In accordance with the rise of fascism, as the official party leader and representative of the ideology Mussolini sought to secure his position as prime minister, and the move towards a personal dictatorship. Key factors that explain Mussolini’s ability to secure and increase his power include the weaknesses of his political opponents, Mussolini’s own character, the use of violence and terror, as well as the personal actions, or inactions of the King.
The weakness of Mussolini’s political opponents is a key factor in explaining his ability to secure power. Notably, the PSI which was by far the largest and most substantial opponent lacked the support of the middle class and elite; these two groups characterised Italy’s government power hierarchy, and support from these two sectors of society was needed in order to gain mass support, presenting a key weakness which Mussolini was able to use for himself, promoting his own fascist ideology as a viable alternative to socialism, and thus helping him secure his power.
Another weakness of the socialist party was the lack of foresight in decision making, in one instance of the general strike Bienno Rosso, culminating a two year period of socialist strikes; inadvertently the thousands of socialist workers striking only caused stronger sympathy for Mussolini’s own fascist movement, who were seen as efficient and effectively replacing the need for a socialist workforce. This in turn helped secure Mussolini’s PNF as a party of credibility, of which he was at the forefront as party leader. Earlier failures in WWI also helped secure Mussolini his position as prime minister; the Liberal State who had advocated joining the war had effectively failed to gain the lands promised in the Treaty of London, instead resorting to the Treaty of St Germaine, allowing Italy to receive lands including Tyrol and Trentino. It was a far cry from the lands such as Northern Dalmatia and various parts of Fiume which were originally promised, sparking outcry as the war became labelled Italy’s ‘mutilated victory’.
With the socialist party also out of the question, effectively the weaknesses of opposition parties meant that the only party that was credible for forming an effective government fell to the PNF, headed by Mussolini. Failures in WWI also helped promote Mussolini’s party as one that would create a stronger Italy, rather than resulting in the 600,000 soldiers killed in WWI; Mussolini gained a reputation for heading a party that was effective and decisive. Wishing to secure his power further, Mussolini pushed forward the Acerbo Law in 1923, resulting in the Socialist party showing further signs of weakness; it could not agree with any terms or incriminate Mussolini as the instigator of the Matteotti murder, resulting in the Aventine Secession, a fatal error: members of the Socialist left the Italian Chamber in masses, only to create more space for PNF party members, sympathisers of Mussolini, further securing his power and allowing an advancement in the route to his eventual dictatorship which would eventually ban all opposition parties. However, while a significant factor, it does not fully explain the rise of Mussolini to a fully-fledged dictatorship, to which we must look at Mussolini’s own personal character.
Mussolini’s personal character plays the most significant role in securing and expanding his power in the time period; it is key to note that Mussolini’s growing popularity in the earlier years was his handling of his own ‘dual policy’. Notably this includes the fact that the Ras and their fascist squads who often instigated violence in the name of fascist party were allowed under Mussolini’s leadership to continue their extensive use of violence and intimidation, such as in the instance of the May 1921 election polls; over 100 Socialist campaigners were killed as a result of ‘unofficial’ fascist violence, yet Mussolini was able to separate himself from the excesses of violence, claiming in 1922 that the PNF had never condoned any form of violence. This claim was enough to prove that Mussolini could still be a credible leader, as despite any behind-the-scenes officially instigated violence his public image still remained relatively untarnished, evidenced by the fact that in the same election Mussolini’s party was able to gain 7% of the vote.
Although a relatively small number compared to the others, it remains a key milestone in Mussolini’s rise to power; the PNF had only been formed in the same year and had hardly any presence until 1921 in the official political scene, gaining 35 seats. During the events of Bienno Rosso, Mussolini himself is responsible for seizing the opportunity to claim credit for bold fascist movements in the takeover of public services, and Mussolini gained the credit for promoting the strong decisive action of PNF members, even gaining the blessing of Pope Pius XI for defending Italy from the ‘evils’ of socialism. It is also important to note his oratory skills and personal charisma; Mussolini presented the image of a ‘strong’ Italian, building upon the greatness of the Roman Empire, to the extent that his public statement in 1922 that the Fascist party would seize power was met with considerable fear, and the King appointed Mussolini as Prime Minister, allowing him to finally secure power.
This power was later maintained and expanded due to the Matteotti crisis; in response to the outrage ironically Mussolini was able to coax Parliament into offering him ‘emergency powers’ which would be used to initiate censorship of the press as well as shut down opposition parties, in accordance with his decree. Mussolini attempted to form a cult of personality, starting with education and indoctrination. Reforms were made in the education sector including compulsory school books that would feature Mussolini as the ultimate head of state, as well as numerous songs dedicated to Mussolini, helping to increase his power over the population. Further measures instigated by Mussolini include several other reforms such as the 1925 reform of public employees, whereby any individuals who were ‘not compatible’ with his fascist policies could be dismissed.
