Italy represented the first nation to come under the control of a Fascist government, and they would do everything in their power to keep it that way.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 10, the Rise of Mussolini Part 4 - A Fascist State. In this episode we are going to discuss the development of Fascist Italy after the Matteotti Murder in June 1924 and after the Fascist party, with Mussolini at its head began to grow in their power and ability to control events in Italy. While Mussolini’s government had started its life working with some of the other parties within the Italian political system, over the course of the 1920s it would continue to grow in its strength, eventually turning Italy essentially a single party state. This was not something that would happen overnight, and it would take years of both small and large changes before the Fascists were in complete control. It was during this time that a new word began to circulate to try and describe in a better fashion the actions and structure of Italian Fascism and its control of Italy. That word is very well known in the 21st century, ‘totalitarian.’ This word was first used in 1923 to describe the Fascist regime in Italy by its opponents, as a way of trying to make it clear that what was happening in Italy was not just a normal dictatorial state but something new and unique. However, by 1925 the Italian Fascists had taken the word and began to apply it to themselves. This was a skill that Fascism, both the Italian variety and elsewhere, were really adept at doing, taking what some saw as an insult and instead turning it into a self complement. A key part of this new totalitarian Fascist state was control, with Mussolini saying in October 1925 that ‘all is for the state, nothing is outside the state, nothing and no one are against the state.’ This idea, that no one should be able to go against the wishes of the state and the party, caused Italy to turn into aa police state as early as 1926, depending on your definition. Meetings of political groups, both Fascist and anti-fascist, were banned unless specifically supported by the local Prefect. This was just one facet of control over Italian life exercised by the Fascist State, we will discuss many more in this episode. All of these actions could be summarized by this quote from Adrian Lyttelton in The Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy 1919-1929 “The dictator remains in power through his ability to combine control from above through his mastery of the Government and party machines with control from below, through his popularity with the mass of his subjects. He uses the governing elite to control the masses by means of the single party, the police, the unions, the youth movement, etc. but at the same time he holds the elite in check by his ability to appeal directly to the public, who have come to regard him as a father figure.” In the back half of this episode we will discuss what would turn into the next phase of Italian Fascism, after it had gained full control of Italy it would begin to look beyond its borders. Italian Fascism, and many other political movements within Italy during this period of history contained a strong belief that territorial expansion was an important, a critical, party of Italy’s future. While this expansion would not be realized until the mid 1930s, it would still play an important part in obtaining and expanding Fascist support during the 1920s, we will discuss the roots of some of this expansionist zeal late in this episode. To end the episode I will touch just briefly on how Italian Fascism relates to German Nazism, which will certainly not be the last time we discuss the relationship between the two groups, but I have gotten a few questions about it so I wanted to touch on it briefly now before we move on to another topic next episode.
After January 3, 1925 and Mussolini’s speech before the Italian Parliament, all of the problems that Mussolini had with the Fascist party did not just disappear. There were still many Fascists who were displeased with his more moderate approach to working with the government, and so further actions by Mussolini were necessary to maintain control. One of the actions that he would take was to ensure that the Fascist party continued accepting new members. These new members were often not welcomed by the more seasoned party members, partially due to their more moderate outlook, which brought them closely into line with Mussolini’s own beliefs and actions. Another important step that Mussolini took to control the radicals within the party was to promote them. Now, that may seem a bit contradictory, but it caused all of those other leaders to expensive the same problems that Mussolini was. A Fascist leader who wanted Mussolini to take a more radical approach was promoted into the government, where there were many opening as more and more leadership positions were filled by Fascists. This would have the effect of creating a rift between the leader and his followers, robbing the leader of the support to make radical changes that they had previously advocated for while also making them dependent on the continuation of the status quo to remain in power. It was a very smart move.
