Mussolini’s rise to power

by Dr Robert Pearce
University College of St Martin, Lancaster
The nature of the topic
The rise of Fascism in Italy is a popular topic. It can be studied on its own, though students taking outline papers, and wishing to hedge their bets, are advised to pair it with Mussolini’s achievements once he was in power. As with all ‘rise of …’ questions, you have to decide when the rise began and when it was complete. You also need to consider a wide variety of factors, not only political but also social and economic, to explain it.
The vital first steps
It is essential to acquire a sound factual knowledge before attempting to answer particular essay questions. That means compiling a sound set of notes on Italian history. But when do you begin? Clearly, the years after 1918 are vital, but no self-respecting student should ignore the war years or indeed the pre-war period. The farther back you go, the more selective your notes should be – but don’t neglect the earlier years, as brief allusions to them may well impress the examiners. Try reading an account of Italy from unification to 1914 in a general European textbook, and then turn to the more specialised volumes for the period after 1914. Make thorough notes on the 1920s, and be sure to go beyond 1922 in your quest for Mussolini’s achievement of real power.
Fundamental issues
a. What were the weaknesses of the liberal Italian governments before 1914? Examine the political system itself and the failures of the politicians. Space will be at a premium, so choose your examples with care (and try not to bore the examiners by presenting familiar facts – for example, Adowa, 1896 – in unimaginative fashion). Were there any countervailing successes?
b. How did the war affect Italy? You need to examine military affairs (and not just the defeat at Caporetto) and the home front. What were the Italian casualty figures? How did Italy fare in the Versailles settlement?
c. How great was the communist threat after the war? Should 1919 and 1920 be called the Bienno rosso, the ‘two red years’? How important were the strikes of this period and how seriously did they affect industrial production?
d. How strong was the liberal regime? What were the effects of the extension of the franchise and of the introduction of a system of proportional representation?
e. Wherein lay the strength of Mussolini and the Fascist movement? To grapple with this important issue you need to evaluate the talents of Mussolini himself and the motivations of his followers. How important were the Ras, the local party bosses?
f. What events led to i) Mussolini becoming Prime Minister in October 1922 and ii) to the establishment of a dictatorship by 1925? Pay particular attention to the ‘March on Rome’ and the Matteoti affair.
High-grade issues
Once you’ve grasped the basic issues, you can ask the sort of awkward questions which test out, and add to, historical knowledge. These include the following:
a. What were the basic components of Mussolini’s doctrine of ‘Fascism’? Was this a real political philosophy or merely ideological opportunism? Did the Fascists have forerunners in the pre-war ANI (Associazione Naziolalista Italiana)?
b. To what extent did the liberal regime collapse, and to what extent was it overthrown?
c. Did Mussolini plan his rise to power or was he merely an opportunist, and one taken farther than he intended by events and by pressure from the Ras?
d. Which other individuals were important, besides Mussolini? You need a good knowledge not only of Mussolini but of D’Annunzio, Giolitti, Balbo and Victor Emmanuel III.
e. Was Mussolini born great (in the sense that he had superb natural abilities that destined him to succeed), did he achieve greatness (that is, did he rise because of the decisions he made and because of his hard work), or was greatness thrust upon him (in other words, because of the actions of others or luck)? Or was it a combination of these factors – and, if so, what was the precise combination? If you can answer this difficult question to your own satisfaction, and defend your ideas competently, rest assured that you’ll be able to tackle any question the examiners set.

Reading suggestions
The best books for A Level are Philip Morgan, Italy 1915-1940 (Sempringham Studies, 1998); John Hite and Chris Hinton, Fascist Italy (Murray, 1998); and Mark Robson, Italy: Liberalism and Fascism, 1870-1945 (2nd edition, Hodder & Stoughton, 2000). It is also worth dipping into more specialised books, for instance Denis Mack Smith’s superbly written Mussolini (Granada, 1983) or Stanley G. Payne’s unsurpassed A History of Fascism (UCL, 1995).

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