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It is hard to visualize, walking around Modena or  Cremona or Verona, Italy as I have recently, that gangs of black-shirted men ruled the streets with savage attacks for many years, from as early as 1919 to Benito Mussolini’s installation as dictator in 1925.  These were not simply gang fights between rival factions but deliberate, planned strikes against “enemies of the nation,” directed in the beginning by a local ras, more and more over the months with the authority, if not the outright direction, of the big ras, Mussolini. After his ascension to power, the same black-shirted squadri were converted into voluntary militia units, both for keeping order at home and in Italy’s north African colonies.

Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, by R.J.B. Bosworth gives a sobering account of popular participation in the fascism of Italy, 1915-1945.  The work was prompted by a reviewer’s comment about his earlier, and well thought of, 2002 biography, Mussolini.  ‘As good as the biography is,’ the writer said, ‘to understand why so many Italians accepted the Italian dictator … one would have to dig into the life of the small towns and cities and the thousands of local institutions and association of provincial Italy.’ And so Bosworth did just that. By means of newspapers, journals, letters, documents of church, state and small regional entities he has tried to “…recount both the story of Fascist dictatorship and that of ‘everyday Mussolinism.'”

There is both good news and bad news in what he found.  The bad is, of course, that millions of Italians participated in the fascist project in one form or another, following with some alacrity the slogan “believe, obey,fight.”  The good news is that the forms of participation made a difference, shaping by region, religion, family and clan the response to and participation in party-directed ideology, softening the absolutism, making less possible the extreme visions of the most virulent leaders, or from joining the Nazis in the much more catastrophic expression of National Socialism.

“Believe, Obey, Fight”

“Time and again, Italians proved able to give lip-service to totalitarianism while retaining a sense of self. I shall talk of an everyday constituted by Catholicism, the family, gender understandings, the special flavour of different regions, towns and villages and by those who found an identity or identities outside the nation. Comprehending the fluctuating story of ‘lite’ Fascist totalitarianism, sceptical Fascist fundamentalism, a Fascist liturgy that failed to make itself catholic and universal, Fascist wars that were frequently more toughly fought with words than with weapons, can act as a counter to the pervasive power of Hitler’s ghost. Reviewing the uneven experience of a people pent-up for two decades under the sway of a dictatorship of this Fascist sort may help us to the happy realization that, even in the worst of times, human fallibility, human hope and human struggle somehow obscure, delay and derail those determined to apply a simple and single answer, a seamless solution, to any question that matters.”

Set forth in 18 chapters, there is more in this 692 page book than most Italy-traveling tourists may want take on.  For those who travel there often, or have a special place in their heart for the country and its people, it is an essential book to understand the shadows in a sunny land.  Even for those who have no affinity for Italy, what it contains should not be left to  gather dust in libraries.  The recent years of darkening change, following on anxiety and distress — economic and psychological — across wide regions of Europe and in the United States, gives its meticulous accounting of the rise of Fascism in post war Italy, the force of bright light on gathering shadows.


Partially sequential, with strong thematic chapters as well,  Bosworth begins in pre-WW I Italy to show how grinding poverty, unequal development, labor strife, the use of armed gangs to maintain industrial and agricultural order, nationalist and religious war in Africa grew hand in hand with virulent racism to become, in the crucible of WWI, the first “fascism.” After full development in the middle chapters of what his research shows, he closes by noting how remnants and regrowths of those years and its ideas are part of Berlusconi’s governments of the 1990s, unremarked on by journalists, biographers and historians.

Through a judicious use of statistics on industrialization, literacy, emigration,  the condition of women (“female life expectancy did not match that of males until the 1920s,”) we are situated in the early decades of the century. Major events, such as the great Messina earthquake of 1908, with 100,000 dead give him  a window through which to show the poverty, the lack of organization and incipient dissolution of the Liberal government which was to collapse after the war.  Names such as Benedetto Croce and Ignazio Silone, who grew to prominence in the years to come are introduced.

