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Rise of Mussolini

In the years before World War I Mussolini is an active revolutionary socialist, becoming in 1912 the editor of Avanti, the official publication of the Italian Socialist party. But in October 1914 he is expelled from the party when he abandons the policy of neutrality and advocates joining the war on the side of France and Britain.

Within weeks he is publishing a new belligerent paper, Il Popolo d'Italia, around which he attempts to gather the few socialist members of the people of Italy who share his views. Six months later the Italian government adopts his policy, declaring war on Austria-Hungary in May 1915. Mussolini is called up and serves as a private in the infantry until he is wounded in 1917.

After the war Mussolini devotes his energies to attacking the official Socialist party and all others who supposedly harmed Italy's interests by advocating neutrality. This gives him a new constituency, much of it well-heeled, among those either terrified of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia or aggrieved by the postwar settlement.

He harnesses the support of this group by founding, at Milan in March 1919, the Fasci di Combattimento or 'league for combat'. (The Italian word Fasci, meaning a tight political group, has by this time been used for several previous movements - but it is from Mussolini's party that the generic word 'Fascism' will emerge.)

During 1920 Mussolini's policy shifts from residual socialism (in this year he briefly supports striking workers who seize their metal-working factories) to support for the status quo in a strong centralized state. He has always argued that violence is a necessary part of the socialist programme. It now becomes central to his own politics.

Mussolini's armed thugs, instantly recognizable in their black shirts, become much feared. Their violence at this stage is mainly directed against socialists of all kinds (communists and democratic socialists are tarred with the same brush). The authorities, obsessively concerned with the supposed threat from the extreme left wing, turn a blind eye to the illegal activities of the right-wing blackshirts.

The campaign on the streets brings little immediate benefit in mainstream Italian politics. But with the help of Giolitti, who includes them among the candidates for his proposed coalition, Mussolini and thirty-five of his colleagues are elected to parliament in May 1921. In November of that year they formally establish themselves as a political party, the Partito Nazionale Fascista. But elections do not play an important part in Mussolini's plans. Violence, and eventually the mere threat of it, will prove sufficient for his purposes.

He is given a perfect opportunity in August 1922 when the trade unions and the socialist parties call a general strike in opposition to the Fascists. The strike is broken, to the approval of much of the public, by armed gangs of blackshirts (officially referred to as squadre d'azione) who take over essential services.

With his destiny seeming within his grasp, Mussolini is by now further trimming his principles. Patently no longer a socialist, he abandons republicanism and modifies his criticism of the church. Powerful right-wing interests in society, grateful already for the suppression of organized labour, are further reassured.

By October 1922 Mussolini is ready for his next step. Declaring that the weakness of the government makes intervention necessary, he gives orders for the armed squads to convene in large numbers in four areas around Rome. From there they are to march on the capital, under the command of four of his closest colleagues. He himself moves to Milan to observe from a safe distance the outcome of this gamble.

March on Rome

In subsequent Fascist mythology, Mussolini comes to power as the result of a dramatic march on Rome. The reality is rather different, and could perhaps have been entirely different if the king and the government (now under a weak compromise prime minister, Luigi Facta) had acted decisively in the developing crisis.

At a Fascist convention in Naples, on 24 October 1922, Mussolini reviews a march past of 40,000 blackshirts and declares that Italy's national crisis must be resolved within days: 'Either they give us the government or we shall take it, by marching on Rome'. While he speaks, there are already three armed columns of Fascists, numbering some 14,000 men, within thirty miles of the capital.

On the following day, while Mussolini travels north to Milan, a Fascist Manifesto declares that the impending march on Rome 'will cut the Gordian knot and hand over to the King and army a renewed Italy'. The appeal to monarchists and the military is blatant, but it apparently fails to dent the loyalty of the garrison in Rome. After two days of dither the prime minister and his cabinet, assured of the army's support, declare a state of emergency and order the army to take whatever steps are necessary.

The outcome of this measure is impossibe to predict. It might well lead to full-scale civil war, for the Fascists undoubtedly have powerful support in the country.

