A critical component of political change during the interwar period was fascism, and it would begin in Italy.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War episode 7, Rise of Mussolini Part 1 - Fascism. This podcast is supported by listeners just like you, and for that support they are given special members only benefits like ad-free episodes and special monthly episodes. This week has seen the largest number of new supporters in the history of my time doing podcasting, and so I would like to thank Philip, Jackson, Dmitriy, Russell, Patrick, Maxime, Craig, Jerry, Chris, Steven, Cary, Doug, Kevin, Alex W., Bengt-Ake, Aaron, Alex M., Roy, Malcolm for becoming members, and to Don for the donation. If you would like to join that list, head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more information. During the period between 1917 and 1933 it is difficult to overstate the importance of political revolutions around Europe. Not all of those revolutions fit into the standard revolution template, with a group proclaiming their intention to overthrow the government, but many of them were truly revolutionary. It would begin in Russia in 1917, with first the Socialist revolution of February and then the Bolshevik revolution of October, these revolutions in Russia would be followed by a brutal civil war that would not end until the mid 1920s. The German Revolution of 1918 and early 1919 would see the influence of moderate socialist parties solidified in Germany, but more radical groups suppressed. Germany would be just one of several nations of central Europe that would see their previous governments replaced by new ones led by socialists and social democrats. These changes in government, with a massive shift to the left, when combined with the increase in power and influence of the political parties on the left in many other European nations caused tremendous concern all throughout the continent. It would result in many of those nations seeing a tug of war throughout the interwar period, as socialists and communists on the left strove against conservatives and reactionaries on the right. At times this tension would escalate into violence, and in a few nations it would cause radical right wing nationalist groups to come to power. Nowhere would shift be more impactful than in Germany and in our topic for these episodes, Italy. Benito Mussolini would be the first leader of a fascist group to gain control of a nation when he became the Prime Minster of Italy in 1922. He would do so at the head of a group with a - let’s call it complicated - set of beliefs that would change over time. At the core of these beliefs was concern and anger at the growing power of socialism and communism within Italy. Mussolini’s March on Rome, and then his actions to consolidate his power within Italy would be seen as an inspiration by other right wing groups throughout the world. His ability to control the radical left would be seen by many Western politicians, even those who would later be among the most outspoken anti-fascist leaders, as a tremendous accomplishment. While Mussolini would eventually become the one person in control of the Italian fascist state, he would begin as merely one of many fascist leaders within the country. In this episode we will seek to answer the question of what precisely was the fascist ideology that drove the Italian fascists to gain support throughout Italy, and then in many other nations. It is a question that seems upon first glance to be easy to answer, but it will have many complications. We will then discuss the views of fascism held by its primary enemy, those political leaders in the Socialist and communist parties throughout Europe, parties that from here on out I will refer to simply as the Left. This will just be the first of a four part series as we discuss how Mussolini came to power, how he solidified that power, and then his actions after his position had been assured.
Mussolini, like many leaders during the interwar years, had served in the First World War. He had fought on the Isonzo, and before the war he would best be described as a socialist. However, during the war and then after he would become attracted to fascism and its principles. During these years support for fascism would grow rapidly in Italy, which brings us to a very important question, what precisely was fascism? Before we try to answer that question, first lets discuss what early Italian fascists thought they were supporting, and answer which is incredibly varied. In its early days fascism would try to lay claim to the idea that it was the natural outgrowth of the brotherhood experienced by those soldiers who had fought during the war and in the trenches. They would claim that this spirit had brought Italy to victory, and it would help the nation reach new heights of power and prestige. It would also claim that Italy’s victory had been taken from them in 1919 during the Paris Peace Conference, when Italy was betrayed. These were incredibly broad concepts and did not specify an exact mission or course of action for fascism. This can be blamed on the fact that fascism, unlike its arch-nemesis socialism was not based on an intellectual movement, there was not a Fascist Marx or Engels, who had evolved theoretical discussions and decisions long before they were put in place. Socialists and Communists of this period constantly and consistently referred back to the foundation ideas of Marxism dating back to the Communist Manifesto and before. There was nothing like this in Fascism, and because there was not single unifying vision for what fascism was or should be fascist movements throughout Europe and the world would diverge in both their actions and their end goals. This caused the movement to be very fluid. Some governments would borrow features of fascist nations to assist their own goals, such as mass mobilization and a projection of strength without fully embracing fascism itself. All of this has presented a problem for historians as they have tried over the decades to identify what fascism was, or is, and how it should be classified.