Though the national unification and the Risorgimento had bound Italy into a nation by 1864, it was only nominal.  The centuries old regions and major cities were still the locus of economies, culture, even language – with many dialects not easily inter-understood.  The north then, as now, was the economic powerhouse of the state. Turin, and Milan were centers of production.  The Piedmonte region, as well as being the birthplace of Fiat, Alfa-Romeo, Olivetti and other well-known firms, was also the source of much of the officer corps.  Even so,  even prosperous north had its own “south” in many regions,  families outside the changing economy, under-educated, with no savings, living on full-family back-breaking labor.  As Agnelli and Fiat grew fabulously wealthy, trade unions grew with them, wresting benefits enough to begin drawing in folks from the country, and sending socialists to government posts. At the same time the Church encouraged Catholic “white” unions to counter the influence of the “reds.”

Naturally, being a history of Italy, Rome is central to the picture, but not because of its industrial might or economic importance.  Then as now, Rome depended for much of its income on tourists. The church was in continual battle with modernism and the Republicans of the Risorgimento. Though Mussolini, reversing his youthful anti-clericalism to mollify, and indeed win-over, many church fathers, tensions remained and contribute to Bosworth’s story.   In Venice, the other cultural capital, such proto-Fascists as Gabriele D’Annunzio and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti found followers and influence, celebrating the poetry of speed, industry and violence.


The roots and early growth of Fascism took hold in the years prior to WW I.  Much of western Europe was in the thrall of social Darwinism, believing that superior people thrived best, and those who thrived were superior.  In Italy, Risorgimento Liberal governments answered perceived weakness and contempt from other states with nationalist inspired wars and racism –different expressions of the same impulse:  Eritrea (1880s to 1947), Somalia (1895-96 war to 1943 as colony),  Libya (1911-12 war, 1914-15 revolt, to 1947 as a colony ), war against the Ottomans (1911-1912).  Racial contempt was  not just towards Arab or Black Africans but the Slavs of Croatia and Slovenia.   One officer told his peers that ‘Slavs’ constituted a ‘barbarous’ and menacing ‘flood’, people who were a prey to ‘orgies’ or to being utterly supine, primordially given to mysticism and murder.”  Mussolini, in a speech in Pula, 20 September 1920, said “I would say we can easily sacrifice 500,000 barbaric Slavs for 50,000 Italians …”

When world war broke out in August of 1914, a chance to take a place among the strong was too much for most to resist.  As early as October of 1914  Mussolini, until then a rising star among anti-war socialists, reversed himself and argued vehemently for intervention.  The Socialist Party split into warring factions, Mussolini labeling his former comrades  “canaille, cannibals, hysterics.”  By May of 1915 “many of the ‘best people” flocked onto the streets, “a national insurrection against traitors to the patria,” shouting for national war.  Spearheaded by fasci d’azione rivoluzionaria, one of which included Mussolini, the crowds of the so-called ‘Radiant May,’ swarmed Rome and pressured the Deputies into voting for war against Austria-Hungary on May 23, 1915.

Entry into the war propelled Italy into its Fascist future in several ways.  The industrial capacity of the north leapt ahead, providing armaments and munitions. Rising class consciousness, the rise of unions and politically conscious workers  made the industrialists see the wisdom of fascist calls for class harmony and the over-riding necessity of thinking of  the national good.  The press, politicians, local and national took up the cry. The integration of army units from many regions and with many dialects into a national army became a top priority, which if not always entirely successful helped bond post-war demobilized and restive, out-of-work troops into squadrist fellowship.

If the years before and even the first few years of WWI, were the firing of the forge in which fascism took shape, the year between the humiliating defeat of the Italian Army at Caporetto, October, 1917, and the stunning victory at Vittorio Veneto, Oct 24-Nov 11, 1918,  to seal the end of the war,  was the first smashing of the hammer on the anvil.

