Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini listen?i († April 28, 1945 in Giulino di Mezzegra, province of Como) was an Italian politician. He was Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy from 1922 to 1943. As Duce del Fascismo (“Leader of Fascism”) and Capo del Governo (“Head of the Government”), he headed the Fascist regime in Italy as dictator from 1925.
After beginnings in the socialist press, Mussolini rose to become editor-in-chief of Avanti! in 1912, the central organ of the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI). When he openly advocated nationalist positions there, he was dismissed in the fall of 1914 and expelled from the PSI. With the financial support of the Italian government, some industrialists and foreign diplomats, Mussolini soon founded the newspaper Il Popolo d”Italia. In 1919, he was among the founders of the radical nationalist and anti-socialist fascist movement, as whose “leader” (Duce) he established himself until 1921.
In October 1922, King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini to head a center-right coalition cabinet after the March on Rome. The Fascist party had become a right-wing rallying movement by merging with the national conservative Associazione Nazionalista Italiana. With an electoral reform, Mussolini secured it a majority of parliamentary seats in 192324. Narrowly escaping overthrow in the Matteotti crisis of 1924, he laid the foundations of the fascist dictatorship with the elimination of parliament, the banning of the anti-fascist press and all parties except the PNF, the replacement of unions by corporations, the establishment of a political police force, and the appointment rather than election of mayors. As head of government and often holding several ministerial posts at once, Mussolini issued decrees with the force of law and was formally responsible only to the monarch.
Mussolini”s foreign policy aimed at supremacy in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, which created an early opposition to France. Until the mid-1930s, he sought understanding with Great Britain. In 1929, Mussolini ended the nation-state”s conflict with the papacy with the Lateran Treaties. He initially opposed the German gain of influence in Central and Southeastern Europe. After the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, which was not approved by the Western powers and was met with economic sanctions, Mussolini drew closer to Germany by 1937 and concluded a military alliance in May 1939. On June 10, 1940, assuming that the war would last a few months, he entered World War II on the German side. However, Italian attacks on British positions in the eastern Mediterranean and East Africa failed, as did the attack on Greece in the same year, largely depriving Italy of the ability to wage war on its own (“parallel war”).
Beginning in the fall of 1942, the regime”s political, social, and military crisis rapidly came to a head, undermining Mussolini”s personal dictatorship. In July 1943, he was overthrown by opposition fascists and monarchists who wanted to break the alliance with Germany and forestall a mass anti-fascist movement. Freed from prison, he headed the Italian Social Republic (RSI), the fascist puppet state of the German occupying power, until 1945. In the last days of the war, Mussolini was arrested and executed by communist partisans.
Childhood, youth and political beginnings
Benito Mussolini was the first-born child of Alessandro (1854-1910) and Rosa Mussolini (née Maltoni, 1858-1905). The family lived in the schoolhouse of Dovia, a village suburb of Predappio. Mussolini”s mother, the daughter of a small landowner, had been a primary school teacher here since 1877. She had married the craftsman Alessandro Mussolini in January 1882, against her parents” opposition. He earned his living for a few years as a blacksmith, had little formal schooling, and became an alcoholic in the course of his unsuccessful job search. Unlike his Catholic wife, who was also politically conservative, Alessandro Mussolini was an active socialist and enjoyed a certain prominence as a member of the city council and deputy mayor. As the only “intellectuals” in the town, the family possessed considerable influence, even though they were hardly more wealthy than the peasants and farm workers in their immediate vicinity. Alessandro Mussolini had read works by Karl Marx and in his political thought revered Italian nationalists such as Mazzini and Garibaldi, with the inclusion of social reformers and anarchists such as Carlo Cafiero and Bakunin. He chose his eldest son”s first names with Benito Juárez, Amilcare Cipriani and Andrea Costa in mind. Alessandro Mussolini retired from politics even before the death of his wife, leased some land and ran an inn in Forlì in the last years of his life.
Benito Mussolini left Dovia at the age of nine and, probably arranged by his mother, transferred to a Salesian boarding school in Faenza, which was attended mainly by boys from families of the urban bourgeoisie of Romagna. Here Mussolini, who was not accepted as an equal in this environment, was repeatedly involved in fisticuffs with fellow students. After drawing a knife in one argument, he was expelled from school after two years. At the state school in Forlimpopoli, which he attended from then on, he developed into a “model student”. He finished it in 1901 with a diploma that authorized him to teach in elementary schools. In 1900 he had joined the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI), where he became friends with the later anti-fascist Olindo Vernocchi.
After the attempt to obtain the position of municipal secretary of Predappio with the help of his father failed, Mussolini took up a teaching position in Gualtieri in February 1902. However, his contract was terminated as early as June. It is unclear whether this was due to disputes with the local clergy, a lax attitude on Mussolini”s part, or a (vouched-for) affair with a married woman.
A few weeks later, Mussolini – like about 50,000 other Italians in 1902 – emigrated to Switzerland. He worked here occasionally (for a few weeks in total) as a construction worker and store assistant, but because of his parents” remittances he was not dependent on regular wage labor like other migrants, who were often completely destitute. Since he did not comply with his call-up for military service the following year, an Italian military court convicted him of desertion. In Switzerland, he joined the PSI”s foreign organization and after a short time was already writing regularly for the party”s local paper, L”Avvenire del Lavoratore. Appearances before gatherings of Italian migrant workers demonstrated his talent as a political speaker and drew the attention not only of the Swiss but also of the French police to the “anarchist” agitator, who was arrested as well as expelled several times. Mussolini soon found access to the circle around Giacinto Menotti Serrati and Angelica Balabanoff, both of whom promoted him. From Balabanoff, Mussolini adopted essential elements of his early political worldview. Like her, he understood Marxism to mean above all “revolutionary” activism. His frequent invocation of Marx from then on served primarily to distinguish himself within the party from the reform socialism of Filippo Turati. Mussolini”s actual engagement with Marxist thought remained superficial and eclectic here and later.
In Switzerland, Mussolini also read syndicalist writings, especially those of Georges Sorel. In addition, he read Henri Bergson, Gustave Le Bon, Max Stirner, and Friedrich Nietzsche. In 1904 he studied for a semester at the University of Lausanne with the famous sociologist Vilfredo Pareto and his assistant Pasquale Boninsegni. In his journalistic contributions, Mussolini abruptly placed the argumentations and concepts of these authors next to Marxist categories, without recognizing their theoretical incompatibility. Despite a storm of indignation in Switzerland over the undemocratic tyrant, the University of Lausanne awarded Mussolini an honorary doctorate on the occasion of its 400th anniversary in 1937 at the instigation of and on the basis of Boninsegni”s unauthorized pronouncements.
Politically, between 1904 and 1914, Mussolini essentially represented the standpoint of revolutionary syndicalism, although without personally belonging to syndicalist organizations. Early on, his writings showed a “tendency to interpret social processes through biological conceptions (species, elimination of the weak, selection, plant man), which prepares the gradual abandonment of the Marxist unambiguously defined concept of class in favor of ”mass.”” In addition, there was a cult of the irrational, at least unusual for a socialist author, trained on Sorel:
Towards the end of 1904, Mussolini returned to Italy. His mother died shortly thereafter. He had already been called up for military service, which he served in a Bersaglieri regiment until September 1906. He then worked again as a teacher, first in Tolmezzo and then at a Catholic school in Oneglia. In November 1907 he passed an exam at the University of Bologna, qualifying as a French teacher. In Oneglia, Mussolini began writing again for the socialist press. His dismissal in July 1908 marked his final failure as a teacher; he then moved back in with his father in Forlì.
After intercession by Serrati and Balabanoff, Mussolini was given the post of secretary of the Socialist Party in Trento, Austria, in January 1909. He also took over the editorship of the local party newspaper. In Trento he met the irredentist Cesare Battisti and was soon writing regularly for his newspaper Il Popolo. In early August 1909, he became editor-in-chief of that newspaper. He also corresponded with Giuseppe Prezzolini, the editor of La Voce magazine, from whom he apparently hoped for protection. Mussolini began to develop a positive concept of the “nation” in Trento, which was decidedly unusual in the Italian socialist movement at the time and, like his association with Prezzolini, indicates that his personal ambitions already went beyond the framework of the socialist party at this time.
The motive of personal ambition of the young Mussolini in particular is often emphasized in the literature. It is now considered indisputable that Mussolini was driven at least as much by the need to rise “somehow and somewhere” as by political conviction. Angelo Tasca, who knew him personally, has expressed the view that “the ultimate goal” for Mussolini “has always been Mussolini himself ; he has never known any other.” Before his actual rise in the Socialist Party began in 1910, Mussolini gave himself over to the hope of one day being recognized as an “intellectual” in Paris. He still attached importance to the prestigious title professore, made possible by the 1907 exam, even when he was already at the forefront of the fascist movement. The historian Paul O”Brien sees in the young Mussolini an “ambitious petty-bourgeois intellectual with a resolutely individualistic sense of personal prestige” who had already been under the influence of Italy”s cultural avant-garde, which was as anti-liberal as it was anti-socialist, since 1909.
At the end of August 1909, in the run-up to a visit by Emperor Franz Joseph I, Mussolini was arrested by the Austrian police on a pretext and on September 13 he was taken under military protection to Rovereto
Editor-in-chief of the Avanti!
The expulsion from Austria made Mussolini”s name a subject of political debate in Rome for the first time, as the Socialist members of the Chamber of Deputies took up the matter several times until the spring of 1910. Back in Forlì, Mussolini briefly considered emigrating to the United States, but rejected those plans. An application to the liberal-conservative Bolognese newspaper Il Resto del Carlino, the most influential paper in his home region, was unsuccessful.
In Forlì, Mussolini began a relationship with 19-year-old Rachele Guidi, daughter of his father”s partner. In January 1910 he took over the leadership of the local section of the PSI and the editorship of the local party newspaper La lotta di classe. As an editor and speaker, Mussolini made a name for himself in Romagna within a few months. In the wing battles within the Socialist Party, Mussolini “constructed” himself as a revolutionary “extremist” with radical polemics. At this point, the reformist leading group of the PSI, which had largely controlled the party since 1900 and had expelled the leading syndicalists in 1908, found itself increasingly under attack. The left wing led by Costantino Lazzari and Serrati, which Mussolini also joined, was gaining influence. However, Mussolini did not sever the ties with Prezzolini that had been established in Trento during this phase.
When the Giolitti government declared war on Turkey in September 1911, Mussolini called for a general strike in Forlì. As in other Italian cities, there were riots and attempts to block troop transports; Mussolini was arrested on October 14, 1911, along with several other socialists from the region (including Pietro Nenni), and in November was sentenced to a year in prison by a court in Forlì. When he was released early in March 1912, his name was known far beyond Romagna. At the 13th Party Congress of the PSI, which began in Reggio Emilia on July 7, 1912, Mussolini, together with the spokesmen of the left wing, advocated the expulsion of the “right-wing” reformists around Leonida Bissolati and Ivanoe Bonomi, who had supported the war against Turkey in 1911 and discredited themselves by “going to court” the king in March 1912. However, he spared Turati”s “leftist” reformists, who remained in the party. In Reggio Emilia, Costantino Lazzari took over the party presidency; Mussolini was elected to the party directorate, as was Angelica Balabanoff.
On December 1, 1912, Mussolini replaced the reformist Claudio Treves as editor-in-chief of Avanti! The editorial office of the central organ of the Socialist Party had moved its headquarters from Rome to Milan in 1911, where Mussolini now also moved. Under Mussolini”s leadership, syndicalists took over a large part of the editorial positions of Avanti! Mussolini proved to be an extremely capable journalist (he managed to multiply the paper”s circulation within a few months, increasing it to over 100,000 copies by 1914. This was a remarkable achievement, since the PSI – unlike the SPD, for example – had not developed into a mass party despite its electoral successes before World War I (in 1914, the party had about 500 members in Rome and only 1,300 even in its stronghold of Milan) and many workers and peasants were illiterate. his indiscriminate use of terms by non- or openly anti-socialist authors (“I have not yet found any direct incompatibility between Bergson and socialism.”) nevertheless, like his defense of Nietzsche, soon provoked criticism. In a letter to Prezzolini, Mussolini had already emphasized immediately after the Reggio Emilia party congress that he felt “a bit of a stranger” among the revolutionaries. His socialism was and remained an “uncertain plant.” Structurally, Mussolini”s worldview, which had been solidifying since 1909, was related to figures of thought of the “European and Italian cultural and intellectual reaction against reason”; it differed from that of other representatives of the PSI left on fundamental issues.
In 1913, Mussolini began publishing a magazine he personally edited (Utopia), which targeted an intellectual audience and was decidedly non-partisan. In the same year he ran for the first time in a parliamentary election, but was clearly defeated by the Republican candidate in Forlì.
The Ancona Party Congress in April 1914 confirmed the dominance of the left wing in the party. Mussolini, like the rest of the party leadership, was surprised by the so-called “red week” (Settimana rossa), a wave of strikes and barricade fighting in June 1914, but in Avanti! he threw his weight behind the workers with his usual radical editorials.
When World War I began in August 1914, Mussolini advocated Italy”s unconditional neutrality, in line with the party line. His articles, nevertheless, struck a decidedly “anti-German” tone from the outset; Germany, Mussolini wrote, had been the “bandit skulking along the road of European civilization since 1870.” This partisanship was not much different from the spontaneous sympathy of many leftist Italian intellectuals for the French Republic, which was accentuated by the distrust of “the Germans” (here meaning the Austrians) handed down in the Risorgimento. Nevertheless, Mussolini explicitly rejected Italian intervention in favor of France in the first weeks of the war. The turning point was announced when he printed an interventionist article by Sergio Panunzio in Avanti! on September 13, 1914. To Amadeo Bordiga, Mussolini declared that he regarded partisanship for neutrality as “reformist.” This was the first time he formulated the position, repeatedly reiterated in the following months, that “revolution” and intervention were indissolubly linked. The extent to which Mussolini actually believed in this line of argument is disputed. While Renzo De Felice, for example, argues that Mussolini remained a genuine “revolutionary” in his self-image until 1920, Richard Bosworth emphasizes the political “double game” that Mussolini had begun in October 1914 at the latest.
Behind the scenes, Mussolini had already assured several employees of bourgeois newspapers in September 1914 that the Socialists – if it were up to him – would not hinder an Italian mobilization and would support a war against Austria-Hungary. Hints of this appeared in Il Giornale d”Italia on October 4 and Il Resto del Carlino on October 7. The hesitant Mussolini was thus forced to declare himself publicly.
On October 18, 1914, he published the article “From Absolute to Active and Active Neutrality,” in which he called on the Socialist Party to revise its “negative” attitude toward the war and to recognize that “national problems exist even for Socialists.”
Already on October 19, the PSI executive committee met in Bologna because of this article. It expelled Mussolini, who tried to justify himself in a discussion lasting several hours, from the party directorate. This was tantamount to his removal from the editorial board of the party newspaper. Mussolini himself had made his remaining with Avanti! conditional on the party leadership”s approval of his positions. However, his draft resolution submitted to the party executive received only one vote in the vote (to save face, he “resigned” from Avanti! immediately afterwards. Major Milanese newspapers such as Corriere della Sera and Il Secolo, however, immediately offered Mussolini a platform. Mussolini had obviously not expected the swift and harsh reaction of the party leadership, which he perceived not least as a personal slight. In the internal discussions that preceded his expulsion from the party, he is said to have appeared ashen-faced and trembling, announcing that he would “get even” with you.
On November 15, 1914, Mussolini re-emerged with a new daily newspaper, Il Popolo d”Italia, initially declared to be socialist. The paper intervened on the side of the Entente-friendly “interventionists” in the debate over Italy”s attitude toward the war. The bellicose interventionists spoke for a minority of Italian society; they found support and an audience mainly among the liberal bourgeoisie and radical nationalists, while the mass of industrial and agricultural workers were openly opposed to Italy”s participation in the war from the outset. The influential Catholic clergy also turned against the war, as they were not interested in weakening the “Catholic superpower,” Austria-Hungary. The fundamental conflict between “interventionists” and “neutralists,” fought to the brink of civil war in the spring of 1915, ushered in the crisis of the liberal state, whose government pushed through the entry into the war against the will of the majority of the population and parliament, skillfully using the small but vocal interventionist minority under whose “pressure” it pretended to act. Domestically, Italy”s entry into the war bore features of a coup d”état – “the ”shining days” of May 1915 appear in more ways than one as a dress rehearsal for the march on Rome.”
In these months, so-called fasci appeared for the first time, whose members organized street demonstrations and sometimes acted violently against opponents of the war – especially against institutions and organizations of the labor movement. Already during the “Red Week” in June 1914, right-wing vigilante groups had taken up arms against workers. The members of these groups were on average “young, from the north, educated, activist and anti-socialist” and came from bourgeois or petty-bourgeois milieus. Mussolini, who had been expelled from the PSI on November 24, 1914, participated in the merger of several previously independent fasci into the Fasci d”azione rivoluzionaria in December 1914; he referred to the supporters of these groups as fascisti even at this early stage. However, he was still without any political house power of his own – he was still at the bottom of a “complex ladder of patronage” compared to aristocratic spokesmen for interventionism such as Gabriele D”Annunzio, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Enrico Corradini, and Luigi Federzoni. These patronage relationships first proved their worth in the establishment of the Popolo d”Italia, whose circulation in May 1915 was around 80,000 copies. In this context, Filippo Naldi, a journalist from Bologna who had close ties to large landowners and the government in Rome, played an important role. In the critical initial phase, Naldi not only provided the penniless Mussolini with money, but also provided him with printing presses, paper and even some editors from the Resto del Carlino. Mussolini”s most important financial supporter during this phase was Ferdinando Martini, the Minister for the Colonies. Large sums came from industrialists, such as Giovanni Agnelli (Fiat) and the Perrone brothers (Ansaldo). Subsidies also flowed to Mussolini from the French secret service and from the French embassy in Rome. In the fall of 1917, when the collapse of the Italian army seemed imminent after the Battaglia di Caporetto (the 12th Isonzo battle), the Rome representative office of the British intelligence service MI5 supported Mussolini”s paper for at least a year with a weekly payment of £100 (about 6,400 euros in today”s value). The influx of this money also enabled Mussolini to adopt a lifestyle that allowed him to habitually catch up with the circles that supported him. From then on, he dined in expensive restaurants, acquired a horse for horseback rides and a car.
The founders of the early fasci were often former syndicalists who had broken away from the Unione Sindacale Italiana (USI) and justified their advocacy of Italian participation in the war against the Central Powers with “leftist” arguments. The leading figure in this group was Filippo Corridoni, who had fallen on the Isonzo Front in 1915, and who had argued early on for intervention and spoken of a “revolutionary war.” Mussolini also moved in Corridoni”s environment until 1915. These “left interventionists” did not stand in a genuine socialist or syndicalist theoretical tradition, but initially drew primarily on modified ideological fragments of the Risorgimento – above all Mazzinianism. Even Mussolini”s early relevant contributions to the Popolo d”Italia were, “for all their social revolutionary vestiges, as far removed from socialist internationalism and materialism as is at all possible.” In the sometimes hysterical campaign for intervention, the Popolo d”Italia distinguished itself with particularly shrill tones; when it briefly seemed in May 1915 that the “traitor” Giovanni Giolitti would again become prime minister, Mussolini demanded that “a few dozen deputies” be shot. This transformation, which seemed sudden and abrupt to many contemporaries, Mussolini had certainly prepared publicly. Recent research has shown that Mussolini had already turned his magazine Utopia into a forum for “imperialist, racist and anti-democratic” arguments before October 1914. Ostentatiously, he now renounced Marx, “the German,” and “stock Prussian” Marxist socialism and propagated an “anti-German war.” Mussolini initially held fast to the concept of socialism, but gave it a completely different content. The socialism of the future would be an “anti-Marxist” and “national” one. In August 1918, the word “socialist” was removed from the subtitle of the Popolo d”Italia. At this point, an authoritarian nationalism charged with Social Darwinist elements had finally come to the fore with Mussolini:
From this standpoint, Mussolini also criticized the conservative liberalism of the old elites, embodied in politicians such as Antonio Salandra and Giolitti, for having failed to “integrate the masses into the nation.” For example, he held fast to the demand for land reform, since this alone would “secure the rural population for the nation.” Only from a “trench aristocracy” (trincerocrazia), an “aristocracy of function,” could the willingness to take such measures be expected.
