To what extent was Mussolini’s rise to power due to his own skill and opportunism OR to the blunders made by his opponents?
On the 23 March 1919 after a series of Communist demonstrations, the almost forgotten Mussolini decided to attempt to revive his Fasci movement. A meeting was held in a hall in a Milan and was attended by some fifty malcontents. From this seemingly small and insignificant event the Fascio di Combattimento’ (Combat Group) was born. Initially, it would seem that the Fasci were destined for failure with none of their candidates (including Mussolini) winning a single seat in the 1919 elections. How was it that a party with no clear programme, save a belief in action of some sort, became a ruling dictatorship little more than ten years later?
By the end of 1919, Mussolini possessed hardly more than 2% of the vote in Milan, less than 5000 votes against 170,000 for the Socialists. Was this a complete disaster? At the time it seemed so; the Socialists were so confident of their success that they staged a mock funeral in Milan stopping outside Mussolini’s house to invite him to attend the burial of his party. Incredibly, by 1921 the membership of this previously tiny group was to rival the size of the Socialists. How was this achieved?
It was certainly by no easy means; Mussolini’s skill and luck played a vital role, but he was also helped by the seemingly blind incompetence of his opponents. Mussolini’s path towards the top of Italian Government was hindered by many forms of opposition. However, most of his opposition came from the Government and the rival Socialist (PSI) party. Soon after the summer of 1920 the Fascists and their opposition inevitably clashed. The fact that Giolitti’s government was faced with a million workers sitting in in factories showed that Italy was a far from stable country in 1920. Did an opportunity present itself for Mussolini to gain ground over the Socialist opposition? If it did, Mussolini certainly did not take it. He was still recovering from his party’s humiliating election defeat.
Eventually the union leaders, evidently surprised by this sudden, spontaneous revolutionary outburst persuaded the workers to give in in return for higher wages. Although initially it would seem that the workers had won, the strikes had sown the seeds of fear amongst Italy’s Socialist opposition. The overall effect of this was that many of the opponents of Socialism joined Mussolini’s Fascist party. The Socialist party by causing the strike had unwittingly played into Mussolini’s hands; although this was due to their own incompetence and not the skill of Mussolini. The fact that Mussolini’s party benefitted greatly by offering action showed that political gains could be made from the weakness of the government and from the unrest of the country. It was at this point in 1921 that Giolitti began searching for allies against the Socialists. The Vatican had turned against him; This was mainly due to the government’s proposal to tax the bonds which were a main form of Church property at the time. As a result Gioliti decided to use Fascist support against the Socialists. Why did Gioliti decide to use the Fascist’s support to combat the Socialists, when there were many other safer ways of doing so?
Principally, he believed that he could easily dominate Mussolini and once in power again he would discard the tougher elements’ among the Fascists. He made a grave mistake in believing this. In the winter of 1920-21, Mussolini organized his men into squadre d’azione’ (squads of action) headed by local leaders ( Ras’) like Balbo in Ferrara and Grandi in Bologna. Primarily, Mussolini’s clever planning was demonstrated by his success: His initial campaign of violence against the Socialists led to 200 dead and 800 wounded in the period between December 1920 and May 1921. The government, in accordance with its alliance with the Fascists, did little to prevent the violence, and instead saw it as a cheap way of curbing the rise of socialism. Even when in the spring of 1921 the clashes had reached riot proportions, the government nonetheless decided that they had succeeded in their aim of disrupting the progress of socialism. Later at the Socialist party congress in January 1921 the PSI split into a revolutionary and a reformist wing. This move was welcomed, if not actually forced by the Fascists.
With Socialist support diminishing rapidly, the Fascists gained a vital foothold in Parliament. Primarily, this was achieved through the election of 15 May 1921. Because his party offered action, Mussolini gained from the weakness of the government and from the unrest in the country. During the election the government used Fascist support to unseat Socialist and Catholic deputies; this was mainly done by beating up opponents. Mussolini met little opposition to his actions; the police and prefects remained neutral or actively aided the Fascists with transport and arms. The Fascists performed particularly well in the elections as the figures below show:
Extreme Nationalists 10
Fascists 35 Government bloc (184)
National Bloc (Giolitti) 139
Radicals (Liberal Democrats) 68 Potential centrist
Popolari’ 107 opposition (175)
Socialists 123 Left opposition (176)
Communists 15 Total seats (535)
National minorities 9
The Fascists were invited by Prime Minister Giolitti to form a part of his right-wing electoral alliance, thereby promising them, or the first time, some influence in the government as well as in the streets. Gioliti had given the Fascists a chance to become an accepted political force.
