International School History - IB Diploma History

To what extent was Mussolini's rise to power in 1922 a direct consequence of
the impact of the First World War?

Roger Griffin
Department of History, Oxford Brookes University

By 1900 Italy's process of unification, the Risorgimento, had been largely completed territorially, but not in any other respect. As a result of Italy's continuing weakness as a cultural, industrial, military, and colonial power compared to older European states, the inferiority complex about their nation which was so widespread among the educated classes, was deepening, while the vast majority of the population still felt no real attachment to Italy at all. This situation gave rise to various projects for the total renewal of national life, both from the extreme left (anarchists, revolutionary Marxists and Syndicalists) and the extreme right (the Italian Nationalist Association, the Futurists, D'Annunzio, the Florentine avant-garde). Yet, despite their efforts, the parliamentary system remained stable, partly because the outstanding politician of the day, Giovanni Giolitti, cleverly manipulated the various interest groups and factions at the heart of government to produce workable majorities, a strategy known as trasformismo. It was the First World War which was to fatally damage the foundations of 'liberal Italy'.

When the war broke out in August 1914, the government remained neutral, and only took the decision to declare war on Germany and Austria-Hungary in May 1915 under intense pressure from 'intervent-ionism', an alliance of all the anti-parliamentary forces just mentioned with a pro-war lobby in parliament. A prominent interventionist was Benito Mussolini. Though initially a Marxist, and until late in 1914 both a Socialist leader and a 'neutralist', he had as early as 1909 made the unification of Italy the focal point of his revolutionary energies rather than the fight against international capitalism, seeing himself as called upon to lead the process of social and political transformation. Like all his fellow interventionists, Mussolini saw participation in the war as the much needed catalyst to Italy's renewal. In the event its consequences for the country were to prove disastrous.

Of the nearly five million called up to fight on the Italian front with Austria, some 600,000 were killed, and another 500,000 permanently disabled. In addition, the mobilisation of the economy to equip and feed the armed forces placed an enormous strain on the country's limited economic resources. Then, in the aftermath of the war, the domestic situation deteriorated further. Even if sectors of industry and business had made vast profits, life for the majority of the population was worse than ever. Public morale was further undermined by the fact that, although Italy had been on the winning side, the victory was 'mutilated': Italy had little to show for its sacrifices in terms of territorial gains or the respect afforded it by the triumphant 'Great Powers', France, Britain, and the USA. Then the introduction of universal male suffrage brought two new, radically opposed parties into the political arena, the Socialists and the Populars (formed by Catholic radicals), both of which achieved promising results in the first postwar elections. The bid to make the country more democratic had simply made it more ungovernable.

The mounting social distress and public dissatisfaction combined with the growing paralysis of the parliamentary system to create ideal conditions for political extremism to thrive. The result was that the years 1919 and 1920 known as the biennio rosso, were two years of intense agitation by the revolutionary left throughout central and northern Italy.

By late 1920 the situation could seem to the urban educated classes (bourgeoisie) to be heading towards a full-scale civil war. The government had so far failed to restore law and order or public confidence, while the only effective barrier against a 'Bolshevik' takeover was apparently being provided, not by the police or the army, but by the squadre d'azione. These were black-shirted action squads who took the law into their own hands against left-wing radicals or their headquarters. It was the rise of this squadrismo which marked the establishment of a new force in Italian politics, Fascism.

Mussolini had formed his party, the Fasci di combattimento in Milan in March 1919, but the lack of support in national elections later that year had only demonstrated Fascism's irrelevance to the political life of the country. With the rise of squadrismo during 1919-1920 the situation changed dramatically. Since each action squad was co-ordinated by the local fascists and thereby connected to the Fascist headquarters in Milan, the spread of squadrismo turned Fascism into a powerful outlet for populist counter-revolutionary and revolutionary support, especially in areas where the left had its strongholds. Even when the sense of crisis ebbed, the Fascist squads' reputation for ruthless violence had put Mussolini, as their national leader, in the position to threaten to use them in a coup against the state in order to secure political power for himself. He did this on 28 October 1922 in what became known as the 'March on Rome'. Even though in an emergency session the government decided unanimously to send in the army (which showed no signs of disloyalty) to put an end to the danger posed by the Blackshirts, the King, Victor Emmanuel III, decided instead to agree to Mussolini's demands and appointed him head of a coalition government.

The role of the First World War in Mussolini's spectacular rise to power between 1920 and 1922 had clearly been considerable. First, it provided the bulk of recruits for Fascism in its formative phase. The Arditi, or elite troops of the Italian army, played a dominant role in leading both the local Fasci and the squads, while their rank-and-file were composed largely of demobilised soldiers or patriotic volunteers who been had too young to be called up. Second, it directly produced both a political crisis and a widespread sense of imminent social breakdown. These combined to enable the paramilitary right to pose as the defender of law and order. Finally, the three years of fighting at tremendous cost had turned the nation for millions of Italians into an object of veneration to which to sacrifice the whole of one's life. It was because Mussolini's vision of national rebirth deliberately played on these feelings that it eclipsed all its rivals. The disappointments of the First World War had made it possible for thousands (and eventually millions) to believe that the age of liberalism was in its death throes, and that an infallible duce, as Mussolini was known, was bringing in a new era of history.

Yet it is important not to overestimate the impact of the war on Mussolini's rise to power. After all, the structural weaknesses which Italy inherited from the Risorgimento account both for the chronic inadequacy of its political system in the period before 1915, and the presence even then of powerful currents of utopianism about creating a 'new state' which prepared the ground for Fascism. Moreover, the polarisation of right-wing and left-wing revolutionary forces, as well as the generalised sense of an overall crisis so important to the rise of Fascism after 1919, was also fuelled by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Another factor in Mussolini's rise was the failure of the Liberals to keep in touch with the popular mood by supporting the war cause more strongly and by their failure to at least attempt radical reforms once the war was over. At the same time they helped the Fascists to achieve credibility by, for instance, including them in the official government 'list' of coalition partners as part of an anti-socialist bloc to stand in the elections of May 1921. In the event, the PFN only won 35 seats in parliament, but enormously enhanced its respectability.

Another essential factor in Mussolini's rise to power was his own tactical astuteness. He cleverly applied a blend of paramilitary violence and diplomacy, or, as he once put it 'legalism and illegalism', to exploit to the full the opportunities created by the spread of squadrismo. Finally it should not be forgotten that had Victor Emmanuel chosen to sign the emergency decree in October 1922 instead of agreeing to Mussolini's demands then Mussolini's gamble would not have paid off.

In short, the First World War provided the necessary, but not the sufficient, conditions for Mussolini's rise to power. Even after the March on Rome, it was further miscalculations by parliamentarians and the quiet support of both the Church and the Monarchy which enabled him to take shrewd advantage of the Matteotti crisis of 1924 and so lay the foundations of an authoritarian (totalitarian) state. Only then had Mussolini's 'rise to power' progressed to the point where he could embark on the doomed Fascist experiment in the creation of a 'new Italy'.

Further reading

Adamson, Walter L. Avant-garde Florence. From Modernism to Fascism
(Harvard University Press, 1993).
Bosworth, R. ]. B. The Italian Dictatorship (Arnold, 1998). Clark, M. Modern Italy 1871-1982 (Longman, 1996). Morgan, P. Italian Fascism 1919-45 (St Martins Press, 1995). Whittam, I. Fascist Italy (Manchester University Press, 1995).









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