Mussolini”s thought processes reflected in their own way the deep crisis of the traditional order, which was stated by many observers by 1917 at the latest. From 1915 to 1917, the Italian governments – “not to mention the reactionary and brutal monarchist generals” – had tried to wage a “traditional” war. They had made no attempt to justify or justify the war to the workers and peasants who constituted the mass of the soldiers. Only after the catastrophic defeat at the 12th Battle of Isonzo did the new prime minister, Vittorio Orlando, launch a propaganda campaign to make the war plausible to those who had to fight it in the trenches. By the end of 1917, however, the legitimations and mechanisms of the old order of rule were unmistakably reaching their limits, creating a demand in perspective for the political ideology whose foundations had emerged around the Popolo d”Italia. Nevertheless, early fascism was not the only political force to emerge in this context. Italian radical nationalism (cf. Associazione Nazionalista Italiana), for example, the “right-wing interventionism” of 191415, underwent a relatively independent development until 1919.
Between August 1915 and August 1917, Mussolini himself performed military service. With the 11th Bersaglieri Regiment he was in action on the Isonzo (until November 1915, cf. Isonzo Battles), in the Carnic Alps (until November 1916) and at Doberdò. During this time he continued to publish in the Popolo d”Italia. These articles were republished in 1923 as the “War Diary” and circulated in numerous editions in Fascist Italy. While in hospital in December 1915, he married Rachele Guidi, the mother of his daughter Edda, born in 1910, and their sons Vittorio and Bruno were born in 1916 and 1918, respectively. Although “educated” people very often received officer rank in the Italian army, Mussolini only made it to caporal maggiore (a low non-commissioned officer rank). He had to leave a course for officer candidates after a short time at the instigation of the army leadership. According to all available testimonies, soldiers of the enlisted ranks met the founder of the Popolo d”Italia with suspicion, in some cases openly hostile. Meanwhile, he refused the offer of the regimental commander to write the regimental history and thus escape the trenches, which were particularly dangerous for the “warmonger”. By the fall of 1916, however, Mussolini was so exhausted that he began to look for ways to retire from the service. On February 23, 1917, Mussolini was seriously wounded during an exercise behind the front lines when a mortar shell exploded as it was being fired, killing several soldiers near him. He stayed in a Milan military hospital until his discharge from the military in August.
Mussolini and early fascism
The world war shook the Italian political system. The Salandra government”s calculations, which had expected the entry into the war above all to marginalize the Socialists and permanently shift the political field of forces to the right – in sum, a “hierarchical reorganization of class relations” – had not worked out. Instead, the localized and regional conflicts of the prewar period “had taken on national dimensions and had become protests against the war, against the state, against the ruling class.” The Italian upper class did not succeed in channeling the postwar disputes as in France and Germany and cushioning them with tactical concessions; the struggle for social hegemony was fought directly and abruptly, ultimately overwhelming liberal institutions.
Parallel to the rise of the political left, a “new right” established itself – initially still highly fragmented – that was not simply conservative but more or less openly rejected the institutions of the traditional order. Its common denominator was an ideological amalgam of nationalist disappointment over the “mutilated victory” (vittoria mutilata) in the world war and aggressive confrontation with the “red danger.” The widely acclaimed head of this right was initially Gabriele D”Annunzio. Mussolini was known throughout Italy at the turn of 191819 as editor-in-chief of the Popolo d”Italia, but he had political clout only in the local context of Milan. In the first postwar months, he took up the widespread demand for a constituent national assembly, which was especially popular among returning front-line soldiers and fit well with the ideological profile of the Popolo d”Italia.
On March 23, 1919, Mussolini summoned to Milan the representatives of some twenty fasci that had been newly formed after the end of the war or had been revived by surviving activists of 191415. The meeting (held in a hall in Piazza San Sepolcro provided by the Alleanza industriale e commerciale) was attended by about 300 people, including Roberto Farinacci, Cesare Maria De Vecchi, Giovanni Marinelli, Piero Bolzon, and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The composition of the participants, later revered as sansepolcristi, helped give the umbrella organization founded on this occasion (the Fasci italiani di combattimento) a dazzling, “bivalent” appearance. Former “left interventionists” (still) constituted the majority, “but next to them sit the nationalists, the reactionaries, and plain strikebreakers.” Mussolini”s claim to represent the combattenti (the participants in the war), which is also often colocated in the historical literature without relativization, was only true to a very limited extent. The first post-war fasci attracted mainly demobilized reserve officers or students of middle-class origin who had been officers in the war or had served with the Arditi. By far the largest association of war veterans, the Associazione Nazionale dei Combattenti (ANC), on the other hand, was – apart from special regional cases – initially democratic and anti-fascist in orientation; its social composition (predominantly former conscripted peasants and officers of lower ranks) was also quite different from that of the fasci.
Despite some spectacular actions, including an arson attack on the editorial building of Avanti! on April 15, 1919, which was directed by Marinetti, the organization, which had been founded in Milan, initially had no influence whatsoever. At the end of 1919, there were still only 31 fasci with a total of 870 members. Only gradually did the fasci di combattimento succeed in asserting themselves against rival liberal, anarchist and syndicalist groups, which also claimed the term fascio (with differing content in each case) for themselves. In August 1919, Mussolini launched a new journal (Il Fascio), whose main task was to interpret fascismo in terms of his organization.
The programmatic guiding principles of the Fasci di combattimento were diffuse and already at this point completely meaningless for the practice of the organization. In March 1919, no formal program had been adopted at all. Mussolini had merely read out three declarations in Milan, in which he expressed solidarity with the front fighters, demanded the annexation of Fiume and Dalmatia, and announced the fight against the socialist and Catholic “neutralists.” On June 6, 1919, the Popolo d”Italia finally published a program in which “it is not difficult to discern a reactionary core in questions of social order behind the ”leftist” façade created above all by the political demand for the Republic.” Even in its “radical” passages, which were soon forgotten, the program was – contrary to a widespread legend – by no means “social revolutionary,” but had been largely aligned by its authors with the reformist line of the nationalist trade union Unione Italiana del Lavoro. It called for lowering the voting age to 18 and giving women the right to vote, abolishing the Senate and replacing it with a “technical national council,” minimum wages and an eight-hour day, taxation of war profits, state social insurance, distribution of undeveloped land to war veterans, participation of representatives of workers” organizations in the “management” of private and public enterprises (“insofar as they are morally and technically worthy of it”), closure of Catholic schools, and confiscation of church property. Mussolini, especially in this early phase, avoided assigning the fasci di combattimento to any of the existing political camps. At the first congress of the fasci, held in Florence in October 1919, he declared that they were “not republican, not socialist, not democratic, not conservative, not nationalist.” He polemicized against the left-liberal prime minister Nitti and showed solidarity with D”Annunzio”s Fiume enterprise, without tying himself or his organization too closely to that project.
In the November 16, 1919 general election, the Fascist list led by Mussolini and Marinetti received only 4,675 votes in the entire province of Milan and won no mandate. Following this defeat, Milanese fascists threw an explosive device into a socialist demonstration on November 17. Mussolini was suspected of being the instigator and – after a weapons cache was found during a search – was arrested, but released after only one day due to an intervention from Rome.
On May 24-25, 1920, the second congress of the Fasci di combattimento was held in Milan. Most of the former “left interventionists” left on this occasion the National Council of the organization, which had found many new supporters in the decaying liberal milieus after the Socialist electoral victory. Marinetti also left the Congress after Mussolini spoke out against continuing the anti-Catholic polemic. Mussolini also relativized the demand for the republic in Milan. The thrust against “anti-Italian” socialism, on the other hand, was emphasized even more strongly. The eight-hour day and the minimum wage disappeared from the Fascist program, as did the demand for “technical” participation of workers in the management of enterprises. Now fascist polemics were directed against a supposed “state collectivism” or “state Bolshevism” in Italy; Mussolini”s speech in Milan, in which he professed a “Manchester conception” of the state, is assessed by historian Adrian Lyttelton as a draft of a “capitalist utopia.” During the disputes between the metalworkers” union FIOM and the employers” association Confindustria, which resulted in the temporary occupation of many factories by the workforces in September 1920, Mussolini repeatedly called for class collaboration in the Popolo d”Italia. He accused the other anti-socialist parties of not opposing the Socialists with the necessary determination – but the Fascists would now do so. They were a minority, he said, but “a million sheep will always be scattered by the roar of a single lion.” These words heralded the real “birth” of fascism, whose advances were soon “by no means merely sporadic episodes for demonstration purposes” but “the expression of a deliberately planned, systematic violence” aimed at the complete destruction of socialist organizations.
Vom national bloc zum National Fascist Party
The “explosion of anti-socialist violence” occurred in the fall of 1920, when large sections of the bourgeois elites had lost confidence in the state”s ability to control and push back the workers” movement. Liberal newspapers now openly advocated authoritarian rule by a “strong man” or a military dictatorship. It was precisely at this time that the socialist movement entered a period of disorientation and internal strife, since the course of the factory occupations in September 1920 had made clear that the centrist “maximalists” at the head of the PSI were unwilling to work seriously toward a socialist revolution, despite their radical rhetoric (these factional struggles led to the split of the left wing of the party in January 1921, which constituted itself as the Partito Comunista d”Italia). Thus, in October 1920, almost abruptly, “the initiative in the social struggles passed to the possessing classes and the new right.”
The fasci, until then “virtually meaningless, partly anemic entities, partly non-existent altogether,” now experienced a steady influx of new members and an enormous gain in political importance. The number of local fasci multiplied within a few months from 190 (October 1920) to 800 (late 1920), 1,000 (February 1921), and 2,200 (November 1921). Their reputation in the anti-socialist camp had risen abruptly when, on November 21, 1920, several hundred armed fascists attacked the constituent session of the newly elected socialist municipal council of Bologna, killing nine people. The “Battle of Bologna” ushered in the period of fascist squadrismo, armed “punitive expeditions” against “red” party and trade union headquarters, newspaper editorial offices, workers” homes, cultural centers, municipal councils, cooperatives, and individuals. The individual squadre were often equipped (sometimes directly led) by industrialists and large landowners, but benefited most from direct and indirect support from government agencies at all levels. The minister of war in the Giolitti V cabinet, the right-wing Social Democrat Ivanoe Bonomi, who had been expelled from the PSI in 1912, suggested in October 1920 that discharged reserve officers join the fasci, with a large portion of their previous pay being continued. Justice Minister Luigi Fera issued a circular instructing the courts to let cases against fascists fall asleep whenever possible. Hundreds of Socialist municipal administrations that had been the target of Fascist “punitive expeditions” were also officially dissolved by the government in the spring of 1921 “for reasons of public order,” including those of Bologna, Modena, Ferrara, and Perugia. The dominance of the Socialists in many municipal parliaments had particularly worried the liberal elites since 1919, as the social balance of power here actually threatened to tilt in favor of the left.
Mussolini”s personal role in the fascist movement remained unclear until 1921. His relations with the leaders of provincial fascism, who primarily organized fascist violence, were repeatedly markedly strained. The future Duce was not one of the advocates of intransigent radicalism, was not least concerned with his own advancement, and was inclined to compromise (an integration of the right wing of the Socialists and the trade unions into a “national bloc” remained his goal until this became impossible in 1924). Of essential importance for Mussolini”s position was that he lived in the financial center of the country and that the large “donations” from industrialists and bankers, even after 1919, mostly went directly to him and the Popolo d”Italia; he was thus comparatively independent within the fascist movement and could distribute the funds needed in the provinces.
Mussolini succeeded in integrating the Fasci di combattimento into a bourgeois electoral bloc led by Giolitti before the parliamentary election on May 15, 1921. Mussolini had been in contact with the influential politician, who had been prime minister again since June 15, 1920, through an intermediary since October 1920. The blocco nazionale included all parties except the Socialists, the Communists and the Catholic popolari. For Mussolini personally, this success meant entering the zone of “political respectability” defined by the old elites. Together with Mussolini, who had been placed at the top of the lists of the blocco in Milan and Bologna, 34 other Fascists entered the Chamber of Deputies (with 275 mandates for the entire bloc).
Giolitti, who had failed to achieve his main electoral goal – the sustained weakening of the Socialists and the popolari – resigned on June 27, 1921. Giolitti”s successor Bonomi, who had run in Mantua along with Fascist candidates on the blocco nazionale list, attempted in July 1921 to detach the right wing of the PSI from the party and tie it to the government camp. He won over some leading Fascists (including Mussolini, Cesare Rossi, and Giovanni Giuriati), four Socialist deputies, and three officials of the CGdL trade union confederation to sign a “pacification pact” (August 2, 1921). Mussolini justified this surprising move by arguing that it was impossible to “liquidate” Italy”s two million Socialists; the “permanent civil war” option was naive. He was then under the impression of the events of Sarzana (”fatti di Sarazena”), observed throughout Italy, where on July 21 a “punitive expedition” of 500 Ligurian and Tuscan squadristi had been put to flight after a handful of Carabinieri – completely unexpected for the fascists – had sided with the inhabitants. 14 squadristi, a policeman and some citizens died. For Mussolini, who openly spoke of a “crisis of fascism,” this raised the question of what the fasci were “really worth when confronted by the police power of the state.” Behind this move, however, was Mussolini”s intention, rooted not least in personal ambitions, to “parliamentarize” the fluctuating and loosely networked fasci and unite them into a party in order to participate in the medium and long term in political power in Rome.
Fascist extremists, especially the exponents of militant “agrarian fascism” of the Po Valley, Emilia, Tuscany and Romagna, such as Italo Balbo and Dino Grandi, who believed it was possible to completely crush the workers” movement and establish an authoritarian regime without regard for liberal interest groups, then openly attacked Mussolini. The latter withdrew from the executive committee of the Fasci di combattimento on August 18, 1921, followed by Rossi, who lamented that fascism had become a “pure, authentic and exclusive movement of conservatism and reaction.” The “conservative” fascists, however, were unable to agree on a leader who could have replaced Mussolini after Gabriele D”Annunzio declined the offer. In the run-up to the Third Congress of the fasci, held in Rome in November 1921, the two factions moved toward each other: Mussolini declared the pacification pact – never realized in any case – a “ridiculously meaningless episode in our history” on October 22 (and denounced it altogether in November), while the “reactionaries” around Grandi resigned themselves to the creation of the Partito Nazionale Fascista (PNF). In Rome, Mussolini, now established as Duce, strove to remove the doubts that had arisen about the decisiveness of his anti-socialism:
Mussolini provided further clarifications in the margins. The remnants of republican and anticlerical ideas from the early days of the fasci were removed from the party program. Mussolini had already distanced himself from foreign policy adventures in the style of D”Annunzio in 1920; only “madmen and criminals” would not understand that Italy needed peace.
The “March on Rome
After the Rome Congress, Mussolini single-mindedly consolidated his position within the fascist movement. The secretary of the PNF became Michele Bianchi, a close confidant of the Duce. The squadre were formally assigned to local party groups and placed under a general inspectorate. The leaders of provincial fascism (for whom the Ethiopian loanword ras soon became naturalized) nevertheless maintained a considerable degree of autonomy, which they were able to secure and in some cases expand even during the years of dictatorship.
Since January 1922, at Mussolini”s suggestion, the journal Gerarchia (edited by Margherita Sarfatti until 1933) appeared, which was to provide fascism with a binding intellectual superstructure. Personally, Mussolini was not a “fundamentalist” of the gradually contoured fascist ideology, but paid attention above all to its practical political utility.
After Bonomi”s resignation, the liberal Luigi Facta formed a government in February 1922 that was generally seen as a placeholder for a new Giolitti cabinet. During Facta”s reign, a “second wave” of squadrismo began; the Socialist strongholds in northern Italy became the target of regular campaigns by the Fascists, who acted “like an army of occupation” in Romagna, for example. In early March, several thousand squadristi occupied the Free State of Fiume. In the renewed moves against Bologna and Ferrara in MayJune, several tens of thousands of fascists were massed in each case. The socialist and syndicalist unions, which had formed the Alleanza del lavoro in February 1922, called for a general political strike against fascist terror on August 1, 1922. It was called off as early as August 3 after a fascist ultimatum. In a counterattack, the fascists now also penetrated leftist strongholds such as Parma and Genoa, where street fighting lasted several days. By October 1922, at least 3,000 people had died in these clashes, according to recent calculations. In September, the fascists reached the outskirts of Rome with advances to Terni and Civitavecchia.
In July 1922, after fascist riots in Cremona, against which the authorities had again done nothing, Facta was overthrown by the votes of the popolari, the Socialists, and liberal democrats (but immediately reassigned to form a government). Mussolini now began negotiating with Giolitti, Orlando, and Salandra-the “strong men” of Italian politics-about his role in a future cabinet. It was not yet clear whether he was “a coming man or the coming man.” His contributions to the Popolo d”Italia and his speeches in the Chamber of Deputies were, and not only since that time, primarily designed to demonstrate the highest degree of “statesmanlike” credibility and judgment, while he left the radical speeches to Bianchi, Balbo, Farinacci and others. The demonstration of foreign policy competence had been served by Mussolini”s first widely publicized trip abroad, which took him to Germany in March 1922. In Berlin, he met with “remarkably high-ranking” interlocutors, including Reich Chancellor Joseph Wirth, Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, Gustav Stresemann, and the influential liberal journalist Theodor Wolff, who later remained on friendly terms with Mussolini.
In October 1922, the political crisis reached its climax. The socialist and communist left had already been largely eliminated as a political factor. The trade unions once again lost massive numbers of members and influence after the failure of the general strike in August, while the Socialist Party split again in early October. In negotiations with Giolitti conducted through intermediaries, Mussolini now indicated that he was ready to lead a coalition government. Since the PNF had only 35 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, a Mussolini-led cabinet-if it did not immediately act as a coup government-was dependent on the support of the liberal and conservative blocs in Parliament. In public statements, Mussolini now once again paid tribute to the monarchy and the Catholic Church and, in a conversation with General Pietro Badoglio, ensured the passivity of the army in the event of a possible fascist takeover linked to a demonstrative action by the fasci against Rome. Already on September 20, 1922, in a speech in Udine, he had once again declared his support for a liberal economic policy and advocated a break with the state social policy that had been formed in rudiments since 1919. The famous Udine speech is regarded as an anticipated government declaration of fascism. It combined a commitment to violence and obedience with a rejection of democracy and the announcement that it would mobilize the masses in support of Italian power politics. Italy”s greatness – instead of a “policy of renunciation and cowardice” – was the main goal.