It is this consideration which no doubt persuades the king, Victor Emmanuel III, to take a totally unconstitutional step. He refuses to sign the decree, hoping instead to appease the Fascists with cabinet posts in a coalition government. He sends a message to Milan inviting Mussolini to come to Rome for talks. But Mussolini is well aware that this action by the king leaves him with all the trump cards. He replies that he will only come if it is to form a government.

The gamble pays off. The invitation stands. Mussolini reserves a sleeper on the night train from Milan, arriving in the capital in comfort on the morning of October 30 to take control of Italy. The only problem is that his supporters all over the country are eagerly awaiting the much heralded march on Rome.

Presentation is one of the foremost skills of dictators, and this new dilemma is easily resolved by Mussolini. Blackshirts are immediately brought by train to Rome in sufficient numbers to provide an impressive parade. Still on October 30, they march past Victor Emmanuel III and Mussolini standing side by side. By the early hours of the next morning they have all been sent home. The new prime minister does not want unruly behaviour on the streets. But the photographs are now available to prove that the 'march on Rome' took place. Power, as befits a man of action, was clearly seized rather than given.

Mussolini has been known to Fascists by a simple and effective title. Now the whole of Italy must learn to call him by this name: il Duce, the Leader.

Securing power

Compared to Hitler in 1933, Mussolini moves with circumspection in the process of establishing himself as a dictator. An immediate order is given to prevent further violence by the blackshirts, and his first cabinet includes several non-Fascists - among them even two liberals and a social democrat.

His first two steps towards total control, taken in January and February 1923, can be presented as regularizing the affairs of a young party now in power. First Mussolini sets up a Fascist Grand Council, which can be presented as the central committee of a party but is intended eventually to replace the functions of parliament. Then his thuggish blackshirts are transformed into a 'militia for national security'. They remain a private army, at Mussolini's beck and call, but they have acquired a formal status.

In the summer of 1923 Mussolini introduces a law to ensure a permanent Fascist majority in parliament. Whichever party wins the greatest number of votes in an election (something which he is confident the blackshirts can achieve for him) is now automatically to receive two thirds of the seats in the parliament. When elections are held, in April 1924, the presence of six opposition parties seems certain to assure that the Fascists will top the poll. In the event they win 65% of the votes, making the new law unnecessary in the circumstances.

The success of the Fascists at this stage, as with the Nazis a decade later in Germany, can be put down to two factors.

The first is the hope of the middle classes that a strong government will restore order (or make the trains run on time) in a society all too prone to anarchy and strikes. The other is the cautious optimism of liberals, believing that the upstart rabble-rouser will soon demonstrate his inadequacy and be replaced.

Mussolini weathers one such dangerous moment, in June 1924, after his thugs murder Giacomo Matteotti, a socialist deputy who has dared to criticize the regime. In the aftermath of this event the Fascists become extremely unpopular, but only briefly so. Several of the opposition parties respond by boycotting parliament (the so-called 'Aventine secession'), but their absence causes Mussolini few problems, particularly as the Liberals and the king continue to support him.

During the next two years Mussolini puts in place the final requirements for his personal rule. In January 1925 he declares that for the good of the country he is assuming dictatorial powers; opposition politicians are arrested, national newspapers are handed over to Fascist proprietors. In November 1926 all non-Fascist political activity, whether in the press or public meetings, is specifically prohibited.

Thus the Fascist Grand Council effectively replaces parliament, which now has only the bare semblance of an elected body. By a law of 1928 Fascist associations, such as cultural bodies and trade unions, propose prospective deputies. From them the Grand Council compiles a list of candidates. The electorate has the right only to accept or reject the entire list.

Alongside this stifling of dissent goes Mussolini's obsssive desire to accumulate power in his own hands (many of Hitler's colleagues become household names, none of Mussolini's). He does this by holding numerous cabinet portfolios - as many as eight at one time - and by creating a top-heavy state apparatus under the control of henchmen responsible directly to himself but reluctant to offer any constructive criticism.

