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  • Summary: At first sight it seems puzzling thatMussolini came to power so long before Hitler.After all, conditions seemed far more likely to produce a revolution in Germany rather than Italyin the early 1920s. Nevertheless, Italians had significant economic and nationalistic grievances,the Communists appeared to pose a real threatand constitutional change helped to destabilise theexisting system. There was virtually a civil war inthe provinces and the Italian establishment waswilling to co-operate with the Fascist party inOctober 1922, when Mussolini became prime minister. Nevertheless, this early, unplanned accession to power helped to shape the nature of the Fascist regime over the next period.

    Questions to consider

    Why, at first sight, might it seem that Germanyand not Italy was ripe for revolution in 1919-23?How severe were the various problems that facedItaly in the immediate post-war period?Do you accept the interpretation that the Fascistsseized power at the local level but were presentedwith it at the national?Why did establishment figures believe they couldcontrol Mussolini in October 1922?Which features of Fascist rule in 1922-29stemmed from the nature of Mussolinisaccession to power?

    ONE OF THE QUESTIONS WHICH STUDENTS most frequently ask is, Why did Mussolini andItalian Fascism come to power so much morequickly than Hitler and German National Socialism?. Itis a good question. Both Mussolinis Fascist movementand Hitlers National Socialist German Workers party(originally the DAP) were founded early in 1919, yetwhereas Mussolini had been appointed prime ministerof Italy on 29 October 1922, Hitler did not achieve theequivalent German office of Chancellor until 31 January1933. In this article, therefore, I shall answer the questionas completely as possible. In addition, I shall briefly con-sider what the consequences of Italian Fascisms earlyrise to power were to be for the regime which was sub-sequently established.

    The rise of Italian FascismPerhaps the most surprising thing about the speed ofFascisms rise to power is the fact that it was an almostentirely new political ideology and movement. In fairness, sowas German National Socialism. Whereas movementssuch as liberal democracy, socialism and communism allexisted in some form in the nineteenth century, fascism

    emerged as an ideology and movement only in thetwentieth, and then only after the First World War. Itcould therefore be argued that it did not have the experi-ence and tradition required of a political movement towin power. On the other hand, maybe Italian Fascismsvery newness was an advantage, that made it difficultfor other Italian politicians to understand it, and toappreciate the danger which it posed to the existing par-liamentary institutions in Italy. Giovanni Giolitti, whohad been prime minister several times since 1892,included the Fascists in his electoral bloc in 1921; andeven though the Fascists managed to win 35 seats inParliament as a result, he dismissed Fascism as fire-works that would soon burn out.

    A comparison with the German Nazis A further puzzle is the fact that, arguably, conditions inGermany in the early 1920s provided a more promisingscenario for a fascist movement to come to power thanin Italy. Germany was a defeated nation, humiliated bythe imposition of the Versailles Peace Settlement, andthe territorial and economic losses which that entailed,and many German people blamed the politicians of the

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    tsThe many problems and failures of Liberal Italy led the establishment to turn to Mussolini

    Dr John Pollard. Trinity Hall, Cambridge

    This cartoon from Germany, after the 1929 Lateran Treaty with thepapacy depicts the King, Victor Emmanuel III, begging Mussolinifor some restoration of authority such as that accorded to the Pope

  • democratic parties for an alleged stab in the back of thefront-line soldiers. In a few weeks it had also gonethrough a traumatic political change, from a semi-autocratic form of monarchical government - KaiserWilhelm II had extensive powers and was a reassuringfather-figure - to a fully-fledged democratic republicwith votes for women. Add to this the privations andstarvation endured by the German people thanks to theAllies continuation of the blockade during the earlypart of 1919; the fear of Bolshevism provoked by theRussian Revolution of 1917 and, nearer home, by vari-ous attempted Communist seizures of power in theRuhr, Saxony and Bavaria; then the experience of hyper-inflation of 1923 when you needed a barrow-load ofmarks to buy a loaf of bread, and you have the Weimarsyndrome (after the name given to the new form of theGerman state from 1919 onwards), the classic set of con-ditions in which fascist movements flourished and inwhich some came to power. So, in theory at least,National Socialism should have come to power inGermany in the early 1920s