On October 25, Mussolini left the PNF party congress, which had begun the previous day in Naples, and retreated to Milan. Although he was not seriously preparing a violent coup, which leading Squadrists had repeatedly threatened, he had agreed in advance to a “staged march” on the capital. This “March on Rome,” later transfigured as the cornerstone of the “fascist revolution,” in which probably only 5,000 squadristi participated in pouring rain, began on the morning of October 28. With the enterprise, Mussolini wanted to force the king to make a decision that he could assume would be in his favor. Giolitti, Salandra, and Orlando were at this point in agreement, as were the king, the pope, the army leadership, and the business associations, with a fascist prime minister, whom Mussolini had first publicly called for in Naples on October 24. On October 29, Victor Emmanuel III had Mussolini summoned by telephone to Rome, where he arrived the next morning and was sworn in as prime minister on October 31. The simulation of a political upheaval was served by the fascist “victory parade” on October 31, in which Mussolini personally participated. It was only through this that the “political myth of the overthrow by fascism forced by force was born.” The entry of the Squadrists into Rome ended with an attack on the working-class neighborhood of San Lorenzo, where several people were killed.
The years 1922 to 1926
The first Mussolini cabinet was a coalition government of the Italian right. Mussolini was the only leading member of the PNF with ministerial rank (the Fascists Giacomo Acerbo and Aldo Finzi received only state secretariats. Important ministries went to members of the conservative and nationalist establishment (Giovanni Gentile (education), Luigi Federzoni (colonies), Armando Diaz (war), Paolo Thaon di Revel (navy)). The ministers Alberto De Stefani (Finance), Aldo Oviglio (Justice) and Giovanni Giuriati (Liberated Territories), who came from the same milieu, had already joined the Fascist party by that time. With Stefano Cavazzoni (Labor and Social Affairs), the right wing of the Partito Popolare Italiano was also represented in the government; in addition, there were representatives of most of the liberal groups. Overall, it was “a conservative ministry that expressed the common will of industry, the monarchy, and also the Church; it represented an attempt to end the long period of political instability after the war by establishing a stable government that could draw on the broad spectrum of the many factions of the right.”
On November 16, 1922, Mussolini appeared before Parliament for the first time as prime minister; threatening to make the House “a bivouac for my squadre” at any time, he demanded powers to govern by decree. Only Socialist and Communist deputies voted against the bills on November 24, which gave the government temporary special powers until December 31, 1923. Seven Liberal deputies, including Nitti and Giovanni Amendola, stayed away from the vote; on the other hand, five former Liberal prime ministers – Giolitti, Salandra, Orlando, Bonomi and Facta – voted for the government. In the Senate, the majority of votes in favor of the government was even greater; here Mussolini was openly called upon to establish a dictatorship.
In the winter of 192223, there were serious attacks by the squadrists on political opponents, especially in the cities; in Turin, an out-of-control “fascist firing squad” deliberately murdered socialists, communists and trade unionists without the police – who were directly under Mussolini as minister of the interior – intervening. Instead, thousands of fascists benefited from an amnesty before the end of the year. Mussolini publicly portrayed the transformation of the squadre into a national militia (cf. MVSN), initiated in December 1922, in whose ranks numerous squadrists disappointed by the “fascist revolution” were given “status, pay, and some local power,” as a measure against fascist “illegalism.” In the same month, Mussolini established the Gran Consiglio del Fascismo, whose relationship to constitutional institutions was for the time being not further defined, as a forum for Fascist ras not included in the formation of the government. This council was linked to the state executive only through Mussolini”s person.
During 1923, the Fascist party merged with the other currents of the Italian right. Mussolini”s merger with the Associazione Nazionalista Italiana in March became a “watershed for fascism. With the ANI, numerous personalities who were as “respectable” as they were influential joined the party; they were extremely well connected in the military, the court, the bureaucracy, the diplomatic service, and the business world, and – Alfredo Rocco in particular should be mentioned here – played a decisive role in the establishment and ideological safeguarding of the fascist regime in the years that followed. The conservative wing of political Catholicism also joined forces with the PNF in 1923. Luigi Sturzo, the leader of the popolari, bowed to pressure from the Vatican in July 1923 and withdrew. Mussolini, in the shadow of this development, was largely able to break away from his relative dependence on the Old Fascists and the ras. The PNF”s membership rose to 783,000 by the end of 1923 due to the influx of numerous “fascists of the last hour” (fascisti dell”ultima ora), having been below 300,000 in October 1922.
When Parliament was about to convene for the new session in December 1923, it was sent home by decree of the king.
The compilation of the listone, the fascist collective list for the new parliamentary elections on April 6, 1924, was undertaken by Mussolini himself. In addition to some 200 Fascists, almost as many members of other parties and organizations appeared on it, including Salandra and Orlando. Giolitti ran with his own list, but distanced himself from the anti-fascist opposition.
After the united right secured the majority of seats, from February 15, 1925, the foundations were laid for the Chamber of Deputies to be consequently constituted by referendum rather than by actual election; in 1929, the people could only vote yes or no to a submitted list. This list of 400 people”s representatives was chosen by the Great Fascist Council from a list of 1000 people proposed by associations. The next real parliamentary election did not take place until 1946.
On June 10, 1924, Giacomo Matteotti, secretary of the PSU and a reformist socialist, was kidnapped by six Squadristi, forced into a Lancia Lambda and stabbed with a file. Matteotti, unimpressed by staged tumults by fascist deputies, had exposed numerous irregularities in the April election in the Chamber of Deputies on May 30 in Mussolini”s presence and demanded that the results be annulled. He was responding to a provocation by Mussolini, who had earlier urged the chamber to approve several thousand laws en bloc. Rumors also circulated that Matteotti had material that could be used to convict leading fascists of corruption. It has not yet been possible to prove that Mussolini ordered Matteotti”s assassination. Nevertheless, recent research has certainly demonstrated that people in the government leader”s closest circle – including Rossi, Finzi and Marinelli – helped prepare the deed or knew about the preparations. The impending corruption scandal, which involved bribes from the American oil company Standard Oil, seems to have provided the motive, but not Matteotti”s appearance in Parliament.
The murder of the opposition politician proved to be a political disaster for Mussolini; because of his bourgeois origins and his highly moderate socialism oriented toward the British Labour Party, Matteotti, who had been courted by Mussolini time and again up to that point, was also respected by many liberals. Mussolini was apparently informed of the deed by Dumini as late as the evening of June 10, but the following day he denied before Parliament any knowledge of the whereabouts of Matteotti, whose body was eventually found on a Roman arterial road on August 16. He instructed his staff to create “as much confusion as possible” in the matter. However, within a few days the investigation led directly to Mussolini”s antechamber because of the identification of the kidnappers” vehicle. Thus, the anti-fascist opposition was given an unexpected opportunity to deal a serious and possibly decisive blow to the already entrenched regime. Mussolini later conceded that in June 1924 “a few determined men” would have been enough to trigger a successful uprising against the completely discredited fascists. Meanwhile, after a brief paralysis, Mussolini mobilized the militia, dismissed Emilio De Bono as chief of police, had Dumini, Volpi, Rossi, and Marinelli arrested, and transferred the Ministry of the Interior to the ex-nationalist Federzoni.
The decisive mistake, however, was made by the opposition itself. On June 13, Socialists, Communists and popolari, together with some liberals, walked out of Parliament. This purely demonstrative act remained inconsequential; already on June 18, the Communists withdrew from the so-called Aventine Bloc after their proposal to proclaim a general strike and constitute a counter-parliament was rejected by the other parties. The remaining Aventinians “foolishly trusted that the king would do their work for them.” As a result of the “Aventine secession,” what had been a threatening debate for the Fascists over a political assassination in which, by all appearances, the head of the government was involved, became a direct “confrontation between Fascism and anti-Fascism. In this confrontation, the Italian elites knew where they stood.” On June 24, the Senate overwhelmingly expressed confidence in Mussolini, giving the government the breathing space it needed. Mussolini”s liberal and conservative partisans, headed by the king, continued to support him resolutely after a few days of uncertainty. When the Fascist deputy Armando Casalini was shot in Rome on September 12, 1924, radical Fascists such as Farinacci called on Mussolini ever more emphatically to “settle accounts” with anti-Fascism once and for all and “shoot a few thousand people.” Mussolini initially evaded these advances.
In December 1924, the crisis came to an unexpected head once again. Press releases linked prominent fascists such as Balbo and Grandi to a variety of violent acts. Even the party”s front rank now had to fear that they would soon be called to account in court, since for several months a group of fascist “normalizers” – who seemed to have Mussolini”s ear – had been demanding separation from the radical and criminal elements. On December 26, however, an opposition paper published a memorandum from Cesare Rossi that had been leaked to it, which also directly linked Mussolini, though not to the Matteotti murder, to similar cases. Now it seemed that investigations against the head of government himself could no longer be prevented. In the days that followed, the cabinet was on the verge of falling apart; Mussolini was considered “finished” by observers. Leaders of the militia and some ras appeared unannounced in Mussolini”s office on December 31 and made an ultimate demand to silence the opposition once and for all. As in 1921, Mussolini now faced an open revolt by fascist extremists (and as in 1921, Balbo was among the organizers). He had the Chamber of Deputies convened that same day for January 3, 1925, and in a carefully prepared speech accepted “political, moral, and historical responsibility” for Matteotti”s murder, but not material responsibility. At the same time, during this appearance, Mussolini made it clear that for him, in the long run, the government, the police, and the prefects represented the legitimate authority, so the suppression of the opposition had to be done “legally”-this was exactly “what the conservative establishment wanted to hear.” Thus he succeeded in laying the foundation for his personal dictatorship. His opponents did not comply with the call to impeach him for the crime because of the hopelessness of such an undertaking.
In his speech, Mussolini had attacked the Aventine secession as “revolutionary” and announced that he would ensure clarity “within 48 hours”. Still on January 3, Mussolini and Federzoni instructed the prefects to henceforth prevent political gatherings and demonstrations and to take active action against all organizations “undermining the power of the state.” The deputies of the opposition parties were from that day on denied the return to the Chamber, which until then would have been at least theoretically possible. By 1926, all non-fascist parties had been banned or dissolved. Press censorship was handled even more strictly than before, following a relevant decree of January 10, 1925; while the press organs of the political left were gradually forced underground, the major liberal newspapers dismissed the few opposition editors during 1925, before a repressive press law went into effect in December 1925. That same month (December 24), a law on the “powers and prerogatives of the head of government” eliminated the government”s still formal dependence on Parliament. As Capo del Governo, Mussolini now represented the government alone vis-à-vis the king, was responsible exclusively to him, and had the right to decree laws that the deputies could only “discuss.”
In 1926, elected municipal councils were abolished; henceforth, a mayor (podestà) appointed by the prefects ran the municipalities. Until the end of the regime, these “mini-capos” were usually provided by the same local elites that had held sway in the respective locality since the Risorgimento.
The assassination attempt on Mussolini by the anarchist Anteo Zamboni – the first assassination attempt was by Tito Zaniboni on November 4, 1925, and another by Violet Gibson on April 7, 1926 – finally provided the pretext for banning the remaining anti-fascist organizations along with their press in November 1926; 123 opposition deputies were deprived of their mandates in the same month, and the communist ones, among them Antonio Gramsci, were also arrested. The “Law for the Defense of the State” (November 25, 1926) introduced the death penalty for “political offenses.” It also provided for the creation of a political police force and a special court.
Mussolini operated the establishment of the dictatorship – as announced on January 3, 1925 – “legally,” that is, without replacing the political procedures defined by the Constitution with others. The Fascist party, led by Farinacci in 192526 and preoccupied with internal disputes, played no active role in this process. The same was true of the militia, whose leadership was now taken over by former army officers. For real political rule in fascist Italy, even more than in liberal Italy, the prefects were decisive. Mussolini ensured pronounced structural continuity here. Between 1922 and 1929, 86 prefects were retired or replaced. Their successors were mostly “apolitical” career civil servants; the 29 prefects who emerged from the PNF were generally given smaller and less important provinces. Mussolini firmly enforced this power structure against countervailing tendencies in the Fascist party, repeatedly intervening in conflicts between prefects and provincial party secretaries, as on January 5, 1927:
In the government, too, Mussolini relied only to a very limited extent on Fascists from within the party, who were often only given state secretariats and rarely remained in office for long. Only Dino Grandi and Giuseppe Bottai succeeded in staying permanently at the top of the state apparatus.
In 1925, Mussolini began to accept the term “totalitarian,” first used by anti-fascist intellectuals in 1923, as an attribute of the regime. In a speech commemorating the third anniversary of the March on Rome, he defined fascism as a system in which “everything is done for the state, nothing is outside the state, nothing and no one is against the state.” He borrowed this formula from a speech by Justice Minister Alfredo Rocco. The formative ideologues of Italian fascism, whose suggestions Mussolini generally followed, were almost exclusively former nationalists like Rocco and Giovanni Gentile, who had just exerted their influence in 192526 “above all other tendencies within fascism. “The “revolutionary” wing of fascism, working toward a genuine party dictatorship, was finally stripped of its power by Mussolini in 1926 (Farinacci”s replacement on March 30, 1926) and was at best able to maintain some journalistic positions.
By 1925, however, De Stefani had drawn opposition from influential interest groups. The free trade policy was opposed by those sections of industry and large landholdings that suffered from foreign competition, and by individual leading fascists who advocated an autarky policy on principle. Because De Stefani sought a balanced budget, he was forced, in the face of considerable opposition, to punish particularly blatant cases of tax evasion by way of example; for the same reason, he refused to finance the enormous increase in the number of positions in the state apparatus with which leading fascists and their “clients” could be provided. When there was an economic slump in the summer of 1925, Mussolini dismissed De Stefani. His successor, Giuseppe Volpi, was a representative of the protectionist wing of Italian industry. His appointment coincided with the proclamation of the regime”s first major economic campaign. This “wheat battle” (battaglia del grano), initiated by Mussolini himself, was aimed at significantly increasing grain production and thus reducing Italy”s dependence on food imports (introduction of a grain tariff on July 24, 1925). In the background here was already the problem of Italy”s unbalanced balance of payments and the depreciation of the currency; the “wheat battle” turned into the “battle for the lira” (battaglia della lira) the following year.
With Mussolini”s accession to power, Italy, which had been “betrayed” by the Fascists at the Paris Peace Conference, officially became a “revisionist power,” even if this revisionism did not begin to take clear shape until 192526. In the 1920s, it was directed primarily against the influence of France in southeastern Europe (see Little Entente) and secondarily against Greece and Turkey. Thus, under Mussolini, a tendency prevailed that had already not been alien to the foreign policy of liberal governments; the thesis of a break in continuity in foreign policy is largely rejected in recent research-the “alleged contrast between moderate, sensitive diplomats and a hysterical, ultranationalist Duce was a myth that officials spread after Mussolini”s fall in order to avoid criticism.”
On the international stage, Mussolini introduced himself with staged poses. In November 1922, he appeared at the Lausanne Conference with a bodyguard of heavily armed Blackshirts and seemed more interested in martial appearances before journalists than in the negotiations themselves. A month later, he traveled to London to attend the reparations conference there. Here the international press echo, carefully registered by Mussolini, was even less favorable than after Lausanne. He subsequently refrained from foreign travel – with the exception of the Locarno Conference in 1925 – for more than a decade.
In the 1920s, Great Britain acted internationally as a “protector” of Italy. London saw in the country a counterweight against French hegemony on the continent and a possible resurgence of Germany. The two countries coordinated their appearances on the reparations issue and at the League of Nations. Mussolini”s (for the time being theoretical) ambitions in the Mediterranean (Corsica, Tunisia) were directed – as in the Balkans – primarily against France, but not against Great Britain, which was prepared to make colonial concessions to Italy. In the summer of 1924, the British handed over Jubaland to Italy, and in February 1926, the oasis of Jarabub. The visit of British Foreign Minister Austen Chamberlain, during which his wife demonstratively pinned on a badge of the fascist party, strengthened Mussolini”s hand in December 1924 during the Matteotti crisis. Winston Churchill, at that time Chancellor of the Exchequer, visited Mussolini in January 1927 and subsequently expressed extremely positive views of him and the regime. In conservative circles in Great Britain, a veritable cult of personality developed around Mussolini in the course of the 1920s and early 1930s.
On August 31, 1923, in the shadow of the Ruhr crisis, Mussolini had the Greek island of Corfu shelled and occupied to obtain “satisfaction” for the assassination of an Italian general on Greek territory (see Corfu Crisis). In January 1924, Yugoslavia recognized Italy”s annexation of Fiume (see Treaty of Rome). Beginning in 1925, Mussolini was able to eliminate Yugoslavia”s influence in Albania and tie the country closely to Italy politically and economically (cf. Tirana Pact). In 1926, Italy began to provide financial and material support to Croatian and Macedonian nationalists in order to undermine the Yugoslav state. Albanian separatists in Kosovo also received Italian subsidies with Mussolini”s approval.
The results of the Locarno Conference (October 1925) were ambivalent for Italy. Mussolini had not been able to push through the desired guarantee of the Austro-Italian border and the independence of Austria by Germany in the preliminary negotiations and therefore initially wanted to stay away from the conference. Surprisingly, however, Chamberlain invited him to join Britain as guarantor of the Franco-German and German-Belgian borders. Thus, for the first time, Great Britain officially granted Italy the status of a great power. Mussolini seized the opportunity for a dramatic entrance; on the last day of the negotiations, he made a surprise arrival across Lake Maggiore in a speedboat with a large bodyguard, showed up at the negotiations for a few minutes, and departed again.
Peak of personal dictatorship 1927 to 1934
After the fall of Farinacci, who had tolerated a certain amount of discussion among the leading Fascists and had not hesitated to pose as a purist “counter-Pope,” the new party secretary Augusto Turati, a protégé of Mussolini”s brother Arnaldo, aligned the party entirely with Mussolini between 1926 and 1930. Turati had 50,000 “extremists” expelled from the party by 1929; about 100,000 more old Fascists left and were replaced mainly by socially conservative successors-not infrequently old-established notables In 192627, hundreds of thousands of new members joined the PNF; in 1927, for the first time, more than 1 million organized Fascists were counted. Turati, with Mussolini”s backing, abolished internal party elections and had almost all local party newspapers closed down. National party congresses – as last held in June 1925 – were no longer held. While these measures made Mussolini”s position unassailable, they drained the (only admitted) party of any political substance and dynamism with surprising rapidity: “A bloated, centralized party of careerists and conformists, of civil servants and bank branch managers, leaders appointed from above: this was the opposite of Farinacci”s ideal of ”few but good.”” Another wave of expulsions under Turati”s successor Giuriati completed this process in 193031.
The LUCE (L”unione cinematografica educativa) institute had already been founded by the Ministry of Propaganda in 1924 and nationalized in 1925. It was systematically concerned with the mystification of the Duce in the medium of film: Mussolini was at the same time “client, object, beneficiary and censor of the LUCE productions”. The propagandistic exaltation of Mussolini – ducismo or mussolinismo – also accompanied the restructuring of the party since 1926, with Arnaldo Mussolini, editor-in-chief of the Popolo d”Italia, and the fascist journalist and politician Giuseppe Bottai setting the tone. “Mussolini is always right” (Mussolini ha sempre ragione.) became a common phrase, and the dictator himself soon became a “legendary figure” whose superhuman qualities – not only as a statesman, but also as an “aviator, fencer, horseman, Italy”s first sportsman” – Italians were familiarized with at school. Photographs of Mussolini by the millions, showing him in one of his characteristic poses (often bare-chested while swimming or harvesting), were circulated in Italy, where many people were accustomed to collecting images of saints anyway. Rome now housed “an infallible pope and an infallible duce.” The basic material for the personality cult was provided by two “official” biographies (by Margherita Sarfatti and Giorgio Pini, respectively), which appeared in 1926 and were repeatedly reprinted. Mussolini himself supplemented the picture of his person painted in these biographies from time to time with deliberately scattered flattering details. For example, he told journalists that he worked 18 or 19 hours a day, got only five hours of sleep and chaired an average of 25 meetings a day. Often these anecdotes contradicted each other, as they were each tailored to a different audience. The lack of social change was compensated for by this consensus-building myth-making, “and the greatest myth of all was that of the Duce himself.”