Italian troops, gassed at the Battle of Caporetto

After several years of static war in the Isonzo river valley, the Austrian-Germans, on Oct 24, 1917,  began their new assault by smothering the Italian trenches in clouds of chlorine-arsenic agent and diphosgene.  They followed this by prolonged shelling from 2,200 guns; the Italian Second Army was routed. The 40,000 dead or wounded, 280,000 POWs, 350,000 deserters or stragglers, a huge volume of arms and equipment and a slice 150 kilometers long of prime land in the Veneto provided Italy with its own “stab in the back” story which Germany also used to such effect.  The only reason for the defeat was ‘the ineptitude of the governing elites, corrupt officer corps, lack of modern weaponry to the otherwise fearless troops.’  A feeling of betrayal, humiliation and resentment were the principal ingredients of the vengeance borne fascism that developed.

The story grew in motivating power when, on the anniversary of the Battle of Caporetto, one year later, the reconstituted Italian army with significant help from British and French units, stopped another Austro-Hungarian advance, and turned it into a route.  Czechoslovakia and the South Slavs declared independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, soldiers began deserting His Majesty’s army in droves and the  Empire came to an end.  Italy took a strong measure of pride in the victory which proved, of course, its own vitality.  Recovery from humiliation and a desire to reclaim besmirched manhood provided the emotional power of the early years of fascist growth.  As one writer says “Caporetto was useful to Italy.  I would even say it was necessary for us.  The calamity stirred a magnificent reaction…”

“…now was the time for new men, a new government, a new military command … the new Italy must throb with ‘youth’ and the ‘modern.’   Another fascist-to-be called for Italians to dedicate themselves to ‘killing, killing, killing… men, fathers, husbands, brothers, lovers, sons [must] die to achieve a ‘holy massacre of the barbarian, a butchering of the aggressor, a shambles of the race of prey.’

National feeling began heating even more.  Opposition became ‘treasonous,’ anti-war Socialists were regular prey for the Black Shirts.  The Church, always mindful of its own perfect “universalism,’ began to find accommodation with militaristic nationalism. Whereas Risorgimento Liberal governments had banned chaplains from the armed forces during the pre-war, soon after joining the Entente in June of 1915, chaplains were part of every fighting unit.  A Vatican nominated “Bishop to the Front,” was created at a rank equal to that of a Major-General.

The year of 1919 was the critical year: the turn around after the shame of Caporetto to the pride of Vittorio Veneto, the rising nationalism raised expectations of full recognition of Italy’s might, her right to Croatia, Albania and the Dodecanese Islands grabbed from Turkey in 1911. She was treated instead as the poor sibling at the post war conference table drawing up the Treaty of Versailles, the same treaty that provided the Nazis with their foundation of resentment.  Resentment grew in both countries.  All of Europe, but especially Italy, was having trouble moving from war back to peace: the lira tumbled in value, credit was hard to find, the GDP fell by 25% in three years. Days lost to agricultural strikes spiraled from 3,437,000 in 1919 to 14, 171,000 in 1920, falling off sharply in 1921 as Fascism advanced. In August of 1920  the “occupation of the factories” involved over 500,000 industrial workers.  Tens of thousands demobilized soldiers were unemployed.  Multiple currents of political thought swirled, including calls for a new politics and new men.

The use of the word fasci grew during the course of the war, initially meaning “group,” ‘cell,” “club,” or any small organization. In 1919 the first fasci futuristi were formed by poets and bohemian artists in cultural centers such as Florence, Milan and Venice.  Soon, fasci di combattimento were recruiting elite Arditi troops by adopting their black uniform shirts as their own.   The well known Futurist poet, Marinetti and some of his friends launched an armed assault on the offices of the socialist paper Avanti! The attack came to be inscribed in Fascist history as the birth of ‘squadrism,’ though it had a long back-story.  The use of armed gangs by landowners  to “deal with any sigh of mutiny” among their workers had long been an accepted cost of doing business.

As the dictatorship took hold, the initial casual use of fasci became clarified; now, the etymologists said,  it came from the Roman Latin of fasces, “a bundle of sticks bound with rope and armed with an ax.” It also came with an easily identifiable symbol, soon seen everywhere.

