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Fascist Italy Overview
By Jeremy Schrader, Class of 2010
The suffering of Italy in this period followed a pattern all too familiar to European
nations after WWI. The economy in shambles, a government losing influence and a
people divided and disillusioned by the deeply traumatic experiences of war were left to
move uncertainly toward the future. Against such a backdrop the reformation of the
European nations played out, with Italy finding its personal reprieve in the form of a
young upstart: Benito Mussolini. Gaining power by gaming the new and the old, the
right and the left, and playing each side carefully, this man shaped the postwar period to
his will, emerging from a time of divisive unrest to lead his country forward.
The Postwar Groundswell
The time of Mussolini’s uprising was indeed brief following the close of WWI in 1919.
Almost immediately following the war’s end, Premier Vittorio Orlando suffered
politically from perceived mismanagement of the Italian position at the Paris Peace
Conference, attaining only small territorial gains that were insignificant compared to
Italy’s war debts. Mass strikes and worker organizations rose up while unemployment
ran high; many felt and feared the spectre of Communism looming as the effects of
postwar depression shook the nation. The government remained destabilized, and
incidents of fighting broke out between extremists on both sides of the political
spectrum. Out of the mayhem of these “Two Red Years” emerged Mussolini’s Fascist
party and Blackshirt paramilitaries. With political backing from the Fascists, new
Premier Giovanni Giolitti rose to power in 1920, promptly turning a blind eye to the
heavy-handed violence of the Fascists. Giolitti’s election ushered in a succession of weak
governments while the Fascists began to dominate both the political atmosphere and
maintain de facto control of large portions of Italy. By 1921, however, socialists began to
make deep political inroads, undermining Giolitti’s control. Seizing this as an
opportunity, Mussolini joined with the socialists to gain further power and clear his
used pawn from the board. This played out perfectly later as Mussolini, empowered by
1922 with control of the largest political party in Italy, marched on Rome to receive
power from King Victor Emmanuel III.
Political Dominance
Upon gaining premiership in October of 1922, Mussolini formed a legislative coalition
that included each section of politicians. This last flame of coalition and democracy
quickly perished, however, with the passing of the Acerbo Law of 1923, which stated that
any party taking 25% of the vote in an election would gain two-thirds of all
parliamentary seats—in essence giving the Fascists complete totalitarian control of Italy
under Mussolini. From the first election in 1924, Mussolini moved swiftly to remove all
checks on his power, forced cooperation where not given with his Blackshirts and
maintained complete control over Italy until the end of WWII in Europe in 1945. While
the King remained, his position was reduced to that of a figurehead, while Mussolini and
his Fascist Council held the true power of Italy.
Foreign Policy
Mussolini promptly embarked on a path towards a “New Roman Empire” abroad as he
had often espoused to his nation as the goal of his government. Mussolini moved to
control portions of Africa in the East and North, meeting with limited success as those
attempting to prevent Italian rule created civil war. “Italia irredenta,” as it had been
known for so long, also captured Mussolini’s attention. He entreated with Hitler to keep
south Tyrol—despite its vast majority of German inhabitants—against the possibility of
Austrian claims, and occupied the small Greek island of Corfu in 1922; he would later
attempt to take more of several nearby areas such as the islands and Dalmatia
(Yugoslavia) in an attempt to once again see Italian control of the Mediterranean.
Mussolini would begin to move in particularly on Albania and Ethiopia as the years
progressed, invading both with force in 1939. The Hoare-Laval Pact would later result in
an attempt to partition Ethiopia in favor of Italy, in an Allied move to please Mussolini
in exchange for help. In the same year, he signed the “Pact of Steel” with Hitler,
supposedly guaranteeing mutual aid if either nation were attacked. Each of these foreign
policies would begin to erode as time passed and fissures appeared in Mussolini’s plans.
Domestic Decisions
At home, Mussolini brokered the Lateran Accords, solidifying three key points between
the government and the church: the Vatican and the Holy See were fully recognized as a
sovereign nation, Catholicism was adopted by the Italian government as the national
religion, and a settlement was made regarding the claims the Vatican had long made
against Italy asking for reparations after the Holy See’s loss of land and power in 1870.