Mussolini repeatedly commented cynically on this public staging, which ultimately shaped the surviving image of “his” dictatorship, and which finally lost all connection to reality after 1931 in the era of party secretary Achille Starace. Sarfatti”s biography, which he had personally reviewed and edited before publication, proved that “invention is more useful than truth”; his (alleged) first words to the king in October 1922 (“Your Majesty, I bring you the Italy of Vittorio Veneto.”), quoted to excess by the regime”s propagandists, he called in a small circle “the kind of nonsense told in school assemblies.” Testimonies of his contempt for the “herd” abound; the masses, he said, were “stupid, dirty, don”t work hard enough, and are satisfied with their little movies.” Intellectuals concerned with the codification of a reasonably consistent fascist “doctrine” also heaped cynical commentary on him-which did not prevent him from passing off as his work by name in 1932 the most authoritative foray in this direction, the article on the dottrina del fascismo in the fourteenth volume of the Enciclopedia Italiana, written in the main by Giovanni Gentile. The British historian Denis Mack Smith, in the face of such and similar contradictions, places the “real” Mussolini next to the “actor” that the public Duce had been in the first place:
At its core, however, Mussolini”s central position was not a propagandistic fiction. The entire activity of the government depended to an ever-increasing degree on his decisions and presence – to the point that the work of even those ministries not headed by him (in 1929, Mussolini was for a time eight ministers) came to a standstill when he was not in Rome. Quite unlike, say, Hitler, Mussolini was indeed a disciplined bureaucrat and “file-eater.” He usually sat behind his desk in the sala del mappamondo in Palazzo Venezia (until 1929 in Palazzo Chigi) around 8 or 9 o”clock and worked there alone for about 10 hours or received visitors – the first almost daily being police chief Arturo Bocchini, whom some historians consider the real “second man” of the regime. Mussolini, no doubt exaggerating in detail, could claim with some plausibility to have personally handled nearly 1.9 million bureaucratic transactions in seven years. To give the impression that he really controlled “the life of the nation,” the dictator admittedly decided on countless trivial details, such as the number of buttons on a uniform, an attitude at the police academy, the pruning of trees in a certain street in Piacenza, and the playing time of the orchestra on the Lido. In doing so, he could hardly – and, apart from the censorship measures and journalistic language regulations he decreed, did not try to – systematically check whether his decisions were implemented, for lack of an apparatus suitable for this purpose. As a rule, a comment thrown down by Mussolini or his characteristic paraphrase “M” marked either the end of government activity or the beginning of an open-ended “interpretation” of his will by the bureaucracy. Mussolini hardly ever concerned himself with the concrete translation of a “decision” into practical action. His tendency to receive even ministers, aides, and officials individually in fifteen-minute “audiences,” confirming them generally in their views and dismissing them without practical instructions, ensured that “in many important areas there was no government activity at all.”
He deprived the frequently changing ministers and secretaries of state of any sense of responsibility or initiative; he considered most of them “rotten to the core” anyway. In fact, Mussolini was one of the very few leading Fascists who did not use their offices to enrich themselves illegally and to promote the advancement of their family or clients, although he demonstrably promoted decidedly incompetent officials, corrupt gerarchi, and post-hunters, while unerringly coldcocking independent minds inclined to dissent. This tendency took full effect in the first half of the 1930s, when leading personnel in the state and the party were serially dismissed or transferred. The most prominent “victims” were Balbo (as governor to Libya), Grandi (as ambassador to London), Turati (as editor to Turin) and Mussolini”s old companion Leandro Arpinati. The ras of Bologna and Mussolini”s closest collaborator in the Ministry of the Interior was dismissed from all offices in 1933, expelled from the party in 1934 and exiled to the Lipari Islands. Moreover, Mussolini”s brother Arnaldo, the only confidant and advisor who had been allowed to speak “openly” with the Duce, died unexpectedly in December 1931. After the cabinet reshuffles of 1932 and 1933, most of the leading men in the ministries were “mediocrities” who either had no judgment of their own or kept the same to themselves.
In the final analysis, Mussolini was always concerned with deciding – often in conjunction with spectacular gestures and interventions in the spheres of competence of others – but only to a limited extent with what was decided. He consistently avoided discussions, even those in small circles, usually by agreeing to what was presented or put before him. In the ministerial bureaucracy and among informed observers, he therefore soon acquired the reputation of a “cardboard lion” who always represented the opinion of the person with whom he had last spoken.
In January 1927, despite the protests of many members and officials, the leadership of the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro dissolved the trade union federation. From then on, the Catholic lay organization Azione Cattolica was the only mass organization not directly linked to the fascist regime.
The disappearance of the workers” parties and the socialist trade unions – propagandistically, the demise of the railroad workers” union in particular was exploited, which “was to the fascists what the National Union of Mineworkers later was to Margaret Thatcher” – cleared the way for the fascist attempt to gather the wage-earning population into organizations controlled by the state or the state party. A first step in this direction was the leisure organization OND, which had already been founded in the spring of 1925. The idea of gathering workers, employees and entrepreneurs of individual economic sectors into corporations to represent their “common” interests had first appeared among individual nationalist ideologues and then among Alceste De Ambris and D”Annunzio in Fiume. These corporations were intended – at least in theory – to prevent labor disputes and thus maximize economic output. Since 1925, there had been talk, first by Alfredo Rocco, of making corporations the central instrument of the state”s political, social, and economic control of society. Mussolini took up Rocco”s thrust and declared it – three years after the March on Rome – the “fundamental program of our party.” From 192526 onward, the “corporative state” became the regime”s much-received propaganda flagship, first in Italy and then especially abroad.
By this time, however, the fascist party had already formed its own unions, which, after a series of symbolic strikes in October 1925, had been recognized by the industrialists as the “exclusive” representation of the workforces (and, characteristically, immediately accepted that the elected works councils were abolished without replacement). This agreement, signed in Mussolini”s presence, was confirmed in April 1926 by a law drafted by Rocco, which now expressly forbade strikes (in urban and state-owned enterprises, it also forbade unions) and imposed compulsory arbitration in all disputes. Mussolini declared the class struggle to be over; henceforth the “impartial” state would regulate the reconciliation of interests. Nevertheless, the regime was never able to completely prevent “wildcat” strikes. The press was forbidden to report on them; the same applied to the unrest among agricultural workers, which was relatively frequent until the first half of the 1930s, especially in the south.
A little later, in July 1926, a Ministry of Corporations was established, but the development of the corporative system faltered. As late as 1929, not a single corporation existed. Although the Carta del Lavoro, proclaimed in April 1927 with enormous propaganda effort, had finally declared the corporative idea to be the cornerstone of the “fascist revolution,” in the following years only a bloated bureaucracy flourished in the environment of the Ministry of Corporations, whose social function was exhausted in the provision of posts for the “intellectual proletariat,” which Mussolini regarded with suspicion; the corporative idea itself quickly became a “hunting ground for hundreds of position-seeking academics who endlessly debated its theory and practice. ” Conversely, the fascist unions, much like the party, had been “purged” of recalcitrant officials and members by the end of the 1920s and disciplined by leaderships appointed from above (while the internal autonomy of the business organizations had not been touched by the regime). In November 1928, Mussolini had the trade union federation, the domain of the fascist “labor leader” Edmondo Rossoni, split into six unconnected industrial federations. After Giuseppe Bottai took over the Corporations Ministry in 1929, 22 corporations (grain, textiles, etc.) were finally formed by 1934 after all, but the reliably controlled fascist unions were not dissolved, nor were the employers” associations. The National Council of Corporations, founded in 1930, met only five times. The corporations, in which mostly lawyers, journalists, and fascist party officials “represented” the workers, at no time actually assumed the sovereign functions assigned to them ten years earlier by Rocco and remained in essence “little more than an unrealized idea.”
The new electoral law passed in 1928, however, had at least corporatist features. For the new Chamber of Deputies to be “elected” in March 1929, the fascist Grand Council, which here for the first time exercised the sovereign functions conferred on it by law in December 1928, compiled under Mussolini”s chairmanship a single list of 400 candidates (for 400 seats) proposed by the fascist trade unions, the business organizations, the war veterans and other associations. Again, it was characteristic that this de facto appointed parliament eventually included 125 representatives of the entrepreneurs but only 89 of the trade unions.
The revaluation of the currency also gave real impetus to the “wheat battle”, which now remained a constant theme of propaganda until the first half of the 1930s. It was in this context that the regime placed one of its largest projects, the draining of the Pontine Marshes, which began in 1930. In other parts of the country, too, considerable funds were spent on drainage, irrigation works, reforestation and other essential rural infrastructure under the slogan of bonifica integrale, with sometimes considerable successes, which Mussolini, who repeatedly showed up on the ground, knew how to exploit for his own benefit. At least until 1933, grain production rose sharply, which noticeably relieved the foreign trade balance, but in domestic economic terms turned out to be above all a gigantic subsidy program for the large landowners. The profit margin for grain, guaranteed by the protective tariff and the overvalued currency, did not decrease even during the years of the world economic crisis in Italy, despite declining consumption. This exacerbated the modernization backlog in agriculture and led to an agrarian monoculture in many areas, combined with a decline in livestock and the loss of export markets, such as for olive oil, wine and citrus fruits.
Between August 1933 and April 1934, in just thirteen months, Sabaudia, now a retort town of about 20,000 inhabitants, was built after Benito Mussolini had the Paludi Pontine, the marshy area southeast of Rome, drained.
In Sicily, the fascists were barely able to gain a foothold until 1922. On the island, the large landowners already had a political organization in Prince Scalea”s Partito agrario, which was able to act with the “necessary degree of brutality and illegality” against the wave of strikes and land occupations that began in 1919, carried mainly by peasants and agricultural workers discharged from the military. In 1922, a Sicilian liberal was given the Ministry of Public Works in Mussolini”s first government and joined the PNF in 1923. By 1924, the Partito agrario”s leading personnel had also been absorbed by the Fascist party. Within the Sicilian PNF, by 1927 at the latest, the old elites were able to assert themselves against Fascists “imported” from the north or native to the island but not integrated into its patronage networks. This ensured that Sicily”s social and economic structure was not touched.
This fundamental decision of direction, which followed developments in the rest of the country with a time lag, also put into perspective in the long term the fascist measures against the Mafia, which have often been commented on favorably up to the present day, and which were pushed forward above all between 1924 and 1929 in the era of the “iron prefect” Cesare Mori (prefect of Trapani in 1924, of Palermo in 1925), who was endowed with special powers by Mussolini. Mori, who had the best relations with the latifondisti, however, took action not only against actual Mafiosi, who until then had often been kept out by the landed aristocracy, but also against left-wing activists and radical fascists such as Alfredo Cucco, who between 1922 and 1924, with Farinacci”s backing, had waged his own “war against the Mafia”, which “incidentally” also involved anti-fascists and the networks of the local aristocracy. In 1927, Cucco himself was indicted as a Mafioso and politically eliminated along with the entire Fascist Party organization of Palermo. In all, some 11,000 actual or alleged Mafiosi were imprisoned (but mostly soon released), and many leaders emigrated, mostly to the United States. The fascist campaign against the Mafia thus strengthened above all the social and political domination of the large landowners – for Mori the real “victims” of the Mafia – and, despite short-term successes, created the climate for the renaissance of organized crime after 1943. It had hit the “nouveau riche” middle peasants, who were a thorn in the side of the Latifundists, with particular force. It was precisely this group that cultivated the view under fascism “that in this kind of society the only chance lay in ruthless assertion of one”s will and in powerful protectors.”
Mussolini exploited the “battle against the Mafia” for propaganda purposes, but, contrary to a tenacious legend, was not particularly interested in the problems of Sicily or the Italian south – all in all, probably far less than the prime ministers before him. Nevertheless, after a few years he had it declared that the fascist regime had solved the “southern question” and had also “destroyed” the mafia. In reality, despite a nominal increase in public investment and closer monitoring of the collection and use of taxes, at least in the 1920s, little was done for the island”s development. While in Libya, for example, considerable funds were spent on infrastructure development, many Sicilian villages were still not connected to the railroad network in the forties, and often not even to the road network. When Mussolini visited Sicily for the first time in June 1923, he described it as a “dishonor to humanity” that fifteen years after the Messina earthquake numerous inhabitants were still vegetating in self-made huts and promised to provide immediate relief: “But the slums were still there twenty years later, and the ”southern problem,” despite repeated claims that it no longer existed, was no closer to a solution.” A planned town for 10,000 people (Mussolinia, today a district of the city of Caltagirone as Santo Pietro), founded in May 1924 with great propaganda effort in the presence of Mussolini, remained a hamlet with barely 100 inhabitants. It was not until the late 1930s that Mussolini publicly addressed the latifondi as the real cause of Sicily”s development blockade. However, a land reform law enacted in 1940, which in a sense represented a strategic about-face of Fascist policy, was not carried out because of the outbreak of war.
The Lateran Treaties signed by Mussolini and Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri on February 11, 1929, after more than two years of secret negotiations to which fewer than a dozen people were privy, are considered Mussolini”s greatest political success. They settled issues that had been in dispute between the Italian nation-state and the head of the Catholic Church since the Risorgimento and had not been resolved by any of the liberal governments. Mussolini had personally intervened in the negotiations in the final stages, overcoming resistance from the king, who had been raised as an opponent of the church and initially flatly refused to give the pope a say in Italy”s internal affairs, let alone cede territory in the middle of Rome. The announcement of the results of the negotiations by Gasparri on February 7, 1929, was a worldwide sensation.
Italy ceded 44 hectares of its territory to the Pope, who thus became head of a sovereign state again. As “compensation” for the loss of the Papal States in 1870, the Vatican received a cash payment of 750 million lire and a bond for another billion. In return, the Pope declared the “Roman question” “definitively and irrevocably settled.” In the Concordat, the Italian state recognized Catholicism as “the only religion of the state” and, in this context, a substantial and institutionalized influence of the Church on marriage, the family, and schools. With the Azione Cattolica, the state also accepted the work of Catholic youth organizations, which in 1930 had about 700,000 members.
The Lateran Treaties stabilized the fascist regime extraordinarily, although relations between church and state were by no means harmonious until 1931. Pope Pius XI called Mussolini the man “sent to us by Providence” in a much-quoted phrase on February 14, 1929, and also ordered all priests to pray for the king and the Duce (“Pro Rege et Duce”) at the conclusion of daily Mass, and also received him personally three years later.
There is still controversy about the classification of Mussolini”s foreign policy line. Some of the more recent works make a strict distinction between the dictator”s words and his deeds. In this context, the older “intentionalist” thesis that Mussolini took the propaganda formulas about the “new Roman Empire” seriously and “ideologically” oriented Italian foreign policy – with the ultimate goal of a warlike confrontation with France and Great Britain over control of the Mediterranean – after 1926 is rejected as “almost absurd.” The most prominent critic of the intentionalists is the Australian historian Richard Bosworth, who places the goals and means of Mussolini”s foreign policy in a continuity of the “myths of the Risorgimento” and denies that there was anything at all like a genuine “fascist” imperialism distinguishable from “traditional” one. The American historian MacGregor Knox, who derives the regime”s “revolutionary” foreign policy entirely from the “will” of the dictator, whose program had already been fixed in all essential details by the mid-1920s, takes the opposite position; Knox assumes – similar to older Italian historians, including Gaetano Salvemini – a break in continuity in foreign policy. A “dominant nationalist school of thought” in Italy today, following the work of Renzo De Felice, takes a third position, describing Mussolini”s foreign policy with a not infrequently justifying undertone primarily as a “realpolitik politician.”
In April 1927, Italy concluded a treaty of friendship with Hungary, the country most interested in revising the peace treaties. Italy supplied arms to Hungary and began training Hungarian officers and pilots, even though the Treaty of Trianon had imposed arms restrictions on Hungary similar to those imposed on Germany. Paris and Belgrade responded in December 1927 with a bilateral mutual assistance treaty. Mussolini had by this time begun to promote the leader of the Croatian fascist Ustasha movement, Ante Pavelić. A camouflaged training center was established near Parma, where his followers received political and military training. The fact that Mussolini supported the Croatian fascists who carried out attacks in Yugoslavia was soon known in the foreign ministries of Europe. After the proclamation of the Republic in Spain (April 1931), Italy supported individual protagonists of the anti-republican right.
Mussolini was not prepared to accept that a politically active community of anti-fascist émigrés was becoming established in France; in 1929, two serious diplomatic crises occurred over this issue. At the signing of the Briand-Kellogg Pact in August 1928, Mussolini demonstratively sent only the Italian ambassador, while other signatory states were represented by their foreign ministers. At the London Naval Conference in 1930, France rejected the naval parity demanded by Italy because it had not received territorial guarantees (“Mediterranean Locarno”). Neither Great Britain nor the United States were prepared to do so.
The minority issue was another source of constant foreign policy entanglements. Mussolini was determined to eliminate the “ethnic remnants” in Italy (cf. Italianization) and even authorized comparable measures in the Dodecanese, where the Fascist regime introduced Italian as a school language and banned all Greek newspapers. This did not stop him from complaining in Paris about the treatment of the Italian community in Tunis and in London about the repression of the Italian language in Malta.
Germany”s gain in influence, which began to emerge in 1931, led temporarily to a certain rapprochement between Paris and Rome. In March 1931, France conceded maritime parity to Italy in a joint declaration. Both countries took action against the plan for a German-Austrian customs union, which had become known in the same month. However, Mussolini – unlike the thoroughly Francophobic Grandi, who nevertheless regarded the strengthening Germany as the greatest danger to Italy”s position – rejected an outright “entente,” which the Herriot government at least considered in 1932. In July 1932, Mussolini dismissed Grandi and took over the foreign ministry again himself.
The development of the anti-democratic right in Germany was closely watched by the Italian fascists. Mussolini had at his disposal, in addition to the reports of the Italian embassy, a number of other excellent sources of information, among which Giuseppe Renzetti, the founder of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Berlin and the Duce”s “shadow ambassador,” stood out above all. In the course of the 1920s, Renzetti succeeded in establishing direct personal relations with the leaders of the DNVP, the Stahlhelm, and the NSDAP, as well as with influential conservative journalists and industrialists. He was received by Mussolini for the first time for a personal meeting on October 16, 1930, and was instructed to maintain contact with Hitler and Goering on Mussolini”s behalf. On April 24, 1931, Mussolini received Hermann Göring, the first leading National Socialist, in “audience.”
Attempts at contact between the leading personnel of the NSDAP and Mussolini were older, but until the party”s electoral success in September 1930, they were very one-sided. As early as November 1922, Mussolini had received a report from the Italian diplomat Adolfo Tedaldi, in which the latter referred to Hitler, the “leader of the fascists” in Bavaria. The latter, he said, advocated a German-Italian alliance and recognized the Italian position on the South Tyrol question. Hitler apparently tried unsuccessfully in 1922 and 1923 to contact Mussolini, whom he admired, through Kurt Lüdecke. Similar advances were rebuffed by Mussolini in 1927 and again in 1930, although until then he had repeatedly been presented with sympathetic reports from Italians who had met Hitler. The Mussolini biographer Renzo De Felice nevertheless considers it possible that the NSDAP received money irregularly from a fund of the Italian consulate in Munich during this phase.