Fasces over Partito Nazionale Fascista       badge

In the hands of Fascist propagandists, the word Fascism became a vehicle of romanità; it expressed the boasted classical Roman inheritance of the regime. There was a linked modern meaning. The fasces pledged national unity above all; each of the sticks represented a sector of society, organically bound into the corporate system. No class, gender, regional or other form of division could weaken a Fascist state, locked together as it was, a proletarian nation, needing to end subjugation by the plutocratic, established, great powers, in a Darwinian struggle of the national fittest; one Italian people, one Fascist state, one Duce at the head.

Before Italy declared war on the U.S on December 11, 1941 (four days after Pearl Harbor) it followed its belligerent rhetoric into belligerent war in Ethiopia (1935-36 war; occupation to 1947), Albania  (April, 1939, occupation to 1943, ) and Greece (Oct 28, 1940).  At one point Mussolini ordered his military to prepare a war plan against Yugoslavia and, for good measure … an invasion of France. The Ustaše, Croatian Fascists organized by Ante Pavelić  which would become notorious in WW II, was heavily subsidized by the Italians.

Fascist words told obsessively of the coming war, its glory and duty, of male heroism and female sacrifice. The dictatorship blithely spread a ready-made vocabulary of abuse, available for rehearsal against any foreign nation with which Italy’s relationship became troubled. They painted in loud tones an image of a dictatorship that was perpetually teetering on the edge of aggressive war. They harped on an Italian ‘primacy’, that favoured Fascist word … urging that leadership was or urgently must be achieved in every field, by force if need be. The ‘cultural revolution’ and the ‘civic religion’, read literally, amounted to a gospel of assault and demanded a commitment to Fascist fundamentalism from every Italian.

In addition to the wars and economic strife, Bosworth develops in his middle chapters the growth of Fascist rule in the provinces and in Rome itself.  He gives us a range of mini-biographies of low level functionaries of fascism, some of whom fell out of favor and were sent to confino. On-going stresses and collaborations between Church and State are detailed. Catholic-Action, a Church controlled youth organization, was highly contentious, strongly supported by the Pope and strongly opposed by Fascist leaders, often involving armed attacks on the Catholics  – leaving Mussolini to mediate.   An interesting side-bar on abortion tells us that though both Fascists and Church opposed it, it stayed at a steady 20% of all conceptions. Both Fascist and Catholic inveighed against modern feminism; beauty contests were banned in 1931.  Integration of girls into Fascist Youth groups, however,  was a breath of liberation for many, now able to leave home without a male relative, and to march alongside boys of their choosing.  The United States, of course, gets a mention, as the refuge for thousands of immigrants before the war, the source of some returnees who embraced Fascist “modernization,” and the home to corporations like Standard and Sinclair oil “which set aside romance about democratic values as they advanced their causes in what they deemed a well-run dictatorship.”

Bosworth claims, and with good data, that Italy, however regressive in its pursuit of power, was never the monster that Germany became; it’s exiling of dissidents to “confino” while unpleasant and disruptive was nothing like the Nazi labor camps or the later Soviet Gulags, of hard labor, appalling conditions, starvation and death.  Very few Italians were completely taken in by the “believe, obey and fight” of the Fascist ideal.  Even if partly attracted by calls to the renewal of national greatness, most negotiated their lives through age old loyalties to village, the local ras, the church, family


Mussolini’s Italy is a work of immense labor and judicious selection.  As he intended, it gives a far wider picture of the growth and energy of fascism than that of a biography of one man.  We are convinced by his examples and argument that Italian Fascism grew from Italian soil, and was experienced differently depending on town, region, class and occupation, that the evils Italian Fascism shared with Germany, were muted to one degree or another.  It does not, however, despite its promise, give us what I had hoped for — an organizational history of how, in various localities, squads took shape, how individual mayors and other political people forged links to higher authorities, to each other and to the centuries old power structures of land owners and other high status families.  There are some telling anecdotal passages which give us a sense of a range of actors on the Fascist stage.  We hear much, for example, about Roberto Farinacci in Cremona (the home of the Stradivarius) and his power and activities high in the Fascist pantheon but not in detail about how he built his power, in the day-to-day, people-to-people way.  We don’t know, in short, how fascism was organized, what took place in the meetings, how much depended on brute power, how those not initially involved became so later, at the level where popular energy and readiness for combat gave the Mussolini the possibility to become what he became.

