Italian Fascism (in Italian, fascismo) was the authoritarian political movement which ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943 under the leadership of Benito Mussolini. German Nazism, under Adolf Hitler, was inspired by Italian Fascism but only came to power ten years later in 1933. Similar movements appeared throughout the world including Europe, Japan, and Latin America between World War I and World War II. Although Fascism, strictly speaking, refers only to Italian fascism, the word is often used to describe similar ideologies and movements. Italian Fascism is often considered to be a proper noun and thus denoted by a capital letter "F," whereas generic fascism is conventionally represented with the lower-case character "f." Italian Fascism is considered a model for other forms of fascism, yet there is disagreement over which aspects of structure, tactics, culture, and ideology represent a "fascist minimum" or core.
Fascism led to Italy's support of Hitler's Germany during World War II and to her defeat, although following Mussolini's overthrow Italy changed sides and was immediately occupied by her former ally. Mussolini had manipulated the political system to gain power and much of the enthusiasm that his brand of national socialism had generated quickly evaporated when he failed to deliver the promises he had made to resurrect Italy's ancient glory. Mussolini played both an anti-communist card and preached a strongly nationalistic creed based on restoring Italy's role in the world when its capital had ruled the Roman Empire.
Fascism in Italy was strongly identified with the cult of Mussolini and with the idea, even with the idolization, of the "state." Arguably, the idea of a strong centralized state that knows "best" was not sufficiently embedded in the Italian ethos, or valued as a symbol of national identity, to establish Fascism as an enduring ideology. In its present form as the "National Alliance" (AN), it proclaims a commitment to constitutionalism, parliamentary government and political pluralism. In fact, the Italian fascist state was nothing more than an extension of the leader, who ruled by personal dictate. Italian fascism was unable to survive the leader's demise, just as German and Spanish fascism collapsed once their leaders, Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco had died.
Fascism combined elements of corporatism, nationalism, militarism, anti-liberalism and anti-Communism. After World War II, several authors forged the concept of totalitarianism to refer both to Fascism and Nazism and, in some cases, Stalinism (although the latter point, in particular, has been controversial). Another central theme of Italian fascism was the struggle against what it described as the corrupt "plutocracies" of the time, France and Britain in particular.
Fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile wrote in 1932, in the Enciclopedia Italiana, an article titled "La dottrina del fascismo" (The Doctrine of Fascism) which has been later attributed to Benito Mussolini. Gentile had previously coined the term "statolatry" to refer to his doctrine. In this 1932 article, written a year before Adolf Hitler's rise to power, Fascism is described as a system in which:
The article discussed other political and social doctrines of the time by describing fascism as "the resolute negation of the doctrine underlying so-called scientific and Marxian socialism" [...] and as rejecting in democracy "the absurd conventional lie of political equalitarianism, the habit of collective irresponsibility, the myth of felicity and indefinite progress."
In the essay, French anarcho-syndicalists Georges Sorel and Hubert Lagardelle, and the writer Charles Peguy (close to the socialist movement before turning to Catholicism after a mystical revelation) are invoked as the sources of fascism. Sorel's ideas concerning syndicalism and violence are much in evidence in this document. It also quotes from Ernest Renan who it says had "pre-fascist intuitions." Both Sorel and Peguy were influenced by the philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson rejected the scientism, mechanical evolution and materialism of Marxist ideology. Also, Bergson promoted the élan vital energetic and vitalist concept as an evolutionary process. Such spiritualism ideas have had a role in the ideological formation of Fascism (see Zeev Sternhell). Mussolini stated that Fascism negated Marxism and its theory of historical materialism.
Ironically, some of the strongest anti-fascist movements were formed in the anarcho-syndicalist movement. In terms of ideology, Anarchism is generally regarded as the polar opposite of Fascism.
Fascism also borrowed from Gabriele D'Annunzio's Charter of Carnaro for his ephemeral Regency of Carnaro in the city of Fiume.
Sergio Panunzio, a major theoretician of Fascism in the 1920s, had a syndicalist background, but his influence waned as the movement shed all connection to the working-class autonomy of syndicalism.
Revolutionary syndicalism had a strong influence on Fascism as well, particularly as some syndicalists intersected with D'Annunzio's ideas. Before the First World War, syndicalism had stood for a militant doctrine of working-class revolution. It distinguished itself from Marxism because it insisted that the best route for the working class to liberate itself was the trade union rather than the party.
