Fascist Italy

[Excerpted from Eugene K. Keefe at al, Area Handbook for Italy (Washington, D.C.: Foregin Area Studies of the American University, 1977), pp. 28-33]

Italy and World War I

Italy, an economically underdeveloped country, was late in entering Europe's scramble for overseas possessions, but Prime Minister Francesco Crispi pursued a determined expansionist policy in the 1880s and 1890s to ensure Italy's place among the European colonial powers. Crispi was not contented with the two strips of desertÑin Eritrea and SomaliaÑon the Horn of Africa, acquired in 1889; but an attempt to penetrate Ethiopia in 1896 was ended by the military disaster at Adowa. Imperialism remained an aspect of Italy's foreign policy, and Italy's colonial holdings increased with the occupation of Libya and the Dodecanese during the war with Turkey (1911-12). The Italians also established spheres of interest in the Balkans and Asia Minor through the construction of port facilities and railroads and the exploitation of resources. Throughout the early colonial experience Italy's interests were concerned primarily with economic rather than political expansion.

Italy adhered to the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria in 1882, but after 1900 Italian foreign policy tended toward closer ties with France and Great Britain. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914 Italy declared its neutrality, explaining that under the Triple Alliance its commitments were solely defensive in nature. Whereas the Giolitti government opposed entry into the war, public opinion, urged on by the popular press, democratic sentiment, and irredentists who saw the war as an opportunity to complete the Risorgimento, prevailed. Under the terms of the secret London Pact Italy was promised the Italian-speaking areas still held by Austria as well as colonial concessions. Accordingly in May 1915 Italy declared war on Austria. Psychologically Italy was conditioned for war, but the Italian armed forces were woefully unprepared.

By the end of the war Italy had mobilized more than 5 million men, and more than 600,000 had been killed. But Italy's case was poorly presented at the Versailles Conference and its bargaining position compromised by unstable conditions at home. Under the terms of the Treaty of St. Germain in 1919, Austria surrendered Istria, Zara in Dalmatia, Trentino-Alto Adige (South Tyrol), andÑof strategic importanceÑcontrol of the Brenner Pass. However, the extravagant offers made in the London Pact were held to be contrary to the spirit of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, and the United States refused to support further Italian territorial claims.


For many Italians it seemed that the gains won on the battlefield at such great cost had been thrown away at the peace table, and a sense of frustration and disillusionmentÑand of betrayalÑpermeated the country in the years immediately after the war. Italy was saddled with an enormous war debt. Inflation and shortages of basic goods triggered strikes that paralyzed large segments of the economy. Demobilized troops swelled the ranks of the unemployed. Profiteering, often involving public officials, took its toll on public confidence in the government. Socialist gains in local elections inspired fears of expropriationÑespecially among small landholdersÑand outbreaks of violence and counterviolence. The government admitted its inability to maintain public order, and amnesties granted to striking workers confirmed the middle class in its belief that the parliamentary government was not only corrupt but weak.

This was the atmosphere that spawned Benito Mussolini's fascist movement, which for nearly one-quarter of a century demeaned and demoralized Italy's national life. Mussolini had always been a political maverick. Imprisoned and exiled for his political activities, the schoolteacher-turned-journalist from Romagna had begun his activist career as a pacifist and anarchist, later joining the militant wing of the PSIÑat one time being the editor of the party's official newspaper. Mussolini broke with the party on the issue of entry into World War I and abandoned Marxism for nationalism.

Mussolini was a manipulative orator; his showmanship was not mere buffoonery but struck a responsive chord in his listeners. He had attracted a personal following as early as 1917. In 1919 he assembled the paramilitary Combat Groups (Fasci di Combattimento), called the Blackshirts, from among army veterans and youths, modeled after the arditi (commandos), the shock troops of the Italian army. Organized in more than 2,000 squads, the Blackshirts were used as strikebreakers (subsidized by industrialists for the purpose), attacked Socialists and Communists, whom they claimed the government was too timid to deal with, terrorized left-wing town governments, and set up local dictatorships while the police and the army looked onÑoften in sympathy. Mussolini profited from the anxieties of the middle classÑtheir businesses threatened and their savings wiped out by inflationÑand from the smallholders' fears of expropriation by the Socialists.

In 1921 Mussolini, seeking a broader following than among the fascist squads, formed a parliamentary party, the National Fascist Party (Partito Nazionale Fascista), which captured thirty-five seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The party, running on a bloc list with Giolitti's Liberals, was admitted to the coalition government. The party program called in vague terms for social reform, financial stability, assertion of Italy's prestige abroad, and order at home. The Fascists considered themselves a revolutionary party in opposition to nineteenth-century liberalism, middle-class humanistic values, and capitalism, but Mussolini advanced no guiding ideology. Fascism, Mussolini insisted, represented a mood in the country, not ideas, and he wrote, "Fascism . . . was a form of a need for action, and in itself was action."

