“It’s better to live one day as a lion, then 100 years as a sheep (Goodreads, 1).” These famous words uttered by the fascist leader Benito Mussolini, the founder of the fascist party. He embodied strength, militarism, and nationalism, all desirable traits of a leader when living in post-World War One Italy. After the war the Italians were left with a poor economy, with no real identity after unification, and a frustration amongst the people that the government is not looking out for them. Revolution had taken place in Russia and Italy was on the brink of following them. This allowed for a new party and leader to rise up and gain support and take over Italy, Fascism.
What Is Fascism?
Fascism is a political ideology that was developed by Mussolini after World War One. Fascism is considered a far-right movement that is meant to be in the opposition of the far-left movement, communism. Mussolini wanted the party to be associated with strength, and to restore the glory of the Roman empire to Italy. The name “fascism” comes from the Italian word “fascio” which means “a bundle of sticks.” The bundle of sticks was a symbol used in ancient Rome to signify the unity of the people their strength together. The bundle was often seen carried by leaders with an axe head attached to it. This symbol became representative of the fascist party. The symbol was appropriate for Fascism as it shows what can be accomplished by many small stills working together.
Fascism is reliant on every member working together to better serve the state. This gave Italians an extreme sense of nationalism and helped to form an identity that they have craved since unification. Additionally, Fascism embodied the idea of a self-sufficient nation. This included promoting business Arguably, the most important piece of a fascist regime is a charismatic leader that the people listen to and trust. For fascist Italy, that leader was Benito Mussolini.
Who was Mussolini?
Mussolini was a charismatic picture of a strong man that was born in 1883 into a socialist household and attended a Catholic boarding school as a child until he was expelled at age ten for stabbing another student. He then switched schools where he attended until he was suspended for stabbing yet another student at age fourteen. Mussolini’s father was a writer for socialist media platforms in addition to being a blacksmith, and as a young adult, Mussolini followed in his father’s footsteps, taking up writing for socialist papers. By his mid-twenties, Mussolini was the editor of a socialist paper in Austria Hungry. He was deported however, when he was caught censoring what was published in the paper, a violation of Austria-Hungry law. Back in Italy, Mussolini became editor of another socialist paper, but spent time in and out of jail for a series of violent crimes. Despite this, he was not removed from the socialist party until he announced his support for World War One. As a result, Mussolini created his own news paper and began to preach violence, before joining the Italian army. A few years later Mussolini was sent home as a result of an injury, the war ended and picked up right where he left off. He began to publish articles in his paper that caused for change amongst Italian leaders. Mussolini used his paper to call for a dictator to take over Italy and restore it to its former glory (History.com Editors).
Italy After World War One
Many countries in Europe were left in shambled after World War One, this included Italy. During World War One Italy was initially allied with Austria-Hungary and Germany at the beginning of the war but kept itself neutral for the first part of the war. However, as the war droned on, Italy chose to side with the Allies which promised them the area of South Tyrol. To fulfill their end of the deal, Italy declares war on Austria-Hungary, and preforms very poorly. The battles leave hundreds of thousands of Italians dead. Not only were the people of Italy dissatisfied with their performance, but the other Allied powers were unimpressed by Italy’s performance. Not only did it take longer than initially agreed upon for Italy to receive the territory they were promise, but further assistance by the allies to help with rebuild after the war was allocated to other countries before being given to Italy. This led to a growing distrust for the Allied and the newly formed League of Nations amongst the Italian people. This set the stage for a new source of power to rise and provide changes to the government that the people demanded (History.com Editors).
