Italy under Benito Mussolini

Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was a journalist turned politician. He was the leader of the National Fascist Party and was the Prime Minister from 1922 to 1943.  He was elected to the post constitutionally and ruled so for three years. After that he dropped the pretence of democracy and took up the administration in his dictatorial way. For this he is known as the founder of Italian Fascism. He grew in stature supporting the communist ideas. But soon after getting his post of the prime minister, he established his authority as a dictator through legal and other extraordinary ways also. He was deposed by King Victor Emmanuel III in 1943. But he was the leader of Italian Social Republic till his death in 1945.

Historical Significance

The First World War had ended giving a crushing defeat to Germany and Italy. Communist ideologies of Stalin were gaining popularity and it was soon spreading to most of the European countries. Mussolini, as a youngster was influenced by the communist philosophy. But there was a military fascist streak in him which eventually came. He wanted to show his prowess through military campaigns. He wanted to create and Roman Empire and rule like Caesar.  His military campaigns were directed towards Libya (1922 – 1932), Somalia (1923-1927), Ethiopia (1935-1939), and Albania (April 1939). He helped the Nationalist win the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939. All this made a power to reckon with.

After the First World War, Britain and France looked upon Italy favourably and they were trying to pitch Italy against Germany. Second World War started when Germany invaded Poland on September 1939. In spite of Italy being looked upon favourably by the Allies, Italy joined Germany during the Second World War. Mussolini knew that Italy could not bring big positive results as they did not have the capacity and resources to stand against the British Empire. He believed that after the war and truce he would get territorial concessions from France and he could conduct offensives on North Africa. He was sure of this outcome because the presence of the Italian forces outnumbered the British and Commonwealth forces. None of these plans worked and the war continued. In 1941 Italian forces took part in the war against United States. Mussolini’s taking sides with Germany was mostly because of the sheer power Hitler exerted over him. Mussolini also realized that Hitler was really powerful and could win wars. Moreover Hitler had the dictatorial traits in him which was admired by Mussolini. It can be noted that till Mussolini was captured he had German support.

Economic Reforms

Mussolini formulated policies that emphasized on production and wanted to create a modern and self-sufficient Italy. The unemployment levels were high and there were many economic setbacks. There were many reforms that began in 1921 whereby Mussolini tried to set right the economy. The Labour Charter was passed in 1927 which promised to bring employers, workers and the government into one group. The charter reorganized Italy’s industry into 22 massive corporations. All metal industries came under one corporation. Like this every area was covered and there were 22 such corporations. The workers and employers of ach of corporation were given a representation in the government. Health and accident insurance were provided by the corporation they were serving. But strikes were not allowed. They could make their appeals for changes but it was an elaborate process.

Battle of Wheat was done to increase the production of wheat and create a self-sufficient country. 5000 new farms were developed and new 5 agricultural towns were established on reclaimed land by draining the Pontine Marshes. Mussolini hoped there would thousands of agricultural settlements in the country.

Battle for Land was a land reclamation project which was not fully successful. He tried to fight recession by introducing “Gold for the Fatherland” scheme. The public was asked to donate their jewellery to the government. In return they got steel wrist bands. The donated jewellery was melted and made into gold bars and given to the national banks. Three-quarters of the business in Italy was controlled by the state. During the end of 1935 more decrees were issued like forcing business, banks and even private citizens to surrender the stock and bond holding issued by foreign countries to the Bank of Italy. Price controls were imposed in 1936. The trade barriers with other countries increased with the exception of Germany. War of Lira was aimed at improving the prestige of Italy nationally and internationally. Mussolini declared that the value of Lira was more than the actual market value.

Problems of the Economic Initiatives

  • The Labour Charter was good in spirit but was not implemented properly. Workers were discriminated by the government and the employers and they could veto the appeals.
  • Even though the Labour charter was in force throughout the period Mussolini was in power, it met with very little success.
  • The Battle of Wheat initiative diverted all the resources away from other crops and was concentrated on wheat alone.
  • Therefore there was a drop in other crops.
  • The production of wheat doubled and imports decreased 75% but all the other crops decreased
  • Meat, food stuffs and vegetables had to be imported. The prices increased and this in turn affected the economy.
  • Wheat was being grown in soil unsuitable for wheat. So even the production increased, the production cost also increased.
  • The price of wheat rose, the consumption reduced and high tariffs were imposed.
  • The price of the imported wheat was cheaper than the wheat produced in Italy.
  • The farmers were pushed into big debts.
  • The Battle for land was abandoned in 1940 as it was a big failure.
  • Boosting the value of Lira was accepted as bold move by the people but it created a lot of problems.
  • Foreign trade nose-dived and Italian products were very costly in the foreign market, much more than its worth.
  • Only big companies survived. Eating into the livelihood of smaller companies.
  • Battle of Lira was a complete failure.