Like his Fascist subordinates, Mussolini fundamentally distrusted all representatives of revanchist and all-German nationalism north of the Alps. Hitler, with his recognition of the annexation of South Tyrol by Italy, appeared as an almost singular phenomenon on the German right, but he represented a Greater German program incompatible with the independence of Austria – where Mussolini had supported the Heimwehr movement with money and weapons since 1927 and the policies of Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß since 1932 – as Mussolini”s magazine Gerarchia warned in September 1930.
Personally, Mussolini was also troubled by the aggressive anti-Semitism and völkisch racism of the National Socialists – even though this issue was never at the forefront of his thoughts. In a conversation with the Heimwehr leader Starhemberg, he confessed that he was not a “particular friend of the Jews,” but that National Socialist anti-Semitism was “unworthy of a European nation.” Mussolini shared the devaluations of non-Europeans and Slavs common to Italian elites (“Democracy for Slavs is like alcohol for blacks.”), but he also sharply rejected biologically based racism publicly, at least until 1934. The blood-and-soil ideology and the concept of a nation as a “descent community,” which had been common property in the ideologies of the German right since World War I, remained alien to Mussolini throughout his life. His racism was “voluntaristic”-for Mussolini, an Italian was anyone he could ascribe to a particular variety of social, cultural, and political civilization. On the other hand, he was convinced that parts of the Italian people were not (yet) part of the “nation: Florentines were troublemakers, Neapolitans useless and undisciplined, etc. In contrast, Italian Jews had proven themselves as citizens and soldiers. Nevertheless, Mussolini tolerated an anti-Semitic current of fascism that had gathered around the magazine La Vita Italiana and its editor Giovanni Preziosi. In the spring of 1933, he urged the Fascists in the Popolo d”Italia to consider the Nazis” boycott of the Jews in context and not to “moralize” about it.
Hitler sent Mussolini a telegram as late as January 30, 1933, in which he once again expressed his personal esteem for the Duce. Mussolini, for his part, tried to adopt a patronizing, simulating patronage attitude toward Hitler until 1934. In the spring of 1933, for example, he advised Hitler in writing to refrain from anti-Semitism (which “always had a little of the flavor of the Middle Ages”) and to refrain from the use of the word “patronage”. Hitler had asked for an informal meeting and had traveled to Venice as a “private citizen” like a “plumber in a raincoat” (Mussolini), but was surprised by Mussolini with a large press contingent and an ultimately misplanned pompous reception that unsuccessfully sought to make an impression. The two conversed alone in German several times, which certainly overwhelmed Mussolini. Hitler irritated Mussolini already at this first meeting with endless monologues; nevertheless, Mussolini was apparently convinced that he had talked Hitler out of hoping for an “Anschluss” of Austria, while Hitler left Italy with the impression that Mussolini had no objections to an Austrian government led by the NSDAP.
Diplomatically, Mussolini initially sought to bring German revisionism under control with a four-power pact, which he had already proposed in October 1932. Representatives of France, Germany, Great Britain, and Italy signed it in Rome in July 1933. However, the treaty was rendered meaningless by Germany”s withdrawal from the League of Nations and thus was never ratified. In parallel, Mussolini attempted to consolidate the Italian position through a series of diplomatic maneuvers, all of which were, in essence, directed against Germany; this series includes the Treaty of Friendship and Nonaggression with the Soviet Union (September 2, 1933) and the agreements with Hungary and Austria in March 1934 (see Roman Protocols). Hastily drafted plans for an Italian-controlled pact system in southeastern Europe that would include Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey in addition to Hungary failed because of French resistance, the conceivably poor Italian-Yugoslav and Italian-Greek relations, and Hungary”s refusal to moderate its anti-Yugoslav stance.
During World War I, Italy”s grip on its colonial possessions had loosened considerably. In Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (both territories were administratively unified as Italian Libya only in 1934), it controlled only the larger cities on the coast in 1919. When Mussolini became prime minister, the colonial administration had already begun the so-called riconquista of the hinterland. The planning for this had been significantly advanced by Giuseppe Volpi (governor of Tripolitania from 1921 to 1925) and Giovanni Amendola (colonial minister between February and October 1922 and a few years later “martyr” of liberal anti-fascism). While the “pacification” of Tripolitania was completed relatively quickly under the military leadership of Rodolfo Graziani, it dragged on in Cyrenaica until 193233. Here, a third of the population fell victim to a policy that Italian historian Angelo Del Boca has attested to “the nature and extent of a true genocide.” In order to secure fertile soil for agricultural use by Italian settlers and to create a reserve of cheap and constantly available labor, the Italian army (relying largely on East African mercenaries) systematically destroyed, beginning in 1930, the society of the semi-nomadic pastoralists of the Gebel el-Achdar. The livestock was almost completely destroyed, and about 100,000 people were held in concentration camps on the coast, where half died – mostly from starvation – until the camps were dissolved in 1933. Chemical weapons were repeatedly used in air raids, although Italy had been one of the signatories of the Geneva Protocol in June 1925.
Mussolini played a rather ambiguous role in this context. He was ready at any time to authorize the most brutal measures or to approve them after the fact, but at no time did he take the initiative, which clearly lay with Badoglio (since 1929 governor of Tripolitania and Cyrenaika in personal union), Graziani and others. The large-scale expropriations of land without compensation, the rigorous tax system, and the social and spatial separation of the European, Jewish, and Arab inhabitants were largely conceived by Volpi. Mussolini allowed critics of “pacification” such as De Bono (who headed the colonial ministry from 1929 to 1935) and Roberto Cantalupo, both of whom favored an alliance with Arab nationalism directed against Britain and France, to have their way. Their position also seems to have been in line with his intentions. When Mussolini visited the North African colony for the first time in April 1926, he staged himself as the “defender of Islam.” In 1929, he instructed Badoglio to negotiate a (short-lived) truce with rebel leader Umar al-Mukhtar. He also pleased himself in the pose of a benevolent protector during his second visit in March 1937, when he had the “sword of Islam” presented to him by local dignitaries in Tripoli. Although “empire” became a central element of Fascist propaganda during the 1930s, Mussolini does not seem to have had a clear idea of what political, military, or economic benefits could be derived from the colonies. Recent scholarship has pointed out that the conquest of Ethiopia took place without Mussolini having “the faintest idea what to do with this great addition of territory and people.” After replacing Graziani in December 1937 and appointing the Duke of Aosta viceroy of Ethiopia, he left to its own devices the colonial administration there, which was wracked by corruption and clique fighting. Libya, too, was economically a losing proposition (the large oil deposits were “stubbornly” ignored by the colonial administration until the very end, despite clear indications of their existence), and it did not become a place of reception for a noteworthy number of Italian emigrants – one of the most important functions of the colonies, according to Fascist readings – until the second half of the 1930s.
The details of “pacification” in Libya (and after 1936 in Ethiopia) remained unknown in Italy for a long time. Only in recent decades have they come into greater focus through the work of historians Giorgio Rochat and Angelo Del Boca. The discussion of this past is especially conflictual because it is part of a “national” rather than a “fascist” colonial history. As early as 191415, some 10,000 Libyans had died in the suppression of an uprising. The colonial power systematically cracked down on the cattle herders of Cyrenaica soon after their arrival, and nationalist intellectuals openly pondered the “benefits” of displacing or annihilating the indigenous population even before World War I. The use of chemical weapons in the colonies was not officially acknowledged by the Italian Ministry of Defense until the mid-1990s.
War and expansion course 1935-1939
Hitler”s visit to Venice was initially followed by a dramatic deterioration in German-Italian relations. In the July putsch of July 25, 1934, an attempted coup by Austrian National Socialists, Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß, who had been sponsored by Mussolini, was killed. The latter”s family was spending the vacation together with the Mussolinis in Riccione, and Mussolini personally broke the news of her husband”s death to Dollfuß”s wife. On August 21, Mussolini met with Dollfuss” successor Kurt Schuschnigg. He had four fully mobilized divisions march on the Brenner Pass and initiated an anti-German press campaign that lasted until 1935.
Mussolini now also publicly directed fierce attacks against Nazi ideology. On September 6, 1934, in Bari, he took a stand on Germany”s expansionist foreign policy, declaring that the National Socialist racial doctrine came from across the Alps from descendants of a people who “at the time when Rome had Caesar, Virgil and Augustus, did not yet know writing.” At the same time, he relied on means of violent destabilization in the zones of influence he claimed, especially in this phase. On October 9, 1934, Vlado Chernosemski, a suicide bomber trained in an Ustasha camp in Italy, assassinated Yugoslav King Alexander I and French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou in Marseille. Mussolini refused the extradition of Pavelić and other Croatian fascists subsequently demanded by France. That same year, he conferred with Spanish officers and monarchists and promised them arms and money, having already similarly supported the failed coup of General José Sanjurjo in August 1932.
The Anschluss crisis of 1934 initially led to further rapprochement between Italy, France and Great Britain. In October 1934, Robert Vansittart, the highest official in the British Foreign Office, traveled to Rome and assured Mussolini of Britain”s backing on the Austrian question. In January 1935, Mussolini and the new French Foreign Minister, Pierre Laval, signed a series of agreements (known as the Laval-Mussolini Pact) that provided for consultations on all matters affecting Austria and Germany and for the commencement of general staff meetings. France also ceded 110,000 square kilometers of French Equatorial Africa and 20,000 square kilometers of French Somaliland to Italy, which in return renounced claims in Tunisia made since the 19th century. In addition, Laval declared – but only unofficially – that France, which controlled the railroad line from Djibouti to Addis Ababa, was withdrawing from all further claims in Ethiopia (désistement).
On December 30, 1934, Mussolini had instructed the Italian General Staff to prepare for war against Ethiopia, prompted by a serious border incident in which two Italians (and about 100 Ethiopians) had been killed on December 5. Mussolini saw Ethiopia, which had repelled an Italian attack in 1896 and had been a member of the League of Nations since 1923, as the “prize” that Italy could claim for its “constructive” policy in Europe. When he met Laval, Flandin, Simon, and MacDonald at Stresa in April 1935 and signed a declaration in which the three powers emphasized their determination to defend the frontiers in Central Europe created by the peace treaties (cf. Stresa Declaration), he endeavored to ascertain the British attitude on this question. He interpreted the indifference of the British as acquiescence. Mussolini”s thinking and tactics were anything but innovative or genuinely “fascist” in their approach, but followed a pattern of Italian foreign policy that had been established since the 19th century. Most recently, 25 years earlier, the liberal Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti had taken advantage of the favorable situation created by tensions between the stronger European powers to wage war against Turkey. On closer examination, “the Italian war of 193536 has quite a lot in common with the Italian war of 191112.”
Stresa set the course for a “diplomatic catastrophe,” since Mussolini completely underestimated the influence of the political forces in Great Britain, which wanted to come to a long-term understanding with Germany and were neither interested in nor willing to “compensate” Italy for defending Austria”s independence to such a large extent colonially. Mussolini had also not taken into account the group around Anthony Eden, which continued to rely on the mechanisms of the League of Nations in Europe and had public opinion in Great Britain on its side in 1935. Politicians like Churchill, Vansittart, and Austen Chamberlain, who were quite willing to give Italy a free hand in East Africa, had lost all or part of their influence by 1935. This became obvious with the Anglo-German naval agreement, which effectively invalidated the Stresa Declaration after only two months (June 1935). The fact that the British transferred part of the Home Fleet to the Mediterranean shortly thereafter came as a shock to Mussolini. Incomprehensible to his “realistic” understanding of the world were the sudden “anti-colonial sermons of people who themselves controlled half of Africa and had certainly not acquired it peacefully.” He allowed the deployment he had begun in Eritrea and Italian Somaliland to continue, despite the misgivings of his military officers, and rejected the proposals for mediation launched through various channels. A tense parley with Eden in June ended inconclusively. Mussolini, who had demanded the cession of all Ethiopian territory outside the Amharic heartland and an Italian protectorate over what remained, angrily broke off the meeting when Eden offered him “another desert,” the Ogaden.
On October 3, 1935, Italian troops crossed the Ethiopian border from Eritrea (see Italian-Ethiopian War). Six days later, the League of Nations formally declared Italy the aggressor (with Italy voting against and Austria, Hungary, and Albania abstaining), and economic sanctions went into effect in mid-November. In addition to financial restrictions, the League of Nations blocked a number of goods from trade with Italy. However, the oil embargo, considered by all observers to be potentially drastic, failed to materialize. A British-French mediation proposal (cf. Hoare-Laval Pact), which went a long way toward accommodating Italy and would probably have been accepted by Mussolini, leaked to the press early on and was rejected in the British Parliament in December 1935. Mussolini, who had replaced the ineffectual De Bono with Badoglio in November after initial setbacks, now ordered an advance on Addis Ababa and the transfer of more forces and resources to East Africa. By the time the offensive began on January 20, 1936, between 350,000 and 400,000 men had been deployed with 30,000 vehicles and 250 aircraft-the largest army ever assembled in a colonial war. The Italian army, on Badoglio”s initiative – and authorized by Mussolini – now also used poison gas. Planes dropped some 250 tons of bombs containing mustard gas by the end of the war. On May 5, 1936, Italian troops entered Addis Ababa.
Mussolini announced the annexation of Ethiopia and “the return of empire to the sacred hills of Rome” before an enthusiastic crowd in Rome on May 9, 1936. Victor Emmanuel III assumed the title of Emperor of Ethiopia. Although Renzo De Felice”s affirmative labeling of the Ethiopian War as Mussolini”s “political masterpiece” (capolavoro politico) and the related thesis of a “consensus” between the “Italian people” and the regime are highly controversial, there is little doubt that the regime reached the height of internal stability in 1935 and 1936; active and conscious anti-fascism in Italy during this period was limited to a few isolated circles. In July 1936, the League of Nations lifted the economic sanctions again. In the West, however, the war completely reversed the image of Italian fascism. It ended the “love affair between foreign journalists and Mussolini” and gave the Italian dictator a long-lasting image as a “gangster” and “unshaven hooligan,” especially in the conservative British press, which until then had been rather sympathetic to him.
Mussolini took the first steps toward improving German-Italian relations even before the beginning of the Ethiopian War. A few months later, on January 6, 1936, after the failure of the Hoare-Laval Pact and the collapse of the “Stresa Front,” Mussolini informed the surprised German ambassador Ulrich von Hassell that Italy would do nothing to prevent an expansion of German influence in Austria as long as the country remained formally independent (see July Agreement). In February, he indicated-also to von Hassell-that Italy would tolerate remilitarization of the Rhineland, thus informally withdrawing from the commitments made at Locarno in 1925. In June 1936, Mussolini dismissed the “Germanophobic” Triestine Fulvio Suvich, who until then had headed the Foreign Ministry as secretary of state. Mussolini”s 33-year-old son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano, who at that time was one of the enthusiastic supporters of rapprochement with Germany, became foreign minister.
The civil war in Spain accelerated the further deepening of relations. Hitler and Mussolini had initially decided independently to intervene in Spain in favor of the putschists (cf. Corpo Truppe Volontarie) – Mussolini, however, only after prolonged hesitation on July 27, 1936, after it had become clear that the conservative government of Great Britain did not support the Republic and that the French Popular Front government under Léon Blum had reversed its initial support after consultation with Great Britain. Ciano traveled to Berchtesgaden in October 1936 and, after talks with Hitler, signed an agreement on October 25. Germany recognized the Italian annexation of Ethiopia and agreed to demarcate economic spheres of influence in southeastern Europe. The two countries agreed to coordinate their aid to Franco and to act together in the so-called Non-Interference Committee. Verbally, Hitler declared the Mediterranean to be an “Italian sea” and in return claimed freedom of action in the Baltic region and Eastern Europe. Mussolini made the state of German-Italian relations thus reached public on November 1, 1936, in a speech at the Piazza del Duomo in Milan. In it, he spoke for the first time of a political “Rome-Berlin axis.
He accepted Hitler”s invitation to visit Germany, which Hans Frank had already presented to Mussolini in September 1936, but hesitated to set a date. Italy also did not initially join the Anti-Comintern Pact. A British-Italian gentlemen”s agreement, by which both countries recognized the territorial status quo in the Mediterranean in January 1937, indicated that Mussolini continued to speculate on a settlement with the British-but it was “soon forgotten” as relations between the two powers steadily deteriorated. In late August 1937, an Italian submarine attacked the British destroyer Havock off the Spanish coast. The British were also not unaware that in 193637 Italy began to provide financial, political, and material support to anti-colonial nationalists in various parts of the British dominion, including Malta, Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq.
In June 1937, Mussolini finally agreed to visit Germany in September. The visit to Germany (September 25-29, 1937) was Mussolini”s first trip abroad since 1925 and the only official state visit he ever made. Mussolini visited Munich, Garrison Church and Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, the Krupp Works in Essen, and a Wehrmacht maneuver in Mecklenburg. The highlight was a speech before (allegedly) 800,000 people at Berlin”s Maifeld on September 28. Mussolini was extraordinarily impressed by what he saw in Germany. In November 1937, Italy joined the Anti-Comintern Pact and shortly thereafter left the League of Nations. In conversation with Joachim von Ribbentrop, Mussolini now described the “Anschluss of Austria” to the Reich as inevitable. When this occurred in March 1938, Italy did not react.
Mussolini now anticipated an imminent confrontation between Germany and Czechoslovakia, which was allied with France and the Soviet Union. He therefore rejected the military alliance mooted by Hitler during his return visit to Rome in May 1938, especially since Great Britain had formally recognized the Italian annexation of Ethiopia on April 16, 1938. During the Sudeten crisis, Mussolini remained in the background until the end, but then abruptly played an important role. On September 28, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain carried to Hitler his proposal of a conference of the four great European powers on Mussolini. When the latter agreed, the Italian ambassador telephoned through from Berlin to Rome the German demands conveyed to him by Goering. Mussolini then took this paper to Munich and presented it there as an Italian “compromise proposal,” which was finally accepted by the conference in the early hours of September 30 (see Munich Agreement). Since the Italian press duly highlighted Mussolini”s apparently “decisive” role in Munich, he was hailed as the “savior of Europe” by thousands of people at nearly every railroad station upon his return.
After Munich, Mussolini was more determined than ever to exploit the European crisis triggered by Germany in Italy”s favor. Now he also had the Italian maximum demands made public. When Ciano spoke to the Chamber of Deputies on November 30, 1938, in the presence of the French ambassador, about the “natural claims of the Italian people,” on cue numerous deputies suddenly jumped to their feet, shouting “Nice! Corsica! Savoy! Tunisia! Djibouti! Malta!” Before the Grand Council that day, Mussolini extended this catalog to Albania and part of Switzerland. Before the same body, on February 4, 1939, he called Italy a “prisoner of the Mediterranean.”
Such an extensive program could only be realized either by war or by massive diplomatic pressure – and in both cases not without the weight of Germany. Mussolini, encouraged in part by the Italian military leadership, now set course for the military alliance that had been rejected the previous year, although Germany”s occupation of Bohemia and Moravia in March caused considerable irritation in Rome. At the Grand Council meeting of March 21, 1939, at which Balbo in particular attacked Italian foreign policy, Mussolini openly portrayed Italy as Germany”s junior partner: Germany outnumbered Italy demographically by a ratio of 2:1 and industrially by a ratio of 12:1. In conversation with Ciano, he downplayed the danger of being drawn into a European war against his own will by the apparently unpredictable Hitler. Albania, de facto an Italian protectorate for more than ten years, was occupied by Italian troops on April 7, 1939.
