by Daniel Costanzo
Historical Context of Fascist Power in Italy
Italy in the early twentieth century was a country that faced political instability, economic hardship, and a strong sense of nationalism. The Fascist political movement led by Benito Mussolini was a reaction to poor conditions and social unrest in post World War I Italy. After suffering heavy casualties, unstable leadership, and economic strain due to their participation in the war, the Italian citizens hoped for strong leadership to establish national unity and restore economic prosperity to the nation. Through his charismatic personality and strong character, Mussolini promised to restore Italy’s glory and unity which made him popular with the Italian people.
His political ideology known as Fascism is known to be a far-right movement that directly opposes communism. In general, this type of government is characterized by the demonization of domestic enemies, widespread propaganda intended to brainwash the population, and contempt for democratic institutions. In the particular case of Italy during the early twentieth century, Fascism was deeply rooted in ultranationalism and militarism. Another major pillar of the Fascist ideology was the citizen’s duty to self-sacrifice and always place the state above the individual (“Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism”). Citizens were expected to be loyal to the state and make decisions for the nation’s good.
Mussolini and His Rise to Power
Benito Mussolini was a socialist in his early life, but eventually separated himself from that party and became the father of Fascism as we know it today. In 1919 Mussolini established his unofficial movement called “Fasci di combattimento” in Milan where he recruited devoted supporters and thugs who acted as enforcers known as the “Blackshirts” who would often attack communists and socialists in response to the tensions from the Red Biennium of 1919-1921. After gaining some traction, he officially founded the National Fascist Party in 1921 and swiftly amassed a large following due to his strong, charismatic persona. He fostered a cult-like following, projecting himself as an omnipotent and indispensable leader, and gained the support of many different groups, including the average blue collar workers and veterans upset with the war’s outcome.
In 1922 Mussolini and tens of thousands of armed Fascists marched on Rome, demanding from King Victor Emmanuel III that Mussolini be instantiated as Italy’s prime minister. To quell the situation at hand, the king appointed Mussolini to this position, ultimately allowing him to rule as a dictator from that point on. With his new power he immediately expelled all opposition, including Socialist members and arrested all Communist members of Parliament. He abolished local elections and reinstated the death penalty for political crimes. And, in 1925 he officially named himself dictator of Italy, taking the title of “il Duce” which is the Roman word for leader (“March on Rome”)
His regime was characterized by a cult of personality and strong emphasis on propaganda. The Fascist Party controlled all media forms and used them to spread a myth of Mussolini as a heroic veteran and leader who’d unify Italy and restore it to prosperity like during the Roman Empire. Mussolini was particularly fond of the Roman Empire and was obsessed with achieving its glory; many of his actions referenced it in some way or another and convinced Italians that they Fascism was an opportunity for a new golden age. This emphasis on Rome led people to associate Fascism as a natural descendent of the Roman Empire with Mussolini as its destined ruler. (Lewine, 2008). This was one of the many ways that he gained popularity among Italians.
Media Manipulation and Propaganda
Propaganda was an absolutely vital tool in gaining and retaining fascist power. The most effective and widely used forms of propaganda at the time included newspapers, film, and the radio as in general, the propaganda would be designed to appeal to the emotion of the masses, demonizing so-called “enemies of the state”, and idolizing a strong male figure modeled after Mussolini himself.
Soon after Mussolini’s appointment as prime minister, the newspapers across the country became tightly State-run so that all content would be reviewed prior to being printed and dispersed. And in general, journalists were encouraged to view their writing as a service to the nation, thus needing to align their reporting accordingly. Manifestos and flyers were commonly used as they were easy to create and distribute, but as a result of the growing accessibility of radio technology, spreading the Fascist message became even easier and more efficient. Mussolini’s speeches could now be broadcast to a much larger audience than his usual speeches, and citizens could enjoy talk shows that would subtly orient them towards the Fascist message. The regime even went so far as to create radio stations like “Radio Rurale” and “Radiobalilla” to specifically target the rural and children populations. While disseminating new propaganda to its citizens, the Fascist party also strongly censored information that did not agree with their views. They persecuted those who wrote against the regime and on many occasions raided bookstores that sold “contraband” (D’Amato, 2016). The images below show hard-copy propaganda flyers that circulated at the time while the video at the end of the section shows a popular song praising “il Duce”.
The images are of a wide selection of Fascist propaganda pushed unto Italians by Mussolini’s regime which are quite direct in message. The first image shows a war-torn Europe with dead citizens on the street, blaming America and Great Britain for the death and destruction. Such negative depictions of these political powers were commonplace in Italy because they opposed Fascism and thus had to be demonized by the state. The fourth image conveys a similar message with the Statue of Liberty standing near explosions with the caption “Here are the liberators!”. Other attempts at media manipulation such as the third image vilifies Communists, Jews, and FreeMasons and places on the emotions of Italians by suggesting that these groups intend to hurt their sweet, innocent children. Intolerance and persecution of Communists was another important pillar of the Fascist ideology as can be inferred from the second image where . The word choice and physical separation of the two captions shows the intentional separation and differentiation between “good” Italians and “bad” Communists, furthering the “us vs. them” concept. Other propaganda posters focused on glorifying Italy’s military through depictions of strong, courageous men ready to fight for their country as seen in the last image.
