On Machiavellian Influences and Cultural Impacts of the Italian Fascist Movement

An exploratory essay by Dan Susman

As any seasoned student of history can attest, a principle reason for remembering circumstances of the past is the possibility of a rebirth of those circumstances in our present. Fascism, a term coined by Benito Mussolini in 1915, is no exception to this rule. Defined differently by a multitude of historians across the globe, fascism is, in brief, a set of ideologies that seeks to place the nation above all other sources of loyalty, and to create a mobilized national community. It is a revolutionary form of nationalism that is inherently anti-liberal, anti-Marxist, anti-conservative, anti-democratic, and anti-capitalist, with a strong emphasis on violence and authoritarianism.[1] With a unique background in Socialism and crime, Mussolini develops this ideological entity as a retort to the common economic and political forms of the early twentieth century, namely capitalism and communism. Soon thereafter, he structures a political entity, the National Fascist Party (Italian: Partito Nazionale Fascista, PNF), around his teachings of fascism, creating a physical expression of his core ideals. Both the theoretical and political forms of Fascism presented by Mussolini are direct manifestations of the leader’s moral views, all of which were influenced by his experiences in Italy. Specifically, Machiavelli’s Il Principe—or, in English, The Prince—is a clear influence for Mussolini’s Fascism, as explored in further detail over the course of this essay.

           Machiavelli, with a strong interest in the development of an Italian republic, writes his famous piece The Prince as a recommendation to consolidate power and form a singular national identity for all of the peninsula. A widespread experimentation with early forms of democracy, a large emphasis on individual rights, and an assemblage of cultures and dialects made cohesion amongst Italians scarce for centuries. Disturbed by the industrial and financial instability, political chaos, violence, and constant changes in power, Machiavelli, being both historically aware and forward thinking, proposes a monarchial system led by Lorenzo de Medici as a steppingstone towards his desired republic. He writes, “For a long time I have thought carefully about these matters and examined them minutely; now I have condensed my thoughts into a little volume and send it to Your Magnificence. Though I know it is unworthy to enter your presence, still I hope you will be graciously pleased to accept this work.”[2] Not unlike this, World War I leaves Italy in a state of flux, with soaring political discontent and confusion, lack of authority, and far less action than citizens were seeking. Mussolini, seeing the opportunities presented by this apparent social weakness, synthesizes his philosophy of politics, Fascism, as an ex post facto development of the Fasces of Revolutionary Action and Italian Fasces of Combat, and an expansion of Italian Irredentism.[3]

            Mussolini’s rise to power is perhaps a perfect combination of Machiavellian virtues. Considering himself a modern-day Caesar, divinely chosen to bring glory and wealth to the Italian people, Il Duce[4] utilizes fortune, force, popular support, and natural ability to solidify his status as a worthy prince. Any one of these methods, when taken in solitude, doesn’t quite explain Mussolini’s rise to power; instead, it is the clever use of all four that places Il Duce in his position of absolute authority. Machiavelli, in his perhaps accidental creation of modern political science, had observed similar characteristics and strategies, claiming that princes entered their princedoms through good luck, crime, and strength of character. On good luck, he writes, “When simple good luck raises private citizens to the rank of prince, they have little trouble in rising, but plenty in holding onto their positions. They have no troubles along the way, because they are practically flying; all the problems arise when they are in place. These are the people who get control of a state either by buying it, or as a gift from someone.”[5] Mussolini, having not the opportunity nor economic capacity to purchase for himself the Italian peninsula, and, further, having not yet been handed authority by King Vittorio Emanuele III, possesses fortune in the form of a sense of circumstance of setting and psychology.[6] The time of his existence was certainly opportune, with a communal anguish soaring in response to the ill-advised entry into World War I, poorly managed and unequal democratic political structure, and lack of change in Parliament. The people were calling for a shift in the norms, a lucky situation for a young, ambitious, and power-hungry writer and thinker. Thus, Mussolini takes to what he knows best: persuasive literature and public speech.[7]

           In Mussolini’s literature, he presents his first method of force, arguably less direct and illegal than those to come. To gain the popular support so essential to a public acceptance of his platform, Il Duce voices his opinions of the current state of the Italian economy and society, while admitting that they Italians are doomed if not for a revolutionary revival to Romanesque grandeur. Through propaganda, violence, and threats, the soon-to-be dictator turns his small following of some hundred Black Shirts to several thousand.

