By Tim Lambert
Mussolini Seizes Power
When the First World War began a Socialist called Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), who was editor of the newspaper Avanti! opposed Italy joining the war. However, he soon changed his mind. By October 1914 Mussolini decided Italy should join. He resigned from Avanti! and founded his own newspaper called Popo d’Italia. In November 1914 he was expelled from the Socialist Party.
In 1919 Mussolini founded the Fasci di Combattimento. Mussolini’s Fascists were thugs who acted as strikebreakers and committed arson. They also beat up Socialists and forced them to drink castor oil. The Fascists claimed they were acting to restore law and order and were saving Italy from Communism. The police and the army turned a blind eye.
The Fascist movement in Italy grew rapidly and in May 1921 35 Fascist deputies were elected. Finally at a mass rally in Naples on 24 October 1922 the Fascists demanded a march on Rome to take power by force. So on 28 October 1922, a force of Fascists marched on Rome (although Mussolini remained in Milan in case anything went wrong). At first, the king planned to use the army to resist the Fascists. However, at the last moment, he changed his mind and refused to sign an order placing Italy under martial law. Instead, he summoned Mussolini to be Prime Minister. Mussolini traveled from Milan and arrived in Rome to take up the post on 29 October 1922.
Mussolini gradually strengthened his grip on Italy, although his first cabinet was made up of Fascists and members of other political parties. In 1923 Mussolini formed the Fascist militia as an ‘auxiliary’ army. He also gained the support of the Roman Catholic Church by making religious education compulsory in primary schools. In 1923 Mussolini also passed a law that stated that whichever party got the most votes should get two-thirds of the seats in parliament. In the event, in April 1924 the Fascists won 64% of the vote so the new law was hardly needed.
However, on 10 June 1924 Giacomo Matteotti, the leader of the Socialists disappeared. His body was found in August and it was clear that the Fascists murdered him. The press accused Mussolini of being involved in the murder. Mussolini now faced a crisis. However, the opposition responded weakly by simply withdrawing their MPs from parliament. Yet Mussolini became increasingly isolated and faced attacks from the press.
Finally, on 3 January 1925 Mussolini called his opponent’s bluff. He made a speech in which he said ‘I and I alone assume the political, moral, and historical responsibility for all that has happened’. His opponents did nothing. Mussolini then created a dictatorship in Italy. Between 1926 and 1929 the Fascist party was purged. Meanwhile, in October 1926 all opposition parties were banned. The Fascists also gained control of the press by persuading newspaper owners to sack anti-Fascist editors and replace them with friendly ones.
The police were given much greater powers and a secret police force, the Opera Vigilanza Repressione Antifascismo or OVRA was formed.
Mussolini also created the ‘cult of the Duce’. (He called himself Il Duce). Mussolini was praised to the skies in the press and his slogans were painted everywhere. They included ‘believe, obey, fight’ and ‘Mussolini is always right’ (possibly the stupidest slogan ever invented). Finally, in 1929 the Fascists made an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church. It was called the Lateran Pact. The Vatican was made a sovereign state and in Italy, religious education was extended to secondary schools. The Pope recognized the kingdom of Italy for the first time and he accepted that Rome was now the capital of Italy. Italy was helped by a world economic recovery in 1922-1929. The Italian economy benefited and for some (though not all) Italians some degree of prosperity returned.
However, in 1927 Mussolini revalued the Italian currency. As a result, it was overvalued and Italian industry had difficulty exporting goods. Unemployment rose. Meanwhile, in 1927 Mussolini launched the so-called battle of the births to increase the population of Italy. It consisted of propaganda and some financial incentives to try and persuade women to have more children. A special tax was placed on single men and in 1934 family allowances were introduced. Nevertheless, the Italian birth rate continued to fall. The population of Italy did increase but only because of a fall in the death rate.
In the 1930s Italy suffered from the worldwide depression. The Fascists responded by increasing public spending. New public buildings were erected. Roads and other public works were created.