The Italian Socialist Party ejected the syndicalists in 1908. The syndicalist movement split between anarcho-syndicalists and a more moderate tendency. Some moderates began to advocate "mixed syndicates" of workers and employers. In this practice, they absorbed the teachings of Catholic theorists and expanded them to accommodate greater power of the state, and diverted them by the influence of D'Annunzio to nationalist ends.
When Henri De Man's Italian translation of Au-delà du marxisme (Beyond Marxism) emerged, Mussolini was excited and wrote to the author that his criticism "destroyed any scientific element left in Marxism." Mussolini was appreciative of the idea that a corporative organization and a new relationship between labor and capital would eliminate "the clash of economic interests" and thereby neutralize "the germ of class warfare.'"
Thinkers such as Robert Michels, Sergio Panunzio, Ottavio Dinale, Agostino Lanzillo, Angelo Oliviero Olivetti, Michele Bianchi, and Edmondo Rossoni played a part in this attempt to find a third way that rejected both capitalism and Marxism.
The reality of corporatism and of class collaboration in Fascism is, however, disputed. Daniel Guérin, for example, categorically reject it in the classic opus Fascism and Big Business (1936), claiming it was only an ideological claim, invalidated by the reality of the economic policies of Fascism. He underscored the absence of real representation of workers in such Fascist labor organizations, and the nomination by the state of representants of workers instead of their election.
During the nineteenth century, the bundle of rods, in Latin called fasces and in Italian fascio, came to symbolize strength through unity, the origin of which rested with the Roman empire, where servants of republican officials would carry a number of fasces indicative of their master's executive authority. The word fascio came in modern Italian political usage to mean group, union, band or league. During the Great War, Mussolini led a nationalist group, the Milan fascio, which was reorganized in 1919 under the new name Fasci italiani di combattimento ("League of Combat"). Other fasci of the same name were created, with the common goal of opposing all those—including the king and state—whose pacific leanings were deemed to be depriving Italy of the fruits of victory in the war.
Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Italy had not again been united until its final unification in 1870. Mussolini desired to affirm an Italian national identity and therefore saw the unification as the first step towards returning Italy to greatness and often exploited the unification and the achievements of leading figures such as Garibaldi to induce a sense of Italian national pride. The Fascist cult of national rebirth through a strong leader has roots in the romantic movement of the nineteenth century, as does the glorification of war. For example, the loss of the war with Abyssinia had been a great humiliation to Italians and consequently it was the first place targeted for Italian expansion under Mussolini.
The last time Italy had been a great nation was under the banner of the Roman Empire and Italian nationalists always saw this as a period of glory. Given that even other European nations with imperial ambitions had often invoked ancient Rome in their foreign policy, architecture and vocabulary, it was perhaps inevitable that Mussolini would do the same. This included creating a new Roman empire by demolishing medieval Rome to create grand vistas of ancient monuments (such as connecting Piazza Venezia and the Coliseum with the Via dei Fori Imperiali), co-opting original sites (for example, the Ara Pacis) and using ancient Roman architectural styles, with or without a modern twist (for example, the Museum of Roman Civilization at the EUR).
Mussolini's use of systematic propaganda to pass on simple slogans such as "believe, obey, fight" and his exploitation of the radio developed under the influence of Italian Futurism. Futurism was an intellectual movement which forcefully emphasized three main ideas: technology, speed, and violence. The leader of the Futurists, Filippo Marinetti, joined Mussolini in the formation of the Fasci italiani di combattimento in March 1919, though, as the movement grew, the Futurists remained a small and isolated element. More than that, some of his clownish antics, like the so-called Battle of Via Mercanti, did more harm than good to the emerging movement, which was almost destroyed in the elections of November 1919.
The kind of direct action, the energizing myth favored by Marinetti was bringing Mussolini no political benefits whatsoever. What did was the emergence in 1920 of rural Squadrismo, a reactionary force that represented everything that Futurism did not. It was this turn towards rural conservatism that caused Marinetti to resign from the party in a mood of disgust. Of this Mussolini said that Marinetti was "an eccentric buffoon who wants to play politics and whom no one in Italy, least of all me, takes seriously." Though he broke with Mussolini politically in 1920, Marinetti went on to support his regime, claiming that it had fulfilled Futurism's minimum program. In 1929 he even became the secretary of the Fascist Writer's Union, and remained loyal to Mussolini up to his death in 1944.
