Contemporary Italian history is dominated by the Fascist ventennio (20-year period), when Benito Mussolini led a dictatorship characterized by single-party rule, a pervasive, would-be totalitarian state, a cult of violence and war, and military adventurism. The Fascist period can usefully be divided into five phases. The first phase was the creation of the movement. Italian Fascism was born on 23 March 1919, at a meeting in Piazza di San Sepolcro, Milan, when Mussolini launched the Fasci Italiani di combattimento/ Italian Combat Leagues, which became the Partito Nazionale Fascista/National Fascist Party (PNF) in 1921. In this first phase, Italian Fascism appealed largely to veterans angry with the corruption and indecision of Italy’s traditional elites. The movement’s first platform, written by Mussolini himself, was a blend of socialism and nationalism. It seemingly had little electoral appeal. In the elections of November 1919, Mussolini personally obtained less than 5,000 votes, while the Partito Socialista Italiano/Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and the Catholic Partito Popolare Italiano/Italian Popular Party (PPI) attracted mass followings. The poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, who had seized the contested Adriatic city of Fiume with a private army, seemed a more likely authoritarian leader than Mussolini in 1920. Fascism gained strength between 1920 and 1922 because it became the means by which the PSI’s growing power was smashed, especially in the agricultural areas of the Po River valley, Tuscany, and Apulia. Fascist squads, headed by local warlords or Ras, at Mussolini’s instigation waged war against organized labor and the political left. PSI newspapers, offices, and cultural organizations were raided and burned; strikes were broken by strong-arm tactics. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands were savagely beaten or were humiliated by being given a strong dose of castor oil. Rather than repress the Fascists, however, Giovanni Giolitti sought to coopt Mussolini by including the PNF in the blocco nazionale during the May 1921 general elections. Neither Giolitti nor his successors, Ivanoe Bonomi and Luigi Facta, were prepared to use the full weight of the state against the squads. By the spring of 1922, Fascist squads were taking part in “punitive raids” against entire cities (Bologna, Cremona, Ferrara) to chase out their elected governments and install temporary reigns of terror.
   In October 1922, when King Victor Emmanuel III made Mussolini premier rather than risk a conflict with the Fascists who had marched on Rome, co-option was taken to a new level. Mussolini consolidated his hold on power by passing the Acerbo law, but only moved decisively against the political opposition after the kidnapping and murder of Giacomo Matteotti in June 1924. For six months, the democratic opposition boycotted Parliament, until Mussolini’s leading Ras warned him to take action or risk a rebellion in their ranks. On 3 January 1925, Mussolini took responsibility for the killing and began the process of dismantling the liberal state. Italy under Fascism was a dictatorship, but, despite the fact Mussolini invented the word “totalitarian,” Mussolini’s rule was not absolute. Theoretically, there was to be no pluralism but rather a single party. The state, the economy, and the society were to be bureaucratically, hierarchically, and totally organized, integrating all activities —whether in religion, commerce, arts, leisure hours, or the breeding of children—in subordination to the party-state. The slogan “tutto nello Stato, niente senza lo Stato, tutto per lo Stato” (everything within the State, nothing without the State, everything for the State) illustrated the goal. In fact, there were conspicuous areas of national life in which the intrusion of the state was relatively limited. The monarchy, big business, and, above all, the Church all retained considerable autonomy. By contrast, manual workers were robbed of independent trade unions; young people were militarized from the earliest age in the Balillaand the Avanguardisti; and ordinary citizens spent their leisure in social, sporting, and cultural activities organized by the Istituto nazionale del dopolavoro. Professional advancement, especially as a civil servant, was impossible without PNF membership. Intellectual life was rigidly monitored. University professors were asked to pledge their faith to Mussolini (almost all did), and unauthorized political or cultural activity was sternly punished. Nevertheless, Mussolini’s hold on power did not rely on repression and propaganda alone. Both in Italy and abroad, Fascism evoked widespread admiration for its achievements. The launching of great ocean liners (the Rexand the Conte di Savoia), the more vaunted than real improvement in the punctuality of the rail network, the exploits of Italo Balbo and his fellow aviators, the draining of the Italian marshlands, and the athletic triumphs of the boxer Primo Carnera and the Italian national soccer team all added to Italy’s self-esteem. More important, Fascism was widely perceived as having created, in corporatism, an imaginative structure for dealing with the industrial turmoil sweeping the world.
   From the early 1930s onward, Mussolini strove to radicalize the regime. Such practices as giving the Fascist salute instead of shaking hands, using the “virile” voi (second person plural) instead of the apparently effete lei, and marching with the passo Romano (goosestep) were introduced. By the mid-1930s, Mussolini was both a competitor and a reluctant admirer of what Adolf Hitler was achieving in Nazi Germany. Racial laws against the Jews were introduced in 1938; before then, Fascism had not been especially discriminatory toward Italy’s highly integrated Jewish community, and, indeed, many Jews had actually been active Fascists.
   Claiming that war, for men, was like childbirth for women, Mussolini launched a war of conquest against Ethiopia in 1935 and sent a large expeditionary force to assist Francisco Franco’s military revolt in Spain. Such actions brought him closer to Hitler. In October 1936, the Rome-Berlin Axis was signed; in May 1939, the Axis became the Pact of Steel. Italy did not join the war until June 1940, however, when France was beaten and Great Britain was on the ropes. Italy conducted a strikingly unsuccessful parallel waragainst Britain in North Africa and against Greece. In both cases, Italy had to be rescued by German arms after huge losses.
   Fascism’s wartime losses were what brought the system down. After the invasion of Italian territory in July 1943, the Fascist Grand Council voted on 25 July 1943, to deprive Mussolini of command of the war effort. After Mussolini’s fall, Italy was divided between invading Allied and Nazi armies, with Mussolini heading the puppet Republic of Salo in northern Italy. The ventenniowas over, although it left political scars that smart to this day.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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