“The purpose of Mussolini’s increasingly expansionist foreign policy during the 1930’s was only to bolster his decaying prestige which had been affected by economic strain due to the impact of the Great Depression.” How far do you agree?
It has become common, during the last few decades, for historical writing to show an increasing tendency to point out close links between foreign and domestic policies of the states being treated, thus stressing the fact that any given government will exhibit underlying intricacies in its methods, either unconsciously or having been carefully planned, which any careful analysis should not ignore. Mussolini’s Italy is of course not an exception, however it is the extent in which the leader calculated the workings of his policies in a holistic manner the issue in which most observers disagree.
Although it is much clearer that Mussolini’s foreign policy was largely inconsistent and erratic in its action and design, historians differ in whether his actions in the international arena where only the unplanned response to domestic problems of a dictator whose chief concern was always the internal consolidation of his regime or that there was an underlying consistency in his course of action, this is, that it was always expansionist in nature, while not always in practice. Historian D. Mack Smith agrees that with the former opinion, stating that “any history of Mussolini’s foreign policy… has to be a history of propaganda”1 referring to his policy as only a means to bolster his popularity through the use of propaganda.
However, M. Knox is convinced of the latter viewpoint asserting that Mussolini’s foreign policy was not a reaction to “internal social or political pressures”2 but seeing in it an authentic expansionist vision. The arguments of both of these respected contemporary historians shall form the basis of the discussion following to a considerable extent, and given the specialist nature of their works together with the virtually unbiased nature of a proficient analysis found in such texts, we can take them as both reliable and useful, thus we will concentrate more on the validity of the argument rather than the trustworthiness of the source.
By the beginning of the 1930’s Mussolini had implemented significant reforms on the Italian economical structure which he believed would solve the problems he inherited from the Liberal government that preceded him and which where particularly serious, as he himself declared: “The financial situation was then…desperately serious. I knew what difficult inheritance I had received …Finance, then, was one of the most delicate and urgent problems to be solved, if I wanted to rebuild and elevate our credit abroad and home.”3. Italy’s system was deeply affected by the war, and by 1922 most of the problems remained unsolved.
Not only there was a run-down in industrial growth, high inflation (the lire had only one fifth of its pre-war value), extreme poverty in southern, agricultural Italy (an accentuation in dualist nature of the economy) and a generalized down in living standards and the land hunger of the peasantry, but also huge unemployment due to return of millions of ex-soldiers to Italy and a new U.S immigration law which restricted the entry to immigrants. These issues had repercussions in the social realm: social dualism (the marked social gap between the South and the North) remained strong and stressed by the fact that the Southerners resented the North because many industrial workers did not go to war as they were needed in the factories, riots and strikes due to leftist sprouts encouraged by the success of the Bolshevik revolution, and also poverty, violence and illiteracy.
The main economical reform introduced to aid in industrial growth was the Corporate State. The key intention of its establishment was “to replace the old sectional interests (such as trade unions and employers’ organizations) which so often produced conflicts between labour and capital”4 with a system which portrayed a solid alternative to trade unions for workers and apparently erased hierarchical differences, as both workers and employers were its members, but that in reality would make the workers lose their right to free collective bargaining, and the use of strike as a weapon for this purpose, and increase state control over the economy without destroying private enterprise so that they could be adapted to the new fascist institutions and Mussolini’s commitment to productivism. But, in reality, the corporate state brought advantages only to the factory owners and state workers, while ordinary working class Italians derived little benefit from the machinery of the Corporate State.
In agriculture, the most important development was the drive for self-sufficiency or “autarky” in grain which was intended to improve Italy’s position in trade as compared to the rest of Europe and North America. Mussolini introduced a campaign baptized the ‘Battle for Grain’ (tinged as it sounds with propagandistic military overtones, feature to which we will return promptly) in order increase grain production. This crusade succeeded in increasing grain production by 50% between 1922 and 1930 enabled the reduction of wheat imports by 75% hence giving less expenditures to the government.
However this policy had many setbacks. Not only the increased production was largely at expense of other crops like fruit and olives that would have been more appropriate to the supplementary land given over to grain, but even though this growth gave the government the opportunity to spend less in, it was practically of no value since it was spending too much capital promoting the enterprise: subsidies for the farmers and factories. Therefore it follows that the overall utility of the country didn’t increase greatly, so the gains where not as “grand” as Mussolini purported that the campaign would render.
This fact is a very effective example which illustrates to a great extent Mussolini’s methods when dealing with official policies. Firstly, the exaggeration of the grandeur of such judgments has evident propagandistic purposes designed to bolster the leader’s prestige, as we encounter here, where the term “Battle” is used to portray the vision of making Italy a self-sufficient state so that his rising population (again made official as the “Battle for Births”) educated in fascist values, could be fed in times of war. On a second instance, the lack of effective planning is apparent, in this case, as the overall financial outcome of the policy was so small, therefore underlining the fact that the goal of such policies was not concrete economical development but the increase of the level of acceptation of the fascist rule by means attractive to the masses.