While working to continue to gain control of the Fascist party, Mussolini and the government was also working to neutralize the remaining opposition, and to rob it of its popular support. This would be done by continuing to attack the power of the labor unions. Mussolini would consistently chose not to directly attack the union leaders, but to instead attack the future strength of the unions by working to bring union leaders into closer cooperation with the government. At the same time he collaborated with industrialists and business leaders to gain their support, even though they were quite concerned about the situation. These efforts would lead to the Palazzo-Vidoni pact, which would quite remarkably abolish Socialist and Catholic labor unions, with the only allowable unions being Fascist unions. Business leaders were required to only recognize and work with these unions moving forward. There were concerns among those business leaders about how much power this gave to the Fascists, but they were mollified by assurances made by Mussolini and other Fascist leaders. The Palazzo-Vidoni Pact was taken a step further in 1926 with the introduction of what was known as the Rocco Law. This resulted in a union being created for each industry, one under the control of the state, with strikes and other labor actions outlawed. These new unions were all put under the control of the General Confederation of Fascist Syndical Corporations, initially led by Edmundo Rossolini before being taken over by Mussolini in 1928.
During the mid and late 1920s Italian economic growth was slow, and then after 1928 it saw a decline which was a decline that rippled throughout the world due to the effects of the Great Depression. However, due to the lackluster performance of the Italian economy even before Mussolini came to power the 1920s and 30s would be an exceptionally hard economic period for Italians. Real wages for workers would continue to decline until 1936, with some sectors of the economic high much harder by this decline than others. One particularly hard hit set of workers were the day laborers, who saw their real wages decline by 30% between 1928 and 1938. For many, subsistence was life, and consumer spending remained very low. There was slow growth of the entire Italian economy, roughly 1.9% per year after 1922, but this was well below the average for a Western European economy during this time. This did not hurt support for Fascism as much as it did other government in other countries though, and part of this was due to the messaging of Fascism, which had always described work as a social duty, where every individual should do their part to support the state and to make it strong.
While workers, primarily men, were being asked to work for wages that gave them less purchasing power, women were influenced by the Fascist regime as well. The push for a higher birth rate caused the regime to try and alter how women were viewed within society and to push for a very specific type of women to be seen as the “correct” Italian woman. This was done through continual attempts to regulate female sexuality and body image, with dress codes and newspapers being disallowed from publishing pictures of women who were deemed to be too thin. There would also be efforts to reduce access to birth control and to increase the penalties for having an abortion. In these efforts the regime had the widespread support of the Catholic church. This did not prevent Italian women from seeking abortions though, and in the early 1930s the abortion rate would still be very high, with some statistics putting it as high as 20%. Part of the desire for abortions was due to the continued poverty of large swaths of Italian society. This poverty caused both urban and rural workers to marry later and then have smaller families due to economic concerns.
During the 1920s there would be a general erosion of rights for Italians, thanks to moves made by the Fascist regime and the Italian parliament which it controlled. These would slowly remove many civil liberties, then democratic rights, and then eventually the earlier Italian constitution would be a hollow document. For example in November 1926 a decree was announced which put tight surveillance on any form of dissent, under the guise of securing public safety, but really it was just a method of maintaining control. Control was very important to Mussolini, and eventually the foot soldiers in the maintenance of this control, the Secret Police, would number almost 130,000. Concern, bordering on paranoia about maintaining this control would continue into the late 30s, which was the period of greatest Fascist strength in Italy. Even during that period Mussolini would have daily conversations with his Chief of Police to discuss any possible concerns with public opinion. One possible avenue of resistance was the Catholic Church, but in 1929 an agreement would be reached with the Church known as the Lateran pacts. These agreements resolved many of the outstanding concerns between the Catholic Church and Italy, for example it formalized the arrangement of Vatican City. Most importantly to Mussolini it clarified the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Italian Government.
There were some areas in which the regime did not officially change any laws, but instead just exerted pressure on parts of society, this is mostly what they did when it came to reshaping women’s role in society. There were also official efforts to change facets of society, an early target for official government oppression was the newspapers. It was important for the Fascists to control the access of the people to views and debates that did not agree with the official policies of the regime. In this way they hoped to control the course of events, and have sole control over what the “truth” was. Mussolini was previously a journalist, and this also meant that he was particularly interested in the Italian newspapers and how they interacted with his regime. The process of full scale oppression of the press would begin shortly after the Matteotti murder. If you remember, the press played a large role in spreading the rumors and facts about the role of the Fascist leadership in the murder, and so after that crisis had passed changes were made. As early as January 10, 1925 this process began when Federzoni released a statement that the government would begin to eliminate the printing of articles that contained certain content, because the government was to determined ‘firmly to guarantee public order against any danger whatever of a disturbance’. The first step was an order that allowed the local Prefect to warn any newspaper that ‘damaged the credit of the nation at home or abroad’, ‘aroused unjustified alarm in the public’, or published ‘false or tendentious news.’ Essentially this meant that newspapers could no longer print stories that were critical of Italy, the government, Fascism, or which could be considered false or promoted controversial viewpoints. The Prefects were then able to use these new powers to shut down almost any paper that they wanted to. This new censorship power caused many Prefects to make agreements with newspaper owners to control what they printed, the owners were concerned that their papers would be shut down which forced them into these agreements which were often made without consulting their editors or writers. By the end of 1925 all journalists had to belong to the Order of Journalists, which was a tightly controlled group that prevented any journalists with, lets call them disagreeable attitudes, from being employed.
