Fascist Counter-Revolution: Italy (Part 3)


What really mattered to ordinary people was whether the regime’s policies were effective or not. Did Mussolini rescue Italy from weak government as he had promised, or was he, as some of his critics alleged at the time, just a windbag whose government was as corrupt and inefficient as previous ones?

(a) A promising beginning

Much of fascist policy was concerned with the economy, though Mussolini knew very little about economics. The big drive was for self-sufficiency (autarky), which was thought to be essential for a ‘warrior-nation’. A great nation must not be dependent on any other nations for vital commodities like raw materials and food supplies. He liked to see things in terms of struggle – hence the various ‘Battles’, for the lira, for wheat and for births. The early years seemed to be successful, or so the government propaganda told people.

  1. Industry was encouraged with government subsidies where necessary, so that iron and steel production doubled by 1930 and artificial silk production increased tenfold. By 1937, production of hydro-electric power had doubled.
  2. The ‘Battle for the Lira’. Mussolini believed that Italy must have a strong currency if it wanted to be a strong state. He revalued the lira at 90 to the pound sterling instead of 150 (1926). This had mixed results: it helped some industries, notably steel and chemicals, by making imported raw materials cheaper. But unfortunately it made Italian exports more expensive on the world market and led to reduced orders, especially in the cotton industry. Many factories were on a three-day week and workers suffered wage reductions of between 10 and 20 per cent – before the world economic crisis that started in 1929.
  3. The ‘Battle for Wheat’ encouraged farmers to concentrate on wheat production and raised tariffs (import duties) on imported wheat as part of the drive for self-sufficiency. Again this had mixed results: by 1935, wheat imports had been cut by 75 per cent, and Italy was close to achieving self-sufficiency in wheat production. This policy was popular with the wealthy cereal-growing farmers of the north; but time showed that there were some unexpected side effects (explained below).
  4. The ‘Battle for Births’, launched in 1927, was a campaign to increase the birth rate. Mussolini believed that a population of 40 million was too small for a country aiming to be a great power; they simply wouldn’t have enough soldiers. The target was to double the birth rate and raise the population to 60 million by 1950; this was to be achieved by taxing unmarried men heavily, giving tax relief and promotion at work for men with large families and paying generous family allowances. There were severe penalties for abortions. He specified 12 children as the ideal number for a family. This was one of Mussolini’s complete failures. Apparently young married couples did not find this package attractive enough, and the birth rate actually fell.
  5. A programme of land reclamation was launched in 1928, involving draining marshes, irrigation, and planting forests in mountainous areas, again as part of the drive to improve and increase agricultural yield. The great showpiece were the reclaimed Pontine Marshes near Rome.
  6. An impressive public works programme was designed, among other things to reduce unemployment. It included the building of motorways, bridges, blocks of flats, railway stations, sports stadiums, schools and new towns on reclaimed land; a start was made on electrifying main railway lines, and the great fascist boast was that Mussolini had made the trains run on time. Even sportsmen did well under fascism – the Italian soccer team won the World Cup twice – in 1934 and 1938!
  7. The ‘after-work’ (Dopolavoro) organization provided the Italian people with things to do in their leisure time. There were cheap holidays, tours and cruises, and Dopolavoro controlled theatres, dramatic societies, libraries, orchestras, brass bands and sporting organizations. Mobile cinemas were provided which were useful for putting out propaganda. Very poor families could get welfare support from Dopolavoro. All this was partly to appease the workers for the loss of their trade unions and the right to strike, and it was genuinely popular. However, most historians seem to agree that, as a propaganda exercise, it failed to arouse genuine enthusiasm for the fascist system.
  8. To promote the image of Italy as a great power, Mussolini pursued a virile foreign policy, although in the later 1920s and early 1930s he was much more cautious.

However, the promise of the early years of Mussolini’s rule was in many ways never fulfilled.

(b) Unsolved problems

Even before Italy became involved in the Second World War, it was clear that fascism had not solved many of her problems.

