In the 1922 general election, Mussolini won no more than 2% of the parliamentary seats yet, by the end of the year the leader of the Fascist Party had become dictator of Italy. He had nowhere near enough electoral backing to establish a government and, had his march on Rome gone ahead his squads could easily have been crushed. He was handed the position by a few governing ï¿½lites; there was no election, little resistance and no seizure of power. The issue of who was to blame for this unelected success in Italy’s so-called democracy is highly controversial and undecided amongst historians. While most historians accept that there were numerous contributing factors, there is disagreement as to the significance of each factor. In his book ‘Modern Italy’, Martin Clark1 places the emphasis on the failure of the King and the elite. However E. Tannenbaum primarily blames the governmental failure to rebuild a strong Italy after the unification2. In my opinion both are important, as are other factors such as Mussolini’s own skills, the political system and the politician’s failure to work together in strong coalitions. In this essay I will discuss the argument that the failures of others played a greater role in Mussolini’s rise to power than his own strengths. I will explore all the contributing factors to his rise to power in order to reach my conclusion.
The Liberal governments had been unable to solve Italy’s problems caused by her unification in 1861; leaving her vulnerable to extremists such as Mussolini in 1922. Mussolini’s skills enabled him to exploit the situations in Italy to help his own means. The famous historian Denis Mack Smith stresses the role of Mussolini in manipulating a complex situation3. The ï¿½lite had agreed that they had to create a unified nation; D’Angelo famously said “we have made Italy; now we must make Italians”4. The North/ South divide in Italy was a key problem for the formation of this unified nation as the North was far more industrialised than the South which was mainly rural and backward. These problems were further aggravated by the First World War.
Southern savings were used to finance Northern industrial investments and only a few regions enjoyed a wartime boom. The government were unable to make gains in the Paris peace negotiations or to maintain order and to rebuild the economy. This amplified the growing social unrest; which in turn gave rise to extremists. At the time of Mussolini’s growth, public services were in a bad condition. There were also a high crime, unemployment and inflation rates. Such social problems and the politics of post war Italy gave Mussolini and his fascists the chance to really use their propaganda to increase their image. Fascism stressed national identity and appeared to offer direct solutions to the complex economic and grievances.. Most people blamed this on the current government and felt that Italy needed a strong leader to restore her; Mussolini was increasingly seen as the man to do this.
David Williamson believes that Mussolini was aware that in a situation of widespread discontent public opinion could easily be swayed, agreeing with the view that his rise to power was more down to his own strengths. For example in his book he said; “for an ambitious politician like Mussolini it soon became clear that there was potentially a lot of support to be gained by projecting himself as a strong man who could restore law and order and simultaneously make Italy great abroad”5. Mussolini mainly did this through the publication of his newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia which was widely read and vital for recruitment and for getting his message across. He skilfully pinpointed his support base, focusing on the ex-soldiers who had fought in the war and were resentful to the Politicians who had opposed the war and felt betrayed by the mutilated victory. During the war their welfare had been neglected with low wages, and low rations. These ex-soldiers were a very diverse group whose efforts during the war had been ignored by most parties, leaving them discontented and with a want for the change which Mussolini offered them. They were useful to Mussolini for his terror tactics which were taking place as early as April 1919 when the Offices of the Socialist newspaper Avanti were destroyed.
The Italian political system prevented strong Governments who would have been able to fix Italy’s problems and prevent Mussolini’s rise to power. Martin Clark, in Modern Italy emphasizes the many structural weaknesses at the top of Italian political life6. The system of Trasformismo meant that parties were not clearly defined; governments relied on consensus between the different political parties as no one had an overall majority. This coalition system encouraged politicians to use bribery and political favours, and did nothing to restore the public’s faith in their democracy or to solve the social and economic problems. These coalitions were unstable, governments were weak and didn’t last long; between June 1919 and October 1922 there were four different Prime Ministers in power. This lack of stability meant that problems didn’t get fixed, leading to heightened discontent and a weakened country.
Giovanni Giolitti attempted to create a stronger Italy in the decade before 1914 by reforming the politics; seeking cooperation and trying unite all social groups. However, in trying to please one group he upset another. Had he succeeded to create a unified Italy, people may have gained faith in their political system, making them less fearful of the threat from the left and less inclined to support the fascist violence.
