Benito Mussolini’s Rise to Power in Fascist Italy

The ideological basis for fascism came from a number of sources.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

Formation of the National Fascist Party

By the time he returned from service in the Allied forces of World War I, very little remained of Mussolini the socialist. Indeed, he was now convinced that socialism as a doctrine had largely been a failure. In 1917 Mussolini got his start in politics with the help of a £100 weekly wage (the equivalent of £6000 as of 2009) from the British security service MI5, to keep anti-war protestors at home and to publish pro-war propaganda. This help was authorized by Sir Samuel Hoare.[1] In early 1918 Mussolini called for the emergence of a man “ruthless and energetic enough to make a clean sweep” to revive the Italian nation.[64] Much later Mussolini said he felt by 1919 “Socialism as a doctrine was already dead; it continued to exist only as a grudge”.[2] On 23 March 1919 Mussolini re-formed the Milan fascio as the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (Italian Combat Squad), consisting of 200 members.[3]

The platform of Fasci italiani di combattimento, as published in “Il Popolo d’Italia” on 6 June 1919 / Wikimedia Commons

The ideological basis for fascism came from a number of sources. Mussolini utilized works of Plato, Georges Sorel, Nietzsche, and the economic ideas of Vilfredo Pareto, to develop fascism. Mussolini admired Plato’s The Republic, which he often read for inspiration.[4] The Republic expounded a number of ideas that fascism promoted, such as rule by an elite promoting the state as the ultimate end, opposition to democracy, protecting the class system and promoting class collaboration, rejection of egalitarianism, promoting the militarization of a nation by creating a class of warriors, demanding that citizens perform civic duties in the interest of the state, and utilizing state intervention in education to promote the development of warriors and future rulers of the state.[5] Plato was an idealist, focused on achieving justice and morality, while Mussolini and fascism were realist, focused on achieving political goals.[6]

The idea behind Mussolini’s foreign policy was that of spazio vitale (vital space), a concept in Fascism that was analogous to Lebensraum in German National Socialism.[70] The concept of spazio vitale was first announced in 1919, when the entire Mediterranean, especially so-called Julian March, was redefined to make it appear a unified region that had belonged to Italy from the times of the ancient Roman province of Italia,[7][8] and was claimed as Italy’s exclusive sphere of influence. The right to colonize the neighboring Slovene ethnic areas and the Mediterranean, being inhabited by what were alleged to be less developed peoples, was justified on the grounds that Italy was allegedly suffering from overpopulation.[9]

Italia Irredenta: regions considered Italian for ethnic, geographic or historical reasons, and claimed by the Fascists in the 1930s: green: Nice, Ticino, and Dalmatia; red: Malta; violet: later claims extended to Corsica, Savoy and Corfu. / Brunodambrosio, Wikimedia Commons

Borrowing the idea first developed by Enrico Corradini before 1914 of the natural conflict between “plutocratic” nations like Britain and “proletarian” nations like Italy, Mussolini claimed that Italy’s principal problem was that “plutocratic” countries like Britain were blocking Italy from achieving the necessary spazio vitale that would let the Italian economy grow.[10 Mussolini equated a nation’s potential for economic growth with territorial size, thus in his view the problem of poverty in Italy could only be solved by winning the necessary spazio vitale.[11]

Though biological racism was less prominent in Fascism than in National Socialism, right from the start the spazio vitale concept had a strong racist undercurrent. Mussolini asserted there was a “natural law” for stronger peoples to subject and dominate “inferior” peoples such as the “barbaric” Slavic peoples of Yugoslavia. He stated in a September 1920 speech:

When dealing with such a race as Slavic—inferior and barbarian—we must not pursue the carrot, but the stick policy … We should not be afraid of new victims … The Italian border should run across the Brenner Pass, Monte Nevoso and the Dinaric Alps … I would say we can easily sacrifice 500,000 barbaric Slavs for 50,000 Italians …— Benito Mussolini, speech held in Pula, 20 September 1920[12]13]

While Italy occupied former Austro-Hungarian areas between years 1918 and 1920, five hundred “Slav” societies (for example Sokol) and slightly smaller number of libraries (“reading rooms”) had been forbidden, specifically so later with the Law on Associations (1925), the Law on Public Demonstrations (1926) and the Law on Public Order (1926)—the closure of the classical lyceum in Pazin, of the high school in Voloska (1918), and the five hundred Slovene and Croatian primary schools followed.[14] One thousand “Slav” teachers were forcibly exiled to Sardinia and to Southern Italy.

Mussolini, circa 1920 / Wikimedia Commons

In the same way, Mussolini argued that Italy was right to follow an imperialist policy in Africa because he saw all black people as “inferior” to whites.[15] Mussolini claimed that the world was divided into a hierarchy of races (stirpe, though this was justified more on cultural than on biological grounds), and that history was nothing more than a Darwinian struggle for power and territory between various “racial masses”.[15] Mussolini saw high birthrates in Africa and Asia as a threat to the “white race” and he often asked the rhetorical question “Are the blacks and yellows at the door?” to be followed up with “Yes, they are!”.[16] Mussolini believed that the United States was doomed as the American blacks had a higher birthrate than whites, making it inevitable that the blacks would take over the United States to drag it down to their level.[16] The very fact that Italy was suffering from overpopulation was seen as proving the cultural and spiritual vitality of the Italians, who were thus justified in seeking to colonize lands that Mussolini argued—on a historical basis—belonged to Italy anyway, which was the heir to the Roman Empire.[15] In Mussolini’s thinking, demography was destiny; nations with rising populations were nations destined to conquer; and nations with falling populations were decaying powers that deserved to die.[15] Hence, the importance of natalism to Mussolini, since only by increasing the birth rate could Italy ensure that its future as a great power that would win its spazio vitale would be assured.[15] By Mussolini’s reckoning, the Italian population had to reach 60 million to enable Italy to fight a major war—hence his relentless demands for Italian women to have more children in order to reach that number.[15]

