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Fascism is a political system characterized by absolute power being held by the state. This concept was first implemented in Italy under the leadership of Benito Mussolini who formed the first Fascist movement, the Fasci di Combattimento, in March 1919. The programme of this movement was first radical and republican.
The Fascist organization in Italy did not begin as a powerful nationwide party. Its beginning was humble and in its first year, it had only 20,000 members. This is because Mussolini was unable to compete with the established left-wing parties.
However, a number of conditions encouraged the growth of Fascism and in three years, Mussolini was able to establish himself as the ruler of Italy, a role he continued to play until his death in 1943. This paper will set out to analyze why Mussolini and the Fascists were able to seize power in Italy so quickly after the war. A detailed review of the factors that facilitated the rise of the fascist movement in Italy and the nature of the movement will be made.
Fascism in Italy can trace its birth to the First World War where Italy fought alongside the Allies. The Italian war efforts were successful and the Italian army was able to decisively defeat the Austrian army (McNeese 2000). However, the period after the war was characterized with instability in Italy.
Marsella (2004) records that during the years of 1919 and 1920, the country was beset by a wave of industrial strikes and agricultural strikes. The war had a more damaging impact on Italy than it did to almost any other belligerent country. Sforza (1925) documents that Italy was less wealthy than the other warring nations and the restrictions imposed by wartime discipline were felt more acutely by Italians.
As a result of the enormous resources that had been dedicated to war efforts, Italy was economically devastated after the war. The consequences of these were high unemployment, high national debts, and inflation. The population was therefore dissatisfied and desired political change. Fascism emerged as a reaction by a post-war society afflicted with economic impoverishment, political instability, and thwarted nationalist hopes.
Reasons for the Success of Mussolini and Fascism
A number of factors led to the rapid rise of Mussolini and Fascism in Italy. To begin with, post war Italy was characterized by xenophobia and growing anti-allied sentiments. Italy was dissatisfied with the terms of the peace treaty following the end of the First World War. A major motivation for Italy’s joining the allies had been the promise of territories that belonged to her traditional enemy, Austria.
The Allies promised Italy territory in return for her participation in the war. However, the Allies refused to honour this promises and Italy was not given a share of the German Empire and most of the land in the Istrian Peninsula.
Italy felt betrayed by her former allies and this feeling created a sense of isolation in a world where only the strongest powers flourished. Many Italians felt shamed by the terms of the treaty, which refused to give Italy her share of the victory. This diminished the prestige that Italy had hoped to gain from the war and many Italians joined Right Wing groups that promised to rid the country of the shame that the allies had caused on her.
In such an environment, it was very important for Italy to appear strong in front of the other world forces. Fascists called on the government to exercise its sovereign rights and forcefully seize the areas promised in the Treaty of London. In line with the nationalistic feelings of many Italians, Mussolini proclaimed that such a move was the duty of the Italian government. Mussolini’s fascist movement promised to do this and extended the blame for the current state of affairs on the government’s weak diplomacy.
The disillusion suffered by the ex-soldiers also strengthened fascism influence in Italy. As has been noted, Italy had been able to reap a well-deserved and glorious victory with the Allies in spite of the intense sufferings experienced by the Italian people. Many Italian veterans of the First World War had been peasants who had joined the army on promises of land once the war was over. After the war ended, the veterans returned home to broken promises.
While Italians campaigned heavily to acquire land as a spoil of war, the other Allied leader ignored these pleas. The veterans were therefore very dissatisfied and angry at the authority which they felt had abandoned them. Mussolini took advantage of this dissatisfaction of the angry veterans.
The late 1920s witnesses a wave of anti-socialist reactions across the countryside. This tide revived the frail fascist movement that until then had little power in the country. Marsella (2004) observes that in the 1919 elections, Mussolini’s Fascist Party, Fascio di Combattimento, had failed disastrously since the Italians did not favour the doctrine and approach to politics of fascism. However, the perceived weakness of the government led people to support fascism.
The influential middle classes lost faith in the post war regime which was governed by Prime Minister Nitti. The Catholic Popular Party (PPI) and the Socialists dominated the chamber and their hostility to the regime made the government ineffective. The weak government was unable to subdue socialism at home and this troubled the middle classes who feared a communist revolution. This class therefore began to be convinced that a draconian state solution was needed to steer Italy away from communism (Marsella 2004).