In early May 1939, after another visit by Ribbentrop, Mussolini finally agreed to the German-Italian military alliance. Ciano and Ribbentrop signed this so-called “steel pact” (Patto d”Acciaio, a Mussolini neologism) in Hitler”s presence in Berlin on May 22, 1939. In the preamble, Italy finally received the binding recognition of the German-Italian border that it had long sought, but which Hitler had hitherto only expressed verbally. In essence, the treaty was a military offensive alliance; it provided for an almost automatic obligation of assistance, limited only by a vague provision for timely “consultations,” in any military conflict – i.e., including outright wars of aggression – in which either party would become involved. The required peace period of three years, mentioned by Ciano at Mussolini”s request in the preliminary negotiations, was promised verbally by Ribbentrop, but did not appear in the text of the treaty drafted by German diplomats. Whether the Italian side was clear about the consequences of the treaty or whether a “breathtaking incompetence” on Ciano”s part played into the Germans” hands is disputed. Mussolini emphasized the reservation once again in a memorandum that he had Ugo Cavallero deliver to Hitler on May 30.
From around 1936 onward, the regime underwent a self-proclaimed new phase of fascist “revolution.” The debate over whether this development was a genuine radicalization and the successive emergence of a totalitarian party-state – a thesis stylistically advanced above all by De Felice”s disciple Emilio Gentile – or whether it remained Mussolini”s attempt to “make it look as if fascism were passing through a new and ultra-radical phase” is not over.
In the era of party secretary Achille Starace (1931-1939), the political style of the fascist party changed significantly. After the mass expulsions of “radicals” engineered by Turati and Giuriati and the parallel influx of conservative functional elites, the party opened up to the masses after 1932. By 1939, half of Italy”s population was said to belong either to the party or (more often) to one of its numerous apron, subsidiary, and auxiliary organizations. This development was discreetly encouraged, for example, by the fact that membership in the PNF was taken for granted in applications for civil service jobs from 1937 at the latest. In 1939, membership in the fascist youth organization became mandatory for adolescent Italians. Through regular marches and events of all kinds, for which the “fascist Saturday” (sabato fascista) introduced in 193536 was reserved, the party now occupied the public space much more than before. A series of campaigns aimed at militarizing social life and making Italians tougher. The campaign against the “bourgeois” polite form lei, which was to be replaced in personal interactions by the “vernacular” voi, has become particularly well known. A campaign against Anglicisms finally imposed the name calcio for soccer, which had by then become the national sport – which the fascists and Mussolini in particular had largely ignored until the first half of the 1930s and in some cases even fought against with the specially invented rival sport volata – implying incidentally that the game had been invented in 16th-century Florence. Politically, these measures were mostly coordinated through the party and Starace (since 1937, the party secretary had ministerial rank), but technically they were increasingly handled by the apparatus of the Ministry of Popular Culture (Ministero della Cultura Popolare), created in 1937. Mussolini pushed this development of a “fascist culture” with a large number of speeches in which he emphasized the totalitarian and revolutionary character of a “third wave” of fascism.
Formal changes in the structure of state leadership ran in parallel. Sometimes the title “First Marshal of the Empire” (Primo maresciallo dell”Impero), which Mussolini had conferred on himself in April 1938, is interpreted as an attempt to relativize the position of the monarch. In December 1938, the Chamber of Deputies that had emerged from the sham elections of 1934 was dissolved, and in March 1939 it was abolished altogether. A “Chamber of Fasci and Corporations” (Camera dei Fasci e delle Corporazioni) was appointed as a replacement. The Senate, however, the traditional forum of the conservative elites, was not touched-according to Mussolini, “the Senate was Roman, but the Chamber was Anglo-Saxon.”
Mussolini reacted increasingly “hypersensitive” to all expressions of anti-fascist dissidence. When, after the humiliation at the Battle of Guadalajara in the spring of 1937, the slogan “Today in Spain and tomorrow in Italy!” that had arisen among Italian volunteers of the International Brigades appeared on houses in Italy, he called on Franco to have captured “Red” Italians shot. The assassination of the Rosselli brothers by French fascists (June 9, 1937) was proven to be the work of Ciano and the Italian secret service, and Mussolini”s collusion is considered certain.
The “flagship” of the new radicalism was the racist turn of fascism initiated in the summer of 1938. On July 14, 1938 – as a symbolic blow against the ideals of the Enlightenment apparently deliberately on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille – a “Manifesto of Race” appeared in Il Giornale d”Italia, which Mussolini had ten named racist scientists write. The text proclaimed, in the form of a decalogue, the existence of a homogeneous “Italian race” of “Aryan” origin. Jews, “Orientals” and Africans were alien to this race. This prologue was followed by a whole series of openly discriminatory racist and anti-Semitic laws until 1939. On August 3, 1938, the children of foreign Jews were first excluded from attending school, followed in September by a decree that attempted to define who was to be understood as a Jew. On November 17, 1938, a comprehensive decree forbade the marriage of “Aryan” Italians to members of “other races” and regulated in detail the exclusion of Jews from the military, education, administration, economic life (restriction to small businesses and agriculture), and the fascist party. In addition, all Jews who were not Italian citizens (or who had obtained citizenship after 1919) were expelled from Italy.
The open turn to racism again cooled the regime”s relations with the Catholic Church after the low point of 1931 (cf. Non abbiamo bisogno). The conquest of Ethiopia and even more so the intervention in Spain had met with the open applause of the clergy and led to a great public closeness of church and state. The “scientific” doctrine of race, however, such as that propagated by the official journal La difesa della razza, launched in the summer of 1938, clashed directly with Catholic universalism. Mussolini, as documents uncovered after the release of the relevant holdings of the Vatican archives show, attempted to moderate tensions, assuring the pope in writing (not without cynicism) on August 16, 1938, that Italian Jews would not be subjected to worse treatment than Jews in the former Papal States; there would be no return to “colored caps” and ghettos. In the same context, he demanded that the Church refrain from taking any critical position on the leggi razziali. While individual Italian bishops and leading Catholic intellectuals such as Agostino Gemelli publicly supported the anti-Jewish measures, the aging and ailing Pius XI-which considerably irritated and infuriated Mussolini-was apparently determined on a show of force that, at its core, involved fundamental questions of the Church”s influence on Italian public life. His death (the printed copies of a no-longer-held speech on the 10th anniversary of the Lateran Treaties, which Pius XI had ordered to be distributed to the bishops on his deathbed, had Cardinal Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII, destroyed at Mussolini”s and Ciano”s request.
With few exceptions, recent scholarship – including De Felice”s school – agrees that “the Duce and his regime were in decline” in the late 1930s. Mussolini”s cynicism and misanthropy reached their peak during this period and were no longer concealed by him even in public appearances. Leading Fascists lamented the atmosphere of suspicion and distrust in the government. Bocchini”s police situation reports in 1938 noted a “wave of pessimism” sweeping through the country. When Mussolini inaugurated the Fiat Group”s new factory in Turin”s Mirafiori district on May 15, 1939, only a few hundred of the 50,000 workers gathered greeted him with applause; everyone else watched his entrance in silence, arms folded in an unprecedented display of hostility. The “autarky” campaign, initiated on the occasion of the economic sanctions of 193536 and obviously intended to prepare for war, had further worsened the living conditions of many people, but now, for the first time, it had also affected the wealthy through the rationing of luxury goods such as coffee and gasoline. The alliance with Germany, which made the country”s involvement in a major war likely, was rejected not only by the “masses” but also by a notable portion of the elites. Wealthy Italians began to move their assets to Switzerland or to exchange cash balances for gold.
However, the rift within the power bloc, made evident by the “anti-bourgeois” campaign of 1938 and 1939 – in the “bourgeoisie” Mussolini saw here above all “a cipher for political stagnation, corruption and ideological indifference within the leading cadres, but also at the base of the PNF” – went deeper and touched the very foundations of the regime. According to historian Martin Clark, the bourgeoisie had preserved its economic independence and social prestige under fascism. It had accepted Mussolini in the 1920s because he ended the strikes, crushed the radical left and brought the fanatics among the fascists under control:
Dictator in war 1939-1943
In concluding the alliance with Germany in May 1939, Mussolini had assumed that a major European war would not begin before 1942; by then, the assumption went, Italy could expand its position in the Mediterranean with German backing and also profit in southeastern Europe from the disintegration of the postwar order created by the Paris Preliminary Agreements. This conception was based on the conviction that in the short term neither Great Britain and France nor Germany would risk a war between the great powers. As late as early August 1939, he was convinced that German-Polish tensions would be settled by a “new Munich.” It was not until August 13, when Ciano informed him of his talks with Hitler and Ribbentrop on August 11 and 12, that Mussolini realized that Hitler not only wanted to occupy Danzig but was determined to take military action against all of Poland, thus invoking the danger of a European war. Unlike Hitler and Ribbentrop, Mussolini considered it almost certain that Britain and France would intervene in the German-Polish war. But if this happened, the preconditions of Ciano”s and Mussolini”s foreign policy strategy would no longer apply.
Both were now feverishly searching for a formula that would allow Italy to renege on its far-reaching obligations under the “Steel Pact” without openly reneging on the alliance. On August 21, Mussolini wrote to Hitler that Italy was not equipped for a major war but, should negotiations fail because of the “intransigence of others,” would intervene on the German side. Four days later, in another letter presented to Hitler at the Reich Chancellery by Ambassador Bernardo Attolico, he made this intervention conditional on the supply of armaments and raw materials by Germany. The list of Italian requirements sent on August 26, however, was deliberately so excessive (Mussolini demanded, among other things, the transfer of 150 batteries of heavy flak before the war began) that it had to be rejected. In order not to openly devalue the German-Italian alliance agreement, Mussolini asked Hitler for an official declaration that Germany did not need Italian support for the time being. This came by telegram on September 1 and was repeated by Hitler, mutatis mutandis, in his Reichstag speech of the same day.
On September 1, 1939, Mussolini-to avoid any reminiscence of the Italian “neutrality” of 1914-15-defined the Italian position to his cabinet as that of a pro-German “nonbelligeranza.” Although the de facto declaration of neutrality was welcomed by the overwhelming majority of Italians, the regime”s unspoken admission that it was not prepared for war, against the backdrop of its years of highly militarized propaganda, led to an abrupt loss of reputation that reminded some observers of the Matteotti crisis. Over the next few months, Mussolini adopted a wait-and-see attitude. In September, a partial mobilization of the armed forces had revealed that their structural deficiencies were even more pronounced than had been feared. The Regia Aeronautica, which had been considered the most modern and powerful of the branches of the armed forces, was having “problems counting its own aircraft” and in September 1939 had only 840 aircraft, some of which were not operational, instead of the 8,528 reported on paper (a fact apparently unknown to Mussolini, the Minister of Aviation, who dismissed the Secretary of State responsible in October 1939); the army artillery still consisted to a considerable extent of guns captured from the Imperial and Royal Army in 1918. Army in 1918, the anti-aircraft artillery had only two searchlights and 15 batteries with modern-type guns, and the Panzerwaffe had only 70 “real” tanks, the rest being light tankettes. Uniforms and weapons were available for less than 1 million men. Instead of the “150 divisions” Mussolini had repeatedly bragged about, only 10 were considered combat-capable; their armament was also very outdated, compared to the standards of 1939.
Also because of this situation, the circle around Ciano, which was convinced of a British-French victory and flatly rejected entering the war alongside Germany, temporarily gained the upper hand. Even Roberto Farinacci considered it too risky to intervene in the war of the great powers with a “toy army.” At the end of October 1939, Mussolini replaced Achille Starace, the staunchest supporter of the German-Italian alliance among the leading Fascists, as secretary of the PNF. His successor, Ettore Muti, was considered a supporter of Ciano. Internally, Mussolini repeatedly moved verbally away from Germany. He called the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty a “betrayal” and expressed horror at the targeted physical extermination of the Polish upper class by German Einsatzgruppen. What is certain is that he alerted Belgian diplomats to the likelihood of a German attack and approved Italian arms exports to France. Demonstratively, he allowed the costly fortification work on the German-Italian border (cf. Vallo Alpino) to continue.
When the Soviet-Finnish war began in November 1939, Mussolini made a new attempt to bring about an understanding between Germany, Britain, and France. At Mussolini”s and Ciano”s instigation, Germany allowed the transit of Italian arms shipments for Finland. Mussolini saw an opportunity to use “aid to Finland” as a way to unite the Western powers and the signatories of the Anti-Comintern Pact in a conflict against the Soviet Union. The culmination of this effort was a letter from Mussolini to Hitler, written on January 3, 1940, and mailed two days later. He could understand, Mussolini wrote in it, referring to the German-Soviet nonaggression treaty, “that, since Ribbentrop”s predictions about the nonintervention of England and France have not been fulfilled, you have avoided the second front.” But he had to warn against “constantly sacrificing the principles of your revolution in favor of the tactical requirements of a particular political moment.” Openly, Mussolini threatened Hitler that “another step forward in your relations with Moscow would trigger catastrophic repercussions in Italy, where the general anti-Bolshevik sentiment, especially among the fascist masses, is absolute, ironclad and unshakable. (…) Only four months ago Russia was world enemy number one; it cannot have become friend number one, nor is it. This has deeply aroused the Fascists in Italy and perhaps many National Socialists in Germany.” He specifically advised Hitler against an offensive in the West because it was “not certain whether it will succeed in bringing the French and English to their knees or separating them.” With such a step, Hitler was putting his entire regime at risk and increasing the probability of the United States entering the war. The solution of the German “Lebensraum question” lay in Russia. To enable the Western powers to negotiate in a face-saving manner, Mussolini recommended the cessation of terrorist measures in Poland and the re-establishment of a diminished Polish state. Hitler is said to have discussed the letter at length with Goering and Ribbentrop, but subsequently made Mussolini wait over two months for a reply. In the meantime, on February 25, 1940, Mussolini submitted to U.S. negotiator Sumner Welles a detailed program for negotiations that included a renewed referendum on the future of Austria and the reestablishment of a formally independent Poland. The Welles mission came to nothing, as Hitler refused from the outset to discuss the “subject of Austria” and the “question of a future Polish state” at his meeting with the American, which took place in Berlin on March 2.
When Ribbentrop delivered Hitler”s reply to the January letter in Rome on March 10, 1940, in a friendly tone, he indicated at the same time that a German attack in the West was imminent. Mussolini assured the German foreign minister on March 11 that Italy would intervene in the war “at the right moment” and did not go beyond this vague determination even in his meeting with Hitler at the Brenner Pass (March 18).
Mussolini abandoned his wait-and-see attitude only in the wake of German victories in northern and western Europe. Letters from Roosevelt and Churchill on May 14 and 16, 1940, which attempted to dissuade him from intervening on the German side, he answered evasively. On May 26, he is reported to have expressed to Chief of Staff General Badoglio that he needed “a few thousand dead” in order to attend a peace conference as a belligerent. Either way, the war would end in September. The final decision was probably made on May 28 or 29, after Mussolini learned that British Foreign Secretary Halifax had failed to prevail against Churchill in the Cabinet with his proposal to approach Hitler with a peace offer through Mussolini. On May 29, in a meeting with the commanders of the branches of the armed forces, he set the start of hostilities against Britain and France for June 5, 1940, but postponed the date by five days after some military officers expressed serious misgivings. On June 10, Mussolini announced the declaration of war in a speech from the balcony of Palazzo Venezia. The German side now watched with suspicion the Italian entry into the war, which had been desired the previous year. In late May, Hitler had explicitly intervened with Mussolini against attacks on Yugoslavia and Greece. Mussolini accepted the German objections and ordered the assembly of an army on the Libyan-Egyptian border.
The historiography on the Italian entry into the war followed for a long time Galeazzo Ciano, according to whose diary entries “one man alone” had involved the country in the war. Winston Churchill took this point of view, which was supported by the Mussolini biographer Renzo De Felice. Part of recent research, however, emphasizes that in the specific situation of June 1940, all notable groups of social influence – including the Catholic Church – supported the option of a “short war.”
Mussolini”s intention in June 1940 was to wage a short war for “Italian objectives.” After a meeting with Hitler at the Brenner Pass in October 1940, he coined the term “parallel war” (guerra parallela), which Italy would fight “not for Germany, nor with Germany, but alongside Germany,” and therefore rejected German offers to send troops to North Africa or to coordinate military planning. He wanted to keep German influence in Italy”s areas of interest low and secure complete freedom of action in all directions, since he assumed that Germany was pursuing its own goals, especially in southeastern Europe, which were also directed against Italy, and therefore sought to channel the Italian offensive primarily against the Middle East.
A few days before the declaration of war, Mussolini had had the military supreme command transferred to him by the king for the duration of the hostilities. In this role, he did not concern himself in any detail with operational planning, but reserved the right to decide on essential military decisions. He believed he could fulfill the duties thus assumed in addition to his other offices with only one assistant. As commander-in-chief, Mussolini was responsible for the decision not to occupy Malta, which was almost undefended in the summer of 1940, as well as for the hasty decision to attack the French Alpine army (Battle of the Western Alps (1940)). He gave the order to do so after Hitler informed him of the French cease-fire request on June 17, 1940. The attack, launched on June 20 from the defensive deployment originally ordered and without sufficient artillery support, was an obvious failure that the regime”s propaganda could not disguise. After the Italian-French armistice agreement (June 24, 1940), in which Mussolini had to “temporarily” relinquish almost all of his claims on France – in particular the port of Bizerte, which was crucial for the control of the Strait of Sicily and the trouble-free supply of troops in Libya – he had the few motorized divisions of the Italian army moved to the Yugoslav border. Rodolfo Graziani, the Italian commander in Libya whom Mussolini ordered to attack across the Egyptian border in June, July, and August, refused to proceed without these formations and made only a limited advance on Sidi Barrani in September.
The attack on Greece that Mussolini ordered without prior consultation with his chiefs of staff on October 15, 1940 – this time strongly encouraged by Ciano – is regarded as a glaring example of the grotesque overestimation of Italy”s military capabilities by the leading Fascists. With this step, Mussolini primarily wanted to ensure that at least Greece remained within Italy”s zone of influence, after Germany had tied the economies of the Balkan states to itself and had begun moving troops into Romania on October 12. Despite the impending winter, the difficult terrain, and the considerable fighting strength of the Greek army, even according to Italian military intelligence, the Italian political and military leadership considered an army of initially 5 divisions (60,000 men) sufficient to crush Greece from Albania. The attack, which began on October 28, turned into a military and political disaster within a few weeks. Only with difficulty could the Italian units, gradually reinforced to 500,000 men, hold their own against the Greek counterattack in Albania during the winter of 194041. The British air attack on the port of Taranto and the collapse of the 10th Army in Libya made the “parallel war” a fiction by the end of 1940.