Essentially, it was a propaganda initiative that was used by Mussolini to increase his own influence on the Italian population, and therefore increase his power as the reforms gradually became more totalitarian, changing from optional choices such as the ONB to compulsory memberships. Mussolini himself plays a bigger role in him securing and increasing his power, as in numerous instances it was the ability for him to navigate on the political scene; ironically it was often the cases where Mussolini was most at risk, such as the Matteotti crisis that allowed him to gain more power through coaxing the elite and the king- providing a firm stance on the situation even though he was open to opposition groups’ attack.
While Mussolini did not officially condone a regime shadowed by violence and terror, it also played a key role in his rise to power, albeit a smaller role when compared to political opposition and Mussolini’s own role. Fascist violence was mainly instigated by the Ras and various fascist squads, including cases of intimidation of any anti-fascists. In his rise to power, Fascist violence was key in the reaction to Bienno Rosso. During the strikes, although violence was criticised it was also largely praised or even admired for the fact that fascism could be in such an organised form; decisive action against the opposition also turned into a demonstration of fascist prowess, with fascists seizing control of major public services such as transport and communications. The use of fascist violence was therefore ironically key in presenting Mussolini’s fascist party as a credible alternative after the failures of the Liberal State and the socialist threat, which would eventually allow the PNF to gain the favour of the elite, the middle class, the Papacy and even the King himself, cementing his rise to power as Prime Minister.
Upon being granted ‘emergency powers’, alike other dictatorships a climate of fear and repression was established in order to increase governmental powers; the Fascist OVRA (secret police) was formed with the intentions of hunting down ‘potential subversives’ to Mussolini’s regime, with up to twenty-thousand raids each week. A special fascist tribunal was also established with the aim of enforcing ‘summary justice’, in effect verdicts announced without a formal court system and numerous eventually handed the death sentence. ‘Subversives’ could also expect to be exiled in ‘confino’ or external exile, further heightening the atmosphere of fear and terror.
Therefore it is arguable that violence and terror played a role in securing Mussolini’s power by gaining the PNF credibility, as well as expanding his powers by creating the climate of fear that would lead to the 100,000 official informants in the OVRA secret police; it was the start of the totalitarian state. However this factor only plays a limited role in securing and expanding his power, as often Mussolini was in fact the instigator of these policies, and therefore credit should therefore be attributed to himself rather than violence/terror. Taking into account the fact that violence was already widespread yet fascists failed to gain much support also proves that it was Mussolini himself; the fascist movement only formed its official party under Mussolini’s leadership, and credit should therefore be given for Mussolini’s initiative.
The King also contributed to Mussolini’s rise to power, ironically due to his indecisiveness. The Liberal government was failing increasingly in dealing with Italy’s various problems, and the king himself eventually sought to use fascism to protect his own position as king upon socialist advances. Notably, despite his uncertainty it was ultimately the fact that the king finally refused to instigate martial law when given the opportunity in October 1922, and his later invitation to Mussolini that finally placed Mussolini in the role of Prime Minster, officially securing his power. Instances of aiding Mussolini in his quest for expansion of power included the various reforms that were forced through Parliament; the king had the power to depose Mussolini at any time there were scandals, most notably in the case of the Matteoti crisis where his position was extremely tenuous, yet the king’s inaction meant that Mussolini ultimately had the opportunity to further his powers. While the king often played the final role in securing or allowing Mussolini to increase his powers, the king does not play a significant part as it is mainly due to his inaction rather than any official actions, and therefore is the least significant factor out of the four.
Overall it is clear that Mussolini’s own personal character was the most responsible for Mussolini’s ability to secure power as well as increase his power; it was often Mussolini’s ability to navigate the treacherous political landscape and quell outrage, as well as officially separating himself from any extreme violence that allowed him to be placed as a credible leader. His own policies for attempting to create a limited cult of personality as well as propaganda also contributed to his expansion in power, and is more significant than the other factors as his own actions are what directly implicates his role in government. While violence and terror also played a key part, it is not as significant when compared to the weakness of political opponents as ultimately it was this weakness that allowed Mussolini to attempt to seize power, and later would further Mussolini’s attempts to consolidate power in the Aventine Secession. The king therefore remains the least significant factor in securing and increasing his power, only playing a background role- he was often influenced by members of government and was relatively indecisive, ultimately allowing Mussolini to instigate his own policies no matter the outrage sparked, and therefore Mussolini himself is the greatest factor in this.