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he term Fascism is of Italian origin. It
was first used for the movement, which
started in Italy under the leadership of
Benito Mussolini. The capitalists and the
landlords who dominated the Italian government
at times began to support anti-democratic and
anti-socialist movements, which promised to save
them from the danger of Socialism as well as to
satisfy their colonial aspirations.
In 1921, elections were held in Italy. However,
no single party could win a majority and no stable
government could be formed. In spite of the terror
organised by Mussolinis gangs, his party could
win only 35 seats while the socialists and
communists together won 138 seats. Despite his
poor showing in the elections, Mussolini openly
talked of seizing power. On 28 October 1922, he
organised a march on Rome. The government of
Italy did not show any sign of resistance against
the volunteers of Mussolini. Instead,
on 29 October 1922, the King of Italy invited
Mussolini to join the government. Thus, without
firing a shot, Fascists under Mussolinis
leadership came to power in Italy.
The takeover of the government by Fascists was
followed by a reign of terror. The Socialist
movement was suppressed. A large number of
Socialist and Communist leaders were either
jailed or killed. In 1926, all political parties
except Mussolinis party were banned. The
victory of Fascism in Italy not only led to the
destruction of democracy and the suppression of
Socialist movement, but also led Italy on the path
to war. The Fascists believed that there could be
no harmony between two or more nations. They
glorified war, which, according to them, ennobled
man.Mussolini always loved to say, War is to
man what maternity is to woman. He openly
advocated a policy of expansion and said that
nations, which do not expand, cannot survive for
long. Hence, the victory of Fascism in Italy was
neither the result of a victory in elections nor of
a popular uprising. The government of Italy was
handed over to the Fascists because the ruling
classes of Italy considered democracy and
socialism as threats to their power.
What were the main features of Fascism in
First of all, Italian Fascism was anti-democratic
and opposed to the principles of individual
freedom and evolutionary change. After coming
to power though the Fascists, to a great extent,
gave up violence and its attendent methods, they
did not hesitate to use these methods whenever
there was a threat to their position. Even when
in power, they did not tolerate any opposition,
and in fact, banned all the political parties except
their own party. Thus, its anti-democratic
character gave rise to its totalitarian nature.
Mussolini became the virtual dictator of Italy,
though, in theory, the King remained the legal
Head of the State. All the individuals and
institutions within Italy were subordinated to the
- Bharat Jain

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State. This is clear from Mussolinis
statement that everything should be
for the State and nothing against the
Secondly, Fascism was anti-Socialist
and anti-Communist, and hence
pro-Capitalist. The signing of the
Anti-Comintern Pact in 1937 with Nazi
Germany, and Japan is evidence of his
efforts to curb Communism and
Socialism at the international level.
The economic policy of the Fascists, though was
pro-worker and pro-peasant before coming
to power, soon became pro-Capitalist. The big
industrialists and landlords made merry at the
expense of small industrialists and small
Thirdly, Italian Fascisms belief in nationalism
of the extreme type reflected its anti-peace
nature. One of the main goals of Italian Fascism
was to heighten the prestige of Italy in the eyes
of foreign nations. This feature amply explains
Fascist Italys conquest of Albania, and Abyssinia
( now called Ethiopia ), and also her participation
in the Second World War.
What were the causes for the rise of Fascism in
Firstly, Italy was not yet ready for Parliamentary
democracy. It should be noted that the extensions
of the franchise between 1870 and 1912 outran
the progress of literacy so that the electorate were
not sufficiently enlightened to make
parliamentary democracy a success.
The prevalence of parochialism and fissiparious
tendencies did not help the development of a
healthy party system. Politicians came to be seen
as corrupt and venal, which only sapped the faith
of the people in the government. The
result was a certain discrediting of
parliamentary and democratic
government as unsuited to Italy, and
as alien to her traditions. It was this
view, which after the First World War
(1914-18) helped the rise and triumph
of Fascism in Italy.
Secondly, there was a general sense
of disappointment at the treatment
accorded to Italy by the Versailles
Peace Conference (1919). Many ardent Italian
nationalists felt that Italy had been insufficiently
compensated for her efforts and sacrifices in the
War. So they wanted a government, which would
take up a strong line and not be conciliatory in
its attitude towards foreign affairs.
