Chapter 13: Italy united—and lost


13.1 Italy under Giolitti: the rise of the workers movement and the northern enterprises

The new century in Italy started with an illustrious victim: King Umberto 1st was killed in 1900 by an anarchist. It was the tip of a huge iceberg of social unrest. The first period of industrialization had brought poor people from the countryside to growing cities such as Turin and Milan, and even poorer people were migrating to the Americas. The ones who remained and had jobs in the new factories in the north or large estates in the south were beset by low wages and miserable working and living conditions. In the last decade of the 19th century, they rebelled and organized into the burgeoning socialist organizations, the first of which was the Fasci Siciliani. The initial reaction of the government, as it had been for decades, was a tough crackdown on the strikes and demonstrations. However this time repression didn’t stop the protests but increased their scope and determination.

Giovanni Giolitti, the man who was to dominate the time in Italy before World War I, marked a departure from the past as he tried to engage the socialists and win greater consensus among the common people. In a speech to the parliament in September 1900, he blamed the fiscal system for imposing an excessive burden on the poor with taxes on salt, sowing seeds, grain, and petrol, but with light measures on those with high incomes: “I deplore like any other the class struggle, but, let’s be fair, who started it?”[1]

It was under Giolitti that the southern issue (la questione meridionale) started to be discussed. The problem was the growing disparity of development and wealth between north and south. Economists at the time calculated that the north had 48% of the national wealth but paid 40% of the total tax revenues, the center was about even, and the south had 27% of the GDP but paid 32% of the total taxes[2]. That is a huge amount of wealth in the north went untaxed. On average, at the turn of the century a citizen from Piedmont was twice as rich as someone from Sicily, while only 40 years before they were at the same level. Between only 1861 and 1866, trade in the south declined by 16% due to the new local taxes. Sicily, once the granary of the Roman Empire, now could not feed itself. A primitive agriculture system was bringing the land to exhaustion. Between 1909 and 1920, in the north Ferrara produced 1.9 tons of grain per hectare, in the south Reggio Calabria would produce only 0.49, and Syracuse 0.55.

The fault was not only with the massive drain of resources from the south to the north, but with the south itself. In September 1906, Giolitti disbanded Naples’ local administration for the 14th time on grounds of illegality: the local criminal gangs were taking control of the local government and sought to enrich themselves by monopolizing and splitting resources rather than creating new ventures.

With a new policy of engagement with the public, Giolitti came to power insisting on reforms to the fiscal system, a fairer local administration, and even changes to the civil code. He argued for the necessity of persuading with facts the poor people who mostly did not have the right to vote—“the starving masses” as he openly called them—and said the government was also working for them. This policy also caused breaks in the ranks of the socialist camp, as some moderate socialists were giving up the idea of taking power through revolution and rather advocated a democratic evolution to power. Giolitti was a personal friend of the socialist leader Turati and had even studied Marx’s The Capital. He moreover allowed greater freedom of association for the trade unions while being even tougher with extremists, who were arrested for organizing violence.

He moved right and left in the parliament, seeking support for his policies on a case-by-case basis. His politics deserved the derogatory sobriquet of trasformismo, the method of making a flexible, centrist coalition of government, which isolated the extremes of the left and right after unification. This method was an extremely important tactical device that resuscitated with some modification by the Christian Democrats after World War II. In some ways, Mussolini was also a keen student of trasformismo, moving from the left (he was a leader of the Socialist Party) to the right according to convenience.

Giolitti also nationalized the telephone and railroad operators. Liberal proponents of free trade criticized the “Giolittian System,” although Giolitti himself saw the development of the national economy as essential in the production of wealth. The measures created economic expansion, which was in turn secured by monetary stability, moderate protectionism, and government support of production. Foreign trade doubled between 1900 and 1910, wages rose, and the general standard of living went up. But the greater involvement of the state in the economy also created new opportunities for corruption and “clientelismo,” the practice by which lucrative contracts were granted to businessmen friendly with the government.

These changes were achieved also by allowing a sharp increase in the frequency and duration of industrial action, with major labor strikes in 1904, 1906, and 1908, and sending more of the most destitute people abroad, with emigration reaching unprecedented levels between 1900 and 1914. Lastly the rapid industrialization of the north widened the socio-economic gap with the south. Critics accused Giolitti of manipulating the elections, using the prefects as his contenders, and employing thugs to use scare tactics at the ballots. He openly argued that Italy should be ruled in separate ways: freer in the north, where the law was applied, and more severely in areas where the law, he argued, was not applicable[3].

These methods were at the beginning discreet, but were perfected and expanded by the Fascists a decade or two later.

Giolitti won the elections of 1904 and 1909 that gave his liberals secure majorities. Giolitti was also prime minister from 1911 to 1914, when he fought the controversial Italo-Turkish War that made Libya an Italian colony. In 1912, Giolitti had the parliament approve a bill expanding the electorate from 3 million to 8.5 million voters, introducing near universal male suffrage. At the time, many of the new voters were illiterate. The move backfired because it shrank his majority in 1913. But the new law first brought a reconciliation with Catholics, who although majority in Italy, had abstained from political participation after the 1870 occupation of Rome. This warmed Catholic voters to Giolitti, who in return would favor the church on such key issues as funding private Catholic schools and blocking a law allowing divorce. The opposition, mostly from the right, fought this new alliance and brought down Giolitti’s coalition in 1914.

