Fascist Italy Overview

By Jeremy Schrader, Class of 2010


 The suffering of Italy in this period followed a pattern all too familiar to European nations after WWI. The economy in shambles, a government losing influence and a people divided and disillusioned by the deeply traumatic experiences of war were left to move uncertainly toward the future. Against such a backdrop the reformation of the European nations played out, with Italy finding its personal reprieve in the form of a young upstart: Benito Mussolini. Gaining power by gaming the new and the old, the right and the left, and playing each side carefully, this man shaped the postwar period to his will, emerging from a time of divisive unrest to lead his country forward.

 The Postwar Groundswell

 The time of Mussolini’s uprising was indeed brief following the close of WWI in 1919. Almost immediately following the war’s end, Premier Vittorio Orlando suffered politically from perceived mismanagement of the Italian position at the Paris Peace Conference, attaining only small territorial gains that were insignificant compared to Italy’s war debts. Mass strikes and worker organizations rose up while unemployment ran high; many felt and feared the spectre of Communism looming as the effects of postwar depression shook the nation. The government remained destabilized, and incidents of fighting broke out between extremists on both sides of the political spectrum. Out of the mayhem of these “Two Red Years” emerged Mussolini’s Fascist party and Blackshirt paramilitaries. With political backing from the Fascists, new Premier Giovanni Giolitti rose to power in 1920, promptly turning a blind eye to the heavy-handed violence of the Fascists. Giolitti’s election ushered in a succession of weak governments while the Fascists began to dominate both the political atmosphere and maintain de facto control of large portions of Italy. By 1921, however, socialists began to make deep political inroads, undermining Giolitti’s control. Seizing this as an opportunity, Mussolini joined with the socialists to gain further power and clear his used pawn from the board.  This played out perfectly later as Mussolini, empowered by 1922 with control of the largest political party in Italy, marched on Rome to receive power from King Victor Emmanuel III.

 Political Dominance

 Upon gaining premiership in October of 1922, Mussolini formed a legislative coalition that included each section of politicians. This last flame of coalition and democracy quickly perished, however, with the passing of the Acerbo Law of 1923, which stated that any party taking 25% of the vote in an election would gain two-thirds of all parliamentary seats—in essence giving the Fascists complete totalitarian control of Italy under Mussolini. From the first election in 1924, Mussolini moved swiftly to remove all checks on his power, forced cooperation where not given with his Blackshirts and maintained complete control over Italy until the end of WWII in Europe in 1945. While the King remained, his position was reduced to that of a figurehead, while Mussolini and his Fascist Council held the true power of Italy.

 Foreign Policy

Mussolini promptly embarked on a path towards a “New Roman Empire” abroad as he had often espoused to his nation as the goal of his government. Mussolini moved to control portions of Africa in the East and North, meeting with limited success as those attempting to prevent Italian rule created civil war. “Italia irredenta,” as it had been known for so long, also captured Mussolini’s attention. He entreated with Hitler to keep south Tyrol—despite its vast majority of German inhabitants—against the possibility of Austrian claims, and occupied the small Greek island of Corfu in 1922; he would later attempt to take more of several nearby areas such as the islands and Dalmatia (Yugoslavia) in an attempt to once again see Italian control of the Mediterranean. Mussolini would begin to move in particularly on Albania and Ethiopia as the years progressed, invading both with force in 1939. The Hoare-Laval Pact would later result in an attempt to partition Ethiopia in favor of Italy, in an Allied move to please Mussolini in exchange for help. In the same year, he signed the “Pact of Steel” with Hitler, supposedly guaranteeing mutual aid if either nation were attacked. Each of these foreign policies would begin to erode as time passed and fissures appeared in Mussolini’s plans.

 Domestic Decisions

 At home, Mussolini brokered the Lateran Accords, solidifying three key points between the government and the church: the Vatican and the Holy See were fully recognized as a sovereign nation, Catholicism was adopted by the Italian government as the national religion, and a settlement was made regarding the claims the Vatican had long made against Italy asking for reparations after the Holy See’s loss of land and power in 1870. In education, Mussolini addressed the nation’s high illiteracy rate by raising the mandatory age of school attendance from twelve to fourteen and also adopted a broad policy of Fascist promotion and indoctrination in schools. Mussolini also endeavored to make his nation more self-sufficient, instituting a “War on Wheat” intended to remove Italy’s reliance on imports of grain from the United States and Canada. While this policy did eliminate a large portion of need for importation of wheat, overall the economy did not benefit, as agricultural production declined in other crop areas. Crackdowns on the Mafia and strong efforts towards ensuring maximum obedience and efficiency in the nation rounded out Mussolini’s domestic policies—but he never did manage to make the trains run on time.

 The Era of Mussolini

 Overall, the period of Italian history from 1919 to 1939 centers around the life of one man: Benito Mussolini. As his wildly juxtaposed episodes of clever political intrigue and sheer brute force, his dedication to military and national excellence and yet his shortfalls there to a man he considered inferior, his astronomical ascension and his grisly, unceremonious end illustrate, Mussolini passed through the sea of Italian history leaving an enigmatic but undeniably powerful wake.

 Works Cited

 History of Modern Europe Textbook