Thirdly, the difficulties attending the problem
of readjustment to post-War conditions appeared
too great for a people who were by nature
impatient. During and after the War, Italy was
full of disorder and discontent. The cost of living
rose very high. As a result, the people,
particularly those belonging to the lower classes,
suffered a lot. People were ready to support a
government which would help in getting rid of
disorder and discontentment that had come to
characterise the Italian society.
Fourthly, there were many upheavels arising out
of the activities of the Socialists and the
Communists. Socialists and Communists, who
had been active before the War, now increased
their strength. In many quarters, especially the
industrial regions of the north, there were labour
strikes, and in some of the rural communities,
the peasants ousted the landlords and seized their
property. The government, first under Nitti, and
then under Giolitti, proved incapable of dealing
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with the situation, and its prestige was badly
shaken. Such a situation required bold leadership,
and this was eventually supplied by the Fascists.
Fifthly, the failure of the government to maintain
law and order in the face of Communist activities
alarmed many people, mostly belonging to the
middle classes. They believed in the existing
social order ( which allowed private property )
and wanted to save the State from the menace of
Communism even by force, if necessary. They
were disgusted with the government for its
inability to tackle the law and order problem, and
were determined to undertake the task, which the
authorities had failed to perform.
Last but not the least important
cause for the rise of Fascism in
Italy was the ability of the Fascists,
under Mussolini, to win over the
support of most of the desperate
and contradictory sections of the
Italian population. Because of the
autonomy of the local groups of
Fascists, they could draft
themselves onto local traditions, to
exploit local rivalries, to appear
Republican, Syndicalist, Nationalist,
etc., according to the strength of the local social
grouping and political traditions.
What sections of the Italian society supported
Fascism and what were their reasons for
extending such support?
Support for Fascism in its initial stages came
mainly from the middle classes or the petty
bourgeoisie of small employers, shopkeepers, and
the various professional classes. These classes
were faced with a serious decline in living
standards. To them, Fascism offered not only
psychological reassurance, but a means of
overcoming the serious defect of disorganisation
which rendered them helpless in the face of
pressures from the forces of organised capitalism
on the one hand, and the trade unions on the
other. It was hoped that the Syndical state,
promised by the Fascists, by making
organisation universally compulsory, would end
the disadvantageous position of the middle
Fascism also appealed to the ex-servicemen.
These ex-servicemen found an outlet for their
talents and experience in the organisation of the
Fascist movement, which believed in
violent action.
Another socially marginal group,
which supported Fascism, was
the intellectual proletariat or
Bohemia consisting of
journalists, would-be poets, and
dramatists, and out-of-work
publishers. Fascism offered them
a career and the recognition
which had eluded them.
The Fascist movement got support
from the army also. The growth of the fasci
in 1920-21 was powerfully assisted, and
sometimes even initiated, by the regular army.
The anti-militarist propaganda of the Socialists,
the repeated attacks on officers on leave, the
failure of the parliamentary government to
restore order, and the vacillation of successive
governments over the question of military
reorganisation, helped the army to come out in
open support of Fascism. Consequently by the
summer of 1922, the military elite as well as the
soldiers no longer concealed their sympathies
for Fascism.
War is to
man what
maternity is
to woman.
- Mussolini

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Vital assistance for the Fascist movement came
from the civil authorities as well. The ordinary
policemen could not but sympathise with the
Fascists after they had been exposed for two years
to the constant harassment, insults, and often
violence of the extreme Left. The same factors
affected the attitude of the magistrates. This
attitude of the organs of government allowed the
Fascists to bring about the complete
disintegration of the liberal State.
Mussolini was a great opportunist; hence he saw
the necessity of coming to terms with the Church.
As one who could understand collective
psychology, he could not fail to appreciate the
force and influence of the Church. While the
Church might have disliked and feared the
Fascists, its dislike and fear of the Socialists was
greater. As a result, a good number of Catholics
joined the Fascist movement. Thus, Mussolini
was able to get the support of even the Church.
Similarly, Fascism had to accept the continuation
of the Monarchy, which had the direct loyalty of
the armed forces; in return the Crown supported
What was the foreign policy of the Fascists?
Any discussion on Fascism in Italy would be
incomplete without mentioning its foreign policy.
As mentioned earlier, some of the main features
of Italian Fascism were extreme nationalism and
anti-peace. So the Fascists glorified war as
symbol of national virility, and they aimed at
reviving the prestige of ancient Rome and
securing for Italy the position of a world power.
