The causes of the rise of fascism in Italy go all the way back to the unification of Italy or the Risorgimento. What caused the rise of fascism in Italy, and what were the two black years that precipitated it?
Prelude to the Rise of Fascism in Italy: The Risorgimento
After the fall of Rome, Italy was divided into many smaller city-states and kingdoms for well over a millennia. The peninsula was a scene of constant foreign intervention and wars. However, the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars spread the ideas of nationalism and rights.
This culminated in attempted revolutions against the ruling class, whether they be foreign like the Austrians or domestic, as in 1848-49. The rebellion was crushed. However, Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia “used the threat of potential revolutionary resurgence to persuade conservative opinion that an Italy united under the House of Savoy, the dynasty of Piedmont-Sardinia, would be a force for stability” (the University of Ohio). France would back Piedmont against the Austrians, and by 1859 a war between the two broke out, which Piedmont won, thus, gaining Lombardy. What followed was the quick acquisition of almost all of Italy by Piedmont, as upheaval swept through the country. By 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was declared, with only Venetia (held by the Austrians until 1866) and Rome (occupied by the French and ruled by the Pope until 1870) being absent.
However, Italy was truly united in name only. The peninsula was economically backward, with a large amount of poverty and illiteracy. Not only this, but the Kingdom was divided internally by not only class but between the regions as well. Many nationalists, true believers in the Risorgimento, believed that a “baptism of blood” could help not only achieve Italian revanchist claims to South Tyrol, Trentino, and the Adriatic coast but could also unite disparate Italy against a common foe. It was for this reason that Italy chose to enter the First World War on the side of the Allies.
A Mutilated Victory
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Having previously been a member of the Triple Alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary, Italy’s decision to enter on the side of the British, French, and Russians was a betrayal. Italy assumed that it could sweep aside Austro-Hungarian resistance and seize all the territory it wanted. At the same time, Italy would also be able to increase its power and prestige in Europe. This was not to be.
Over the course of the war, the Italians would be bogged down in the inhospitable Alps as they continuously tried to break Austro-Hungarian and German lines. The Italians would lose well over 500,000 men killed, with 900,000 wounded or missing. For this, they would gain the territories of South Tyrol, Triest, and Istria from the Treaty of Saint-Germain and the Treaty of Versailles. However, the cost was far too high for what the Italians had gained.
Nationalist elements within Italy began referring to the Italian victory as a “mutilated victory.” As in the stab in the back myth from inter-war Germany, critics claimed that the Allies had denied Italy its just deserts for what they had contributed to the war. Along with this sense of betrayal came another crisis that further unraveled Italy.
Beyond the human cost of the war, the war also culminated in a dramatic economic crisis. In order to fund Italy’s war effort, the Italian government spent a tremendous amount of money; the equivalent of 12 billion in USD in 1914. This caused the Italian state to go heavily into debt which in turn caused inflation to skyrocket. The lira was only worth only one-sixth of its prewar value. Coupled with this was serious unemployment, which reached over two million, as Italian troops returned home and began to look for work.
It was this crisis that sparked off a period known as the biennio rosso or the “Two Red Years” which lasted from 1919 to 1920. Peasants seized land for themselves, notably in the nation’s south, while also going on strike during the harvest. Workers, organized by unions, went on strike to demand higher wages. This economic chaos also led to increased socialist agitation. Throughout the period, socialist groups, including even left-wing Catholic organizations, engaged in strikes, protests, and riots.
The period concluded with a mass sit-in in factories all throughout the north of the country. The workers who occupied the sites attempted to continue factory operations. This was to prove that they could replace the owners. However, the strikes fizzled out after about 3 weeks. While this might have been the end of the biennio rosso, another force had been growing in the wings.
Fasci di Combattimenti
Benito Mussolini founded the Fasci di Combatimenti or “fighting leagues” in Milan in May 1919. Once one of the leaders of the Italian Socialist movement, Mussolini over the course of his career had moved away from socialist internationalism to national syndicalism and then finally to an early form of fascism. The catalyst for this final transition seems to have been his participation in the First World War, where Mussolini was injured and ultimately disillusioned with the socialist movement.
As the biennio rosso raged on, so too did the fascists, as they began attacking not only socialist organizations but Catholic ones as well. In April 1919, fascists attacked the Socialist newspaper L’Avante, where Mussolini had once been an editor, and burned it to the ground. Throughout the rest of 1919 and 1920, the fascists began to attract more popular support as the strikes and mass protests of the biennio rosso continued.
By the fall of 1920, the Fascists, dressed in their later monikered black shirts began strike-breaking as well as dismantling both Socialist and Catholic labor unions and peasant cooperatives. In this endeavor, the squadristi were often supported by the police or industrialists who were increasingly unnerved by socialist mass protests and strikes. They attacked and overthrew local councils that were left-wing, such as in Bologna in October of 1920. They would also drive socialist and Catholic deputies out of parliament. The local fascist leaders were even able to take control of some rural areas of Central Italy, with these Fascist bosses becoming known as the Ras. These Ras would be able to exercise a good deal of political power throughout the Fascist era.
