;
- Alliance with the Triple Entente of France, Russia and Great Britain: basically because France had supported the reunification process of Italy, and they were the powers that hindered its territorial expansion. This option was also defended by Antonio Salandra‘s Liberal Party, which bet on entering the war alongside the Entente, a majority option among the industrials of the North.
The popular pressure was very strong. A powerful left-wing interventionist movement was demanding that Italy not be left out of the war (a sector made up of Garibaldine Republicans, a part of the Socialist Party headed by Mussolini who ran the “Avanti!” party’s newspaper, and trade union radicalism). For this group, the war was the opportunity to make the bourgeois regime enter into crisis and generate, from the crisis that the war would provoke, a process of social reform.
Italy’s entry into the war divided Italian society, which was a novelty respect to the European panorama in which participation in the war was widely supported by the population. Finally, Italy entered the war alongside the Allied Powers, signing the secret treaty of London. But the war will end even more divided.
Post-war Italy was a confrontational society. The traditional parties wanted to maintain power despite the political reform underway and despite that parties that had opposed the war, such as the People’s Party and the Socialist Party, now saw their positions reinforced. The interventionist world pressured from below.
Since the end of the war the climate of political and social tension became evident: as the nationalist groups radicalized their discourse against the bourgeois political forces in favour of the Versailles agreements, which had not given what they claimed in Italy, they also attacked Marxist internationalism.
In this environment a political movement with an anti-liberal, anti-democratic and anti-Marxist discourse was developing. And Benito Mussolini was, through the newspaper “Il Popolo d’Italia,” the key figure that brought together this dispersed world, the world of popular nationalism. This movement grew rapidly, especially after the defeat in Fiume of the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio.
The first steps in politics of Benito Mussolini. The “Fasci di Combattimento”
Benito Mussolini was a militant of the Italian Socialist Party and, since 1912, he was the editor of the newspaper of the party “Avanti!” In 1915, he had to resign from the leadership of the newspaper and the party. Then he founded a different newspaper: “Il Popolo d’Italia.”
After the war, in 1919, he founded the “Fasci Italiani di Combattimento,” which was not a party but a movement. They wanted to proclaim themselves as the support group for the ex-combatants of the World War I. Initially they were only active in Northern Italy. Mussolini worked out his political ideology on the fly. Hence, the fasci were a combination of positive and reactive doctrines: nationalist, anti-liberal, anti-Marxist. It grew as a counter-revolution, as a counterpart to the liberal democratic regime.
In 1919, they stood for election without obtaining any deputies. However, these elections marked the deepening of the crisis of the Italian democratic system, and the beginning of a two-year period of great political and social upheaval.
Political evolution during the “Biennio Rosso” (1919 – 1920)
1919 elections became the first to be held with a proportional system and universal male suffrage. The result was the first defeat of the liberal-democratic-radical bloc. The democratic reform of 1912 benefited the mass parties. In the 1919 elections, the constitutional bloc that had always controlled the Chamber of Deputies lost the majority. A new phase of multi-party political system was opened. The alternative was in the hands of a new coalition after the defeat of the traditional parties.
The economic situation was shaky. Between 1919 and 1920, many strikes took place and unemployment kept rising. This minority government was unable to cope with the Treaty of Versailles, the nationalist movement and popular mobilizations. A very turbulent political situation.
The traditional parties no longer obtained majorities. The alternative went through the Socialist Party (electorate in the North that had already reached its electoral ceiling) and the Popular Party (more extensive presence in the South).
At the Livorno Congress of the Socialist Party in 1919, the leader Giacinto Menotti Serrati was a supporter of the socialist revolution along the Soviet path. Other party members, such as Filippo Turati who represented the moderate sector of the party, considered that Italy was in a regime-crisis and that it should be reformed but without a revolution. Turati became the minority within the party.
The People’s Party refused to govern in coalition with the Socialist Party.
The 1921 elections and the creation of the National Fascist Party
In 1921 the political crisis had not been resolved. Meanwhile, the nationalist movement led by Benito Mussolini continued to grow. Prime Minister Giolitti attempted a manoeuvre. Faced with the impossibility of obtaining the support of the people, he tried to integrate into the new coalition the nationalist movement of Mussolini, in expansion in the city and the countryside. Mussolini had in the cities the support of the workers and in the countryside the support of the landlords who sought to break the mobilizations of the day labourers.
Mussolini accepted Giolitti’s offer and went to the 1921 elections within the National Bloc. Giolitti tried to domesticate Fascists and Mussolini took advantage of the coalition to become stronger.
Mussolini likewise modified his movement. At a congress he promoted the transformation of the movement into a party. In this way the new National Fascist Party was launched, abandoning republican identity and corporatist socializing discourse. It ceased to be an urban Fascism and evolved into something more complex.
The party changed its creditors. Who paid Mussolini when he was expelled from the Socialist Party were the French and Belgian socialists, the secret funds of the Entente and a small part of private funds. When he created the Fasci movement he financed it by himself, but soon he obtained funding from industry and agrarian patrons, which will allow the movement to consolidate.
After Mussolini had stood in the 1921 National Bloc elections, he decided to break with Giolitti and the Monarchy. In 1922 the condition that he put on the king to enter the Government was to preside over it.
This was the origin of the “march on Rome.”