The regime”s inability to organize effective warfare, evident after only a few months, soon proved to be a heavy political burden, since here the “chasm between words and deeds was so ludicrously wide” that its legitimacy was now questioned even outside the anti-fascist milieus. It was undoubted that a large part of the Italian soldiers refused to risk life and limb for the regime or for “the Germans.” Police chief Arturo Bocchini had already pointed this out to Mussolini in the fall of 1939. Above all, however, the fiasco of Italian participation in the war highlighted the failure of fascism in areas that had been singled out by propaganda for nearly two decades as central touchstones of “fascist modernization.” The state of the Italian armed forces, which until the end were unreservedly in the hands of conservative generals wedded to the military doctrines of World War I, is cited by some historians as essential evidence that “the dictator”s power, somewhere beneath the chatter and bluster, was incomplete and fleeting.” the unbroken military traditionalism – together with the similarly failing other institutions of the state and the party – “drastically demonstrated the limits of fascism and the superficiality of Mussolini”s alleged revolution.”
On January 20, 1941, in a meeting with Hitler at the Berghof, Mussolini conceded to Germany an active military role in the Mediterranean and accepted the transfer of two German divisions to Libya. From now on, Fascist Italy developed into a “German satellite” politically, economically and, above all, militarily. Mussolini was unable to develop a new political strategy or a clear program of war aims. Outwardly concerned, as always, with preserving his personal prestige, he conceded in conversation with the new Chief of General Staff, Ugo Cavallero, that everything else depended on decisions made in Berlin, “since we are incapable of doing anything.” Even in the central “Italian” theaters of war, Mussolini had been unable to prevail against German decisions since 1941. The occupation of Malta – from which British naval and air forces sank a large part of the supply transports for North Africa – that he had repeatedly urged on Hitler until the spring of 1942 was omitted when the latter decided on June 23, 1942, to cancel the action prepared for July and to endorse Rommel”s plan for an immediate advance into Egypt. In characteristic fashion, Mussolini then “adopted Hitler”s and the OKW”s adventurous assessment of the situation” and flew to Libya at the end of June, where he waited in vain for three weeks with a large entourage of journalists and leading fascists for the entry into Alexandria and Cairo announced by Rommel. To those around him, he blamed the succession of failures and setbacks on either the Italian people, the Germans, fascist gerarchi, or his generals. He continued to make fundamental military decisions from a political point of view; in this way, he distributed Italy”s limited military resources among a multitude of widely dispersed theaters of war. After the German invasion of the USSR, he imposed on the reluctant Hitler an Italian Expeditionary Corps, which was upgraded to an army during 1942. This unit included some of the Italian Army”s strongest fighting divisions, gobbled up much of its material supplies, and, at last count, was about 225,000 men stronger than the Italian Army in North Africa. After the Balkan campaign in April 1941, Mussolini had insisted on the establishment of an extensive Italian occupation zone. It permanently tied up some 650,000 troops, and the occupation of Corsica and southeastern France in November 1942 added another 200,000 men.
The fascist party, which in 1940 had 4.25 million members, also failed in many ways to support the war effort. It was essentially responsible – in addition to its “normal” duties – for organizing civil defense, caring for evacuees and families of conscripts, controlling prices, and combating the black market. Mussolini was not unaware of the serious problems in these areas, but even here he was unwilling or unable to intervene decisively. He dismissed Ettore Muti, who had considered party reform and even the dissolution of the PNF, at the end of October 1940; the new party secretary, Adelchi Serena, was a “colorless party bureaucrat” who merely administered the deficits. Mussolini replaced him as early as December 1941 with Aldo Vidussoni, who was just 28 years old. Under Vidussoni, who remained in office until April 1943, the Fascist party definitively failed as a factor in the war effort. Many gerarchi simply refused to take instructions from the upstart who was reviled as a “child” and an “imbecile.” Mussolini”s speech to the PNF directorate on May 26, 1942, in which he openly admitted that the liberal state had organized warfare more consistently and successfully between 1915 and 1918, stands as a document and admission of failure. In fascist Italy, Mussolini said, “indiscipline, sabotage and passive resistance” could be found at every turn; the fascists, too, were primarily occupied with hoarding food and consumer goods for the black market, but were politically inactive:
Under the impact of the military catastrophes in North Africa and on the Don, where the Italian army deployed against the Soviet Union (cf. ARMIR) was almost completely annihilated in the winter of 194243, the smoldering crisis of the fascist regime broke out openly in the spring of 1943. Within Italy”s political, military, and economic ruling class, a group rapidly gaining influence was formed that rejected the continuation of the war alongside Germany and wanted to bring about an understanding with Great Britain and the United States before the war spilled over into Italian territory. Mussolini initially accommodated these aspirations and made an important concession to them on January 31, 1943, with the dismissal of Chief of General Staff Ugo Cavallero, who was considered a “man of the Germans.” Cavallero”s successor, Vittorio Ambrosio, was a confidant of the king, who was surrounded by conservative forces who feared that the monarchy would be implicated in the overthrow of fascism. On February 5, Mussolini himself took over the Foreign Ministry in a cabinet reshuffle, but left Ciano-who had already tried to talk to the British and Americans through the Italian ambassador in Lisbon in the fall of 1942-on the Fascist Grand Council and made him ambassador to the Vatican, through whom numerous connections to Allied capitals ran. He appointed Giuseppe Bastianini, who had been ambassador to London in 193940, as secretary of state at the Foreign Ministry.
Mussolini had last addressed Italians over the radio on December 2, 1942. This “disastrous” speech was the first of its kind in eighteen months and the fourth since the beginning of the war. Mussolini – apparently assuming that his listeners would not hold him responsible for this – admitted more or less openly that the Italian soldiers had been poorly equipped and led and that the war enemy had been underestimated. Moreover, he seemed to confirm the suspicion, widespread among Italians since the intensification of Allied bombing in the fall of 1942, that the country had no air defenses worth mentioning; his remark that one should not wait “until the clock strikes twelve” to evacuate triggered a panicked, completely uncoordinated mass exodus to the countryside in some cities. With this performance, Mussolini finally lost the propaganda war. More and more Italians followed the course of the war via the BBC”s Italian service, which made “well-chosen and extremely appealing” propaganda, listened to Vatican Radio or read L”Osservatore Romano, which was considered the only newspaper with “neutral” reporting and whose circulation multiplied.
Mussolini rejected the denunciation of the Berlin-Rome axis sought by Ciano, Dino Grandi, and others. He hoped to obtain from Hitler decisive material and personnel support for Italian warfare and even a shift in the center of gravity of the German war effort from the Eastern Front to the Mediterranean. If one switched to the strategic defensive in the East and used the freed-up forces against the Western powers, then victory, Mussolini said on April 1, 1943, in a conversation with the German ambassador Hans Georg von Mackensen, would be “mathematically certain to be ours.” Mussolini expressed this point of view in February and March 1943 at meetings with Joachim von Ribbentrop and Hermann Göring and in two personal letters to Hitler. But Hitler, like the OKW, was not even prepared to extend material support to Italy, since he overestimated the internal stability of the Mussolini regime and – as in the spring of 1942, when Mussolini had unsuccessfully demanded German support for the intended capture of the British “aircraft carrier” Malta – claimed all resources for the planned summer offensive on the German-Soviet front (cf. Unternehmen Zitadelle). During consultations at Schloss Kleßheim on April 8-9, 1943, Hitler rejected Mussolini”s proposals. The supply of tanks and aircraft, which Mussolini requested several times thereafter, was also refused, although an OKH study in June admitted that the Italian military did not have a single armored division, hardly any antitank weapons, and an air force that was only “conditionally operational.” Even this analysis, however, saw “no reason to expect an imminent political crisis.”
In the spring of 1943, Mussolini was at the nadir of a physical decline that had begun in 194041 and accelerated in the fall of 1942, when he lost about 20 kilograms of body weight in three months. He spent most of January 1943 in bed, and as late as April, during his meeting with Hitler, he was constantly moving on the verge of physical collapse. He probably suffered from a stomach ulcer, a mild form of hepatitis B, and severe depression.
On July 9-10, 1943, the expected landing of British and American troops on Sicily began. Some Italian units surrendered without a fight, others resisted together with the two German divisions stationed on the island. Counterattacks on the landing zones collapsed in a hail of fire from Allied naval artillery on July 11 and 12. It was clear to both the German and Italian military leadership thereafter that the island would be impossible to hold. On July 14, Vittorio Ambrosio pointed out to Mussolini in a memorandum the seriousness of the situation and demanded that he once again ask Hitler to shift the emphasis of German warfare to the Mediterranean. Otherwise, Italy would not be able to continue the war. Mussolini agreed with this assessment but did not carry it forward at the meeting with Hitler that took place at Feltre on July 19, despite repeated urgings from his companions. Instead, on July 20, he accepted in principle Hitler”s demand that Italian troops in southern Italy be placed under German staffs. Mussolini”s opponents in the party leadership, the general staff, the upper middle classes, and the royal court – all of them “former stirrup holders, profiteers, and activists of fascism” to whom nothing was further from their minds than “the idea of transferring the affairs of government to the slowly reorganizing anti-fascist parties” – now felt compelled to act. In addition to securing their political and military capacity to act externally, these elites were primarily concerned with preventing the political development of the anti-fascist opposition by acting quickly and thus creating the conditions for a conservative orientation of the post-fascist regime. The political reorganization ideas of many of those involved therefore initially amounted to a “fascism without Mussolini.
After the Allied landing in Sicily, leading Fascists had argued for the convening of the Fascist Grand Council for completely opposite reasons. The Grand Council was the highest consultative body of the party and (since 1932) of the Italian state. It had not met since 1939. While the group around Ciano, Grandi and Giuseppe Bottai wanted to have Mussolini”s powers limited, the circle around Roberto Farinacci and party secretary Carlo Scorza, which was linked to the German embassy, intended to bring about a decision that would lead to a “revitalization” of the regime and a strengthening of the German-Italian alliance. The Council met at Palazzo Venezia on July 24, 1943, and after ten hours of debate, early on the morning of July 25, adopted by 19 votes to 7 a resolution introduced by Grandi recommending that the King himself resume supreme command of the armed forces, which Mussolini had held since 1940. The Council, on the other hand, did not decide on a “deposition” of Mussolini – as often erroneously assumed – and it is doubtful whether its members even expected that the conservative forces surrounding the king would use this opportunity to completely separate themselves from Mussolini and the fascist party. The decisive factor in the outcome of the vote was that “loyal” supporters of Mussolini like Farinacci misjudged the situation and attacked even more decisively than Grandi the personal style of leadership and the wrong decisions of recent years. Mussolini was conspicuous also in this consultation for his complete apathy; to Scorza”s amazement, he allowed Grandi”s draft to be voted on, giving some members of the Council the impression that he wished it to be adopted. Possibly this was indeed the case – as a prelude to an “honorable” severing of ties with Germany.
Mussolini did not consider his position to be in immediate danger after the vote. He went to the king at Villa Savoia, now Villa Ada, on the afternoon of July 25 to officially inform him of the decision. Mussolini offered the monarch to hand over the three armed forces ministries and the foreign ministry. He also announced that he would again discuss the proposal of a strategic shift of forces to the Mediterranean with Goering, who had announced his visit to Rome for July 29 on the occasion of Mussolini”s 60th birthday. Surprisingly, however, Victor Emmanuel III accepted the Grand Council”s “proposal” and indicated to the dismayed Mussolini that he would also dismiss him as prime minister and give the office to Marshal Pietro Badoglio. Mussolini was then taken away in a waiting ambulance and detained in a Carabinieri barracks. Mussolini”s deposition was announced on the radio late that evening. That same night, thousands of people gathered in streets and squares to celebrate the dictator”s fall. In Rome, where rumors also spread that Hitler had taken his own life, German soldiers were also said to have joined the rallies. In the “45 days” (quarantacinque giorni) between Mussolini”s fall and the occupation of the country by German troops, the fascist party (also formally dissolved by the Badoglio government effective August 6, 1943) and the regime”s institutions, created over two decades, disappeared almost silently.
After the arrest, Mussolini was interned on the island of Ponza on July 28 and at the La Maddalena naval base off Sardinia on August 7. Since a German seizure was imminent here, on August 28 the Badoglio government ordered his transfer to the Campo Imperatore hotel in the Gran Sasso massif, where a commando raid by German paratroopers freed him on September 12 (cf. Unternehmen Eiche). Four days earlier, the armistice signed on September 3 between Italy and the Western Allies had become known. While the king and Badoglio left Rome head over heels on September 9 and fled to Brindisi, the OKW initiated the occupation of Italy prepared under the heading “Axis.” By this time, German authorities had already envisaged the installation of a new Fascist government, to include Farinacci, Alessandro Pavolini and Mussolini”s son Vittorio, who had been flown out to Germany in late July, early August. At a meeting with Hitler held at Rastenburg on September 14, Mussolini agreed to head this government himself. On September 18, he announced his return to Italy over the Munich radio station.
Mussolini returned to Italy on September 23, 1943, and four days later presided over the first meeting of the new Republican government at his private residence, Rocca delle Caminate in Meldola. Its composition had presented some difficulties, since Mussolini did not want to include pro-German hardliners such as Farinacci and Starace in the cabinet, but several “moderate” Fascists declined his invitation. After some hesitation, the Ministry of Defense was taken over by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani. At the head of the Fascist party, newly founded as the Partito Fascista Repubblicano (PFR), Mussolini placed Alessandro Pavolini, who until then had been considered a “moderate.” While Mussolini was able to prevail against German proposals on the question of the name of the state – Hitler had wanted the name “Fascist Republic” instead of “Social Republic” – the German veto against Rome as the seat of government remained. As a result, the authorities of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI), formally proclaimed only on December 1, 1943, were distributed among various cities and towns in northern Italy. Mussolini moved into Villa Feltrinelli in Gargnano on Lake Garda. The Ministry of Propaganda was based in nearby Salò; its regular communiqués (“Salò announces …”) already had contemporaries talking about the Repubblica di Salò.
Mussolini”s motives for assuming a position whose relative insignificance – he is said to have repeatedly ironized himself as “mayor of Gargnano” – was perfectly clear to him from the outset are disputed in research. The thesis that Mussolini “placed himself at the disposal” and, as a person and in historical judgment, “sacrificed himself” in order to spare Italy direct German occupation rule was advocated in the postwar period, first by neo-fascist authors and, after 1990, by historians such as Renzo De Felice. In various variants, it dominates the relevant Italian literature today, with frequent comparative references to Pétain and the Vichy regime. Other historians, however, reject this argumentation as both apologetic and historically false: Mussolini had not been without – genuinely fascist – political ambitions even in September 1943 and had shared the demand of many fascists for “revenge” against the “traitors.” It is also emphasized that Mussolini”s contempt for the Italian people, already expressed to confidants in the years before, had been even more pronounced after his return. Even in the last conversations with journalists, which he deliberately staged in the spring of 1945 as a “review of his life,” there was no direct or indirect reference to a preoccupation with the fate of Italy or the Italians.
Mussolini”s room for maneuver as head of state, head of government and foreign minister of the RSI was extremely limited in terms of space and content. The former Austrian territories annexed by Italy in 1919 – together with parts of Veneto – had been placed under a “provisional” German civil administration as so-called operation zones as late as September 1943. In the rest of the national territory, too, the RSI”s authority was only nominal. Decisions essential to policy and warfare were made by the German commander-in-chief Süd Albert Kesselring, SS-Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff, who was responsible for the police apparatus, and the “plenipotentiary” ambassador Rudolf Rahn. Mussolini met with Wolff and Rahn several times a week. The economy of northern and central Italy was ruthlessly put into the service of the German war economy by Major General Hans Leyers, Albert Speer”s “plenipotentiary general,” without consulting Italian authorities. Since Mussolini”s bodyguard and personal means of communication, up to and including the telephone, were provided not by troops of the RSI but by a detachment of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, he could not make a move without the consent or knowledge of German authorities. German doctors now also took over his medical care. In Gargnano, Mussolini resumed his old, but now largely irrelevant, practice of receiving several visitors a day in quarter- or half-hour “audiences.” In addition, he devoted himself primarily to writing articles for the Fascist press. In Storia di un anno, Mussolini presented his view of the events of July 1943 and their prehistory.
Mussolini”s influence on the struggles with the armed anti-fascist resistance movement, which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and are widely regarded in Italy today as a “civil war,” remained marginal. He covered Pavolini”s attempts to revive the squadrismo of the early 1920s and explicitly advocated the execution of “hostages” after partisan actions. It is undisputed, however, that he intervened on several occasions against the worst excesses of the semi-autonomous fascist militias, which were often sponsored by German services. Thus, he had Junio Valerio Borghese arrested in January 1944 and the notorious Pietro Koch in October 1944. To Rahn, Mussolini protested against the extermination of entire villages by German “punitive actions” and threatened his resignation in this context in September 1944. Similar statements by Mussolini against the deportation of Italian Jews to German extermination camps are not known. Beginning in the fall of 1943, a large part of Italy”s Jewish population was grouped together in camps on the basis of new anti-Semitic laws; about 7,500 people were deported – mostly from the Fossoli camp near Modena, which had been under German administration since February 1944 – and a few hundred returned. While Mussolini did little to encourage this policy, he did not intervene against it either.
On January 11, 1944, Mussolini had five former leading Fascists, among them his son-in-law Ciano and the two old Fascists Marinelli and De Bono, executed in Verona (see Verona Trial). Mussolini was fully aware that the accusation of high treason levelled at the defendants for their vote of 25 July 1943 was not true. The key “conspirators” Grandi, Bottai, and Federzoni, however, had since departed. Under pressure from Pavolini and other intransigent Fascists who took over in Verona and acted in Mussolini”s name, he ignored the pleas for clemency and accepted the break with his daughter Edda, who fled to Switzerland in January 1944.
Mussolini no longer made any serious attempts to organize a government capable of acting or to develop a government program. The state administrative apparatus remained intact down to the level of the municipalities, but it was ignored by the Germans as much as by large sections of the population. This was abundantly clear when the Republic called up four cohorts for military service on November 9, 1943, and fewer than 50,000 men reported to the barracks. Until the summer of 1944, when the four Italian divisions raised in Germany were transferred to Italy, the RSI”s forces – apart from the paramilitary Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana – consisted of a few anti-aircraft and coastal batteries and weak air force and navy units. Mussolini, who had initially been given a different orientation by Hitler, had to realize by the end of 1943 that the German side had no interest whatsoever in rebuilding Italian armed forces.
From Gargnano, Mussolini pursued with some persistence the theme of “socialization,” with which he wanted to bring the workers of the industrial cities of northern Italy closer to fascism (and possibly thought he had found a means of countering the German grip on Italian industry). After this tone, which echoed the programmatic beginnings of fascism in 1919, had already been struck in the Manifesto di Verona in November 1943, Mussolini kept coming back to this problem throughout 1944, even though his German “adviser” Rahn rejected the use of anti-capitalist rhetoric on principle. As late as March 25, 1945, Reich Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop summoned Italian Ambassador Filippo Anfuso to inform him that Hitler disapproved of this course. The meaning of the term “socialization” and the “human, Italian and achievable” socialism that was being discussed at the same time remained unclear even to high RSI officials until the very end. As a result, the RSI”s “socialization” legislation merely led to a consolidation of state control of the press and publishing houses and to the election of representative bodies of the workforces in some large factories. Propagandistically, these campaigns proved to be a complete failure, especially among workers, and the German services were unwilling to negotiate with Italians on economic issues, “least of all with workers or trade unionists.” One of the propagandists of “socialization” was the journalist Nicola Bombacci, a former Communist who had made himself available to the regime in the 1930s and became a regular interlocutor and “last friend” of Mussolini in Gargnano.