Giolitti opposed Italy’s entry into World War I in 1915, arguing that Italy was militarily unprepared. However the general sentiment was switching to building a strange unholy alliance between the right, canvassing for the liberation of Trento and Trieste from Austrian rule, and a splinter of the left led by former editor of the socialist newspaper Avanti! Benito Mussolini.

Giolitti favored a neutral stand, and Austria actually offered to surrender the two cities in return for Italian neutrality. Italy would certainly have benefitted from staying out of the war and gaining spoils without shedding blood. But this was deemed dishonorable by the generation of patriots who had fought and backed the independence wars. Moreover, France and England needed Italian intervention to help with the overwhelming German pressure in France. England might have also supported Mussolini in his pro-war campaign.

Then in 1915, though badly organized and with most of the population oppressed by poverty and unwilling to fight a war with no clear goals, Italy went to war.

13.2 World War I

Before the war the international situation in Italy was far from clear. Italy had tense ties with France because of the long trade war. There were good ties with Great Britain, which however remained far away and was suspected for a time of having ambitions to move north from Malta to Sicily. Conversely Giolitti had promoted a policy of encroachment with Germany and Austria. Ties with Germany were very good since Germany secured the victory in the third war of independence, and those with Austria were improving as its wars with Italy had not only led to loss of territory but to shaking the imperial edifice with growing demands from all the nations under the Habsburg crown: the Polish, the Hungarians, the Czechs, et cetera.

Meanwhile there were the territorial ambitions of the young kingdom, which were incommensurate with its real weight. The war in Africa in the late 19th century had been only a partial success: Italy had conquered Islamic Eritrea and Somalia, but was defeated by Christian Ethiopia. In 1900 Italian participation in the crackdown on the Boxer Rebellion in China had been lackluster, with a contingent of Italian marines being ambushed by local troops near Beijing, at Langfang. Italian ambitions over Tunisia, home of many interests for Sicily, had been thwarted by the French extension of a protectorate there.

In 1911–1912 the Italian military found its moment of glory in a war against the weakening Turkish Empire that brought Libya under Rome. Yet after the quick defeat of the Turks, the Libyan Arabs proved far tougher by engaging the Italians in a protracted war.

Meanwhile the socialist party was approaching a split. In 1912 many were dissatisfied with the policies of government collaboration proposed by Turati, and that July the socialist party returned to the path of the revolution, claiming that democracy was only a capitalist trick to hoodwink the masses. It was baptism by grand political fire for Mussolini who owed personal success also to his gift for public speech. He was only 29 then. Many moderates were expelled and the party remained in the hands of the revolutionary left.

In the following couple of years, the architecture of the Giolitti system crumbled, pulled by growing radicalization of many parties. The socialists, as we saw, were unwilling to collaborate, and the Catholics, newly promoted to political participation, became dissatisfied with what they had. On the right the nationalists and the radicals became restless. Giolitti lost the majority in the early 1914 and the king appointed Salandra as prime minister. As the rest of Europe was moving to war, that June Italy was engulfed in massive uprising around Emilia and Romagna. The riot was fomented and defended by Mussolini, now editor of the socialist newspaper Avanti!, and organized by Pietro Nenni, who later was to become a leader of the post–World War II socialist party allied to the communists.

In July 1914 Italy was compelled to enter the war with Austria because of previous agreements. Italians were reluctant to fight the old enemy, which still held two Italian cities. Giolitti favored neutrality, and in talks Austria was willing to cede Trento in return for Italian nonalignment in the war. In fact, in 1915 Italy had also other two choices: fight with France and Great Britain to gain Trento and Trieste, or with Germany and Austria to gain Nice, Corsica, Malta, and Tunisia. In theory, the Italian alliance against France and Great Britain might have changed the course of the war by helping to bring down France and make Germany triumph. Global history might have been different, and so would be history for Italy. But in Rome the mood was dissimilar, and rather than broad national and international calculations anti Austrian sentiments were prevailing. The Italians most of all loved to hate their old enemy, Austria.

Mussolini and Nenni meanwhile had changed stances and now were openly for war against Austria. In this environment, with a part of public opinion in favor of hostility against Austria, Italy started negotiating with London about the concessions in case of war. At the beginning of 1915, news of the Allied successes speeded the agreement: Italy figured the Allies would soon win and didn’t want to be late in its intervention. Salandra later confessed he decided to go to war basically on his own (and with the king) without consulting with the generals or many in the parliament.

Basically, in a moment of great confusion and social unrest, Salandra and a small minority managed to ram through Italian participation in the war without great opposition. It was a lesson Mussolini learned for the future: a small but determined group of people could take power because the country was too weak to oppose it. Giolitti tried to warn the government that Italy and its generals were not prepared for the war and that Germany could actually win, but he did not press the issue. Meanwhile street demonstrations led by poet D’Annunzio and the king were pushing for the war against Austria.