As time went on, Mussolini began to infiltrate Italian life deeper with his manipulation campaign creating institutions like the Ministry for Popular Culture to infiltrate categories like music, theater, sports, fashion, etc. (Galdi, 2010). The ministry pushed for patriotic and nationalistic material to be created and even ordered a “fascist” fashion style to be developed and made popular. Aside from creating materials to disseminate, this government branch was tasked with preventing information considered offensive “to the national, religious and social ethics of Fascism” to be spread under the cover of art or under the cover of science (Cole, 1938). Various committees were established to effectively review and censor domestic and international material deemed anti-fascist.
Other methods of indoctrination and submission were also introduced to Italians under Fascist rule. For example, in 1925 an organization named “Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro”, or OND, was created to control the working class’ free time with small joys like games and sports equipment while keeping them active and fit. This organization was catered towards workers who typically had limited leisure opportunities outside of work and promoted Fascist values and ideology while making the State look benevolent. This organization was particularly effective because of how many people it was able to reach through its events and activities. At its peak, the OND organized about 80% of salaried workers, 20% of industrial laborers, and 7% of peasants (Lyttelton, 1982). Today, buildings created as a result of this program are still around and function as sports and recreation facilities such as the Foro Italico in Rome.
Other Fascist Governments
While Fascism is famously associated with Mussolini and Italy, other political regimes used their own variation of this ideology. Hitler’s Nazi Germany is a great example of this as he often drew inspiration from Mussolini. The Nazi’s also strongly emphasized a propaganda campaign to indoctrinate the German people and keep them submissive to the authoritarian regime. However, their manipulation campaign was much more centralized and to a deeper extent, targeting young children more aggressively as they were the easiest to persuade. Nazi’s even introduced classes across the country that studied racial purity and Aryan race superiority (“Indoctrinating Youth”). The idea of racial purity was so important to Hitler that by 1937, 97% of all German teachers had joined the Socialist Teachers’ Union which required the submission of an ancestry table with redundant documents of proof, showing the zero tolerance for any group other than so-called Aryan. The classes they taught went so far as to demonstrate the physical differences between Germans and Jews and emphasize the importance of not reproducing with other races to avoid “Racial Defilement” (Goutam, 2014). Their campaign was ultimately more structured and focused on racial-concepts while the Fascist one was more impromptu and a natural accompaniment to their strong censorship.
The Nazi propaganda poster from 1935 above is about “race pollution” and justifies Hitler’s outlaw of Jews and non-Jews getting married. It asks ordinary citizens to report any suspected interracial relationships to the police which was a common occurrence as many people felt a sense of patriotism in doing so. It even depicts Jews with a black creature while non-Jew is an attractive young blonde woman, showing the Nazi attempts to dehumanize them
Legacy and Effects of Fascism In Italy
Some controversies over Fascism’s legacy still arise today as many Fascist statues, monuments, and buildings are still publicly displayed and utilized today. Examples include the EUR neighborhood in Rome and the “Foro Italico” center near Rome. Some parties claim that those constructions are offensive reminders of Mussolini’s dictatorship and heinous crimes committed against many peoples on Italian soil. Others however feel indifferent and feel they are constant reminders of the dangers of giving one individual too much power over a state (Poggioli, 2023)
Ultimately, the importance of studying fascism and the propaganda techniques used to spread its ideology cannot be understated – by understanding how it spreads, we can recognize it and combat it without blindly believing it. The legacy of European fascist regimes continue to be felt today, but they serve as reminders to the importance of upholding democratic values and of the dangers of authoritarianism. Looking at Italy today, their parliament has 200 senators and 400 deputies to ensure that no abuse of power can ever occur again.
Overall, Fascism’s rise in twentieth century Italy was a political phenomenon only possible due to the combination of political instability, economic hardship, and a strong nationalistic desire the country was undergoing. Benito Mussolini played on the emotions of Italians as he promised to restore Italy’s former glory from the days of the Roman Empire through his strong, charismatic personality. His motivating speeches and self-conviction allowed him to build a cult-like following around “il Duce” and was easily able to take political control of Italy by marching on Rome in 1922. His Fascist government had a strong emphasis on ultranationalism and militarism which focused on the dehumanization of domestic enemies as labeled by the State, hatred of Communism which all were spread through vigorous propaganda campaigns. Media forms such as newspaper, film, and the radio were the most prominent ways to directly spread propaganda messages, but the regime also influenced popular culture through sports, music, fashion, and other everyday categories. Fascism’s ability to quickly and efficiently sweep the nation ultimately demonstrates the significant impact of media manipulation through propaganda in shaping public opinion. It also highlights the danger in placing individuals above entire democratic institutions and serves as a reminder to prevent these types of tyranny.
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