Many historians claim that the March 23, 1919, meeting at the Piazza San Sepolcro was the historic “birthplace” of the fascist movement. However, this would imply that the Italian Fascists “came from nowhere” which could be considered false. Mussolini revived his former group, Fasci d'Azione Rivoluzionaria, in order to take part in the 1919 elections in response to an increase in Communist activity occurring in Milan. The Fascist party was the result of this continuation (not creation) of the Fasci di Combattimento. The result of the meeting was that Fascism became an organized political movement. Among the founding members were the revolutionary syndicalist leaders Agostino Lanzillo and Michele Bianchi.
In 1919, the fascists developed a program that called for:
As the movement evolved, several of these initial ideas were abandoned and rejected.
Mussolini capitalized on fear of a Communist revolution, finding ways to unite Labor and Capital to prevent class war. In 1926 he created the National Council of Corporations, divided into guilds of employers and employees, tasked with managing 22 sectors of the economy. The guilds subsumed both labor unions and management, and were represented in a chamber of corporations through a triad comprised of a representative from management, from labor and from the Partito Nazionale Fascista. Together they would plan aspects of the economy for mutual advantage. The movement was supported by small capitalists, low-level bureaucrats, and the middle classes, who had all felt threatened by the rise in power of the Socialists. Fascism also met with great success in rural areas, especially among farmers, peasants, and in the city, the lumpenproletariat.
Mussolini's fascist state was established more than a decade before Hitler's rise to power (1922 and the March on Rome). Both a movement and a historical phenomenon, Italian Fascism was, in many respects, an adverse reaction to both the apparent failure of laissez-faire economics and fear of Communism.
Fascism was, to an extent, a product of a general feeling of anxiety and fear among the middle class of postwar Italy. This fear arose from a convergence of interrelated economic, political, and cultural pressures. Under the banner of this authoritarian and nationalistic ideology, Mussolini was able to exploit fears regarding the survival of capitalism in an era in which postwar depression, the rise of a more militant left, and a feeling of national shame and humiliation stemming from Italy's 'mutilated victory' at the hands of the World War I postwar peace treaties seemed to converge. Such unfulfilled nationalistic aspirations tainted the reputation of liberalism and constitutionalism among many sectors of the Italian population. In addition, such democratic institutions had never grown to become firmly rooted in the young nation-state.
This same postwar depression heightened the allure of Marxism among an urban proletariat who were even more disenfranchised than their continental counterparts. But fear of the growing strength of trade unionism, Communism, and socialism proliferated among the elite and the middle class. In a way, Benito Mussolini filled a political vacuum. Fascism emerged as a "third way"—as Italy's last hope to avoid imminent collapse of the 'weak' Italian liberalism, and Communist revolution.
In this fluid situation, Mussolini took advantage of the opportunity and, rapidly abandoning the early syndicalist and republican program, put himself at the service of the antisocialist cause. The fascist militias, supported by the wealthy classes and by a large part of the state apparatus which saw in him the restorer of order, launched a violent offensive against the syndicalists and all political parties of a socialist or Catholic inspiration, particularly in the north of Italy (Emiglia Romagna, Toscana, etc.), causing numerous victims though the substantial indifference of the forces of order. These acts of violence were, in large part, provoked by fascist squadristi who were increasingly and openly supported by Dino Grandi, the only real competitor to Mussolini for the leadership of the fascist party until the Congress of Rome in 1921.
The violence increased considerably during the period from 1920-1922 until the March on Rome. Confronted by these badly armed and badly organized fascist militias attacking the Capital, King Victor Emmanuel III, preferring to avoid any spilling of blood, decided to appoint Mussolini, who at that moment had the support of about 22 deputies in Parliament, President of the Council.
As Prime Minister, the first years of Mussolini's reign were characterized by a coalition government composed of nationalists, liberals and populists and did not assume dictatorial connotations until the assassination of Matteotti. In domestic politics, Mussolini favored the complete restoration of State authority, with the integration of the Fasci di Combattimento into the armed forces (the foundation in January 1923 of the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale) and the progressive identification of the Party with the State. He supported the wealthy industrial and agrarian classes through the introduction of legislation that provided for privatization, the liberalization of rent laws, and the banning of unions.