In education, Mussolini addressed the nation’s high illiteracy rate by raising the
mandatory age of school attendance from twelve to fourteen and also adopted a broad
policy of Fascist promotion and indoctrination in schools. Mussolini also endeavored to
make his nation more self-sufficient, instituting a “War on Wheat” intended to remove
Italy’s reliance on imports of grain from the United States and Canada. While this policy
did eliminate a large portion of need for importation of wheat, overall the economy did
not benefit, as agricultural production declined in other crop areas. Crackdowns on the
Mafia and strong efforts towards ensuring maximum obedience and efficiency in the
nation rounded out Mussolini’s domestic policies—but he never did manage to make the
trains run on time.
Domestic Policies under Benito
Toby Heinemann, Class of 2010
Mussolini's domestic policies placed heavy emphasis on nationalistic
interests and production, with the aim of creating a self-sufficient and
modernized Italy. Although private property was maintained and some
degree of free market continued, the economy was primarily coordinated
by the government through both direct and indirect means. As with
many regimes of the time, dissenters were put down without hesitation
by a broad-reaching and powerful secret police. The Lateran Treaty,
between the Vatican and Italy as a whole, finally settled land issues and
political disputes between the Church and Italy as a whole. Mussolini
also established himself as a public figure—'Il Duce'—and utilized a
combination of terror tactics, indoctrination and propaganda to ensure
his continued command. Ultimately, Mussolini desired a more ordered
and efficient Italian lifestyle.
The 'Corporate State'
Mussolini's efforts to increase the productivity and selfsufficiency of Italy began in earnest in 1921, when a series of protective
tariffs were levied on foreign imports to lower competition and aid
Italian industry. In 1927, the Labor Charter was passed, promising to
bring 'government, employers, and workers together into one group.' In
effect, this Charter reorganized all of Italy's industry into 22 massive
corporations, each essentially one 'field' of industrial development—so
all metal-works became a single aggregate corporation, etc. . The
workers and individual employers within each corporation were given
(virtual) representation in the government, and all workers were
automatically provided with health and accident insurance by whichever
corporation they were serving. However, the workers could not go on
strike, relying instead on an elaborate appeals process to make any
changes to working hours, wages, or conditions. These changes were
rarely, if ever, implemented due to the system of representation in the
government—workers would often be discriminated against by
employers and government officials, both of whom could veto any
proposed alterations to existing conditions. Ultimately, the Labor
Charter met with very little success, although it was maintained
throughout Mussolini's reign.
War on Wheat
The first of several great 'domestic wars' Mussolini instigated,
the War on Wheat (also called the Battle for Wheat) was designed to
increase the production of wheat within Italy, the goal being the creation
of a truly self-sufficient state. Essentially, the War on Wheat forced
farmers to optimize wheat over all other crops, which actually led to a
vastly reduced yield of vegetables and other products throughout the
nation. Further, agricultural lands were expanded broadly, often into
areas better suited to other crops. Although grain production nearly
doubled and imports decreased by almost 75%, the production of all
other food products decreased drastically. Foreign imports of meats,
vegetables and other foodstuffs increased dramatically, causing an
increase in price and general damage to Italy's economy. Interestingly,
though the price of grain did drop substantially, even at the height of its
own production it would still have been cheaper for Italy to import all of
its grain from the US—essentially rendering the War on Wheat a
massive waste of effort.
War for the Lira
Another 'domestic war,' the War for the Lira (also called the
Battle for the Lira) was essentially a power play aimed at both
increasing morale and heightening Italy's prestige both nationally and
internationally. Mussolini decreed that Italy's currency, the Lira, was
worth substantially more than its actual market value. At first, this was
viewed very positively by the Italian people, as it represented a bold and
aggressive example of their nation's power. However, it quickly began to
create major problems. Foreign trade, already stymied by high protective
tariffs and a lowered export rate, took a sharp decline as other nations
realized their buying price on Italian goods was much greater than the
actual worth of items, while their sales accrued far less than their
products were worth. Within Italy, the few remaining smaller companies
and independent businesses were rapidly overtaken by larger ones,
putting many out of work or in less-than-ideal positions. Broadly
speaking, the War for the Lira was a complete failure, although it did
slightly increase morale throughout Italy during the first few months of
its implementation.