On May 24 Italy started the conflict with only three weeks of preparation, and then one important General of the time, Carlo Porro, refused to become minister of defense because of the small budget allowed by Salandra. The prime minister thought it would be a fast fight, as he figured the war was basically over. Chief of Staff Raffaele Cadorna found that all the plans were drafted for a defensive war, and there was no contingency for an attack.

Right on the onset of the fight in that moment, Austria, having beaten the Russians in Galicia to the east, could move new troops on the Italian front. After 12 months of clashes, in 1916, the Italians had lost ground in the Venetian plain. The prime minister resigned, as he had promised a victory in only one year, but it was not the worst disaster of the war. The year after in Caporetto, a young German lieutenant Erwin Rommel, who was to be one of the heroes of World War II, engineered and directed a daring maneuver. He went to the Italian outposts, reaching them from behind their lines. The Italian soldiers were starving, without ammunitions, and demoralized. Rommel told them the front had already collapsed, and he was only mopping up the few troops left behind[4].

Hundreds of soldiers surrendered, which created a hole in the Italians lines allowing the German troops, tougher than the Austrians, to storm in taking the Italians by great surprise on October 24, 1917. It was a total rout, something that Italians still learn about in school as the lowest moment of their history. Over 700,000 people fled in chaotic retreat. Bridges and roads were not enough to carry all the people. The command and the generals were thrown into panic and ordered indiscriminate decimations to stop the flight. The king considered abdication, but the whole Italian political scene regrouped around the government.

Eventually the Italians were able to stop the German advance on the Piave River and Mount Grappa on November 10 after having backed up some 170 km. One reason for the halt was also the fact that German supply lines had become overstretched and soldiers by now had little or no food and ammunition. General Cadorna was considered the main culprit of the rout. His coordination of the troops was poor and he never cared for the material conditions of the soldiers.

The army was reorganized under a new general commander, Armando Diaz, a Neapolitan of Spanish origin. Exactly a year later, on October 24 1918, with the support of some Allied detachments, the Italians managed to break through enemy lines and in a few days reached both Trento and Trieste. By then Germany was suing for peace, Bulgaria had just collapsed, and Austria was on the brink of revolution and surrendered.

For Italy it was the first clear military victory against Austria and completed the unification of the country—but it had come at a huge price. Some 600,000 soldiers died, and in the war effort the country spent twice as much as total state expenses from 1861 to 1913![5] Prime Minister Salandra and the king had exploited loopholes in the Italian constitution to drag the country into war. The great costs of the war, the complete tearing of the already weak social fabric, and the machinations of politics all were the seeds for the following turmoil and tyranny.

13.3 The rise of the communist revolution and its failure

The end of the war brought forth contradictions that had been latent for years and were now pointed at the very heart of the Italian unifying ideals. In fact, Italy had ambitions on the Balkans, which were also eyed by the state unifying all southern Slavs, and on the Greek Islands and Anatolia, watched by the Greeks. Both the Slavs and Greeks had also contributed to the Allied victory, and thus had legitimate ambitions for territorial enlargement. Here some Italians, like Sidney Sonnino, strongly pursued a policy of territorial expansion, while others, like Leonida Bissolati, advocated for other people the same self-determination sought by the Italians and thus were keen to listen to the requests of Greeks and Yugoslavs.

In April 1918 at a conference in Rome, the Italians and Yugoslavs agreed that the unity of Yugoslavia was in the vital interest of Italy, something that further weakened the hold of the Austrian Empire. The difference on the two fronts created a huge debate in Italy that was reflected in the Italian position on the peace treaty. Italy got Trento and Trieste plus Suedtirol, recognizing the Italian natural border with the Alps, despite the fact that the population in Suedtirol was mostly German. It also got Pola, where people mostly spoke Italian, and Trieste. But both cities, though Italian, survived thanks to the territory behind them, which was German and Slav. These cities became Italian but also poor, no longer the harbors or hubs of Central Europe.

The US President Wilson played a crucial role mediating between Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece. However, the Dalmatian Coast, claimed by Italy was given to Yugoslavia, and Fiume, city with an Italian population, was made a free town, something that left nationalists dissatisfied. Italy was the smallest of the great powers in Europe, but with a great political success, if measured against the situation of the country just half a century before and also compared to Germany, larger and more powerful but defeated in the war.

But in this crucial historical moment, Italy lacked statesmen like Cavour and clear goals, whereas the Yugoslavs proved more capable of dealing with the major powers. Besides, the new territorial acquisitions were not enough for those who then claimed Italy had won the war but lost the peace.

Most of all in 1919, when the now proud Italy refused to ask for a loan from the Allies, an economic crisis almost collapsed the economy. State expenditures were three times the total amount of the revenues. The price of bread was controlled but overall the cost of living was increasing. Most common people were poorer after the war, but a few had become very rich, mainly the industrialists who produced for the defense industry and the landowners who sold their products to the army while the inflation brought by the war cut the cost of their mortgages. These “winners” were also the first people who supported the Fascists against the socialist threat.