Nevertheless, southern Italy remained very poor. Crime also remained rife although the south’s problems were covered up by the Fascist regime. From 1925 Mussolini also campaigned to make Italy self-sufficient in grain. The so-called battle of the grain did succeed in increasing grain production. However much land in Italy was not well suited to growing wheat. It was better suited to growing other crops such as olives or grapes. Nevertheless, some of it was used to grow wheat, which made no economic sense.
Ultimately Mussolini led Italy into disaster. In November 1935 he ordered an invasion of Ethiopia. The Ethiopians had little chance against a modern army and bomber planes. The Fascists also used poison gas and Ethiopia was soon overrun. The League of Nations (forerunner of the UN) imposed economic sanctions but they had little effect. Instead, they just drove Mussolini into Hitler’s arms.
In the late 1930s, Italy was increasingly dominated by Germany. Eventually, Italy became a German satellite and Mussolini became a puppet ruler. In 1938 there was a sign of increasing German influence in Italy when Mussolini introduced anti-Semitic laws. Italian Jews were banned from marrying non-Jews. They were also banned from joining the Fascist party and from working in the public sector. Jews were also forbidden to own more than 50 hectares of land.
The Second World War
When the Second World War began in 1939 Italy stayed neutral. However in 1940 Germany overran Norway, Holland, and Belgium and invaded France. Like a vulture Mussolini declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940, hoping to gain overseas territory from them. However when Italian forces attacked France the French army easily held them at bay.
In October 1940 Italy invaded Greece. However, the Greeks easily defeated them. Meanwhile, in September 1940 the Italians invaded British Egypt from Libya. However in December 1940 the British counterattacked. The Italians were routed and by January 1941 the British had taken 133,000 prisoners. The British would have taken all of Libya but the Italians were ‘rescued’ by the Germans. Hitler sent troops under General Rommel to North Africa. However in May 1941, the British liberated Ethiopia from the Italians. Meanwhile in November 1940 the British utterly defeated the Italian navy at Taranto.
Italy had proven to be a broken reed. The ordinary Italian soldiers were not interested in Mussolini’s foolish dream of a ‘new Roman Empire’. Worse from 1940 Italy suffered air raids. By 1943 60% of Italy’s industrial production was destroyed by bombing. Furthermore, when the Germans invaded Russia in 1941 Mussolini sent troops to support them. The Italian troops in Russia suffered terrible losses. At the end of 1941, Italy and Germany declared war on the USA. The British won a great victory at El Alamein in November 1942. At the beginning of 1943, the Russians were victorious at Stalingrad. Germany and Italy were now clearly losing the war.
In March 1943 there were strikes in Turin and Milan. Fascism in Italy was crumbling. Then on 10 July 1943, the allies landed in Sicily. Finally, Mussolini agreed to allow the Fascist Grand Council to meet. It met on 24 July and voted that the king should resume all his constitutional powers. On 25 July 1943 Mussolini visited the king and was arrested. The king and parliament took power again. The king appointed Marshal Pietro Badoglio prime minister. Publicly Badoglio said that Italy would continue to fight but secretly he sought an armistice with the allies. Italy surrendered on 8 September 1943. On 9 September the allies landed at Salerno. The Germans then poured troops into Italy. On 11 September they captured Rome. They also kidnapped Mussolini and made him puppet ruler of northern and central Italy, which they called the Salo Republic.
The allies were in control of southern Italy but they advanced slowly. They captured the monastery of Monte Cassino in May 1944 and they entered Rome on 4 June 1944. Meanwhile, the Germans retreated to the north. As well as the allied army the Germans were faced with a force of Italian partisans acting behind their lines. In 1945 the partisans liberated Milan, Turin, and Genoa. They also captured Mussolini and shot him on 28 April 1945. The German army in north Italy surrendered on 1 May 1945.