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To what extent was Mussolini’s rise to power due to the weakness of opposition groups between 1918 and 1922?
From 1861, a liberal monarchy gradually arose after the unification of Italy’s constituent states. Parliamentary democracy swiftly became the dominant practice by government; but by 1922 a new form of government had been established under Mussolini and the Fascist Party. This study will examine the grounds by which the Fascists emerged, with specific focus on the weaknesses of the opposition groups that posed a potential threat, yet, ultimately failed to deliver. In doing this Mussolini’s ability in prioritising these weaknesses, along with his strength and appeal, must also be investigated.
One opposition group capable of posing a potent threat to Mussolini was the political left. However, as was common among Fascism’s opponents, the left-wing was divided both internally (splits) and externally (from other forms of opposition). Within the PSI (socialist party) there were clear differences between the Maximalist niche, who urged revolution, and the Minimalists, who were intent on coming to power by legal means. These differences led to the PSI splitting in January 1921, also forming the PCI (Communist Party). Despite the PSI having 200,000 members, 123 parliamentary deputies elected (1921 election) and 300,000 Avanti! (newspaper) readers, it never seriously threatened revolution, resulting in disillusion and loss of confidence. The PSI also had three internally divided main wings; the national PSI, socialist unions and socialist councils. Arguably their unwillingness to cooperate contributed to their ineffectuality and a perceived inability to achieve proletarian revolution.
Though union membership rose from 250,000 to 2,000,000 after the First World War, it could still be said that the inadequacies of the established workers’ organisation, the PSI, made their presence extraneous. It is debatable whether these inadequacies were down to a submissive mentality or ineffectual leadership. Denis Mack Smith states that ‘the only constant factor among the socialists was their association of violent language with a timid uncertainty in deed’ (1 pg. 34), suggesting that they had very little potential in gaining support because of their limited, timid actions combined with a violent, thuggish persona, in turn sparking discontent across the board. It should be addressed, however, that after 1919 the left’s belligerent appearance and status was mainly construed from Fascist emphasis on it, therefore a long-term sustained negative reputation affected their potential. Fascism, in effect, was, to an extent, able to control the reputation and status of the opposition.
The socialists’ antagonistic image intrinsically sparked mainly from workers’ actions during the Biennio Rosso (‘two red years’) of 1918-19, which predominantly involved militarised labour seizing their factories and establishing workers’ management, free from bourgeois influence. A landowner once responded to red flags in the street, during the Biennio Rosso, exclaiming ‘Is this Italy or Russia?’ As mentioned above, it was possibly the case that this kind of negative perception contributed towards their lack of support in later years. Their reputation as violent and anti-elitist, whether reasonable or not, gradually increased support for the Fascists and other right-wing political segments.
It is understood that the perceived socialist ‘threat’ weakened after Biennio Rosso, with the Fascist movement further inflating the left’s potential through propaganda on which Cassels importantly remarked, ‘the threat it Italy was almost entirely illusory’ (1 pg. 34). This could be challenged by the fact that the left still did have the potential to achieve revolution due to numerical advantages, and still posed a probable threat because of influences such as the Comintern and popular workers’ support. But it is just as apparent that the clear impotence, inadequacies and ideological differences within the PSI compounded an inability to do so.
Possibly the most significant problem on a wider scale was the PSI’s unwillingness to cooperate with the liberal coalition Italian governments prior to 1922, meaning there was no united front to combat Fascist violence and organisation. By this, combined with the above knowledge of their intrinsic insufficiency, it could be said that the left were not credible opponents to the Fascists despite having a strong numerical base.
