In October 1922 the Fascists would take an important step, and they would stage a March on Rome.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 8 The Rise of Mussolini Part 2 - Italian Fascism. Patreon Diane and Karl. Also, I would like to remind everybody that for every episode of the podcast I post a full transcript and a sources list over on historyofthesecondworldwar.com. As we discussed in detail last week, a generic definition for fascism is difficult to determine. Or as Aristotle Kallis says in Fascist Ideology: Territory and expansionism in Italy and Germany, 1922-1945 “Attempts to devise a generic ideological minimum of fascism have stumbled upon two major objections. On the one hand, a number of historians have categorically rejected the notion that a specific fascist value system underpinned the decisions and actions of the fascist movements/regimes. On the other hand, even amongst those who accept the ontological value of fascist ideas, there is widespread skepticism about the validity and utility of a generic model of ‘fascist ideology’.” Because of this difficult the best way to discuss fascism is to look at the events and actions of specific fascist movements. Today we begin by discussing the growth of the Italian fascist party in the years immediately following the First World War. At this time they were a party that was trying to establish themselves in the Italian political landscape. We will end our discussion right after the March on Rome, the event that would catapult Mussolini to the position of Italian Prime Minister in 1922. The March on Rome, and then the events immediately following would be pretty much the defining moment for Italian fascism.
The roots of the Italian fascist party that would come to power in 1922 were based in the First World War. Italy had entered the First World War after signing the Treaty of London with the Entente made up of the British Empire and France. In that treaty Italy was promised large territorial expansion opportunities should the Entente be victorious in the conflict. This included areas to the north of Italy’s borders, territories across the Adriatic in Dalmatia, a set of Peloponnesian Islands, and even lands as far away as Asia Minor. Few of these territories would actually be given over to Italy during the Paris Peace Conference, mostly because many of them conflicted with other guarantees given to other nations that had been brought into the war. The failure of the Italian government to make good on these clauses caused great disappointment among many in Italy, with the term ‘mutilated victory’ being used to describe what had occurred at the Paris Peace Conference. This caused many groups without Italy to come to the belief that Italy’s participation in the war had not been worth it, a feeling that was just amplified by the economic and societal strains of the three year long conflict. Many also felt that the sacrifices made by Italy and the Italian people were not born equally by all of the nation, which was mostly accurate, while some in Italy were reduced by the war and resulting economic challenges to destitution, others would profit greatly from Italy’s war effort. This caused anger and frustration to grow among those in the lower classes, the workers both urban and rural. A large number of those most frustrated by the war and its outcomes were, unsurprisingly, the war veterans, who had fought in the Italian army during the war. All of these disgruntled individuals, veterans or not, would find ways to vent their frustration. For some they turned to the political groups on the left and the Italian socialist and communist parties would see a rapid increase in support. Many other would choose the opposite path and instead put their support behind political parties on the right, including the Italian fascist party.
The Italian fascist party did not begin life as a radical right wing party, instead, coming into 1919 many of its policies were considered to be very leftist at the time. During those early years they would support workers’ rights, including support for an 8 hour work day. Along with supporting these changes, the fascists were also supported during this period by syndicalists, a group that would be important early supporters of the Italian fascist movement. Syndicalism is the belief that unions and workers associations are the best way to break the power of the upper classes. Italian syndicalism would split during the First World War into two groups, one that opposed the war, and would later support the socialists, and those that supported the war, the future national syndicalists that would support fascism. The philosophical difference between the two groups was in how they viewed the relationship between the workers and the unions or syndicates. National syndicalists saw the syndicates as a way to control the workers, to put them under the control of the state, non-fascist syndicalists saw the syndicates as controlled by the workers and for the workers. The national syndicalists would support Mussolini and would mix their beliefs with strong Italian nationalism, a mixture that would result in a belief structure that rejected democracy and Marxism, while embracing violence, a set of views that precisely mimicked those of the fascists. It would be during 1920 that the Italian fascist party would make the conscious choice to adopt these policies which would coincide with a strong move away from workers rights and other leftist policies and toward the right. This was done in the belief that the party could gain greater support, both among the people and just as importantly financially from business leaders and other conservative individuals. During this period of transition for the Italian fascists the Italian socialists were a party that was growing in support, especially in the northern areas of the country, but was also one that was quite disjointed. Many of its leaders were unconvinced that a true socialist revolution would be allowed to succeed by the Western Powers. However, they also could not fully push those within the movement to a moderate position in line with these beliefs. Instead local socialist groups were the most radical, but due to the lack of support for such drastic changes they were also very disjointed in their actions. The fascists often did not have this same level of disorganization, and they would meet the increasing size and strength of socialism with an increase in the frequency and severity of violence. During these immediate post war years the active supporters of fascism were often very young, a feature of the movement during the early 20s. Even at the top of the movement few of the leaders were over 50. For example, Mussolini would be just 39 when he became Prime Minister in 1922. Many of the fascism parties members had fought in the war, which meant they were under the age of 40. Many of these soldiers were unmarried, had been thrust into military service before establishing a career, and had little prospects for starting a life in the war-wrecked Italian economy. They would also be primarily urban dwellers, which was partially due to Mussolini and other fascist leaders believing that it was only in the cities that fascism could thrive, which ended up being a self-fulfilling prophecy in the early years of the movement. They did not put resources into rural areas for recruitment, and so fascism’s reach in those communities would be small, later, when more resources were allocated to rural areas fascist support among the rural population was very strong.
