We hear a great deal from politicians these days about the dangers of Fascism or even just Socialism. Political parties throw the terms about as if they were the same. Democratic Socialism is practiced successfully by nearly every European Union country. But what about Fascism? When most us hear the word, we think of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party during World War II. However Fascism got its start a decade earlier, under Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. It’s mistakenly thought that Mussolini copied Hitler, but it was actually the other way around. Mussolini was in power 11 years before Adolf Hitler.
What exactly is Fascism?
By definition, Fascism is ‘any political movement promoting a highly regimented nation, under a centralized government, with an autocratic ruler, and a forced suppression of opposition.’ Mussolini took it from fascio, the Italian word for bundle, representing bundles of people. Its origins go all the way back to Ancient Rome, when the fasces were bundles of wood with an axe, symbolizing authority.
In 1919, after World War I, Mussolini created the Fascisti Party in Italy. He became prime minister in 1922 and over his two-decade term, slowly gave himself dictatorial powers. He was known simply as “Il Duce,” or “the Leader.” Mussolini promoted strict right-wing nationalism, wielding harsh authoritarian powers through World War II. Any opponents, especially those on the left, were treated with intimidation, terrorism, and even death. How did he accomplish this?
Benito Mussolini was born in the small Italian town of Predappio in 1883. His father was the town blacksmith and a loyal socialist. Benito served briefly in the Italian military, then joined the Socialist Party himself, and began working as a journalist. He was soon arrested and jailed for promoting labor strikes. The Socialist Party newspaper Avanti! rewarded Mussolini by making him editor.
Mussolini’s transformation began when World War I broke out in 1914.
Benito supported the war, but the Italian Socialist Party did not. They expelled him and he began promoting Italian Nationalism instead. Some wealthy supporters allowed Mussolini to start the Milan-based newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia. In it, he denounced socialism as a threat to the nation, and began promoting the idea of a revolutionary vanguard. He re-enlisted, fought in World War I, and was even wounded in action.
After WWI, Mussolini founded a new political movement, FASCISM. He called on Italians to reclaim the once great Roman Empire. He said Italy needed a leader energetic and ruthless enough to revive the nation. Italy’s Vital Space had to be restored, a term laced with racist and bigoted undertones. Mussolini said it was only natural for the strong and superior to subjugate the weak and inferior.
In 1919, his Fascist movement became a political party, the Fasci di Combattimento, named after Italian peasant revolutionaries. They met for the first time in a rally in the Piazza San Sepolcro in Milan. His nationalist message resonated with many white Italians and membership grew like a brush fire. The shocking Russian Revolution had recently occurred, and he exploited a fear of Communism. He brought in Christians as well, who felt alienated by their government in Rome.
The Fascists built a notorious militia arm known as ‘The Black Shirts.’
Many were disgruntled veterans of World War I, who wore all black uniforms. These fascist squads would clash with members of other political groups, particularly socialists and those on the left. Parliament was afraid of a communist revolution in their country, and didn’t interfere, giving Mussolini’s Black Shirts free rein to terrorize anyone they disagreed with or disliked.
Mussolini proclaimed that parliamentary style government was a failure. He said freedom was at risk, and that only Fascism could help the nation under a central power. Under his leadership, squads of Black Shirts attacked, and often killed, fellow Italians who opposed them. The Black Shirt Militias would descend upon towns in trucks, with flags, guns and knives, intimidating and killing thousands.
Mussolini was very specific about who got to be part of the nation. Anything that might impede national unity was denounced or gotten rid of. He regarded Jew, Arabs, and Africans inferior. Violence for the good of the nation was seen as necessary and even beneficial. Those who didn’t fit the mold were labelled disruptors, and in the twisted Fascist mind, violence was justified.
Wealthy Italian businessmen supported Mussolini, helping him come to power. They agreed with the suppression of organized labor and socialism as being bad for jobs and the economy. Italy was a constitutional monarchy at the time. Ironically, his supporters included King Victor Emmanuel III. Without that support from the rich, Fascism wouldn’t have gone very far.
In 1922, Mussolini, with tens of thousands of Black Shirts, marched on Rome.
The liberal government sought to declare martial law because of the marchers. But King Victor Emmanuel, fearing a civil war, instead asked Mussolini to form a new government as prime minister! As PM, Mussolini created a cult personality around himself. He would rip open his shirt in public, exposing his broad chest, to promote his machismo to fanatically cheering fans, shouting: “IL DUCE!”
Though Fascists were only a small percentage of parliament, Mussolini pressured the legislature to grant him authoritarian powers, essentially melting the state with his Fascist party. By 1924, his nationalist alliance won 2/3 of the vote! A socialist deputy who called out ballot fraud by the Fascists was murdered. The King’s authority was severely cut, essentially making him a puppet and Mussolini a dictator.