As a result the Duce seems unaware of the decrepit state of the Italian economy, dragged down by the inefficiencies of the Fascist state (and also, subsequently, by the world-wide slump). And he is able to deceive himself about the country's military capability - a blind spot which is particularly damaging in view of his grandiose plans for expansion of the Italian realm.

Ethiopia and Albania

Mussolini's dreams of imperial grandeur hark back to the days of the Roman empire, at the peak of which Rome was master of the entire Mediterranean. This modern would-be Caesar has the nostalgic habit of lapsing into Latin when he refers to this great sea; mare nostrum he calls it, 'our sea'.

Not much of the territory around this sea is readily available in the 1920s and 1930s. However in 1927 the Duce does gain a powerful influence over a nearby stretch of coast, in Albania, when the dictator Ahmed Zogu (soon to proclaim himself King Zog I) signs a treaty which makes him heavily indebted to Italy. On the north African coast there is no chance of any colonial expansion from Libya. But further east, where Italy has a foothold in both Eritrea and Somalia, there seem more promising opportunities.

In 1935 Mussolini uses a local disagreement over grazing rights as a pretext for invading Ethiopia - the last region of Africa still available for colonization, and a place which will bring him glory if can avenge the Italian defeat at Aduwa.This time modern weapons prevail. In 1936 Mussolini is able to proclaim that the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, is also emperor of Ethiopia.

For his next adventure he reverts to Albania, invading the country in April 1939 to take direct control.He makes this move partly in imitation of Hitler, who has in the previous month seized Czechoslovakia. But it is the last military initiative by Mussolini to meet with any success - partly because he is by now a junior and inadequate partner of the more effective German dictator.

Mussolini and Hitler

When Mussolini and Hitler first meet, in Venice in June 1934, the longer-established Italian dictator is able to present himself on his home soil as the more powerful of the two. But on a return visit, to Munich and Berlin in September 1937, the reality is made all too evident. Hitler lays on spectacular parades, military displays and factory visits which easily convince an impressionable Mussolini of Germany's invincible might. He can feel confident that his decision in the previous year to align Italy with Germany, forming a new 'axis' in European diplomacy, was a wise one.

From this time on it is evident that the Duce is a junior partner in this relationship, though the younger man always retains a degree of admiration for his flamboyant predecessor in the tradition of strutting nationalist demagogues.

Any degree of loyalty on Hitler's part is astonishing in view of the total inadequacy of Mussolini as an ally. When Hitler goes to war in 1939, the Duce fails at first to involve Italy on his side in spite of the Axis agreement of 1936 (which was a loose alignment of common interests rather than a treaty, and did not require him to do so). Mussolini then jumps into the fray at short notice in June 1940, when he can see that France is about to fall after Hitler's astonishingly successful blitzkrieg of the previous month. He hopes to acquire French territory for Italy, but this is not part of Hitler's plan.

Once Mussolini is in the war, and responsible for Italian military efforts in the Axis cause, the results are uniformly disastrous.

In his first campaign (apart from an ineffectual two-day attack on France before the armistice is signed) he sends Italian troops from Albania into neutral Greece. The result is embarrassing. The Greeks counterattack with such vigour that they penetrate deeply into Italian Albania. Hitler, not for the last time, has to rescue his ineffectual ally, sending German troops south through Yugoslavia to resolve the situation.

Africa is the theatre of war in which Italy should be able to make a major contribution. Large numbers of Italian troops in Libya and Ethiopia flank the British in Egypt, a territory crucial to the link through the Suez canal to India. The Italian capture of Egypt would be a major contribution to Hitler's war.

In the event the British under Wavell strike first, rolling the Italians back in Libya as far as Tobruk and soon chasing them out of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Again Hitler comes to the rescue, sending his best general, Rommel, to take charge of the north Africa campaign in March 1941. It proves one of the most hard-fought and significant conflicts of the war. When it finally ends, in May 1943 with the Allied capture of Tunis, Italy has lost all her colonial possessions in Africa.

Even worse, her own territory is the next Allied target. When American and British troops land in Sicily, in July 1943, Italy becomes the first of the Axis powers to be invaded.

