Fascist Counter-Revolution: Italy (Part 1)

The unification of Italy was only completed in 1870, and the new state suffered from economic and political weaknesses. The First World War was a great strain on her economy, and there was bitter disappointment at her treatment by the Versailles settlement. Between 1919 and 1922 there were five different governments, all of which were incapable of taking the decisive action that the situation demanded. In 1919, Benito Mussolini founded the Italian fascist party, which won 35 seats in the 1921 elections. At the same time there seemed to be a real danger of a left-wing revolution; in an atmosphere of strikes and riots, the fascists staged a ‘march on Rome’, which culminated in King Victor Emmanuel inviting Mussolini to form a government (October 1922); he remained in power until July 1943.


(a) Disillusionment and frustration

In the summer of 1919 there was a general atmosphere of disillusionment and frustration in Italy, caused by a combination of factors:

1. Disappointment at Italy’s gains from the Versailles settlement

When Italy entered the war the Allies had promised her Trentino, the south Tyrol, Istria, Trieste, part of Dalmatia, Adalia, some Aegean islands and a protectorate over Albania. Although she was given the first four areas, the rest were awarded to other states, mainly Yugoslavia; Albania was to be independent. The Italians felt cheated in view of their valiant efforts during the war and the loss of close on 700 000 men. Particularly irritating was their failure to get Fiume (given to Yugoslavia), though in fact this was not one of the areas which had been promised to them. Gabriele d ‘Annunzio, a famous romantic poet, marched with a few hundred supporters and occupied Fiume before the Yugoslavs had time to take it. Some army units deserted and supported d’ Annunzio, providing him with arms and ammunition, and he began to have hopes of overthrowing the government. However, in June 1920, after d’ Annunzio had held out in Fiume for 15 months, the new prime minister, Giovanni Giolitti, decided that the government’s authority must be restored. He ordered the army to remove d’ Annunzio from Fiume – a risky move, since he was viewed as a national hero. The army obeyed orders and d’ Annunzio surrendered without a fight, but it left the government highly unpopular.

2. The economic effects of the war

The effects of the war on the economy and the standard of living were disastrous. The government had borrowed heavily, especially from the USA, and these debts now had to be repaid. As the lira declined in value (from 5 to the dollar in 1914 to 28 to the dollar in 1921) the cost of living increased accordingly by at least five times. There was massive unemployment as heavy industry cut back its wartime production levels, and 2.5 million ex-servicemen had difficulty finding jobs.

3. Growing contempt for the parliamentary system

Votes for all men and proportional representation were introduced for the 1919 elections. Although this gave a fairer representation than under the previous system, it meant that there was a large number of parties in parliament. After the election of May 1921, for example, there were at least nine parties represented, including liberals, nationalists, socialists, communists, the Catholic popular party and fascists. This made it difficult for any one party to gain an overall majority, and coalition governments were inevitable. No consistent policy was possible as five different cabinets with shaky majorities came and went. There was growing impatience with a system that seemed designed to prevent decisive government.

(b) There was a wave of strikes in 1919 and 1920

The industrialization of Italy in the years after unification led to the development of a strong socialist party and trade unions. Their way of protesting at the mess the country was in was to organize a wave of strikes in 1919 and 1920. These were accompanied by rioting, looting of shops and occupation of factories by workers. In Turin, factory councils reminiscent of the Russian soviets were appearing. In the south, socialist leagues of farmworkers seized land from wealthy landowners and set up co-operatives.

The government’s prestige sank even lower because of its failure to protect property; many property-owners were convinced that a left-wing revolution was at hand, especially when the Italian Communist Party was formed in January 1921. But in fact the chances of revolution were receding by then: the strikes and factory occupations were fizzling out, because although workers tried to maintain production, claiming control of the factories, it proved impossible (suppliers refused them raw materials and they needed engineers and managers). In fact the formation of the Communist Party made a revolution less likely because it split the forces of the left; nevertheless the fear of a revolution remained strong.

(c) Mussolini attracted widespread support

Mussolini and the fascist party were attractive to many sections of society because as he himself said, he aimed to rescue Italy from feeble government and give the country a political system that would provide stable and strong government.