In June of 1923, a new majoritarian electoral law, the Acerbo Law, was approved which assigned two thirds of the seats in Parliament to the coalition which had obtained at least 25 percent of the votes. The Acerbo Law was punctually applied in the elections of April 6, 1924, in which the fascist "listone" obtained an extraordinary success, aided by the use of shenanigans, violence and intimidatory tactics against opponents. Italy had not developed a strong democracy either. Party leaders delivered the vote through bribery and the multiplicity of parties made it impossible for one party to form a government, that is, until Mussolini changed the law.
The assassination of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti, who had requested the annulment of the elections because of the irregularities committed, provoked a momentary crisis of the Mussolini government. The weak response of the opposition (the Aventine Secession), incapable of transforming their posturing into a mass antifascist action, was not sufficient to distance the ruling classes and the Monarchy from Mussolini who, on January 3, 1925, broke open the floodgates and, in a famous discourse in which he took upon himself all of the responsibility for the assassination of Matteotti and the other squadrist violence, proclaimed a de facto dictatorship, suppressing every residual liberty and completing the identification of the Fascist Party with the State.
It may not be strictly appropriate to refer to Mussolini's rise as a "coup d'état" since he obtained his post legally with the blessing of the sovereign of the nation. On the other hand, he could only achieve this by changing the electoral system in 1923 and by bullying people to vote for him in April 1924. When some who had initially co-operated with his party denounced his tactics and his manipulation of the political system and asked the Emmanuel to intervene, he refused to do so. Opponents, including post-World War II Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi were imprisoned.
From 1925 until the middle of the 1930s, fascism experienced little and isolated opposition, although that which it experienced was memorable, consisting in large part of communists such as Antonio Gramsci, socialists such as Pietro Nenni and liberals such as Piero Gobetti and Giovanni Amendola.
While failing to outline a coherent program, fascism evolved into a new political and economic system that combined corporatism, totalitarianism, nationalism, and anti-Communism in a state designed to bind all classes together under a capitalist system. This was a new capitalist system, however, one in which the state seized control of the organization of vital industries. Under the banners of nationalism and state power, Fascism seemed to synthesize the glorious Roman past with a futuristic utopia.
Despite the themes of social and economic reform in the initial Fascist manifesto of June 1919, the movement came to be supported by sections of the middle class fearful of socialism and communism. Industrialists and landowners supported the movement as a defense against labor militancy. Under threat of a fascist March on Rome, in October 1922, Mussolini assumed the premiership of a right-wing coalition Cabinet initially including members of the pro-church Partito Popolare (People's Party). In April 1926 the Rocco Law outlawed strikes and lockouts and suppressed trade-unions, replaced by Fascist syndicates grouped into corporations. Headed by Arturo Bocchini, the OVRA secret police was created in September 1926, and the Casellario Politico Centrale filing system on political opponents generalized. In October 1926 a "Law for the Defense of the State" banned all political parties apart of the Fascist Party, established a Special Tribunal for the Security of the State and reinstated the death penalty. Furthermore, in September 1928 a new electoral law decreed that the whole composition of parliament should be determined by the Fascist Grand Council headed by Mussolini.
The regime's most lasting political achievement was perhaps the Lateran Treaty of February 1929 between the Italian state and the Holy See. Under this treaty, the Papacy was granted temporal sovereignty over the Vatican City and guaranteed the free exercise of Roman Catholicism as the sole state religion throughout Italy in return for its acceptance of Italian sovereignty over the Pope's former dominions. It must be said that some (not all) laws of the Lateran treaty where kept alive until 1984, when all of the Lateran treaty was fully dismissed.
In the 1930s, Italy recovered from the Great Depression, and achieved economic growth in part by developing domestic substitutes for imports (Autarchia). The draining of the malaria-infested Pontine Marshes south of Rome was one of the regime's proudest boasts. But growth was undermined by international sanctions following Italy's October 1935 invasion of Ethiopia (the Abyssinia crisis), and by the government's costly military support for Franco's Nationalists in Spain.
The moderate Socialist Carlo Rosselli was assassinated in 1937 in France by members of the Cagoule terrorist group, probably on orders of Mussolini himself.
The invasion of Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia) was accomplished rapidly (the proclamation of Empire took place in May of 1936) and involved several atrocities such as the use of chemical weapons (mustard gas and phosgene) and the indiscriminate slaughter of much of the local population to prevent opposition.
