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Mussolini : The Trains Ran on Time

Italian Railroad mapAt one time the Italian railroad system was notorious for the un-reliability of its daily schedules, prompting the widely repeated story that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who ruled from 1922 to 1945, made "the trains ran on time". During the fascist era, railroads and port facilities were improved, and airfields and a modern highway system were built. Because military considerations were paramount, the greater part of this construction was in the strategically important northern part of the country.

Some have argued that this claim is more myth than reality, that Mussolini was disingenuous in taking credit for the changes, since much of the repair work had been performed before Mussolini and the fascists came to power in 1922. It is said that the claim was largely propaganda to counteract critics of the regime. Montagu and Darling wrote: "Mussolini may have done many brutal and tyrannical things; he may have destroyed human freedom in Italy; he may have murdered and tortured citizens whose only crime was to oppose Mussolini; but 'one had to admit' one thing about the Dictator: he 'made the trains run on time.'"

Contemporaneous praise for Mussolini making the trains run on time is surprisingly scarce. The New York Times makes only a single contemporaneous mention of the trains running on time. The noted theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was quoted in the New York Times ["NIEBUHR HOLDS MAN DEPENDENT ON GOD"] on December 14, 1931 "Regardless of the compliments tourists give him for running the trains on time, the rule of mussolini is the greatest outrage carried on against liberty"

And Time Magazine makes only two such references, both from after the end of World War II. In 1945 Time Magazine reported that "We used to have the American who applauded Mussolini because he ran trains on time." And in 1949 Time Magazine reported that "Besides making the trains run on time, Mussolini also made Rome's turbulent traffic run smoothly. He prohibited the Roman pedestrian's custom of reading newspapers in the middle of the street. Once, interrupted in his meditations by a horn insistently honking in the Piazza Venezia below, Mussolini shouted an order that all "acoustic signaling" be forthwith prohibited in Rome. Romans whispered sadly that their "city of noise" had become the città del silenzio.

In his 1937 autobiography Mussolini made no claim either that Italian trains ran on time, or that he was the author of this improvement. Mussolini's biographer D Mack Smith [Mussolini’s Roman Empire, 1976] wrote that "...the Italian railway system had been run down during WW1, but had been much improved between the Wars. The claim was advanced that Italian trains were the envy of Europe. This was an exaggeration by Mussolini who did his best to make the train service into a symbol of fascist efficiency and managed to conceal much that had been done before 1922 (before he became Prime Minister). His propaganda was very successful, yet some travellers reported that the celebrated trains running universally on time, were to some extent a convenient myth." George Seldes wrote [Sawdust Caesar - the untold history of Mussolini & Fascism, 1936] that "it is true that the majority of big expresses run on time - those carrying eye-witness tourists - but on smaller lines, bad rail and roadbed conditions frequently caused delays."

The Great War taught the Italians at least one lesson: The railway system was the basis of any national defense. Yet, though the Italians are more aware of this than ever before, they lack the means of profiting from their lesson. All necessary extensions, and even the replacement of outworn rolling stock, had to be largely deferred until after the rebuilding of the lines running into Austria, which connect with the famous Tauern Railway of 1909. The deficit of 1,000,000,000 lire, however, was quite apart from this reconstruction work. The immediate cause of this operating deficit was, first of all, the wartime deterioration of rolling stock, roadbeds and equipment in general — a deterioration which time and peace had done little to remedy.

The Italian workers had been content to establish their power of intervention in the management without regard to efficiency or the rights of the general public. The railway workers, by virtue of their organization, have acquired an extraordinary valore politico. Today the Minister who wishes to sign a railway order—as a general manager is supposed to do—is obliged to ascertain the altitude of the workers, 90 per cent, of whom must give their consent. Even so simple a thing as the change in the hours of a train can be held up by the workers, and strikes have occurred where their dissent was ignored. Sometimes the concessions to workers bordered on the ridiculous. The office personnel was undecided as to the establishment of unit or divided hours. The matter was solved by letting every one keep the hours he chose. The consequences were so absurd that the obligation to keep identical, undivided or unusual hours was forcibly re-established.

