International School History - IB Diploma History

How far would you agree with the contention that Italian fascism
 'failed to transform Italy between 1925-43'?

Roger Griffin - Department of History, Oxford Brookes University

The phrase 'failed to transform Italy' implies that Fascism intended to transform it in the first place, an assumption which many historians have questioned. Marxists have persistently maintained that its primary purpose was to eliminate the threat posed by revolutionary socialism and ensure the continued dominance of the traditional ruling elites (church, monarchy, army, 'old' bourgeoisie) and of the emerging capitalist classes (industrialists, big business, new bourgeoisie). Some non-Marxists have reduced it to little more than the dictatorship of Mussolini, whose ambitions were limited to securing personal power. Others have focused on the wide variety of genuinely revolutionary, but also reactionary, ideological currents which converged in or colluded with Fascism. Meanwhile, Mussolini, though outwardly maintaining an arrogant air of mastery, was actually always struggling to keep control. Seen from all these points of view, Fascism lacked any serious or clearly defined blueprints for Italy's reconstruction which would allow the extent of its 'failure' to be assessed.

Another approach which is gaining ground among historians, however, is to accept that the various 'Fascisms' compromised with conservative forces, but to stress that they nevertheless had a fundamental goal in common: the completion of the Risorgimento. Since liberalism had failed to achieve this, all true Fascists in their different ways placed their faith instead in the possibility of creating a new type of modern state, one which would fuse the rationality of industrial capitalism and bureaucratic government with the irrational passions of community, patriotism, and self-sacrifice inspired by the First World War. By replacing parliamentary democracy with a charismatic dictatorship able to sustain these passions indefinitely, even in peacetime, Fascism would remedy the countless sources of division, conflict, corruption, and wasted potential within Italy and turn it into a 'totalitarian state'. With its people finally united, the country would at last be able to modernise its infrastructure, achieve unprecedented economic growth, build up a powerful military capacity, make its people strong and healthy, institute social justice, and stimulate an artistic renaissance. A nation reborn, Italy would then take its rightful place alongside the other Great Powers of Europe. In practice, however, the reality fell well short of the ideal.

From 1925 to 1929 the main focus of the regime's energy was on dismantling the liberal state apparatus and its associated civil freedoms (e.g. freedom of association, freedom of the press), and replacing them by new legislative, executive, and judicial institutions. In principle, the new state legislative body was the Fascist Grand Council whose members would be selected by Mussolini. Yet the duce was temperamentally incapable of devolving power or seeking the best advice, and hence of creating efficient ministerial structures. Nor could he contemplate being succeeded after his death. Moreover, the vast but highly inadequate civil service which had grown up under liberalism remained largely intact. The new Italy was thus condemned to remaining a short-lived autocracy plagued by inefficiency, inertia, and careerism.

This is not to say it did not score some notable successes. Fascism may have left the problems of the economic backwardness of Southern Italy practically untouched, but the Lateran Pacts which Mussolini's government signed with the Vatican in 1929 finally solved the 'Roman Question'. For the first time since its creation in 1860 the Kingdom of Italy was officially recognised by the Catholic Church, thus removing a major symptom of the Risorgimento's incompleteness, and significantly increasing the Fascist regime's legitimacy in the minds of ordinary Italians. However, like Mussolini's appointment as prime minister by the King seven years earlier, the Pacts also highlighted just how far Fascism had compromised its early radicalism when it was both anti-clerical and republican.

As far as Italy's modernisation was concerned, Fascism was apparently far more successful. The regime was keen to associate itself with all symbols of modernity from sports cars to artificial fibres. In a few cases, such as the draining of the Pontine marshes and the building of the first motorways, Fascism could genuinely claim to be the instigator of change. However, it is arguable that at bottom the regime was taking credit for a process of rapid technological innovation which would have taken place anyway once the economy recovered from the war. When it deliberately attempted to involve the state in economic policy the results were much more dubious. A constant stream of propaganda sought to convince Italians (especially after the great Depression) that the new corporate system would reconcile the long-term interests of workers, management, and state, thus marking an advance both on laissez-faire capitalism and Soviet central planning. Similarly, the autarky (economic self-sufficiency) programme of the 1930s would, it was claimed, make the country strong by removing its dependency on the international market-place. In the event, corporatism depressed wages, masked inefficiency, and hindered economic growth, while by 1939 the autarky programme had still not remedied Italy's chronic shortages in the raw materials essential to fight a long war.

This last point is vital to another aspect of Fascism's failed revolution. By the mid-1930s the principal yardstick for being a Great Power was the ability to deploy powerful armed forces on the international stage and create a colonial empire. By May 1936 Fascism had conquered Ethiopia, but the campaign, fought at enormous economic cost to Italy and huge human cost to the Ethiopians, had shown up the country's serious military weaknesses rather than its strengths. These were exposed further in the battles which Blackshirts fought on Franco's side in the Spanish Civil War, but most catastrophically of all in the Second World War. It was the alliance with Hitler sealed in the Pact of Steel and the Rome-Berlin Axis which drew Italy into an international war for which it was totally unprepared militarily. The conquest of Ethiopia had led to Italy's expulsion from the League of Nations and made alignment with the Third Reich the only way to remain a key player in a steadily deteriorating international situation. The price, whatever illusions Mussolini may have had, was that Italy became a pawn in Hitler's long-term imperialist strategy, and even colluded in the Holocaust with the introduction of anti-semitic laws in 1938. The human costs of the Fascist bid for Great Power status both to Italians and their enemies were thus horrendous: the atrocities committed in the Said Republic, nominally headed by Mussolini, but in reality, a Nazi puppet state, only underlined the depth of the abyss into which the Fascist revolution had dragged the nation.

An equally large gulf can be detected between the Fascist vision of social renewal and the depressing (and sometimes farcical) realities which resulted. Despite claiming to create 'social justice', class divisions were not healed, a spirit of conformism rather than enthusiasm reigned supreme, and mass party membership had not significantly increased social mobility. For instance, the gains for women in terms of health care and maternity benefits, introduced not (o help them but to help raise the birthrate, were more than offset by the crushing of women's emancipation in the crucial areas of employment, abortion, and social norms.

But the greatest measure of the regime's failure by the time it signed the armistice was the fact that the much heralded 'new Italian' had not appeared. And popular support for the regime, which reached its height when Ethiopia became part of the 'African Empire' in 1936, soon melted away as Italians, traditionally suspicious of the state, began to anticipate the initially harsh, and finally horrendous national (and all too often personal) consequences of their 'infallible' leader's decision to weld the fate of the country to Hitler's racial and imperialist ambitions. When Mussolini was ousted from power in July 1943 there was no public outcry. For nearly two decades Fascism had presided over the gradual modernization of the country and the nationalisation of the masses, but it had comprehensively failed to turn them in to Fascists. Paradoxically it was the mass rejection of Fascism, which by April 1945 had gathered enough momentum to lay the basis of the Second Republic, which did more to complete the Risorgimento in real terms than Fascism itself.

Further reading

Bosworth, R. J. B. The Italian Dictatorship (Arnold, 1998).
Clark, M. Modern Italy 1871-1982 (Longman, 1996).
Gentile, Emilio, The Sacralisation of Politics in Fascist Italy (Harvard University Press, 1996).
Morgan, P. Italian Fascism 1919-45 (St Martins Press, 1995).
Whittam, J. Fascist Italy (Manchester University Press, 1995).

 

 

 

 

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