World War II/Mussolini and Fascist Italy
Mussolini and Fascism
Benito Mussolini got his qualifications as an elementary schoolmaster in 1901 and 1902, emigrated to Switzerland, as a way to avoid military service (he ended convicted of desertion in absentia). During that time he became interested in politics and social philosophies, especially socialism. He was later deported as a result of his political involvement with the Italian workers' union in Lausanne, Switzerland, but returned illegally to Switzerland. In 1904 the Switzerland authorities arrested him for falsifying his papers, he then returned to Italy, taking advantage of an amnesty for his desertion, where he subsequently volunteered for military service in the Italian Army for two years. As a soldier fought in the First World War and was angered by the Versailles Treaty's failure to deliver more land to the nation of Italy.
After 1906 he returned to teaching, and continued to participate in the socialist movement. On March 23, 1919, Mussolini reformed the Milan fascio as the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (Italian Combat Squad), consisting of 200 members. It was the start of Fascism.
Mussolini and the fascists managed to be simultaneously revolutionary and traditionalist. Because this was vastly different from anything else in the political climate of the time, it is sometimes described as "The Third Way". The Fascisti, led by one of Mussolini's close confidants, Dino Grandi, formed armed squads of war veterans called Blackshirts (or squadristi) with the goal of restoring order to the streets of Italy with a strong hand. The Blackshirts clashed with communists, socialists, and anarchists at parades and demonstrations, while factions within the Blackshirts were also involved in clashes against each other. The government rarely interfered with the Blackshirts' actions, due in part to a looming threat and widespread fear of a communist revolution. The Fascisti grew so rapidly that within two years, it transformed itself into the National Fascist Party at a congress in Rome. Also in 1921, Mussolini was elected to the Chamber of Deputies for the first time.
March on Rome
The March on Rome was a coup d'état by which Mussolini's National Fascist Party came to power in Italy and ousted Prime Minister Luigi Facta. The "march" took place in 1922 between October 27 and October 29. On October 28, King Victor Emmanuel III refused his support to Facta and handed over power to Mussolini. Mussolini was supported by the military, the business class, and the liberal right-wing.
Mussolini's influence in propaganda was such that he had surprisingly little opposition to suppress. Nonetheless, he was "slightly wounded in the nose" when he was shot on April 7, 1926 by Violet Gibson, an Irish woman and sister of Baron Ashbourne. In January 1927, 15-year-old Anteo Zamboni attempted to shoot Mussolini in Bologna. Zamboni was lynched on the spot. Mussolini also survived a failed assassination attempt in Rome by anarchist Gino Lucetti, and a planned attempt by American anarchist Michael Schirru, which ended with Schirru's capture and execution.
The various times after 1922, Mussolini personally took over the ministries of the interior, foreign affairs, colonies, corporations, defense, and public works. Sometimes he held as many as seven departments simultaneously, as well as the premiership. He was also head of the all-powerful Fascist Party and the armed local fascist militia, the MVSN or "Blackshirts," who terrorized incipient resistances in the cities and provinces. He would later form the OVRA, an institutionalized secret police that carried official state support. In this way he succeeded in keeping power in his own hands and preventing any rival from emerging.
Mussolini launched several public construction programs and government initiatives throughout Italy to combat economic setbacks or unemployment levels. His earliest, and one of the best known, was Italy's equivalent of the Green Revolution, known as the "Battle for Grain", where 5,000 new farms were established and five new agricultural towns on land reclaimed by draining the Pontine Marshes. This plan diverted valuable resources to grain production, away from other less economically viable crops. The huge tariffs associated with the project promoted widespread inefficiencies, and the government subsidies given to farmers pushed the country further into debt. Mussolini also initiated the "Battle for Land", a policy based on land reclamation outlined in 1928. The initiative had a mixed success; while projects such as the draining of the Pontine Marsh in 1935 for agriculture were good for propaganda purposes, provided work for the unemployed and allowed for great land owners to control subsidies, other areas in the Battle for Land were not very successful. This program was inconsistent with the Battle for Grain (small plots of land were inappropriately allocated for large-scale wheat production), and the Pontine Marsh was lost during World War II. Fewer than 10,000 peasants resettled on the redistributed land, and peasant poverty remained high. The Battle for Land initiative was abandoned in 1940.
Mussolini came up with other ideas, such as Gold for the Fatherland, where he encouraged Italians to hand their gold over to the government in exchange for a steel wristband. The gold would be melted down and handed out to National banks.
As dictator of Italy, Mussolini's foremost priority was to subjugate the minds of the Italian people and the use of propaganda to do so; whether at home or abroad, and here his training as a journalist was invaluable. Press, radio, education, films—all were carefully supervised to create the illusion that fascism was the doctrine of the twentieth century, replacing liberalism and democracy.
In foreign policy, Mussolini soon shifted from the pacifist anti-imperialism of his lead-up to power to an extreme form of aggressive nationalism. He dreamt of making Italy a nation that was "great, respected and feared" throughout Europe, and indeed the world. An early example was his bombardment of Corfu in 1923. Soon after he succeeded in setting up a puppet regime in Albania and in ruthlessly consolidating Italian power in Libya, which had been loosely a colony since 1912. It was his dream to make the Mediterranean mare nostrum ("our sea" in Latin), and he established a large naval base on the Greek island of Leros to enforce a strategic hold on the eastern Mediterranean. However, his first 'baby steps' into foreign policy seemed to portray him as a 'statesman', for he participated in the Locarno Treaties of 1925 and the attempted Four Power Pact of 1933 was Mussolini's brainchild. Following the Stresa Front against Germany in 1935, however, Mussolini's policy took a dramatic turning point and revealed itself once again to be that of an aggressive nature. This domino-effect of war began with the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, Italy conquered and annexed Ethiopia.
Relations with Germany
A Rough Start
The relationship between Mussolini and Adolf Hitler was a contentious one early on. While Hitler cited Mussolini as an influence, Mussolini had gone as far as deriding Hitler as "a barbarian, a criminal and a pederast" after the Nazis had assassinated his friend and ally, Engelbert Dollfuss the Austrofascist dictator of Austria in 1933. The two countries nearly went to war over Austria in 1934.
Despite the two's differences in ideology, as Mussolini did not believe in Hitler's Aryan race, they both had the same ambitions. Though Italy had served as a counterbalance to Nazi power in the early 1930's Mussolini desired for more, to restore the Roman Empire. After his invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, Britain and France condemned Italy's actions. Regardless of some differences in ideology, Hitler's Nazi Germany had clearly established itself as a formidable power that was rising quickly in prominence by the mid 1930s and in November 1936, Mussolini had coined the term Axis Powers to refer to the Rome-Berlin relationship between the states. Ideologically Italian fascism did not discriminate against the Italian Jewish community: Mussolini recognized that a small contingent had lived there "since the days of the Kings of Rome" and should "remain undisturbed". There were even some Jews in the National Fascist Party.
In 1939, the Pact of Steel was signed between Germany and Italy. The Pact consisted of two parts: the first section was an open declaration of continuing trust and cooperation between Germany and Italy while the second, a 'Secret Supplementary Protocol' encouraged a joint military and economic policy.