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In 1922, following several years of hard work by the Fascists, Benito Mussolini was sworn in as Italy’s Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Interior Minister by King Victor Emmanuel. However this event did not simply just happen, as many different factors built up to Mussolini’s appointment. It is certainly arguable that the failure of the Socialist movement was responsible for bringing Mussolini to power, but it is undoubtedly not the only factor that led to this fateful appointment. However, a large majority of these other factors can be linked back to Socialist failures, and so therefore I believe that the failure of Socialism is the most important reason for Mussolini coming to power in 1922.
Despite having a growing amount of support in the post-War period, the Socialists had a number of clear underlying weaknesses that Mussolini would be able to exploit, and which therefore were extremely beneficial to him gaining power. The party lacked real order and a strong leader, attributes that Mussolini intended to instil into his party and to exploit to gain support. Historians argue that the Fascists were able to drastically over exaggerate the threat of Socialism to those even remotely opposed to the Socialists, and evidence appears to back this theory up. A prime example of this is the events surrounding the proposed General Strike of August 1922.
The Socialist’s plans to take action drastically backfired, when through a lack of support and a small resistance from the Fascists, their efforts failed after a day. The Fascists however dramatically played up both the danger that the Socialists were stirring up, and also how the Fascists had been the ones that had broken it up and saved the country from turmoil. By continually emphasising the supposedly vital role that they were playing, Mussolini and the Fascists were able to make themselves a permanent feature of Italian politics, where they would then be able to prove how vital they were to stability within Italy. Finally, it has been argued by many historians that the Socialists certainly had the capability to become a mighty force, yet its leaders believed that this was inevitable and therefore did not do what was necessary to make it a reality.
I believe that Tom Behan bests describes this, when he comments that “the leadership believed that all they had to do to win this revolution was wait for it to drop into their laps”. In contrast, Mussolini and the Fascists took advantage of every opportunity presented to them and fought hard to gain the power that they did, and this is indeed another crucial aspect to why the Fascists were able to succeed whilst the Socialists capitulated. It is clear that Mussolini was able to use the Socialist’s failings and declining support to boost his own party’s image, with these methods having a major effect on Mussolini’s rise to power.
As well as the direct failures of the Socialist party, there are also a number of other issues that have close ties with the Socialist movement and were therefore exploited by Mussolini and the Fascists to gain power. The conclusion of World War One brought with it a new Socialist following, and this resulted in the Socialist party asserting itself as a major contender for power within Italy for years to come. This increasingly large following was buoyed by the recent Communist revolution in Russia, and rumours that a similar uprising was on the horizon spread throughout Italy. However, along with the growing support for the Socialists came a large and growing opposition to their party, with many people fearful that an uprising similar to that found in Russia would have an extremely detrimental affect on their personal wealth. There was a clear divide within Italy between those who supported Socialism and those who were against it; you were either for or against, with little in between.
Included within this opposition was the growing number of people with strong Nationalist beliefs, whose desires for a strong Italy were ignited by the “mutilated victory” that they believed had be gained from the War. The Nationalist’s hatred of the Socialists and yearning for a powerful Italy gave Mussolini a window of opportunity that he was able to whole-heartedly exploit. After being previously excluded from the Socialist party and after seeing this opportunity, Mussolini set up his own party, the Fascists, not necessarily because of his beliefs, but to fuel his desire for power and to be back involved within politics. With this lack of a strong political ideology, Mussolini was able to create a party that incorporated ideas from both the Left and the Right, creating what he believed to be a combination that would generate support from the angry Nationalists yet not turn those with Socialists views completely against them.
The use of violence by the Fascists against the Socialists was another extremely effective policy used by Mussolini, which was used to amplify the strength of the Fascist party and in doing so helped to gain support and ultimately bring Mussolini to power. It has already been established that those who were not supporters of Socialism were opposed to it, and this gave Mussolini a very large amount of people that he could attempt to bring around to his way of thinking. By forcefully opposing the Socialists, he was potentially appealing to around 60% of the population, and Mussolini believed that he would be able to turn a large proportion of these people towards Fascism. He felt that the fear and respect that the violence brought, accompanied with people’s desire for a strong leader, could lead to him gaining power, and it certainly proved to be a factor. Following the events of Fiume, which will be discussed later, Mussolini was fairly confident in the knowledge that violence towards his opposition would gain respect and support from the masses.
