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The Rise of Fascism in Italy

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Rise of Fascism in Italy

In 1919, the Italian economy was suffering from massive unemployment and high inflation. In areas where fighting had occurred, cities and land would have to be rebuilt and recultivated. Politically, the country became divided between the Socialist and nationalist parties. The situation was ripe for the rise to power of Benito Mussolini.

Born in 1883 in the ancient town of Forlì in northern Italy, Mussolini was a very well-read intellectual, a combat veteran, and a former journalist. He had once been a committed Socialist, but his ideas changed during the war. In 1919, Mussolini held the first meeting of the group that would become the Fascist Party of Italy. (The Italian word fascio means “union” and comes from the Latin fasces , a sheaf of grain that had been a symbol of the authority of the Roman state in ancient times.)

As the leader of the Fascist movement, Mussolini explicitly encouraged violence against the Socialists, thereby attracting new members who were little better than thugs. Their extreme nationalism found expression in gang-style violence. In April 1919, Mussolini’s supporters stormed into the offices of the Milan newspaper Avanti (Forward) and destroyed the printing presses. This act of violence was typical of the terrorist tactics that would become the signature of the totalitarian regimes of the next two decades.

Mussolini had one serious rival in the person of Gabriele d’Annunzio, already famous as a playwright, poet, and hero of World War I. In September 1919, D’Annunzio led his followers in an invasion and occupation of the Yugoslavian city of Fiume, on the nationalist grounds that nearly 90 percent of its citizens were ethnic Italians. Once in power in Fiume, D’Annunzio behaved like the Caesars of ancient Rome, staging military parades and bombastic daily speeches to impress and intimidate the people.

Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti eventually negotiated a settlement with Yugoslavia. In exchange for Yugoslavia’s making Fiume independent, Giolitti forced D’Annunzio to step down. D’Annunzio’s supporters, balked of their prize, turned to Mussolini.

Mussolini was nothing if not pragmatic; he was guided much more by practicality than by principle. He was quite willing to negotiate with anyone or any group if he saw a chance of strengthening his own base of power. In the days after Fiume, Mussolini negotiated with leading moderate political leaders, treated the chastened D’Annunzio generously, and encouraged his own sup- porters to take action against Socialists.

In northern Italy, major landowners had lost a great deal of their negotiating power to the forces of socialism. Therefore, the landowners decided that the Fascists, as anti-Socialists, were their natural allies. Between November 1920 and April 1921, the Fascists gave free rein to their aggressiveness. They destroyed the offices of Labor Exchanges throughout the region, dragged labor organizers into the street and beat them up, and smashed printing presses of any newspapers whose editors favored socialist politics. At the same time, the Fascists won support among the peasants by giving some of them land outright. This convinced many farmers to desert the Socialists, since the goal of socialism was state-owned land. Farmers preferred the possibility of private ownership of their own farms.

The Fascists stepped up their campaign of terror and intimidation, taking over entire towns and cities in the region. With the help of local police, nationalist veterans, and their own organized military squads, called “Blackshirts” because of the uniforms they wore, the Fascists occupied public buildings and forced local governments to do what they wanted, including instituting public- works programs that gave jobs to the unemployed. Naturally, this won them a great deal of support among the people.

By May of 1921, the Fascists had become so strong that Giolitti felt it was better to assimilate them than fight them. He formed a coalition government that included seats in Parliament for Mussolini and thirty-four other Fascists.

In October 1922, Mussolini staged what became known as the March on Rome. The Blackshirts commandeered and boarded trains to Rome from three different starting points, taking over towns along the three routes. The new prime minister, Luigi Facta, resolutely prepared to stop them, assembling troops and asking the king to declare martial law in Rome. However, the king refused, fearing that a confrontation between the Fascists and the Italian army would lead immediately to civil war. Unwilling to risk this, he offered the office of prime minister to Mussolini. Four years later, Mussolini had become Il Duce—the absolute dictator of Italy. (Duce is Italian for “leader.”)

Like all dictators, Mussolini was quick to establish one-party rule. During the 1920s, his policies brought economic recovery to the nation. Additionally, he struck a bargain with the Catholic Church. In the Lateran Treaty of 1929, the Church officially and formally recognized the nation of Italy for the first time in exchange for broad authority over the everyday lives of Italian citizens.

European economies collapsed in the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, and Italy’s was no exception. In 1935, Mussolini ordered the invasion of Ethiopia, for both political and economic reasons. Politically, the invasion was a sign of the desire to subdue and control other lands that was typical of a fascist state. Economically, Mussolini hoped to counter the effects of the Depression by subduing a nation that was rich in natural resources. He intended Ethiopia to provide Italy with both natural resources and a market for Italian manufactured goods.

The Rise of Totalitarianism in Other European Nations

The small states of Eastern Europe, several of them newly created by the Treaty of Versailles, were the perfect breeding ground for totalitarianism for three reasons. First, nationalism was a divisive factor in these ethnically diverse countries. Second, this area suffered economically as much as any other during World War I. Third, several of these nations were newly created, and none had more than a few decades’ experience in self-government. All these factors combined to create unstable societies that were ripe for a seizure of power. Except for Czechoslovakia, which established and managed to maintain a democratic government, all the nations of Eastern Europe succumbed to dictatorship between 1919 and 1936.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Rise of Totalitarianism Practice Test

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