The violence gave the impression of an unstable society which was on the edge of breakdown. Mussolini had a growing cult of personality and the socialist violence did a lot to improve this. Events such as the 1919 violence in many of Italy’s cities provided Mussolini with the opportunity to increase this by acting as a saviour and a great leader. The Socialist general strike of August 1922 gave Mussolini another opportunity to increase his image as the saviour from the Socialist violence. The government had failed to act to the violence allowing the Fascists to exploit this upheaval. Mussolini announced that if the government would not stand against the violence then his squads would. This helped to gain support from the revolution fearing Italians. He was able to portray himself as the saviour and alternative from the socialists and their violence, as well as weakening a strong rival.
In reality Mussolini’s squads were thugs in black shirts. Originally the movement was mainly urban. The squads contained mainly ex-officers and students and were originally only a small movement. The growth of ‘Squadrismo’ turned Fascism into a mass movement that created a far larger base in central Italy. Their eventual success owed little to Mussolini or his newspaper. It was more to do with the Governments failing agriculture policy which caused strong reactions from the landlords and leaseholders in the red provinces. Its membership came mainly from those who feared the rise of socialism; the labourers, small tenant farmers, farm managers and better off peasants. In post war Italy, the Socialist labour leagues had managed to organise the landless labourers and seize control of the farms. Squadismo reacted to this by using violence to attack the socialist leagues, throughout 1920 and 1921 workers and peasants were intimidated into submission through beatings and torture. Mussolini needed the squads and their violence, as this enabled him to portray himself as the only man with the ability to end the violence. This put him in a seemingly powerful position. It allowed Mussolini to get more out of negotiations with other politicians. It also gave him a political base other than his newspaper, to promote his party. As a result of this growth, in October 1921 Fascism had a strong footing as a political party.
Anti- Socialism was a winning policy not only for the landowners but also the Hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the middle class and the Industrialists. Mussolini skilfully traded on the fear of socialism in Italy; many preferred the idea of Fascism to the apparent imminent danger of a left wing revolution. These sympathisers included the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the middle class, the industrialists and land owners. People who supported the anti-socialism were useful to Mussolini not only because they gave him support, but also because they gave him money and arms. This policy also gave him a useful indifference from the police who hated Socialism more than Fascism. By 1920 many rural Landlords and Urban Industrialists were willing to pay generously for the squads help against the threat of Socialism and trade unions. Many liberals applauded the violence, seeing the Fascists as the defenders of the country from the threat of a left wing takeover. Mussolini was quick to take credit for the Squadrismo’s image as protectors of society.
If, at critical moments, events had taken a slightly different course then Italian politics could have continued along a democratic course; Martin Clark stresses this point in his book Modern Italy7. In January 1921 the Socialist party split, after which Italy had a very small Communist party which was partly financed by Russia. It was too small to be a real threat to the Fascists but presented them with an ideal propaganda opportunity. Many feared a Communist takeover similar to Russia; many saw the Fascists as the only party that could save them from this.
Ras and Squadrismo
All over Italy Fascist activities were directed by ras, not by Mussolini. One of the most successful was Balbo who captured Ferrara and much of Romagna from the Socialists. This caused a violent response from the Socialists; the Alliance of Labour strike in July-August 1922. This helped the Fascists as it presented them with an opportunity to pose as the saviours of their country. The strike only lasted four days and wasn’t well supported; it gave the Fascists an excuse to mobilise their squads. Fascist volunteers kept services running throughout the strikes, discrediting the CGL and ensuring that the reformist Socialists would not be in the next government. This is an example of how the Left unknowingly helped the Fascist cause. They were weakened by the strike and their own violence had meant that much of the Fascist’s own brutality was overlooked.
Hostility to democracy
Many on the right, including the governing ï¿½lite remained hostile towards democracy and some sympathised with the Fascist party. Their failure to support democracy pushed the Socialists further left, which had a knock on effect, provoking further strong responses from the right. In the 1890’s the right-minded politicians tried to ban the Socialist party and trade unions. This showed the hostility and lack of acceptance for democracy. Had there been more acceptance of this, Mussolini may have faced greater opposition and democracy may have survived.