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The government’s inaction in the face of violence also helped Mussolini rise to power. In september, 1920, workers proceeded to occupy the shops and factors in accordance with the Russian revolutionary formular. Premier Giolitti refused to take action against the occupying workers and this worried the industry owners who saw it as surrender by the government to the inevitable rise of communism (Laski 1923).
Mussolini’s ability to change the doctrines of the movement to suit the needs of the people also enabled him to quickly rise to power. He was able to change the doctrines of his fascist movement to attract the support of the majority. During its formative years, Mussolini had conceived the fascist movement as a gathering of leftist interventionist forces that courted both workers and the bourgeoisie. This approach led to the huge failure during the 1919 elections.
Mussolini therefore abandoned this approach and began to champion the needs of industrialists and landowners. After 1920, Mussolini was able to adopt right-wing and nationalistic policies which appealed to the land owners and war veterans. While Mussolini previously supported the working class, he was able to attract the bourgeois as well.
Availability of financial support from the industrialists helped increase the popularity of the Fascist organization. As of 1919, the movement’s membership was low and the socialists were the most popular. The socialists had their doubled their seat numbers during the election of 1919, therefore underscoring their national support. However, the popularity of the socialists was not sustainable since their calls for labour strikes negatively impacted the industrialists.
The Italian bourgeois were fearful that the unrest in the country would deprive them off their property. Mussolini was able to exploit these fears and project his fascist movement as the only true provider of law and order. As it were, the government had been unable to provide the security and that the bourgeois craved. The fascist movement was able to transform itself into a mass political movement due to Mussolini’s efforts.
The ambivalent attitude of the government attitude also helped the fascists gain ground in Italy. Marsella (2004) reveals that when Giolitti returned to power in 1920, he overlooked fascist excesses. The fascist movement was allowed to operate with relative impunity in the country.
This was a mistake since while the Giolitti government enjoyed a majority vote, it lacked a proper power base. The strength of the government was therefore undermined by the actions of the fascists. Riding on this gains, the fascists, who were a minority, were able to gain a reputation as the organization which had the will to achieve results in the country.
The rise of nationalistic sentiments also aided in the growth of fascism. In the post war years, Italy realized that she was behind the other European nations in terms of military and industrial might. A strong national syndicalist state was seen as the solution that would achieve social harmony and the maximum level of production and social justice (Knight 2003).
The government in place was deemed by many to be opposed to nationalism. This perception was reinforced by the driving out of Italian nationalists from Fiume by the Italian government. Following the end of the First World War, a group of Italian Nationalists led by Gabriele d’Annunzio had in 1919 seized the city of Fiume and established a government.
His efforts were thwarted by the Italian government which bombarded Fiume therefore forcing him to surrender the city in 1920 (Knight 2003). Mussolini had advocated a strong foreign policy and many felt that if he were in charge, Fiume would not have been lost. The government action against d’Annunzio and his band of nationalists strengthened Mussolini’s position.
The old political system of Italy had lost credibility with the population. Premier Giolitti had been opposed to Italy’s entrance into the war and Nitti had an outlook of a “good European” which did not sit well with the inflamed ambitions of victory by many Italians. These ideologies made the older politicians fall out of favour with the citizens who were looking for a new possibility.
Mussolini styled himself as a representative of the passionate and optimistic outlook of the youth. Laski (1923) quips that, “Mussolini came to do battle with the old order” (p.49). The Fascism system advanced by Mussolini was eager to control what seemed a great destiny for Italy.
These Fascist ideas were readily accepted by the Italian masses that were ambitious for power following their victory in the war that had just ended. Mussolini appealed to the masses by speaking about the need of the Italian people to restore the glory of the Ancient Roman Empire. Such speeches were welcome by the Italians whose might had lagged behind that of the other European nations for centuries.
The use of brute force against enemies and detractors also speeded up the seizing of power by the Fascists after the war. As it were, there were many other political groups and ideologies that were rising in Italy during the post-war years. The Fascists were able to direct action against their enemies.
In reaction to the socialist takeover of municipals all over Italy, Fascist thugs were used to drive out the socialists. Knight (2003) attributes the efficiency of Fascist violence to the fact that most Fascist squads were comprised of ex-soldiers who had military experience.
