By David Lippman
Mussolini’s views hold. Italy stays in the war, and on October 30, 1918, Gen. Armando Diaz regains Venezia and Italy’s honor when he smashes the Austro-Hungarians at Vittorio Veneto, 43 miles from Venice. Servicemen returning from the front claim that Mussolini’s articles and letters were the reason for the victory.
But the Treaty of Versailles brings disillusionment. Wilson refuses to uphold the secret 1915 Treaty of London, which promises Italy the Adriatic coast, Trento, Fiume, and Trieste. “Open covenants openly arrived at” is one of his Fourteen Points, and Wilson denies Vittorio Orlando’s claims. Italy gains very little from the Great War, only the cities of Trento and Trieste. Italians react to Wilson’s betrayal by burning him in effigy in town squares and piazzas.
They also react by attacking returning soldiers, turning decorated and wounded veterans into bloodied scapegoats. Bullies kick crutches out from the arms of wounded men, and rip medals from their chests. Two returning officers are hurled into Milan’s Grand Canal to drown, while another is beaten at the Central Station until his arm is broken. The Italian Army brass orders their officers to wear civilian dress when on leave, “to avoid inflaming the populace.”
The Socialists, who have opposed the war from start to finish, take advantage of their 1.2 million members and gain control of 2,000 municipalities in local elections. With the resulting power, they issue an amnesty to 150,000 deserters. Socialist mayors turn the official portraits of King Vittorio Emmanuel to the wall. Socialist-dominated town councils take action against what they consider ostentatious displays of wealth and class by forbidding women to dance, wear jewelry, or silk stockings.
Naturally, a right-wing backlash results, and Mussolini leads it. Amid pouring rain on March 23, 1919, he forms a new political party in a hall on Milan’s Piazza San Sepolcro, joined by a gaggle of pals, all wearing the black shirts and sweaters of the elite Arditi brigades of the war – outfits that used a volley of grenades to sound reveille. Mussolini names his new group the Fascist Party, styling it from the fasces, the bundle of elm rods coupled with an axe, which in ancient Rome symbolized a consul’s power of life and death.
Hands clasping a dagger blade, Mussolini and his cronies swear to “defend Italy, ready to kill or to die.” Mussolini tells his men, “We will defend our dead even if we dig trenches in the squares and streets.” Some 54 Fascists sign the manifesto, but one of Mussolini’s loyalists tacks on the names of 70 Lombardy milk wholesalers holding a trade meeting in the next room.
But the Party grows quickly. By November 1, it has branches in Turin, Genoa, and Verona. Then Padua and Naples. By April, it has spread to Pavia, Trieste, Parma, Bologna, and Perugia. By 1922, the Fascist Party has 2,200 branches.
The reason for this success is simple: Italy is at the edge of civil war. The year 1920 sees 2,000 strikes and work stoppages in Italy. Prison warders threaten to abandon their jails if they don’t get a raise in five days. Postal workers pour sulfuric acid into mailboxes. Electrical workers cut power at night, even to hospitals. Railroad engineers won’t move trains that carry even one priest or army officer, and Italian timetables become a joke. A train going from Turin to Rome arrives 400 hours later. Premier Francesco Nitti has to ride a Navy destroyer to a conference at San Remo.
The chaos only continues to spread. In September, 600,000 metal workers seize factories across Italy, and lock themselves in for a month-long strike. The industrialists are forced to yield. Giovanni Agnelli, owner of the mighty Fiat company, returns to his Turin office to find an archway of Red Flags and a portrait of Lenin over his desk. Surrounded by angry factory workers, Agnelli takes down the portrait and kisses it.
Strikes spread everywhere. Farm-workers hoist red flags in hayfields and take the crops for themselves. Grocers and barbers refuse to serve owners of businesses whose workers are on strike.
The climax of the chaos comes in September 1919, when poet-novelist Gabriele d’Annunzio and 1,000 legionnaires march into the Yugoslav port of Fiume to seize it for Italy, free love, and his 35 watchdogs. He sets up an independent state there, which lasts for 14 months.
With chaos reigning, vast blocs of people turn to Mussolini and his Fascists at their Milan headquarters at 34 Via Paolo da Cannobio, where Mussolini runs his party from a desk covered with grenades and hunting knives, a machine-gun trained on the door.
Despite the color and aura of violence, Mussolini doesn’t gain votes. Without bothering to ask the great conductor’s permission, Mussolini puts Arturo Toscanini up as a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies, hoping to sweep the Musicians’ Union. No such luck. The Socialists gain 170,000 votes in the Milan election, with the Fascists polling only 4,795.
