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Meet the Original Fascists

Issue 275

History’s first fascist regime violently seized power in Italy in 1922. It continues to inspire the far right a century later.

Steven Wishnia Nov 21

I know far less about the history of Italian fascism than I do about Nazism or Latin American military dictatorships. My knowledge is a jumble of the dates of 1922-1943; its “blackshirts” goon squads; their 1922 march on Rome to seize power; the Federico Fellini film where they forced castor oil down his fictional father’s throat and left him covered in bruises and diarrhea; and dictator Benito Mussolini’s ignominious end, his corpse hung from a meathook like a pig carcass.

British historian John Foot’s Blood and Power: The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism is an antidote to that. It’s a highly readable, horrifying and extremely timely overview. Fascism has closer parallels with Donald Trump’s movement than Nazism does: Imagine if the January 2021 invaders of the Capitol had been efficiently organized on a national scale, with the toleration or active support of the military and police. 

In the early 1920s, the blackshirts — squadristi, Italian for squad men — systematically wiped out the Italian left and Italian democracy. They ransacked and burned labor-union headquarters; kidnapped, tortured and murdered socialist leaders (yes, a favorite trick was forcing them to drink diarrhea-inducing quantities of castor oil and parading them through the streets); and invaded cities to depose leftist or antifascist local governments.

Italy had a strong, militant left in the “two red years” of 1919-20, with unions occupying factories and establishing workers’ cooperatives, and socialist governments in cities such as Milan, Bologna, Ravenna and Ancona. But when revolutionary socialist Ennio Gnudi was elected mayor of Bologna in November 1920, squadristi ousted him within an hour, storming the city hall and killing 10 people. 

British historian John Foot’s Blood and Power: The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism is an antidote to that. It’s a highly readable, horrifying and extremely timely overview.

In June 1921, the first fascists elected to Parliament assaulted Communist deputy Francisco Misiano and threw him out of the building. Socialist deputy Giuseppe Di Vagno, from the southern region of Puglia, was murdered that September. In July 1922, squadristi attacked Ravenna, burning a workers’ cooperative headquarters and killing at least nine people. “We need to terrify our adversaries,” leader Italo Balbo wrote.

That culminated in the October 1922 “March on Rome,” when thousands of fascists converged on the city, seizing power when King Victor Emmanuel III refused to approve the prime minister’s demand for martial law and replaced him with Mussolini.

“Fascism was built on a mound of dead bodies, cracked heads, traumatized victims of violence, burnt books, and smashed-up cooperatives and union headquarters,” Foot writes. “Fascist violence brought something fundamentally new to the political scene: a militia party, whose use of murder, beatings, intimidation, and destruction swept aside all opposition.”

For all its day-by-day detail about what happened, Blood and Power says little about why people became fascists. Mussolini had been a prominent socialist, editor of the Milan newspaper Avanti! — which his squadristi would later ransack and burn — and was imprisoned for opposing the 1911-12 war to colonize Libya before he became a World War I hawk. It does not explain how the former Communist Nicola Bombacci, who was executed alongside Mussolini, had gone from being a comrade of Vladimir Lenin to an adviser in Italy’s Nazi puppet government, except to quote a 1945 speech where he said he was still on the side of “the rights of the workers.” 

Any such explanation would likely be more psychological than political. Fascism is not an ideology with a set of principles, like socialism, anarchism, democratic liberalism, traditional conservatism or libertarianism. It’s more visceral than rational, historian Robert O. Paxton wrote in his essential analysis The Anatomy of Fascism. It’s an authoritarian, apocalyptic mélange of purist nationalism and personality-cult worship that venerates violence and domination.

By 1924, Italy’s parliamentary elections had been rigged by laws and violence. Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti was abducted and murdered after he gave a speech calling them illegitimate. The regime abolished elections in 1926.

Blood and Power’s narrative slows down after that, as resistance had been wiped out except for several attempts to assassinate Mussolini and what Foot calls “glorious, symbolic, individual” acts “which had no political impact whatsoever.” 

Italian fascism was not as racially obsessed as Nazism, but its racism inevitably emerged. It accompanied the bloody conquests of Libya (completed in 1934) and Ethiopia in 1935, in the belief that a great nation must have an empire. “Finally, Italy has its empire… a fascist empire,” Mussolini said in a May 1936 speech. 

He called Ethiopia “a barbarian country.” In 1937, his regime slaughtered more than 19,000 people in Addis Ababa after an assassination attempt on the military viceroy there. In 1938, it enacted laws to discriminate against Jews, declaring “A pure Italian ‘race’ exists…  the Jews are not part of the Italian race.” 

Italy had a strong, militant left in the “two red years” of 1919-20, with unions occupying factories and establishing workers’ cooperatives, and socialist governments in cities such as Milan, Bologna, Ravenna and Ancona.

Mussolini’s regime crumbled quickly in 1943, as his alliance with Nazi Germany led to privation and defeat. There were massive strikes by factory workers in Turin in the spring, the first since 1922, and the Allies invaded Sicily and bombed Rome that July. Mussolini was ousted and arrested by his own government on July 25. 

It was far from over, though: The Nazis took over and made him head of the puppet government they set up. In April 1945, with the Allies nearing victory, he tried to escape to Switzerland, but was captured and shot by Communist partisans, and his desecrated corpse was strung up from the ruins of a Milan gas station.

The specter hasn’t gone away. New Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is directly descended from the fascist movement revived after World War II. Historian Paxton, originally reluctant to call Trump’s movement fascist, wrote in January 2021 that his open encouragement of violence to overturn an election made the label “not just acceptable but necessary.”

“Italian fascism showed how democracy, and its institutions, can quickly crumble in the face of violence, disaffection, and rage,” Foot concludes. “Some of this was seen in the USA after 2016, and not just in the armed attack on the Capitol in January 2021. When the ‘forces of law and order’ are also on board, things can quickly disintegrate.”

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