Lessons from Italy under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini

Fascism (dictatorship, totalitarianism, authoritarianism) is a form of government headed by a dictator who controls all aspects of human life – political, economic, social, cultural and religious activities. Fascism emerges largely in societies that have suffered from economic crisis, military defeat or some other disaster.

Because people are desperate they follow fascist leaders blindly who promise prosperity and stability, national pride and unity.  Fascists gain control of government largely through force.

The desire for glory leads fascists to expand armed forces and secret police and to invade and occupy other countries.

Fascism was introduced in Italy by Benito Mussolini in 1919 at a very difficult time at the end of WWI – high and rising prices and unemployment, widespread social unrest and disappointment with the fruits of victory (the Versailles System) in WWI. 

The Fascist Party promised to give Italians prosperity and restore glory and prestige comparable to the days of the Roman Empire, correct the disappointments of the Versailles system, end class conflict and social disorder, restore national unity, reduce workday to eight hours and introduce women’s right to vote. But the Party did poorly and lost the 1919 elections.

The democratically elected government failed to address the economic and social challenges offering Mussolini an opportunity to act. Using the notorious Black-shirted squads, he hunted down his opponents, introducing into civilian life the ruthlessness he had learned as a soldier in WWI and wounded and turning political life into an arena of unrestrained violence and threatening to ‘march on Rome’. Surprisingly his bluff worked.

King Victor Emmanuel III invited the Fascist Party to form a coalition government in 1922 with Mussolini as Prime Minister. He ruled Italy for almost 21 years (1922-43) under the title of Il Duce (The Leader).

Mussolini proceeded cautiously as he consolidated power leading up to dictatorship which he declared in January 1925. He abolished all political parties except his own and controlled Italian society through murder, exile and prison camps.

He unleashed unprecedented violence and repression of civil liberties in his aspirations to create a totalitarian – politically and economically highly centralized and militaristic – regime. Mussolini’s slogan was “Everything in the State, nothing outside of the State, nothing against the State”, requiring absolute obedience. A socialist deputy who criticized the Fascist Party for rigging the election and murdering political opponents was stabbed to death by a fascist gang. Mussolini reduced parliament to rubber-stamp status, making himself the only master.

Mussolini held ministerial positions in strategic areas like interior and defense to strengthen his personal rule. He was portrayed as intellectual statesman and hardworking head of government, genius military leader and family man, and a leader always right.

He used propaganda effectively and Italians accepted his leadership blindly – without question!

He was compared to past great figures like Aristotle, Michelangelo and Napoleon. He set up 22 corporations to run the economy and to check ruthless individualism of the free enterprise system and labor strikes.

Mussolini’s aggressive foreign policy included colonial expansion leading to the conquest of Ethiopia, annexation of Albania and intervention on the Fascist side during the Spanish Civil War and joining Nazi Germany during World War II.

Despite the bombastic propaganda that accompanied them, his programs of land reclamation and economic self-sufficiency largely failed undermining his position. Small businesses were disappointed as the government favored big enterprises while small ones were allowed to fail during the Economic Depression of the 1930s. By 1939, workers’ real wages had fallen below the level of 1922 when the Fascist Party came to power.

A series of military defeats during WWII weakened his position further. He was removed from power in 1943 after a vote of no confidence by the Supreme Fascist decision-making body.

Mussolini was rescued by the Germans and placed in charge of the puppet Italian Social Republic until Germany collapsed in 1945.

The aged and beaten fascist dictator tried to escape to Switzerland. He was not lucky. He was captured and summarily executed on April 28, 1945.

With collapse of Fascism, Italy developed a strong democratic multiparty political system and a constitution with strong safeguards against political centralization and personal rule.