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Fascism in Italy Essay

“A revolutionary system which totally transformed the political, economic, and social structure of the country.” To what extent would you agree with this assessment of Fascism in Italy?

In 1932, Giovanni Gentile aided Benito Mussolini in writing a definition of Fascism, to be entered in the Italian Encyclopaedia. They claimed that “the Fascist State organises the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone.”[1] Certainly this could seemingly be a definition of a “revolutionary system” when compared to the liberalism of the coalition government, but to decide whether or not Fascism succeeded in being so, or merely showing an outward appearance, as Mussolini appeared content with on many issues, one must look separately at the politics, economy, and society of Italy, before, during and after the Fascist regime.

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Before October 1922, when Mussolini became Prime Minister, Italy had been administered by a series of coalition governments, due to the introduction of proportional representation after the unification of 1870. The weak and indecisive king, Victor Emmanuel III, had felt that Mussolini and the Fascist Party posed no threat to him or the country, as they, at that time, held only 35 of the 535 seats in the Italian Chamber of Deputies. “There was no sudden change in the system of government and state institutions; Mussolini was merely the Prime Minister of a coalition cabinet in which only four out of twelve ministers were fascists and he had to move cautiously.”

[2] However, in July 1923 the Acerbo Law was passed, allowing the party with the majority of votes1 to attain 2/3 of the parliamentary seats. “By a mixture of violence and intimidation, and aided by hopeless divisions amongst his opponents”[4] Mussolini achieved a majority in the April 1924 elections, thereby securing his position. Not long after the elections, the Matteotti crisis2 led to widespread disaffection and “left Mussolini vulnerable, having been forced to dismiss numerous members of his entourage.”

[5] The Aventine Secession saw the opposition parties set up a rival parliament in the hope that the king would dismiss Mussolini from office, however, Victor Emmanuel feared that this would leave the way open for Communism to overthrow him, and so he allowed the Fascists to continue in power. With all opposition gone, Mussolini had no problems in securing the power to rule by decree as “to a growing number of left and right-wing critics, democratic politics was a rotten game divorced from Italy’s real needs.”[6] But his dreams of a completely totalitarian state could not truly come to fruition, as he stated himself, “the Fascist Revolution halted at the throne.” And so it would appear that it was a catalogue of misdeeds by the government and the king that gave Mussolini his one party state, rather than the might of Fascism. Although that one-party state was certainly a revolutionary ideal when put in comparison to the previous method of coalition government, by April 1943 the Italian Cabinet, under Badoglio, included Liberals, Christian Democrats, Socialists, Communists and others.[24]

After the Second World War, Italy reverted to a true republic, in that Victor Emmanuel abdicated in May 1946, and his son, Umberto’s reign lasted only 1 month before the monarchy was abolished. This could not be attributed, however, to Fascism as much as to Victor Emmanuel’s mishandling of the parliamentary system and the fact that “his career demonstrates that he never really came to terms with democracy and that in his few moments of meaningful political choice he preferred to deal with the representatives of savage reaction rather than concede an inch to the demands of the people.”[7]

The after effects of World War I had left Italy, as just about everywhere else, in a state of poverty. But, the Fascist Administration promised a better future for the Italian people. “An impressive public works programme was designed, among other things, to reduce unemployment.”[8] However, “although the cost of living was falling because of the depression, wages fell more than prices, so that workers suffered a fall in real wages. Particularly galling for the industrial workers was that they had no means of protesting since strikes were illegal and the unions weak.”[9] Therefore the workers were just as disgruntled as they had ever been.

“Economic self-sufficiency (autarky) was vitally important in developing the greatness of the state; the government must therefore direct the economic life of the country.” [11] To this end Mussolini encouraged the farmers in the “Battle for wheat.”3 Unfortunately, this merely meant that “agriculture remained inefficient and farm labourers the poorest class in the state. The attempt at self-sufficiency was a dismal failure.” [12]

Industry was greatly encouraged with government subsidies, ensuring the appearance of a Corporate State, which helped to increase iron and steel production by 100% by 1930 and to double the production of hydro-electric power by 1937, but more could have been done as Belgium had increased to a much higher level. Also, “little had been done to remedy her basic shortages of raw materials – coal and oil.”[10]

At the same time, another of Mussolini’s ploys to show a strong Italy to the world, was to value the Lira too high on the world markets. 90 Lira could be purchased for �1 in 1926, although a rate of 150 to the pound would have been more advisable for Italy’s failing economy. The outcome was that exports became too expensive and therefore orders dwindled, especially in the textile industry, and so many factories were forced into a three day working week. Even when The Wall Street Crash caused further hardships, Mussolini still refused to devalue the Lira until 1936.

