The period between the two world wars was a time of great political upheaval, particularly in Europe. The continent witnessed a clash of ideology as forces of communism, fascism, and liberalism battled it out in every country. Italy was one of the first states to see a decisive victory for one of these factions. Unhappiness over the First World War and a worsening economic crisis resulted in a dramatic increase in extremist politics. But how did Benito Mussolini, a formerly disgraced socialist newspaper editor, stem the tide of a surging revolutionary movement and upset the existing liberal order, which had withstood decades of turmoil and crisis, and force King Victor Emmanuel III to bring about a mostly bloodless transfer of power?
The End of the First World War & Benito Mussolini
The First World War was a bitter experience in Italy, like for much of the rest of Europe. The country did not immediately enter the war, instead debating on which side of the conflict they should enter. Following secret negotiations the year after the outbreak of war, Prime Minister Antonio Salandra agreed to join the Triple Entente in 1915, signing the Treaty of London and opening up a new front, switching sides to fight former ally Austria-Hungary.
Then ensued a series of heavy defeats as an army seriously unprepared for the war struggled to make advances across the Austrian border. Defeats across the front, culminating in annihilation at Caporetto in 1917, brought down a procession of prime ministers, each unable to stabilize a volatile political situation.
The eventual victory at Vittorio Veneto and the collapse of Austria-Hungary brought immediate jubilation, albeit short-lived. Despite being on the winning side, Italy did not reap the benefits of victory in the First World War. Many of the promises made to bring Italy into the war were not kept by the Entente. The Treaty of London had made extensive territorial promises, such as expanding Italy’s immediate borders and gains for its empire. Revised terms at Versailles greatly reduced both, but particularly the latter.
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Wartime fervor therefore quickly turned into widespread discontent, with many feeling they had been betrayed by Britain, France, and their own leaders. Outrage over perceived failures at Versailles climaxed in September of 1919 when poet and nationalist Gabriele d’Annunzio led two thousand soldiers to seize the city port of Fiume (now Rijeka), claiming it had been promised by the other powers and was rightfully Italian.
D’Annunzio coined the term “mutilated victory” to describe the state of Italy in the aftermath of the war. For the fifteen months that Fiume was occupied, the Italian government failed to make any significant progress in negotiations, eventually forcing out the colonists.
Although the government would make further gains following the 1920 Treaty of Rapallo, d’Annunzio’s actions had a much more profound effect on Italian political life. They were particularly crucial for the development of fascism. In the process of forming his own political party, Mussolini saw in the seizure of Fiume the potential of national strength through the use of force something that would become key to his later doctrine.
The Biennio Rosso & The Rise of the Left
It was not only nationalism that grew in the aftermath of the First World War. Both left and right developed a culture of violence towards the old liberal order as well as each other. The left was the first to gain ground, as strikes and further trade union action nearly brought the government down.
The cost of sustained conflict had left Italy bankrupt, a crisis that socialist and communist parties used to their own advantage. The two years following the Treaty of Versailles were known as the Biennio Rosso (Two Red Years), a period of intense violence and agitation. Trade Unions and left-wing parties collectively reached over three million members as demobilized soldiers, worsening unemployment, and rising inflation led many Italians to adopt more extremist politics.
Beginning with strikes and demonstrations, workers soon began to occupy their factories until concessions were made by their owners. In the face of such action, the government was forced to make deals with the strikers, angering industrialists and the middle class. The closest the left came to power was in 1919 when left-wing parties gained their largest share of the vote and seats in the Chamber of Deputies. However, failure to compromise with the Christian Democrat Italian People’s Party (PPI) left the same older liberal politicians in power. This only further radicalized groups, who grew frustrated with the inability to change the existing political system.
The following year witnessed similar turmoil, with over two million workers and peasants participating in over two thousand strikes. These grew increasingly violent, both in their action and rhetoric. This movement ultimately proved too passive and divided to bring about serious social change. The radical left was incredibly successful in the northern industrial regions but failed to extend further south and galvanize the whole country in united action. Like post-war nationalism, the success of violence would again inform Benito Mussolini’s political ambitions.
It was in this political turmoil that Benito Mussolini found himself. Before the war, Mussolini had avoided military service and campaigned against Italian imperialism, gaining notoriety as editor of the Socialist Party newspaper Avanti! He initially, like other socialists, opposed the First World War, but soon switched sides. Within a year, Mussolini was a champion of Italian nationalism, seeing the war as an opportunity to overthrow Europe’s monarchies. This brought him into conflict with other socialists, and he was promptly expelled from the party.