Avanti!, a leading Italian Socialist paper, was directed by Mussolini for many years before he grew tired of the slow-paced, seemingly unproductive left. He drew on this background for inspiration in revolutionary tactics, and, thus, his right-wing Fascism has aspects of the opposite side of the spectrum. During his race for a majority in Parliament, Mussolini scheduled violent attacks on Avanti!’s headquarters, sending the message that Fascism was here to stay. Above is the front page of the first number of Avanti! (25 December 1896).

           By 1922, the leader organizes an attempted coup d’état, titled the March on Rome, which comprises roughly thirty thousand Fascists. Through voter manipulation and political corruption, he ensures a Fascist majority in Parliament during the 1924 Italian General Election. Mussolini uses violent forms of public intimidation, such as killing the first voter at the polls for “not voting Fascist,” regardless of the representative for whom the voter cast his ballot. This is an obvious means to ensure his outright victory, as he makes it evident that to not vote Fascist is to accept death. Later, Mussolini’s force grows more violent than ever before, as he threatens the Chamber of Deputies to obey him or be dissolved. Giacomo Matteotti and those of his anti-Fascist counterparts who spoke out against the use of violence and intimidation disappear shortly after voicing their concerns. Mussolini, leaning into the Machiavellian concept of virtù, exclaims, “I alone assume political, moral, and historical responsibility for all that has happened” in reference to the Matteotti Crisis.[8] By the end of the decade, Mussolini has sculpted for himself a massive following, through this use of force, crime, violence, and intimidation.

In the above video, we see an example of Il Duce’s bombastic, charismatic mannerisms. He addresses the crowd with passion, fury, and certainty. Roughly a minute in, the leader puffs his chest and crosses his arms, as his fans roar with enthusiasm. His power and narcissism are exemplified in his every word.

           Lastly, and possibly most importantly, Benito Mussolini displays his great ability as a prince of Italy on the public stage. Machiavelli contends that “Those who become princes through their own strength of character may have troubles gaining power, but they find it easy to hold onto. Their troubles in getting power derive partly from the new laws and measures they have to adopt in order to set up their state and secure themselves. And it is worth noting that nothing is harder to manage, riskier in the undertaking, or more doubtful of success than to set up as the introducer of a new order.”[9] The great Prince of Machiavelli has the trait of virtù, a particular flexibility in ruling, a willingness to act immorally at times and morally at others. Mussolini, with a heroic presence in the fields and in sport and a threatening appearance in politics, matches this description. “Here was the most Italian of Italians, the personification of the spirit of irredentism, unification, and the restoration of the glory of the past. Here was a dramatic personality, a picturesque figure, boldly starting rehearsals in work and discipline for a pageant of prosperity on a stage of chaos and conflict and ruin. Here was a young and active man who loved youth and activity.”[6]

Mussolini salutes the public, with the classic Romanesque salute. This motion demonstrated great power over the public, as subservient supporters reciprocated the hand signal. Also, note that the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic was rampant at the beginning of Mussolini’s reign, so this salute was a safer form of handshake. This was certainly not a prime reason for the use of the salute, though. The greeting was later emulated by Adolf Hitler, who popularized it as the Nazi salute. Image from Britannica.
In this example of Fascist propaganda, Il Duce’s sharp facial features are highlighted as a way to display his masculinity. The appeal to militarism is striking in this image.