D’Annunzio had confirmed this, and with a similar ideology, Mussolini believed that he could gain success on an even larger scale. Finally, this violence was also able to exploit the weaknesses in the Liberal government and remove them as a serious contender for long term power within Italy. The Liberal government had proved in Fiume that they were weak and could not stand up to violence, and this again proved to be the case. They could not stand up to Mussolini’s overly-exaggerated strength, and this turned many influential figures, such as King and his family, away from the party as they too looked for strong and decisive leaders who would be able to further Italy’s status. With so much support being taken away from the other contending parties through the use of violence, it enabled the Fascists to take full advantage, and so is therefore an extremely important reason why Mussolini was able to come to power.
Another important aspect of Mussolini’s rise to power is the effects of the 1919 and 1921 elections. After only gaining 5,000 votes in the 1921 elections, which was approximately one vote for every thirty-four gained by the Socialists, Mussolini and the Fascist party realised that they would need to change their ideology if they were to gain power at any stage in the near future. Therefore, Mussolini decided that it would be necessary to change his party’s policies to turn them away from the perception that they were still a Left Wing party. The Fascists believed that instead of fighting the PSI for the Left Wing votes, they would be better off moving toward more Right Wing polices to take advantage of the large amount of people who were opposed to Socialism. By taking advantage of this hostility, and by using many of the other actions that have and will be discussed, he believed that he would be able to gain power within Italy, and this certainly proved to be the case.
This is also an extremely important point when analysing how strongly Mussolini felt about his party’s ideologies. It is widely argued that he was purely interested in gaining power by using whatever means he had available to him, and the ease at which he shifted his ideology appears to back up this theory. Following the 1919 elections, the elections of 1921 also played a vital role in Mussolini’s rise to power. For the first time, Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti placed the Fascist party on his electoral role. Giolitti enjoyed the support of the Fascists, and tolerated the violence used against their opposition and to gain control of local governments.
His belief that the Fascists would prove to be a more moderate and responsible party upon taking power is an excellent example of how Mussolini was able to manipulate important people to achieve his ambitions throughout his rise to power. Within the election itself, the Socialists (approximately 30%) and the Catholic party gained the most votes, but with such conflicting ideas they in effect cancelled each other out. This meant that a coalition Liberal government became the dominant party, which played right into Mussolini’s hands. With such an easily exploitable party in control, the Fascists would be able to prove how important they were to Italy’s stability by proving how weak and ineffective their opposition were. Again, this is another important factor as to how Mussolini was able to come to power in 1922, and as we have seen, has a large deal to do with the Socialist’s inadequacies and failures.
On the contrary, there are also a number of aspects that are very important in understanding how Mussolini and the Fascist party were able to come to power in such a short period of time but that are not related to the Socialist party’s failures. The first of these are the events that occurred in Fiume through the actions of Gabrielle D’Annunzio. Angry at the so-called “mutilated victory”, many Nationalist’s believed that action had to be taken so that Italy could prove itself as a great nation, and to do this some believed it was necessary to forcibly take control of areas that the people believed to be rightfully theirs. This led to Gabrielle D’Annunzio, the writer and war-hero, to take matters into his own hands. With 2,000 other Nationalists, D’Annunzio marched on Fiume and took control from the inter-Allied occupying forces.
These events were extremely important in aiding Mussolini’s rise to power, as he was able to see the weaknesses that he could exploit within Italy, and used a large amount of D’Annunzio’s ideas for how to make his party appear more powerful. Features such as the wearing of military uniforms and black shirts, using the Roman salute, giving grand speeches to his followers at rallies (which included the use of rhetoric), using castor oil to humiliate opponents, and his method of government were all copied from D’Annunzio, as Mussolini could see how successful they had been when previously used.
Also, the events illustrated how force could be used to gain and retain power, and therefore the weaknesses of the current government. It became clear to Mussolini that if he used violence to achieve his aims, it was highly likely that the government would be incapable of stopping him, especially if he played up his party’s strength to make them appear unstoppable. This proved to be greatly important for Mussolini in 1922 as the time of his appointment approached, as if the King and government had stood up to him he would have been defeated, but he had played up his strength so much that nobody was willing to challenge them.
