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Analyze the claim that Mussolini’s successful rise to power by 1922 was largely a consequence of the impact of the First World War.
Without a doubt, the role of the First World War in Mussolini’s spectacular rise to power between 1920 and 1922 was considerable, for it was surely a strong catalyst for change and Italy’s renewal, meaning it gave way to many problematic economical and political aspects, which in turn gave Mussolini the chance to strike at the precise moment in order to have a direct affect on people and ergo win their support. These were aspects such as the damage of the foundations of ‘Liberal Italy’, which had as a consequence the rise of frustration within nationalists and the decrease in wages and increase in the level of unemployment in the country, all of which were obviously disastrous. Therefore, Italian people started to doubt their government, which seemed weak, and initiated a search for a new, stronger leadership which would bring to cease the social unrest and economic problems; to this, Fascism seemed like the perfect alternative and solution.
Nevertheless, the impact of the First World War was just to certain extent the reason for Mussolini’s rise to power, for there were many other factors affecting the path of Italy into a Fascist dictatorship. These other factors were the already mentioned weak liberal regime, nationalist dissatisfaction and social and economic unrest, as well as Mussolini’s opportunism, the Fascist’s actions and the King’s (Victor Emmanuel) doings.
Dealing first with the impact of the war and the numerous consequences it had, it is necessary to point out that it was the war that brought the distress among soldiers and their families, who consequently turned to Fascism as a comfort, which implicates that the war provided a great number of employers for Fascism who were from the elite troops of the Italian army, (or Arditi); this gave Mussolini’s movement a great deal of prestige. The war also brought discontent within the Italian political system; this had an effect on million of Italians who started believing that the time of liberalism was finally over; a fact which greatly accelerated the process of the formation of new political parties, such as the Socialist party, and the Popolari (formed by catholic radicals).
The formation of these new parties meant a heavy burden for the Liberal government, because with a new opposition and challenge their regime was in danger, nevertheless the Liberal State found itself in a high level of vulnerability seeing that it was incapable of mobilizing the economy with the purpose of eliminating the country’s economic troubles, and finding a way around its limited economic resources; this only provided the masses with new restlessness concerning their government, and ergo made them consider what seemed a more decisive power: Fascism, which seemed to have the key property to put an end to the domestic situation, which after the war was only deteriorating further; causing lifestyles to worsen for the majority of the Italian population, which was the main reason for the sense of social breakdown that was spreading throughout the country. To this, Giolitti could either see no solution, or simply did nothing to stop it, for the Liberal regime could not get rid of the social unrest which gave way to strikes of over 40000 workers.
On the other hand, communism seemed to be growing in the form of a political power: the Socialist party, which was in great scale believed to be an enormous threat and therefore any show of strength from this party was greatly feared for it was thought that it might bring revolution. This encouraged most of the social classes to believe in Fascism as it posed as the savoir to this menace and as the “defender of law and order”.
The adoption of this heroic image by the fascists could also be regarded as a degree of opportunism from Mussolini’s character, for the tension that was created by the fear of Socialism of the industrialists (who feared revolution was near), small land owners (who were deeply hit by inflation and therefore felt that their government was a weak one), Industrial workers (who were threatened by the seizure of their jobs by the socialist forces) and ‘rentiers’ created the perfect atmosphere for Mussolini to put into practice his skills and tactics. Mussolini successfully abused the fears of a Socialist takeover from these classes to enable them to consider Fascism not only as an alternative, but as a perfect answer to the request of a powerful and decisive government.
Mussolini, to great extent, persuaded people to believe the above by the use of his extraordinary speaking skills, to which he integrated the ideas of bringing order, stability, commitment, discipline and a strong government to Italy; (which were the exact properties of a government that the Italian masses were seeking at the moment), as well as convincing the middle classes that liberalism was finished, (as already mentioned). Moreover, his astuteness served him in convincing people that they (fascists) “were violent because it [was] necessary to be so” (a direct line from a speech he makes after the murder of a socialist leader), meaning that he was doing what was necessary to complete the correction of Italy.
While he convinced the masses that the atrocities committed by fascists were perfectly reasonable by saying that “blood alone moves the wheels of history”, he was simultaneously using this violent authority to secure political power for his own later use; this meant that the black-shirted actions squads were taking law into their own hands, and by doing so, they were eliminating all those who dared to oppose this fascist movement. To some degree, this use of intimidation was very effective, for it meant that fascism would gain support by force which was obviously directed by fear within the supporters. An example of this successful intimidation was the violent general elections where Fascism gained a considerable amount of seats due to the brutality used to achieve control.
But although violence was greatly used, and regardless of the fact that it put Mussolini in position to threaten the state, Mussolini was aware of all the possible consequences that his actions could bring, such as provoking the conservatives to make the authorities crush the fascists if their use of violence went too far; this measure of consciousness made him a great politician.