           Il Duce makes his strong facial features and bold charisma evident in his public appearances, propaganda, sculptures, and Roman salute. He embodies the ideals of the Romans with a clarity of character and a persuasion of values. Here was a prince who had come into office as those observed by Machiavelli, a symbol of hope for the Italian public in the trying circumstances of twentieth century Europe.

           Mussolini continues his Machiavellianism long into his reign over Italy. As recommended to him by the sixteenth century Florentine thinker, he develops a strong military through indoctrination and a loyal fanbase through the use of Latin. In the reverberating words of Niccolò Machiavelli, “If, then, your illustrious house is to follow the example of those excellent men who redeemed their native lands, you must first of all, before anything else, provide yourself with your own armies; that is the foundation stone of any enterprise, and you cannot possibly have more faithful, more reliable, or better soldiers than your own. And though each may be a good man individually, they will be even better as a group, when they see themselves united behind a prince of their own, who will support and reward them. It is necessary to build up an army of this sort, if you are to defend yourself with Italian valor against foreigners.”[10] The Florentine writer places a large importance on the development of a strong national military because such a defense was necessary in saving Italy from its damning weakness. Having witnessed constant invasions from foreign nations and easy domination by French and German influences, it was clear to Machiavelli that Italy had no ability to defend itself in the physical nor the social sense. Unification of the peninsula into a single state with a large and powerful army of its own was the realist’s proposed solution. Intrinsic to this argument was a deep national pride, or at least a hope for such a thing. History repeating itself as it often does, Mussolini finds a similar disunion throughout the Italy of his time, weak from the lasting impacts of the First World War. In order to prove itself worthy in the stadium of global affairs, Italy had a need for a militarization movement; Fascism served this purpose.

A mother sews the literal fabric of Italy in this Fascist propaganda piece. Family and life at home served as the backbone of Mussolini’s regime, as the nation was to be engrained in every part of life. We see the flag between the child and mother, as a symbol for the state being upheld by young and old parties alike and existing forever for all Italian individuals. Photo is the cover of a twentieth century magazine
Above is a notebook or exercise book of a schoolboy named Francese. Apparent is the emphasis on conscription, as young boys were expected to join the military as soon as possible. The teachings of Fascism were everywhere they looked, forcing a shift in Italy’s perception of everything. Photo from UW-Madison Library.

           Il Duce constructs his movement such that youth is central to its every move. From an early age, all Italian boys and girls are spoon-fed Fascist propaganda and agendas. Mussolini ensures that Latin, the formerly considered “dead” language, is everywhere in these children’s worlds, from posters and advertisements, to school texts and sculptures. “Not learning Latin was seen as a form of desertion from the ideals of the regime. Latin was not meant to replace Italian but was viewed as a language that was particularly well-suited to bearing the essence of Fascism,” says Hans Lamer, a professor of Philosophy, Classics, and the History of Art and Ideas at the University of Oslo.[11] Mussolini fabricates an art of political indoctrination through appeals to the once great Roman Empire, instilling in his subjects an intensely masculine warrior mentality of national superiority. Mussolini shifts the Italian understanding of the world and paints Fascism as the only option for successful life by attacking modern education. Youth were to be obedient, strong, heroic, and virile, employed to keep their parents faithful to the Fascist movement. “This new era would be characterized by the spirit of youth; a spirit clearly suspect in all areas where the ‘old’ mentality still held sway.”[12]

