The Interwar Years (1919-1938)
Italian Fascism during the Inter-War Years (1919-1938)
In 1915, the French, British, and Russians had promised territory to Italy in exchange for joining the Allied cause. However, when the war ended, the principle of national self determination stood in the way of Italian efforts to collect on this promise. Under this widely accepted philosophy, the Allies could not grant Italy the territory it had been promised because it was not theirs to give, since most of the territory promised to Italy was populated by non-Italians. The Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando returned from the Paris Peace Conference at the close of World War I embarrassed and empty-handed, with nothing to show for the sacrifices of the Italian war effort. The Italian people naturally turned against Orlando's government, as well as the returning veterans, and both were widely despised. Veterans were often physically and verbally abused if they appeared publicly in uniform, adding to the misery of returning home from the war to widespread unemployment and poverty.
Like the other warring nations, Italy had borrowed extensively to finance its war effort. In 1919, the Italian national debt was six times its pre-war level, and the lira had depreciated to one-third its pre-war value. To make matters worse, the democratically elected Chamber of Deputies, Italy's primary governing body, was unpaid, and thus prone to corruption and bribery. Amid the chaos of the early inter-war years, Benito Mussolini founded the Fascist Party, the Fascio di Combattimento, in March 1919. The Fascist Party, composed largely of war veterans, was vehemently anti-communist, and advocated the glorification of war, which they claimed displayed the nobility of the Italian soul. The Fascists thought Italy was destined to recapture the glory of Rome.
In the elections of May 1921, 35 fascists, including Mussolini, were elected to the Chamber of Deputies, representing about 250,000 official party members drawn mostly from the lower middle class. Political tensions between the Fascists and the Communists mounted in Italy almost to the point of civil war. Fascist 'black shirts' and communist 'red shirts' were often seen brawling in the streets. By the summer of 1922, the Fascist army marched from Naples to Rome, declaring their loyalty to the king, Victor Emmanuel, and to the Roman Catholic Church, and claiming its purpose was to free Italy from the liberal left. The Communists also possessed their own army, and the king feared open violence. In an effort to avoid this he named Mussolini premier on October 30, 1922. Mussolini used his private army, now turned into a militia, to purge local governments of any opposition to fascism. He consolidated his power under the motto: "All in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." Under this doctrine he ruled Italy with a tight fist during the war years, instituting economic and social reforms, some successful, others unsuccessful. He was sympathetic to Adolf Hitler's desire to regain glory for Germany and Europe, and proved Hitler's most important ally.
Democracy as an institution was unstable and novel to the Italians, with universal male suffrage only having been granted in 1912. This made it easier for Mussolini to capitalize on the reaction to chaos and bring his party, representing rigid order, to power. Mussolini's strength lay in his ability to harness the anger and disillusionment of the returning soldiers and the lower middle class. Soldiers returned to a broken homeland after World War One, filled with misery and poverty. Moreover, they were not thanked for their sacrifices but jeered as the cause of Italy's hard times. These jeers seemed to be coming from more than anywhere else, the liberal left, which was in control of the Chamber of Deputies early in the inter-war years. Under their rule, conditions only worsened, and in many instances it seemed like they were doing nothing as Italy collapsed. The Fascist party appealed to the frustrations of these soldiers, and to the culturally instilled conservatism of the middle class. Rather than preaching liberalism and newly emerging liberal values, the Fascists offered a return to traditional politics and traditional values, promising to undo the changes made by the liberals and lift poor, crippled Italy to a position of glory once more. Most importantly, they offered the masses a type of government in which the leaders could and would do something about deteriorating conditions. To many, it did not matter what exactly the Fascists did, but only that they acted, and acted within the framework of a stable and strong government.
Mussolini was a likely leader of the Fascist movement. Born into a lower middle-class family, Mussolini had watched his father in action as the socialist mayor of his small village. As a youth, Benito was a bully, engaging in frequent back-alley fights and other cruel-intentioned activities. At the age of ten, Mussolini was expelled from boarding school after stabbing another student, an incident repeated at a second school. As a political leader, he marshaled a group of bullies in black shirts, which he used to beat up on opposition political parties. When he rose to dictatorship, this bullying became institutionalized as a means of intimidating and silencing his opponents. It is known that he resorted to murder in at least one instance.
Mussolini's rule as dictator fell nicely into the established totalitarian mold of an omnipotent state apparatus that controlled thought and suppressed dissent, demanding obedience and uniformity. Mussolini's ascent to power is also a perfect example of the means by which dictators during the inter-war years commonly rose to power, by literally beating the legal state apparatus down through brutality and intimidation until it had no choice but to legally accept the imposed government. Though Mussolini's means of ascension to power were by no means legal, in the end, he was granted control of the government by the king himself. This legitimization of totalitarian government was seen commonly throughout the twentieth century.