With our unwelcome new sensitivity to the resurgence of unaccountable authoritarianism, and to complement my post on the resistance to Mussolini, I’ve been reading
- Richard Bosworth, Mussolini’s Italy: life under the dictatorship (2005),
a thorough, nuanced study of the period (see e.g. this review).
Bosworth notes how our understanding is impeded by the popular image of Italians as “nice people” (brava gente), with their alluring cuisine, fashion, art and architecture (cf. the “three Fs” in Portugal). With revealing stories about provincial life, he explores why ordinary Italians were vulnerable to fascism, and how complicit they were.
Italian society, with its massive regional and class divides, was far from monolithic. Values can and do change, but in such a fragmented, unstable country, most people were “impervious to the cheap nationalist rhetoric about a homogeneous and united people”. Bosworth’s cast includes peasants, landowners, factory workers, industrialists, shopkeepers, doctors, teachers.
Within the “civilised” north and the “barbarous” south there were significant regional divides. Besides modern industrial Turin, disease-prone Venice, the south, Sicily, and Sardinia, Rome was a particular case. Even in the 1950s, peasants in Salento regarded “national roads” as foreign and alien. Poverty, starvation, and sickness were common.
Bosworth describes assaults on press freedom, the liquidation of non-Fascist trade unions, squadrism, and the secret police; the glorification of warfare, and ill-fated foreign colonial aggression (Libya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Albania, Greece, involvement in the Spanish Civil War), accompanied by camps, genocide, and chemical weapons.
During the Ethiopian campaign the authorities soon frowned upon the popular ditty Faccetta nera, with its suggestion of racial mingling. It’s disturbingly easy to find online:
Despite propaganda, such costly foreign ventures were not widely supported. Meanwhile at home the regime was constantly beset by economic troubles and corruption.
Amidst tensions between the state and the Catholic church, one area on which they agreed was the status of women, whose mission was to “breed, cook, and worship”.
In both rural and urban Italy, women could rarely detect anything that was modern in their lives.
Progress was painfully slow and patchy. Italy’s low birth rate in recent decades goes back to this period; despite exhortations from state and Church, and strict abortion laws, the birth rate fell through the 1930s. Even in some isolated rural paesi in the north, some women had never heard of Mussolini.
Fascist rhetoric found it hard to penetrate family values.
Italian homes may have contained images of the Duce but portraits of the Popes, Mary, Christ, and the holy saints, the King, the other royals and a slew of other not reliably Fascist lay saints, of whom Garibaldi was the most loved and widespread, could also be found on apartment walls.
The period from 1880 was marked by major waves of emigration, in particular to the USA. Although from the late 1920s it became much more difficult to leave, fascist and anti-fascist groups competed in the diverse foreign communities.
Bosworth qualifies the notion that the First World War led directly to Fascism. By 1917 “liberal and dynastic” motives gave way to a “popular and national” agenda. As in the Austro-Hungarian army, officers and ordinary troops literally spoke different languages. And as elsewhere, far from bringing peace, the end of the war brought renewed social conflicts and continuing violence. Among the “great powers”, Italy was most fragile.
One important prelude to the Mussolini regime was Gabriele D’Annunzio’s regime at Fiume. Meanwhile violence became ever more common—as a means of asserting local power and advancing wealth, status, and authority, and to counter the spectre of Bolshevism. Bosworth looks at the uneven distribution of fascism in the provinces. The murder of Matteotti in 1924 was a turning point leading to dictatorship and the elimination of dissent. Opponents of the regime were sentenced to confino exile. During his exile on the island of Lipari, erstwhile fascist Leandro Arpinetti took up cooking, while lamenting that the locals were “somnolent poltroons”—a term that I must incorporate into my lexicon of invective (cf. Slonimsky).
The Balilla scout movement, along with “Fascistised” sport and leisure activities, made potent tools for the indoctrination of youth. Radio (and later, film) was recruited to the Fascist cause, but technology still lagged behind; even by 1940 there were still only half a million telephones (indeed, they were still rare in post-war Britain).
Among those flocking to the cause were the apiarists of Trentino. Their bees were “a superior breed (razza)”, “the best in the world”,
the natural model for Italians when they worked in perfect peace, harmony and fraternal love under the Duce.
The “purification” of language was another arena of contention. A campaign to replace the polite third-person usage Lei with the more “manly” second-person voi had mixed results. Zuppa inglese was renamed zuppa impero; hotel was replaced by albergo.
Qualifying the idea that Italian dictatorship may seem rather benign compared to those of Germany and the USSR, Bosworth reminds us of its brutality. Racial policy too was less extreme than under Nazism, but its ramifications were ugly.
Besides xenophobic assumptions about blacks, Arabs, and “Slavs”, and “border fascism” in the northeast, anti-semitism only became a major stain under the alliance with Nazi Germany. Indeed, Jews had played a role in the rise of Italian Fascism; yet racist laws accumulated after 1938. Under German rule, Jews were rounded up and deported from late 1943: among 7,495 deportees, 610 survived.
Schoolteacher partisan, Val d’Aosta 1944.
Active partisan resistance grew, though numbers were was not so large as one may imagine.
Bosworth opens his account of the legacy with the 2004 visit of George W. Bush to the site of the 1944 massacre at the Ardeatine caves just outside Rome, where SS troops murdered 335 Italian men—one of a series of such reprisals (see also under The Ratline). He deflates the spin that the memorial represents a “virtuous nation as victim”.
Again, the end of the war didn’t bring peace (cf. Keith Lowe, Savage continent). After the partisan murders of 1945 (notably in the “triangle of death” in Emilia-Romagna), political fascism began to assume new forms. As elsewhere, commitment to an institutional purge of fascism soon faded. Revisionist accounts were widely read. Right- and left-wing terrorist violence grew alarmingly through the 1970s. Burlesque-only was keen to belittle the fascist heritage.
In architecture, a sadly fitting memorial to Fascism in Rome is the grandiose model suburb of EUR. Initiated in 1942 but only completed after Liberation, it became a soulless place, “a lesson in how not to foster urban vitality”.
The whole psyche of the era is effectively evoked in Alberto Moravia’s novel The conformist and Bernardo Bertolucci’s film.
Renewed alarm over the widespread resurgence of fascism has led to much analysis of the diverse forms in which it surfaces. Now I’m all for experts; in an era of groundless rants, I’m grateful for balanced presentations. I’m underwhelmed by erudite arguments that the current crisis in the USA does not make a totally identical parallel with past societies elsewhere.  With Trumpism sharing many themes with regimes like those of Hitler or Mussolini (themselves quite different)—xenophobia, hate speech, assaults on the media and the rule of law, manipulation of the electorate, support for violent militias, putting people in cages—there are clearly ample causes for anxiety.
 In a theme that is sure to keep growing, good starters are
Taking the “he’s a right-wing populist, not a fascist” line,
Expanding the discussion to Putin’s Russia:
See also e.g.