While most policies of the regime were reactive, designed to punish those that went against the wish the regime and prevent such incidents in the future, other policies were more proactive, like the policies that the Fascists put in place that would alter the Italian education system. The Fascist revolution was always meant to be permanent, and that meant the next generation had to be properly indoctrinated with the correct set of beliefs to carry on. What was created was a textbook definition of how to use propaganda to influence education, and it started with the textbooks. All of the elementary schools in Italy used the same textbook, and it was one filled with Fascist symbolism. Music classes would sing Fascist songs, they would read Fascist literature, and math was taught using Fascist examples. At times this propaganda was not even remotely subtle, here is a quote from a Middle School textbook in 1937 “The State is greater than the individual, and the individual has duties toward the Fatherland and the State. In war and in peace, a good citizen is he who is obedient to the laws of the State.” The teachers that were already present in the education system were a barrier to these changes, and so in December 1925 a law was passed to allow for any educator to be forcibly retired should they express views that were in any way ‘incompatible with the general political aims of the government.’ Eventually membership in the Fascist party would be mandatory for all teachers. The Fascist regime would also restructure schools so that it ended earlier for most students, with the majority reaching the end of their education at the age of 14. Many would then be sent for three years to ‘complementary schools’ which offered no form of advancement and were built around the idea of teaching only necessary vocational skills. One of the reasons for this change is explained by Christopher Duggan in The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796 like this “One of the consequences (and aims) of this innovation was to debar working and lower-middle class children from proceeding up the academic ladder and thus (it was suspected) acquiring ambitions above their station.” On the flip side of this equation, the Fascist regime received support from many Italian intellectuals which saw Fascism as a way to solve many of the problems facing Italian society. Fascism at a fundamental level was at odds with intellectualism, but in practice would often work with them, or at least accept their support to further the Fascist cause. In the long run one of the many challenges of Italian Fascism in the late 1930s would be the disillusionment of many of those same individuals that had gone through the new Fascist educational system. They had been promised a very specific view of the future and of Italian society, when they graduated from school they would find that many of these promises were still unfulfilled, leading to a search for new answers.
With all of these efforts to control the populace, both directly and through propaganda it is appropriate to talk briefly about the overall reactions among the people. One thing that is a bit surprising is the lack of public protests to what was happening. Even if most Italian agreed with the course that Fascism was taking, it is still surprising that there were not more protests from those that did not. There were two main reasons for this. The first was the violence that was already being meted out to any who publicly disagreed with the regime. This reduced the popularity of public protests, but did not totally prevent them. Even in the late 1930s there were still thousands of operations by police every week trying to track down and arrest members of opposition groups within the country. This proves that there certainly were some groups that were not comfortable with what was happening. however, this brings us to the second main reason that the protests were not well known. To put it simply, the government, both local and national, worked hard to keep a lid on events. With control of the newspapers it was easy to keep news of protests from spreading. Added onto this was the tendency of Fascist Prefects throughout Italy to downplay the size and spirit of the opposition in the territory that they were in charge of. Prefects were expected to control their provinces, and so it was in their own best interest to under report any problems or protests. This makes it difficult to trust official reports, and so the exact scale of popular protest to regime actions is very difficult to determine.
