(MUSSOLINI and FASCISM in ITALY – continued)
Unlike previous governments, which had been unable to hold onto power, Mussolini's coalition government lasted through the whole of 1923 and beyond. Mussolini was committed to an ambitious modernization program: draining swamps, developing hydroelectricity and improving the railways. And, unhampered by hostile labor unions, Italy's economy made impressive gains. Italy was still basically a nation of small farmers, forty percent of its gross national product being small-scale agriculture, which involved half of its labor force. But, under Mussolini, Italy's GNP was growing at two percent a year, about twice the growth rate of its population. Italy's automobile production was increasing, and its aeronautical industry was making impressive advances.
The Fascists continued to be a minority in Parliament, holding only forty seats. Then, in the elections in April 1924, with the Fascists employing terror and illegalities, they won a parliamentary majority: 374 seats. Despite the intimidation, 19 Communists won seats, as did 46 Socialists and 39 from the reformist, anti-fascist, Catholic, Popular Party.
Mussolini had a secret police force led by a clique of high-ranking fascist officials, a force he affectionately called the Cheka, a force that was in the habit of attacking anyone who made themselves obnoxious to Mussolini's interests. They kidnapped and murdered a popular Socialist member of parliament, Giacomo Matteotti. And 150 deputies protested the killing by quitting Parliament – a mistake. It left Parliament without anyone supporting democracy.
Mussolini then strengthened his regime by signing an agreement with the industrialists, assuring them control over their own industries. He made a similar agreement with the large employers in agriculture and commerce. Unions were crippled further. They could not strike and they were denied the right to the leaders of their choice.
Mussolini found it opportune to make an agreement with the Catholic Church. He was no longer making anti-religious pronouncements. The Church gave its approval to Mussolini's regime in exchange for holding territorial sovereignty at the Vatican, for a privileged position in matters of education and for Italy maintaining marriage laws in accordance with Church teachings. Religious education was reintroduced into Italy's schools. Crucifixes were displayed in the courts of law.
Mussolini was able to shut down hostile newspapers and to make the remaining press subservient to his government's authority. And the Fascists were strong enough as a parliamentary force that they were able to outlaw rival political parties. To the applause of the nation, Mussolini spoke of the putrefying corpse of liberty. His government emphasized the virtues of militarism along with the fascist credo, "Together we are strong!" Boys and girls of all ages were enrolled in semi-military formations, given black shirts, toy machine guns and taught loyalty to the state.
Mussolini's Italy was described as a corporate state, and the declared objective of the corporate state was both social revolution and national cohesion – as opposed to the class warfare of Marxism and the Bolshevik Revolution. The notion of "permanent revolution" or a "second wave" with a more socialist bent was suppressed within the Fascist movement. In the new corporate state, employers, managers and workers were supposed to be united within the same legal framework. The monarchy, the army, government bureaucracy, the Church and the middle class were supposed to play a role in strengthening state power, each group with a prescribed role, with the state as the ultimate arbiter of the national interest. And it was everyone's duty to contribute to the strength and glorification of the state.
Many in Italy were inclined to the old habit of devotion to figures of authority, and Mussolini was becoming an object of adulation. Many admired Mussolini for having saved Italy from Bolshevism. In many households across Italy, people pasted his picture, cut out of newspapers, on their wall. His birthplace became a place of pilgrimage. Given their belief in miracles, it became rumored that the blind could see again after Mussolini embraced them. And it was believed that those who kissed his hands would die in peace.
Praise for Mussolini came from beyond Italy's borders, and a stream of admirers came to visit him. From Argentina came Juan Peron. George Bernard Shaw came, as did Winston Churchill in 1927. Churchill caused an uproar in Britain's Labour and Liberal press by having described himself as charmed by Mussolini's "gentle and simple bearing" and saying that if he were an Italian he would have given Mussolini his "whole-hearted" support "from start to finish" in Mussolini's "triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism."
Mussolini, by Jasper Ridley, 1997.
Between Two Fires, Chapter IV "Revenge for Adowa," by David Clay Large, 1990.
Mussolini and Fascist Italy, by Martin Blinkhorn, Routledge, 1994.
Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, by Nicholson Baker, 2008. A superb overview from the beginning of the 20th century to World War II, built on snippets of attitude.
Copyright © 1998-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.