Introduction: the response to Communism
World War I and the Treaty of Versailles apparently solved nothing and satisfied no one. Although the Western democracies, such as France and Britain, were regaining some stability and prosperity, no one else was. Ethnic and territorial disputes arose among the new democracies in Eastern Europe. The Bolsheviks in Russia threatened to spread their revolution and overthrow Capitalism. And Italy and Germany, the one a “winner” and the other a loser in the war, were both bitter about the Treaty of Versailles and anxious to reverse its verdict.
These conditions gave rise to Fascism, the belief in a totalitarian dictatorship controlling nearly all aspects of the state: government, army, press, schools, etc. However, unlike the Soviet model of Communism, it allowed free enterprise and private property, thus appealing to the business-oriented middle class since it gave them economic security. Finally, Fascism was also intensely nationalistic and aggressive in its foreign policy.
Mussolini and the rise of Fascism in Italy
The first successful Fascist takeover was in Italy under Benito Mussolini. He was born in 1886 in the rough hill country of North Central Italy. His mother was a devout Catholic and schoolteacher, while his father was an atheist and anarchist who liked to smash ballot boxes on Election Day. Benito himself was a troublemaker who had a bad habit of knifing his classmates. As a young adult, he fled to Switzerland to avoid the draft and was converted to socialism there. In 1904, he returned to Italy and served his time in the army in return for a pardon. He then became the editor of several socialist newspapers in which he advocated both political assassination and pacifist resistance to a war with Turkey, calling the national flag a rag fit to be planted on a dung heap. When World War I broke out, he first advocated neutrality, and then, probably after accepting French bribes, called for Italian involvement on the Allied side.
Italy made a poor showing in the war and paid a heavy price for it. Government expenditure during the war was twice its expenditure for the whole period 1861-1913. As a result the economy was in shambles and the country was plagued with unemployment, inflation, riots, strikes, and brigandage. It was then that Mussolini first joined and soon became leader of the Fascist Party, which stood for upholding claims of veterans and the nationalist interests of Italy while crushing any anarchist elements in the country. Ironically, the Fascists did more to promote anarchy than anyone else in Italy at that time. Mussolini would send out his gangs of thugs, the Blackshirts, to riot against Communists and other groups while claiming his men were protecting the peace.
Oddly enough, Mussolini’s strategy of spreading chaos in the streets while posing as the champion of law and order who could save Italy started paying off. Even without the Blackshirts’ antics, Italy needed law and order, and many people, especially the middle class who feared the Communists, looked to the Fascists as the answer to Italy’s problems. In October 1922, they made their move.
It was actually the local party bosses who started a series of riots that stormed various city halls and forced concessions from local governments. This encouraged them to march on Rome and seize control of the national government. Benito himself was hesitant to take part, but when the Ras went ahead without him and it looked as if they might succeed, he put himself at the head of the march as if it were his idea all along. The march itself was a fiasco, getting bogged down in a massive traffic jam, but it scared the government enough to offer Benito the power to form a new government, which he did with typical bombast and bluster. Then, through intimidation and rigged elections, Benito tightened his grip on Italy. He bullied the Italian Parliament into giving him emergency powers that allowed him to shut down other parties, censor the press, and end other civil liberties. By 1925, Italy was a fascist dictatorship.
The riots and strikes did settle down after Mussolini took power, but little else went right for Italy and the Fascists. Mussolini claimed he made the trains run on time, but that was a gross exaggeration, as was just about every other claim he made. He did try to build up Italy’s aircraft, shipping and power industries, but the Depression and Italy’s lack of natural resources, along with poor planning and corruption, severely limited any economic progress. Mussolini’s big dream was to make Italy a major power, thus reviving the Roman Empire. Here again, little progress was made, although Benito made wildly inflated claims about Italy’s military strength.
Whatever his failures as a national leader, Mussolini appeared to be a shining example of Fascist strength when compared to the more timid democracies in Europe, and was a hero to other aspiring Fascist leaders of the day. Among these was a struggling German politician by the name of Adolph Hitler.