So, yes, Benito Mussolini clearly sought inspiration from Niccolò Machiavelli’s great Prince of Italy, but why ought we care today? As Mussolini’s control over Italy and his hopeful empire dwindles, the once proud leader becomes Adolf Hitler’s disciple. The Italian public, soon thereafter, turns against Fascism as the inequity and manipulation inherent in Il Duce’s methods are exposed as such. By 1943, Mussolini has lost his power and has become a laughingstock for even his most loyal fans. Machiavelli warns him, “Here the question arises: is it better to be loved than feared, or vice versa? I don’t doubt that every prince would like to be both; but since it is hard to accommodate these qualities, if you have to make a choice, to be feared is much safer than to be loved. For it is a good general rule about men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain. While you serve their welfare, they are all yours, offering their blood, their belongings, their lives, and their children’s lives, as we noted above—so long as the danger is remote. But when the danger is close at hand, they turn against you.”[13] Mussolini, so comfortable in the love and support received for years, quickly finds that his expert cult of personality is no match for the disheveling economy, expanding unemployment, and spreading discontent. No amount of inflamed speech or brainwashing could fix his dear country’s reality. Mussolini’s Fascism suffers a demise much like that of his beloved Roman Empire, ending in the leader’s execution and public hanging. A significant portion of Italian culture today is devoted to remembrance of and opposition to Mussolini’s Italian Fascist Movement and its descendants, as the veil of mistruth has been lifted, exposing the corruption and harshness inherent in the dictator’s regime.

From left to right, the bodies of Bombacci, Mussolini, PetacciPavolini and Starace in Piazzale Loreto hang after the demise of the Fascist regime, 1945. Crowds of Italians gather to gawk at the hanging bodies, the sweetness of liberation at the tip of their tongues. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Above is a 2016 march led by CasaPound Italia, a violent, ultra-nationalist fascist group. The organization “germinated in the late 1990s as a sort of Mussolini-admiring drinking club,” and now leads a movement in favor of the rebirth of Il Duce’s ideologies, seeking pride and wealth for the Italian peninsula. Photo from this Guardian article.

            However, fascism as a modern ideological form of Mussolini’s capital-F Fascism lives on in Italy and around the world. Historians and philosophers like Roger Griffin and Umberto Eco have compiled lists of fascist traits, some number of which signify a proto fascist movement or ideology. For Eco, there are fourteen distinct pillars for a Ur-Fascist regime, all contradictory of each other in some light, and each a sufficient red-flag.[14] In Italy, there has been a revival of Fascist thinking, with Neo-fascism on the rise. Ultra-nationalism has made a resurgence as the flaws and faults of Mussolini fade in time. What’s left is the false image of Italian excellence and superiority during Mussolini’s reign, a stimulus for the return of fascism into the mainstream. Xenophobia runs rampant in the streets and politics; black shirts, indicative of the early twentieth century, are replaced by the black t-shirts depicted above. Remembering Mussolini and his Machiavellian dream of glorified injustice is at an epitome of importance today, as we see first-hand in Italy and elsewhere a return to the darkness of Il Duce. In cultural and historical explorations of twentieth century Italy, we expose ourselves to the similarities in the politics of today. Awareness, in an ideal setting, allows for resistance and activism, as patterns in history know not geographical borders nor dates or times. What was reality in Italy has reemerged there and here and everywhere in between. We look on the past to learn for the future, learning here to actively resist the injustices of tyranny, the mistruths of propaganda, and the dissolution of education.

[1] This definition is largely influenced by Roger Griffin’s notion of a “fascist minimum.” In Griffin’s view, fascism evolves as a reaction to immense social struggle, giving it an “existential dimension.” It displays itself in a number of ways, all with a few traits in common. He discusses the topic further in a YouTube interview with Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and many papers, articles, and essays. To view this interview, click here.

[2] See Machiavelli (pages 13-14) for his dedication to Lorenzo de Medici, in which he explains his reasoning for writing the small prince’s handbook.

[3] Fascio d’Azione Rivoluzionaria, Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, and irredentismo italiano were movements founded in 1915, 1919, and the late nineteenth century, respectively. They were early forms of revolutionary intervention, with strong emphasis on the superiority of ethnic Italians. Each demonstrated intense nationalism, the former two encouraging irreligious, class-conflict based socialism and the lattermost promoting opinion politics. See Britannica’s Benito Mussolini – Rise to Power, and Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism for more.