Mussolini (born 1883), the son of a blacksmith in the Romagna, had a varied early career, working for a time as a stonemason’s mate and then as a primary-school teacher. Politically he began as a socialist and made a name for himself as a journalist, becoming editor of the socialist newspaper Avanti. He fell out with the socialists because they were against Italian intervention in the war, and started his own paper, Il Popolo d’Italia. In 1919 he founded the fascist party with a socialist and republican programme, and he showed sympathy with the factory occupations of 1919-20. The local party branches were known as fasci di combattimento (fighting groups) – the word fasces meant the bundle of rods with protruding axe which used to symbolize the authority and power of the ancient Roman consuls.

Fascist Symbol

At this stage the fascists were anti-monarchy, anti-Church and anti-big business. The new party won no seats in the 1919 elections; this, plus the failure of the factory occupations, caused Mussolini to change course. He came out as the defender of private enterprise and property, thus attracting much needed financial support from wealthy business interests. Beginning in late 1920, black-shirted squads of fascists regularly attacked and burned down local socialist headquarters and newspaper offices and beat up socialist councillors. By the end of 1921, even though his political programme was vague in the extreme, he had gained the support of property-owners in general, because they saw him as a guarantee of law and order and as a protector of their property (especially after the formation of the Communist Party in January 1921). Having won over big business, Mussolini began to make conciliatory speeches about the Roman Catholic Church; Pope Pius XI swung the Church into line behind Mussolini, seeing him as a good anti-communist weapon. When Mussolini announced that he had dropped the republican part of his programme (September 1922), even the king began to look more favourably on the fascists. In the space of three years Mussolini had swung from the extreme left to the extreme right. Some of the working class supported the fascists, though probably a majority, especially among industrial workers, supported parties of the left.

(d) Lack of effective opposition

The anti-fascist groups failed to co-operate with each other and made no determined efforts to keep the fascists out. The communists refused to co-operate with the socialists, and Giovanni Giolitti (prime minister from June 1920 to July 1921) held the elections of May 1921 in the hope that the fascists, still unrepresented in parliament, would win some seats and then support his government. He was willing to overlook their violence, feeling that they would become more responsible once they were in parliament. However, they won only 35 seats whereas the socialists took 123. Clearly there should have been no question of a fascist takeover, though the number of fascist squads throughout the country was increasing rapidly. The socialists must take much of the blame for refusing to work with the government to curb fascist violence; a coalition of Giolitti’s nationalist bloc and the socialists could have made a reasonably stable government, thus excluding the fascists. But the socialists would not co-operate, and this caused Giolitti to resign in exasperation and despair. The socialists tried to use the situation to their own advantage by calling a general strike in the summer of 1922.

(e) The attempted general strike, summer 1922

This played into the hands of the fascists, who were able to use it to their advantage: they announced that if the government failed to quell the strike, they would crush it themselves. When the strike failed through lack of support, Mussolini was able to pose as the saviour of the nation from communism, and by October 1922 the fascists felt confident enough to stage their ‘march on Rome‘. As about 50 000 blackshirts converged on the capital, while others occupied important towns in the north, the prime minister, Luigi Facta, was prepared to resist. But King Victor Emmanuel III refused to declare a state of emergency and instead, invited Mussolini, who had remained nervously in Milan, to come to Rome and form a new government, which he obligingly did, arriving by train. Afterwards the fascists fostered the myth that they had seized power in a heroic struggle, but it had been achieved legally by the mere threat of force, while the army and the police stood aside.

The role of the king was important: he made the crucial decision not to use the army to stop the blackshirts, though many historians believe that the regular army would have had little difficulty in dispersing the disorderly and poorly armed squads, many of which arrived by train. The march was an enormous bluff which came off. The reasons why the king decided against armed resistance remain something of a mystery, since he was apparently reluctant to discuss them. Suggestions include:

  • lack of confidence in Facta;
  • doubts about whether the army, with its fascist sympathies, could be relied on to obey orders;
  • fears of a long civil war if the army failed to crush the fascists quickly.

There is no doubt that the king had a certain amount of sympathy with the fascist aim of providing strong government, and he was also afraid that some of the generals might force him to abdicate in favour of his cousin, the duke of Aosta, who openly supported the fascists. Whatever the king’s motives, the outcome was clear: Mussolini became the first ever fascist premier in history.

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