The Rise and Fall of Fascism

From his birth in 1883 to the day of his death in 1945 Benito Mussolini was many things to many men. Son of a blacksmith of radical persuasion, Mussolini was a born revolutionary. He was named after Benito Juarez, the Mexican revolutionary leader. As he grew up he knew the hunger and hardships of the laboring class. He was s one of them, a natural leader, and a firebrand of the first order.

Through successive stages of radicalism and anticlericalism—including several years of exile in Switzerland because, as a confirmed pacifist, he refused to undergo military training—Mussolini became a leader of the Socialist party and editor of its newspaper. He broke with the party over the issue of Italian neutrality in the first World War—he was for participation alongside the Allies—and was expelled from it.

Thereupon Mussolini founded his own newspaper, enlisted in the Italian army, was wounded, and returned to run the paper. He made it into the voice of all the elements—the veterans, the unemployed, the renegade socialists, the nationalists, and so forth—who were discontented and disillusioned with democracy.

More crust than votes

Around Mussolini’s banner there rapidly grew up an army of followers—from gangsters to sincere patriots. Some of them were organized into strong-arm squads, armed and uniformed as “Blackshirt Militia.” The money for this came from alarmed industrialists and others of wealth who saw in the Mussolini movement a tool to suppress the radical revolution they feared and that Mussolini kept assuring them was on the way.

The proclaimed aims and principles of the fascist movement are perhaps of little consequence now. It promised almost every thing, from extreme radicalism in 1919 to extreme conservatism in 1922. In the main its program was centered on the idea of action, but in reality it meant for Italy naked personal power, achieved and maintained through violence.

The Fascists put up candidates in the parliamentary elections of 1921. They were not very successful, despite undercover support from some elements of the government. Altogether they received only about 5 percent of the total popular vote. But they succeeded in planting the impression that they had the solution to all of Italy’s postwar ills. The existing government had none, and so the March on Rome—a Colossal bluff—turned out a colossal success.

The early mask falls away

When the king called on Mussolini to form a government in October 1922, very few people in the world had any idea of what was meant by a totalitarian form of government. Mussolini himself probably did not know what he was going to do—except stay in power. A parliamentary majority backed the fascist government at the beginning, and most of the people thought fascism was a temporary interlude. They thought Italy could later return to freedom, and in the meantime fascism could take care of the crisis.

When Mussolini stepped into power, fascism had none of the superior-race, blood-and-soil trappings that came to Germany with Hitlerism. All the other elements of fascism were there, however: belief in violence, disbelief in legal processes, rabid nationalism, and so on. But the regime was not totalitarian in its first three years. Opposition parties were still legal, a strong opposition press operated under difficulties, and Mussolini kept talking about a return to normalcy.

It was only in 1925 that fascism fully threw off the mash. The murder of a socialist leader by the name of Matteotti, a fearless parliamentary opponent of fascism, was the signal. Through every device of open violence and concealed trickery the totalitarian machine was built up.

This meant complete state control of every phase of human activity. It meant fostering the idea that the Fascist party and the Italian state were one and the same. It meant deifying the nation and the leader. It meant the nourishing of nationalistic and warlike passions. It meant, in the end, alliance with the other great totalitarian power in Europe, acceptance of the debased and debasing theories of Nazism, and finally, active participation in the war.

Responsibilities and consequences

How shall we measure the consequences of fascism and its rule over Italy? How much responsibility for it shall we lay on the mass of the Italian people? There are a number of items that weigh on either side of the balance.

First of all, quite clearly, we remember that Italy—and that means the people of Italy—took to fascism when other nations as hard hit in the postwar era did not. Fascism in Italy, we recall, arrived long before the Nazis took over in Germany, and fascism taught the world and Hitler many of the tricks of totalitarian misrule—including the use of castor oil.

We remember Ethiopia and the way Italians shouted themselves hoarse sending their army off to the attack or greeting news of victories. That undisguised example of aggression not only snuffed out the independence of a free nation but also delivered a deathblow to the League of Nations. Italian aid to Franca helped overthrow democratic government in Spain where Mussolini and Hitler perfected their tactics for the second World War.

In passing we shall note that Italy treacherously seized Albania. And finally, we recall Italy’s entrance into this war for the basest of motives—a share of the spoils—at what seemed to be the last possible moment. The “stab in the back” when France was falling and the cowardly attack against Greece will not be forgotten, either.

All this can be chalked up against the Fascist government, of course; on the grounds that it was a gangster outfit that abused and misled the Italian people. Of these things the government was certainly guilty—but were the people innocent?

They were not untainted with the same guilt and they cannot escape shine share of the responsibility. They were not always opposed to what the government did in their name. They often applauded its actions and rarely showed signs of trying to stop its misrule. During the very years when fascism was at its worst in foreign aggression and internal oppression many Italians hailed Mussolini as a great man and firmly believed that fascism was a good thing for Italy. Some of them still do. A nation that is willing to share the gains of political gamblers cannot expect to escape wholly when they lose.

The other side of the picture

On the other hand, there are at least five points we might keep in mind as we assess Italy’s past and future:

  1. From 1919 to 1923 many Italians fought against fascism. They fought in parliament, in the press, and in the streets. The fight ceased only when all the opposition leaders had been imprisoned, exiled, or murdered, when the physical instruments of opposition had been destroyed—the printing presses, the trade unions and their offices, the cooperatives, and so on. It ceased openly only when the overwhelming pressure of the fascist police made open opposition impossible.
  2. Later, fascism turned to more subtle means to win the support of the Italian people. Open violence gave way to legal violence under a veneer of respectability that fooled many people. An era of prosperity arrived that dulled the appetite for political freedom: The outside world praised Mussolini and his works. Many Italians were baffled and their resistance t to the slow moral poisoning of fascism broke down.
  3. The period of the Ethiopian war, beginning in 1935, rallied the nationalists more strongly than ever around the fascist regime. On the other hand, it woke many other Italians to the sudden realization that fascism meant war in earnest—not just bombastic threats of war for defensive purposes, but wrongful aggression that must in the end lead to the country’s destruction.
  4. During the period between 1936 and 1943 the lines were drawn more sharply between fascism and antifascism. As the depth of the disaster into which fascism had led Italy became clearer, more people joined the ranks of opposition. The underground movements gained in strength even if they never became overwhelming in numbers.
  5. The final collapse of fascism, though set off when Mussolini’s frightened lieutenants threw him overboard, was brought about by allied military victories plus the open rebellion of the people. Among the latter the strikes of industrial workers in Nazi-controlled northern Italy led the way. Nothing of this sort happened in Germany.