[4] Mussolini gives himself this title as an homage to the Roman heritage. In Latin, Il Duce translates to The Leader. His propaganda and writings reflect this self-appointed nickname.

[5] See Machiavelli, specifically his seventh chapter, for more information about a prince’s acquisition of a princedom through good luck.

[6] This idea is explored further, with comprehensive historical evidence, by Arnold Lien (436).

[7] Marla Stone, a professor of history at Occidental College, explains, “[Mussolini’s] skill as a journalist was absolutely essential. He knew what to play up. He knew how to play on people’s fears, he knew how to play on people’s dreams…” (PBS’s Documentary on Benito Mussolini)

[8] Giacomo Matteotti is found dead a few weeks after his disappearance. Days of protest later, Mussolini, in fear of losing support for withholding information from his supporters, accepts the blame in quite an indirect fashion. For further reading, see Britannica’s Giacomo Matteotti.

[9] See Machiavelli’s sixth chapter on new princedoms acquired by one’s own arms and virtù.

[10] See Machiavelli’s twenty-sixth chapter (page 71), which serves as an exhortation to restore Italy to “Liberty” and free form.

[11] The notion of Latin as a weapon to indoctrinate the public and further Mussolini’s agenda is discussed further here.

[12] See Ledeen (145) for an exploration of youth in Fascist Italy.

[13] Machiavelli’s seventeenth chapter (page 46) offers the classic Machiavellian discourse on whether it is better to be loved or feared, as a monarch. This is possibly the most famous chapter of his timeless work.

[14] For further reading, as I highly suggest, Eco’s Fourteen Points can be found here.

Works Cited:

“Almanacco Della Donna Italiana 1922 by Various.” Goodreads, Goodreads, www.goodreads.com/book/show/36210770-almanacco-della-donna-italiana-1922.

“Avanti! (Newspaper).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Oct. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avanti!_(newspaper).

Benito Mussolini. Dir. Mark Stevenson. PBS, 2019. Kanopy. Web. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

Eco, Umberto. Eternal Fascism. The New York Review of Books. 22 Jun. 1995. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1995/06/22/ur-fascism/

Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Giacomo Matteotti.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 06 Jun. 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Giacomo-Matteotti.

“Education.” Education | Exhibits, Libraries of UW-Madison. www.library.wisc.edu/exhibits/special-collections/italian-life-under-fascism-selections-from-the-fry-collection/education/.

FOOT, John, et. al. “Benito Mussolini.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 25 Jul. 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Benito-Mussolini.

Ledeen, Michael A. “Italian Fascism and Youth.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 4, no. 3, 1969, pp. 137–154. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/259736. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

Lien, Arnold J. “Machiavelli’s Prince and Mussolini’s Fascism.” Social Science, vol. 4, no. 4, 1929, pp. 435–441. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23902033. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

Lyttelton, Adrian. “Fascism in Italy: The Second Wave.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 1, no. 1, 1966, pp. 75–100. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/259650. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

MACHIAVELLI, Niccolò. The Prince. Edited by Quentin Skinner. Translated by Russell Price, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

MUSSOLINI, Benito. The Doctrine of Fascism. Translated by Jane Soames, 1933.

“The Fascist Movement That Has Brought Mussolini Back to the Mainstream.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Feb. 2018, www.theguardian.com/news/2018/feb/22/casapound-italy-mussolini-fascism-mainstream.

“Using Language as a Weapon: How Mussolini Used Latin to Link Fascism to the Mighty Roman Empire.” Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas, www.hf.uio.no/ifikk/english/research/news-and-events/news/2019/using-language-as-a-weapon-how-mussolini-used-lati.html.

Dan Susman

Dan Susman is a second year at Northeastern University studying Computer Science. He has had an immense interest in Italian language and culture since early middle school, which has only compounded over the years. In his future, he sees a life in software development, alternative energy solutions, activism, education, and joy.

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