Again the poor planning is obvious when we consider Italian economy as a whole and its development during the 1920’s: although both agriculture and industry were improved to some extent as isolated economical institutions, their effect on the overall economy was unsuccessful as Italy remained well down in world terms. In addition, like his predecessors, Mussolini did nothing to solve the traditional problems of the Italian economy: dualism (again being evidence of the failure of his policies in a macro level) and the overwhelming poverty of the South. If anything, his policies accentuated dualism by concentrating on each system (Industry-North and Agriculture-South) individually.
Once again the priority of national prestige over sound economic thought in Mussolini’s economic policies is observed in his 1929 revaluation of the lire. He was obsessed with the value of the Italian currency, as he believed that the strength and virility of a country lied on the value of its money, belief which led him to declare: “I shall defend the Italian lira to my last breath”5. This artificial reflating of the lire significantly damaged the country’s competitiveness as an exporter and thus brought recession to Italy even before the impact of the Great Depression.
The evidence leads us to conceive Mussolini’s economic policies merely as propagandistic edicts rather than visions of development having undergone careful economic analysis. However, Mussolini’s actual success in solving the economic problems he encountered before 1930 can be regarded in two levels. In the level of individual economical circumstances (probably the one Mussolini planned his policies in, hence showing his primordial interest for “instant remedy rather than the achievement of a grand design”6 when considering a new plan) his policies were to a considerable extent successful in solving some the problems he inherited, for instance, industrial growth run down and inflation.
However, as a whole, Italy’s major problems (dualism, poverty, unemployment and land hunger of the peasantry), which happen to be problems involving more than one system hence requiring careful coordination, were aggravated. This aggravation was due to the manner in which individual problems were solved: the insensible substitution of a problem with another. This can clearly be seen for example in the inflation problem (solved but replaced by recession) and low levels of industrial and agricultural growth (solved but replaced with increased dualism).
The nature of his solutions formed the basis for his decaying prestige due to the economic strain caused by the Great Depression, since, as it is natural, any short term remedy without an authentic purpose will succumb before a radical change of circumstances, and also constitutes the main link between the nature of the domestic and foreign policies. Being more precise, this connection is most clearly pinpointed as propaganda.
Following D. Mack Smith’s argument, Mussolini’s target when engaging in his increasingly expansionistic foreign policy during the 1930’s was the same as that pursued by his internal policies, as we have identified: popular recognition. A clear parallel thus emerges which follows a logical pattern, for when Mussolini realized that his domestic economical strategies where failing due to his initial lack of vision underlined by the crisis of the Great Depression he turned to the international arena as the main priority, which had remained much calmer, at least in what official propaganda and Mussolini’s declarations to foreign powers was concerned. It is therefore not surprising that the government kept so quiet on the slow and frustrating war over the Libyan colony that raged all through the 1920’s, since it showed the Italian army not as half as glorious as Mussolini purported it to be.
However, by the beginning of the 1930’s imperial expansion became a dominating theme in Mussolini’s speeches and, together with his efforts to encourage an ever increasing birth rate to populate the forthcoming colonies, portrayed in terms if a “battle” as discussed before, made the population have more and more in mind the militaristic and virile fascist values that official propaganda highlighted.
These values, and the whole philosophy and ideology of fascism are of great importance in assessing the argument proposed by D. Mack Smith, since if it were in fact true, we should be able to encounter a series of gaps and unfitting pieces in the practice of such ideas, showing Mussolini’s opportunism and lack of loyalty to his own values in order to achieve what would most immediately bolster his prestige.
A clear example of such a case is found in the case of Mussolini’s views towards peace and pacifism. During the 1920’s Mussolini professed an the openly pacifist nature of his regime and fascism itself to observers outside Italy: “Our record in international affairs discloses sleepless vigilance to build peace and make friends. More peace, more friends.”7. The nature of the source, an “autobiography”, which was in fact a compilation made up by his brother and a former U.S. ambassador in Rome, Luigi Barzini is of utter importance. It was published only in England in 1928 as Mussolini “did succeed in preventing the appearance of an Italian edition. Evidently it contained material which he either did not want people to know or feared they might disbelieve.”8. Therefore, even though the material expressed here is extremely unreliable given Mussolini’s intentions of image preservation it is particularly useful to asses his opportunistic and dual-natured conduct.
This feature if his personality becomes evident when we compare his statement above to that encountered in the fourteenth volume of the Enciclopedia Italiana in the entry of fascist doctrine, published in 1932, when his loss of prestige due to economic failures was increasing: “Fascism… believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. It thus repudiates the doctrine of Pacifism, born of a renunciation of the struggle and as act of cowardice on the face of sacrifice. War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it…”9.
The extreme difference in the statements is obvious and self explanatory: Mussolini either changed his own ideology from that of a pacifist nature to a much more aggressive one or, more probably, lied and denied his own views in order to maintain a certain image of him on outside viewers while portraying another radically different one internally. The character of the source, an encyclopedia written in Italian mainly targeted to educated families that could afford it, is important as it illustrates what Mussolini wanted the people, mainly from the industrialized north since its population was relatively more wealthy and educated and had relationships with factories which could be used to make armament in the case of an eventual war, obviously alluded by the article, to believe what fascist doctrine was.
