In his effort to construct a fascist, nationalist identity in Italy, Mussolini pioneered many of the power-gaining tactics that dictators like Hitler and Franco would later also implement . Studying fascism’s origins in Italian history allows us the opportunity to not just better understand the past, but also to recognize our present and imagine what our future can look like. In recent years, Europe has been experiencing a rise in ultra-nationalism and extremist groups promising to fight for the rights of white Europeans. Italy is hardly the only country experiencing this phenomenon, however, the fascist ideology that is the basis for many of these groups can be traced back to Mussolini. The recent rise of ultra-nationalism within Italy and Europe as a whole is symptomatic of bigger issues, which are not too dissimilar than those that led to the creation of Fascism in the early twentieth century. While extremist groups have attempted to take on a more public role as of late, the ultra-nationalist ideology they espouse is not entirely limited to the political fringes. Ultra-nationalism and far-right ideology have permeated the political landscape of many European nations in recent years, and this will have a direct impact on the way these countries operate, treat their citizens, and interact with each other in decades to come.
In order to understand the rise of Fascism under Mussolini, it’s important to first consider the conditions facing Italy during this time and after the war. Over a million Italians died as a result of the conflict and the country was burdened with significant debts. Britain and France had failed to fulfil their promise of granting certain territories to Italy, and the national government was made up of coalitions that found themselves unable to make decisions. As all this was happening, Italians were also experiencing rising unemployment and inflation rates, as well as growing unrest in the cities. Labourers continued to riot, occupy factories, and form council systems based on the Soviet communist model. Subsequently, there was widespread fear of a civil war looming, especially among industrialists and landowners.
After serving in the Italian army for two years during the First World War, Mussolini returned to Milan in February of 1917 and began crafting a new political ideology known as Fascism. Fascism was a completely novel, ultranationalist political system; it took revolutionary elements from the left and combined them with the imperialist doctrine of the right. Not just that, but as an authoritarian theory of government, it opposed, often violently, the political philosophies of democratic liberalism, communism, and socialism. Fascism celebrated military prowess and extreme devolution to the state. It also promoted economic self-sufficiency and the superiority of the Italian people, while promising to restore Italy to the glory of ancient Rome.
Mussolini believed fascism offered a path back towards stability and greatness amid all the post-war chaos and the increasing popularity of the communist party across Europe. Mussolini went on to start the “Partito Nazionale Fascista” (National Fascist Party) in 1919, and in 1920, fascism began to take hold over Italy. Para-military groups, made up of young men and supported by local law enforcement, began to appear throughout the northern and central territories. These groups were known as “black-shirts” and they saw themselves as saviours restoring law and order. However, the “black-shirts” were mostly responsible for violent reprisals against socialist figures and politicians, often operating with impunity and sanctioned by Mussolini himself.
In October of 1922, between 30 and 40 thousand “black-shirts” marched into Rome and demanded that the king nominate Mussolini as Prime Minister. This is a notable example of the psychological warfare Mussolini utilized against the Italian people and their institutions. Arguably, Mussolini’s rise as Prime Minister is a cautionary tale on giving into fear, granting radical figures political power, and allowing the democratic process to be circumvented by force. Once Mussolini became Prime Minister, the fascist party began to gain political ground in parliament through violence and intimidation. As many despots have done, he moved to undermine Italy’s independent judiciary and openly declared himself as a dictator.
Mussolini showed the world how to destroy a democracy by undermining its political and social institutions, indoctrinating the population, and utilizing violence against enemies and civilians alike. Violence was not only accepted under fascism but also celebrated and seen as means to advance national interests and purify the nation in order to fit with Mussolini’s very narrow and exclusionary vision for Italy. Mussolini understood the importance of nationalism as a force for action and change, and he spread his ideas through speeches, newspapers and over the radio. However, during his time as leader, Mussolini also suppressed any dissenting views and virtually eradicated the freedom of the press.
Nationalism itself is not new to European politics, however, there has been a recent and significant rise in support for right-wing, populist parties. Every country’s situation is different, however, this change seems to stem from several key concerns across the board, including globalization, immigration and national identity, as well as a general sense of dissatisfaction and frustration with the political establishment. As is illustrated below in Image 1, Europe’s political landscape as of 2019 showed such an inclination towards nationalism. In 2018, Italy was Europe’s third-largest economy while also having a public debt equal to 130% of the country’s GDP. In 2019, the far-right party known as The League gained 17.4% of votes during Italy’s national elections. The dire economic situation, as well as the arrival of a large number of migrants from North Africa, were significant factors towards boosting The League’s popularity.
The League is led by Matteo Salvini, who has advocated for a hard line on immigration and gone as far as to say “unchecked immigration brings chaos, anger, drug dealing, thefts, rape and violence” . Such a stance is very much in line with the discrimination towards outsiders that fascism promulgated, as evidenced by the anti-Semitic racial laws of official fascist doctrine. When interviewed by the New York Times in 2018, one of Salvini’s supporters described him as “a good man”, but went on to say, “I like him because he puts Italians first. And I guess he’s a fascist, too”. The League is not the only right-wing political party opposing the rights of migrants and marginalized communities within Italian society. As shown below in Image 2, the Brothers of Italy party is also opposed to extending discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community.
Experts like Roger Griffin, a professor at Oxford University, argue that the main danger today is not a fascist revolution like the one which Italy experienced under Mussolini. Rising social, existential and economic insecurity generally is a precursor to right-wing politics. However, the crises that European nations are experiencing today are different from those of the inter-war period. Therefore, it would be misguided to argue that any rise of right-wing politics is equivalent to a resurgence of fascism. Notwithstanding, fascism has the ability to enter national politics through the lens of populism. This becomes evident when politicians use radical language to express xenophobia and concerns over the possible dilution of their national and cultural identity.
One of the crucial steps in promulgating fascism is establishing a clear enemy for people to rally against. For Mussolini, this was the socialists and communists, and it allowed him to operate generally unchallenged. If a fascist leader is able to identify such an enemy, they will be able to gather support around eliminating this perceived threat because their actions will be seen as protecting the interests of the public and the nation. The “new right” poses a great threat to society today. It often attempts to villainize migrants and marginalized communities in an effort to promote an exclusionary version of nationalist identity. Confronting fascism today requires us to identify the role and influence that fear has in politics. Furthermore, the potential effect that fascism could have on education, immigration policy and human rights makes this matter of the highest importance.
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