One hundred years ago this month, Italy succumbed to a new political order that would ignite a worldwide struggle for freedom.
Completely abandoning its rightful claim as the birthplace of republican self-government, Italy embraced the fanatical politics of Benito Mussolini and embarked on a sad journey of prioritizing rhetoric over reason and ideology over experience.
The permanent scaring and disability of the veterans who suffered the horrors of trench warfare were a constant reminder of the failure of leadership that led to World War I. Each country would come to terms with its economy of this aftermath. Initially, countries experienced internal conflicts as citizens tried to define their new role in the world. The old leadership had clearly failed, but scant options were available to replace it.
This was the age when academic discussions of government promoted communism, socialism, and nationalism in various combinations. Even though none of these systems was tried, much less true, people were restless for something new.
In Italy, this search for something new gave rise to Mussolini. Remembering his ascension to power is not something to be celebrated, but rather observed. Even after 100 years, it is hard to reconcile the positive influence of Roman civilization with the destructive ideas of Mussolini.
Nothing about Mussolini’s character is commendable. His youthful experiences revealed a bigoted bully who constantly fought his classmates; his knife play resulted in expulsion from a number of schools.
Originally a socialist who advocated against war, his opinion gradually changed as he realized that the resulting destruction created possibilities for change and advancement. He thus became an advocate for war and against neutrality. So fervent was his newfound bellicosity that he was paid by the British to stir up Italians to fight against the Central Powers. This was not the first or last time that foreign powers would attempt to foment local support for an objective, only to have the instigator turn and become a mortal threat.
It would be unfair to say that Mussolini was created by the British, but it is appropriate to note that his politics were financed by British pounds.
Mussolini was a powerful advocate in speech and in print. He was an engaging writer and a mesmerizing orator. The cadence of his words and his soothing patronizing rhetoric gave him a following that morphed into a national movement.
He was convinced that the answer to the constant post-war strikes and riots was a strong leader. And as he read various political tracts, Mussolini became convinced that he was the only leader who could unite his country and achieve prosperity.
As Mussolini’s popularity grew and his stature increased, he forgot about any institutions of government, and concluded he could be the government. He came to believe his own rhetoric, and his followers’ applause confirmed this view. Against any sense of traditional, liberal republican government, Mussolini assembled leaders of various disaffected groups and urged them to come together to form a new party.
In giving an example of how tight their union and commitment to change should be, Mussolini advocated an image that would become the symbol of his government and an ill-used pejorative. Harking back to ancient Roman times, the symbol of power was a bundle of wooden rods surrounding an axe. Mussolini urged his followers to be a tight knit group just like these “fascis” that surrounded the axe. Thus, the word fascist as a political movement was born.
Sporting black shirts as an appeal to unnamed and forgotten men, Mussolini’s thugs imitated their leaders’ bullying tactics. In various town and other political subdivisions, these gangs took power by force. The local leadership was not sure how to handle this development, but they were intimidated and succumbed to the demands of these unruly groups.
A century ago, the Italian trade unions called a general strike. Mussolini used this event to demand that the national government act to restore order. Failing that, Mussolini threatened to march on Rome to take control. While simply using rhetoric as propaganda to promote himself, his words resonated with his followers. What started out as an opportunistic speech now became a rallying cry, and his followers heeded his encouragement by actually marching on Rome.
At the time, the government in Italy was akin to a constitutional monarchy like England. While the King, Victor Emmanuel III was generally respected, the prime minister and the parliament were not. When the Italian political leaders realized that Mussolini was serious about marching on Rome, they became afraid and asked the King to declare martial law. When he refused, the political leaders resigned.
For reasons still debated, the King decided to ask Mussolini to become his prime minister and form a government. Mussolini did exactly this, but not willing to completely upset the status quo, he governed in coalition with other parties. Thus, be used the trappings of official government to begin to seize power.
Using extrajudicial means, including murder, he eliminated other political parties and leaders until he achieved his goal of becoming an absolute dictator. Initially, people were willing to tolerate the new government as it did provide the benefit of centralized efficiencies that the previous parliamentary system lacked.
But eventually, when freedoms were curtailed and the economy did not prosper as promised, Mussolini did what dictators always do; he found a national cause for distraction. Mussolini did this in a series of aggressive military actions culminating in the invasion of Ethiopia.
The League of Nations tried to stop these naked aggressions, but without international leadership and with no real power, it took symbolic steps that not only failed to stop Italian atrocities but destroyed the League, opening the way, if not encouraging, other, more significant military aggressions culminating in World War II.
Remembering Mussolini’s rise to power is to recall the consequences of not confronting a national bully who became an international pariah. If, at any point in Mussolini’s infamy, someone in power had forcefully challenged him, the world would be a better place.