Despite their relatively minor representation in Parliament, no government could survive without the support of the National Fascist Party, and in October 1922 Mussolini was summoned by Victor Emmanuel III to form a government as prime minister. The much-heralded March on Rome by 300,000 armed Fascists, usually credited with bringing Mussolini to power by a coup, was in fact the result rather than the cause of his appointment to office, a brilliant bluff intended to impress the nationÑand EuropeÑwith the strength and determination of his following. Mussolini governed constitutionally, heading a national government comprising the Fascists, some Social Democrats, Liberals, and members of the Italian Popular Party (Partito Popolare Italiano, known as Popolari).

The Popolari were a center-left reformist group founded in 1919 by a Sicilian priest, Don Luigi Sturzo. Formation of the party marked the entry of an organized, mass-based Catholic party into parliamentary politics, although without the approval of the Italian hierarchy or the Vatican. In 1919 Sturzo's party won 101 seats in Parliament, second in strength only to the PSI. Mussolini considered the Popolari, parent party to the postwar Christian Democratic Party (Partito Democrazia CristianaÑDC), the toughest obstacle in his rise to power. The Popolari withdrew their support Tom the Mussolini government in 1923.

The Fascists, under a revised electoral law, polled two-thirds of the votes cast in the 1924 elections. Seemingly secure in his parliamentary majority, Mussolini's confidence was shakenÑand his regime endangeredÑby the public reaction to the murder of a socialist politician, Giacomo Matteotti, by fascist toughs. The opposition withdrew from the Chamber of Deputies in protest. Without resistance Mussolini assumed dictatorial powers in January 1925, ruling thereafter by decree, and replacing elected local government officials with fascist operatives. Although a rump chamber of deputies continued to sit, advisory functions passed to a party organ, the Fascist Grand Council, which Mussolini integrated into the state apparatus.

Controlling all the organs of government, Mussolini set about constructing a totalitarian state in Italy that would dominate every aspect of national life. II Duce, as Mussolini was styled, proclaimed the doctrine of "everything within the state, nothing against the state, nothing outside the state," including professional and labor associations, youth groups, and sports organizations. Political partiesÑother than the FascistsÑwere suppressed. The press and court system were cowed. Strikes were made illegal and, although the free trade unions were not abolished, they were gradually throttled. Mussolini was less successful in imposing economic control, and the corporate state, which remained part of the myth of the fascist regime, was never more than its facade. In some respects the Italian character, especially its spirit of individualism, mitigated the worst effects of Mussolini's totalitarianism, which was, as a critic noted, "a tyranny tempered by the complete disobedience of all laws." In addition totalitarianism in the strictest sense was not possible where an independent church, claiming the spiritual allegiance of a large part of the population, existed. Mussolini's political background was anticlerical, but he understood the importance of the church to Italian life and realized that he could not expect to consolidate political support behind the regime until an accommodation was made with the VaticanÑwhich had not recognized the legality of the Italian state.

The Lateran Pacts of 1929 consisted of a treaty between Italy and the Holy See and concordat regulating relations between the Italian state and the Catholic church. The treaty created the independent state of Vatican City and recognized the sovereignty of the pope there. In the concordat the church was assured of jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters, and canon law was recognized as superseding the civil code in such areas as marriage. The church was restored to its role in education and allowed unencumbered operation of its press and communication facilities. The clergy were prohibited from membership in political organizations. The solution of the Roman Question, which had vexed Italian politicians since 1860, marked the peak of Mussolini's political leadership and has been considered by some observers the singular positive achievement of an otherwise excrable regime. The provisions of the Lateran Pacts were included in the 1948 Constitution.

Imperialism was always a facet of fascism but was not explicit until 1935. The need to provide space for Italian emigration was emphasized by the occupation of Ethiopia in the 1935-36 period. The action might well have been passed over except for Ethiopia's protest in the League of Nations, but to the league's condemnation Italy responded that it had done no more in Africa than other powers had done earlier. France and Great Britain were unwilling to risk war for the sake of Ethiopia, but league members agreed to impose economic sanctions on Italy. The sanctions were halfheartedly enforced and subsequently withdrawn. They provoked bitterness in Italy, especially against Great Britain, and rallied theretofore lukewarm Italians to Mussolini. The sanctions also spurred the drive for economic self-sufficiency, an uneconomic project better suited to propaganda than to feeding the Italian people. Cut off from other sources, Italy relied on Germany as a supplier of raw materials and was drawn within its political orbit.