Mussolini’s Rise to Power
Dissatisfaction amongst the people of World War One allow for support behind Mussolini’s idea to bring a dictator in and overthrow the government. Once Mussolini had gained a substantial following, consisting of mostly former soldiers, they declared themselves the “Fasci Italiani di Combattimento,” or the Fascist Party. To promote their new party uniformed members of the party or “black shirts.” The black shirts marched around Italy breaking up protests and gaining the support of the frustrated middle class of Italy. Mussolini and some member of his fascist party were elected as members of parliament, but this wasn’t enough. In 1922 Mussolini asked his supports to march with him to Rome. This had been done just after unification in Italy. The black shirts occupied the areas surrounding Rome preparing for the march. The Prime Minister, Luigi Facta, wanted to organize the Italian military in Rome to prevent Mussolini’s black shirts from taking over, but the King, in fear of causing a civil war, did not send the troops. This resulted in huge waves of Mussolini supporters and Mussolini himself occupying Rome. There, Mussolini gave a speech to the people. He called on the government to relinquish power to him or he would take it by force. In an attempt to control the fascist party, and keep the piece, the King ask Mussolini to name people to his cabinet, and he made Prime Minister (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). Footage from the Mussolini’s march on Rome shows his black shirts walking by and the people of Rome saluting them.
As Prime Minister Mussolini was given the power to disable the government from within. He transformed the government from a republic, to totalitarian state, and passed a law in 1925 that made his the “head of the government.” This is when Mussolini started to use heavy amounts of propaganda to gain the support of as many people in Italy as possible. This is also when he gained the title “il Duce.”
Life Under Il Duce
The first step in gaining ultimate control over Italy and the undying support of its people, was to get rid of any leaders of opposing parties. The communists were an already established enemy by Mussolini and his fascists’, but what still needed to be taken care of was the Italian socialists. Many socialist leaders were either imprisoned or killed by the black shirts. This information was not freely given to the people, the news papers were censored by Mussolini. They were not allowed to present anything that may make Mussolini look bad, instead only report on how good he is. While information to the adults was being censored, children’s were being taught of Mussolini’s greatness in school.
Images of Mussolini and the King were hung in classrooms, and children were taught the anthems of the fascist party, and they part of the National Bilalla Organization. As a member of this organization children were taught how to be good members of the fascist party, they wore uniforms and competed physically. Images of these boys were used as propaganda to encourage more children to join (Clive). Along with participation in this group, children were required to memorize the fascist ten commandments. The last one being “Mussolini is always right (Trove).”
In addition to the indoctrination of children into the fascist way of life, there were strict rules that the people of Italy had to follow while living under fascist rule. Homosexuality and any other sexual orientation that deviated from “normal” were not supported by Mussolini’s regime. While homosexuality was not outlawed, it was considered unfascist. This is because the gay man, according to Mussolini, was not a symbol of the strong men of Italy, and therefore should not apart of Italy. Men that were believed to be gay were arrested, and some were sent to the island San Domino as an exile, even though the island was still technically part of Italy (Johnson).
Women were also suppressed under fascism, but not in such an obvious way. Instead of women being depicted as inferior, Mussolini painted them as necessary part of society, just not in the same way as men. There was a lot of propaganda surrounding women and their duties at home. Propaganda showed women giving up their wedding rings to be melted down and support the war. Mussolini also asked women to have as many children, at least twelve each, to help bring Italy to its former glory. Mussolini went as far as to prevent birth control and abortion access to women and offer tax breaks to families with multiple children (Smith).
Mussolini and Hitler
As Mussolini continued to hold power of Italy another dictator began to rise up in near by Germany, Adolf Hitler. The two had coexisted with out any significance at the beginning of Italy’s fascist rule. Hitler’s platform, despite being openly credited to Mussolini’s fascism, for gaining power was focused on anti-sematic views that Mussolini did not share. Many of the leaders of the fascist party were Jewish, and Mussolini made it known to to Hitler that he did not support his racist regime. In 1932, Emil Ludwig, a journalist who had fled Germany because he was Jewish, was granted a coveted interview with Mussolini. While, everything the reporter wrote was approved by Mussolini, he allowed this interview to show Hitler that he did not approve or believe in anti-Semitism (Caimmi). While the two leaders initially were not friends, their bond grew as it became beneficial for their countries.
