Fascism was one of thedefining experiences of the European 20th Century. Within it many of the economic, political, social and cultural contradictions that had been brewing in the unprecedented transformation that European society underwent in the 19th and early 20th century came to a head. Mussolini, the man who most fashioned Italian Fascism, dramatically expressed the unease and the hopes of his age.
To what extent can we compare Mussolini's Italy to Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia? What legacy has the experience of Fascism left behind in Italy and in Europe? These and many more important questions are explored inFinaldi's introduction to one of the most important movements of the European 20th Century.
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Italy has a long past but a short history, and the Italian Fascist Regime now sits almost exactly half way down the latter. If one takes 1865 as the moment ‘modern Italy’ began, there is over a century of Italian history that was not Fascist. This should be borne in mind, as much of the way Italian history is thought of hinges on the difficulty of inserting this period within the chronology of the rest. The Italy that came before can be looked at purely in terms of the defects or trajectories that entailed its demise, and the period after can be regarded as an imperfect or a successful coming clean, depending on one's point of view. What is certain is that the hope of the great Italian philosopher and historian, Benedetto Croce, that a kind of quarantining parenthesis could be thrown around the whole awkward episode was never realized. Fascism has remained, for better or worse, the central experience of the way in which much modern Italian history is told. But it is also more significant than this.
Italian Fascism made its appearance in world history at a very peculiar moment. Many argue that it could only have appeared because of the coming together of a set of unique circumstances. The Great War had exploded the permanence of a European order that had been fairly stable since Waterloo. Some short and very contained wars in the 1850s and 1860s had led to the creation of a unified Germany and Italy, but the post-Napoleon international system remained intact. The Concert of Europe was perhaps not what it had been, but those regarded as beyond the pale still lay outside the confines of a European continent that appeared to have been given permanent possession of the rudder of world history.
Yet even where European rule had never been formalized, in one way or another there was a process that brought the European way of doing things, certainly in international relations, to be the only acceptable one. For the rest, with the important exceptions of China, Japan, Ethiopia, Persia and Siam (Thailand), the world was controlled directly by Europeans or their descendents. In the Old Continent itself much of what had been frighteningly revolutionary in 1789 was accepted as sound political practice by 1914. The pioneering industrialization of Britain that had been fundamental to Europe's war against Napoleon was now the acknowledged way to go for all civilized nations. Nations themselves were, with some major exceptions, now the justification for the existence of modern polities and the ‘people’ their ultimate legitimacy.
It would have been difficult for any European to predict in July 1914 that this order was about to plunge into a deep and dark crisis. When some kind of normalcy returned in 1945 much had been irretrievably lost. Europe was sundered along the lines marked by the liberating Anglo-Saxon and Soviet armies. The cracks in European empires were already beyond repair, and others had taken up the world leadership rudder. Tens of millions of corpses, biblical numbers of refugees, great cities reduced to rubble, the knowledge of having murdered, and murdered again and again, and all this among those very Europeans who before 1914 had considered themselves at the apex of the human race, were the bitter legacy of what began in 1914. The three decades between 1914 and 1945 were an extraordinary distillation. In a way they seem to be years that count more than others, or at least they appeared to until the great turning point of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1989–91 brought the ‘short twentieth century’ to an unexpected conclusion.
Since the end of the Cold War there has been a temptation to drag out Croce's brackets once again, maybe closing them in 1989. The period 1914–89 looks more like an anomaly. Fascism has little to say now and many of its obsessions seem not just absurd but incomprehensible. As Michael Burleigh has put it: ‘The regimes established by what have been called “armed bohemians” produced nothing of any lasting moment’ (Burleigh, 2001: 812). Mussolini was certainly an ‘armed bohemian’ (the educated intellectual who felt no compulsion to follow convention and to accept established norms as one's own), and in many ways he epitomises one. Because Italian Fascism became a compass point, an alternative, a possible solution and a fulcrum precisely within this period of European crisis, and Mussolini himself perhaps more than any other individual was the most characteristic product of what the crisis was about, this period of Italian history does not just affect Italy, nor is the biography of Mussolini merely that of a very peculiar Italian. Fascism was emulated by others, and indeed in the late 1930s regimes that in one way or another had looked to Italian Fascism as their inspiration dominated continental Europe. This dominance was only destroyed by the intervention of the liberal Anglo-Saxon powers of the Atlantic and the communist Soviet Union in the course of the Second World War. The radically divided continent that emerged after 1945 was therefore built on the ruins of what had been a Fascist alternative that had begun its life in the short history of Italy.
This book is therefore about Italy, but Italy is also in this context a way of approaching Europe too. It recounts the story of one man, Benito Mussolini, but through this one man it tells the tale of many others; it recounts the story of one country, but through it sheds light also on that of many others.