Striving for a way to define and identify fascism has occupied a colossal amount of space in the study of the rise of Mussolini and other fascists. Almost every single book I have read on the topic, and most of the journal articles have at least touched on the topic, if only to say that the quest for a proper definition seems to be never ending. In honor of this tradition we have to discuss it at least a little bit in this episode. To quote historian Robert Paxton, from his seminal work The Five Stages of Fascism “At ﬁrst sight, nothing seems easier to understand than fascism. It presents itself to us in crude, primary images: a chauvinist demagogue haranguing an ecstatic crowd; disciplined ranks of marching youths; uniform-shirted militants beating up members of some demonized minority; obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood; and compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, pursued with redemptive violence. Yet great difﬁculties arise as soon as one sets out to deﬁne fascism.” One of the largest problems is a one of details, Mussolini himself would often explain what fascism was in only the broadest of terms, speaking of a single party, a single nation, a single leader, but what the party, nation, and leader should try to achieve was often left to amorphous ideas of power, prosperity, and control. There was not a specific plan, nor a specific roadmap, and even in cases in which a specific policy was pursued that specific policy might change based on the situation. To quote R.J.B. Bosworth from Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945 “as Mussolini told Franco in October 1936, what the Spaniard should aim at was a regime that was simultaneously ‘authoritarian’, ‘social’ and‘popular’.” However, this ambiguity was seen by many as not a weakness but a strength, or as Fascist Camillo Pellizzi would say: “Above all else fascism is and must every increasingly become a ‘way of life’. To cast it as dogma, however the word is understood, means to bind it with a chain that, if it is not immediately sundered in the process of acting, can only end up shackling and perhaps killing off all future development.”
While the exact specifics of what the definitional form of fascism is defined as can be difficult to determine, there are some key concepts at the root of all examples that we have of fascist movements. Core to the fascist idea is the belief that a unified, centralized, and authoritarian state is the best way to bring about change and to push the state forward towards a better future. To achieve this state, all members of the state must be fully devoted to this future, and those that are not should be dealt with in some way, including violence. This violence interacts with a belief in Social Darwinism, that only the strong should control the fate of the nation, to produce a movement that will quickly discard those groups that are seen as weak. Fascism was also seen as the path that rejected both capitalism and communism, and the concept that fascism represented a third way outside of these two dominant systems was core to early fascist movements. Another constant was violence, unremitting violence. Fascism worships violence as a way to cleanse and purify the state, to remove those that would not support fascist ideas. In the early years this violence was committed by paramilitary groups that would spring up in nations like Italy and Germany. These groups, often made up of war veterans, rejected the pacifism that was a growing feature of European politics after the war. They believed that instead their violence would lead to a better system. While these paramilitary groups could cause a negative reaction among large groups in society they would one of the core reasons that fascism would not just survive but thrive. The actions of the paramilitaries, as violent and destructive as they were, gave the movement a kind of dynamism and feeling of momentum that so many other political movements lacked. The paramilitary groups believed they were on the righteous crusade, and such a belief structure was powerful and contagious. The willingness of the paramilitary groups to treat all opponents as worthy of violence, and then to ruthlessly pursue that violence against them cause many people, even though outside of the core fascist groups, to believe that they could bring some sort of order to modern society. For example, if you were a person who also believed that communism was going to be the downfall of society, the fascists were the ones obviously dealing with that problem not just theoretically or politically, but out on the streets. How they were doing this was at times unsettling, with all of the brutal and savage beatings of people and the mass killings of those who opposed them. Many would ignore the actions and focus in on the results, which they saw as successful outcomes, and then in the later years the violence would simply be ignored, until eventually the paramilitary groups were brought to heel after the fascists came to power. However, by that point the paramilitary groups had performed their most important purpose, catapulting fascism onto the national stage. It was through their devotion to the idea, and their willingness to do whatever was necessary, that they would accomplish this task.