In general the railway workers had, owing to their superior organization, bettered themselves at the expense of the community and with little regard for the crying need of efficiency. In fact, certain elements took delight in multiplying difficulties connected with the establishment of the eight-hour system and with the chaos into which peace had precipitated the railway administration. The whole matter is also tied up with the general loosening of social bonds since the war. This has displayed itself not only in discontent of an active and vicious form, but also in a widespread disinclination to reassume the ordinary, duties of life, a perverted taste for dawdling, amusement and vice.

Shipments were unwarrantedly delayed. Loss and theft of baggage were frequent, and the culprits, many of whom are evidently in the public service, largely go unpunished. Much of this is indirectly traceable to politics and bureaucratic inefficiency. The Italian electorate as a whole is apathetic; only a small percentage goes to the polls. The 200,000 railway workers were alert, informed, and hence constituted an aggressive political force. In a Government whose basis was patronage and on railroads where every administrative act was scrutinized with regard, not to efficiency or national needs, but to the rights and the well-being of the employees, a Minister who valued his career was usually willing to truckle. A generally lackadaisical spirit prevailed.

Trains rarely arrived on time. The Italian railways were face to face with a crisis. But by 1922 sporadic and ill-considered strikes were now more rare; the indiscriminate stopping of trains when and where the crew may choose was not so frequent; and the unions were considering the question of premiums to encourage the efficiency of individual workers. Yet, after all, it was a narrow view that indiscriminately condemned management or workers. Perhaps a large share of the trouble ws inherent in the bureaucratic control of the railroads by politicians. Most certainly to a large degree it was inherent in the sick condition of Europe, and final return to normalcy was contingent upon the lowering of debts, the re-establishment of industry and commerce, the stabilization of the exchange. Yet nothing was more important for this consummation than efficient, adequate transportation.

The railway workers organized among themselves a body of some 40,000 Fascisti Sindacati. These were opposed to the political strikes, which were fomented by the Red Railway Union, partly with a view to raise their wages, partly to control administration in the interests of their class. It was but too well known how frequent these strikes had been and how disastrously they had disorganized the railway service. The Fascisti Sindacati were pledged to act on the Fascist dogma that the nation is above any class, and therefore above the railway employees, and that when the interests of the two clash the latter must give way.

In November 1922 there were initially very few indications of the actual program of the triumphant Fascisti. They were going to cut the dead wood out of the civil service and reduce the cost of administration. They were going to make the railways pay or lease them to private interests. Dead wood in the civil service had an unhappy capacity for replacing itself, and the Italian railways were not certain to operate at a profit under private management. The de-nationalization of Italian railways had been tried before, and never worked very well. In 1923 drastic reforms were announced for the State Railways. A High Commissioner has just been appointed in the person of Dr. Edoardo Torre who proposes to reduce the staff by dismissing 40,000 employees. The eight hour day will be respected. but it is to be a day of eight effective working hours. Severe measures will be taken to suppress theft and pilfering on the railways.

The Italian Syndicate of Railroad Men was the promoter of the Labor Alliance, whose aim it was to oppose the Fascist movement. In February 1923 wrote that "It is impossible to grant amnesty to those who joined forces to destroy the Fascist movement. If there has been injustice in the enforcement of the law, it can be rectified. If some misguided men have repented their acts, their case can be reconsidered. But as to a general order of amnesty, do not expect it. Those who desired strikes and promoted them, need hope for no amnesty. But their case also might be reconsidered, if the Syndicate makes a formal and solemn act of submission to the State by dissolving and entering one of the Fascist organizations."

It seems that Mussolini did "make the trains run on time" though not in contrast to the brutality of his rule, but because of his brutality. Mussolini's railway operations improved, not as a result of Facist efficiency in organizing the railways, but as a result of Facist brutality in suppressing striking rail workers.

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Page last modified: 15-11-2011 18:54:30 ZULU