Perspectives on Modern Italian History
Although Italy as a nation state has a short history, history and Italy are Europe's Siamese twins. Gibbon, Niebhur, Ranke, Burkhardt, Macaulay and Mommsen, who between them invented the modern discipline of history from the end of the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, were all keen students of events that had unfolded on the Italian peninsula, be it ancient Rome, the medieval papacy or the Renaissance. Macaulay's great nephew, G.M. Trevelyan, who was one of the most influential historians of the first half of the twentieth century, paid much attention to Italy's Risorgimento, and almost built his illustrious career upon it. There was nothing coincidental in his focusing on the Italian peninsula. Before 1914 Trevelyan was an English liberal, totally immersed in the spirit of his age. He studied and taught at Cambridge and there had many occasions to read at the Wren library built in the 1690s, which, in the words of David Cannadine, perfectly represents ‘[with its] cloistered colonnade of the lower level, the Tuscan pillars, the Ionic columns and the Doric frieze [that] recall the Forum in Rome, the Theatre of Marcellus by Serlio and Sansovino's library at Venice … the unity of European culture and the confident pre-eminence of Continental thought’ (Cannadine, 1992: 59). If Europeans wanted to understand their own shared past, they often studied or travelled to Italy; indeed, understanding Italy's past and its perceived cultural contribution to Europe was considered a prerequisite to a good education for the upper classes from the seventeenth century on.
For many, the unification of Italy after centuries of foreign and ecclesiastical rule represented therefore a memorable event of great historic significance. The Risorgimento was for Trevelyan a titanic battle between good and evil, where progress and freedom were represented by Cavour, Mazzini and above all Garibaldi, reaction and obscurantism by the Austrians, the Bourbons and the pope. Trevelyan concluded his eulogy of Garibaldi with an image that sums up not only the beliefs of many of his generation but some of the most important trajectories of the historiography on the new Italy: ‘[Garibaldi] had done a mighty labour, and taken his share in a task which the years would soon complete and the long generations ratify – the Making of Italy’ (Trevelyan, 1911: 287). This ‘ratification’ to which the young Trevelyan confidently testified (he published these words in 1911, as Italy celebrated its fiftieth anniversary), has been one of the central concerns of historiography on Italy after unification. It seemed right and fitting that the new Italy should be a liberal and constitutional monarchy, much like Britain, and that from the restrictive franchise established at unification (in 1870 less than 2 per cent of the population acquired the right to vote) it would make democracy, democratic culture and its associated institutions eventually accessible to all. In 1907 it did appear to Trevelyan that this agenda was unfolding. In a letter to the The Times of 5 July he stated:
Nothing is more remarkable – though to believers in nationality and ordered liberty nothing is more natural – than the stability of the Italian Kingdom … The building is as safe as any in Europe … The power of this great national movement has fortunately been directed only to securing Italian liberty, and not the oppression of others … the result has been the unstained purity and idealism of patriotic emotion there.
But it was Fascism that dispelled the idea that Italy's history since unification was an accumulation of the achievements of the national spirit. The progress of democracy, liberty and development held so dearly by the liberals was suddenly halted and even reversed. The defects that Italy had had at unification and that it was felt liberalism had been slowly but surely dealing with (illiteracy, poverty, underdevelopment, a patriotic deficit, etc.) were now looked at in a wholly new light. Had the Risorgimento, national unification and all the rest really been as successful as people like Trevelyan had suggested?
Many, from a variety of points of view, came to very different conclusions. Some Italian intellectuals – often poets, novelists or artists, such as Giosué Carducci, Alfredo Oriani, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Enrico Corradini and Filippo Marinetti [Docs 2, 3, pp. 130, 131], were a constant thorn in the side of post-unification Italian governments: a kind of moral conscience of the nation, an unofficial opposition that consistently chastised Italy and Italians for failing to meet the great objectives that history had obviously prepared them for. If for some Fascism represented a positive strengthening of the national spirit, a great moment or renewal from the Italy of prose that had followed the poetry of the Risorgimento (we see clearly here that Fascism in Italy owed much to a negative interpretation of the present compared with Italy's great past), it was the advent of Fascism itself that heralded the interpretation of Italy's modern history as one of failure or flaw.
For historians such as Trevelyan the destruction of democracy in Italy and the obvious inability of liberalism to defend it was a disconcerting experience. The splendid image of Garibaldi on a white horse leading a freedom-loving Italian people to a liberal paradise was dispelled by cosh-wielding Fascists adulated by a sickeningly brainwashed Italian people. When Italy declared war on Britain in 1940, Trevelyan wrote in The Spectator of 14 June that, ‘to some of us older men, this is the bitterest day we have yet known in our lives’ (in Cannadine, 2002: 85). No longer was Italy becoming more and more like England, but rather its inherent or historical defects consistently came back to trip it up. Its history was its problem. The great school of ‘why is Italy not England?’ historical enquiry had been born. It has been (and indeed still is) an extraordinarily productive if not always fruitful way of approaching modern Italian history. It has certainly not been exclusively used to understand Italy's move to Fascism but has offered insights and prejudices in understanding Italian democracy after the Second World War, corruption, the Italian south, terrorism, the Mafia and much else besides (Ginsborg, 2000, 2003).