Furthermore, in contrast to the slow Liberal reaction, Fascists were fast to accept their role as the alternative to Socialism and dealt with the Social General Strike with great speed; and by putting a stop to the socialist threat they won many votes in the parliament and had an effective result in the support of Italians; on the other hand, the lack of reaction from the Liberals only showed their incompetence to restore law, order and public confidence in their regime; which in turn continued encouraging the urban educated classes to keep thinking that they were in the path towards a civil war, meaning that the sense of crisis in the circumstances had not yet ceased to exist. In addition, Mussolini exploited to the full the situation of the ‘General Strike’ and thought of it as the opportune moment to oppose the communist threat and hence use the socialist’s failure to appeal to the people as a man whose intentions were to save Italy from its inadequate Liberal government and propose a new regime which would be the “salvation of Italy”.
All the while, Mussolini used his character and skills at discourse to reassure to the Liberal government that fascism, unlike Socialism, was not to be feared, this could be regarded as another opportunist strike from Mussolini’s part for it served him into luring Giliotti into thinking that Fascism (Mussolini’s PFN) could be controlled and absorbed into the existing political regime, meaning the official government list of coalition partners, to form an anti-socialist government coalition. This would come to be one of the biggest mistakes from the Liberal’s side, for; of course, Mussolini used absorption to his advantage for it gave him a level of respectability as a political party and therefore allowed the Fascists to win more seats, this was a great occasion for Mussolini for he wanted to come to power through parliamentary means. Then again, as expected, this invitation by Giolitti to enter the coalition was the result of a loss of liberal maintained seats in the parliament; seats that were lost to the Socialist party.
This situation in which Giolitti was forced to look towards coalitions for support is linked to when he had formed a coalition with the Popolari, which was a political party formed by radical Catholics. This, again, clearly shows the fundamental weakness of the Liberal government for it was completely dependant on this coalition to survive within the parliament and to ad to its already mentioned problems; this was a very problematic relationship because the Popolari were rather suspicious of the Liberal’s anti-clericalism. The fact that it was once before also dependent on the making of coalitions, the weaknesses of the Liberal Parliamentary System are shown to have been evident long before 1922.
Likewise, a further great weakness that the Liberals possessed was the lack of political will to use their own power of violence against the Squadrisimo fascist squads in order to restrain them; and by being deficient in having this determination, the fascist squads continued to perform acts of violence which ensured the fascist to induce fear and therefore eliminate opposition by intimidation.
Yet in contrary to all these factors affecting Mussolini’s rise to power; his vagueness and lack of any definite political beliefs gave Mussolini a unique sense of ambiguousness, and due to this Mussolini was able to influence and manipulate people so that they would perceive fascism in the way he wanted the to; this opened many paths to Mussolini throughout his career as a politician.
The actions of King, Victor Emmanuel, were also crucial in the process of Mussolini’s rapid rise to power. This is mainly because the King could have stopped the fascist forces if only he had not been afraid of being replaced by his cousin, Aosta. He was afraid of this because he believed that his cousin, being a fascist sympathizer, would want to replace him if he dared to oppose Mussolini in any aspect. On the other hand, it is believed that the King believed Mussolini’s claims that the Monarchy and Fascism could coexist and therefore acceded to his demands, and actually appointed him head of coalition government.
On the other hand, it is also said that it was weakness which made the King give into fascism as easily, for he did not believe that anything could be done against fascism; that is was too strong. Nevertheless, it is also greatly believed that Fascism could have been destroyed in 1922, in the March on Rome, of only the King had been strong enough as to oppose Mussolini, because there was a great deal of disorganization within the Fascists, meaning there was a lack of planning of this supposedly great movement, plus Mussolini was under a immense amount of pressure (from the RAS), and was going through a great depression which made him somehow weaker and easier to defeat; and therefore the army could have easily stopped it if only orders have been transmitted to it. A counter argument for this claim that it was weakness which stopped the king from acting is that he thought that Italy was walking into a full-scale civil war, and therefore, to prevent it, he took no measures against Fascism, and that, in addition, in that time he was under a great deal of pressure, and ergo did not make what could have been the best decision.
Another vital decision that the King took was to appoint Mussolini as Prime minister, although this decision could also be blamed on the weakness of the Liberal regime, because if it had not been so indecisive, the King would not have been forced to take this step towards a dictatorship, thus if the Liberal government had been more able, and had not underestimated Mussolini then the King would not have been under so much pressure and would have probably made a better decision than to appoint Mussolini as Prime Minister.
But as we can see, the March on Rome, instead of leading to a disastrous moment in Mussolini’s life as it could have; it was the catalyst to the rise of power of Mussolini, for it provided the exact amount of pressure the King needed to make Mussolini the youngest Prime Minister of Italy.
With the above historical debate we can say that the First World War provided the necessary conditions for Mussolini’s rise to power, however, these were not sufficient and therefore other affecting factors were eventually needed to complete his successful rise to power, such as the terribly weak Liberal government which enabled the Italian people to look elsewhere for strong leadership and ergo turn to Fascism as an alternative and solution to the Socialist threat, and the brilliant tactics that Mussolini uses as well as his great deal of opportunism which made him capable to turn disastrous situations to his advantage. Such as the Matteoti crisis which forced him to use his ability to speak in front of the masses and convince them of the justification for violence; he also benefited from this crisis by abusing the fact that all other forces in the parliament left hi alone and in control of it.
Having said the above, it can be understood that Mussolini’s rise to power was, as Richard Parrish describes: “a multi-causal phenomenon”.