The party would make a decisive change in their path at the national fascist congress that was held in Rome during November 1921. The congress would be the venue for two important changes for the Italian fascist movement. The first was that it more firmly established central control of local fascist groups which had previously been relatively autonomous. This involved a much firmer control from the very top, with a pledge of fealty to Mussolini being a new part of membership within the party. The second important change was that the congress would be the point where the Italian fascists would move away from their socialist policies of the previous years, or at Mussolini himself would say ‘in terms of economics, we are overtly anti-socialist. I do not regret having been a socialist. But I have cut my bridges with the past. I have no nostalgia. I don’t think about entering socialism but rather about leaving it. In economic matters we are liberals, because we believe that the national economy cannot be entrusted to collective entities or to the bureaucracy.’ At the congress they would also make other policy changes, like a direct rejection of feminism and of female activism within the party. Instead female fascists should wholly focus on organizing charity, and in all political matters they should defer to their male counterparts. The fascists would also exit the Congress in support of the monarchy, whereas before they had supported Italian republicanism. The 1921 congress would be an important step towards turning fascism from a slightly disorganized movement and into a political group within Italy that was united enough, and had a platform palatable enough to the right audience, to allow Italian fascism to move closer to power.
Some of these decisions would cause conflict within the movement, and especially between some of the fascist leaders and their most ardent and radical supporters, those who would form the squads that took the violent rhetoric of fascism and turned it into violent reality. The squadristi were often made up of military veterans, and they did not need too much encouragement to take their actions in the streets. This was a positive attribute before 1921, but would make it harder to control local groups in later years. For example in the port city of Trieste all it took was one suggestion from Mussolini to unleash a wave of violence against socialists and non-Italians within the city. As the paramilitary arm of Italian fascism the squadristi gave the movement a certain force of action, but they were not the answer to all of its problems. They would at times fail to achieve their goals, for example the failures of the paramilitary occupation of Fiume on the Adriatic was a critical early stumbling block that would alter the view of Mussolini and others. It was in that city that the fascists attempted to take control in March 1922, only to then be met by actions of the Italian government that would restore command of the city back to the Fiume officials. The failure of the Fiume operation would be one reason that Mussolini would choose to pursue aa slightly more constitutional path to power, a decision that would eventually put him at odds with the squadristi.
On the complete opposite end of the activism spectrum, but just as important to Italian Fascism, was the support of many within the political, economic, and military classes. From the political elite fascists gained support due to the belief that fascists were preferable to the parties on the left. From the economic realm fascist support was one again rooted in fear of the left, and especially the effect that socialist and communist political movement had on workers. The growing strength of the Italian fascists appeared to be the perfect counterweight to the organization and power of workers which had drastically increased after the war. Finally, the military would make their widespread sympathies for fascism well known by 1922, sowing a seed of doubt that they would come down against Fascism if called upon to do so by the government. Each of these avenues of support provided a form of legitimacy to the Fascists, and it also provided them with a freedom of action that was denied to their political enemies. An example of this can be seen in the action of local political leaders who were put in a very tough position as violence continued to increase in the early 20s. The official position of the national government was that any groups that caused violence should be arrested and dealt with through legal means. However, due to the widespread support, or at the very least acceptance, of fascist violence among much of the political establishment in the center and right wing parties, local civil authorities found that they could not actually prosecute against any actions done by the Fascists. They were able and encouraged to crack down on left-wing violence, even in situations in which this violence was a reaction to fascist violence. This asymmetrical response then fed back into the system, with those on the left feeling that the local governments were now firmly against them while the Fascists squadists began to feel invincible. This is just one example of the kind of second-hand effects of the actions of economic and political leaders that were critical during this period. They were not themselves out in the streets marching, and they may not have been in open support of the Fascists, but their official ambivalence had important trickle down effects.
Fascism continued to grow in power during 1921 and 1922. It was in the spring of that year that serious considerations began to be given to the next step for the movement. These plans would be supported by the fact that Fascist power in the north of Italy was almost completely unchecked, but the north was never the final objective, and eyes turned to Rome. The idea of taking more drastic action directly against the central Italian government began to be discussed in April 1922. At this time the precise type of action was not determined and the options ranged from a coup d’etat, a more traditional violent revolution, or the eventual outcome which was a March on Rome. It would not be the first Fascist March in Italy, and they played to the strength of the Fascist movement. It threatened violence without necessarily committing the movement to violence against the authorities, it displayed the party’s strength without seeming a threat to those sectors of society from which they drew their support.