There were huge social problems. Some 150,000 deserters were in hiding, which created a large problem of banditry. The demobilization of millions of soldiers produced new contradictions, as many were left jobless and felt betrayed by the country for which they had shed blood. Many of them at first sought a solution with the socialists. In the 1919 elections the socialists became by far the single largest party, with 32% of the vote and 156 seats in parliament. It was the best organized and disciplined party with 200,000 members—an army for many Italians. They were strong in the three main industrial cities: Turin, Genoa and Milan. In 1920 the socialists controlled 26 provincial administrations of the 69 in Italy.

There were uprisings and workers established factory councils, but overall in those years the socialists did not push for a revolution, possibly mindful of the utter defeats of similar revolutions in Germany and Hungary in those years. They neither did collaborate with the honest capitalist parties, thinking that they could easily wait for the tide of popular sentiment to swing their way.

However there were also many new forces militating against them. The mounting Catholic party, organized by Sicilian priest Luigi Sturzo, voiced demands for greater social justice without requests for violently toppling the present social order. Their work was not enough to beat the socialists, but it was enough to subtract crucial numbers, and it brought to politics the huge power of the church in Italy, after decades of aloofness. The Italian establishment, still mostly crowded with freemasons and anti-clericals, was very skeptical of Catholics.

Moreover, in 1919 Poet D’Annunzio led an expedition to reclaim Fiume for Italy, something that was the rallying cry for nationalists and many demobilized veterans with confused ideas about the country’s future. This was to be a seminal moment for the fascist movement, then in its infancy. The socialists treated the Fiume mission with hostility and distanced themselves from the cause of the veterans. As communist leader and philosopher Antonio Gramsci later wrote, the socialists treated them as enemies for no reason, rather than understanding and representing their grievances.

Lastly, in 1921, the socialists split because of internal rifts over their revolutionary goals and because of pressures from the Third International in Moscow, which was soon to mix and confuse national Soviet and international communist objectives. The split in the socialist camp came at a strange time, and divided the attention of the left from the Fascists. The communists thought at the time socialists represented a greater threat to the revolution than Fascists, who then had a confusing agenda of popular and nationalist demands and were totally underestimated.

The communists split from the socialists at the congress of Livorno, because the socialist party had refused to expel the reformers, as Moscow had ordered. In the 1921 elections communists obtained a poor 4.6% of the vote, but its organization and its ability to vie for the “cultural hegemony” of Italy made it one of the main forces in Italy up to now, although it has changed names. Much of the ideological power came from the theories of one of its earliest general secretaries, Antonio Gramsci, who succeeded the later-disgraced Trotskyite party secretary Amadeo Bordiga.

13.4 Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci (January 22, 1891–April 27, 1937) was born in Ghilarza, Sardinia, the fourth of seven children, to a minor official originally from Plataci, an ethnic Albanian village in Calabria where many people still now are surnamed Gramsci[6]. In 1898 his father was convicted of embezzlement and imprisoned, reducing his family to destitution. Together with Bordiga he was a founder of the Italian Communist Party and gained control of the party with the support of the Moscow-based Third International. Later he moved against the first party secretary, Bordiga, who was considered too extreme and later supported Trotsky, by then expelled from the party by Stalin.

In 1926, despite parliamentary immunity, Gramsci was arrested and sentenced to 20 years by the fascists and died in prison. His Notes from Prison, published after the war, were a major influence on Italian culture and in shaping the ideas of the Italian Communist Party and its position in the west during the Cold War. Two concepts were extremely important for the organization of the party. The first idea was about the party itself and the other was the concept of “cultural hegemony,” something that was to contribute to the idea of “soft power” developed in the USA[7].

Gramsci’s concept of what the party should be was derived from Machiavelli’s idea of the prince. The prince, according to Gramsci, represented the forces of progress and innovation in society and was able to move and guide society in a new direction. The party, representing the working class, the most vital force of society, was the modern version of the prince.

Certainly this idea owes to Lenin’s concept of the party as the vanguard of the proletariat, but Gramsci explores it further and links communism to a wider idea of development of society and interprets Machiavelli out of the stale concepts of schemer and plotter. Moreover, it moves the attention from the proletariat (the most important element for other Marxist analyses) to the party as a cultural laboratory, and a simple organizational tool for the revolution and hold on power.

The party thus can represent farmers or soldiers, but in the future it can represent also other social classes; Gramsci underscored the socialist and communist mistake of looking down on demobilized soldiers who then joined the fascists. This seems also an inspiration for the Chinese idea of the Three Represents: the party should represent the most innovative and advanced forces in society, science, and culture. These forces, imply the Chinese, were once the proletariat or the peasants and tomorrow can be the entrepreneurs.

A second more important concept, intertwined with that of the party, was that of “cultural hegemony.” Capitalism, Gramsci suggested, maintained control not just through violence and political and economic coercion, but also through ideology. The bourgeoisie developed a hegemonic culture, which propagated its own values and norms so that they became the “common sense” values of all.