The liberal democracy established in 1870 was another potential form of opposition to the Fascists in the period prior to 1922. But, the government had no firm leadership, with many changes of Prime Minister and a decadent, corrupt reputation. Their weak response to the antagonistic threats of both Fascism and Socialism was essential concerning Mussolini’s growing influence. The cases are intertwined in a way that the liberal government’s inability to challenge socialism led to Fascism gaining support and Mussolini preying on the opportunity to appeal to the conservative elite, those that the government seemed to have failed to ‘protect’ from socialism. Blinkhorn believes that ‘the underlying conditions -which did not, of course, constitute a cause – arose from the failure of Italian liberals to involve more of the population in the nation’s affairs’ (3 pg. 60), suggesting that the government was weak in appealing and affiliating with its people, in doing so decreasing their already dented support and status. This was seemingly compounded by the embedded corruption that flooded the Italian government.
Despite their obvious insufficiencies, they felt they could play the Fascists to their will, and compromised as far as allowing their inclusion in the election lists (with the new system of proportional representation) which importantly led to in an influx of Fascist deputies. However, despite these weak traits, the liberal government was still capable of vanquishing Fascist squads by means of the police and military. According to Mack Smith ‘the government could easily have crushed the disorderly Fascist squads in the same way as in December 1920 they had already put paid to D’Annunzio’s rebellion at Fiume’ (6). This primarily shows an unwillingness to use this strength, putting them in an inadequate spotlight, not in a potent sense, but in a mental sense, a sense of misjudgement and naivety. Yet, some may argue that the Fascist squads were not necessarily disorderly, and that the government’s reluctance to oppose any threat was not problematic.
They probably had their own views that there was no need in attempting to nullify a substantial Blackshirt presence because, as is hinted later by the ultimately ‘staged’ March on Rome (as opposed to a coup), it was improbable, or maybe even unfeasible that there would be a violent seizure of power. Blinkhorn conflicts Mack Smith’s statement arguing that ‘it was liberal Italy’s misfortune to confront acute social conflict and the arrival of the masses on the political stage at the same time’ (3 pg. 60) implying that liberalism wasn’t suited for the mentality and events of the period. The government’s passive attitude towards both the war and extremism contributed to mass discontent and, reciprocally, an opportunist attitude among the Fascists, sparking from the growing realisation of their inability to handle these situations.
The third most substantial group with the potential to oppose the Fascists consisted of the millions of Italian Catholics across the country, especially in the south. A striking weakness here was that the established church was largely out of touch with the devout populace, specifically indicative with the Vatican’s opposition to World War I against Catholic Austria, despite many Italian Catholics patriotically supporting Italy’s involvement. Another weakness of the Catholic church was in Pope Pius XI’s friendship with Mussolini, which entailed a reluctance to denounce (or oppose) him. Therefore, the Catholic Church, despite having the numerical basis to pose a threat to Fascism, had little potential to do so because of their conservative nature (synonymous with the Fascists) and the personal affiliations of their spiritual leader.
From this we can judge that opposition was externally and intrinsically weak. The socialists were unwilling to cooperate with the weak, ineffectual and corrupt liberal government while the government was equally determined to complement the left benignly – assuming the faï¿½ade of socialist sympathisers while maintaining little cooperation. The Catholics were opposed to socialist atheism and were disillusioned with the liberal government’s inaction towards them. This meant that despite the internal weaknesses of the socialists and liberals it is debatable whether Fascism would have been affectively opposed without cooperation between the three.
In 1915 Italy joined the First World War on the side of Britain and France through the Treaty of London. The treaty promised Italy gains of Trentino, Trieste, South Tyrol, Istria and part of Dalmatia. This contributed to a huge rise in expectation for after the war, especially by the elite and the patriotic right.
The war’s domestic impact included a 400% rise in generic prices due to inflation and the expansion of industry to meet government demands for munitions. Blinkhorn believes that ‘a distorted economy, potentially short of raw materials and export outlets and unable to benefit from a healthy domestic market, was a sure recipe for post-war difficulties’ (3 pg. 13). These post-war difficulties were significant in the growth of support for Mussolini, the man who most saw the opportunity to exploit them. Blinkhorn’s statement is accurately shown by the fact that inflation continued, economic strains grew due to no demand for munitions and 2 million soldiers were demobilised, contributing to mass unemployment.
