After the March on Rome Mussolini would be made Prime Minister.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 9 - Rise of Mussolini Part 3 - Prime Minister Mussolini. Last episode we ended the episode with Mussolini becoming Prime Minister of Italy on October 31 1922. This was just days after the King had chosen not to enact a martial law decree, which caused the current Prime Minister to resign, and to instead negotiate with Mussolini. At that time that he took the office Mussolini led a Fascist party that did not represent a majority either within the electorate or among political leaders, and therefore a coalition had to be created. Our episode today will begin with the creation of this coalition, and then the elections that followed. These elections were theoretically free elections, there was nothing official that made them skewed, but, well we will get to that later. We will then discuss the actions of Mussolini and other fascists in the years after 1922. It was during this period that the fascist leaders would have to turn their rhetoric into actual policy. We will discuss some of this policy before ending on a critical turning point for Italy, which was the murder of Giacomo Matteotti by fascists on June 10th 1924. This would begin a sequence of events which would eventually result in Mussolini taking greater control of the nation and creating the dictatorship.
In some ways Mussolini’s rise to the office of Prime Minister was extraordinary. For example he was just 39 years old, Italy’s youngest Prime Minister up to that point in the nations’s history and just 52 days older than the youngest to this day, Matteo Renzi who took office in 2014. However, in some ways his ascension was not hugely outside of the norm in the turbulent postwar years of the early 1920s. There were also many within Italian politics who were more than prepared to work with Mussolini, even if he did come to power after a threat of violence, and this greatly eased the transition into the new government. This was partially due to the boost that many politicians like Mussolini often received upon achieving their leadership role. The Fascist political pitch revolved heavily around unity, and there were many who hoped that this unity could be achieved. This was especially true of Italian Nationalists, who hoped to be able to use the Fascist movement, and Mussolini its leader, for their own gains. Mussolini played into this, he would often sound conservative, and speak of a conservative future when discussing events with the old ruling classes from before he attained office. These same people who then underestimate Mussolini, partially due to his unrefined manners and speech. Mussolini would lean into these under evaluations of his abilities, to his great profit in the early years of his government.
The initial government that would be created by Mussolini was not full of Fascists. The Italian People’s Party and the Liberal Party both had high ranking Ministries, although Mussolini would hold both the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to go along with his role as Prime Minister. This would be part of a lengthy outreach by Mussolini to the Liberal party, using the claim that the Fascists and the Liberals were not divided in their objectives, just how they wanted to achieve them. While the presence of other parties within the government was welcomed by many, there was a general disappointment among the Nationalist parties that the fascists maintained as much power as they did, especially with Mussolini holding three important positions in his own person. At the same time they were also in full support of the total outward hostility that Mussolini displayed for all socialist activities. Adrian Lyttelton would say in The Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy 1919-1929 “Many older politicians saw the Fascist measures as necessary and legitimate only as a means of liquidation of the postwar crisis, which had proved so resistant to treatment.” In the early months the Nationalists were seen as a valuable moderate right wing block that would be able to control Mussolini and the Fascists. However, any of this control would begin to fall apart by the end of the year, at which point they moved into much closer cooperation with the government and therefore Mussolini instead of consistently making their support conditional upon compromises. On the other side of the coin, many Fascists were not entirely thrilled with Mussolini’s choices, especially his outreach to the more moderate parties. Many of these individuals believed that the Fascists should have occupied the entire cabinet and in his decision to work closely with the other parties Mussolini, while perhaps not wholly betraying the Fascist revolution, was at least causing it to lose momentum at a critical moment. Initially these feelings of ill will were small and isolated, and did not cause large problems, but they would continue to ferment over the coming years as many radical fascists began to see Mussolini not as the leader of their movement but instead as a roadblock to their permanent revolution.
