A figure like Benito Mussolini could only have taken power in a state suffering from severe illness. Italy, a resource poor nation, had been virtually bankrupted by expenditure in World War One, with the Liberal-led Italian governments dispensing with more money on the conflict than during the previous half a century combined.
Italy suffered more than 1.5 million casualties in the war. Those Italian soldiers who returned home found a country where divisions ran deep, unemployment was high, opportunities were few and inflation was soaring. It was a breeding ground for extremists to emerge, as would occur further north in Germany, one of the most harmful side effects of the war.
Despite being on the “winning side”, much of the Italian public felt their nation was then robbed at Versailles, in June 1919, by America, Britain and France – who shared almost all of the spoils of war among themselves with the Treaty of Versailles ratified.
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Mussolini: A cynical opportunist?
As the war was concluding, Mussolini had looked coldly at the fractured society that lay before his eyes in Italy. He surmised that a determined, ruthless man like himself could forge a pathway to power. Mussolini was a cynical opportunist and shrewd operator who possessed notable journalistic skills. The future Duce (“leader”) also had a psychopathic streak, as revealed by his bulging, coal black eyes and sometimes timid disposition. A good psychiatric nurse would have recognised the warning signals by observing him.
Unlike with Hitler, Mussolini had no real loyalty to a particular ideology. It was inevitable that he would abandon his pre-1914 Marxist tendencies, and shift ostensibly far off to the right. Mussolini was concerned more than anything with himself, and wanted power for its own sake. He intended to do so by the illegal route, a coup d’etat. By the late summer of 1922, his Blackshirts had eradicated all active resistance on the streets through militant means.
How did Mussolini gain support?
With the left in Italy beaten by force, Mussolini’s three other adversaries could not be dealt with in such a manner: the Roman Catholic Church, the Monarchy and the liberals. Mussolini won over the Church and the Monarchy by renouncing his anti-Catholicism and anti-Monarchism, while offering them concessions, allowing those elitist and vain institutions to retain some influence in Italy.
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The historian and anthropologist David Kertzer, who has analysed relations between Italian fascism and Roman Catholicism, confirmed that “The key ingredient to Mussolini really becoming a dictator was the Church” and without its assistance his autocracy “wouldn’t have happened. Or it could have been stopped”. To hide the truth, various myths have since been pushed by Roman Catholic apologists, claiming that religious leaders were against fascism from the outset. In actual fact, “The church was incorporated into the state under Mussolini”, Kertzer writes, while the Duce and Pope Pius XI “came to depend on one another, in a sense”.
With the Church and Monarchy on board, Mussolini had the appearance of respectability with those who counted, leaving the liberals checkmated. He provided the final blow through his March on Rome during 28 October 1922. Once Mussolini entered office, he would enjoy increasing support from the leading Western powers.
US’s concerns over Mussolini’s rise to power
Mussolini’s coup was described by the onlooking US ambassador to Italy, Richard Washburn Child, as “a fine young revolution here. No danger, plenty of enthusiasm and colour”. The New York Times commented that the Blackshirts had achieved a “revolution of the peculiar and relatively harmless Italian type”, which, over the past three and a half years, had resulted in widespread violence and several thousand deaths.
The fascists’ arrival ended Washington’s fears of a perceived Bolshevik-style takeover in Italy, such as had occurred in Russia five years before in October 1917. A top level inquiry, conducted by US president Woodrow Wilson’s government in December 1917, warned of Italy that it poses “the obvious danger of social revolution and disorganisation”, as labour power intensified. A US State Department official observed privately, “If we are not careful we will have a second Russia on our hands”, adding that “The Italians are like children” and should be “assisted more than almost any other nation”.
Mussolini’s street brawlers quickly solved the problem. The US Embassy in Rome reported that the fascists are “perhaps the most potent factor in the suppression of Bolshevism in Italy”, expressing mild concern regarding the “enthusiastic and violent young men” comprising the Blackshirts. The US Embassy outlined further on the appeal of fascism to “all patriotic Italians”, simple people who “hunger for strong leadership”.
Policy of appeasement
US corporations flocked to invest in Mussolini’s Italy. The historian and analyst Noam Chomsky wrote, “As fascist darkness settled over Italy, financial support from the US government and business climbed rapidly. Italy was offered by far the best postwar debt settlement of any country, and US investment there grew far faster than in any other country, as the fascist regime established itself, eliminating labor unrest and other democratic disorders”.
With Mussolini one year in power, the US Embassy noted in late 1923, “The results have been excellent, and during the last 12 months there has not been a single strike in the whole of Italy”.
The new US Ambassador to Italy from 1924, Henry Fletcher, informed the US Secretary of State, Frank Kellogg, that the choice in Italy is “between Mussolini and fascism and Giolitti and Socialism”; Giovanni Giolitti being Italy’s former left-leaning prime minister. Both Ambassador Fletcher, and Secretary of State Kellogg, preferred Mussolini over the liberal-minded Giolitti.
Fletcher thought that the Italian population desired “peace and prosperity” under Mussolini in comparison to “free speech, loose administration” and “the danger and disorganisation of Bolshevism”. Kellogg, who served as US Secretary of State from 1925 to 1929, agreed with Fletcher, designating all opposition groups to Mussolini as consisting of “communists, socialists and anarchists” who must be prevented from attaining power. The real fear of Fletcher and Kellogg was the threat “to the very survival of the capitalist order” that Bolshevism supposedly presented.
With the Great Depression biting deep across Europe from early 1930, Mussolini’s regime received greater praise from establishment circles. American diplomat Alexander Kirk wrote in 1932, “On all sides it is agreed that the future welfare of Italy is safe as it could humanly possibly be in the hands of Mussolini, but if anything should happen to him, what then?”
In 1933, the New York Times Magazine noted, “there is no limiting condition imposed on any fascist project” in Italy and “whatever Mussolini commands is executed without being hampered by problems, practical or financial”.
Mussolini’s destructive economic policies
Between 1925 and 1938, Mussolini’s economic strategy had actually lowered the real wages of Italian workers by 11% no less. Before the Great Depression had even struck, the numbers of Italian unemployed under Mussolini had already more than doubled, from 181,000 in 1926 to 439,000 by 1928, and was continuing to rise regardless of the Depression.
Mussolini’s policies had also driven up the cost of production, while his stabilisation of the currency at 90 lire to the pound “placed tremendous strain on the Italian economy”, according to US scholar David F. Schmitz, who has closely studied American foreign policy with fascist Italy. Mussolini was able to keep the currency stable only because he took drastic actions, like incurring severe inflations followed by deflations.
This had escaped the attention of the Western business press; despite telling public comments from exiled Italian historians, like Gaetano Salvemini. In 1932 Salvemini informed the US think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, that “business in Italy has been hit by the depression as elsewhere” and “is just as bad as here in the United States”.
Shane Quinn has contributed on a regular basis to Global Research for almost two years and has had articles published with American news outlets People’s World and MintPress News, Morning Star in Britain, and Venezuela’s Orinoco Tribune. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.