On April 22-23, 1944, and July 20, 1944, Mussolini met with Hitler for his last personal interviews. At the meeting at Schloss Kleßheim in April, Mussolini gave the German dictator a lengthy lecture in German. He stressed that the reputation of the RSI was being undermined primarily by the actions of German services, demanded clarity about German intentions in the “operation zones,” and urged humane treatment of Italian military internees in Germany. Mussolini proposed once again on this occasion to seek a “compromise peace” or armistice with the USSR and to move the main forces of the Wehrmacht to the West. Hitler sought to convince Mussolini that the “unnatural alliance” between the Soviet Union and the Western powers would not last and announced the imminent use of new types of German weapons. On July 20, 1944, Mussolini stayed for about three hours at the Wolf”s Lair, where Claus von Stauffenberg”s assassination attempt had failed shortly before. Here Hitler agreed to the transfer of the two Italian divisions still remaining in Germany to Italy. Hitler expressed a sentimental respect for Mussolini to the end and is said to have said as late as the spring of 1945 that nothing had changed in his “personal attachment to the Duce,” even if the alliance with Italy had been a mistake.
Mussolini made his last public appearance at Milan”s Teatro Lirico on December 16, 1944. In early April 1945, British and American troops resumed their advance in northern Italy after several months of de facto fighting calm. On April 24, they crossed the Po River, and the next day an uprising of communist and socialist partisans broke out in Milan, which the fascist state apparatus, in full disintegration, was no longer able to cope with. Mussolini had tried in the weeks before – among others through the mediation of Cardinal Schuster of Milan – to get in touch with the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (CLN). He had prepared this last political maneuver with the dismissal of Interior Minister Guido Buffarini-Guidi, a fanatical fascist particularly hated by the population (February 21, 1945). Another gesture toward the leftist resistance movement was the immediate “socialization” of all industry announced on March 22. Through Carlo Silvestri, he now offered to hand over power to the Action Party and the Socialists if he was allowed an orderly surrender to the Allied forces. The attempted “understanding” with the non-Communist wing of the Resistenza finally failed on April 25. On that day, Mussolini learned through associates of Schuster that SS General Karl Wolff had been negotiating for weeks with representatives of the Western powers about a partial surrender of German troops in Italy. After angrily accusing his German companions of treason, Mussolini fled north that very evening with his mistress Clara Petacci and several Fascist functionaries, taking with him numerous secret documents that have remained lost to this day. It is unclear whether he intended to escape to Switzerland or, as suggested in various conversations, to deliver a “last stand” with the Brigate Nere gathered in Valtellina. At Menaggio, Mussolini and his contracted entourage joined a motorized German anti-aircraft unit. At a roadblock between Musso and Dongo on Lake Como, the motorcade was stopped by Communist partisans on April 27, 1945. During the search, Mussolini, disguised as an anti-aircraft gunner, was recognized and captured. Still on April 27, the Milan radio station broadcast this news. The following day, a partisan group from Milan arrived in Dongo. It had received orders to carry out the death sentence imposed by the CLNAI on Mussolini and other leading fascists on April 25. On the outskirts of the village of San Giulino di Mezzegra, Mussolini was shot on the afternoon of April 28, 1945. The circumstances of Mussolini”s death have remained the subject of speculation and myth-making to the present day. Recent scientific literature, however, has confirmed the core of the “official” version, which was last attacked in the 1990s as a “communist historical legend.
The bodies of Mussolini, Petacci, Nicola Bombacci, Alessandro Pavolini and a few others were then transported to Milan and hung upside down from the roof of a gas station on April 29 in Piazzale Loreto, where 15 executed partisans had been displayed on August 10, 1944. In the process, the bodies were assaulted.
Mussolini”s body was subjected to an autopsy by American doctors and then buried in an anonymous cemetery in Milan”s main Musocco Cemetery. On the night of April 23, 1946, it was dug up by fascist activists led by Domenico Leccisi, although the exact location of the burial site was said to have been known to only three or four people. The body was hidden with the support of pro-fascist priests, first in Valtellina, in a Milanese church, and finally in a monk”s cell at the Certosa di Pavia. Discovered after three and a half months, the Italian government arranged for an anonymous burial in the Capuchin monastery of Cerro Maggiore. On September 1, 1957, Mussolini was buried in the presence of his widow Rachele Mussolini in the family crypt in Predappio under the lictor bundle, the symbol of his power and fascism. The way for this had been paved by the Christian Democratic prime minister Adone Zoli, who hoped for (and received) parliamentary support from the neo-fascist MSI from this gesture toward the radical right.
Mussolini”s appearance and personal lifestyle-or what he allowed to pass as such-were an integral part of the Duce myth, of which the “theatrical personality” was a part. Mussolini pioneered politics as a show business when it was not yet common – not only in Italy – for rhetorical gestures and aphorisms, staged appearances, outward appearances, and mannerisms of leading politicians to dominate public debate. The regime, according to Richard Bosworth, was “borne of spin” (see Spin Doctor) and was to be understood as a “propaganda state” “in which nothing was as claimed and in which words were what counted.” Mussolini provided the authoritative “words” and supplied the emblematic poses during the various phases of the regime”s development. His characteristic physiognomy, his “imperious” posture, his “mimic” presence as an orator – widening and rolling of the eyes, underlining, graduated gesticulation, abrupt leaning forward or backward – were quickly the subject of photography and caricature. By the 1920s, he was considered the most photographed person in history. The more or less posed photographs of Mussolini officially circulated during his lifetime – through postcards, posters, collectible pictures and the press – show some 2,500 different subjects. The Duce, gradually constructed by fascist propaganda through images and text, was always master of the situation, father and husband, lived frugally and unpretentiously, worked hard and concentrated, practiced sports, was an aviator, a fencer, physically fit, and on top of that a “man of culture.” Mussolini controlled and steered this myth-making to a great extent himself, for example through long interviews that he granted to selected foreign journalists over a period of years.
Much of these attributions were invented or exaggerated in a characteristic way. Even Mussolini”s state of health, which was treated as a state secret, was dubious: Since his wounding in 1917, Mussolini had problems putting on his shoes without outside help. In February 1925 he fell seriously ill for the first time and lay in bed for several weeks with internal bleeding. He was probably already suffering from a stomach or intestinal ulcer at this time. An operation was not performed at his request. From then on, he lived almost exclusively on pasta, milk and fruit and abstained from alcohol and cigarettes, but this only enabled him to control his symptoms for a few years. Later he had to press his hands abruptly against his stomach again and again – also in the meeting of the Grand Council on July 24.25, 1943 – when the pain became too severe. Even before his 50th birthday he began to age visibly and after 1940 he rapidly deteriorated physically and psychologically. In 1943, a Hungarian visitor described him as “very ill. His head was bald, his skin yellowish-white, and he spoke rapidly, with nervous gestures.” The German doctors who examined him extensively in September 1943 diagnosed an intestinal ulcer and an enlarged liver. In his notes, physician Georg Zachariae called him a “physical wreck on the edge of the grave.” However, they did not find signs of the syphilis that has been attributed to Mussolini to this day – with implications for the interpretation of his personal development and politics – nor did the American doctors who examined the body in 1945.
A typical example of the Duce”s design is the “aviator” Mussolini. Although Mussolini had begun taking flying lessons in July 1920, he later sat at the controls of an airplane only occasionally. Nevertheless, year after year he had the number of his alleged flying hours published, which in total corresponded to the flying hours of a professional pilot. This did not happen by chance. The cult of pilots and airplanes was widespread among the “new right” of many countries after World War I, but it was particularly pronounced among the Italian fascists. Aviation elevated the “individual” above the “masses” and was considered as modern as it was “anti-Marxist.” In the early phase of the fascist movement, Mussolini occasionally appeared before supporters in pilot”s fatigues, and later he repeatedly had himself photographed next to or in airplanes. In January 1937, he obtained a military pilot”s license. His habit, however, was and remained to pilot planes when they were already in the air. In August 1941, Mussolini caused horror among Hitler”s entourage when he insisted on taking the controls of the plane in which both were on their way to visit troops on the Eastern Front. Part of the Duce”s construction was to stage Mussolini as a driver of fast cars, an aggressive fencer, a tennis player, a daredevil horseman, a swimmer, and a skier, who also exploited Italians” enthusiasm for sports by functionalizing the Olympic Committee (CONI) and sports newspapers to support himself and his policies.
An element of these roles that was new at the time, with a “humanizing” subtext, was the “sweating” Mussolini. No other politician of the interwar period was “visibly ”human” in this way.” The resulting “peculiar mixture of the divine and the profane” also had a “masculine,” sexual component that was never denied by propaganda but was unspokenly integrated into the Duce cult.
Details of Mussolini”s promiscuity – some estimates put it at around 400 different sexual partners – only became known long after 1945. Mussolini frequently had relationships with several women simultaneously even before 1922. The most significant relationship for his personal development was the one with Margherita Sarfatti, who after 1912 made the salons of the “respectable” Milanese bourgeoisie accessible to the newcomer from the provinces. Also known is his relationship with the beautician Ida Dalser, which in 1915 produced their son Benito Albino (1915-1942). Mussolini, at Dalser”s insistence, acknowledged paternity and paid child support, but kept a strict distance from the two after entering into a civil marriage with Rachele Guidi in December 1915. It is possible that Mussolini married Dalser in church in December 1914. Because Dalser kept making “scenes” for him over the years, he had her committed to a mental institution in 1926, where she died in 1937. It is considered certain that Mussolini had other illegitimate offspring. As dictator, Mussolini took the opportunity to organize his relevant activities in the best possible way. In Palazzo Venezia, right next to his study, there was a “recreation room” where he received numerous “female visitors.” Mussolini”s behavior toward his female partners is described as physically and emotionally ruthless. The “revelations” about his sex life have repeatedly occupied popular science and journalistic journalism in recent decades, but are usually noted only in passing in the scholarly literature. According to historian Richard Bosworth, the affair with the wealthy doctor”s daughter Claretta Petacci, which began in 1936 and lasted until 1945, could also be ignored along with all the others if it had not lasted so long and ultimately tarnished the regime”s reputation: During World War II, the BBC made sure that the machinations of the “Petacci clan” became known throughout Italy. Bosworth sees Mussolini”s relationship with Petacci, who was far inferior to him intellectually, as a “symbol of the dictator”s decline in the last decade of his rule.” Rachele Mussolini apparently did not take note of her husband”s affairs for a long time. It was only when Petacci also moved into a house in Gargnano that she sought out her rival in October 1944 and unsuccessfully asked her to leave.
In tension with this was the distorted image of Mussolini as a “family man,” which was only used more strongly by propaganda after the conciliazione with the church. For several years after 1922, Mussolini had almost no contact with his wife and children. He first lived in a Roman hotel for a few months, then in an apartment in Palazzo Tittoni, where a housekeeper assisted him. The family remained in Milan or in Forlì, and he met them two or three times a year. It was not until the fall of 1929 that Mussolini brought the family to Rome, where he had in the meantime moved into the prestigious Villa Torlonia. There he received visitors only extremely rarely after 1929, apparently at the request of his wife, who was the “dictator” within the family. Rachele Mussolini continued to maintain a “peasant” lifestyle even in Villa Torlonia and began to raise chickens, rabbits and pigs on the aristocratic estate. She was “enterprising” in her own way and established a network of clients in Romagna that depended on her. Her business interests were one of the triggers in 1933 for the fall of Arpinati, who had shown little cooperation toward her. Mussolini withdrew from the family circle at Villa Torlonia as often as possible, taking meals alone and having the latest films, preferably American, shown to him in the evening hours. With the exception of his eldest daughter Edda, he had no close relationship with his children. The sons Vittorio and Bruno were, as Mussolini soon realized, without political talent. After the Ethiopian War, in which both took part as pilots, they hardly appeared in public. Vittorio went into the film business and only tried to play an active political role in 194344, to the displeasure of his father. Bruno took up an officer”s career and had a fatal accident in August 1941 during a test flight in the Piaggio P.108. The last two children born – the son Romano (1927-2006) and the sickly daughter Anna Maria (* 1929) – were too young to play any role in the regime.
The “intellectual” and “cultural man” Mussolini is difficult to classify. Mussolini was a prolific writer. His style was thoroughly polished, and he commented – with varying degrees of profundity – on all the great political and cultural debates of his time. His speeches and writings, compiled by supporters after World War II, fill 44 volumes. Mussolini was also able to impress in personal conversation; he did not share Hitler”s penchant for “aimless chitchat” and is described by contemporaries who had dealings with both dictators as the more interesting interlocutor. However, the Duce also tended to monologue anecdotally as he grew older. It should always be noted with regard to Mussolini”s surviving statements that they are seldom in a primarily factual or problem-related context, but rather were primarily calculated to evoke a certain impression in his counterpart or reader. Thus, at best, they indirectly reveal something about his knowledge and worldview, which remained committed to irrational and reactionary ideologies beyond all fractures and contradictions, but much about how he assessed his audience or interlocutors and how he wanted to be seen by them: “Even in one-on-one conversations, the acting continued: his more attentive visitors noticed that Mussolini changed his points of view to suit theirs.” Thus, in 1932, in a conversation with Emil Ludwig, he rejected any racial theory as untenable, but later called Ludwig a “dirty and presumptuous Jew” to another interlocutor. Especially in his statements about science, art and culture there are many exaggerations, inventions and mutually exclusive contradictions. Believing himself to be an expert in all fields, Mussolini made absurd claims such as that he had read all 35 volumes of the Enciclopedia Italiana, read the texts of ancient Greek philosophers in the original, or managed to read about 70 books a year despite the workload on him. It was true that he read Plato in translation, for example, and that his other reading was also quite extensive; he occasionally sent notes and comments to Italian authors after new publications. German and French authors he could read in the original language. Hitler”s gift for his 60th birthday was a 24-volume complete edition of Nietzsche”s works. Despite claims to the contrary, English-language literature remained comparatively foreign to him. His relationship to the performing arts was contradictory. He personally saw to it that highly endowed prizes were awarded, but he liked to complain frequently that an excess of aesthetic refinement had corrupted and effeminated Italians for centuries. By his own admission, he did not understand works of painting, and he hardly ever went to exhibitions. The usual martial words about a “totalitarian concept of culture” had little immediate impact on artistic production in this field, and even popular culture – especially film – was not “managed” nearly as closely in fascist Italy as in Germany. In architecture, Mussolini showed a preference for monumental buildings. Rome – in blatant contradiction to his frequent statements against the urbanization of Italy – was to become a metropolis again as in ancient times, doubling its population and “overcoming” the 20 kilometers to the sea. In the center of the city, he wanted to demolish all the buildings from the “centuries of decadence” (by which Mussolini meant the 1500 years between the fall of ancient Rome and the Risorgimento). Hardly any of these plans, including the erection of a colossal statue symbolizing fascism 80 meters high, were implemented – “once again, the announcement was what mattered, the execution was less important.” The EUR Quarter, built for the 1942 World”s Fair, remained the most conspicuous architectural legacy of fascism in the capital.
Research has put Mussolini”s “modest” lifestyle, which was highlighted by propaganda, into perspective. As early as 1919, the Mussolini family was able to move into a prestigious apartment on Milan”s Foro Buonaparte; at that time, Mussolini not only owned a car, but was also one of the first people in Europe to own a private plane. Personally, Mussolini was somewhat indifferent to luxury and money, but quickly became very wealthy as prime minister. He drew his salary as head of government (32,000 lire annually) only until 1928 (and then again from 1943). A large part of his income consisted of honoraria and royalties for articles, speeches, and other writings. For a time, for example, the American press magnate William Randolph Hearst paid him the then-high sum of $1,500 per week for occasional contributions to his newspapers. For an autobiography that Mussolini wrote (or had written) in 192728, a British publisher paid him an advance of 10,000 pounds sterling. The Popolo d”Italia was not only the mouthpiece of the regime, but also Mussolini”s property and, with about 700 employees, a profitable large-scale press operation. The Mussolini family also owned about 30 hectares of good farmland in Romagna, which it had cultivated by a model farm with modern equipment. The expenses to be borne by Mussolini personally were small in comparison. The large landowning Torlonias left their Roman villa to the Duce for a symbolic rent. The estate Rocca delle Caminate near Predappio, which Mussolini had chosen as his retirement and family residence, was donated to him by “the nation” in 1927.
After the funeral in 1957, the small town of Predappio became a “pilgrimage site” for Mussolini”s followers. Devotional objects were available on every street corner until the local government banned store sales in April 2009. Every year, on the anniversary of Mussolini”s birth and death in July and April, respectively, and in October on the anniversary of the Marcia su Roma, several thousand neo-fascists gather in Predappio; their march to the San Cassiano cemetery has long been led by a priest of the Pius Fraternity.
The public image of Mussolini in Italy underwent a major transformation. Until the 1980s, the three major parties – the PCI, the PSI and, to a limited extent, the DC – were equally committed to the legacy of the Resistenza. Open veneration for the Duce was reserved for the neo-fascist MSI, which in some cases won over 20 percent of the vote in elections in its strongholds in central and southern Italy. Less visible, but politically more weighty, were the fascist orientations preserved in the networks of the Italian bourgeoisie and in the military, police and intelligence apparatus. Already in the postwar decades, an influential part of Italian journalism – prominently, for example, the conservative journalist and widely read nonfiction author Indro Montanelli – cultivated the image of the “good Uncle Mussolini” who, as a paternalistic dictator, had done nothing worse than “make faces.” In 197475, the publication of the first part of the third volume of Renzo De Felice”s biography of Mussolini and the subsequent controversy sparked by an interview with neoconservative American author Michael Ledeen signaled the transition of authoritative contemporary historians to “anti-anti-fascist” positions. De Felice”s consensus thesis and his distinction between the fascist “regime” and the fascist “movement” (to which he basically also assigned Mussolini), which had not been reactionary and repressive but future-oriented, optimistic and supported by the “rising middle classes” willing to modernize, were rejected by left-wing critics such as the historian Nicola Tranfaglia as a large-scale “attempt to rehabilitate the fascist movement”.
After 1980, increasingly relativizing features emerged in the public discourse on Mussolini and the fascist regime, from the initially cautious questioning of actual or supposed “legends” of the anti-fascist culture of memory to the open justification of the Duce. At the turn of 198788 De Felice, supported by journalists such as Montanelli and voices from the circle of former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, declared war on the “official culture of anti-fascism” in several newspaper articles. At the height of this campaign, the Mussolini of 1943-45 was portrayed as a “tragic hero” who had sacrificed himself for the fatherland in an extensive interview (Rosso e Nero) published in book form in 1995 and reprinted several times. With the collapse of the Italian party system in the early 1990s and the regrouping of the conservative camp around Silvio Berlusconi in the years that followed, a partly open apology of Mussolini also took hold in the mainstream of Italian politics. Since then, the only fundamental criticisms have often been of the racial laws of 1938 and the “fateful” alliance with Germany. In 2003, Berlusconi caused a stir by saying that Mussolini was not responsible for a single death and that the regime”s penal camps and prisons were “vacation camps. As prime minister, Berlusconi allowed supporters to greet him at public appearances with the saluto romano and celebrate with shouts of “Duce, Duce.” In 2010, the Swiss historian Aram Mattioli noted that a “revisionist ”normality”” had now been established that was no longer perceived as problematic even in the “center of society” – with street names, “good fascists” as film heroes and legislative proposals “that would put Mussolini”s last contingent and the collaborators of Salò on an equal footing with the fighters of the Resistenza.
Australian historian Richard Bosworth sees three roots for this reassessment:
Mussolini”s honorary citizenship has not been explicitly revoked in several Italian cities, including Salò, to this day.
Editions and document collections
Relationship with Hitler and Germany