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Failed Leftist Rising and Fascists to Power in Italy

Italy was on the winning side of the war, but, rather than a victory worthy of the 650,000 Italians who had died in the war, there was discontent, unrest and fear. A somewhat popular constitutional monarch sat on the throne, his government — a parliamentary government — dominated by Leftist liberals. Italy emerged from the war with inflation (rising prices), a huge debt and unemployment aggravated by demobilization of thousands of soldiers. To avoid trouble the government subsidized bread. Its expenditures were three times its revenues, and it refused to tax the wealthy.

Italy had those who were impressed by the "worker's revolution" in Russia. And Italy's labor movement was active. Every month in 1919, workers in Italy's industrial north went on strike. Tenants began refusing to pay rent, and the homes of a few landlords were destroyed. Many villages had someone who wished to be celebrity revolutionary. And every month the Executive of the General Confederation of Labor announced in favor of the creation of a socialist republic.

Socialists verbally attacked those who had participated in the war, which drove some veterans into the ranks of establishment patriots. Not all veterans believed as ambulance driver Ernest Hemingway did that "the things [on the Italian front] that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it." More than a few veterans were marching in the streets, parading their status as combat veterans. Italy was big regarding class, or status, and the war had been an opportunity for some to rise above their lower social ranking. And joining the displays of patriotism were those a little too young to have fought in the war but who saw glory in those who had.

A veteran, Benito Mussolini, founded a movement called Fasci di Combattimento (Fascist Combat Group — "fasci" referring to an ancient Imperial Roman symbol of power and strength through unity). His little group won allies from those veterans who called themselves the Arditi (the brave). The Arditi were in many Italian towns and organized for violence against those they called traitors. Their joy for combat found expression in street brawling. The Arditi uniform was a black shirt with insignia. Mussolini spoke to a gathering of Arditi as if he were their leader, boasting how he had defended them "against the slanders of cowardly philistines."

Mussolini had been a member of Italy's Socialist Party, but more envious of the rich than a young man anchored in Marxian dialectics, internationalism and Lenin's hatred of imperialism. The war in 1914 had turned Mussolini around. He expressed his belief in brute force in international affairs over what he described as sickly, effete, pacifistic idealism. After the war, he proclaimed that Italy had a right to its place in the world and that it needed colonies like Britain's.

Mussolini's movement needed enemies and had it in the Socialist Party. In May 1919, Mussolini's group attacked the headquarters of the Socialist newspaper. Despite his speech making, his fascists did poorly in electoral politics. In elections in Milan in late 1919, Mussolini and others in his movement won nothing. Like some other losers in politics, Mussolini resorted to terrorism: he sent bombs through the mail, and he incited a gang of his Arditi supporters to throw a bomb at a procession of socialists celebrating their election victory. Nine people were wounded. Mussolini was tried for his role in the assault. But like those veterans in Germany who committed crimes from "patriotic" motives, Mussolini received a light sentence and spent only a couple of days in prison.

By the end of 1919, Mussolini's movement had fewer than a thousand members. Discouraged, Mussolini considered giving up politics to travel the world playing his violin. But he decided to stick it out, and 1920 was a big year for him.

In August 1920 a sit down strike in Milan spread to the city of Turin 100 kilometers to the west and to factories in other cities. In rural areas, especially in the Po Valley and in Tuscany, land seizures were on the rise. Mobs of demobilized peasant soldiers were overrunning estates. In these areas, socialist and populist leagues, cooperatives and trade unions were active, and in local elections in November they won control in some town councils. Landowners felt threatened by dispossession. They and other farmers and shopkeepers resented demands that they pay more in wages. They resented what they saw as Leftist authoritarianism. Property owners joined together to defend themselves. With the sympathy of the liberal government of Giovanni Giolitti, landlords hired groups off Fascists to protect their lands against land-grabbers. Leftist town councils were forcibly dissolved, and buildings owned by socialists were wrecked or burned to the ground.

There was reaction too among factory owners, who resented worker demands, including the creation of worker councils within their factories. Prime Minister Giolitti was for compromise between management and labor, and his government pressured employers to make concessions to the workers. Communists in the labor movement saw the compromise as a sell-out. And there were factory owners who remained resentful. Mussolini had been receiving financial support from wealthy admirers, and in the 1920s that support increased substantially, mainly from industrialists and landowners.

Mussolini abandoned his stands against the Church, which he realized had not helped his movement. He faced accusations of being a tool of the capitalists from the anti-capitalists within his movement, but he could afford to ignore or turn against his movement's Left – as Hitler would in Germany. Coming into the Fascist movement in the place of anti-capitalists were young men from the lower middle class, from civil service, from respectable bourgeois families, and students from the universities – some who had been junior officers during the war.

After the wave of strikes had ended and a threat of revolution appeared to have subsided, Mussolini continued to speak against Bolshevism and the Socialists. In the streets the Socialists were intimidated and were losing. The fascist squads were better armed than the Socialist Party squads and more willing to attack with violence. The homes of socialists, their printing presses and party headquarters were pillaged at will. Trade union organization was being crushed piecemeal while conservatives in government stood aside as if pleased to see the fall of their political opponents.

In the parliamentary elections of 1921 the Fascist Party won only 35 seats. The Catholic Popular Party increased their representation to 108 seats. The Socialists held on to 135 seats. And as usual the Communists were a small minority: they won only 15 seats. But in addition to controlling the streets, the Fascists became a part of the coalition governed the country.

Political instability continued, and for several weeks in early 1922 Italy had no government. In contrast to the show of weakness by the parliamentary government, Mussolini was a picture of strength. He spoke of making Italy great again, of reviving the economy, increasing productivity, ending harmful government controls and furthering law and order. Also, he declared his support for the monarchy, and he had the admiration and support of Italy's Queen Mother, Margarita.

Fascist violence increased through the summer and autumn of 1922, climaxing in rumors of a possible fascist coup. General Pietro Badoglio told the King, Emmanuel III, that the military would be able without difficulty to rout the fascists. His troops were loyal to the king. The fascists created a sensational drama they described as a march on Rome, which took place the week of October 22-29. On October 25 24 October 1922, Mussolini declared at a rally of some 60,000 in Naples: we want to rule Italy."

King Victor Emmanuel III refused to sign the military order to quell the fascist intimidation. Instead, the King handed power to Mussolini. Mussolini was to become Italy's 27th prime minister on 31 October. Fascists marchers were arriving, and Mussolini turned what had been a threat to seize power into a victory parade. Some among the Fascists believed that a new order, or revolution, was in the making, while some others believed that what was taking place was the restoration of what was good about the past.


Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.