Mussolini and fascism came to power 100 years ago. Here’s how.


A century ago, Benito Mussolini began a dictatorship that would last more than 20 years. It all started one night in late October 1922, when he sent his loyalists, armed with clubs and guns, to occupy key government buildings around Rome and Milan. Their goal was to force the Fascist party to power, using violence if necessary. It worked. On October 28, the king called Mussolini and asked him to come to Rome to take over as prime minister. Only then did Mussolini’s loyalists march through the city, representing his strength and power.

In the aftermath of World War II, Italy’s multi-party republic was carefully crafted by a coalition of left-wing political parties, with checks and balances designed to prevent another dictator like Mussolini from regaining such extreme power. But today, with the election of Giorgia Meloni – a far-right leader whose Brothers of Italy party won more than 40% of the vote and who traces her political beginnings to the authoritarian administration of Silvio Berlusconi two decades ago – many are worried. Meloni’s rhetoric is clearly anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ and pro-nationalist, and she threatened to end the fight against poverty, while emphasizing that women’s proper roles are as mothers and wives.

Meloni and his party have rejected the label of “fascism”, but they adopt the descriptor “post-fascist” and employ iconography and political opinions reminiscent of fascism. But fascism is more than a rightward shift in political ideology – it is a vision of government with totalitarian control. To help understand what is at stake with the current political change, it is useful to go back to the birth of fascism.

In 1919, Benito Mussolini founded what would become the Fascist Party, aligning himself with local leaders who had become squadron to help secure his authority in a country reeling from labor strikes and political upheaval. When Mussolini was elected to parliament in 1921, the fractured leadership of various parties sought to form partnerships with him, rather than denounce his violent tactics – a move that miscalculated his quest for control. Within months, Mussolini rallied his loyalists saying government should either be “peacefully given” to the fascist or they would “take it by force”.

Mussolini did not need a violent coup to take control. Rather, he capitalized on both fear and desire. Urban elites wanted to see the position of Italians in the world elevated – hence Mussolini’s slogan “Bring back the Roman Empire!” And he was also addressing agrarian fascists who, explains historian Paul Corner, were largely concerned with “the destruction of labor unions and socialist organizations…. It was a defense of profit.

Once in power, Mussolini’s charisma helped him gain popularity and acceptance. Called The Duke – “the leader” – he told his fellow Italians that they were a great nation and that he wanted to help them take their rightful place as a world power. His propaganda certainly helped too. The Duke had one of the world’s first propaganda film campaigns and it also began suppressing dissenting opinions in print and radio. Acting at the behest of a relatively weak monarch, he also installed allies in leadership positions and began enacting legislation to take control of almost every facet of Italian life.

Those who resisted were held in line, often by violence. Squadristi were told to use force against the anti-fascists, which they did at first. But in 1925, legislation made organizing illegal, and intimidation through threats against family, work, or self-reliant individuals was brought under control. Corner calls this a “forced consensus.”

It worked. Italians were so intimidated that they lacked the ability to stand up in effective numbers, and eventually young Italians grew up surrounded by propaganda – from the school curriculum to newspapers – as well as images of The Duke and symbols of fascism. For many, it has become difficult to imagine a different future or to be involved in its creation. Although there had always been quiet anti-fascists, their work had been driven far underground or relegated to small groups of trusted friends for fear of reprisal.

Those who attempted to emerge as anti-fascist leaders were quickly snuffed out. Fascist leaders sent those they saw as a threat into exile on remote islands, while squadron kept others in line through torture, such as being fed castor oil through a funnel. But the most powerful tool used by fascist leaders was fear of being arrested, harming family, or losing jobs or homes.

It was not until years after the start of the Second World War, on July 25, 1943, that The Duke was eventually ousted and the antifascists reorganized. However, this was short-lived as Mussolini was reinstated 45 days later in a puppet government when Germany occupied Italy until the end of the war.

Even under German control, the anti-fascist resistance continued. His army was a motley group of no more than 200,000 soldiers, including 35,000 women. With limited resources, they staged guerrilla attacks such as bombings, assassinations and sabotage against Nazi and Fascist targets during the German occupation.

But this group also spent the occupation looking to the future, planning for a more democratic post-war government, with free elections and greater representation of women. And after the Allied forces defeated Germany, the anti-fascists created a republic with relatively strong regional and local governments and proportional representation in parliament, making it harder for one party to centralize control.

In the decades following the war, national identity aligned with anti-fascist victors without struggling with the powerful rhetoric that Mussolini had used for two decades. In 1946, author and well-known anti-fascist Natalia Ginzburg feared that the “older generation” was “in love with lies”, and she warned that children should be taught the evils of fascism, not “coddled”.[ed] …with plush dolls…and pretty pink nativity scenes…to smother their childhood with veils. She saw older generations perpetuating a romanticized myth about fascism even in the years immediately following the war.

She was right to worry. In the decades that followed, many Italians defined themselves in terms of Hitler, citing Mussolini’s alliance with Axis power as his “one mistake,” Corner notes. But in doing so, they overlooked the death toll of fascism in Italy, Ethiopia and elsewhere under Mussolini. And few of The Dukemany monuments have been affected, while propaganda films of the past are treated as historical documentation. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on totalitarian regimes, says this amounts to a “normalization of the past”.

The far-right shift in Italian politics a few weeks before the 100th anniversary of Mussolini’s march on Rome reveals the persistence of this indoctrination of right-wing fascist values. Meloni’s party seems to share much of the ideology of the former strongmen.

Perhaps the greatest danger in the resurgence of right-wing movements in Italy and around the world is a normalization of extremism. Ben-Ghiat considers the most important lesson to be learning from and considering the past. There are many differences between the conditions under which Mussolini came to power and modern times, she acknowledges. But she also warns that those who want to ignore an ugly or difficult history – in Italy or elsewhere – often have a political agenda: “They want people to become extremists”.

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