The History of Democracy: Mussolini's Rise to Power in Italy

Sep 26, 2020

In this installment of "The History of Democracy," Tracy Ross and Dr. David Pizzo, Murray State professor of history, discuss Benito Mussolini's rise to power in Italy. Pizzo draws comparisons between the radical authoritarian regime's rise and reign and contemporary politics. 

Pizzo begins the discussion in pre-Mussolini Italy, which finds itself in a situation not unlike Germany and Russia in 1919-1920. "You have both worker and peasant uprisings, particularly in northern Italy," Pizzo begins. "Factories are getting taken over by workplace actions. There is rural insurrection. This is all part of what's called the Biennio Rosso, [a two-year period] after the war when Italy was almost totally in chaos. The liberals are completely panicked."

It's within this environment of street violence, rural insurrection, and factory workers that a group of volunteer, paid-by-the-community, armed squads called Squadre d'Azione, or squadristi, is born. "These so-called Black Shirts start crushing the left both in the countryside and Northern industrial cities," Pizzo explains. "Mussolini is this sort of figurehead looming in the background who's giving spiritual support. He's kind of a figurehead leader. I think this sort of chaotic, decentralized structure where you have this combination of elites collaborating with local fascist barons with Mussolini hovering above them has a huge effect on what fascism will look like when it does take power."

Unlike Hitler, who came to power on a wave of ultra-conservative, right-wing ideology, "it was the liberals themselves who bring Mussolini into government," Pizzo continues. In October of 1922, fascist troops entered Rome to take the city. King Victor Emmanuel III transfers the title of Prime Minister of Italy from Luigi Facta to Benito Mussolini without armed conflict. The dramatic, gladiator-esque siege was far less riveting in person. "There's these epic images of them marching through the rain taking Rome. [In reality], Mussolini took a train, got off with an umbrella, and waited for them to show up. It's not a coup. There's this huge theatrical demonstration of violence and force -- the violence is implied."

Despite the theatrics, Mussolini is "handed power by the liberal establishment, who thinks he's going to be controllable, they can use him to connect popular politics and high politics, he can continue cursing the left, it's going to be fantastic. And for a while, he rules not necessarily that unconventionally," Pizzo says. "The problem with Italian fascists, even more so than in Germany, is there's all these rival power centers. There are industrialists who were a big part of fascism's rise in the North. There's the church, which for 40 years by this point had sat in sullen exile hating the state. There's this whole tension between fascist unions that had arisen but were their own power center. Things start getting more and more radical."

Mussolini's regime changed the electoral law in 1924, making it more lopsided in a way that favored the fascists. Under the Acerbo Law, the party with the largest share of votes automatically received two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. During this election process, a socialist journalist and prominent name in politics, Giacomo Matteotti, was kidnapped and murdered. "Almost immediately, people start blaming Mussolini," Pizzo says. 

"At first he really distances himself from them, but by January, decides 'I am going to embrace this.' There's this moment on the 3rd of January -- he makes this speech to Parliament, this very infamous speech, where he said, 'yeah, I did this, what are you going to do about it?' He literally just drops the gauntlet and stares at them and dares them to remove him or do anything, and they don't. And when they don't, and I think a lot of scholars would say it, at that moment, his power is still not absolute, but it becomes much stronger and more entrenched. So throughout the rest of the '20s, the fascist movement gets more and more powerful. It starts trying to penetrate everyday life. There's all these women auxiliaries, there's this [children's group] that's a little bit like the Hitler Youth that gets formed. Things radicalize a lot in 1929. The depression just wrecks Italy like everywhere else." 

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler were soon in power simultaneously, and Hitler always viewed Mussolini as "the founder of Fascism International," while Mussolini was far more ambivalent towards the German dictator. "Mussolini really resents [new waves of fascism]. He views them as Johnny-come-latelies. He's angry that other fascists are beginning to look at Germany as a model instead of Italy." Regardless, Hitler continues to support and protect his relationship with Mussolini, even when it went against popular opinion. The two countries are allies during the war, although their relationship mostly involves Germany saving Italy from failed invasions. By the middle of the war, Italy switches sides. "There's a coup against Mussolini -- his own fascist leaders overthrow him. Italy is sawed in half. The Germans rescue Mussolini and store him...in the North. Italy enters this really brutal civil war where the fascists control northern Italy along with the Germans, and the free regime, with the help of the Allies, controls the South. Italy just tears itself apart."

Pizzo draws several comparisons between the rise and reign of Mussolini and contemporary U.S. politics, including the idea of a personality cult. "Mussolini is the original," Pizzo explains. "This idea of a personality cult covers all sins, and it's precisely how vague he was and how contradictory that made him all things to all people. He was sort of whatever you wanted him to be. Mussolini was always an improviser and very pragmatic in a lot of ways. So this idea of a cult personality and personality trumping ideology, I think there's an element of that you can see in some movements today."

Another similar element of modern-day politics is the concept of volunteerism. "Nobody's making [the squadristi] take up arms and murder leftists. A lot of them are vets or other people who just feel like the left is destroying the country. They want to do this. Indeed, Mussolini has to kind of scramble to get out in front of this to control it. This sort of volunteerist activity, up to and including murder, which we're seeing in places like the Pacific Northwest or Wisconsin. That phenomenon was happening."

Additionally, "the judiciary and the police in liberal Italy were extremely soft on fascism in its lead up to taking power. One of the fears of the liberals was that if they tried to crack down on it too hard or if they changed their minds about bringing it in, the police and judiciary would not obey them. Which I would love to tell you is not the situation now....but," Pizzo ends. 

"I would say a final thing that Italy really makes clear is what happens when liberal democracy doesn't function. When a democratic state's legitimacy -- because of perceived corruption and nonresponsiveness and being totally aloof and removed from people's concerns -- [is questioned], that opens the space to either the far left [or] the far right. Liberal Italy doesn't survive this any more than the old right does in Germany. Ultimately, they are by this devil's bargain completely undermined and rendered useless."

"After the war, it's not really the old school liberals that take charge, it's a new movement called the Christian Democrats. Very different from the old school liberals, particularly in their attitudes towards Christianity. They sort of pretend fascism never happened. Italy is a really awful warning -- this whole situation in describing when a state ceases to be legitimate among voters and citizens. As I said, it opens up this space for much more brutal, violent things that don't really care about democracy at all in the name of supposedly higher ideals like the nation or imperialism or, belatedly in the Italian case, race."