Almost immediately after taking office Mussolini would begin considering calling new elections. The idea was that these elections would solidify the right of the Fascists to lead the nation, and also to bring more Fascists into the Chamber of Deputies where their numbers were actually quite small. These elections would not occur until April 1924 and they would, at least technically be held under voting circumstances not that much different than previous Italian elections. Basically, the Fascists eschewed an openly illegal approach during the election cycle. However, there is one massive, critical change that was made to the Italian voting laws in the runup to the election. It was named the Acerbo Law, and it would be approved by just two votes within the Chamber, mostly due to several politicians and parties choosing to abstain from the vote. It was pitched as a way of preventing the political deadlock that had been so problematic in Italy during the previous years because the Law changed Italian elections so that a two-third majority was instantly given to the political list that gained the most votes. A list was a coalition of parties that chose to pool their votes together, and then divide them later. The Acerbo law meant that whichever list got the most votes, even if it was not even a majority would be gifted a super majority, two thirds, with the remaining third apportioned to the other parties. Obviously this was catastrophic to the opposition parties, who when met with a coherent block from the right wing parties, including the Nationalists, Fascists, and Liberals, saw that their path was almost hopeless. It may have been possible for the opposition groups to come together and mount some kind of united front of opposition, but this would have required groups within the opposition with drastically different beliefs to come together, which was just not possible. Instead some parties as divergent as the Communists and the Italian People’s Party, which had held Ministerial positions in 1922, began to open discuss abstaining from the election in protest. Most political parties would not end up abstaining from the elections entirely, but just the fact that voters knew who was going to win, and what that win would mean almost certainly sapped much of the enthusiasm from the supports of the opposition parties. This was on top of concerns about the threat of violence from the fascists against any group that too openly defied the government, especially with the expansion of fascist power out of their previous limited northern strongholds.
The results of the election were almost inevitable. The Fascists sponsored list won 66.3% of the votes. In the south the support was incredibly strong, especially in areas where Fascist support was joined by strong Nationalist and Liberal support, although this generally did not extend to Sicily. Such a massively lopsided election meant that the actual provisions of the Acerbo law would prove to be unnecessary, because the Fascist List received over two thirds of the vote anyway. These were some claims of unsavory methods used by fascists around the nation, mostly stemming from the large majority of local government positions held by fascists. This meant that most election officials were Fascists or supporting the Fascists, and in many polling locations Fascist supporting militia were sent to guard the polling stations. So even if the threats were not explicitly, or openly in violation of the law, much like the Acerbo Law the actions of the Fascist supporters during the election had the effect of suppressing support for the opposition. However, this should not obscure the fact that the Fascist list had massive support throughout the country. There were problems with the election, sure, but not problems that totally invalidate such a huge majority. Eventually the Fascists and their allies would have 374 deputies out of a total of 535.
After the results of the election, Mussolini was securely in control, and perhaps the most remarkable result of this control was how normal the next several years were. Instead of continuing with a radical fascist revolution, Mussolini in many ways just settled into a conservative nationalist leadership style. Or as Roger Griffin would say in The Nature of Fascism “The regime in practice did nothing to undermine the privileges and prestige enjoyed by the monarchy, the nobility, the traditional landowning aristocracy, the army, industrialists or the Church, nor did it even attempt to bridge the acute divides between popular and high culture or wipe out the snobbery associated with class distinctions, education and wealth.” The Fascist regime would become far more radical in its actions during the 1930s, but in its early years it would work closely with the traditional political elites. Even if many of its actions were not in any way radical that did not mean that Mussolini’s regime did not begin to change Italian society. One of these areas in which this was done was in the realm of policing, censorship, and state control. Mussolini was himself of the belief that personal liberty for most of society should be greatly reduced in the new Italy. He would say “Mankind is perhaps tired of liberty. […] For the brave, energetic, robust youths who face the glimmering dawn of the new history other words exercise a much bigger fascination, namely