Following this expulsion, Mussolini denounced socialism and enlisted to serve. During his time on the front, he noticed the bond between soldiers in the trenches, which would be a fundamental tenet of his fascist doctrine. Wounded in February 1917, Mussolini returned home. He took up the position of editor of nationalist paper Il Popolo d’Italia, which he would retain until the end of the war, in particular praising the work of the Czechoslovak legion who fought the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War.
In March 1919, Mussolini formed the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (Italian Combat Squad), an attempt to link victory at Vittorio Veneto to his emerging fascist doctrine. The new movement promised to save Italy from communist revolution and evoked themes of empire and the restoration of Roman glory. It was sustained by a bitter hatred of the old liberal government as well as those who had advocated for remaining neutral in the war. These squads countered seizures of property by socialist groups by occupying farming land, a move which endeared themselves to many within the middle class.
The Fasci Italiani suffered a significant setback in the 1919 election, however, as they failed to gain any ground and Mussolini himself lost his seat in the Chamber of Deputies. A coffin symbolizing his political career was subsequently paraded around towns and cities by socialists, claiming that Benito Mussolini’s career was now dead and buried.
The Rise of the Right & Squadrismo
On the right, the threat of revolution gave way to a violent counteraction, which used a style of violence and intimidation that became known as squadrismo. This would culminate in the death blow to liberal Italy, with Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome and subsequent fascist coup d’état in October of 1922.
Despite a poor electoral showing, Benito Mussolini was determined to continue with this new brand of politics. Groups of squadristi, easily recognized by their black uniforms, built support through violent retaliation against left-wing agitators. Soon Mussolini was backed by many industrialists, particularly as strike action intensified in subsequent years. Squadristi were used to break strikes within northern factories, particularly within the Po Valley, where left-wing militarism was strongest.
The fascist movement expanded throughout 1920, despite an increasing number of socialist victories in local elections. Blackshirts would attack logistical operations, making it difficult for governments to operate. This soon spread into the countryside, particularly in areas where laborers had seized the land. Police would do little in opposition, either failing to intervene or sometimes joining the fascists outright.
The growing success of violent retaliation brought political gains as well. In the 1921 election, the Fasci Italiani joined the National Bloc of Giovanni Giolitti, former prime minister and stalwart of Italian politics in the early twentieth century. This was the breakthrough Mussolini needed, winning his seat and seven percent of the national vote for his party.
Benito Mussolini’s formation of ideology was not yet solidified, however. He soon dropped his support for Giolitti and looked to deal with the escalating violence with those on the left. The Pact of Pacification, negotiated with trade union and socialist leaders, called for an end to the violence and focus on changing the existing political order. The Pact was denounced by many local prominent local fascist leaders (ras), whose building resentment towards Mussolini’s leadership caused him to resign in August of 1921.
Mussolini was soon back as party leader; however, the search for his replacement provided no results. Upon his return, Mussolini quickly set about changing the direction of the party. His first moves were to end the Pact of Pacification and reorganize the Fasci into the Partito Nazionale Fascista (PNF), the party Mussolini would lead until his death in 1943.
The new PNF was staunchly anti-republican, opposed to socialism, and made combatting Bolshevism its ultimate priority. This last decision endeared the group to much of the middle class. The party boasted 320,000 members by the end of the year, something it would use to ultimately seize power.
The March on Rome & Benito Mussolini’s Seizure of Power
Under Benito Mussolini’s strengthened leadership, the PNF continued to grow throughout much of 1922. Despite publicly condemning the return of street fighting and violence between right and left, in private, Mussolini championed it, ordering the razing of socialist buildings. When the government did nothing to prevent right-wing violence, this brought the support of local business leaders and industrialists, who saw the PNF as the solution to avoid revolution.
When an anti-fascist general strike was organized in August 1922, Mussolini ordered Blackshirts to take control of northern cities, a precursor to a planned march south to Rome to seize power directly. By October of that year, Mussolini felt he had sufficient support to carry out this final coup. The existing liberal government attempted to make compromises with the PNF, including sharing power with the then prime minister Antonio Salandra. Mussolini either refused each attempt or added conditions that would give him ultimate power.
As the March on Rome gained steam, King Victor Emmanuel III realized that the PNF, and more specifically Mussolini, had the support of the military, the political right-wing, and business leaders. While Blackshirts were parading in Rome, the established political order believed they could manipulate Mussolini.
On the 30th of October 1922, Benito Mussolini was appointed prime minister by the king. Like many other fascist leaders in the twentieth century, this initial concession by the established political order would only lead to further seizures of power. One month later, the Chamber of Deputies approved year-long emergency powers for Mussolini to deal with the perceived left-wing threat. Over the next ten years, he continued to expand his control on power, slowly eliminating any democratic institutions and consolidating his personal popularity as Italy’s Duce (leader).