Primarily, Prime Minister Giolitti must be held responsible as one of the main reasons for Mussolini gaining another chance to fight for power. As Mussolini’s Fascist Party grew, so seemingly did the incompetence of Giolitti. He became increasingly dependent upon the Fascists to take direct and often brutal action against the unions and peasant leagues. His unorthodox methods were careless, unparliamentary and were to be extremely self-destructive. It seemed that Giolitti and his government had lost the will to govern the country and its people.
From May to July 1921 Giolitti was to govern on the basis of this coalition. However, within a year there were to be thirteen different groups in Parliament. Since the parliament fell into three approximately equal groupings, the Fascist’s thirty-five seats were crucial to the stability of the government. If the Fascists defected to the opposition, government would have been very difficult. The knowledge that the Fascists had become a powerful force in government took Mussolini by surprise. His immediate reaction to this situation was to become a respectable participant in government. In doing this, he signed a peace treaty’, and a pact of pacification’ with the Socialists to end their mutual violence.
However, his lieutenants in the provinces disliked and disagreed with his curb on their power. In actual fact Mussolini resigned as leader for a brief period of time;
however in November he accepted their demands for continued hostility and tore up the pact. The economic conditions of the 1920’s did much to encourage support for extremist parties; both the Fascists and the Socialists benefitted greatly. This was mainly due to Italy’s war debts and problems of reconstruction, as well as the devaluation of the lire. The working-class voter’s wage remained at pre-war levels while prices increased everywhere. This resulted in increasing support for the left-wing parties who, the working-class voters hoped, would press for wage claims.
In some cases, they took action on their own behalf by striking or occupying factories. It was to be Mussolini’s skill that was to gain him support from these actions. The strikes had raised the spectre of revolution, and this in turn, increased the attraction of the Fascists to the middle-class population and those who feared socialism. It was Mussolini’s policies of firm action to prevent revolution that many Italians saw as the only alternative to Bolshevism. The period from December 1921 to November 1922 was to see the overall demise of the Socialist and government opposition to Mussolini.
During this period, Fascist thuggery became ever more efficient, claiming 3000 lives of the Socialist supporters, with only 300 Fascist fatalities. Finally, on 26 June 1921 Giolitti’s incompetence caught up with him; he was forced to resign due to Fascist opposition in Parliament. A combination of Mussolini’s opportunism and skill, and Giolitti’s inadequacy to govern Italy had resulted in Gioletti’s resignation. His successor was to be Ivanoe Bonomi, who was a reformist Socialist, and formed a government with Radical and Popolari’ support. His choice of parties was rather dangerous to his political position as one was clerical and the other anti-clerical. He did not last long, and within four weeks the King had asked Luigi Facta to head the new Italian government. A famous historian, Denis Mack Smith, has described him as follows … a timid, ignorant provincial lawyer who had risen in politics by seniority alone. His appointment was at first taken almost as a joke…’. Deserted by the Popolari’ in the summer of 1922, he lost his Prime-ministerial position; however, he soon became Prime Minister again on 1 August when no other could be found. Fortunately for Mussolini, Facta did not provide any form of powerful opposition towards him or his party’s actions. The very day that Facta formed his new ministry in government, the unions began a general strike. The strike was called in an effort to force the government to halt the Fascist violence; in particular it was a protest against Balbo’s actions in Romagna. Unfortunately for the Socialists, they played into Mussolini’s hands, for yet again the problem of a socialist revolution was raised. Mussolini cleverly showed the public that he was the man to restore order while in the background he made use of his disorderly supporters. The strike collapsed after one day, and Mussolini and his Fascists gained increasing support. The once strong socialist opposition had disintegrated into a weak, disorganized group of individuals; Mussolini had succeeded in removing an important part of the opposition. There were still a number of potential obstacles to Mussolini. The most obvious were the King and the army (who were controlled by the government). By October 1922 the government had virtually broken down, and much of Italy was in political disarray. Facta suggested that the entire cabinet should resign, but when his idea was turned down, he started to plan a coalition with the Fascists. It is interesting to note that the troops were still loyal to the King; there can be little doubt that a firm government could have crushed any armed attempt against the regime. Mussolini was well ware of this, and concentrated his efforts on political manoeuvre. He demonstrated his perceptiveness