  1. Little had been done to remedy Italy’s basic shortage of raw materials – coal and oil – and much more effort could have been made to develop hydro-electric power. In spite of the modest increase in iron and steel production, Italy could not even match a small state like Belgium. By 1940 it was clear that Italy had failed to become self-sufficient in coal, oil and steel, which was essential if Mussolini was serious about waging war. This failure meant that Italy became increasingly dependent economically on Nazi Germany.
  2. Although the ‘Battle of Wheat’ was a victory, it was achieved only at the expense of dairy and arable farming, whose output fell; the climate in the south is suited much better to grazing and orchards than to growing wheat, and these would have been much more lucrative for the farmers. As a result, agriculture remained inefficient and farm labourers the poorest class in the country. Their wages fell by between 20 and 40 per cent during the 1930s. Italy still had what is known as a ‘dualist economy’ – the north was industrial and comparatively prosperous, while the south was largely agricultural, backward and poverty-stricken. In 1940 the wealthiest one per cent of the population still owned 40 per cent of all the land. The attempt at self-sufficiency had been a dismal failure. More than that, it had caused an unpopular shortage of consumer goods and had greatly increased Italy’s national debt.
  3. The Great Depression, which began in 1929 with the Wall Street Crash in the USA, made matters worse. Exports fell further and unemployment rose to 1.1 million, yet the Duce refused to devalue the lira until 1936. Instead, wages and salaries were cut, and although the cost of living was falling because of the Depression, wages fell more than prices, so that workers suffered a fall of over 10 per cent in real wages. Particularly frustrating for industrial workers was that they had no way of protesting, since strikes were illegal and the unions weak. The economy was also hampered by the sanctions placed on Italy by the League of Nations after the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Some banks were in difficulties because struggling manufactures were unable to repay their loans.
  4. Another failing of the government was in social services, where there was nothing approaching a ‘welfare state’. There was no official government health insurance until 1943, and only an inadequate unemployment insurance scheme, which was not improved even during the Depression.
  5. The regime was inefficient and corrupt, so that many of its policies were not carried out. For example, in spite of all the publicity about the land reclamation, only about one-tenth of the programme had been carried out by 1939 and work was at a standstill even before the war began. Immense sums of money disappeared into the pockets of corrupt officials. Part of the problem was that Mussolini tried increasingly to do everything himself; he refused to delegate because he wanted total control. But it was impossible for one man to do so much, and it placed an intolerable burden on him. According to his biographer Dennis Mack Smith, ‘by trying to control everything, he ended by controlling very little … although he gave out a constant stream of orders, he had no way of checking that they were carried out. As officials knew this, they often only pretended to obey, and took no action at all.’


The conclusion has to be that after the first flush of enthusiasm for Mussolini and his new system, the average Italian can have felt little lasting benefit from the regime, and disenchantment had probably set in long before the Second World War started. And yet there was not a great deal of overt opposition to him. This was partly because it was difficult to conduct an organized opposition in parliament, and there were heavy punishments for opponents and critics; fear of the political police tended to drive serious opposition underground, though they were much less repressive and brutal than Hitler’s Gestapo. Also the Italians had a tradition of accepting whatever happened politically with a minimum of fuss and lots of resignation. In spite of all the problems, Mussolini could usually rely on the support of the traditional elites – the king and aristocracy, and wealthy landlords and industrialists, because he was their best insurance against the communists. The government continued to control the media, which kept on telling people that Mussolini was a hero.

(a) Why was Mussolini eventually overthrown?

  • Entry into the Second World War on Germany’s side was a disastrous mistake. The majority of Italians were against it; they already disapproved when Mussolini began to sack Jews from important jobs (1938), and they felt that Italy was becoming a German satellite. The Italian takeover of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) was popular with the public, though they had made heavy weather of that. But the Second World War was a different matter altogether. Mussolini had failed to modernize the economy sufficiently to support a prolonged war; in fact, Italy was incapable of waging a major war; the army was equipped with obsolete rifles and artillery; there were only a thousand planes and no heavy tanks. The declaration of war on the USA (December 1941) horrified many of Mussolini’s right-wing supporters (such as industrialists and bankers), who resented the closer economic controls which wartime brought. As for the general public, Mussolini had failed to convert them to his aims of European war and conquest. All the propaganda about reviving the glories of ancient Rome had failed to arouse any fighting spirit or military enthusiasm.
  • The general public suffered hardships. Taxes were increased to pay for the war, there was food rationing, massive inflation and a 30 per cent fall in real wages. After November 1942 there were British bombing raids on major cities. By March 1943, unrest showed itself in strikes in Milan and Turin, the first since 1922.
  • The Italians suffered a string of defeats after a few early successes, culminating in the surrender of all Italian troops in North Africa (May 1943)
  • Mussolini seemed to have lost his touch. He was suffering from a stomach ulcer and nervous strain. All he could think of was to sack some of the ministers who had criticized him. Breaking point came with the Allied capture of Sicily (July 1943). Many of the fascist leaders themselves realized the lunacy of trying to continue the war, but Mussolini refused to make peace because that would have meant deserting Hitler. The Fascist Grand Council turned against Mussolini, and the king dismissed him. Nobody lifted a finger to save him, and fascism disappeared.

(b) Verdict on Italian fascism

This is still a very controversial topic in Italy, where memories of personal experiences are strong. Broadly speaking there are two interpretations of the fascist era.

  1. It was a temporary aberration (a departure from normal development) in Italian history, the work solely of Mussolini; historian A. Cassels calls it ‘a gigantic confidence trick perpetrated on the Italian nation by Benito Mussolini – an artificial creation of Mussolini’.
  2. Fascism grew naturally from Italian history; the environment and the circumstances shaped the rise and success of fascism, not the reverse.