The Fascists passed anti-Semitic laws in autumn 1938, which excluded foreign Jews, prohibited all Jews from teaching and excluded them from the Fascist Party. Legislation enacting racial discrimination were progressively put in place, in accordance to the "scientific racism" theories upheld in Fascist political reviews, such as La Difesa della Razza. Jews were excluded from the military and from the administration, while an "aryanisation" of Jewish goods was put in place—actually, an expropriation of their goods. An anti-Semitic hate campaign was put in place, while the legislation was strictly applied. As it had little or nothing to do with them, neither the monarchy nor the Church protested against the latter.
Many authors have interpreted these anti-Semitic laws as an imitation by Mussolini of Nazi racist legislation. However, historian Marie-Anne Matard-Bonucci (2007) has upheld, to the contrary, the idea that anti-Semitism founded its roots in the Fascist movement itself: with the establishment of the Fascist state and Mussolini's anthropological project of creating a "new (Italian) man," the needs arose of creating the figure of the "anti-Italian," symbolized by the Jewish people. "The persecution of the Italian Jews was one of the inner components of the totalitarian logic," thus wrote Matard-Bonucci.
50,000 Jews then lived in Italy. Despite this anti-Semitic policy, Mussolini did not implement an extermination program similar to Hitler's decision, the so-called "Final Solution to the Jewish Problem." Thus, three-fourths of the Italian Jews survived World War II. 8,000 Jews died in extermination camps, deported by Nazis, but only after Italy's switch to the Allied side and during the Salo Republic starting in December 1943.
International isolation and their common involvement in Spain brought about increasing diplomatic collaboration between Italy and Nazi Germany. This was reflected also in the Fascist regime's domestic policies as the first anti-Semitic laws were passed in 1938. From that year on, with the publication of the Manifesto degli scienziati razzisti (Manifesto of the Racist Scientists) (in reality about 90 percent written by Mussolini himself), fascism declared itself explicitly anti-Semite.
Italy's intervention (June 10, 1940) as Germany's ally in World War II brought military disaster, and resulted in the loss of her north and east African colonies and the American-British-Canadian invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and southern Italy in September 1943.
After a fateful gathering of the Gran Consiglio del Fascismo (Italy's wartime Cabinet) Mussolini was forced to submit his resignation as prime minister in the hands of King Victor Emmanuel III on July 25, 1943. He hoped that the King would reappoint him and allow him to reshuffle the Cabinet, but he was instead arrested on the King's orders as he was leaving the Quirinale palace. He was freed in September by German paratroopers under command of Otto Skorzeny and installed as head of a puppet "Italian Social Republic" at Salò in German-occupied northern Italy. His association with the German occupation regime eroded much of what little support remained to him. His summary execution on April 28, 1945, during the war's violent closing stages by the northern partisans was widely seen as a fitting end to his regime.
After the war, the remnants of Italian fascism largely regrouped under the banner of the neo-Fascist "Italian Social Movement" (MSI). The MSI merged in 1994 with conservative former Christian Democrats to form the "National Alliance" (AN), which proclaims its commitment to constitutionalism, parliamentary government and political pluralism.
The Italian model of fascism was influential outside of Italy in the inter-war period and a number of groups and thinkers looked directly to Italy for their inspiration rather than developing an indigenous form of the ideology. Groups that sought to copy the Italian model of fascism included the Russian Fascist Organization, the Romanian National Fascist Movement (an amalgam of the National Romanian Fascia and the National Italo-Romanian Cultural and Economic Movement) and the Dutch group based around the Verbond van Actualisten journal of H. A. Sinclair de Rochemont and Alfred Haighton.
In Switzerland Colonel Arthur Fonjallaz, who had previously been associated with the more pro-Nazi National Front, became an ardent admirer of Mussolini after visiting Italy in 1932. He came to advocate the annexation of Switzerland by his idol, whilst also receiving some financial aid from the Italian leader. The country also hosted the International Centre for Fascist Studies (CINEF) and the 1934 congress of the Action Committee for the Universality of Rome (CAUR), two Italian-led initiatives.
In Spain early fascist writer Ernesto Giménez Caballero called for Italy to annex Spain in his 1932 book Genio de España, with Mussolini at the head of an international Latin Roman Catholic empire. He would later become more closely associated with Falangism, leading to his ideas of Italian annexation being put aside.
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