order, hierarchy, discipline.” Mussolini would be very hands-on with the censorship policies and implementation of those policies, with mixed results but not for lack of trying. Part of these mixed results was due to how the policies supported by Mussolini shifted so frequently based on the situation at the time. During 1923 Mussolini had spent a lot of time and effort attempting to reform the fascist party into a structure where central authority was more readily applied. One of the primary reasons that Mussolini was so important and why he was so successful in this change in the Fascist Party was because he never fully committed himself to a specific view of the future. This meant that he would change and alter his focus based on the situation, and he needed a Fascist party that would support him in these alterations. He also would use the constant state of flux that these shifts created to keep other Fascists in a constantly uncertain position. Mussolini would say in 1932 that “The foundation of Fascism is…the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State….[T]he Fascist state is itself conscious, and has itself a will and a personality…it represents the immanent spirit of the nation….It is the force which alone can provide a solution to the dramatic contradictions of capitalism….It is not reactionary but revolutionary.” This new Fascist state, led by Mussolini, with its own will and personality was subject to many of the same forces that change individuals, and so it would bend and sway based on what was happening within and around it. Those fascist leaders who would be present throughout Mussolini’s reign would be forced into similar flexible positions. Their own self-interest, and Mussolini’s constantly shifting priorities, would push the entire Fascist State apparatus into wide swings in policy and action. Here is Griffin again from the Nature of Fascism “He had no definitive blueprint of the New Italy, and it was precisely this which enabled him to become the leader of Italian fascism in its formative phase as a mass movement. Nevertheless, the contradictions between different currents of fascism which hampered the formulation of single-minded and effective policies were intrinsic to fascism itself as a Utopian myth of national renewal and hence liable to generate a number of rival versions of itself precisely when a crisis of the established political culture favoured its rise as an alternative ideology.” All of this led to a real lack of vision and singular direction from the regime, with different ministries and leaders pursuing different ends by different means.
This inefficiency did not mean that no changes were being made. One of the early items that the Fascists would focus on was the continual destruction of the labor unions. The unions in the factories and the socialist leagues in the rural areas were an early point of focus for the regime due to the role that they had played in the spread of socialist power in the previous years. There were also attempts to create Fascist unions, but these received very little natural support and instead fascist activism in the factories focused mostly on reducing the power and reach of the non-fascist unions, with local political leaders often confiscating funds and preventing meetings from taking place. These actions to prevent workers from organizing handed power back to a specific set of groups within society, one of which was the upper class business leaders. By handing more control back to the capitalist class the fascists were going against one of their earlier promises, which was to remove the class divisions within Italian society. Instead, they were just amplifying these divisions, handing more power back to the already powerful and wealthy capitalists at the expense of those that worked for them. Or at Adrian Lyttelton would say in Seizure of Power: “Fascism can be viewed as a product of the transition from the market capitalism of the independent producer to the organized capitalism of the oligopoly. By a remarkable irony, while Fascism as a political movement originally gave expression to the revolt against the emergent forces of organized capitalism, Fascism as a regime furthered its development and provided it with a theoretical justification.” This was one of the contributing causes, although certainly not the only reason for a drastic reduction in the purchasing power of wages for Italian workers in 1923. The fall in purchasing power in 1923 would be the worst in Italy until the war years. Another policy supported by Mussolini which would have economic consequences was around the goal of reversing the demographic changes within Italian society. Basically, Italian birthrates, just like in many other areas of Western Europe, were declining during the decades leading up to the First World War and in its immediate aftermath. Mussolini and others were convinced that this was due to the changes in rural Italy during that time and so a campaign was launched to encourage large families, and to bolster rural Italy. Intrinsic to this push was a desire for women to assume more traditional roles within society and within their families, specifically their traditional roles as mothers. Neither of these policies would result in much of a change, and Italian birthrates would not drastically change while in the rural areas life remained just as challenging and punishing.