In Italy this pessimistic view was developed by one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci, at almost the same time as Croce was drafting his history of modern Italy. Gramsci, writing in a Fascist prison, considered Fascism to be the fruit of Italy's skewed historical development in the period of the Risorgimento. His concept of ‘passive revolution’ suggested that, unlike France, where the Revolution of 1789 had ousted the old feudal order (and therefore cleared the way for a democratic liberal society), in Italy this moment of class replacement had failed to occur in the proper way. Because in Italy this liberal (or ‘bourgeois’) revolution had coincided with national unification (France had been welded into a nation in medieval times), Italy headed down a different path of national development. The revolutionary nature of the Risorgimento was defective. It had led to no real social upheaval, but only to the political concoction that was the Italian state. The latter was a hybrid based on the ruling classes of the old, almost medieval, south and the more modern and industrializing north. The Italian people itself had never been called upon or had not responded to the more radical elements of the process of unification, and failed (unlike the French people of the revolutionary period) consistently to take the initiative. Moderate conservatives therefore controlled the Italian liberal revolution and it was Italy's stunted social and economic development that in the end gave birth to Fascism (Gramsci, 1967). The history of modern Italy was therefore one of anomalies, defects and special paths. Who, though, was responsible for having dragged the peninsula where it ought not to have gone?
Since 1945, Italian history, like all national histories, has been extraordinarily politically orientated, but the irksome legacy of Fascism has intensified and polarized debate. Writers of the left attempted to rescue Italy's people from adherence to the dictatorship and concentrated on pointing out that it was Italy's defective development that led to its political woes, and writers of the right rather blamed the intransigence and uniqueness of the Italian left for Italy's anomalous need to turn to Fascism. Notwithstanding the time that has passed, this still remains the distinguishing mark of historiography on modern Italy (Davis, 1994, 1997). Although much terminology has changed, for example it is now usual to talk about defective ‘modernization’ rather than ‘passive revolution’ or ‘familism’, the questions on the agenda have been refined rather than radically changed.
It was therefore Fascism that mutated the study of modern Italian history and it is specifically to Italian Fascism in historiography that we now turn.
Perspectives on the Study of Italian Fascism
Trevelyan, as has been said, was bitterly disappointed in seeing his Italy fall to Fascism. He wrote in the late 1930s: ‘Fascism was abhorrent to me, because it set out to abolish the easy, kindly temperament of the Italian people that I loved [and sought instead] to drill and bully them into second-rate Germans’ (in Cannadine, 1992: 85). Mussolini would have agreed that what Fascism stood for was precisely the eradication of Italians’ supposed ‘kindliness’, and making organ grinders and mandolin players [Doc. 4, p. 132] into warriors and empire-builders was the first priority of the Regime [Doc. 27, p. 148].
Much historiography on Italian Fascism hinges around the extent to which Fascism really did manage to transform Italians into Germans. The Third Reich looms over Fascist Italy in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways. At times it drags Italy along, a partner and precursor to its own monstrous barbarity, but at others it is the foil that sets off the relative humanity and mildness of the Italian Regime. To a degree the same can be said of the ‘totalitarian’ thesis, popular in the 1950s and re-emerging recently but having in the meantime acquired a tendency no longer to take Italy into consideration. The enormity of what was Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany rarely appears to need the Italian dictatorship in the totalitarian equation.
Therefore, unlike Hitler's Germany, the Italian dictatorship, while not exactly having out-and-out hagiographers (although even discounting declared neo-Fascists, some accounts of it border on becoming so), certainly does not attract total and absolute condemnation. To be sure, as far as Italian Fascism is concerned the jury of history has pronounced the guilty verdict, but nevertheless the appeal system is always giving it another chance. In its moderate form this means that the Italian population baby is not thrown out with the Fascist Regime bathwater, or that Fascism is boiled down to little more than the hyperbole of the Duce. The dictator was a ‘sawdust Caesar’, as one American journalist memorably put it (Seldes, 1935), and the Fascist Regime made of papier-mâché. More seriously, these views entail placing Regime and people together, making Italian Fascism a perhaps misguided but not altogether unjustified attempt to come up with something positive in an Italy that could easily have fallen into the nightmare of Bolshevism. In any case it was the First World War that made everyone suddenly go mad. Croce's idea of parenthesis tacitly assumed such a scenario. Exceptional circumstances created Fascism, and it was most certainly a one-off.
Marxists, on the other hand, theorized for the first time the idea that Fascism was neither something distinct from capita...
Table of contents
Citation styles for Mussolini and Italian Fascism
APA 6 Citation
Finaldi, G. (2014). Mussolini and Italian Fascism (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1555095/mussolini-and-italian-fascism-pdf (Original work published 2014)
Finaldi, Giuseppe. (2014) 2014. Mussolini and Italian Fascism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1555095/mussolini-and-italian-fascism-pdf.
Finaldi, G. (2014) Mussolini and Italian Fascism. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1555095/mussolini-and-italian-fascism-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Finaldi, Giuseppe. Mussolini and Italian Fascism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.