After his death in 1945, Mussolini’s corpse was autopsied and thrown into a pauper’s grave. But, that was just the beginning of the cadaver’s posthumous career. Eventually the body was stolen by neofascists, hidden away for over a decade, and used as a political bargaining chip in postwar Italy.
In February of 1943 the Nazi regime arrested between 1500-2000 Jewish men in Berlin, and imprisoned them in a former Jewish community center with the address of Rosenstrasse 2-4. These men had, up until this point, avoided deportation to death camps because they were married to non-Jewish women, and instead had been forced to work in German factories up until that point. Their wives, though, showed up in force outside the building where they were imprisoned, and soon a group of hundreds of women were able to mount an effective street protest against the Reich. It was the only effective popular protest in Germany mounted against Hitler’s regime.
After the Kingdom of Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, Mussolini was a prisoner. But, during a German invasion of Northern Italy, he was sprung from his cell by German commandos and put in charge of the Italian Social Republic, a Nazi puppet state. Mussolini’s new assignment would prove to be short-lived. In less than two years the former dictator would be executed, and his body ripped apart by an angry mob.
Italy did not perform well in WWII. The Italian economy was not able to support an effective industrial war machine, and Italy saw defeat in Greece, Ethiopia, and in North Africa. In 1943 Allied forces invaded Sicily, and with the noose gradually tightening, the High Council of Fascism voted Mussolini out of power.
Italy was not well-positioned going into World War II. The Italian economy was still largely agricultural, and its industrial output was small compared with every other European great power. Also, Mussolini felt himself more and more unable to control Hitler. At the 1938 Munich conference Mussolini brokered a deal between Nazi Germany and the other European powers that gave Hitler the Sudetenland in return for not invading Czechoslovakia. A few months later, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia anyway. Mussolini’s deal was kaput, and the Italian dictator was revealed to be powerless over Hitler.
Despite being a regime birthed in martial rhetoric and symbolism, fascist Italy was in no shape, economically or diplomatically at the start of World War II. Instead of leaping into the conflict alongside it’s ally, Germany, Italy wouldn’t join the war until 1940.
Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany certainly influenced the adoption of racist and anti-Semitic policies by Mussolini’s government. In a 1938 document called the Manifesto of Race, the fascist regime declared Italians to be Aryans, and that Jews and other minorities would be expelled from civil life. However, even prior to the alliance with Germany fascist Italy was quite capable of being racist on its own. Laws in conquered Ethiopia banned marriages between blacks and whites, and the best available land in Ethiopia was redistributed to Italian immigrants. In the end, Italy became a willing partner in spreading Nazi racism, and thousands of Italian Jews would eventually die in the Holocaust.
Hitler and Mussolini never had a great relationship. The German dictator modeled his career on the Italian fascist, imitating Mussolini’s speech and mannerisms, and unsuccessfully tried to replicate the March on Rome with the Beerhall Putsch. Mussolini, for his part, didn’t pay Hitler much mind until 1930, much to the Furher’s chagrin. When the men first met in 1934 they got into a horrible argument about the fate of Austria, and Hitler later sent some material aide to Ethiopia during Italy’s conquest. However, the to fascists would eventually find themselves isolated from Europe’s liberal democracies, and by 1938 it was almost as if they were natural allies.
It wasn’t enough for fascist Italy to adopt the rhetoric and imagery of ancient Rome, it also hoped to have a present-day empire. To do that Mussolini launched an invasion of a country that had defeated Italy in 1896: Ethiopia. To win this time, Italy would not merely invade with ground troops, like it had the last time. Instead, it would rain down chemical death upon the African kingdom, and then declare it an imperial possession.
Italy’s fascist regime sought legitimacy by packaging itself as an extension of past Italian glory. Under Mussolini Italy “restored” numerous Roman, Renaissance, and medieval sites, and sought to tie in the glories of the present with those of the past. Unfortunately, most of these “restorations” had little to no basis in evidence-based history, and the fascists often ignored historical periods (such as the Baroque era) that did not suit there needs.
Below: Fascist party headquarters in the 1930s, featuring Mussolini’s giant head.
This week’s episode is an interview with Meagan Zurn (or “Zee,” co-producer of The British History Podcast) about Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci was a socialist, journalist, and briefly a member of the Italian parliament before getting thrown in jail by Mussolini’s regime in 1926. He died in prison in 1937. His writings, especially his prison writings, outlined the relationship of power and culture, and his insights are especially useful for understanding the rise of fascism in Italy, as well as how power and hegemony function everywhere else.
Italian fascism came to power (and solidified power) by co-opting existing political organizations and interests in Italy. That included the Catholic Church. Since Italian Unification the Church had been at odds with liberal Italy, and for fifty-nine years pope did not even set foot outside the Vatican. In 1929, though Mussolini offered the papacy a way out, with the creation of Vatican City as an independent state. Unfortunately, this would not go entirely well for the church.
After Mussolini proclaimed dictatorship in January of 1925 fascist Italy became the first modern totalitarian state. The regime extended its power and influence to everything from the national and local government, to the press, to unions, and even to the private lives of ordinary Italians.
Following the March on Rome Mussolini and the fascists cemented their grasp on power via an electoral reform known as the Acerbo Law, voter suppression and intimidation in the 1924 election, and (possibly) by killing one of their biggest opponents, the socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti.
The March on Rome is often cited as the beginning of Italian fascism. However, there was a fair amount of a run-up to the actual blackshirt invasion of the capital. Right-wing violence ravaged the Italian provinces for years before the actual march and, when Mussolini came to power, he formed a coalition government with conservative liberals and Catholics. In the coming years, Italy’s liberal democracy would be gradually dismantled. Nevertheless, the march was a turning point, and it introduced fascist elements into the Italian governmental leadership.
In this episode we try to answer (or at least clarify) one of the most vexing questions of political science, history, philosophy, and contemporary scholarship: What, exactly, is fascism?
Fascism is the most malignant of the major political ideologies, and one of the least understood. For fascism, the nation (and therefore state) are paramount. Considerations for the needs of social classes or individuals are subordinate to the state, if they are considered at all. While Germany is easily the most famous fascist state, this ideology had its origins in Italy following WWI.
Prior to 1870 the term “Italy” was a geographic designation, referring to a collection of kingdoms, city-states, and papal states that happened to share a boot-shaped peninsula. Curiously, this collection of disparate elements would form not only a national identity, but a particularly violent, extreme one. One that would form the basis of probably the most destructive ideology of the past one hundred years.
“Sure, Mussolini was bad, but at least he made the trains run on time.”
You’ve probably said it. Or, you’ve been in a conversation and you heard somebody say it. Or you’ve seen it written somewhere. This cliche has been repeated time and again in countless different media (such as in the panel below, from DC’s New Earth series) to the point that one is almost more likely to associate the Italian dictator with railways than with the fascist ideology he invented. However, the commonly repeated trope does not have a basis in fact.
Supposedly punctual trains were part of Mussolini’s propaganda machine that put up a facade of well-functioning infrastructure for foreigners, suppressed reports of train collisions and accidents, and took credit for improvements implemented by earlier democratic regimes. There was no real bright side or silver lining to the authoritarian dictator’s reign. Not even well-functioning trains.