WHY DID THE FASCISTS RATHER THAN THE SOCIALISTS OR CATHOLICS REPLACE THE LIBERALS AS THE DOMINANT FORCE IN ITALIAN POLITICS AFTER 1918? When Benito Mussolini concluded his violent and semi-legal seizure of power in Italy on the 29th October 1922, the Fascist era began in victory as crowds of Blackshirts rushed to the capital to celebrate their leader. The aim of this essay is to explain the Fascists’ rise to power in Italy. Thus, whilst the highly repressive nature of Fascism cannot be understated, this essay will focus solely on Italy before Mussolini seized control. Why was Italy the first European country to succumb to Fascism? What factors in her development meant that people were willing to toss aside liberal parliamentary democracy in favour of strict authoritarianism even when the Socialist and Catholic parties were electorally successful? In order to answer this question, this essay will present: a brief overview of the historiography surrounding this period, as these are important considerations; an overview of conditions at the end of the war; an analysis of the Socialist and Catholic parties; and, finally, the general crisis of the liberal state.
Fascism claimed to be a ‘revolution’ and it certainly marked a break with the liberal regime it had replaced. This claim also allowed liberals to shun any blame, because, “if Fascism was a revolution, then the responsibilities of liberal Italy [...] could be minimised”.1 This approach culminates in the ‘parenthesis’ theory; Italy was well on her way to becoming a modern parliamentary democracy but was rudely disrupted by the onset of Fascism. However, historians have observed that parentheses do not exist in history; otherwise, history itself loses all purpose.2 This has given rise to the theory of Fascism as a ‘revelation’, most notably in the work of Guido Dorso, who intended it to be “an indictment of liberal Italy”.3 Many features of Italian political life encouraged political forces and practices which eventually found full force in Fascism, and the general view is now that “Italian liberalism contained the seeds of Fascism”.4 Whilst this may perhaps tempt the historian to view Italian liberalism as nothing but an antechamber to Fascism, it restores the idea of continuity and is the view that this essay will take – what is generally termed the ‘crisis of the liberal state’.
Euphoria surrounding Italy’s notable contribution in the last stages of the war briefly united the country. However, this was short-lived when her position at the peace conferences was weak because of what Mack Smith calls the “fundamental division between those who hoped to annex territory in the Balkans and those who renounced it”.5 In essence, as a result of the peace treaties, Italy gained about nine thousand square miles of territory. However, the potential strategic benefits were overshadowed by the government’s misjudgement of the controversy over Fiume, which would have bitter effects in 1919 when nationalist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio led 2600 irredentist troops into the city to occupy it. Left and right, syndicalists and nationalists, joined with D’Annunzio to topple the “hated parliamentary state”.6 Though the effort eventually failed, partly because of D’Annunzio’s deficiency as a leader and partly because of the lack of support from industry and the army, it exposed the fact that many groups were unhappy with parliament and would continue to find other ways to express their grievances.7
Mack Smith claims that many Italians thought that the terms of the peace settlement were unfair8 and there is no doubt that this was exploited by irredentists and nationalists who coined the term ‘mutilated victory’ to describe the broken Pact of London treaty; the Allies had deserted Italy and the government had failed to remedy this. It is interesting to compare this idea of the ‘mutilated victory’ to the ‘stab-in-the-back myth’ of Weimar Germany, which was used by the Right to pour scorn on...
Bibliography: Corner, Paul, ‘Liberalism, Pre-Fascism, Fascism’, in David Forgacs, ed, Rethinking Italian Fascism: Capitalism, Populism and Culture (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1986), pp. 1-11.
De Grand, Alexander, Italian Fascism: Its Origins and Development (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982)
Forgacs, David, ‘Introduction: Why Rethink Italian Fascism’, in David Forgacs, ed, Rethinking Italian Fascism: Capitalism, Populism and Culture (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1986), pp. 11-21.
Lyttelton, Adrian, The Seizure of PowerL Fascism in Italy 1919-1929 (New York: Scribner, 1973)
Mack Smith, Denis, Modern Italy: A Political History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997)
Morgan, Philip, Italian Fascism 1919-1945 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1995)
Salvemini, Gaetano, The Origins of Fascism in Italy (New York: Harper and Row, 1973)
Sassoon, Donald, Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism (London: Harper Press, 2007)
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