They destroyed the infrastructure of their opponents including their printing presses and broke up public meetings. Strikers were forced to abandon their demonstrations through violence. Members of the Fascist Party were encouraged to use violence to intimidate members of any opposing political party (McNeese 2000).
The fascists were able to obtain the support of the army and the navy. McNeese (2000) documents that the fascists were also very well organized and had great discipline. They wore a uniform and had a chain of command with Mussolini at the top. By meeting criticism and dissent with deeds and not words, the fascists were able to infect the military apparatus with their spirit.
For this reason, the government did not dare to challenge their power since it was unlikely that the army would rise up against Mussolini. Many members of the government forces were also sympathetic to Mussolini’s cause and they viewed him as a capable leader for the country.
Sforza (1925) reveals that the government forces were friendly with the Fascist militia and they even supported them by providing them with arms. This co-operation between the Fascist militia and government forces increased Mussolini’s power since it was unlikely that the government would use its military might to repress the fascist movement.
Mussolini’s appeal as a charismatic leader was a major reason behind the success of fascism in Italy. Marsella (2004) admits that while it is possible that fascism could have developed and prospered in Italy without Mussolini, the personality of the man was what enabled the organization to gain a mass following in such a short time.
Mussolini was able to win over the hearts and minds of the Italians through his propaganda and ideals (Musiedlak 2009). He was also able to keep his organization united even in the face of stiff ideological differences. As it grew in power and numbers, fascism was not a united organization and there were a number of factions within fascism.
Mussolini’s leadership skills and charisma was the glue that held the disparate fascism parts together (Musiedlak 2009). He was able to effectively undertake the task of balancing the needs of the various factions and ensuring the organization did not disintegrate.
The fascists used intimidation to obtain power. As of 1922, the fascists had a minority representation in the parliament. Laski (1923) asserts that Mussolini was not even within sight of a parliamentary majority. However, with the backing of the fascist members under his command, Mussolini made the historical march to Rome.
Mussolini hoped to be endorsed into the Cabinet by force. The march resulted in the resignation of the Premier and the control of the country was given to King Victor Emmanuel who had little support. Not giving in to Mussolini’s demands for power would have led to the outbreak of a civil war, which the King wished to avoid.
The presence of Fascism sympathizers within the King’s court also assisted in the Fascist coup of 1922. Knight (2003) observes that the Italian army could easily have crashed the 20,000 stong Fascist army that was equipped with little more than pistols and rifles. However, the King’s advisers who were sympathetic to Mussolini’s cause exaggerated the strengh of the Fascists. Another Part of the reason why the King invited Mussolini to become Prime Minister with full emergency powers for 1 year and to form a coalition government was because he believed that the government could incorporate fascism and exploit its popular appeal.
This paper set out to analyze why Mussolini and the Fascists were able to seize power in Italy so quickly after the war. The paper began by providing an overview of the conditions in post-war Italy. It has shown that the rise of fascism was in part due to the endeavour to escape from the shame that the Treaty of Versailles had brought on the Italians.
In addition to this, the rise of socialism and communism helped fascism gain ground. Many Italians say fascism as the only tool to counter these two system. By relying more and more on the Fascists to suppress socialism and communism forces in Italy, the property class empowered Mussolini up to the point where he was able to take control of Italy.
The paper has also highlighted the role that Mussolini’s leadership played in the rise of fascism. This leader was able to conform his ideas to the Italian conditions of the time. His receptivity to new ideas enabled him to break out of the ideals of socialism that he once held and launch into innovative political formulations. Mussolini continued to rule over Italy until 1944 when he was overthrown by his own countrymen.
Knight, P 2003, Mussolini and Fascism, Routledge, Boston.
Laski, H 1923, ‘Lenin and Mussolini’, J. Foreign Affairs, vol. 2 no. 1, pp. 43-54.
McNeese, R 2000, History of Civilization – The World at War, Lorenz Educational Press, NY.
Marsella, M 2004, ‘Enrico Corradini’s Italian nationalism: the ‘right wing’ of the fascist synthesis’, Journal of Political Ideologies, vol. 9 no. 2, pp. 203–224.
Musiedlak, D 2009, ‘Mussolini, charisma and decision-making’, Portuguese Journal of Social Science, vol. 8 no. 1, pp. 31-41.
Sforza, C 1925, ‘Italy and Fascism’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 3 no. 3, pp. 358-370