[Revised and Partly Edited
November 21, 2012]
THE RISE OF FASCISM IN ITALY
The rise of Communism in the Soviet
Union is certainly a disturbing story. Perhaps even more
disturbing is the rise of another totalitarian flavor, the rise of
fascism in Italy. This story is more disturbing, not because it
was associated with greater atrocities (Mussolini didn't come close to
rivaling Lenin and Stalin), but because one would not have suspected
Italy to succumb to totalitarianism at all.
Italy was, for much of Western history, the cultural, spiritual,
economic, and (sometimes) political leader of the West. No other
area of Europe had been home to so much of what was best in Western
It's true that, by 1600 or so, Italy had lost its position of
leadership in Europe, but, by the end of the 19th century, it looked
like Italy was on the verge of a great come-back. Led by Cavour
and Garibaldi, the Italian people had at last won their independence
and established what they hoped would be a great Italian nation.
Italy had much of what the liberals dreamed of: guarantees of
fundamental liberties, and a parliamentary government like that of
But renewed Italian greatness was slow in coming. During the first
World War, the Italians thought they might have an advantage is siding
with the Allies against the Central Powers, breaking their pre-war
treaties with Germany and Austria.
Things did not work out: Italy gave the war an all-out effort:
mobilizing over 5,000,000 men (over 500,000 of whom died), and spending
some $15 billion on the war. The payoff for siding with the "winners"
was a small chunk of Austrian territory.
Post-war Italy faced many problems: intense poverty in some areas,
malaria, Mafia violence, econony-disrupting strikes, conflicts between
the Catholic church and the (relatively) new Italian governments.
Now democracy *should* be an ideal way of resolving such
problems. People should be able to propose different solutions,
debate their different ideas, and come to a consensus on what should be
done. Unfortunately, rather than giving the democratic process
time to work, Italy ended up going in a very different direction,
abandoning democracy for the fascist philosophy of Benito Mussolini.
Fascism takes its
name from the modern Italian word fascio and the old Roman "fasces"
symbol. Those of you who took my Civ. I class will remember
that the fasces was a tightly knit bundle of sticks with an
eagle-headed scepter and an axe carried by men called lictors.
The fasces was the symbol of the "imperium" of Roman leaders,
their power and authority. We used the symbol in the United
States for a while: the old "Mercury" dimes has the fasces on the
"tails" side! The old Roman symbol worked well for Mussolini's
fascists: a tightly knit group, based on power.
Fascism has at its heart a reliance on force rather than
reason/democratic debate. Nevertheless, little by little Mussolini came
up with an ideology of Fascism. One can get a good sense of
Fascism is Mussolini's 1932 article What
is Fascism? More briefly, Italian fascism emphasized three
1. Statism. There should be nothing above the state,
nothing outside the state, nothing against the state, said
Mussolini. In other, words, totalitarianism is the way to go.
2. Nationalism. One should look out for the good of one's
own nation, not troubling oneself with mankind as a whole. Italians
should do what's best for Italy, never mind the consequences to anyone
3. Militarism. Mussolini, taking his cue from Darwin, said
the strife/conflict was essential to human betterment. In the
affairs of nations, warfare is a healthy thing: strong nations conquer
weak nations and advance. The weak nations disappear--as they
should. War exalts and ennobles mankind, said Mussolini.
Mussolini formed his Fascist party in 1914. By 1922, he was ready
to move. 50,000 fascist Blackshirts marched on Rome. Now
this group should have (and could have) been stopped easily
enough. But, instead, the government went into a panic.
King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini Prime Minister!
Now Mussolini's fascists were at this point still a minority within the
Italian parliament, and, as Mussolini himself noted, a few strong
determined opposition leaders could have stopped his further
rise. But Mussolini played the political game exceedingly well.
Using election fraud and the threat of violence, he managed to increase
the number of Fascists in parliament. With increasing
parliamentary clout, he got the political rules changed to further
advantage the Fascists at the expense of other parties. And then came
the critical moment. In late 1924, Mussolini's most
prominent critic was assassinated, and enough people were outraged
Mussolini's control was in jeopardy. Had their been enough strong
opposition, King Victor Emmanuel would have been forced to dismiss
Mussolini and that would have been the end.
But Mussolini and his followers acted swiftly and decisively. Gangs of
fascists began beating up those who opposed Mussolini. They
stopped opposition newspapers from publishing at all. Mussolini dropped
the pretense of democracy and made himself "Il Duce," the leader. And
the vast majority of Italians simply didn't care: they just got behind
Mussolini in the next couple of years established a police state,
getting rid of all opposition parties, and imprisoning and executing
those who dared speak out against him.
But there weren't many who opposed him anyway. Mussolini got to
work fixing Italian problems. He drained the swamps. He
started other massive public works programs. He launched an
aggressive foreign policy, conquering Ethiopia and promising even more:
perhaps a revived Roman empire.
And the Italian people applauded. Mussolini made the trains run
This is the way democracies end. Not with a bang, but with a