After the conclusion of the biennio rosso, the Fascists had a free hand to crush their political opponents in Italy. This was compounded by the fact that the Italian Socialist Party split with one group forming the Italian Communist Party, which not only alarmed many middle-class and wealthy Italians but also weakened the Italian left. The period from 1921 to 1922, known as the biennio nero, would lead to the fascists destroying any major forms of resistance to their rise.
In 1921, the government of Giovanni Giolitti would call for parliamentary elections. The Fascists decided that it was high time they participated. Luckily for them, Giolitti, looking to augment his fragile coalition, offered for the Fascists to join his newly formed National Bloc. The National Bloc was a coalition of right-wing Italian groups. Many Fascists would agree. The Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, the precursor to the Fascist Party, also ran.
The results of the latter were disappointing. Out of 535 seats, the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento only netted them a total of 2 parliamentary seats. However, the Fascists as part of the broader National Bloc netted far more, at 33 seats. While this was nothing compared to the 108 seats won by the Italian Socialist Party, it was still double that of the Italian Communist Party, with only 15.
Later that November, Mussolini would form the National Fascist Party. At the same time, Mussolini would abandon republicanism. This move would also serve to help centralize the various Fascist groups and movements under the leadership of Mussolini. In 1922, Mussolini himself would become a deputy and join the National Bloc. He and his fascists, while few in number, would be part of the ruling coalition.
Fascism in Italy and the March on Rome
The government of Giolitti didn’t last long. In June of 1921, he would resign as prime minister. Ivanoe Bonomi would replace him, with his government being formed with the reformist Catholic Popular Party, which would force the Fascists out of the coalition. However, this government wouldn’t last either, with Bonomi resigning in February 1922.
King Emmanuel III would finally tap Luigi Facta to create the next government after weeks of indecision. However, Facta’s government would be just as weak. In contrast, Mussolini and his supporters looked ascendant.
Mussolini’s supporters would actively encourage the Fascist leader to take a less-than-democratic path to power. Mussolini would agree. Mussolini and his cohorts would find the perfect excuse to bring together the necessary number of blackshirts in the form of a convention for the National Fascist Party. This took place on the 24 of October 1922 in the city of Naples.
While under the guise of a political convention, Mussolini and other Fascist leaders planned a coup allowing them to take over the Italian government. The plan was that blackshirts or squadristi would descend on the post offices and key public buildings of all of Italy’s key cities. This was done to hamper communication and cause confusion. There would also be a large concentration of fascist forces in central Italy. Then yet another formation would descend on Rome itself. This grouping would contain several Fascist Ras. For the Fascist leaders, it was now or never; those around the future Il Duce feared that this was their one shot at seizing power.
On October 28, the blackshirts would mobilize. In rainy cold temperatures, the forces of fascism gathered at their respective locations. Immediately, Prime Minister Luigi Facta called for a declaration of martial law. However, King Emmanuel III, whose signature the order required, refused. Upon this refusal, Fanca resigned from his post. King Emmanuel would send a message to Mussolini asking him to help form a government.
At first, King Victor Emmanuel would propose several others to head up a new Italian government, with Mussolini becoming the vice premier. Mussolini would time and again refuse, writing in Il Popolo d’Italia that the Fascists would not be subject to a “mutilated victory.” Finally, King Emmanuel agreed to allow Mussolini and his Fascists to head up the government. After much hemming and hawing, Mussolini would head to Rome on a sleeper train and would arrive on the morning of October 30 to meet with the King. The Fascists would march into Rome proper the next day before leaving just as abruptly on November 1st.
The numbers are disputed as to how many fascists were actually mobilized, but they were well under 30,000. Those gathered had few weapons and supplies, with the historian Christopher Duggan arguing that if the army had been ordered to disperse the Fascists they could have done it with ease. Why King Emmanuel refused to sign the declaration of martial that resulted is much debated. Many argue that he feared that the army would not be completely loyal to the government and, thus, would spark a civil war. Added to this was the fear that Mussolini’s Fascists might abolish the monarchy. He might have also believed, as Franz von Papen did in Germany in regard to Hitler, that if he were to bring the Fascists into the governing coalition, they could be tamed and moderated.
Whatever the reasons, Mussolini and his Fascists were now the leaders of Italy. The Encyclopedia Brittanica describes the situation best, “The March on Rome was not the conquest of power that Mussolini later called it but rather a transfer of power within the framework of the constitution, a transfer made possible by the surrender of public authorities in the face of fascist intimidation.” Because of this, the Fascists would quickly begin to centralize power, until, by 1926, Italy was firmly in Fascist hands.