In 1922, the King himself invited Benito Mussolini into government. This was the result of numerous factors stemming from both, Mussolini’s ambition and ability and the favorable circumstances of the early twentieth century. Primarily the weakness and subsequent fall of the Liberal Regime laid the foundation for Italy’s future embracement of fascism however it was the combination of consequences of World War One, the emergence of fascism personified in D’Annunzio and Mussolini’s manipulation of the Italian peoples that directly paved Italy’s way to dictatorship.
These four generalized factors aided Mussolini in his rise to power.
With the eventual fall of the liberal government an opening emerged, providing Mussolini with an opportunity to appeal to the masses and gain power. Throughout the regime’s existence genuine popularity was never achieved due to its restrained elitist following; the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, was riddled with problems due to the inherent barriers of geographical divisions. This factor inevitably gave rise to economic and political differences and so loyalty was generally within localities therefore it was to an extent impossible to accommodate the entire population.
There were huge rifts among the peoples of Italy yet it was the division between the North and the South that was the most crippling weakness of the country.
In the North the economy was comparatively stable and prosperous with a considerable population of well-educated and politically adept individuals. In stark contrast the South had an unpromisingly high rate of illiteracy and therefore its economy was in dire straits, with the rate of unemployment equally as high. It is the view of the Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, writing in the 1930s that the small conservative ruling class failed ‘at integrating the people into the framework of the new state’1, which condemned the regime from its conception2; ‘they in fact produced a bastard’3. This view however, as is the entire subject of the liberal regime’s failure, is under heavy historical debate as argued between Borgese, Trevelyan and Gramsci.
Politically the regime was weak and irresolute due to a succession of coalitions and inexperience at democratic rule. It failed to satisfy the extreme socialists and extreme nationalists, which though sounding an impossible paradox proved to be a great liability due to lack of support and increase in unrest. The Italian peoples were also discontent therefore contributing to the unrest and pressure on the government. The Catholic Church added to this with its opposition. Alternatives were sought. To compound matters further the Libyan War in 1812 led to greater instability and political polarization in Italy. Liberals opposed to the war abandoned moderate parties to become extreme socialists and as a result the nationalists condemned the regime for its inaction and inability to control the left. In addition to an increase in domestic opposition, the regime faced the threat of increased male suffrage.
The war had seen soldiers who had fought granted the vote; this accounted for a substantial portion of the population4 and so increased the possibility of political change, in the 1913 General Election, made all the more likely with the existing unrest. As a result Giolitti, the Liberal Prime Minister, endorsed the use of bribery and underhand tactics to secure a majority by enticing the Catholics’ support through promises of opposing divorce and favoring religious orders. However when this deal with the Catholics became known, anti-clerical radicals withdrew their support for the Liberal regime in 1914. This reliance on the Catholics and growing unrest placed the Liberal regime on extremely unsteady ground. The end of the regime looked inevitable even before the war.
In contrast to Gramsci’s view the historians G.A. Borgese5 and G.M. Trevelyan6 believe that the Italy under the liberal regime was successful and secure yet it was the unfortunate decision to enter the First World War in 1815 that destroyed the regime. With the war came economic collapse and a time of desperation. Due to the divisions in Italy many opposed the war further weakening the liberals’ resolve and driving the system away from popularity and unification.
Mussolini was able to use these weaknesses and failures as propaganda tools in order to manipulate the people thereby gaining support and attracting the masses. It reasoned that in contrast to the liberal government who were inept Mussolini and Fascism were Italy’s saviors. In 1917 The Battle of Caporetto was one such humiliation; Italy faced the entire Austrian army in addition to seven divisions of German troops; 300,000 Italians were taken as prisoners of war; Mussolini used this to his advantage with effective propaganda.
Again tensions and unrest increased despite the end of the war. In their interest of expansion the liberals entered the war in alliance with the entente on agreement that they receive territories on the North East frontier, namely South Tyrol, Istria and parts of Dalmatia, detailed in the Secret Treaty of London, at the defeat of Austria and Germany. Italy was denied many of these concessions, including the border town of Fiume, which had not been a relevant component of said treaty. The Italian nationalists blamed liberal weakness and dubbed the outcome as a ‘mutilated victory’. Mussolini was again to find this useful as a tool for manipulation and drawing appeal due to the further humiliation caused. Many who had fought thought that the weak, liberal government was undermining Italy, Liberalism was failing and there was a need for an alternative system.
However with the demise of the regime imminent it was not considered that fascism should rise and seize power, but instead power should be claimed by the hands of the Socialist Party. With increased membership after the war 200,000 Italians were members by 1919, this proved to be Mussolini’s blessing in disguise, as such a large party was accompanied by a diversity in opinions; the party split into factions of extremists therefore weakening the collective power of what was the largest party in Italian parliament. There was now a lack of competition for power or even a realistic alternative to the regime.
In response to the ‘mutilated victory’, Gabriele D’Annunzio personified the core of what Italians wanted, a decisive figure intent on bringing Italy greatness. In September 1919 he D’Annunzio marched 2,000armed men into the city of Fieume and occupied it, directly defying the government. For a year he successfully ruled as dictator, showing the effects of decisive action, with growing popularity portraying the government as weak and incapable of that which he embodied. Despite his surrender in 1921 after liberal bombing in 1920, the foundation for fascist authoritarian rule had been laid, undoubtedly inspiring and aiding Mussolini further.
Italy had endured a weak government, democratic failure, devastating consequences of war and was now yearning for powerful leadership. Mussolini saw the opportunity to fulfill his ambitions and so cleverly manufactured appeal in adopting diverse and sometimes confused policies of both nationalist and socialist persuasion. He appealed to almost every sector of the Italian population; the Catholics, upper and middle classes from who he drew funding and land and industry owners due to their fear of communism7. This was aided with Mussolini’s experience in journalism and knowledge of propaganda via newspapers and speeches providing a dynamic image of the fascist movement complimented by his comparative youthfulness.
The lack of opposition gave Mussolini a clear road to power yet he adopted the use of violence to confirm his status and guarantee support through fear. The fascists were the only source of law and order, realistically, often having the support of the authorities, themselves supplying weapons for controlled, organized violence carried out by Mussolini’s blackshirts8. In a show of power and decisive leadership the fascists negated the General Strike in 1922, orchestrated by the socialists, proving their unrivalled status and increased their popularity significantly.
In conclusion of Mussolini’s rise to power, the support of the authorities, key liberals, to some extent the pope and the king himself, undoubtedly triggered his assent to dictatorship through various political maneuvers which resulted in Mussolini’s invitation into government with the notion that they could control him. His March on Rome in 1922 indicated his intent to seize power by force yet due to a combination of fear and support he achieved his goals legally. It seems that the weakness of the liberal regime, the consequences of the First World War and subsequent fragmentation of the Socialist Party gave rise to Fascism and Mussolini’s opportunity to seize power as the powerful leader who would save Italy and then bring her greatness.
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