People in the working-class (and other classes) identified their own well-being with the well-being of the bourgeoisie and helped to maintain the status quo rather than revolting. To fight against the notion that bourgeois values represented “natural” or “normal” values for society, the working class needed to develop a culture of its own that could replace in part the dominant ideas—in all was impossible, as was clear from his reinterpretation of Machiavelli, part of the capitalist culture.

Lenin argued that culture was “ancillary” to political objectives, but for Gramsci it was fundamental to the attainment of power that cultural hegemony be achieved first. In Gramsci’s view, a class cannot dominate in modern conditions by merely advancing its own narrow economic interests. Neither can it dominate purely through force and coercion. Rather, it must exert intellectual and moral leadership, and make alliances and compromises with a variety of forces.

Gramsci calls this union of social forces a “historic bloc.” This bloc forms the basis for a consistent social order, which produces and reproduces the hegemony of the dominant class through a nexus of institutions, social relations, and ideas. In this manner, Gramsci developed a theory that emphasized the importance of the political and ideological superstructure in both maintaining and fracturing relations of the economic base. These concepts are arguably in opposition to a revolutionary or violent path to power, and show a peaceful way to gain control of society and the state, something that can be reflected in the party’s peaceful participation and power-sharing with some enlightened capitalist parties. Gramsci might have developed these ideas by analyzing the actions of the Church in the centuries. The Church did not hold on political power but was able to create an ideological-cultural environment conducive to its “cultural hegemony.” This then helped the Popes to push for the rulers they liked best.

These became fundamental concepts by which the Communist Party although defeated in the 1948 elections moved to win cultural hegemony in the country, and bitterly fought and partially won a battle for the cultural hegemony of Italy against the Catholics until the end of the Cold War. Also they were fundamental for the Italian Communist Party to reject the idea of a revolutionary takeover of the state—everything had to move based on the cultural environment.

But this was all after fascism was defeated and the Communist Party’s ambitions to win the elections were thwarted. In the meantime, for 30 years Gramsci’s contributions were frozen in a time capsule.

13.5 The rise of fascism

While the socialists came to be the first single power in Italy, drawing about one-third of all votes, the situation in the country was of utter disorder as opinions about the situation were very divided. In 1920, the military, both the officers and the simple soldiers who had fought to the end, resented the amnesty given to the deserters (which had the benefit of quickly putting an end to the brigand bands budding all over). The capitalists hated the talk about nationalizing the trade of the main commodities such as coffee, sugar, coal, and petrol. The nationalist begrudged missing creating a protectorate over Christian former Turkish-Russian Georgia and Armenia; some liberals were scared at the idea of introducing shorter working hours and more benefits for the employed. The socialists pushed for radical change but were afraid to be shoved back. The Catholics pined for order and compassion when few had patience for either.

In all this of Prime Minister Giolitti, called back to bring order, saw a problem in the lack of power of the parliament over the King and his chosen prime minister and thus floated the proposal of abolishing the Article 5 of the Royal Constitution. This had been the legal basis used by the king and then–Prime Minister Salandra to push Italy into war without going through a parliamentary vote. Hoping to gain some votes from the socialists, Giolitti argued in favor of some workers’ representation in the factories and some taxes on capital. However, the situation was too tense to be cooled down by half measures, especially since the countryside was swept by a wave of strikes. Before the war Salandra had promised the soldiers land distribution at the end of the fight, but nothing materialized.

In this atmosphere Mussolini’s fascists started their activities. The name at the time had a clear socialist echo, as the socialist organization of peasants in Sicily at the end of the 19th century was called “fasci.” It came from the ancient Roman image of a bundle of rods around an ax, a symbol of strength in unity. Their first manifesto was a clever mish mash of nationalistic slogans and popular appeals. Mussolini tried to ride on D’Annunzio exalted militaristic adventures and socialist demands for land and rights for the peasants. The Fascists’ main audience and supporters were the demobilized veterans who came back to a country of appalling poverty, without the glory of a massive territorial expansion, and even without the long-awaited plot of private land.

These people had grown to trust the army and its organization and were seeking a small amount of personal fortune, and thus they were put off by the socialist anti-militaristic slogans and demands for communal property. Plus, as Gramsci was later to point out, the socialists and communists looked down on the veterans who then reciprocated the sentiment with passion.

Between 1919 and 1920 peasants occupied and distributed land, something that was later sanctioned by the government. This gave the impression to workers that illegal actions would pay off, and capitalists felt they would not be protected by the government. In September 1920, these occupations spread to the factories. For eight weeks the red flag was hoisted on some steel mills in northern Italy, to the consternation of the socialist party, which did not want to push for a revolution and did not want how to move on from there, although it used the movement in the parliamentarian propaganda war.

Giolitti rather than mobilizing the police, as he had done many times in the past, preferred to sit back and let strikers lose steam. That actually happened. This proved that the Italian socialists were inept and relatively innocuous, but also was evidence that the capitalists had to protect themselves on their own and that illegality could pay off—if for the workers then also for the capitalists.