    The Italian situationItaly, on the other hand, was a victorious not defeatedpower at the end of the First World War, and hadacquired, not lost, territory as a result. Italy had not gonethrough dramatic institutional change: its major institu-tions had not collapsed in the wake of war as inGermany and Austria-Hungary, not to mention Russiain 1917. It remained a constitutional monarchy with anessentially parliamentary form of government. It wassuffering from the usual economic and social problemscreated by the First World War, but they were not asserious as those in Germany, and though many Italianswere worried by the threat of Bolshevism, theCommunists in Italy made no serious attempt to seizepower. So why did Mussolini and Fascism come topower so quickly?

    In the first place, though Italy had been victoriousin the First World War that victory had been painfullyearned. Even worse, many Italians believed that theyhad been cheated by their Allies - Britain, France and theUSA - of just territorial gains, especially from theGerman and Turkish empires, at the Paris PeaceConference of 1919. A particular grievance was the factthat the town of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia), with aslender Italian-speaking majority, had been awarded tothe new Kingdom of Yugoslavia and not to Italy. Thisprompted Gabriele DAnnunzio, a war-time hero to leada group of Italian ex-commando troops, the arditi, toseize Fiume by force in 1920. So many Italians talked bit-terly about their mutilated victory and the right-wingparties in Italy, the Nationalists and Fascists, made a lotof political capital out of blaming this on the weaknessof the ruling liberal-conservative politicians.

    Though Italy did not experience the trauma of dramatic and sudden political change that happenedelsewhere in Europe at the end of the First World War, itdid go through a process of political transition in theearly 1920s, from a system of parliamentary governmentdominated by small cliques using traditional methods tomanipulate both members of Parliament and the elec-

    torate, to a fully-fledged system of parliamentarydemocracy in which the bulk of the seats in Parliamentwere now held by modern, mass political parties. As a result of the introduction of proportional represen-tation, the electoral system whereby the numbers ofseats which a party gains in Parliament is in direct pro-portion to the percentage of votes which it wins in thecountry as a whole, the dominant parties in the ItalianParliament after 1919 elections were the Socialists andthe Catholic Peoples party with 150 and 100 seatsrespectively, out of 500. It now became very difficult tomanage a parliamentary system of government: theSocialists, who believed that a proletarian revolutionwas just around the corner and that all we have to do iswait, refused to participate in government at all andthough the Peoples party did do so, the uneasy alliancebetween the MPs of that party and the liberal-conserva-tive political leaders like Nitti, Giolitti and Bonomi waslike mixing oil and water. The MPs of the Peoples partyhad very clear principles and precise ideas about whichpolicies were needed to deal with Italys problems,whereas the other political leaders preferred compro-mises, concessions and shady deals: one might even saythat their priority was hanging on to power itself. In thefour years between the end of the war and Mussolinisappointment as prime minister there were no less thansix short-lived, unstable coalition governments, each lessable than the previous one to deal with Italys seriousproblems. It could thus be argued that parliamentarygovernment had effectively broken down before

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    March Foundation of the first fascio, nucleusof the Fascist movement, in Milan

    Summer Occupation of the factoriesAutumn Agrarian Fascism takes off as a

    mass movement in the small townsand countryside of northern and central Italy

    May Mussolini and 35 other Fascists areelected to Parliament

    Oct Mussolini gives his ultimatum to theauthorities in RomeOrganisation of the Fascist March onRomeMussolini forms a government

    Jan The Fascist squads are absorbed intoa national militia with an oath of allegiance to Mussolini

    July The electoral law is changedApril The Fascist-based electoral alliance

    wins a parliamentary majorityJune Matteotti crisisJan Mussolini announces that he will

    create a dictatorshipNon-Fascist parties, trade unions andnewspapers bannedNew electoral law Signing of the Lateran Pacts with theChurch

    Mussolini and the rise of ItallianFascism

  • Mussolini came to power in October 1922.Certainly, Italy in the early 1920s suffered from seri-

    ous economic problems, like high levels of unemploy-ment resulting from the rapid demobilisation of millionsof troops and the slowness to return to a peacetimeeconomy, and inflation, which principally hit the middleclasses. The failure to resolve these problems under-mined the Italian peoples faith in the political partiesand in democracy itself.