The Nationalists had expected the war to “make Italians” and in reality some progress had been made. The shared hardships, urbanisation and the army’s use of the Italian language helped; I believe that the war further divided Italy more than it united her. Giolitti opposed the war and therefore the wartime Prime Ministers Salandra, Boselli and Orlando could neither co-operate with him nor or do without such an influential politician. Benedict XV also opposed the war and in May 1915 he called it an appalling butchery. This lack of support from some of the leading figures led to lowered morale and showed the divides between the politicians. Low rations, working conditions and a 25% fall in real wages further lowered moral. Few understood the reasons behind their involvement in the war and much of the public and the soldiers had opposed the war on the onset.
Liberal historians such as G.M.Trevelyan8 view that the effects of the First World War were the key failures which lead to Mussolini’s rise to power. I however agree with the Marxist view, such as the historian Antonio Gramsci9 who points out that the weaknesses of liberal Italy and the politicians and King were more to blame. HHh
For example the most significant mistake was made by Giolitti in his 1922 electoral pact with Mussolini. He was cleverly persuaded by Mussolini to fight the election together and not stand in each other’s way. He underestimated Mussolini and was convinced that Mussolini could be tamed and his squads used to his own advantage. The pact gave the Fascists the springboard they needed to establish themselves as a serious political player and gave them 35 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Mussolini carefully selected these candidates ensuring their respectability and moderation which was important as the Squadristi violence was starting to lose Mussolini governmental support. This shows that although Mussolini was aware that Squadristi violence was beneficial in some ways, this alone would not get him into government. The unintelligent, foolish decision made by Giolitti shows great weakness on his part. It also shows how easily Mussolini was able to exploit politicians; proving him to be good negotiator and showing his ability make the most of the weaknesses of others.
Mussolini was also underestimated by D’Annunzio who saw Mussolini as his chief propagandist and fund raiser rather than as a rival or a threat; Mussolini used this to his advantage. He supported the Government’s decision to crush D’Annunzio’s coup of the Fiume; as a result D’Annunzio lost his power base and it removed all of Mussolini’s rivals for power on the Right. Many of the Liberal politicians believed that they could use Mussolini to strengthen their position to defeat rivals. Mussolini cleverly played on this, negotiating with each politician about coalitions and political deals with the Fascists. None of the influential politicians were se men were willing to work together to prevent Mussolini nor did they have the power individually. Facta could have convinced Giolitti to end his differences with D’Annunzio and take steps towards forming a stronger coalition. Together Giolitti and D’Annunzio would have been considerably stronger than Facta’s government and would have had the ability to put pressure on the King to use the Army to crush Mussolini’s violence and end his “March on Rome. In order to combat the threat of this happening, Mussolini opened up his own negotiations with D’Annunzio in 1922.
The Fascists could also have been crushed by the police and the Carabineri if strong orders had been given however, the prefects had to keep on side with the local ï¿½lites who in many cases sympathised with the Fascists. Many of the police and Judges also supported the Fascist aims so were unlikely to take strong action against the violence. Governments also preferred to ignore the violence as they saw the treat from the left to be far greater; they relied on the Fascist squads to crush this threat. Even as the natural enemies of the Fascists, the left did very little to prevent them entering government and often, as shown by the Alliance of Labour strike, their attempts even helped the Fascists. Even with the limited opposition, the Fascists were by no means unbeatable and in 1922 Mussolini’s authority within the party was incredibly weak. The Pact of Pacification between the Fascists and Socialist Unions was rejected by several of the ras and there were calls for Mussolini to be removed from leadership and for him to be replaced by D’Annunzio who refused to act. Mussolini’s instability during this period is shown by the fact that he was forced to tactically resign for a short period and had to give up the pact shortly after. It shows the influence of the ras who had their own powerbases and were usually more radical than Mussolini himself; their views could not be ignored. At this point the Fascist party could easily have been brought down if their opponents had been willing to stand up to them.