Mussolini rings his offices with barbed wire and 25 Blackshirts to keep out the hordes of exultant Socialists and tells his pals, “If they break in, I can always bite half a dozen and give them blood-poisoning.”
He continues to be a whirlwind of activity, taking flying lessons and fighting duels with swords, zooming around mountains in his car at high speeds, hurling his phone out the window when the operator can’t get him a line fast enough.
Still, it’s not enough for Mussolini. He fears being trapped on the sidelines forever, and complains he will never receive the glory. He envies the monocled d’Annunzio, who struts around Fiume, guarded by an army of 9,000 men.
D'Annunzio's legion enters Fiume, 1919.
But at Christmas in 1920 the Italian Navy’s heavy guns put an end to d’Annunzio’s quasi-state, and the poet’s adherents, in black sweaters, gray green puttees and black fezzes, join Mussolini, offering him the raised right-arm salutes they gave d’Annunzio.
Mussolini’s new army of thugs, singing “Giovinezza,” fan out across Italy’s cities, beating up Mussolini’s enemies with clubs called the “manganello,” and finishing off the assault by giving them a dose of castor oil.
Among Mussolini’s new adherents are disaffected Socialists like lawyer Dino Grandi, or Verona professor Alberto de Stefani, and poet Giuseepe Bottai, who calls the king “Comrade Savoy” and spits on the ground when the royal carriage passes by.
But most are similar to Hitler’s early supporters – crude toughs and frustrated war veterans, hardened by and in love with violence. For example, Ettore Muti, aged 19, picks out his favorite cream cakes by stabbing them with a dagger. Italo “Big Beast” Capanni, a former pornographic postcard salesman, gives a memorable maiden speech on his election to the Chamber of Deputies: he hurls a wooden bench at the Socialist deputies.
Across Italy’s mountains, valleys, cities, and towns, Fascists cause chaos. Roberto “Slap-Giver” Farinacci forces Socialist mayors to resign. Truckloads of Fascists loot, burn, and shoot their way through the Po Valley, marching by night, waking up residents with their tramping boots, loud songs, and pistol shots. In Florence, the Fascists force shopkeepers to cut their prices. In Adira, they attack alcoholism by forcing wine-sellers to drink castor oil. In Alessandria, a Fascist police chief summons 300 of the city’s burglars and pickpockets to a midnight meeting in a cellar, and gives them a choice: enroll at a Fascist labor exchange in the morning and go straight or go to the hospital right now. Most go to the labor exchange.
Mussolini’s Fascists begin to look like crusaders and super-patriotic idealists who can save Italy from Bolshevism. General Armando Diaz, commander-in-chief of the Italian Army, gives out Mussolini’s newspaper to his troops, free of charge. Bankers and industrialists donate large sums of money to Mussolini. He uses some for elections – but holds back the rest, fearing a long and drawn-out campaign for power.
But in May 1921, the Fascists take 34 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Mussolini himself garners 178,000 votes. The Fascists are on a roll, which leads to a backlash. The bullying Fascist behavior begins to work against Mussolini. When Fascists goons intimidate judges into freeing their buddies from jail, Fascism begins to look like a vigilante mob.
Mussolini moves swiftly. In August 1921, he signs a Pact of Pacification with his enemies. His chief deputies – Farinacci in Cremona, Tullio Tamburini in Florence, and Italo Balbo in Ferrara, all refuse to sign the pact. Furious, Mussolini resigns as head of the Fascist Party. He will be a simple member from Milan. He hopes his estranged deputies will beg him to return.
But Mussolini realizes that his gesture has no impact, and he cannot bear to be on the sidelines. He makes peace with the militants, and resumes his duties.
Those are now Fascist seizures of Italian cities. September 1921: Balbo leads 3,000 Fascists into Ravenna. On May 12, 1922, Balbo’s 63,000 men take over Ferrara, Balbo himself holding the Prefect at gunpoint. Seventeen days later, they take over Bologna.
Socialists hit back with a general strike on August, and Mussolini hurls an ultimatum to Prime Minister Luigi Facta: break the strike or the Fascists will. Facta, a weak-willed man, does not pick up the gauntlet, so the Fascists move to keep trains and trolleys running. Fascist goons burn Socialist offices across Italy.
Now Mussolini hardens his stand. On August 11, he announces, “The March on Rome has begun.” Eight days later, he snarls, “The century of democracy is over.”
David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the new School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He maintains the World War II Plus 55 website and currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work to our Daily Content.