Of course, when it came to violence, fascists needed a target. In our two largest case studies for what fascism looks like in action, Italy and Germany, the first great enemy of fascism was the socialists and communists, or really any political group on the left. This had its roots in the two different ways in which the groups saw society and its problems. From the communist viewpoint the conflict was between the classes, with the workers needing to seize control. For fascists, class did not really come into play, or at least not in the way that Marx intended. Instead fascists saw the productive and supportive classes ranged against their unproductive enemies, and how a group was classified as unproductive often had little to do with their specific economy output and instead was based on a wide range of almost arbitrary factors. For example racism, while intrinsic to later fascism in Germany, did not play a large role in fascist rhetoric in Italy in the early 1920s. What was present in that rhetoric was an extreme intolerance for diversity, but it was not necessary a condemnation of diversity as it related to racial characteristics but was instead a wider condemnation of diversity of any kind. Often these feelings would feed into pre-existing prejudices within a society, and they would be amplified. This was one of the reasons that prejudice and violence against Jews would be so catastrophic, it fed on pre existing anti-Semitism within society. The support for anti-communist rhetoric followed this pattern as well, there were many groups around Europe in a variety of countries that were incredibly fearful of communism spreading into Western Europe. The fascist movement would tap into this fear and use it both to gain supporters but also as an excuse for their violent actions. However this is just one example of the driving need of fascism to find enemies, they saw violence as a cleansing action for a society, a necessary step, and that required enemies, either internal or external, that could be the target of that violence.
One final piece that is important to understand when it comes to fascism is that fascist movements are often ready and willing to change. When you compare some of the radical rhetoric of fascist movements early in their path to power, they often bear little resemblance to what they would actually do once they were in power. Early Italian Fascism contained ideas of radical social change, changes that might easily be compared to those advocated for by socialists, but once Mussolini sought to take the final steps into power, these were cast aside. In 1920 the program for the National Socialist party in Germany was strongly anti-capitalist, a viewpoint that would be chipped away at over time, and by 1933 they would come to power with the help of those same capitalists. In each case the ideological position came in a distant second in importance to gaining power. They are also examples of the fascist movements compromising on their path to power. Robert Paxton would describe this process in his five stage of fascism, which can be summarized as: 1: Initial creation of movements; 2 their rooting as parties in a political system; 3 the acquisition of power; 4 the exercise of power; 5 radicalization or entropy. Paxton posits that the first stage if very common, it is mostly the idea stage of a movement and can be participated in by only a few individuals. The second stage happens far less frequently, as it requires a fascist movement to become a legitimate political force within a nation. When this does occur it often requires drastic changes to the political program, with at least some outward moderation and a downplaying of anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist viewpoints. Then at the third stage, the actual movement into power, the two best examples, and maybe only two examples depending on your definitional choices are Germany and Italy. After these two fascist parties game into power they then had to reckon with their earlier ideas and supporters. In both cases the parties made compromises to secure the support of the larger population and more traditional political groups. This often caused a dissonance with the more radical and hardcore supporters from the earlier stages of development, particularly members of the paramilitary groups that had been made up of the most radical fascists. These supporters were critical to fascist leaders as they sought to gain power, but then they instantly became a liability as fascist leaders tried to solidify their power. How they were dealt with would change based on the nation, but they would have to be dealt with, which will be a topic for later episodes.
Up to this point in the episode we have mostly discussed the most ardent supporters of fascism, the leaders of the movement and those members of the paramilitary groups that supported them. However, the support base for fascism was much larger than just this fanatical core. This support came from a wide variety of places, for example in Italy one of the early support groups were the rural middle classes, the landowners, share croppers, and tenant farmers of northern Italy. These individuals were threatened by the growing activism of the Socialist Agricultural Leagues that were pushing for better conditions and pay for rural laborers. Strikes had already occurred in these regions, which caused the middle class employers to turn to the fascists as a way to push back against the workers. This is just one example of the middle classes reaching out to fascists as a way to combat the growing influence of socialist movements all over Europe. Here is Adrian Lyttelton in Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy 1919-1929 with a good explanation as to why “To the petty bourgeoisie, and even the professional classes, faced with the serious decline in living standards and with their social function denied by proletarian socialism, Fascism offered not only psychological reassurance, but a means of overcoming the fatal defect of disorganization which rendered them helpless in the face of the pressures from the forces of organized capitalism on one hand, and the trad unions on the other.” These connections between the fascists and the middle classes was very important, it provided them with money and connections at a time when both of these were incredibly important to the future development of the fascist movements. I will also say that it is important not to overstate the wide ranging support for the fascists in the early years of their existence, during these years they relied far more on the fanaticism of their followers than on the support of a large portion of society.
