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In domestic matters Mussolini was not an original thinker. In opposition he had thought about little other than getting into power. Once he became prime minister he had three main aims for Italy: to become a military power, to play a major role in European affairs and to create a Mediterranean empire like that of ancient Rome. To achieve these aims, Italy would need a strong economy and also create a tough and disciplined population prepared for war. However this would require a transformation of the Italian character. It will be necessary look at Mussolini’s policies for industry, agriculture and society to consider the impact and see how successful he was.
The economy suffered a number of structural weaknesses: there were limited raw materials and although the North was developed the South was very backward and there was a high level of illiteracy. When Mussolini came to power he was very lucky as the economy was recovering from the post war slump. Industrialists were pleased when taxes on industry were reduced and trade unions and strikes were banned. The economy boomed as exports increased and unemployment fell and Mussolini, of course, took the credit.
In 1925, Mussolini took personal control of the economy, but by 1927 the economy was weakening and the lire began to fall against other currencies. This was unacceptable in Mussolini’s eyes; he believed a strong currency was a matter of national pride, so he revaluated the lire. This was meant to raise Italy’s prestige but it badly damaged the economy. Italian products were now expensive and exports fell rapidly. Imports should have been cheaper but high tariffs on foreign products meant the consumer did not benefit. The only winners were industries such as steel, shipbuilding and armaments, which needed large supplies of cheap tariff free raw materials. These were the industries that Mussolini wanted to promote, and Mussolini may have regarded it as a success but raising the lire hurt the economy badly.
In the 1930s Italy, like the rest of the world, was caught up in the depression. Industrial production fell, a large number of firms went bankrupt and unemployment rose to 2 million. Mussolini got it spot on when it came to combating the effects of the depression. He introduced work schemes such as building motorways; hydroelectric schemes and he bailed out banks which had lent money to companies and could not rely on their loans. This kept banks in business. He also set up the Institute for Industrial Reconstruction (IRI), which took over the banks’ task of providing loans for Italian industry. Mussolini reacted faster than any other nation and was exactly right when dealing with the depression. Although it cost the taxpayer a lot of money, unemployment rapidly fell and Italy began to recover more quickly than many other nations.
In the mid 1930s, however, Mussolini’s economic policies yet again caused problems. From 1936 onwards he began to stress the need for self-efficiency, autarky, which Italy would need in the event of a war. Mussolini’s main aim was to create an economy ready for war which meant a strong armaments industry. Heavy industries such as steel, chemicals and shipbuilding were encouraged. Increasing wealth had never been a priority so, for ordinary Italians, living standards fell and the economy suffered
. The invasion of Abyssinia in1935 seemed to prove Mussolini’s point about the need for a strong economy. On the other hand, despite his efforts, when Italy went to war in 1940 she was far from self-sufficient and the economy was in a major crises. Huge sums of money had been spent in Abyssinia and Spain and could not be met by raising taxes. The answer was either to cut military expenditure or living standards, but Mussolini refused to recognise the problem and it was still unresolved when Italy went to war in 1940.
As with industry, the fundamental problems of Italian agriculture were the large numbers of poor people, land hungry peasants, inefficient farming methods and lack of modern machinery in the South; but none of this concerned Mussolini. He was more concerned with high profile projects, which would increase his power and prestige. Typical of these projects was the “Battle for Grain”. Italy had always imported large quantities of grains which Mussolini believed was a source of weakness in time of war.
So he launched a campaign to increase grain production by offering farmers various incentives. Grain production increased from 5.5 million tons in the early 1920’s to over 7 million within a decade. Imports of grain fell and Mussolini seemed to think it was a great success. He thought he was showing the world the dynamism of the Fascist state. However it was a hollow victory; much of the land taken for grain production was unsuitable, yields were low and the price of bread increased. What’s more, production increased but only at the expense of other crops such as olive oil, wine and citrus fruits which had all been important exports.
Another project Mussolini considered a huge success was the land reclamation in the Pontine Marshes. They were drained and a network of small farms established. Land reclamation was a success in the sense that it created jobs and cleared malarial swamps like the Pontine, but the amount of land reclaimed was very small.