At first fascism identified a wide number of enemies including capitalism, big business, organised labour and the church. However in 1921 Mussolini adapted the party ideologies and revolutionary inclinations in order to capture a stronger support base and prepare Fascism for a parliamentary struggle. From 1921 Fascist ideology was vague ensuring that it didn’t exclude many groups and enemies were narrowed down. This vagueness was an effective tactic to gain maximum support as shown that the Fascist party went from having no parliamentary seats in 1919, to having 35 in 1921. The early fascists retained their radical idealism which many found attractive, the Squadristi emphasized virility and violence and the move to the right attracted conservative support. These three distinct wings of the fascists enabled them to gain maximum support. Mussolini also tried to get the support of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church by making a commitment to family values such for example they opposed divorce. They also hinted that they would be prepared to negotiate terms to the Roman question; Pope Pius XI may have seen this as an opportunity to improve the official status of the Church in Italy, an issue which the liberal governments had ignored. From 1921 the Papacy worked to eradicate left wing influences within the Catholic party and did a lot to undermine the Alliance of Labour’s call for an anti-fascist general strike.
Fascist propaganda was impressive; they wore uniforms and held parades and marches, creating an impression of a strong, united and dynamic party. It seemed new and exciting and the promises of action and change were attractive; particularly to the young who lacked prospects under their liberal government. Some Army generals sympathised with the Fascists shown by the fact that six Generals were actually involved in the March. The middle class were willing to tolerate Mussolini because they believed that he would restore some discipline in Italy, save it from Communists, and give them more power.
Mussolini was aware that he may have to risk an uprising if negotiations with politicians failed; an anti-fascist coalition was still possible. He covered himself by reassuring both the King and Pope that he was a safe man to have in power. On 19th Oct whilst continuing to tell the politicians he wanted to work with them, Mussolini and the Fascist leaders planned for an armed uprising. He was aware that failure to act quickly may encourage the Ras to act independently so on 24th October, in an attempt to reassure the extreme of the party he went public with his plans for an uprising. He told a large meeting of fascists from Southern Italy that “either we are allowed to govern, or we will seize power by marching on Rome [to] take by the throat the miserable political class that govern us”10. This shows that he was constantly aware of the thoughts and feelings both within his party and the politicians and influential figures holding the power in Italy. He knew how to manipulate people and how to keep them on side to use to his advantage. These arrangements were given the appearance of military operation in order to heighten tension and keep the extremes of the party on side.
Facta took steps to prevent the Fascist rise to power; he reinforced the military and checked on the loyalty of the troops. He even established that the King would issue a martial law decree so that the threat could be countered by force. However on the night of the so-called march, King Victor Emmanuel 2nd showed little faith in Facta and at the last minute refused to sign this decree. The reasoning behind this decision his highly controversial but many believe that the King was a weak man who feared for Italy and may even have sympathised with Mussolini. Mussolini had attempted to convince the King that he was not a threat and he may have succeeded. It is probable that the King believed that resistance may have risked a bloodthirsty civil war. His Military advisers had told him that the army may not be willing to fire on the fascists, for example Marshall Diaz is reported to have told him “the army will do its duty; however it would be well not to put it to the test”11 The King also feared that his cousin, The Duke of Aosta who was near the Fascist headquarters in Perugia may have been after the crown.
Facta resigned over the King’s failure to sign the decree, eliminating another of Mussolini’s rivals for power. Salandra had advised the king not to sign as he thought this would lead to a new government headed by him. Like many of the Liberal Politicians the King believed that Mussolini could be absorbed into a coalition and invited Salandra and Mussolini to form the next government. Mussolini was well aware of this plan as on the 17th October he said “they would like to imprison me; joining a government would be the liquidation of Fascism” 12Mussolini refused the offer and Salandra was unable to form a government. In order to prevent his rival Giolitti gaining power he advised the King of Mussolini’s appointment which took place on the 29th October. If this rivalry between Salandra and Giolitti didn’t exist then Mussolini’s appointment would have been far less likely.