In the past Giolitti had the ultimate trust of the capitalists and the king, a strong parliamentary majority, and many channels with the socialists. Now Giolitti had none of this and everybody was seeking to advance his interests on his own. Strikes multiplied in the railway and among state employers. Capitalists were fearful for their lives and hired gangs of thugs for protection.

The specter of communism, now clearly looming from Russia and the uprisings in half of Europe, in 1921 pressed even moderate newspapers like the highly influential Corriere della Sera to support the Fascists. The year before, the Industrialists also organized in a confederation that hired unemployed and demobilized soldiers for defense. In this situation, Giolitti, the old transformist, thought he could transform also the Fascists and then chuck them away, as happened to many before them and just recently with D’Annunzio, so easily fleeing to Fiume.

In May 1921, Giolitti, about 80 years old, ordered the Fascists to be part of the electoral lists, and Mussolini and his people got into parliament. Following this accommodation policy, membership in the Fascist party soared to 250,000, as many or more members than the socialists. Just then the Third International ordered the communists to split from the socialists, as these latter refused to pursue the revolution, arguing for a peaceful evolution. The strongest party had lost an important element, and yet was dragged by their ideological burden and fearful of loss of consent of the left, so it refused to collaborate with Giolitti and remained aloof. The Catholics also withdrew their support from Giolitti, as he introduced a new tax on capital that hit capitalists and church properties. In August 1921, the stock exchange crashed. This and the May elections confirmed the socialists as the largest party, and convinced many that the only way out of this predicament was to alter radically the political system.

In that moment the Fascists had only 35 deputies of 535 seats in the parliament, but in the streets, especially in Emilia and Tuscany, they were a force to be reckoned with. Donning black shirts and embroidering skulls on their flags, they escalated the political fight by bringing machine guns and hand grenades in the street fights occurring all over Italy. In all the scuffles in the two years before 1922, there were about 300 fascists and 3,000 anti-fascists killed. The fascist gangs were often organized by former military officers and thus easily received weapons and ammunitions from army barracks. The socialist reaction to this violence was sporadic and not well organized, for fear of being charged with revolutionary activity.

The socialists were fearful to be considered pro-capitalist and did not work with the government, but were also scared of being labeled revolutionary and did not fight the fascists. Caught in this vice, they were irresolute and Mussolini’s fascists carried the political momentum. Yet, even in 1922 Turati and Gramsci thought fascism would end soon, and this certainly contributed to the rise of the movement.

In a parliamentary crisis where no party looked able to muster a solid majority, the king entrusted the new government to Luigi Facta, timid and provincial. After a few weeks, socialists and Catholics voted against it and Italy was again thrown into chaos without any government. For a few more weeks, consultations went on about a possible solution until the socialists called for a peaceful general strike, which was considered both too weak and too strong. Too weak, because the fascist gangs continued their rampage while the socialists were peacefully at home; too strong because in a situation of chaos, they added fuel to fire. Meanwhile without a majority, the government without did not dare either to accept the strikers demands or move the police against them.

Mussolini understood it was the occasion to act and proclaimed he would take up the responsibility to break the protest. His armed gangs moved in the main cities to attack socialist and communist strikers. It was the moment when Mussolini’s followers went from being an insignificant, however noisy, minority moved to occupying the center-stage of power in Italy.

13.6 Mussolini’s reach for power

In early August 1922 the government was indecisive towards the fascist violence, and many prefects and police chiefs were slowly siding with the fascists. The petit bourgeoisie, whose small incomes were whittled by inflation and who felt the threat of the socialist revolution breathing down their necks, also moved toward fascism. In an electric atmosphere, Mussolini was receiving more support and donations from large industrialists, who after August came quickly to see his fascists as the only barricade against the spreading unrest. The socialist had proven their weakness when the aimless general strike had failed, and in the early autumn they were totally divided, with many leaders called to Moscow for a conference.

At this point, the fascists took over the administration of several cities strategically positioned between Milan (the industrial and financial capital, where Mussolini had his headquarters and his newspaper) and Rome. The cities were Ferrara, Cremona, Parma, Ravenna, and Livorno, and almost incredibly the government did nothing to oppose the fascists, as the government was totally divided and everybody was thinking of his own future while completely underestimating the fascist threat. In all of this, Mussolini kept in touch with all possible political leaders and drew them close with threats and promises.

De facto, as Mussolini revealed later, from the beginning of October 1922 the Fascist party was in control of the whole situation. This situation of utter confusion when only one senses the wave of change, as we shall see, seems to be a constant in Italian politics as many years later Silvio Berlusconi rose to power in a similarly surprising fashion, and Matteo Renzi was also singularly underestimated. Although neither Berlusconi nor Renzi are dictators.

