[Revised and Partly Edited November 21, 2012]


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 civilization. 

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 Britain.

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.

mercury dimeFascism 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 major ideas:

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 else.

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 that 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. 

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 on time!

This is the way democracies end.  Not with a bang, but with a whimper.