Mussolini did not seize power nor did he need to use force, he gained power merely by threatening to use violence. I do not believe that at this stage Mussolini was unbeatable and had the leading figures stood up to him I believe that Mussolini may never have come to power. Mussolini was not in total control of Fascism’s destiny. I believe that Mussolini himself knew that his squads were too weak to stand up to resistance, as shown by the fact that he kept his own escape route open by staying in Milan. He was handed power by a weak King and Governing elite that could see no other was of containing him. However, the solid control that the Fascist’s had in key urban area illustrated the scale of the Fascist advance. This was enough to frighten the liberal leaders into seeking compromise with Mussolini. The March on Rome took place after the offer of Prime Minister had been accepted by Mussolini; it was in reality just a victory parade where Mussolini announced the beginning of a new era.
From early on Mussolini was showing signs of being a major figure through his skills and actions. For example by 1914 he was already a brilliant journalist with the knowledge of how to manipulate and impress public opinions, he was charismatic and popular. He was influential in the socialist party, for example his involvement in the anti-war protests in 191, however he was willing to contradict these socialist views later in his career. When challenged him on this he replied “every intelligent man must change his views”13; he was willing to contradict everything he once stood for in order to gain power. A report by inspector Gasti of the Milan branch of the security police in 1919 described Mussolini and “emotional and impulsive” and that “Mussolilini’s political ideas are changeable…he may cooperate in undermining institutions and principles that he previously believed in and supported”14. This allowed him to make the most of opportunities and take action, rather than following a fixed ideology. In conclusion Mussolini’s rise to power owes a lot to the failures of others but also to his own ability to exploit this to his advantage.
The origins lay in the weaknesses of the liberal state and the war and its aftermath. The divides between the ruling elite made co-operation against a common enemy almost impossible. Mussolini’s own background as a journalist gave him charismatic skills and a communication tool which proved useful in gaining support. He applied all his journalistic skills and trick to attract popular attention and support. Mussolini’s actions in autumn 1922 were important to the terms in which he came to power although other political manoeuvres also had a great deal of influence. The Fascists violent pressure, seizure of provincial towns and the mass rally at Naples on the 24th October were important contributions. Mussolini’s own skills also helped him secure the terms in which he came to power. He was able to maintain the morale of his supporters through militant action. He succeeded in confusing the politicians by offers of compromise. Mussolini’s ras had already gained local control almost everywhere except Rome itself, putting Fascists in a very strong position for negotiation. Another of Mussolini’s key skills was his ability to organise the party, which was not an easy task. Through this he gave Fascism a vital foothold in Politics, allowing him to negotiate with politicians and increase his position. He was also able to establish links between local activist groups, so that Fascism could claim to me a national movement as well as a national party.
Mussolini’s leadership and strategy gave the movement flexibility and energy which contrasted with the weak, tired government. The weak situation in Italy created by the unification and the war was handled poorly by the subsequent governments, leaving Italy’s people discontented and willing to support extreme parties such as the Socialists and Fascists. The extremes deeply opposed each other using terror and violence which increased the view that Italy needed strong leadership which it did not find in the divided Liberal governments. The Liberal politicians failed to work together and wanted power for themselves. Italy’s political situation of proportional representation forced politicians into coalition governments which along with their underestimation of Mussolini left them vulnerable to the Fascists. The Fascists took over because the Middle classes had become convinced that after the war, successive governments had been unable to combat the spread of socialism. The King’s decision not to use the army against the March on Rome was a poor one, which lead to him handing power to Mussolini without a struggle or fight.
Source: Modern Italy 1871-1982, Martin Clark, Longman History of Italy
Source: Mussolini from Socialist to Fascist by David Williamson pg 14, Hodder and Stoughton.
Source: Mussolini from Socialist to Fascist by David Williamson p.23, Hodder and Stoughton, from quote in D. Mack Smith, Mussolini, Phoenix Paperback, 1994 p.51
Source: Modern Italy 1871-1982, Martin Clark, Longman History of Italy p. 221.
Source: Modern Italy 1871-1982, Martin Clark, Longman History of Italy p. 221.
Source: Mussolini from Socialist to Fascist by David Williamson pg 12, Hodder and Stoughton
Source: fascist Italy, John Hite and Chris Hinton, Advanced History Core texts, The Schools History Project official text, John Murray