At the Versailles Peace Conference, the Allies
had neglected Italy in the distribution of
mandates, and so, Mussolini sought to rectify this
wrong by adopting a vigorous policy of colonial
expansion. He turned his eyes to the French
colonies of Tunisia and Corsica. Italy and France
were competing for the control of the western
Mediterranean Sea and aimed at superiority in
naval armaments. Mussolinis bellicose
utterances put a severe strain on Franco-Italian
relations for a time and portended a crisis. This
was, somehow, averted for the time being.
Mussolini, now, turned to Eastern Europe for
expansion. He secured for Italy the Dodecanese
islands and definitely acquired Flume in 1924.
Italys relations with Yugoslavia also came under
enormous strain as the latter promoted by
Irredentist Movements ( movements for
redeeming land from foreign occupation ),
wanted to acquire a large portion of Dalmatia
from Italy. The Italo-Yugoslavia quarrel was in
essence a struggle for the control of the Adriatic
Sea. This struggle was further intensified when
Mussolini conquered Albania in 1939.
But the most spectacular of Mussolinis
achievements abroad was the conquest of
Abyssinia ( now called Ethiopia ). He told the
Italian people, and the world, that the reason for
the conquest was to wipe off the humiliation of
Italys defeat at Adowa at the hands of the
Abyssinians ( people of Ethiopia ) in 1896. But
the real cause was that Italy needed colonies to
enhance her prestige and to find more room and
food for her growing population. Hence,
Mussolini took advantage of some border
incidents at Walwal to attack Ethiopia in 1935.
Ethiopias King Haile Selassie appealed to the
League of Nations for arbitration, which
promptly declared Italy to be the aggressor.
Mussolini, however, defied the League,
conquered Ethiopia, and proclaimed King Victor
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Emmanuel III of Italy as the Emperor of Ethiopia.
After this war, Italy drew closer to Germany while
her relations with France and Britain came under
great strain.
In 1937, Italy became a signatory to the
Anti-Comintern Pact, which was already signed
by Germany and Japan in 1936. Its ostensible
object was to check the spread of Communism
at the international level. So, in the Civil War
that broke out in Spain in 1936, while Italy and
Germany supported insurgents headed by France,
Russia supported the existing government. Thus,
the Spanish Civil War ceased to be a domestic
concern of Spain alone, but developed into a
struggle between Communism and Fascism,
fought on Spanish territory. It was a prelude to
the larger struggle that followed very soon.
Mussolini came to an understanding with Hitler
and thus arose what was called the Rome-Berlin
Axis. When the Second World War broke out,
and encouraged by the collapse of France,
Mussolini joined Germany. Both Germany and
Italy declared war on Britain and France (1940).
Mussolinis object was to take advantage
of Britains critical position to snatch away
the British colonies in North Africa and
to take Egypt and the Suez Canal. The Italians
had some initial success but were soon
hurled back by the British who took possession
of most of the African colonies of Italy such as
Eritrea, Ethiopia, etc. The Italians surrendered
in large numbers and about 1.5 lakh prisoners
were captured. The failure of Italian enterprises
led Germany to come the rescue of her
ally. A German army under Rommel appeared
in North Africa, and for a while, turned
the tide of affairs. But the situation was
saved for the British by General Montgomery
who defeated Rommels army. This British
victory is considered to be one of the most
important turning points of the Second World
War. Mussolinis African gamble had failed, and
the allied victory in North Africa proved to be
the prelude to his fall.
While Montgomerys Eighth Army was pursuing
Rommel, large British and American forces
under the American General Eisenhower,
landed in North-West Africa near Algiers. The
two Allied armies came together in Tunisia, and
compelled the entire enemy force to surrender
(1943). North Africa was thus cleared
of the enemy. The Allies next invaded and took
Sicily. They used the island of Sicily as a
launchpad to cross over to mainland
Italy and began to march upon Rome.
Mussolini fell from power and Italy
surrendered unconditionally. But the
German army in Italy offered a tough
resistance and held up the Allied army for 5
months. Rome was taken in June 1944. Before
this Mussolini was shot dead by the anti-Fascists.
Thus ended the life of this phenomenal
demagogue and the movement that he started in
Bharat Jain
( The author, Mr. Bharat Jain, is a
member of the academic team at T.I.M.E. )