While working to secure their internal position, there was also an interesting situation for Italian Fascists and their position within the wider global fascist movement. During the 1920s Mussolini was often resistant to the idea that Fascist could be exported to other nations. However, this mindset seems to have altered over time, and in 1932 he would publish “Doctrine of Fascism” a work that tried to provide definition and structure around Mussolini’s Fascism and to capitalize on international interest in Fascism. One interesting arrangement that would last until the late 1930s was the position of Italian Fascism on the international stage not as a radical political movement to be shunned, but instead as a somewhat reasonable right wing political movement which could be a counterweight to Bolshevism and even more extreme right wing movements. The overall decline of the postwar political arrangements around Europe played into this view. Here is R.J.B. Bosworth from Mussolini’s Italy “The numerous retreats from the Wilsonian mixture of parliamentarism, liberal capitalism and benign nationalism (self-determination), which, by October 1938, left not a single liberal democracy surviving in all Europe outside its western fringe, were similarly influential in stimulating Italians to think that generic fascism might be ‘the doctrine of the twentieth century’, as the Duce took ambitiously to calling it.”
This brings us to the topic of how other nations viewed events in Italy. When looking at the reaction to the Fascist takeover in Italy during the 1920s two things are very important to keep in mind. The first is that, at least initially, the Fascists were not greatly different in their political actions from other conservative groups in Europe. They were more violent in their path, they were more revolutionary in their rhetoric, but Mussolini was reasonably conservative in his actions in the early years. The second, and by far the most important was the relationship between the anti-Communist or anti-Bolshevik rhetoric and actions of the Fascists and the incredible fear that many, if not most western countries were at serious risk of Bolshevik actions. The Communist belief system represented a Clear and Present Danger to the power and prestige of the traditional political elite of Western Europe. This meant that their reaction to every political development in Europe during the early 1920s was colored by the fact that for several years there was an active Civil War in Russia, and then after the very real concern that the Communist revolution was spread to the West. The best example of this is probably in the British political leadership. When looking at it from the future, the role that we know Fascists play in the Second World War some of the things that were said by the British politicians seem a bit crazy. But anti-Bolshevism was a priority, and so you get people like Winston Churchill saying in 1927 that “Different countries have different ways of doing the same thing…If I had been an Italian, I am sure that I should have been whole-heartedly with you from start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism*. But in England we have not yet had to face his danger in the same deadly form…. But that we shall succeed in grappling with Communism and choking the life out of it - of that I am absolutely sure.” Later when Hitler would come to prominence in Germany his views were seen as extreme and this put Mussolini in the position of being the “good Fascist.” This, along with geopolitical security concerns would lead many countries to continue to try and work closely with Mussolini and the Italians, even if they would later be great critics and enemies of the Italian leader. The effects of Anti-Bolshevik sentiment on Western political decisions during the 1920s and 30s is a topic that we will discuss in great detail once we get to our episodes on the Spanish Civil War, however it is important to keep in mind that it was incredibly important to many foreign leaders as they views events in Italy and elsewhere.
Those foreign governments would not really come into direct conflict with Mussolini’s beliefs and actions until Italy began to look beyond its own borders. One of the real strengths of the Fascist movement was its utilization and capitalization on existing societal feelings, and incorporating them into its own set of beliefs. The recentness of Italian Unification, which had only been completed in 1871 was an important recent event in Italian history. It was caused by, and then created a push for, greater Italian unification both politically and culturally. The Fascists would tap into that feeling, billing themselves as the ultimate culmination of that idea. They also explained that they were the ones that could take those optimistic dreams of a bright, unified, Italian future and turn them into reality. A key component was that national unification was not the end goal, and instead just a stepping stone toward expansion, and specifically expansion to undo some political agreements that dated back to unification. During the unification process there were certain territories that some believed should belong to Italy that had been left outside of the new nation of Italy. This had been the number one reason that Italy had joined the First World War, to regain some of those territories, many of which they were promised in negotiations with the Entente before they entered the war in 1915. however, the seeming failure of Italian negotiators at the Paris Peace Conference was seen as a national disgrace, and undoing those mistakes were a constant refrain for the Fascists. they would push strongly for territorial expansion to address this failure and bring the Italian irredenta back into Italy. The expansion would take on greater urgency after Fascist power was solidified, and it would be the final form of the kind of social Darwinism that was seen as necessary by fascists. The idea that the violent struggle, after its national manifestation would then spool out onto the international stage was seen as an inevitable event, and one that the Fascists would win decisively due to their strength and resolve. For Italy, and for Mussolini, eyes turned to Africa as an area where the Italian empire could expand and they drew inspiration from the imperialistic policies of past generations, back during the height of European imperialism during the Victorian age. However, while Mussolini and other Italian leaders looked to imperialism as a way to boost Italian strength and prestige, there were many others who were a bit more hesitant. For example a critical part of such imperialism, if Italy wanted to actually expand its power in practice and not just in concept, was economic investment and exploitation. With the economic situation in Italy many business leaders were resistant to exporting their money into what seemed like risky investments outside the country. These expansion efforts will be an important part of Italian actions during the 1930s and will therefore be important to our continuing story here on this podcast.