“We do not argue with those who disagree with us, we destroy them!”Benito Mussolini
By 1927, he had created a feared Police State, no longer accountable to parliament. Mussolini certainly didn’t invent dictatorship, he just put a new nationalist spin on it. Socialists or any who opposed him were held in check by government or intimidation. Local and regional autonomy was abolished. Minorities were subjugated or killed.
Mussolini hand-picked the editors of news outlets and exploited mass media for propaganda purposes. He required all teachers to take a pledge of allegiance to the Fascist regime and its teaching doctrine. Free thinking was discouraged and even penalized. Mussolini pushed for the growth of the Italy’s white population. A women’s role in the home was subjugated to produce more white babies for the good of the nation.
Fascism became a very important part of Nazism.
Adolf Hitler was an early fan of Mussolini; writing him letters, trying to meet with him in person. Hitler adapted Fascism to suit his purposes in Germany. The Black Shirts of Italy became the SS of Germany. As rumblings of World War II grew in the 1930s, Mussolini believed Britain & France were doomed to lose to the Nazi’s. He decided Italy should ally itself with the far stronger Germany.
In 1937, Mussolini joined with Hitler, signing a Treaty of Cooperation between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Mussolini entered the war on Germany’s side. When the Holocaust began spreading throughout Europe, Mussolini willingly gave up his Italian Jews to the Nazi Death Camps.
Il Duce however would prove to be the weaker leader than Hitler during WWII. Italy was not as strong militarily as Germany. By 1943, a series of Allied invasions into Italy left the Italian army in desperate shape. Soon US and Allied forces were bombing Rome! Italy’s factories were either bombed to rubble or idle due to a lack of raw materials. Fuel and food shortages were rampant. Hitler was heavily bogged down in Russia and the Nazis were not coming to rescue Italy.
The people slowly began to turn against “Il Duce.”
The Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy in 1943 finally led to a rebellion within Mussolini’s Fascist Party. Mussolini ignored them and maintained his alliance to the Nazis. The Grand Council of parliament rejected Mussolini’s leadership. Il Duce was summoned to the royal palace in Rome by the king and arrested. Marshal Pietro Badoglio took over, and promptly dissolved the Fascist Party. A year later, in 1944, Rome would fall to the invading Allied forces of Britain and the U.S.
But what of Mussolini? He was imprisoned by the king at Campo Imperatore in the Abruzzi Mountains. Hitler sent in German paratrooper and commandos, and they managed to free him. He was sent to meet the Fuhrer in East Prussia. Hitler was not one to forgive failures. He made Mussolini the puppet leader of the German-controlled northern half of Italy, renamed the Italian Socialist Republic. For the last year of the war, Mussolini was based in Gargnano, Lombardy as the Nazis retreated north around him.
By 1945, Italy was overwhelmed by the Allies and surrendered unconditionally. Mussolini attempted an escape to Switzerland in April with his mistress, Clara Petacci, but was captured by Italian partisans. They were both executed the very next day by firing squad. Their bodies were taken to a Milan piazza and infamously hung upside down by their feet for public ridicule.
So what lessons can we learn here?
Since World War W II, numerous military dictators in Africa, the Middle East and various Third World countries have adopted a Fascist style rule. With the help of a carefully coded language, the old nationalist-style mandates returned. Fascism was refitted for a new generation of dictators. Mussolini’s Fascists and Hitler’s Nazi’s were secretly idealized by 21st century neo-Fascists and neo-Nazis.
Today’s Fascist leaders skillfully spread a sense to the population that Times are Desperate, the powerful Elite leaders are corrupt and failures. Beware the ‘Other‘ dark elements’ (other parties, other races, other countries) are plotting leftist conspiracies to take control of your lives. Using the potent emotions of Fear and Anger, they suppress democratic institutions, while slowly gaining authoritarian powers.
Fascism’s principles haven’t changed: hyper-nationalism; a worshiped, cult-like leader; fear of decline in the ruling ‘privileged’ class; blatant racism; anti-feminism; anti-socialism; anti-LGBTQ; and armed militant-backed oppression. Some of the language may be coded as ‘dog whistles’ and some blatantly obvious. Hate crimes against women, minorities, immigrants and religions have continued around the globe for all the decades since Benito Mussolini.
History shows us that even the strongest democratic republics, ones that took centuries to build, can be internally fragile and be overturned in a matter of years, if not months. While Mussolini’s and Hitler’s Fascism may have died in 1945, its principles and believers did not. New generations of fanatics have picked up the cause and grown slowly in the shadows. The advent of social media gave them a new and powerful tool to spread hatred and fear. We need to remember that the price of freedom is constant vigilance by the free.
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