That’s for yet another book.

If the whole history is too much for some readers, the conclusion, especially in the circumstances of 2016-17, has much to recommend it.  Fascism in Italy grew out of native soil.  As it took shape, in the leadership structure, actions and pronouncements, people all through society lived it through their own experience, adapting to family, region, local power structures… bound together by some beliefs, holding on to other identities as well.  As the word fascist takes on increasingly portentous meaning in the western world what the book teaches us is vitally important: the growth of authoritarian call-and-response, the necessary acquiescence of millions of people which gives a regime its power, will always be local and regional.  That of Germany was somewhat like that of Italy, its predecessor, but not its twin.  Another culture or nation growing into nationalized, militarized, spritualized aggression will not, necessarily look like either of the earlier.  Just because black shirts symbolized fascist power then does not mean they will tomorrow; red power ties may do as well to signal allegiance to a charismatic belligerent.

Those who shy away from heavy history (and by the way, there is a Kindle Books edition, not so heavy as the  hardback version)  could do worse than scan the book for references to cities you might be visiting : Ferrara, Cremona, Florence, Milan , Venice among many others. Reading even select sections of the book should put to rest the idea of Italians as only the people of the buona vita.  There was plenty of killing and savagery both in the years prior to the dictatorship and in the civil war that followed. A study of how that changed so radically to the well-loved country today would be on that could help many in war-torn places today.


Marks of Fascism, as it Formed in Italy

Bosworth cites Michael Mann and Robert O Paxton, contemporary analysts of fascism, with whose analysis Bosworth strongly agrees:

“… fascism was and is ‘a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”  Paxton

These are some of the signs of fascist tendencies as I read Bosworth’s book:
  • Rising nationalism with concurrent racism; calls to national unity, use of “patriotism” to  browbeat into similar stances;
  • Belief of becoming great again, as once before in history;
  • Feeling of grievance, and betrayal – both internal and external;
  • Defining the Us by “family” and Them as not;
  • Economic disruption and hardship, leading to social disturbance, interruption of things as they are –bringing demand for counter measures, authority and counter-violence;
  • The thrill of short, direct language, celebration of physical strength and punitive power; language of aggression;
  • The rise of semi-official militarized civilians;
  • Increase of military parades and displays, along with parades and assemblies by young Fascist Scouts;
  • Increased pressure to Buy National /Made in Italy, public shaming if not;
  • Linking of play and war – new line of war games for children; children’s stories, poems and songs celebrating bravery, fighting, pride;
  • Ruthless pragmatism in leader, ability to obfuscate and adapt;
  • Charisma “…the  spell-binding power which allegedly emanated from Mussolini, the infallible, numinous, ubiquitous, transcendent and, by the later 1930s, ever more bellicose dictator, meant that rationality could ever dominate thought for too long;
    • “… other segments of Mussolini’s political thought, while he carved his cunning path between rational acts and a fanaticized and irrational deployment of myth.”
  • “The longer the regime lasted, the more its hired pens pumped out an endless stream of words, which mattered, or were said to matter, more than any facts;”
  • Arrests for speaking against the regime, or war;
  • Demonstrations, unless approved by Rome, were strictly forbidden;
  • “Verbal sedition” in newspapers must be not be allowed, given the government’s determination to “firmly guarantee public order against any danger of  disturbance;”
  • Corporatism becomes ‘the revolution in the Revolution’, ‘perhaps the principal element determining the perennial, permanent and inexorable’ character of Fascist rule,  “binding Italians together in a Fascist whole, contenting bosses and workers alike, eradicating selfishness and terminating any need for special interest groups;”
  • Move to autarchy;
    • “Adventures abroad ensured that, during the second half of the 1930s, the national economic line became autarchic, that is, rigorously protectionist, seeking external trade through barter rather than some free arrangement which might have been approved by Adam Smith.
  • People trying to ingratiate themselves with him, a visible move from being “Fascists” to being “Mussolinists.”

These overlap and expand on The Early Warning Signs of Fascism as displayed in the U.S. Holocuast Museum.