The concept of foreign conquest, and an acceptance of the violence that it would entail would become a core part of many fascist regimes. For example in Germany, the expansion of German territory into Eastern Europe would be a core tenant of Adolf Hitler’s ideology, one that he shared with many other leading figures in the German National Socialist Party. Which brings us to a contentious topic, and that is the relation between German National Socialism and Italian Fascism. This is a question that had been discussed by historians, sociologists, and political scientists since the Second World War and how you answer the question greatly depends on how one considers, defines, and weighs various aspects of the comparison. One of the largest challenges is due to how much the movements changed over the years, and how he would influence the others as the years went by. When the Italian Fascists launched their March on Rome the German National Socialist party was still a small fringe group in Bavaria, they would not gain their national profile until years later, and only after the catastrophic failure of the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. Hitler admired the March on Rome, what it meant and signified, and would use it as an inspiration for one possible path to power. Then later as the two nations came closer together in the late 1930s, features of Nazism began to be adopted in Italy. It would be at this time that racism, which had always been present in Fascist rhetoric, would gain in importance and would take on greater anti-Semitic overtones. From a structural standpoint both of the parties were similar, they had one leading figure and a certain amount of a leadership cult built up around them. The largest difference was the point at which the movements came to power, with Hitler having firmly taken control of the Nazi movement before 1933, whereas Mussolini was still in some ways grappling with some of the organizational problems that the Nazi party had solved in the late 1920s and early 1930s. If you just look at their actions during their rise to power both parties look quite similar. Both parties would come to power through at least theoretically legal means, with the help of the more traditional conservative and right wing parties in their respective nations. In both cases these groups would feel that they could control the two leaders, and in the case of both Hitler and Mussolini they would prove to be incorrect. Then the new leaders would have a confrontation with the violent groups that had helped bring them to power. In Italy this would result in Mussolini’s speech of January 3, 1925 and in Germany it would result in what is today known as the Night of the Long Knives. However, in the political arena these events and actions are not always what matters, which means we have to turn our eyes to beliefs and polices which is where trying to compare the two movements gets very fuzzy. Political beliefs change over time for any group in any nation during any lengthy period of time, but both the Nazis and the Fascists were subject to much greater swings in beliefs and much greater differences between rhetoric and actions. They would both have their roots in socialist groups, but would later completely reject those policies. They would both spend years telling everyone who would listen that they were anti-capitalist, but then when they came to power they would take actions to strengthen capitalism within their nations. they would both believe that action and violence was what made a nation strong, and this would manifest in para-militarism which both parties supported and believed in as a way of launched a revolution…until they wanted that revolution to end. These are just some examples, the details that we could go into are almost never-ending. In a few episodes we will begin our discussion about the events in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, at the end of those episodes I will revisit this topic, hopefully at a point where you can also have formed your own opinion. However, to be clear about my own, since you are listening to me. I believe that Italian Fascism and German Nazism were related and that they were the manifestation of the same movement in two different nations. Did the movements have some differences? Absolutely, they were influenced and altered by their own national character and the beliefs of their own leaders. But their core, their reason for existence and their methods to achieve it were the same. They both sought complete control over their nations and the people to lived their, they both saw violence as not just an acceptable but necessary step towards gaining that control, and they both believed that the future of their nations and the world revolved around a single party state where dissension was forbidden and obedience was paramount. Also, they were ruled over by two individuals, and those individuals believed that they were part of the same movement, and that has to count for something.