Mussolini and the fascists managed to be simultaneously revolutionary and traditionalist;[17][18] because this was vastly different from anything else in the political climate of the time, it is sometimes described as “The Third Way”.[19] The Fascisti, led by one of Mussolini’s close confidants, Dino Grandi, formed armed squads of war veterans called blackshirts (or squadristi) with the goal of restoring order to the streets of Italy with a strong hand. The blackshirts clashed with communists, socialists, and anarchists at parades and demonstrations; all of these factions were also involved in clashes against each other. The Italian government rarely interfered with the blackshirts’ actions, owing in part to a looming threat and widespread fear of a communist revolution. The Fascisti grew rapidly; within two years they transformed themselves into the National Fascist Party at a congress in Rome. In 1921, Mussolini won election to the Chamber of Deputies for the first time.[17] In the meantime, from about 1911 until 1938, Mussolini had various affairs with the Jewish author and academic Margherita Sarfatti, called the “Jewish Mother of Fascism” at the time.[20]

March on Rome

Mussolini and the Quadrumviri during the March on Rome in 1922: from left to right: Michele Bianchi, Emilio De Bono, Italo Balbo, and Cesare Maria De Vecchi / Wikimedia Commons

In the night between 27 and 28 October 1922, about 30,000 Fascist blackshirts gathered in Rome to demand the resignation of liberal Prime Minister Luigi Facta and the appointment of a new Fascist government. On the morning of 28 October, King Victor Emmanuel III, who according to the Albertine Statute held the supreme military power, refused the government request to declare martial law, which led to Facta’s resignation. The King then handed over power to Mussolini (who stayed in his headquarters in Milan during the talks) by asking him to form a new government. The King’s controversial decision has been explained by historians as a combination of delusions and fears; Mussolini enjoyed wide support in the military and among the industrial and agrarian elites, while the King and the conservative establishment were afraid of a possible civil war and ultimately thought they could use Mussolini to restore law and order in the country, but failed to foresee the danger of a totalitarian evolution.[21]

Appointment as Prime Minister

As Prime Minister, the first years of Mussolini’s rule were characterized by a right-wing coalition government composed of Fascists, nationalists, liberals, and two Catholic clerics from the Popular Party. The Fascists made up a small minority in his original governments. Mussolini’s domestic goal was the eventual establishment of a totalitarian state with himself as supreme leader (Il Duce), a message that was articulated by the Fascist newspaper Il Popolo, which was now edited by Mussolini’s brother, Arnaldo. To that end, Mussolini obtained from the legislature dictatorial powers for one year (legal under the Italian constitution of the time). He favored the complete restoration of state authority, with the integration of the Fasci di Combattimento into the armed forces (the foundation in January 1923 of the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale) and the progressive identification of the party with the state. In political and social economy, he passed legislation that favored the wealthy industrial and agrarian classes (privatizations, liberalizations of rent laws and dismantlement of the unions).[22]

In 1923, Mussolini sent Italian forces to invade Corfu during the Corfu incident. In the end, the League of Nations proved powerless, and Greece was forced to comply with Italian demands.

Acerbo Law

In June 1923, the government passed the Acerbo Law, which transformed Italy into a single national constituency. It also granted a two-thirds majority of the seats in Parliament to the party or group of parties that received at least 25% of the votes.[23] This law applied in the elections of 6 April 1924. The national alliance, consisting of Fascists, most of the old Liberals and others, won 64% of the vote.

Squadristi Violence

Socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti was murdered a few days after he openly denounced fascist violence during the 1924 elections. / Wikimedia Commons

The assassination of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti, who had requested that the elections be annulled because of the irregularities,[24] provoked a momentary crisis in the Mussolini government. Mussolini ordered a cover-up, but witnesses saw the car that transported Matteotti’s body parked outside Matteotti’s residence, which linked Amerigo Dumini to the murder.

Mussolini later confessed that a few resolute men could have altered public opinion and started a coup that would have swept fascism away. Dumini was imprisoned for two years. On his release, Dumini allegedly told other people that Mussolini was responsible, for which he served further prison time.

The opposition parties responded weakly or were generally unresponsive. Many of the socialists, liberals, and moderates boycotted Parliament in the Aventine Secession, hoping to force Victor Emmanuel to dismiss Mussolini.

On 31 December 1924, MVSN consuls met with Mussolini and gave him an ultimatum: crush the opposition or they would do so without him. Fearing a revolt by his own militants, Mussolini decided to drop all pretense of democracy.[25] On 3 January 1925, Mussolini made a truculent speech before the Chamber in which he took responsibility for squadristi violence (though he did not mention the assassination of Matteotti).[26] He did not abolish the squadristi until 1927, however.[27]



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  2. Christopher Hibbert (2001). Rome: The Biography of a City. Penguin Books Limited. pp. 427–.  As early as February 1918 he had been pressing for the appointment of a dictator in Italy, ‘a man who is ruthless and energetic enough to make a clean sweep’. Three months later, in a widely reported speech at Bologna, he hinted that he …
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  12. Kallis 2002, pp. 48–50.
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Originally published by Wikipedia, 04.28.2001, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.