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Fascist Italy - 1922-1945

During World War I, Italy renounced its standing alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary and, in 1915, entered the war on the side of the Allies. Under the postwar settlement, Italy received some former Austrian territory along the northeast frontier. The Great War, which lasted more than three years and cost more than 600,000 lives, led the country to victory and to the achievement of unity, but also to a serious crisis that affected all aspects of national life.

The period between 1919 and 1922 was one of severe political, economic and social instability, which facilitated the rise to power of the Fascist party of Benito Mussolini, who became head of government after his March on Rome in October 1922. From that moment on, the democratic life of the State progressively diminished as the dictatorial regime of Mussolini settled in. Over the next few years, Mussolini eliminated political parties, curtailed personal liberties, and installed a fascist dictatorship termed the Corporate State. The king, with little or no effective power, remained titular head of state.

This general party disintegration was nothing new in Italian political life. For decades Signor Giolitti had manoeuvred to prevent the formation of clearly defined parties, finding the bickering factions of Parliament, all of which were invariably permeated with his adherents, far easier to manipulate. Though this is characteristic of Latin polities, it has led to a peculiarly vicious state of affairs for in times of crisis any small but active group is enabled to exercise a power quite disproportionate to its actual numerical strength. The lack of consistent party control accounted for much of the governmental impotence in the fact of Socialist, Communist and Fascisti violence.

But the simplest things in Italian national life had always been attained only by the most frenzied waste of emotional energy. Progress was always measured by the reactions to such emotional debauches. Out of the general turbulence of Italian life emerge certain deeper tendencies. The reaction to war was revolution; the reaction to revolution, Fascisti violence; the reaction to Fascisti violence, a widespread desire for an ordered State. The majority sentiment of the country clamored for internal peace, bureaucratic reform, rigid economy, and sound, heroic reconstruction.

Mussolini came to power by using illegal political violence to frighten most of his ideological opponents into submission, the 20th century's first example of successful terrorism against a developing democracy. Mussolini was an interesting and volatile character, constantly running before his horse to market. For many years he was editor of The Avanti. At the time of the Crispi Government, which vigorously suppressed radical organizations, he fled with Serrati, Matteoti and other extremists to Switzerland. In 1914 he separated from the Socialists and founded The Popolo d'ltalia, in the columns of which he supported d'Annunzio's efforts to "force a declaration of war against Austria. He has resigned on several occasions from the head of the Fascisti, and his latest exploit is the fighting of a duel with one of the leading newspaper editors of Rome.

Faced with what they perceived as a dangerously powerful Marxist revolutionary movement at the time, the Italian police were impressed by the appearance of Mussolini's fascist ideas in 1919. Over time, Mussolini gained the support of the police, often through bribes, and also had economic backing from large landowners. By 1921, the power of the left had been broken; by 1922, many regional police officers were taking orders from the fascist high command. The police failed to stop Mussolini's fascist movement because of institutional defects in police force organization. In addition, the police were poorly treated by the government in the postwar period, and they had no particular reason to be loyal to the liberal parliamentary system. Further, the police learned that they could not depend on their leaders for backing when they executed unpopular orders.

Both Italian fascism and German Nazism used right-wing methods to achieve their goals. In 1932, Mussolini defined the vision of the fascist State "as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State" (Mussolini, What is Fascism?). Each movement also regarded both war and expansion as vital to the "sustenance of [its] people." Fascism and Nazism, however, differed in their conception of opposition. For Fascists, anyone who opposed the state was considered hostile, while the Nazis targeted people based on race. As early as 1920, Hitler claimed: "Only a member of the [Aryan] race can be a citizen," and also said that "a member of the race can only be one who is of German blood, without consideration of creed" (Hitler, Program of the NSDAP). In this way, fascism and Nazism differed, in that Hitler often discriminated based solely on race, while Mussolini and the Italian fascists cared more about loyalty toward "the State."

Under Benito Mussolini, the Italian government allied with Germany and other Axis Powers during World War II. On 12 September 1943 Otto Skozeny's kommando unit freed Mussolini, who was installed as head of a puppet Italian Social Republic. Mussolini managed to assemble a rogue government in the small town of Sal˛ on the shores of Lake Garda until April 1945. The anti-fascist popular resistance movement grew during the last two years of the war, harassing German forces before they were driven out in April 1945. The allied troops entered Rome in June 1944 and continued their march northward, achieving, together with the partisan forces, the liberation of Italy on 25 April 1945. Mussolini was finally captured on his way to Switzerland and shot.

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Page last modified: 10-01-2012 19:23:30 ZULU