The next reason that led to Mussolini’s appointment, that did not regard Socialism, was the fact that there was a genuine liking for Mussolini’s own individual qualities and the Fascist ideology as a whole. As we have already seen, Mussolini acquired many of the ideas that D’Annunzio employed and used his own qualities to make them effective tools for the Fascist party. Mussolini was able to give grand speeches to his supporters, which showed others that he had confidence in what he was doing and this was enough to turn some people to the Fascist way of thinking.
The fear that had been generated in recent years following events like the Biennio Rosso diminished in Mussolini’s presence, this being comforting for many people following years of turmoil. Many people purely craved a decisive and powerful leader, not necessarily sticking with their traditional parties, but following anybody that they believed would get something done and improve the state of their country. Mussolini offered this, and this is therefore one of the many possible solutions for why he was able to gain power in such a short time period.
It has already been made clear that the prolonged weakness shown by the Liberal government greatly helped Mussolini’s rise to power, and this can be examined further. With Mussolini already gaining the support of those opposed to Socialism, he was also able to not only turn people away from the Liberal government, but to use them to make his own party appear more powerful and more effective. The Liberals were failing with both internal and foreign issues, and so any successes made by the Fascists were amplified by these demonstrations of weaknesses by the Liberals, therefore gaining support for the Fascists and aiding Mussolini in his quest to gain power. Next, the Liberal government were not able to deal with the violence used by the Fascists towards the Socialists, and this made it appear both acceptable and a necessary step to gaining a secure Italy.
The events of July 1921, when only a dozen officers were able to defeat nearly five hundred Fascists through force, shows that the thuggish actions of the Fascists could have been comfortably dealt with, yet the Liberals and the Monarchy still did not conclusively act. With Giolitti also adding the Fascist party to his electoral role and therefore assuring their position as a genuine political force to be reckoned with, people no longer saw the Fascists as a radical party attempting to cause chaos, but as a party who really knew how to get things done. In comparison to the Liberals, Mussolini and the Fascist party appeared to be a lot more competent and effective alternative, and only boosted Mussolini on his route towards power.
Finally, it is impossible to ignore the role that the King throughout Mussolini’s rise played, King Victor Emmanuel III. Described as a man who was “cowardly, pessimistic and lacking in confidence”, it was clear that it would not take much for Mussolini to gain power when the opportunity arose, and it is widely argued that if a stronger man had been King then Mussolini would have never achieved his position of power. With the threat of the March on Rome rising, he made his decision regarding the Prime Minister’s call for Martial Law before quickly changing it, this proving the last straw and emphasising the King’s weakness and incompetence. If he had stood by his original decision and taken forceful action against Mussolini and his proposed March on Rome, then it is highly probable that Mussolini and his party would have been crushed there and then.
Historians argue that Mussolini was sure that if the King and government had used force against him his plans would have failed, backed up by the evidence that he had an escape plan to Switzerland prepared. However, the weak King did no such thing and the hype that Mussolini had created about the strength of his party and men was just too much for him to handle. Even with the debate that Mussolini was not entirely in control of the Fascists and was therefore pressurised into the sudden push for power, the facade that had been created was large enough to see the Fascists through, and so can therefore be regarded as insignificant. The King’s actions were just the final deeds that enabled Mussolini to come to power, yet even at such a late stage it is clear that, with just a small bit of courage, Mussolini could have been stopped, and so therefore the King’s role can be deemed a vital aspect of Mussolini coming to power.
On balance, although not the only reason that culminated in Mussolini’s rise to power, it is clear that the failure of Socialism was the most important factor that led to his appointment. As well as the direct failures of the Socialists that Mussolini was able to use to his advantage, many other important issues can be linked closely to the weaknesses of the Socialists which were therefore exploited my Mussolini. Historians such as Behan also acknowledge how the capacity was there for the Socialists to succeed, but unlike the Fascists were unable to capitalise on this. This accumulates to give the impression that although the other ideas are very important, Socialism and it’s links with other problems was the most important of all of these, and it is can unquestionably be argued that if there had been no Socialist party present between 1919 and 1922, then Mussolini may never have got to his position of power.