The fact that the whole encyclopedia had to be drawn from circulation soon after it was published for the revision of this single article, because of some doubtful points contained in it, stresses Mussolini’s reluctance to cut such a contradictory figure to the few but important people which knew his previous position. Therefore, the blatant denial of pacifism proves Mussolini’s capacity of deceit and opportunism which we will now proceed to extend to another context, that of his increasingly expansionist posture during the 1930’s.
According to M. Knox’s argument expansionism was always an underlying impulse in fascist doctrine therefore making it one with the ideology itself, this is, that there is no fascism without expansionism. Indeed this is what Mussolini tried to portray to his supporters even before he assumed the premiership. If we go back to 1919 and observe fascism’s original program, tinged with socialist and democratic influences, we see that imperialism was repudiated and the intention to pursue Italy’s Adriatic claims by legal means was highlighted. However, this doctrine was appropriately molded to that of the of chauvinistic war-veterans which the party received between 1920 and 1922 and after Nationalists and other conservatives were absorbed by Fascism after the March on Rome, therefore demonstrating again inconsistency in Mussolini’s ideological pattern and additionally being a very good example of Mussolini’s opportunism.
This weakens Knox’s argument to a great extent, as expansionism was not even one of fascism’s initial policies before Mussolini saw the opportunity of support if he adapted to the circumstances. In this example, we are encountered with a case, even though more distant in time with the period concerned, more closely and clearly related to D. Mack Smith’s argument than that of pacifism. We see Mussolini here doing exactly what this historian sustains he did in the 1930’s, a change in foreign policy only with the purpose of popularity.
Another objection to Knox’s argument lies in the personal reasons and consequences of Mussolini’s attack on Ethiopia in 1935. Stephen J. Lee maintains: “…the cult to the Duce required a boost which only a successful war could provide.”10. The leader here exploited nationalist feelings in order to boost his image: “the people of Italy were summoned into the town squares by bells and sirens to hear over loudspeakers that war had begun. This summons was a procedure that Starace had carefully rehearsed during the previous month, and 27 million people were said to have taken part in what was the largest staged function in human history.”11 The actual implication of Mussolini’s personal desires in foreign policy against other nations had the potential to be very negative, as this meant that he could involve Italy in an unsure and risky situation that might seem glorious for the country and for him in an early stage, not considering enough the feasibility of a truly successful enterprise as the best interests of Italy were laid aside for the prospect of an inexpensive, quick and glorious victory.
The consequences of the attack on Ethiopia was that Mussolini was left only with one ally, Germany, as Britain and France had to condemn the actions because of their membership of the league of nations. Therefore from this point on Italy was invariably tied to Germany and to its own expansionism, this led Mussolini to get involved in an extremely unsuccessful campaign in the Spanish Civil War and eventually in the Second World War, thus his expansionism after the campaign in Ethiopia cannot be regarded as genuine and authentic as it was only the result of Italy’s obligation to accept and imitate Hitler’s desires for Lebensraum in order not to remain ally-less.
Therefore we can conclude that indeed, the increasing expansionistic ideals of Mussolini during the 1930’s where only a means to bolster his prestige and furthermore that we cannot talk of a true and authentic and consistent vision of expansionism of having been present in fascist Italy. This consistency is only an illusion, if indeed a true consistency is to be found on his regime is that of opportunism reinforced with appropriate propaganda, that of achieving popularity at any cost.
Expansionism and, more broadly, the struggle of the Italian people (pictured in both the Battle for births and grain), form part of a single ingredient of Mussolini’s propaganda machinery since, as we have seen, they do not constitute an ideology or doctrine themselves at the level at we may talk of fascism being a doctrine. Furthermore we have seen that fascism does not even form itself a concrete set of guidelines, but is better identified as a technique to achieve power and recognition, a technique based on inconsistency and transformism that eventually led the regime to come tumbling down to an end.
* Blinkhorn, M. (yet to receive the rest of information)
* Lee, S. (1996), The European Dictatorships 1918-1945, Routledge, Cambridge.
* Mack Smith, D. (1993), Mussolini, Phoenix, London
* Microsoft Bookshelf 1998 Edition, Microsoft Corporation.
* Mussolini, B. (1928), My Autobiography, Curtis Publishing Co., London
1 D. Mack Smith: Mussolini’s Roman Empire (London 1976); Preface.
2 M. Knox: Mussolini Unleashed 1939-1941 (Cambridge 1982).
3 Benito Mussolini: My Autobiography, (London. 1928) p.260-261
4 Stephen J. Lee: The European Dictatorships 1918-1945 (Cambridge 1996) p. 109
5 Ibid. p. 110
6 Ibid. p. 125
7 Benito Mussolini: Op. Cit p. 250
8 D. Mack Smith: Mussolini (London 1993) p. 125
9 Benito Mussolini, entry on “The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism” Enciclopedia Italiana: Microsoft Bookshelf 1998 edition
10 Stephen J. Lee Op. Cit p. 119
11 D. Mack Smith: Mussolini (London 1993) p. 197