(MUSSOLINI and FASCISM in ITALY – continued)
Italy emerged from the war still a constitutional monarchy. And it emerged with inflation, a huge debt and unemployment aggravated by demobilization of thousands of soldiers. To stave off uprisings among the poor, the government subsidized bread. Its expenditures were three times its revenues, yet it refused to tax the wealthy.
Amid bitterness and disappointment was a widespread belief that the Old World was crumbling and that it was time to make a New World. Italy after the war was filled with an assortment of embittered veterans, republicans (anti-monarchists), anarchists, syndicalists and restless socialist revolutionaries. Many socialists and working people were impressed by the "worker's revolution" in Russia, and some of them were ready to support revolution in Italy.
The power of Italy's socialists accompanied the nation's discontent. Every month in 1919, workers in Italy's industrial north went on strike. Tenants began refusing to pay rent, and the homes of a few landlords were destroyed. Many villages had someone who wished to be a new Marat or Lenin. And every month, the Executive of the General Confederation of Labor announced in favor of the creation of a socialist republic and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Some veterans were among those who joined the ranks of the Left, and some joined the ranks of the anarchists. Some others joined groups that pushed their status as combat veterans. The Socialists helped drive some veterans into the ranks of the rightists by their verbal attacks on those who had participated in the war. Young officers of junior rank from lower middle class families who wished to hang onto their status were among those who joined the ranks of the rightists. And joining the ranks of the rightists were those who were too young to have fought in the war but who saw glory in those who had fought for their country.
Mussolini was familiar with a rightist political action group in France called Action Française, and borrowing from their example he founded a movement called Fasci di Combattimento (Combat Group) – in Milan, Italy's greatest industrial city, in northern Italy. The first meeting of the movement, in March 1919, was attended mainly by war veterans, various malcontents, some believers in a strong, machine-oriented Italy, and a few pro-war, nationalist-minded socialists.
Mussolini drew allies from those veterans who called themselves the Arditi (from ardito, meaning brave). The Arditi were in many Italian towns and organized for violence against those they called traitors. Their joy for combat found expression in street brawling. Their love for wearing a uniform found expression in their wearing a black shirt with insignia. Mussolini spoke to them as if he were their leader, boasting how he had defended them "against the slanders of cowardly philistines."
Believing in brute force in international affairs over what was thought to be the sickly, effete, pacifistic idealism, Mussolini complained that at the Paris Peace Conference Italy was being cheated out of its just reward for participating in World War I. Mussolini proclaimed that Italy had a right to its place in the world and that it needed colonies like Britain's.
In addition, Mussolini proclaimed his opposition to the monarchy; his opposition to the Catholic Church and his favor of a minimum wage, an eight-hour day, worker participation in management, confiscation of excessive war profits, and giving the vote to women. Mussolini was presenting himself as a progressive nationalist – or, put another way, as a national socialist.
Mussolini's movement needed enemies, and Mussolini's main enemy was the Socialist Party – which had expelled him in 1915. In May 1919, Mussolini's group attacked the headquarters of the Socialist newspaper Avanti! During 1919 Mussolini tried to intervene in labor disputes, but he failed to attract factory workers away from their socialist led unions.
In September, Mussolini's movement was upstaged by action taken by a nationalist rival, a former World War I aviator and a romantic poet, Gabriele d'Annunzio. D'Annunzio and his private army of about 1,000 took power in the small city of Fiume – about forty miles southeast of Triest, on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea. Fiume had a large Italian population, and D'Annunzio and many other Italians wanted Fiume to be a part of Italy. Leaders of the newly formed Yugoslavia wanted Fiume to be a part of their state. Italy's young army officers (rather than its older and wiser leadership) backed d'Annunzio. So too did Italy's navy. These Italians were displeased that the Treaty of Versailles did not give Fiume to Italy.
Mussolini found it opportune to praise d'Annunzio, describing him as the only man who had "dared to revolt against the plutocracy" that had created the Versailles Treaty. Mussolini was bent upon adopting some of d'Annunzio's style: balcony speeches, colorful rituals and focus on international issues.
But in elections in Milan in late 1919, Mussolini and his Fascists won nothing. The voters were more concerned with domestic issues than they were with the international issues that Mussolini had been addressing. In the elections, Catholic reformist politicians and Mussolini's enemy, the Socialist Party, were the clear victors. And like some other losers in politics, Mussolini resorted to acts of terrorism: he sent bombs through the mail, and he incited a gang of his Arditi supporters to throw a bomb at a procession of socialists celebrating their election victory. Nine people were wounded. Mussolini was tried for his role in the assault. But like those veterans in Germany who committed crimes from "patriotic" motives, Mussolini received a light sentence, and he spent only a couple of days in prison.
By the end of 1919, Mussolini's movement had fewer than a thousand members. Discouraged, Mussolini considered giving up politics to travel the world playing his violin. But he decided to stick it out, and 1920 would be a big year for him, thanks largely to agitation from the Left.
Copyright © 1998-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.