    But the aspect of the Italian political situation in theearly 1920s, which the Fascists were able to most success-fully exploit in their rise to power, was the fear ofBolshevism. Historians of Italy talk about its Red TwoYears, that is from the end of the war in November 1918until roughly the autumn of 1920. What they mean is thatin Italy in this period experienced an upsurge of workingclass militancy - strikes, bread riots, the sporadic violenceof Socialist activists against political opponents and,most importantly, occupations of the land and factories.This was a result of the radicalising effects of the experi-ence of the war, Woodrow Wilsons calls for democracyand the impact of the Russian Revolution, on the Italianworking classes. The upsurge reached its peak in thesummer of 1920 when workers occupied the engineeringfactories of the northern Italian cities of Milan, Turin andGenoa during an industrial dispute.

    Agrarian FascismThe dispute ended peacefully in September, thanks toGiolittis low-key approach, but it left many people inItaly feeling angry and threatened and though, paradox-ically, the end of the occupation meant the beginning ofthe decline in working-class power, they were still fear-ful that a revolution might take place in Italy. In particu-lar, they felt a lack of confidence in government.Mussolini and the Fascists cashed in on these feelings,particularly in the countryside of northern and centralItaly where the battle between the large landowners, onthe one hand, and the peasant leagues and agriculturaltrade unions on the other, was becoming more acute.This situation provided Fascism with its opportunity tobecome a mass movement and eventually enterParliament. In the two-period from autumn 1920 toautumn 1922, thousands of men flocked to join the move-ment, while Fascist fighting squads took the sides of thelandowners and other middle-class elements in theseareas and defeated the peasant leagues and trade unionsby burning their offices, assaulting and intimidatingtheir members and, in some cases, killing their leaders. Itwould therefore be no exaggeration to say that Fascismseized power by force at a local level in northern and cen-tral Italy before it was given power at a national level inOctober 1922. What was effectively a civil war in theprovinces made parliamentary government even more

    difficult and, by October 1922, Mussolini and the Fascistswere ready for their March on Rome.

    The March on RomeThe events of October 1922 deserve close, detailedscrutiny. On 24 October, in an atmosphere of crisis, withcontinuing Fascist violence in the provinces and paraly-sis in Parliament, Mussolini publicly warned that if theFascists were not given the power they demanded theywould take it by force. By now, both the Socialist partyand the Peoples party were badly split and thus unableto offer serious opposition to the rise of Fascism. TheKing was in despair at the situation in Parliament wherethe leading politicians seemed unwilling or unable toform a stable government. But as the columns of Fascistsquadristi marched on Rome from a number of neigh-bouring provincial towns, Mussolini wisely stayed atFascist party headquarters in Milan. Maybe he wasafraid that it would all go wrong and that it was best tobe as close to the Swiss border in case it did? And beingin Milan heightened the psychological drama: the Kingsrepresentatives had to plead with him on the telephoneto come down to Rome to negotiate with other politicalleaders. Thus, the fact that he journeyed overnight bytrain has led some historians of Italy to call Fascismsrise to power the sleeping-car revolution.

    The consequences of a rapid rise to powerSo Mussolini and the Fascists, like Hitler and the Nazis11 years later, gained power in a legal, constitutionalway. But whereas the Nazis were the largest party in theGerman Reichstag in 1933, the Fascists were a minorparty in the Italian Parliament. Their ascent to power,therefore, depended very substantially upon the attitudeof the Italian establishment - leading liberal-conservativepoliticians, the monarchy, the armed forces, the CatholicChurch and the business and landowning elites. As AlanCassels says in his book, Fascist Italy, by 1922 all of thevarious elements in the establishment were willing to co-operate with Fascism, largely because of their disillusion-ment with parliamentary government and their fear ofBolshevism. And like the clique clustered aroundPresident Hindenberg in 1933, the Italian establishmentwere confident that they could control the politicalupstarts whom they had allowed into government, alongwith their violent foll...


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