Further harm to the economy was caused by the Fascist’s love of war. As Mussolini said, “peace is absurd: fascism does not believe in it.”[13] The Corfu Incident4 of 1923, the War in Abyssinia in 1935-365 and Italy’s intervention in the Spanish Civil War were all an unnecessary drain on the Italian purse. Indeed, Mussolini said of the latter, they were “bled white”.

Of course the lives of the Italian people were effected by more than just the country’s economy. “Adults who opposed Mussolini were dealt with harshly. However, the children were the Fascists of the future and Mussolini took a keen interest in the state’s education system and the youth organisations that existed in Italy.”[17] “New school text books were written to glorify the Fascist system”[18] with emphasis on the fact that “Mussolini was the only man who could lead Italy back to greatness.

“[19] The boys were encouraged to join after school organisations: Sons of the She Wolf for ages 4-8, Balilla for ages 8-14, and Avantguardista for 14-18 year olds. Whilst taking part in these clubs they “were taught that fighting for them was a natural extension of the normal male lifestyle”[20] By the time they were old enough for the Balilla, these children were being groomed for the army with military-style exercises and imitation guns. Mussolini said of these groups: “I am preparing the young to a fight for life, but also for the nation.”[21] Yet it seems that, as between 30 and 40% of the youths never joined these organisations, they were not a success in bringing the children of Italy into the Fascist fold.

By the same token, Mussolini knew that to have a great army in the future Italian women must be encouraged to have more children. Therefore in 1927 he launched the “Battle for Births”. Unmarried men were penalised with higher taxes and families were encouraged to be of five children or more with tax benefits. “Mussolini wanted Italy to have a population of 60 million by 1950. In 1920, it stood at 37 million so his target was a tall order. However, the Battle for Births was a failure. Though the population grew as people were living longer due to better medical care, the birth rate actually went down between 1927 and 1934.”[22] The Wall Street Crash causing the depression in America also meant that less Italians were emigrating so the figures, most likely, looked much better than they really were.

But, probably the “most lasting and worthwhile achievement”[16] of Mussolini’s rule was the Lateran Treaty with Pope Pius XI6 in which the Church and the State were reunited after years of hostility.

To refer to Fascism as a “revolutionary system” is probably too strong a definition, but to argue that it transformed Italy in any way, in anything other than the short term, would have to be judged as false. Mussolini was certainly guilty of using the ambiguity of the term to his best advantage at all times. But many of the successes and failures of the Italian economical, social and political arenas could be said to be because of the previous governments, the king, the wars or the overall state of Europe at the time. Certainly, in Italy, after World War II, “Fascism disappeared and most of its work along with it; the only achievements remaining at the end of the war were the agreement with the church and the public works, and even they, as Elizabeth Wiskemann suggests, could just as well have been achieved by a democratic government.”[23]

word count = 1529

1 Provided that the party held at least 25% of the votes.[3]

2 Giacomo Matteotti, head of the Italian Socialist Party, was found murdered after speaking out against Mussolini in the parliament. Amerigo Dumini, a member of Mussolini’s special force (Ceka)was found guilty of the murder, but the killing was believed, whether correctly or not, to have been at the order of Mussolini himself.

3 Battle for Wheat = by 1935 wheat imports had been cut by 75%

4 Diplomatic Emergency in 1923. Greece and Albania quarrelled over boundaries and the League of Nations set up a commission to make a determination. At this time 4 Italians, including General Tellini, were killed on the Greek side of the border. Mussolini sent an ultimatum to Greece’s government to pay 50 million Lira in compensation and to execute the assassins. As the assassins could not be identified, Greece could not comply and so Italian forces bombarded and occupied the Greek island of Corfu in August 1923. Greece was forced to pay reparations and apologise, by the Conference of Ambassadors and Italy left Corfu on 27th September 1923.[14]

5 An armed conflict that resulted in Ethiopia’s subjection to Italian rule [15]

6 The Papacy had been hostile to the Italian Government ever since losing sovereignty over the Vatican City in the 1870 unification. Mussolini recognised the Vatican City as a sovereign state, paid compensation to the church and made the Roman Catholic faith the official state religion with compulsory religious education in schools.

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