Mussolini was frankly impressed by German efficiency, overlooking outstanding conflicts of interests in Austria and the Balkans that might otherwise have kept the two dictators at odds. In 1936 Mussolini agreed to the Rome-Berlin Axis, pledging cooperation in central Europe. The next year Italy joined with Germany and Japan in the Anticomintern Pact, directed against the Soviet Union. By the time that Italy had formalized its military ties with Germany in the so-called Pact of Steel in 1939, Mussolini had so identified his country's interests with those of Hitler that Italy had become a virtual German satellite.

Italy aided Franco's forces during the 1936-39 Spanish civil war, contributing supplies, naval and air support, and more than 50,000 men. Mussolini participated at Munich in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938, but his foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, had tried to dissuade Germany from attacking Poland. Cut off from advanced notice of its ally's plans, Mussolini's government was acutely embarrassed by the Soviet Pact in 1939 that opened the door for invasion of Poland. Mussolini had pompously bragged about the "8 million bayonets" at his disposal but, as was the case so often during hiss regime, propaganda had taken the place of actual preparation, and Italy was no more ready for a major war than it had been in 1915. Confident of German strength, Mussolini believed that the war would be short and remarked that it would be humiliating "to sit with our hands folded while others write history." Italy attacked France after the issue of the Battle of France was already decided; nevertheless the French rallied to halt the Italian invasion. Later in 1940 Italy launched an unprovoked invasion of GreeceÑa fiasco, requiring German intervention to rescue an Italian army fought to a standstill by the Greeks. After a disastrous campaign in Africa, during which entire units surrendered to the Allies en masse, Mussolini squandered another army in the Soviet Union.

The Allies were greeted as liberators when they landed in Sicily in July 1943. In what amounted to a palace coup in Rome the Fascist Grand Council, including Ciano, forced the resignation of the ailing and beaten Mussolini and returned the power of state to Victor Emmanuel III. He had the former dictator arrested and called on Marshal Pietro Badoglio to become prime minister. Badoglio formed an interim government that dissolved the National Fascist Party and granted amnesty to political prisoners. Although pledging to continue the war, Badoglio entered into negotiations with the Allies for an armistice, concluded in September to coincide with Allied landings on the mainland. Hopes for a quick occupation of Rome were disappointed, however, and the king and Badoglio moved the government to Brindisi out of German reach. The royal government declared war on Germany in October, but the disintegrating Italian army had been left without a commander, and the Germans were in control of most of the country away from the Allied beachheads. A veteran politician, Ivanoe Bonomi, was called on to form a government of national unity that included both Palmiro Togliatti, head of the Italian Communist Party (Partito Communista ItalianoÑPCI) and the DC leader, Alcide De Gasperi. The new democratic government derived its authority from the all-party Committee of National Liberation, which reorganized local government in liberated areas and directed Italian resistance in occupied regions.

Rescued by German commandos, Mussolini set up a rival governmentÑthe Italian Social RepublicÑunder Hitler's patronage in the German-occupied region with headquarters at Salo. Mussolini still commanded some support and, at a National Fascist Party congress in Verona in November 1943, called for a return to the revolutionary "fascism of the first hour." The more fanatical fascist elements were in control at Salo, eager to emulate Nazis in every way. Ciano and others who were held responsible for Mussolini's ouster were executed. The National Racial Code, unpopular in a country where anti-Semitism was virtually unknown when the code was enacted in 1938 to impress the Nazis, was now enforced in the occupied area with terrible thoroughness. At least 10,000 Italian Jews, part of a well-established, assimilated community, perished in nazi death camps.

The German army put up stiff resistance to the Allied advance in Italy. Having relatively few troops to spare, the Germans took advantage of the terrain and Allied indecisiveness, stabilizing the battlefront along the Gustav Line during the 1943-44 winter. Rome was liberated in June 1944 after the breakthrough at Cassino in May. A second German defense line to the north, the Gothic Line, held until the last weeks of the war .

Partisan units of the Italian Liberation Corps carried on a costly but effective resistance campaign against the Germans in the north, and units of a reconstituted Italian army subsequently contributed to the Allied war effort. Mussolini, protesting at the end his betrayal by the Nazis and berating the Italians as a "race of sheep," made a dash for Switzerland in the last days of the war but was captured by partisans and executed.

Two years of shelling and bombing and of reprisals by the Germans and Fascists had taken a heavy toll in Italy. The economy was disrupted, large parts of the country were in ruins, and hundreds of thousands were left homeless.