Mussolini had a wanted toe expand Italy and claim territory like the days of the Roman empire. He first set out to accomplish this was in 1935 by attempting to take over Ethiopia. This did not sit well with the League of Nations that Italy had become a part of at the end of World War One. Despite loosing the support of the League of Nations, Italy gained the support of Germany who had left League years prior. This would lead to Italy eventually joining military forces with Germany and Japan in the Anti-Comintern Pact. During this pact signing Hitler and Mussolini spent time together in Germany, and the laws Mussolini enacted next, began to show Hitler and him beginning to see eye to eye. Mussolini passed laws in in 1938 through the Manifesto of Race that took the citizenship and job titles in parliament away from all Jewish Italians. This lead to the signing of another agreement between the two leaders called the “Pact of Friendship and Alliance Between Germany and Italy,” now known as the “Pact of Steel.” This pact agreed for the countries to support each other in the event of war (Llewellyn, Southey, and Thompson). These decisions were not supported by much of the Italian people, and was the beginning of the end for Mussolini’s fascist reign.
Fall of Fascism
Despite Mussolini and Hitler’s agreements, Italy did not enter World War Two until June of 1940. The decision to join the war was another decision unliked by other members of parliament. Italy preformed poorly the places it was on the offensive, was being bombed, and anti-fascist movements were spreading across the country. The Communist party, with the hopes of taking over Italy, supported the anti-fascist demonstrations. In 1943 Italy was in ruins, and the Allied Powers refused to let up their attack as long as Mussolini was in power. Member of the government met and sent a letter to the king asking for him to remove Mussolini from power. The king agree, appointed a new Prime Minister, and the fascist party was dissolved. July 25, 1943 Mussolini was arrested (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). On April 28, 1945 after being rescued from prison and working for Hitler for years, Mussolini was captured and executed. Following his execution his body was hung in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan (National WWII Museum). His corpse was beaten and publicly desecrated before being strung up for everyone to see. A man who lived by violence, dying the same way. Il Duce was dead.
Effects of Fascism
Benito Mussolini was a poor boy from rural Italy who’s fathers socialist views lead him to a life of politics that would change Italy forever. The lasting effects of fascism and Mussolini can be seen still in Italy and throughout the world today. The fascist ideals did not die with Mussolini and fascist party. Across the world fascism still takes many forms, and without the creation of Mussolini’s extreme nationalist party, arguably Hitler would have been unable to rise to power, and Italy may have been a communist nation. The fascism that once ruled Italy still echo’s in Italy’s 630 members of parliament and 315 seat senate that were created to prevent someone like Mussolini from gaining total control of the country again. While it is not certain that Mussolini achieved his dream of being a modern Caesar, Italy would not be the same today if he had not ruled the way he did.
Caimmi, Michele. “Hitler and Mussolini, a Love-Hate Relationship.” Medium, History of Yesterday, 19 Jan. 2020, medium.com/history-of-yesterday/hitler-and-mussolini-a-love-hate-relationship-a219c1dbac14.
Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini [London, 1982], 159-161; Carl Ipsen, Dictating Demography: The Problem of Population in Fascist Italy [Cambridge, 1996], 73-74, 173-181; New York Times, May 29, 1927.
Foss, Clive. 1998. Teaching fascism: Schoolbooks of Mussolini’s Italy. Harvard Library Bulletin 8 (1), Spring 1997: 3-30.
History.com Editors. “Benito Mussolini.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Oct. 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/benito-mussolini.
“Hitler and Mussolini.” Nazi Germany, 26 June 2019, alphahistory.com/nazigermany/hitler-and-mussolini/.
“Italy Declares War on Austria-Hungary.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 5 Nov. 2009, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/italy-declares-war-on-austria-hungary.
Johnston, Alan. “A Gay Island Community Created by Italy’s Fascists.” BBC News, BBC, 12 June 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22856586.
KateL. “Death of the Duce: The National WWII Museum: New Orleans.” The National WWII Museum | New Orleans, The National World War II Museum, 27 Apr. 2020, http://www.nationalww2museum.org/death-of-mussolini.
“March on Rome.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 21 Oct. 2020, http://www.britannica.com/event/March-on-Rome.
“TEN COMMANDMENTS OF FASCISM -.” Trove, trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/25467255.
“Women and Fascism.” Women and Fascism | Exhibits, http://www.library.wisc.edu/exhibits/special-collections/italian-life-under-fascism-selections-from-the-fry-collection/women-and-fascism/.
“A Quote by Benito Mussolini.” Goodreads, Goodreads, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/25657-it-is-better-to-live-one-day-as-a-lion.