WHILE THE red flag with its emblem of communism — the hammer and sickle — flew over the domes of the Kremlin in Moscow, other new flags were being unfurled in Europe. The end of World War 1 left the leaders of Italy dissatisfied. They had hoped — and expected — to get rich territories as a reward for joining the war on the side of the Allies and fighting against Germany, but when the statesmen of the Allies divided the spoils of war, Italy got practically nothing.
The Italian soldiers, returning from the front, found their homecoming anything but sweet. Prices were rising every day. Jobs were scarce and growing scarcer. The government was deeply in debt. Neither the king, little Victor Emmanuel III, nor the parliament, the Chamber of Deputies‚ seemed able to do anything to better conditions. The Socialists pointed out that they had predicted exactly what was happening — and the people listened. Following the example of the Russian Marxists, the Socialists called for action — and the people acted. A great wave of strikes swept the country. Farmers tried to seize land. Crowds of workers tramped through the streets singing “Bandiera Rossa,” a song of the red flag waving triumphantly for socialism and liberty.
Communists and anarchists were also busy preaching revolution and for a while it looked as though Italy would go the same way as Russia. In 1920, during August and September, workers took over more than 600 factories. Italians wondered: Was this the revolution? Would Italy soon have a communist dictatorship? When the government agreed to set up factory councils, the workers listened to the more moderate Socialists and gave up the factories.
Even so, the aristocrats and landowners and industrialists were worried. They had escaped revolution this time, but it had come close — too close. Next time the red flag might indeed fly triumphantly over all of Italy. What the country needed was a leader, a strong man who would stop the Communists, put the workers in their place and make Italy a powerful and respected nation. To their relief and joy, they found such a man. He was a former socialist named Benito Mussolini.
Mussolini was born in 1883; his father was a village blacksmith, his mother a schoolteacher. Mussolini, too, became a schoolteacher, then went to Switzerland for further study. Expelled from Switzerland for socialist activity, he returned to Italy and to teaching. It was politics that interested him. By the time World War 1 broke — he had become a professional revolutionist, had served a short prison term and was editor of the Italian Socialist party’s newspaper. Like most Italian socialists, Mussolini was opposed to the war. Suddenly, however, he changed his mind and to spread his views he set up his own newspaper. He was called up to the army and served as a private until 1917, when he was wounded. After his discharge, he went back to his paper.
Mussolini soon had a number of followers, to whom he preached something that sounded like socialism, but he also called for a strong government that would gain Italy a place among the great powers of the world. Then, in 1920, after the workers had given up the factories they had seized, he showed what he really wanted. In his newspaper, he attacked the communists with fiery words. In the streets, his Black Shirts — bands of young men who wore black shirts as a sort of uniform — attacked the communists with clubs and other weapons. They invented a new kind of torture, forcing their victims to swallow huge doses of castor oil. They wrecked the headquarters of trade unions and destroyed the printing presses of newspapers that opposed Mussolini. The government did nothing to stop them; in fact, it quietly helped them.
The big landowners and wealthy industrialists welcomed Mussolini and approved of his Black Shirts. Here, at last, was someone who knew how to take action against communists and rebellious workers. Others, too, supported Mussolini — people who were tired of a weak government, people who were tired of the quarrels among the various political parties, people who were tired of confusion and uncertainty.
In 1921, Mussolini organized his followers into the Fascist party. It took its name from the party’s emblem, the fasces — a bundle of rods containing an axe. The fasces had been an emblem of power in ancient Rome and Mussolini promised that he would bring back to Italy the glory that once was Rome’s. Members of the Fascist party greeted each other with the old “Roman salute,” right hand and arm upraised and Mussolini was called Il Duce, the leader.
As the Fascist party grew, Mussolini demanded more and more power in the government. In October of 1922, he told a huge meeting of fascists in Naples that “either the government will be given to us or we shall seize it by marching on Rome.” Later that same month, Mussolini ordered his Black Shirts to advance on Rome. The “march” turned out to be something of a joke. Although Mussolini would later refer to it as a splendid and heroic victory, there was little opposition to the fascists. The king allowed them to enter the city and he appointed Mussolini premier, as he had the legal right to do. The way was wide open for Mussolini to become dictator of Italy.
Within a few years, Mussolini took the title of “Head of the Government.” In 1928, the constitution was rewritten and fascism became the official political system of Italy. Mussolini controlled the parliament and all the military forces. He controlled the schools, the universities, the press, the labour unions. There was only one political party — the Fascist party. There was no freedom of speech or of assembly. To round up those opposed to fascism, there was a secret police. For punishment, there were imprisonment, beatings, castor oil and sometimes death.
Industries were also regulated. They were divided into twenty-two groups, called corporations, covering such fields as mining, oil, chemicals and clothing. The arts and professions, the theater and the tourist trade were covered as well. The corporations were under the control of a committee and a minister, who in turn were under the control of Mussolini. This system was known as the “corporate state.” Inspite of certain restrictions, the millionaires remained millionaires. The landowners still owned their land, the industrialists still owned their mills and mines, factories and both landowners and industrialists still collected their profits. At the same time, the government fixed the wages of workers and outlawed strikes. Not for nothing had the rich welcomed Mussolini and given the fascists their support. True, Italy no longer had any civil liberties, but neither did it have communism and the workers had been put in their place.
So Mussolini had given the world a new word – fascism — and a new kind of political movement. Fascism proclaimed that the state was everything, the individual nothing. As Mussolini put it, “Everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” For the people who lived under fascist rule, he made a simple motto: “Work, fight, obey.”
A CONQUERING CAESAR
By threatening and blustering, Mussolini won some diplomatic successes. He recovered some small territories that Italy had once occupied and then lost. Inside Italy, conditions were at first a little better. Foreign visitors sympathetic to fascism said that Mussolini had brought order to Italy. He had at least made the trains run on time and he was teaching the easy-going Italians modern efficiency and the mass meetings of the fascists were exciting. His large jaw jutting out, his dark eyes glaring, Mussolini spoke to his followers from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia in Rome. Their hands raised in salute, they chanted, “Du-ce! Du-ce! Du-ce!”
If Mussolini was to bring back the glorious days of the Roman Empire, he had to be another Caesar — and to be Caesar, he had to make war. So, in 1955, he attacked the little Negro kingdom of Ethiopia in Africa. Its ruler, dignified, bearded Haile Selassie, appealed for help to the League of Nations. The League did try to stop Mussolini, but the action it took was not very effective and Mussolini went on with his war. There was never a doubt about how it would end. With cannon, tanks, planes, bombs and poison gas, he attacked the Ethiopian capital. The Ethiopians had no cannon, no tanks, no planes, no bombs, no poison gas and few weapons of any kind.
In May of 1936, his jaw jutting even more fiercely, his eyes bulging with pride, Mussolini boasted of his great victory. “Ethiopia is Italian!” he told a huge crowd. ”Du-ce! Du-ce! Du-ce!” the crowd chanted, while Mussolini stood on the balcony like a conquering Caesar, but there were other men in Europe who would carry the violence and terror of fascism even further.