These types of policies, while in line with previous Fascist talking points, were not really the radical change that some Fascists were hoping for when the March on Rome was undertaken, and in the year following that event there was a continual growth in tension between Mussolini and some of the more violent fascists, especially those that had lead the violent squads during the preceding years. Mussolini had been successful in ensuring that much of the party followed his more moderate policy path, but it would prove impossible to completely remove the radicals from their positions within the party. The tension between the two groups would come to a head in June 1924, as it would be on that day that a squad led by Amerigo Dumini would kidnap Giacomo Matteotti, a prominent critic of the regime and a Socialist deputy. After kidnapping Matteotti Dumini and his associates would beat him to death, and then they would dispose of the body which would not be found for two months. Matteotti had been one of the leading members of the opposition within the Italian parliament and his death, especially when the suspicion began to grow that it was a fascist group that had murdered him, caused serious problems for Mussolini. This was the act of fascist violence that would prove to be a tipping point, even though the Fascist squads had never fully stopped their reign of terror against anti-fascists. Instead in the time between the March on Rome and the Matteotti murder they had continued meeting any anti-fascist activity with violence, at least somewhat independently of central control. This had caused tension to build, with the Matteotti murder sending everything to another level. In some ways Mussolini was restricted by his own previous moderate policies. For example, the Italian press was not wholly under government control, and therefore would print many stories critical of the regime and linking Mussolini’s government to the violence. As suspicion that the government was involved mounted Mussolini was forced to respond and on June 13th he took the step of handing the position of Minister of the Interior over to Luigi Federzoni. Up until this point Mussolini had held this position, but at this critical moment he handed it over to Federzoni, who was known as a moderate member of the Italian right wing political parties, and one that strongly supported the rule of law. Many even mistakenly thought that Federzoni would hold power over Mussolini, and assumption that would prove to be totally false. The appointment of Federzoni was strongly supported by all of the opposition parties, and it was their most important reaction to the event. They did not feel that they could launch a more forceful action, which would have just been met with further fascist violence which they were ill prepared to deal with, and so they hoped that Federzoni and the legal pressure that he could apply to Mussolini would bring him back under control.
The announcement of Federzoni taking the position as Minister of the Interior caused Mussolini serious problems, but not in the way that many within the opposition expected. Instead of causing problems for Mussolini by pushing for moderation, the Federzoni appointment instead caused issues for Mussolini from the more radical Fascists. After the Matteotti murder many fascists which had been critical players in Mussolini’s control of the party had been forced to resign, and some of them had even been arrested due to their connection to the event. In cities outside Rome several leading Fascists were beginning to openly plot against Mussolini, with some like Michele Terzaghi in Milan threatening a possible second March on Rome, and this time instead of Marching in support of Mussolini they would be marching to remove him. At the same time pressure was mounting from the center parties and the Liberals, who were pushing Mussolini to exert ever greater pressure on the Fascists to bring them under control. On September 12th a Fascist deputy, Armando Casalini, was killed by political enemies in Rome, further fanning the tension. On November 20th, at a Fascist Grand Council meeting, Mussolini would face a strong opposition to his policy of reconciliation with other political groups, with many demanding direct action. Then on November 30th he would address a memorandum to the party, calling for more support for his work with the rest of the government, saying ‘it is necessary to liberate the party from all the elements who are unfitted for the new settlement, from those who make violence a profession.’ By the end of the year opposition to Mussolini was becoming even more open and obvious. On December 31st, there was a Fascist march in Florence which gathered together 10,000 armed squadrists and was a clearly anti-Mussolini event. Then on January 3rd Mussolini, in a speech before the Chamber of Deputies made his decision very clear. Instead of speaking out against the murder of Matteotti and other Fascist violence, or bringing down any form of punishment upon any Fascists Mussolini instead took responsibility for that violence, and for all of the Fascist violence of the previous years. By focusing all of the attention and legal pressure on himself he forced the Liberals and the rest of the opposition not to act against some faceless groups that few in Italy had ever heard of but instead against Mussolini himself, and they simply did not have the political and popular support to do so. This neutralized the opposition, and proved that they were powerless to stop Mussolini from doing what he wished, it set an important precedent, and in the coming days the Italian dictatorship would truly begin. A dictatorship that we will discuss next episode.