The post-war industrial problems also included cross-class resentment, mainly by the middle-class (with invested war bonds) who saw workers as ‘shirkers’ while their sons were dying at the front. These workers were too unable to buy sustenance materials, and the unemployed were even worse off. This shows an effect on all levels, which inevitably determined political allegiances. The situation seemingly created a dichotomy of both socialist support and contempt, particularly causing an increase in fear of the socialists’ apparent growth and consequent support for Fascism.
The war ignited the conscription of 5.9 million men, who were mainly allocated to the Austro-Italian war zone. Here morale, pay and conditions were very poor, which contributed to mass discontent among the military towards their government. The battle of Caporetto resulted in the defeat of the Italian army and the advancement of the Austrian army into Italy itself, symbolically damaging the nation. This was, however, followed by a momentous victory at Vittorio Veneto, after which an ‘overdue’ propaganda campaign was initiated, increasing public optimism. The sequential fear and rejuvenation of the two conflicts, combined with the impact of the war – 500,000 Italians dead, over 1 million wounded, around 450,000 permanently disabled and around 600,000 captured – further contributed to the rise in post-war expectation.
However, this was successively shattered, Blinkhorn stressing the sincerity of the post-war condition and the growing ideal of a ‘mutilated victory’, ‘Italy’s post-war condition soon made a nonsense of any optimism generated by official propaganda during 1918 [Vittorio Veneto]’ (3 pg. 14). The initial idea of a ‘mutilated victory’ was that of the nationalist poet, Gabriel D’Annunzio. It signified the failure of the Italian government to gain the expected rewards promised by the Treaty of London. Italy was refused the Dalmatia coast and Fiume at Versailles, humiliating its ‘destiny’ for world power status. Prime Minister Orlando and the Italian delegation walked out after the decision, which further emphasises, and somewhat epitomises, the government’s feebleness. The Fascist stance was that ‘the government mishandled the war and then lost the peace’, maintaining a similar mindset to the majority of the Italian populace and the conservative elite (where evidently the majority of their support transpired from).
Gabriel D’Annunzio was a patriotic poet who glorified and romanticized Italy’s past. He was hugely disillusioned with the liberal parliamentary democracy and in 1919, after the result of the Versailles peace conference (and ‘mutilated victory’), he seized the island of Fiume with 2,000 nationalists. It has been commonly debated as to whether the newly formed country of Yugoslavia contributed to the disappointing results of the peace conference, but despite this D’Annunzio went ahead. Prime Minister Giolitti subsequently negotiated with Yugoslavia that Fiume was to remain a free city and that D’Annunzio would be expelled. He fled after the assault by the Italian army began.
The seizure was significant because the event amplified D’Annunzio’s potential as a rival of Mussolini and laid the guidelines for a potential March on Rome. It gave Mussolini ideas for Fascist methodology including the impending march (which D’Annunzio himself had considered) and the style of a Duce (leader). His methods involved brutal treatment of opponents, flair for self-advertisement and a flamboyant emphasis on parades and uniforms, contributing to the movement’s appeal and aggressive faï¿½ade.
The Fascists’ nature, appearance and intentions were arguably the most vital factor in Mussolini’s rise to power. It is apparent that although there were clear weaknesses in the oppositions’ ranks, these were not pertinent without taking into account Mussolini’s opportunist approach towards them.
One of the most substantial methods by which they increased their appeal was through their fluctuating message. Their ideological stance dramatically altered according their target audience and the political/social context of the time. This is epitomised by the changes between 1919 – where the Fascist message stressed anti-clericalism, democracy and social welfare in a more radical programme – and 1921 – where a more right-wing programme was established complying with their intention to increase support from the traditional elite. Mack Smith summarises that the early Fascist proposals ‘were almost all quietly discarded later, as soon as Mussolini decided that his best hope of winning power lay in an entirely different direction’ (6). This change was probably ignited by the fact that the Fascists failed to gain a single seat in the 1919 election, though it was most probably obvious to Mussolini that their message required amendment due to limited support from the upper classes and the majority of working-class support going to the PSI.