Lateran Treaty
More or less the one succesful element of Mussolini's domestic
policy, the Lateran Treaty finally ended a long series of disputes and
rivalries between the Vatican and Italy. For a long time, the 'Roman
Question,' as it was known, had been causing difficulties not only in
Rome, but in Italy's relationship with the Roman Catholic Church as a
whole. During early Italian unification, the papacy was restricted to only
a small cluster of buildings within the Vatican, the rest of the city
technically under the jurisdiction of the Italian government. Several
Popes complained about being 'prisoners' within the Vatican—although
this situation was originally arranged between Pius XII and the troops of
the unification. The Lateran Treaty finally resolved these problems,
establishing the 108.7 acres of the Vatican City as it exists today and
granting sovereign rule of this area to the Pope and Roman Catholic
Church. It also gave the new nation full political recognition and clearly
delineated the exact extent to which the Church was allowed to influence
Italy (still a Roman Catholic nation). Although somewhat voided once
Mussolini lost power, the Lateran Treaty and its principles have been
upheld since it was first established.
Social Policies
Beyond economic controls and failed morale boosters, Mussolini
also established several social 'reforms' in his attempt to create a more
powerful Italian state. Like many other fascist leaders, Mussolini made
heavy use of a secret police force to ensure his policies were being
followed and eliminate dissenters by force. To reinforce his control,
Mussolini used the media as a weapon, demonizing his enemies and
promoting his own interests. He also utilized propaganda as an effective
tool, framing himself as (the) great 'Il Duce' (literally 'The Leader') and
attempting to indoctrinate the youth into his military and political forces.
The latter was executed through a combination of youth programs (à
la Hitler Youth) and a complete restructuring of the educational system
throughout Italy. Essentially, Mussolini replaced all historical material
with pro-fascist renditions, emphasizing the glory and power of Italy,
while he simultaneously banned the vast majority of other books that
might conflict with this propaganda. Interestingly, he also emphasized
the teaching of philosophy and the humanities, though obviously with
the same fascist twist. Overall, his educational reforms (consolidated
under the 1923 Education Act) were rather successful, maintaining a
high literacy rate and a decent standard of learning (with the notable
exception of some subjects—particularly history).
Mussolini's attempts to enhance the Italian economy and place in
world politics all failed significantly, often placing Italy in a worse
position than before their implementation. However, his social policies,
particularly his educational 'reforms,' achieved relative success. The
Lateran Treaty, his one real success, finally ended the issue of
Church/State relations in Italy and recognized the Vatican as a sovereign
The Era of Mussolini
Overall, the period of Italian history from 1919 to 1939 centers around the life of one
man: Benito Mussolini. As his wildly juxtaposed episodes of clever political intrigue and
sheer brute force, his dedication to military and national excellence and yet his shortfalls
there to a man he considered inferior, his astronomical ascension and his grisly,
unceremonious end illustrate, Mussolini passed through the sea of Italian history
leaving an enigmatic but undeniably powerful wake.
Mussolini's Foreign Policy
(Did not receive an article on this subject)
Restoration of a modern Roman Empire
Block German designs on Austria and protect the Brenner Pass, the historic
invasion route into Itlay.
Avenge the 1896 defeat at Adowa in Ethiopia
Greater Italian sphere of Influence in the Mediterranean. They wish to cooperate
with the British and French, at least at first.
Work within the League of Nations and cooperation with Britain and France
Greater influence in the Balkans (esp. Albania and Greece, with conflicting land
claims with Yugoslavia).
Greater influence in North Africa, especially Libya.
Maintain a large Italian navy to support a Mediterranean presence. But lack of oil
is a constant problem with such a navy.
German-Italian Alliance to allow Italy to meet its goals after France and Britain
insist on the legal-moral aspects of the Versailles system
Ethiopia/Abyssianan Crisis of 1935-36 causes a break with Britain and France. Hitler
offers support in Ethiopia and a guarantee over the Brenner Pass/South Tyrol region.
Mussolini accepts, and this creates the "Axis of Europe," or, "Rome-Berlin Axis." This
starts the destruction of the League of Nations as an effective peace-keeping
The new Axis Powers cooperate to convert the League into little more than an AngloFrench system to protect their interests. With Hitler, Mussolini can now threaten Egypt
and Tunisia from Libya. Hitler, and later, Stalin conspire with Mussolini to redraw the
map of Eastern Europe to where the three powers can now satisfy their land claims.
Mussolini is invited to the Munich Conference in 1938 to settle the problem of the
Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia. Mussolini pressures Hitler to avoid war and to
accept British offers of Appeasement.