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Before the March began there were discussions that occurred between the Fascist leaders revolving around the best way to proceed. They were spurred on by a successful March on the city of Bolzano. On October 24th the Fascist congress would convene in Naples where further plans were drawn up for what path they would pursue, but even at this late stage, just days before the eventual March on Rome, the exact nature of this action was not guaranteed. There were other possible options, including the use of fascist connections in the military to cause a military insurrection which would result in the military and fascists left in control of most of the country, at which point they would have negotiated with Rome. It is important to state that during these months the situation in Rome was deeply confused and disjointed. In May 1921 Prime Minister Giolitti, who had in many ways been a key player in allowing the fascist violence to spread, called for new elections, which he then lost, and the 1921 elections would see the trend of divisiveness in Italian politics continue. The Italian Socialist party would take 24.7% of the vote, the People’s Party 20.4, and the National Block, which included the fascists gaining 19.1. That number was actually a large decrease for the Socialist Party, but they had also officially split with the Communists before the elections, which caused a split vote. Giolitti’s loss was important because it would result in him being added to the list of Italian politicians that were not in the government at the time of the March on Rome, and Mussolini would meet and negotiate with many such politicians. During this period Mussolini would discuss the future with men like Giolitti and former Prime Minister Nitti. In each case he would convince them that they were an important part of the future fascist coalition that would lead the nation. Even though in most cases those that met with Mussolini during this period were not active in the current government, they were still in positions to exert influence on events. When the decision to launch the March was made, it was to be led by four leading fascists: Bianchi, Balbo, De Vecchi, and Emilio de Bono. They would set Perugia as the meeting point for the fascist marchers, which is roughly 160 kilometers north of Rome. However, many of the planned marchers would not actually arrive in Perugia. Those that did arrive were often poorly armed, equipped, and they were extremely short of food. This resulted in roughly around 5,000 total individuals at the assembly point before the March to Rome began. This quite weak force would have been handled at any moment by the military units that were stationed in and around the capital, but they were not.
After the March was initiated on October 27th there was chaos and confusion in Rome as the proper course of action was debated. Critical at this point was the viewpoint of King Victor Emmanual III. The best way that the government could deal with the advancing fascists was to declare martial law and confront the fascists with the military. After long discussions this was the path forward agreed to by the political leaders. Prime Minister Luigi Facta thought that this was the plan, however, when he arrived at a meeting with the King at 9 AM on the 28th he found out that the crown was now going to refuse to sign the decree to initiate martial law. This moment of refusal by the king was critical, and it seems that he believed that it was too radical of a step and had too high of a chance of plunging the nation into violence. The king saw the triumph of the fascists as likely, and the decision not to enact martial law made it inevitable. Instead of attempting to meet the fascist threats of violence with government sanctioned violence, the King now had no other option than to acquiesce to the violence and he would contact Mussolini to begin negotiations. Mussolini had not actually participated in the March, instead he had stayed in a hotel in Milan. He had of course taken the time to be photographed with the marchers for propaganda purposes, but the plan was always for Mussolini to stay in Milan to either be contacted by the government or be ready to take the lead in whatever happened. When he was telephoned by the King the conversation was the best possible outcome for the March, he was offered the position of Prime Minister with the mandate to form a coalition to lead the government. Mussolini would then take the express train from Milan to Rome on the night of the 29th, very pointedly and famously being booked for a normal sleeper compartment. The March on Rome was a success, and it would be established within the fascist pantheon of heroic events as a great victory for fascism. No one could deny that it succeeded in what it was trying to do, which was to install a fascist government in Italy, however this was due almost entirely to the lack of the ability and willingness of the government to react, and the decision of the king not to force the fascists to back down. When the March reached Rome the city was defended by 12,000 soldiers of the army, and they were led by a general which was loyal to the government and would have followed the martial law decree. The fascist marchers, again just 5,000 of them, had no chance of actually capturing Rome by force, and in fact they did not enter the city until after Mussolini had arrived from Milan. Overall the March had been a risk, it had depended on the Italian government backing down and not being able to properly respond, but this risk paid off as well as it possibly could have for Mussolini and the fascists. It was the perfect victory for an early fascist movement, they had threatened violence, but their bluff had not been called, and this let them use the story of the March, and greatly exaggerate the number of marchers and its overall power that it could have used, while downplaying the failures of the government to respond as one of the primary reasons that it succeeded. The Fascists came out of the March looking incredibly strong without having to prove that strength in any meaningful way. And now Mussolini was Prime Minister, the first fascist leader of a nation, and next episode we will discuss what he would plan to do with his new found power.