Simply the Fascist message offered something for everybody, its vagueness and, predominantly, there being no published work on its philosophy meant that it could be inferred accordingly by the different social groups they aimed at. For example, the Fascists’ working-class support came through them maintaining some aspects of their original radicalism (before 1919) whereas their upper-class support transpired through their emphasis on anti-socialism and nationalism (after 1919). Support for the Fascists was roughly proportional to who their message was directed to. For example, the agrarian elite were particularly satisfied with the rise of Fascism due to the perceived rise of agrarian socialism. It has been said that the Fascists fuelled their own support by denouncing their opponents while also verbally inflating them as a serious threat.
Socialism, as has been said above, continued to decline following the ‘Biennio Rosso’, causing concern among the Fascists that they’d no longer be seen as ‘protectors’ of the higher echelons of society (incidentally the Blackshirts were heavily funded by the elite). Kedward suggests that ‘its strength lay in the willingness and enthusiasm with which large numbers of ordinary people welcomed its ideals’ (1 pg. 65) again hinting that support for the movement and its numerical strength was key to its further progression. Blinkhorn gives his opinion that ‘Italians attached neither to traditional liberalism, nor to political Catholicism, nor yet to Socialism, comprised Fascism’s main base’ (3 pg. 60). Contradictory to this belief is the fact that the Catholics and of course the Pope were satisfied with the rise of Fascism, contributing to their support by means of allowing Fascist banners in church.
The Fascists were prepared, coherent and had a consolidated motive. By 1922 the movement included 500,000 members, and incorporated 250,000 quasi-militant Blackshirts. This militant portrayal was essential as a propaganda tool in gaining support. It represented the future of Italy under Fascism – that of strength, dynamism and hierarchy. The Blackshirts’ main strategy involved using ‘piazza politics’, taking over streets and squares in towns to show their intent in a flamboyant and popular manner. This was an optimal contrast to the leftist strategies of striking and occupying factories, which substantially limited their target audience.
In November 1921 the Fascists assumed the title of the National Fascist Party, begetting an improvement in general organisation and order. The party’s establishment acknowledged the role of Fascist squads, determined Mussolini as Il Duce and submitted a new right-wing programme. Another important occurrence around this time was the formation of the Ras. These were local fascist leaders who established their own squads and strategy. They were vital in Mussolini’s rise to power because they provided a maintained Fascist framework across Italy, especially in the run up to the March on Rome. They also played a majorly influential role on the direction of the party, continuously changing Mussolini’s decisions through the threat of a coup or replacing him with D’Annunzio.
Arguably, the most substantial factor in Fascist organisation was the use of violence towards political enemies. This strategy was notable as early as April 1919 when Fascist arditi (ex-servicemen) committed arson on the Milan Avanti! offices. Between 1920 and 1922 an estimated 2000 opponents were killed by Fascist squads, in most cases socialists. Therefore an interesting question to ask is if the weaknesses and divisions of opposition groups were strongly caused by Fascist violence. Mack Smith comments on this in relation to the 1921 election, ‘the atmosphere of officially permitted intimidation influenced the results significantly’.
Despite this, the election’s mass campaign of violence only resulted in 35 Fascists being elected, along with many PSI members, a feeble number when taking into account the intensity of the violence orchestrated. By 1922 the presence of 250,000 Blackshirts generated an aura that civil war was a strong possibility, Clark believing that, ‘he [Mussolini] did not, by 28 October need to use force’ (1 pg. 64). This implies that other factors were so substantial or that the threat of civil war, illustrated by the number of Blackshirts, was enough for Mussolini to be appointed Prime Minister, maybe through fear or, again, naivety.