The March on Rome and the rise to power of Fascism in 1922
The March on Rome was not conceived as an insurrectionary movement, but as a massive mobilization of Fascism to pressure and achieve the replacement of Luigi Facta‘s Government by a national Government headed by Fascists.
Facta did not secure the support of the parties and lost the backing of the King who, in the likelihood of a crisis and advised by the industrials, decided that the solution was to hand over the Government to Mussolini. Mussolini formed a national government, composed of Liberals and Populars, but excluded Socialists and Communists.
The first Government of Mussolini was formed on October 30th, 1922.
Mussolini came to power without electoral legitimacy, as in the 1921 elections he had won only 35 deputies. The first thing Mussolini had to do was to consolidate himself in power. He had come to power through a complot and the pressure of the masses. Nevertheless, the Chamber of Deputies voted a decree that gave Mussolini full powers to govern in an emergency. The fascist squads became a parallel police force that carried out intense repression against dissidents and opponents of the regime.
Despite getting all executive power, it was not enough. Mussolini had no guarantee that the proportional electoral system would give him a stable parliamentary majority. In 1923 a new electoral law was proposed, the Acerbo Law, which established an extraordinary prize on the list with the most votes. That list that was the winner and obtained at least 25% of the votes would automatically have 2/3 of the Chamber of Deputies. Basically, it meant that even if he did not get an absolute majority, Mussolini ensured a qualified majority. The Popular Party did not accept this law and left the Government.
The 1924 elections: the victory of the Fascist Party
In 1924 elections were held with the absolute triumph of the “National List” promoted by Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. A basic element of Fascism was its popular character. Mussolini was already a leader among the citizens. He obtained more than 60% of the votes, but in addition the Acerbo law assured him total control of the Parliament. From 1924 onward, he could govern without any problem in the Chamber with a minimized political opposition.
The transformation of the parliamentary regime into a dictatorship (1924 – 1926)
The liberal parliamentary regime under the presidency of Mussolini turned into a dictatorship, a regime of exception. The assassination of Giacomo Matteotti (a socialist who denounced the fraudulent nature of the elections) caused great political unrest. In January 1924 Mussolini asserted that Matteotti was a victim of the excesses of Fascism and assumed political responsibility for the murder. From that assassination Mussolini came out reinforced. From 1925 the regime already began its transformation into a dictatorship.
In 1926 Mussolini approved the law of defence, which forbade the Communist and Socialist parties and removed from its position of deputies all those who had denounced the assassination of Giacomo Matteotti. The opposition was expelled: the dictatorship began definitively.
The Fascist dictatorship (1926 – 1945)
Mussolini combined a regime of political dictatorship, in which parliamentary architecture was being dismantled, with a liberal economic discourse. He kept the Senate because of his commitment to the King. He also respected the autonomy of the army.
In 1928 the new electoral law redefined the function of the Chamber of Deputies as a consultative chamber. Mussolini ruled by decree-law. He again modified the electoral system by establishing the one-party system.
A new labour system, the Rocco law, emerged in the free-market arena. A single, vertical Union was established, with compulsory affiliation for workers and employers within the same one. The strike was illegal and the State was the arbiter of the conflicts: union corporatism.
In the realm of economics, laissez-faire was not questioned as to maintain the employers’ commitment to the regime. The Mussolini foreign policy was to seek alliances with France and Great Britain.
In 1935 the situation changed, especially regarding foreign policy, following the Ethiopian Campaign. The invasion of Ethiopia was rejected by France and Great Britain and condemned by the League of Nations. This meant the break-up of Italy with its traditional allies and a change in domestic policy.
After 1935 and with the Second World War drawing nearer and nearer, Mussolini abandoned economic liberalism and replaced it with economic interventionism to prepare for war. The economy was nationalized. In Europe there were two state-owned societies (Russia and Italy).
The state economy was mostly to be found in the industrial sector, where two-thirds of the steel industry ended up in the hands of the public company. In this way, the State ensured the control of heavy industry. However, Mussolini left the production of consumer goods in the hands of private entrepreneurs. This interventionism did not break relations with the industrialists, although it was the beginning of the new stage of Economic Autarchy.
In 1936 Mussolini definitively allied with Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
In 1939 the consultative Chamber of Deputies was definitively eliminated and replaced by the Chamber of Fasci and Corporations. Italy entered the Second World War with Hitler at the moment when Mussolini saw it clear that the Nazi-Fascist side would win.
In 1943, before the allied landing in the South of Italy, the Grand Council of Fascism dismissed Mussolini, with the approval of the high ranks of the army, the King, the industrials and a good part of regime. The new Government of General Badoglio sought an armistice with the Allies.
It was at this moment that Hitler decided to invade Italy, freeing Mussolini from prison and installing a puppet regime controlled by the Germans in Northern Italy.
The Italian Social Republic of Salò (1943 – 1945)
With the re-establishment of Mussolini in power in northern Italy thanks to Hitler’s help, a Republic was established between 1943 and 1945. Here Mussolini could implement his revolutionary measures. It was the stage of pure development of Fascism. But he was totally dependent on Germany. In reality Mussolini’s power was totally fictitious.
The Allied advance in Italy and the determination in the struggle of the Italian antifascist partisans defeated what was left over from Fascism. Mussolini was executed on April 28th, 1945.