Italy changes sides: 1943

Soon nearly half a million Allied troops are in Sicily. Between them they clear it by August 16 of its German and Italian defenders, though they fail to prevent them escaping the short distance to safety in mainland Italy.

This campaign in Sicily (the first penetration by the Allies of any Axis territory) has immediate repercussions in Italian politics. During the night of July 24 the Fascist Grand Council in Rome passes a vote of no confidence in Mussolini. The next day the dictator is arrested on the order of the king, Victor Emmanuel III, who appoints in his place a field marshal, Pietro Badoglio. Badoglio's main task is to extricate Italy from the war. But this is complicated by two factors.

One difficulty is that the Germans, whose cause Italy is now eager to abandon, are all around. The other is that the Allies have resolved (at a conference in Casablanca in January 1943) that they will accept only unconditional surrender from any of the Axis powers.

Surrender on this basis is an alarming leap into the unknown, but secret negotiations with the Allies (held in Spain and Portugal) bear fruit. On September 8 Italy surrenders. Three weeks later Badoglio signs an agreement committing Italy to change sides. And on October 13 Italy declares war on her recent ally, Germany. But meanwhile the Germans, in possession of most of Italy, have had time to bring in reinforcements and improve their defences.

The shape of Italy, long and thin with a spinal range of mountains, is perfectly designed for defence against an army attempting to move up the peninsula. As a result the Italian campaign is a long and arduous one for the Allies.

The initial thrust goes reasonably well. A small force is landed without difficulty on September 3 just across the Straits of Messina, in the toe of Italy. A much larger invasion follows on September 8, up the coast at Salerno. Here there is strong German resistance. Even so, within three weeks the Allies are in Naples. It is only at a point further north, near Monte Cassino, that the slow-down begins.

The Italian campaign: 1943-1945

About 30 miles up the coast from Naples the Germans create the Gustav Line, a defensive position stretching across the peninsula from the Garigliano river in the west to the Sangro in the east. High on a hill above the Garigliano is the rich and ancient monastery of Monte Cassino, the cradle of the Benedictine movement.

The Germans succeed in holding the Allies along this line for six months, from November 1943, in spite of the landing of an Allied force at Anzio, behind the German lines, in January 1944. Anzio remains an ineffective bridgehead until May, when at last an Allied thrust from both directions breaks the German resistance. In the battle the monastery and the nearby town of Cassino are demolished.

The multinational Allied force (including US, British, Canadian, French and Polish troops) at last moves fast, capturing Rome on June 5. But the German resistance further north does not collapse as hoped. It is another ten weeks before Florence is taken, on August 13, and by now the Germans have established a strong defensive line just a little further ahead. The so-called Gothic Line stretches through hilly country from Pisa in the west to Rimini in the east. Again the Allies grind to a halt, this time until the spring of 1945.

But meanwhile there has been an interesting political development in northern Italy.

Since his arrest, Mussolini has been held in various places. At the time of the announcement of Italy's armistice with the Allies, on 8 September 1943, he is being guarded in a small hotel high in the Abruzzi mountains, northeast of Rome.

When Hitler hears the news of Italy's defection, his sense of outrage reinforces the loyalty which he always shows to his incompetent Fascist ally. On September 10 he speaks on the radio to the German nation, describing Mussolini as 'the greatest son of Italian soil since the collapse of the Roman empire'. At the same time he takes more practical steps, ordering a parachute raid by the ss to rescue the fallen dictator.

Mussolini might well have preferred a quiet life in a small hotel. After being rescued by the SS, and taken to see Hitler, he is appointed puppet dictator of a new Fascist republic of Italy - meaning now just the northern part still under German control. Mussolini remains a prisoner, for his palace on Lake Garda has the SS guarding it. And he must do whatever Hitler tells him.

In the end the SS fail even to give him protection. As the Allies make their final advance up Italy, in April 1945, Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, are captured and shot by Italian partisans. Their bodies are hung upside down from a gibbet in Milan, where nine years earlier he first described his alliance with Hitler as a new axis in world politics.

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