Mussolini wanted to see fascism penetrate every aspect of Italian society, but he was neither logical in his ideas nor prepared to force through policies that might make him unpopular.
The church was one area of Italian life where Mussolini moved carefully. Even though he was anti-religious, he was smart enough to realise the value of good relations with the papacy. He restored Catholic education in schools and increased government pay to priests, which won him the confidence of the Pope. In terms of relations with the church, his greatest achievement came with the Lateran Agreement of 1929. This ended the conflict between church and state. By this treaty the Pope finally recognised the Italian state, the state recognised the independence of the Vatican City and granted the pope ï¿½30 million compensation for giving up his claim to Rome.
It was agreed that Catholicism would be the state religion, religious education would be taught at all schools and divorce would only take place with the consent of the Church. It would seem that the Pope had the better of the deal. However, the agreement also stated that even though the Pope would appoint bishops, Mussolini had the right to refuse any who were doubtful. Mussolini was happy with the deal; the church had been neutered as a potential source of opposition and giving the church greater control over marriage and divorce which fitted in with Mussolini’s aim of increasing Italy’s population.
Women in Italy had a clear role; to run the home and produce children to populate Italy’s future empire. Pressure was put on women to stay at home rather than work which helped reduce unemployment. From the mid 1920s, women were excluded from certain teaching jobs and in 1933 the Government set a limit of 10% of state jobs for women. The ideal woman would be well rounded and sturdy. Female sport was encouraged as it improved health, but Fascists also worried that it might cause infertility. The “Battle For Births” was launched in 1927 and was designed to increase Italy’s population from 40 to 60 million. In spite of all the propaganda and financial incentives such as no income tax for men with six children, the population rose only slowly. In fact after 1936 the birth rate declined. This like battle the for Grain was unsuccessful and Mussolini’s two key policies relating to women; to increase births and reduce female employment, both failed.
Young people were considered essential for the future of the regime. In school the cult of the individual was promoted and Mussolini’s greatness extolled. In 1928 most history books were replaced with a single textbook, the Libro Unico. However it wasn’t until 1930’s that the education system came under strict fascist control. The system was centralised and teachers were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the regime. “Fascist teaching to create the Fascist man” became the aim. Despite the oath of loyalty, many teachers were by no means committed Fascists.
Apart from elementary school, it was in the Balilla, the Fascist youth organisation that young Italians were inculcated with fascist ideas. Though young people were more interested in the facilities than the propaganda message, they did help to strengthen the regime. The boys’ activities included various sports such as fitness training, military drill and summer camps as well as propaganda lectures, parades and rallies. Girls did some of the same things but the emphasis was on domestic skills such as sewing, childcare and hygiene, as well as recitals and charity work.
It was never an aim of Fascism to make Italians better off. Mussolini’s priority was to make Italians harder and better fighters; he believed an easy existence would weaken their spirit. Nonetheless he could not ignore the issues, which affected individuals, and certainly not those issues which might cause widespread unrest. Fascism claimed to represent the whole community and did pass legislation to create a system of welfare. However, its motives were not entirely selfless. It did want to promote the health and well being of Italians, but it also saw a welfare state as a means of reducing unrest and winning itself support.
In 1928 the Fascist state inherited a complicated system of welfare run by various bodies. The party set up an umbrella organisation, the E.O.A (the agency for welfare activities) to control the distribution of funds. The result was there was limited sickness insurance after 1928, family allowances were extended and Infant welfare schemes were set up in the 1930s. However, on the whole, the welfare system was not particularly impressive. Hospital provision for example, was good in larger cities but poor in rural areas.
Pension provision was very limited too. In reality, the Fascists saw the welfare system as a way of strengthening the nation, rather than helping individuals. The same is true of the O.N.D (the opera nazonale Dopolavoro) which organised state-sponsored after work entertainment and sport. Its aim was not just to entertain, but also to improve the health of Italians and to gain their support for the regime. It definitely helped win support for the regime but it did not help turn Italians into committed Fascists.
Many of Mussolini’s domestic policies appeared populist and successful at a superficial level. However, when you analyse the impact of the policies they rarely achieved their desired aims. Significantly, the poor state of the economy, the inability of Mussolini to convert the population to Fascism and the poor standard of living of the peasant population demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the policies.