 

Political Initiatives

Fascism comes from the word fasces or fascio; the former meaning a sign of authority and the latter meaning a group or a band. Mussolini’s political initiatives fit both the words, it was an authoritative band of people and so fascist. However it was noted that he did not start his political career as a fascist. He came to power through constitutional process and even governed democratically. But somewhere he began to feel that the state was important and that democracy would make the nation weak. He also believed that a strong person should head the state. Mussolini believed that corporatism was the “third way” which was moderation of the excesses of both capitalism and socialism

In the first year in power, he strengthened his power in the government. He put his loyalists in key positions. He formed the Voluntary Fascist Militia for National Security and encouraged the Grand Council of Fascism, which was the chief authority of the Fascist Party, to become an organ of the state. In July 1923 a new electoral law was passed where any party having 25% of votes in general election can receive two-thirds of the seat in the Chamber of Deputies. And he arranged for general elections in April 1942 and his power got 63% of votes. In 1926 a law was passed to outlaw all political opposition. To strengthen his position the workers’ unions were dissolved. Newspapers which opposed him were closed. Universal suffrage was abolished in 1928.

In 1929 the pro-Fascist parliament gave full power to Mussolini and even the king had to accept him as the Prime Minister and as one who was in complete control of the state. All the ministers were appointed by and had to report to Mussolini alone. In 1938 the parliament was abolished and an Assembly of Corporations was set up. From 1929 to 1939 Mussolini had built a totalitarian state. Mussolini was now the uncrowned king of Italy

The Dark Side of Political Initiatives

  • It was widely believed that 63% of votes were procured through muscle power.
  • Mussolini’s political opponents or those who spoke against him and his party were killed.
  • The 1926 law saw atrocities committed to his opponents. Some were arrested, some killed and some exiled.
  • What started off as a democratic political scenario slowly but surely transformed into a dictatorial state.
  • No one dared to oppose Mussolini.

Social Reforms

The failure of economic policies brought discontent in the people and this led to social unrest. But social unrest under Mussolini’s rule was not possible. The reforms that he brought about were the ones he decided was good for the people.

  • The workers’ unions were replaced by Corporations which were controlled by National Council of Corporations.
  • Secret police were given a lot of powers. They were so powerful that they could suppress the bandit culture which was prevalent in the south.
  • Fascist ideas were taught in schools. They were taught that “Mussolini is always right”.
  • Many millions of children were taken into the youth wing of the party.
  • In 1931, the teachers and professors were forced to swear their loyalty to Fascism and to teach its principles.
  • Magazines and newspapers were censored by the government.

With the social reforms the employers became more powerful and workers were subdued and could not express their views. His education policy was successful except that he forced fascist view on the children through History. But otherwise there was a high literary rate and the standard of learning was also fairly high.

Cultural Policies

Mussolini idea of culture was to bring back the glory of the country as it was during the time Caesar ruled Rome. He wanted to make Italy the best country in the world. His thoughts were noble but the ways he took to implement it was not very right. Also in that process he lost his direction and became a dictator. To propagate his views he started Futurism, a cultural movement which enrolled children into his Fascist ideas. He argued that it was “a school for physical courage and patriotism”. According to Mussolini: “Fascist education is moral, physical, social, and military: it aims to create a complete and harmoniously developed human, a fascist one according to our views”.

Another important aspect of the Fascist Cultural policy was Roman Catholicism. In 1929 an agreement was signed with the Vatican which ended the struggle between the Papacy and the Italian State. In the late 19th century Vatican lost its control over the state. The Italian State was finally recognised by the Roman Catholic Church because of the Lateran Treaties. At the same time the independence of the Vatican City was also recognized by the Italian State. The 1929 treaty protected the dignity and honour of the Pope and Mussolini prosecution of offenders. Mussolini was re-baptized and with this he managed to get a lot of support from the Catholics. The pope, Pope Pius XI declared that Mussolini was “the Man of the Province.”

Mussolini, the Dictator

Mussolini believed that he was the one to deliver Italy from clutches of lethargy and evil and that he would revive its long lost glory. His intent to make Italy a world power was noble but to believe that only he could do it was what went wrong. In this process there were a few good initiatives but the majority of the initiatives were born out of his dictatorial ideas. On July 24th after the commencement of the Allied invasion of Italy, the Grand Council of Fascism, which had supported him, voted against him. He was arrested by the king on 12th September the same year. However he was rescued from the prison by German Special Forces. By April 1945, Mussolini realised that they were losing the Second World War and wanted to escape to the north but was captured. He was later executed near Lake Como by Italian Communists. His body was hung upside down at a service station in Milan for public viewing. With that came the end of a dictatorial era in Italy.

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