Everything fell apart for the liberal institutions of Italy in what felt like just a few hours. On October 26, Prime Minister Facta resigned, calling for a reshuffling that would including asking Fascists to join the new government. At the same time, a fascist congress Naples proclaimed a revolution. This coincidence seemed to many a surrender to the fascists. In the evening of the same day, the prefect of Pisa telegrammed that a fascist mobilization had started: it was the beginning the march on Rome, a charade designed and choreographed by poet D’Annunzio, but politically masterminded by Mussolini, quartered in Milan with machine guns.

The government and the king plunged into a state of bewilderment and historians now seem to agree that while Giolitti was expecting to be called back to power, Mussolini knew that as Giolitti had removed D’Annunzio from Fiume by ordering the army to shoot, so he would have with his fascists bands marching on Rome. General Badoglio, then chief of staff, requested full powers to crush the march, but the king Vittorio Emanuele III, was tardy both in calling on Giolitti and unwilling to grant powers to Badoglio. Clearly by then the king was much keener on seeing Mussolini come to power since for the first time in 22 years he refused to adhere to his ministers’ decisions and did not want to sign the government order to intervene forcefully against the fascists.

In many ways, the coup d’etat of Mussolini was largely also the coup of the king who, with the precedent of the 1915, skipped the parliament. In the following frantic days, Mussolini was able to steer public opinion through the newspapers and threaten the king by saying things could get worse if he was not called to head the government. On October 30, he was called to Rome and also gained permission for a parade of his black shirts in the capital, so that photographs gave the appearance that the fascists had taken Rome by onslaught rather than by a mix of guile and bluffing by the fascists and weakness, complicity, and confusion of the king and the institutions.

At 39 years old, Mussolini had only 7% of the parliament, a testament not to his strength but to the weakness of the Italian state system. This may have also been a legacy of the process of unification. Cavour, a great statesman of a small and peripheral country (Piedmont), and a couple of idealistic adventurers, Garibaldi and Mazzini, led the course to proclaim the Kingdom of Italy in the six short years from the 1854 Crimean War to the 1860 conquest of the Kingdom of Naples in 1860.

In his first government, Mussolini had only four fascist ministers—the rest were liberals or from other groups. The parliament—divided into too many groups and for many reasons not scared of Mussolini but of a return to power by Giolitti—widely voted for this government. When Mussolini in his inaugural speech threatened parliament to follow his commands to become a bivouac of black shirts, only few deputies responded. From then on, Mussolini hurried to transform the structure of the state by inserting fascist cadres into the police and the prefectures in 1923. That same year the fascists merged with the Nationalist Party and managed to pass a new electoral law (legge Acerbo) that would guarantee a two-thirds majority in parliament to the party that came first by obtaining at least 25% of the vote.

When the fascists succeeded to approve the new law and then win the 1924 elections, the path to the dictatorship was open. Previously the world had experienced the power of kings or elected parliaments (although universal suffrage was rare), but the concept of a dictatorship emerged in Italy and Russia at about the same time. Italy may have come first; Lenin concentrated power, but it was a time of war and civil war after all, and after his death in 1924, Stalin took a few more years to become the absolute head of state after expelling Leon Trotsky from Russia in 1929.

The April 1924 election was a dismal display of violence and intimidation, with fascist thugs in the electoral booths. With an overwhelming majority, Mussolini started ruling in a different vein. The opposition was terrorized, but that year a major scandal threatened Mussolini’s political life. A socialist deputy, Giacomo Matteotti, was kidnapped and killed by fascists acting at Mussolini’s behest. When the documents appeared, Mussolini tried to distance himself from the crime, and parliament thought the king would depose Mussolini for it. But the king didn’t, and parliament was thrown into chaos. Illustrious liberals like philosopher Benedetto Croce, Giolitti, and Albertini were still more afraid of the socialist threat. The tide of the opposition began to change as more deputies came together against fascism, but the opposition expressed itself by leaving parliament and meeting in a nearby building in the Aventino area of Rome, and nothing concrete came of it.

Feeling this powerless hesitation, on January 3 Mussolini took responsibility for the Matteotti assassination, boasting that “if fascism is an organized crime syndicate, I am its boss.” He then took full power, spoiling the parliament of its former prerogatives. Fascism had become the first official dictatorship in Europe.

13.7 The Fascist regime, the new agreement between the Vatican and the state, and the conquest of Ethiopia

The rapid climb to power of fascism made headlines in Europe, but still no other country in the old continent was scared of its consequences—in fact the consequences of Mussolini’s power still seemed far-fetched. Many conservatives in Italy and around the world saw fascism as the solution to the rise of popular demands from the working classes, which took a revolutionary shape in Soviet Russia but had the form of trade unions, growing socialist parties, strikes, demonstrations, mounting salaries, and increasing demands all over the world.

Agents of the Third International now were broadcasting the new revolutionary word from a safe haven in Russia, which although isolated could provide financial and military support to the small but determined army of communist revolutionaries who were previously completely underground.

Italian fascists moved first to clearly stamp out this threat by attacking their former socialist brethren. Mussolini quashed socialist organizations, and imprisoned and exiled either abroad or by internal confinement their main activists. Restrictions on free press and liberal opinions were to follow.