Mussolini’s character and personality must also be taken into account. Il Duce had many attributes that contributed to his authoritative persona and charismatic appeal. These included assertiveness, ambition, his natural rebelliousness and his incessant drive to settle for nothing less than Prime Minister. This determination is portrayed by Mussolini’s assertion that ‘either the government will be given to us or we shall take it, descending upon Rome. It is now a question of days, perhaps hours’. He also had the ability to manipulate and use violence or intrigue to get what he wanted, especially from the gullible, sympathising liberal government. Mack Smith, in his 1990 article Sleeping Car to Power maintained that Mussolini’s will, guided by his positive attributes, defined the party’s policy; ‘it was revolutionary, but could also sometimes claims to be conservative. It was Catholic, but also anti-clerical; it claimed to be Socialist, but could also be strongly capitalist whenever it suited the Duce to be so’ (1 pg. 49).
The Fascist Party has primarily been presented as a ‘catch-all party’ maintained with hierarchical vigour, as stated above. Incidentally this contributed massively to their following. Blinkhorn again emphasises Mussolini’s influence on his opponents, believing that ‘Fascism obtained power not through revolution but as the result of Mussolini’s compromise with conservative and ostensibly liberal interests’ (3). Mussolini did, however, also possessed negative traits that had the potential to restrict his actions. One example of this is his tendency to be influenced by the Ras, commonly hesitating on many policies in order to prevent mass discontent in the party. But despite this, his determination and strive for power were the most substantial aspects of Mussolini’s character when coming to explain the consequences of the events leading up to his appointment.
The March on Rome was the ultimate event that brought about Mussolini’s appointment. The potential coup, combined the different factors mentioned in this study, all contributed. The Fascists planned to gain control of local government and expel socialist councils in towns. Also 50,000 Blackshirts were to assemble around Rome (interestingly of which only 10,000 did). The weaknesses of liberal Italy were epitomised by the fears of King Victor Emmanuel III. When Prime Minister Facta asked him to enact martial law he recanted it eight hours later in a hope to compromise with Mussolini. Carocci claims that ‘the March on Rome, was a show of strength against a parliamentary majority.
This show of strength would have failed if the King had opposed it’ (1 pg. 65). It could, however, be said that the threat of civil war and the strengths of the Fascist movement were too great for there not to be change. It could alternately be suggested that the King overestimated the strength of Fascism at the time and could have delayed its assumption to power. The threat of civil war and the possibility that he could be replaced by his cousin, the Fascist sympathiser, the Duke of Aosta, were there to be a coup, ignited his compromise with Mussolini. Interestingly, the King later removed Mussolini from power, implying that he did have the strength to oppose him. It is possible that the desperate situation governed his reason. Lyttleton supports this stance, believing that ‘the only man who could do anything was convinced of his impotence’. The Blackshirts benignly marched on Rome to celebrate their victory.
In conclusion, the problem was ultimately rooted in both ideology and priority. Not only was the problem ingrained in the upper echelons but also in support, with the First World War radically influencing the mindset of the masses. Growing unemployment, discontent and obscure loyalties simply compounded the strongly evident weaknesses of Fascism’s opponents. Yet, these were arguably still extraneous without taking into account Mussolini’s character and assertive opportunism, which was key to his growing support.
This was guided by both his and the party’s appeal, and, to a lesser extent, violence. The expectations from Versailles, the ‘mutilated victory’ and consequent discontent, along with the war’s economic impact, all emphasised the inadequacies of democracy. The methods Mussolini used to manipulate this situation were rooted in policy and, in parallel with National Socialism, their status as a ‘catch-all party’. We also cannot rule out circumstance. The course of events did seemingly fall favourably for Mussolini; the war, mass discontent and government incompetence all working against the opposition and in his favour. The potential ‘March on Rome’ and the resultant feebleness of the King all but completed the process.