of the political situation when he realised that the Facta government was helpless and thinking in terms of a coalition. Taking advantage of the situation, Mussolini met with the leaders of the various Fascist groups. Action was planned for 28 October on lines that had been worked out earlier. Three concentration points were selected which the groups were to reach by any means of transport and so avoid the chance of an early clash with the army. Such a clash was to be avoided at all costs and army units were to be treated with courtesy and friendliness. Again this was clever decision-making by Mussolini, who realised the potential threat presented by the army. After a series of parades and speech-making to gather support, Mussolini presented his demands to the government. In essence they were simple; there was to be a new cabinet with at least six Fascist ministers in important posts. On the 25 October Mussolini left for Milan while the Party Congress continued to distract the government’s attention. In reply to Mussolini’s demands, the Facta cabinet responded surprisingly slowly; they were convinced that they had plenty of time in hand. Eventually, they decided that the answer would be in the form of a new coalition which would include a number of Fascists. However, confusion and disorganisation reigned as members of the cabinet continued to scheme. With this in mind, Facta decided to resign, though his cabinet still ran the government until a new leader could be chosen. It is difficult to find sound reasoning behind Facta’s resignation; his resignation can be described as little more than a blunder. It did nothing but highlight the weakness of the cabinet and the instability of the government. Initially, it seemed to succeed; in view of his resignation, the Fascist leaders hesitated as to whether or not their plans should go ahead for 28 October. However,unfortunately for the government, the Fascist party machine could not be halted and local units began to requisition trains and borrow arms from friendly military units. Eventually, Facta was persuaded to return and to declare a state of siege in Rome. Facta, now becoming increasingly worried about the fascist threat, was reluctant to take such action. Instead, he went to the King to ask for a proclamation declaring a state of emergency. This would have enabled the army to have been called out against the Fascist columns. However, the King rightly feared civil war, and doubted Facta’s ability to control the situation. He was approached twice, but both times he refused to sign a proclamation. Facta’s reputation had been damaged so much, that even the King had little trust left for him. Mussolini having realised that there would be an armed clash, increased his demands. Again, this turned out to be a well considered and successful plan.
On 29 October Rachele Mussolini received a telephone message from Rome, requesting the presence of Mussolini at the palace. At noon, Mussolini received a telegram; Mussolini was to form a government. It was not long before Mussolini had formed a moderate cabinet containing only four Fascist ministers. He was secure in the knowledge that he had the nations support for a government which was prepared to act. In addition, he knew that he had virtually no opposition, and had the support of the King, the army, and the industrialists as well as the loyalty of his Fascist followers. In conclusion, then, to what extent can we attribute Mussolini’s seizure of power to his own skill or the incompetence of his opponents? In view of his own skill, Mussolini’s career has been presented as one of blunder and bluff’. However, the 1920’s was a period in which bluff’ was more suited to success. It is also true to say that undoubtedly Mussolini helped the Fascist party into power through his own skill. Although initially, the Fascist party had widespread but unorganised support, Mussolini brought a certain national structure and identity to the party. His first contribution was the organisation of the party, making it a movement as well as a party, and therefore making it a viable choice in an election. Secondly, Mussolini brought home the importance of opportunism and action as opposed to inactivity and fixed ideologies.
As S. Lee argues, Mussolini was strongly inclined to intuitive behaviour and projected himself as a flexible pragmatist. This allowed him to make full use of the chaotic conditions in Italy, and considerably increased the Fascist party’s fortunes. However, we must also consider that to a certain extent, the opposition’s continued failures and misjudgments almost pushed Mussolini into power. We must also take account of the fact that Mussolini certainly had his fair share of luck – a prime example is the King’s refusal to declare a state of emergency, which would have allowed the army to attack the Fascists. However, it was his ability to act out the role of the Italian people’s dream leader that gave him the most success. He played upon the post-war crisis, and made it appear that Fascism was the only way in which socialism would be smashed, and Italy’s society and status would be rebuilt. To the Italian people, Mussolini was the great leader they had been desperately searching for – the leader who was going to make Italy a great power, and a respected
force in the world.