Mussolini then embarked on a series of massive reforms. Fascism reorganized the social structure of the state, setting up the “corporations”: each profession or trade had its own organization and was to channel grievances through that, hampering the interclass cooperation that had made the socialists strong. Swaths of land that had been poor and taken over by swamps for centuries were reclaimed and distributed to impoverished farmers who had proven their loyalty to fascism. Emigration to Libya and the other African colonies was encouraged, although with little results. Tariffs were levied to protect the weak national industries.

The economy improved overall, but a major political feat bringing new popular backing to the regime was signing the Lateran Pacts in 1929. With this, after almost 60 years, Italy and the Holy See settled “Roman Question,” the political status of the church in the country. It recognized the Vatican as an independent state, with Mussolini agreeing to give the church financial support in return for public support from the Pope. Mussolini was in a weak position and needed to bolster a government whose future was still far from certain, and the church lent its great prestige to give legitimacy to the government.

The pacts were to be extremely important for the future of Italy after the war. With the Holy See having clearly solved and confined its issues within the Vatican walls, Catholics were free to engage in politics in Italy and beyond with the Pope’s encouragement. At the time the agreement boosted the image of the regime and gave a new dimension to the church, now definitely free of state possessions that had in many ways bogged down its thinking for many centuries.

The pacts also granted political immunity to the church, which was to be very important during World War II when many anti-fascist activists and Jews were shielded in churches and Vatican holdings. Fascism became a model for the then still tiny German National Socialist Party—the name already evoked the main fascist tenets, nationalism and socialism. Adolf Hitler admired Mussolini and took his raw model as his own. At first, Mussolini looked askance at Hitler, who came to power in 1933. In the early 1930s, he supported Austria—where the prime minister was ruling with a special blend of Catholic and fascist ideology—against the aims of annexation by Germany.

Mussolini reinvented a legacy of the Roman Empire, and at the end of 1934, moved to expand his African empire. This brought Italy on a collision course with Great Britain, which had previously been supportive of Mussolini. In 1935 Germany and Italy signed the first agreement that granted Mussolini free rein in Ethiopia. Italy then proceeded to invade Ethiopia, the only remaining independent state in Africa and with its own legitimate emperor of ancient Christian faith. To defeat Ethiopia, the fascists, who had just found themselves to be Catholic, deployed Muslim troops from Italian colonies in Eritrea and Somalia and even Yemenis from across the Straits. The Italians won the war, but not as easily as one might have expected given their extraordinary advantage over the rather primitive Ethiopian forces.

The Ethiopian war brought Italy and Germany closer together. Germany had sided with Italy in the League of Nations, the international organization of the time, while other powers opposed the takeover. Ties grew even stronger with the Spanish Civil War, which began in 1936 and became some kind of training ground for the following World War. First Italy and then Germany massively aided the right-wing troops of General Francisco Franco, while the Republicans were supported by France, Russia, and a wide congregation of anti-fascist volunteers.

Again Italian troops did not particularly distinguish themselves in the fight, although in this case they were not humiliated. A rhetoric of imperial expansion had become dominant in Italy, and this was in tune with what was happening in Germany.

The growing collaboration with Germany also caused Italy to change its mind on Austria. After receiving guarantees that the annexation of Austria by Germany would not include reclaiming South Tyrol, with a German speaking majority, Mussolini agreed to support it. In 1937, the two dictators announced the Berlin–Rome Axis, and in 1938, following the Nazi example, Italian fascists passed discriminatory anti-Jewish laws. Many Jews in Italy had been pro-fascist, especially the large minority of Jews in Libya that had enthusiastically supported the Italians. They felt bitterly betrayed by the fascists and were not the only ones.

A few months later on April 7, 1939, just five months before the outbreak of World War II, Italian troops invaded Albania, despite Albania’s long-standing protection agreement with Italy going back to 1927. Albania was turned into a kingdom whose crown was given to Vittorio Emanuele III. It was a coup de theatre performed by Mussolini, who felt now the need to race behind truly expansionist Germany, which after Austria had gobbled up the Czechs and now was looking at Poland.

In this moment there was a huge difference between the two countries. Germany was economically, socially, and militarily well prepared for the war, Italy was still largely underdeveloped, despite official bombast. Its warplanes, tanks, and artillery—the weapons that would decide the coming conflict—had but a pale resemblance to their German and British counterparts. Only its navy was up for the fight with the British in the Mediterranean.

[1] Smith. op. cit. p. 257

[2] Smith. op. cit. p. 281

[3] See Smith. op. cit. p. 265

[4] I owe the details of this event to my grandfather Francesco Sisci, then a 21-years-old lieutenant in a punitive division because he was from Calabria in Caporetto. His platoon had been decimated, and he was one of those who surrendered to the young, polite Rommel, who spoke to him in French with great self-assurance and already had a train of prisoners behind him proving his story.

[5] Smith, op. cit. p. 368

[6] As we saw, Crispi was also ethnic Albanian, and after Gramsci there were others,

[7] Antonio Gramsci. Quaderni dal Carcere.