Most historians now accept the second theory, that the roots of fascism lay in traditional Italian society and that the movement grew to fruition in the circumstances after the First World War. The Italian historian Renzo de Felice argued that fascism was primarily a movement of ‘an emerging middle class’, which was keen to challenge the traditional, liberal, ruling class for power. He claimed that the movement achieved a great deal – especially the modernizing of Italy’s economy, which was very backward in 1918. On the other hand, British historian Martin Blinkhorn does not accept this claim about the economy and argues that de Felice has not paid enough attention to ‘the negative and brutal side of Fascism’.

The most recent revisionist trend among Italian historians is to portray Mussolini once more as an inspirational leader who could do nothing wrong until he made the fatal mistake of entering the Second World War. There is a tendency to gloss over all the outrages of Italian fascism, with an element of nostalgia. A new biography by British writer Nicholas Farrell, published in 2003, takes the same line, arguing that Mussolini deserves to be remembered as a great man. He claims that not only did Mussolini save Italy from anarchy and communist subversion, but his domestic policies brought great benefits to the Italian people and improved their living standards. Other genuine successes were the ending of the historic quarrel between the Roman Catholic Church and the state and the popular Dopolavoro, which continued after the war under another name. Farrell also suggests that if Britain and France had handled Mussolini with more care in the years 1935 to 1940, he might well have been persuaded to join the allied side during the Second World War. After all, in 1934 when Hitler made his first attempt to take over Austria, Mussolini was the only European leader to stand up to Hitler. There is no knowing how much bloodshed might have been avoided if this had happened. Farrell even suggests that if Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, had not shown such anti-Italian prejudice, the Second World War might have been avoided.

This interpretation provoked mixed reviews. Some welcomed it as a long overdue revision of the dictator’s career, though the majority were critical, finding Farrell’s arguments unconvincing. Most were more likely to go along with the verdict of the great Italian historian Benedetto Croce, who dismissed fascism as ‘a short-term moral infection’.



There is sometimes confusion about the meaning of the terms ‘Nazism’ and ‘fascism’. Mussolini started the first fascist party, in Italy; Later the term was used, not entirely accurately, to describe other right-wing movements and governments. In fact, each brand of so-called ‘fascism’ had its own special features; in the case of the German Nazis, there were many similarities with Mussolini’s fascist system, but also some important differences.

(a) Similarities

  • Both were intensely anti-communist and, because of this, drew a solid basis of support from all classes.
  • They were anti-democratic and attempted to organize a totalitarian state, controlling industry, agriculture and the way of life of the people, so that personal freedom was limited.
  • They attempted to make the country self-sufficient.
  • They emphasized the close unity of all classes working together to achieve these ends.
  • Both emphasized the supremacy of the state, were intensely nationalistic, glorifying war, and the cult of the hero/leader who would guide the rebirth of the nation from its troubles.

(b) Differences

  • Fascism never seemed to take root in Italy as deeply as the Nazi system did in Germany.
  • The Italian system was not as efficient as that in Germany. The Italians never came anywhere near achieving self-sufficiency and never eliminated unemployment; in fact unemployment rose. The Nazis succeeded in eliminating unemployment, though they never achieved complete autarky.
  • The Italian system was not as ruthless or as brutal as that in Germany and there were no mass atrocities, though there were unpleasant incidents like the murders of Matteotti and Amendola.
  • Fascism was fuelled by nationalism but it did not reject other nationalities, of course, under condition that they accepted the culture and language of “the superior Italy nation”. Mussolini focused on territorial expansion rather than creation of ethnically “clean” Italian state. When Mussolini finally introduced the anti-Semitic laws and declared Italians the descendants of the “Aryan race” in 1938 (when Mussolini adopts the policy to enumerate Hitler), they were perceived as un-Italian and even un-Fascist.
  • Italian fascism was not particularly anti-Jewish or racist until 1938, when Mussolini adopted the policy to emulate Hitler.
  • Unlike Fascism that glorified the state as the highest ideal, Nazism considered ‘Aryanism’ as more important and viewed the state as living space of “the master race” which needs to incorporate the entire geopolitical area inhabited with ethnic Germans.
  • Mussolini was more successful than Hitler with his religious policy after his agreement with the pope in 1929.
  • Their constitutional positions were different: the monarchy still remained in Italy, and though Mussolini normally ignored Victor Emmanuel, the king played a vital role in 1943 when Mussolini’s critics turned to him as head of state. He was able to announce Mussolini’s dismissal and order his arrest. Unfortunately there was nobody in Germany who could dismiss Hitler.
  • Fascist supported corporatism but the Nazis rejected corporatism although they supported state intervention in the economy and cultural production. They viewed modernism as a sign of cultural degeneration and promoted “healthy” art that emphasized the ideas of the Nazi doctrine. The Fascists in Italy, on the other hand, did not restrict artistic expression and encouraged creativity rather than promoting the Fascist style.

  • Nazism considered class based society as enemy and stood for unifying the racial element. But fascism wanted to preserve the class system. The fascists almost accepted the concept of social mobility, while Nazism was against it.




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