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If a man was described as a dictator one would rightly think of a ruler who dictates to his country and does not rule democratically. Dictators tend to come to power by gaining the support of the masses but once in power exercise an absolute, and often arbitrary and illiberal rule. They are intolerant of any opposition, repressing them through the use of secret police, to ensure complete control. An all-powerful dictator would ensure that he was irreplaceable, in absolute and total control of the state. Mussolini had the semblance of a dictator. He advocated an aggressive foreign policy and was even consulted about when the police could wear summer uniforms! Indeed at first glance Mussolini was seemingly an all-powerful dictator. However, many believe that with closer inspection the concept of Mussolini being all-powerful establishes itself as something of a myth- The Mussolini Myth.
Mussolini can be seen as a powerful dictator as he maintained strong control over his party, rather than allowing it to dictate to him or share power with him. The Fascists expected that now Mussolini was in power they would take over the state. This however, was not the case. Mussolini did not give all the top government positions to Fascist’s but kept non- Fascist’s in his cabinet. Mussolini believed that the PNF were a liability and that they obstructed the way to gaining the support of the elites and industrialists as the PNF had been discredited for their violence. Industrialists wanted to invest in a stable country, not a country run a radicals. Mussolini wanted to create a bureaucracy, and saw that the squads were inappropriate so in 1925 the Fascist Grand council ordered the disbandment of the squads urging members to join the MSVN.
Although the Fascist Grand council was set up as a rival to the cabinet it merely had the appearance of power and did not make any major decisions, leaving them to Mussolini supreme. In 1925 Mussolini the Duce became permanent leader of the PNF and all party posts were appointed not elected. Mussolini ensured that the party was subject to the state rather than the state to the party. 1926 saw locally elected mayors replaced by Podestas. These were more powerful than the Ras, and worked directly for Mussolini as opposed to the party.
In 1927 a circular was sent to prefects stating that the party was an ‘instrument of the states will’ and must collaborate in a subordinate fashion’ with the prefect. The party seemed to become less and less important whilst Mussolini became more powerful. Mussolini used members of the party to centralise it such as Farinacci, and dismissed him once he had done this to prevent him becoming too powerful. This can be seen as something typical from a dictator. Clearly Mussolini was not a weak leader but a strong dictator who ensured his position by taking control over the party which helped him into power and by weakening it so that he could rule supreme.
Although Mussolini appeared to be in control over the party, there were times where the PNF appeared to control over Mussolini, thus making him not all-powerful. The party was evidently important, through its role in allowing Mussolini into power through the violence and intimidation of the squadristi. Furthermore the pressure from the Ras on Mussolini to march on Milan, aided him into power in 1924. Party membership continued to increase indicating that people were interested in it; this would not be the case if it were an irrelevance. Although Mussolini did not fill his cabinet with Fascist’s many of the top jobs were taken by Fascist’s. It is debatable however as to whether these Fascist supporters truly believed in the Fascist ideology or simply wanted to join because they knew they would have better career prospects.
The fact that Mussolini needed someone like Farinacci to centralise the party meant that he was not all- powerful. Such a dictator would have been able to do so himself. His dismissal of Farinacci also shows Mussolini’s power as being limited, as one would expect a dictator to have someone so outspoken and powerful assassinated to protect his position. Mussolini held several ministerial positions and gave others to sycophants whom he knew posed no threat to him. Again a true dictator would not need to hold so many positions as he would be able to trust and command his men. Mussolini also failed to ensure that the party was weak enough so that it could not overthrow him. Although the Fascist Grand Council appeared to be less important and significantly weak it still managed to sack him as leader of the party in 1943. Therefore although Mussolini had control over many aspects of the party he was not an all-powerful dictator as he ultimately allowed the party to take his power away from him.
Mussolini can be seen to be powerful because he controlled the elites. The King kept Mussolini as Prime Minister after the Matteotti and was reluctant to dismiss him. This however can be seen from the perspective that the King simply had no other choice but to keep Mussolini. He disliked liberal politicians and wanted an authoritarian government. Mussolini disliked the king and the fact that he had to share power with him. He continued to meet the king twice a week.
This is a clear example of Mussolini’s weakness. An all powerful dictator would not need to confer or seek anyone else’s approval. Mussolini however, left the king in place in a position which eventually proved disastrous for him. Although the king rarely voiced any disapproval regarding Mussolini’s policies, his presence was evident. Mussolini left the army under the control of the king making it possible for them to replace him. However, the elite gave their tacit support and did not move against him until later on. Therefore Mussolini was not a powerful dictator as he depended on the elites and left potentially powerful rivals in place.
Many may see Mussolini as a dictator because of the use of terror and the creation of an informer state. Mussolini carried out a policy of censorship often seen as a characteristic of a dictator. Any anti Fascist propaganda became illegal. Journalists had to be registered with the government and critics were removed. The informer system meant that people were put on trial and sentenced for an average of five years. Although it may seem that this was repressive Mussolini’s prisoners were not to the same extent as other dictators’ such as Hitler’s. Although Mussolini had secret police the OVRA again it was not as brutal as in other regimes.
People were detained or harassed rather than assassinated, except on occasions such as the Roselli brothers. Therefore the limited extent of terror implies an authoritarian regime rather than a strong dictatorship. However, this could also be interpreted another way. Perhaps Mussolini had no desire to be oppressive but merely elevate the position of the Italian people, or perhaps it was simply because Mussolini was indeed weak and knew that he could not get away with repression to that extent particularly with the elites still in place.
There is some implication that the regime was poplar rather dictatorial. People were informing and joining Fascist organisations such as the OND and the PNF. Mussolini set up mass leisure organisations to get the people active. Many joined and participated. One explanation for this is that people were satisfied and impressed by the social and economic successes brought about by Mussolini. Although it may seem that people were happy with the regime and felt apart of it agreeing with its ideology, it could be that people wanted to take advantage of free entertainment.
Therefore perhaps Mussolini was not a dictator but a leader who had won the conditional support of the people.
Mussolini was clearly not an all-powerful dictator. He failed to secure his position fully by allowing people who had the power to overthrow him to remain in their places- the king, the army and the church. Furthermore, he was not fully in control of the party, although he held a substantial amount. Mussolini then, was not a dictator but nor was he a democratic leader. He had the semblance of an all powerful dictator but managed only to be an authoritarian leader.