Fascism would always claim that the Left was the enemy of the state, and that it had to be eradicated. For their part, those on the left also viewed fascism as a real threat. It seems only appropriate here in this episode to look at how the political leaders on the left viewed fascism during this period. When looking at these viewpoints it is clear that that for everybody outside of the fascist groups they were grappling with the ever evolving nature of fascism and it was a challenge for them to properly define fascism and to try and determine a proper reaction to them. Or as Gerhard Gotz would say in Austro-Marxist Interpretation of Fascism “When other groups in Europe were reacting to fascism and its rise they were dealing with not a completed phenomenon neatly encapsulated between two dates, but as a living movement in a constant state of flux.” Or as the Communist Palmiro Togliatti would say “Fascist ideology is nothing if not a chameleon. Look at fascist ideology only in terms of the goal that fascism was aiming to achieve at that precise moment with that precise ideology.” Even though the target was always shifting there were many discussions and attempts to define the movement. At first they would look at fascism from a classist perspective. In this view they believed that fascists belonged to classes that were most directly threatened by the Marxist social revolution. The class most at threat by this revolution was the petit bourgeoisie, who were threatened not just by the social revolution, but also by the larger industrial capitalists. Or as Julius Braunthal would say in 1922 fascism was ‘the brutal expression of the property-owning classes desire for domination, counter-revolution in its modern form of militaristic violence’ the capitalist class was seeking to upset the ‘equilibrium of class forces’ between, on the one hand, the economic hegemony of the bourgeoisie and, on the other, the political power of the proletariat. This connection between fascism and capitalism was solidified by the time of the Fifth World Congress of the Comintern of 1924. At the Congress fascism was also connected to both just a poorly structured proletarian revolution and the contamination of communist movements by social democrats. The resolution from the Congress would say “in its social structure fascism is a petty-bourgeois movement; it has its roots in the middle classes doomed to decay as a result of the capitalist crisis.” Deeply rooted in the Left’s definition of fascism was that it was created by and supported by capitalists, and especially those capitalists least secure within society. This viewpoint also explained why fascism had so much support among younger individuals as they were less likely to have a secure position within society especially in those areas most negative effected by the First World War, where those entering into adulthood had so many problems finding their way. The reason for these issues, according to many Marxists, was capitalism itself, and fascism was just an outgrowth of that issue. Or as Austrian Marxist Wilhelm Ellengogen would claim the success of of fascism was linked to certain development tendencies in capitalist society. There was also some belief within Marxist leaders that fascism, without a central driving force, was destined to eventually self destruct. One example of these line of thought came from the Austrian Social Democrat Otto Bauer, and in general this viewpoint was due to a severe under estimation of the ability of fascists to change their positions, and to navigating the difficult waters between maintaining the support of their most radical followers and gaining the support of the leading capitalists.
While trying to determine a way to define and categorize fascism, those on the Left, and really anybody outside of the fascism itself were dealing with a movement that had spread to many different nations. While the fascist movements in Italy and Germany will receive most of our attention, there were many other nations where fascist groups would be created and would enjoy at least some popular support. One example of this, and I will stress that this is just one example of many, would be in France. In France a fascist party would be founded shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933. It would be founded by Marcel Bucard and would be named the Mouvement Franciste, a movement based more on Italian fascism than on Nazism, they would also receive monetary support from Italy. They would participate in the International Fascist conference in 1934, this conference was attended by 13 different national fascist parties from around Europe, although there were many absences such as Germany and Britain. Representatives at the conference would disagree on many specific policies, but it is a good example of how widespread and pervasive fascist movement were in Europe by the 1930s. Next week we will begin a more detailed discussion of fascism in just one nation, Italy.