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Mussolini and Fascism in Italy (10:12)

Italy

Mussolini capitalized on Italy’s discontent after World War I; it had helped win the war for the Allies, but had nothing to show for it. Mussolini inspired Italians with promises of greatness, took over Italy without a fight, made the trains run on time, built stark but imposing buildings, and suppressed journalism.

Complete Video Script

In the center of Rome, capital of Italy, stands The Victor Emmanuel II monument. With its Altar of the Fatherland, it was designed to celebrate the greatness of Italy. And facing this monument, on Piazza Venezia, nationalists would gather to honor their nation.

In the 1920s and '30s, tens of thousands of Italians would fill this square to hear rousing speeches delivered from that balcony. The speaker proclaimed the greatness of Italy and promised them a glorious future. And the people followed. Once a rabble-rousing journalist, this charismatic speaker became their leader — "Il Duce." The man was Benito Mussolini.

Mussolini's rise, like that of Hitler, had its roots in WWI.

Alfio: 1918 is the end of World War I. There was a lot of discontent in Italy after World War I. The country was in pure chaos: very high unemployment, a lot of strikes, and was almost on the verge of a communist revolt.

Francesca: There was great disappointment — even the fact that Italy was on the winning side — it felt like it didn't get enough out of the peace treaties. They talked about the "mutilated victory" — that is the equivalent of the German "stab in the back." And so there was that and all the veterans coming back having fought in the trenches — for what?

Alfio: All the soldiers coming back from the battlefields were not really welcomed back. So there were a lot of street fights, and basically the soldiers came together in this party called "Fasci di Combattimento," and they had a leader, which was Benito Mussolini.

Mussolini capitalized on a deep-seated frustration among Italians. Italy was still a young nation, having only united in 1871. The surge of nationalism that came with unification left Italians hungry for greatness, but feeling disappointed. Its parliamentary democracy was weak, and ineffectual, and the economy was terrible. And, as with Germany, the Italians had just suffered through World War I — and people were angry about the way it was fought, and the way it was finished.

Mussolini seized this moment to launch a new movement: the Fascist Party. While Fascists won only a handful of seats, they were a potent political force — and a paramilitary one. Fascism was not just an ideology, but a campaign of physical intimidation. Gangs of armed, black-clad war veterans called "squadristi" — nicknamed "the Blackshirts" — wielded violence against their political opponents.

Francesca: Fascism starts as violence. I mean, how did fascism start? These were gangs of, in most cases, veterans of the war. They went around the streets beating workers up, beating up the socialists. This is how it started.

Alfio: The Communist Party was a threat during the end of World War I, and actually the Fascist Party was formed because of the clashes.

The Blackshirts broke strikes, expelled socialist mayors, and gave their base the promise of action. In 1922, some 30,000 Fascists descended on the nation's capital in a show of force — the so-called "March on Rome." Without firing a shot, Mussolini was handed the reins of power. Suddenly, Italy was under fascist rule with a bold — if politically inexperienced — new leader.

Piazza Venezia became the stage for a new, amped-up kind of nationalism. Mussolini loved big rallies, and from his balcony, offering big promises and simple solutions to complex problems, he whipped his followers into a mass frenzy.

Mussolini: …è già stata consegnata agli ambasciatori… ["it has already been delivered to the ambassadors…"]

They interrupted his speeches with chants of "Duce, Duce, Duce" — "leader."

Francesca: What I understand now is that it was like a collective dream. It was like hypnosis. Standing in the crowd of thousands of people all focused on one man, who was terrific at using his body, his facial expressions, and language, to reach their hearts.

Mussolini: …aveva Cesare, e Virgilio, e Augusto. ["…[at a time when Rome] had Caesar, and Virgil, and Augustus."]

Alfio: They were going ballistic — even for a hand gesture, or a facial expression. Mussolini was an actor and when he eventually showed up in that window, and he stood in his typical posture, with his imposing chin, for Italians he was the personification of a greater Italy.

Francesca: He promised an Italy that would be great, that would be modern, that would be finally unified. Where there would be work for everybody.

For his first 15 years, Mussolini ruled with dictatorial power and impressive success. He pumped up the economy, created jobs, and invested in infrastructure.

Alfio: Costruire, costruire, costruire. Build, build, and build.

Francesca: In the beginning, I think Mussolini was able to garner so much favor because it really did seem that he was making this a modern country. A lot of building, a lot of modern infrastructure, jobs, homes — so, on the surface at least, it did seem like he was actually getting things done.

Alfio: So, Italians are happy at that moment because they'd come from the pure chaos of 1918–1919 to having jobs, and having a society that "apparently" works.

He energized Rome with grand projects like this Olympic stadium [the Stadio dei Marmi], which is still in use today.

Francesca grew up hearing stories of Mussolini. She shares some local insight.

Rick: This is an impressive stadium.
Francesca: Mussolini built this stadium to promote Rome for the Olympic Games, but also to promote sports and physical prowess as key elements of fascist ideology. These statues represent athletes, but they also represent the new fascist man. A man who is physically strong, proud, disciplined, but is also willing to support the fascist dogma: believe, obey, fight.
​Rick: Believe, obey, fight.

Francesca: So these mosaics were inspired by ancient Rome, and they proclaim the greatness of the leader, and the achievements of the fascist Regime — military events, Roman salutes — and for emphasis, things were repeated: Duce, Duce, Duce, Duce.
Rick: Look at that… 10 "Duce"s.
Francesca: In fascism, belligerence is celebrated. Look at this: molti nemici…molto onore. "Many enemies…much honor."

Alfio: Mussolini's ego is…immense. In fact, one of the mottos was, "Mussolini ha sempre ragione." "Mussolini is always right."

Francesca: He certainly had a vision of himself as a Man of Genius with a capital G — a man who had a superior vision of society and the world.

Alfio: He truly believed he was a new Roman emperor. He wanted to somehow recreate this new Roman Empire. And he couldn't stand that Italy was not important any more in Europe.

Mussolini championed the revival of the glory of ancient Rome. He created this grand "Boulevard of the Imperial Forum" for stately and military processions between the Colosseum and his office in Piazza Venezia. He lined it with imposing statues of emperors. Absolute rulers enjoy each other's company.

Mussolini built a futuristic city at the edge of Rome called "E.U.R." This planned city is the architectural embodiment of fascism. The uniform buildings and the logical, grid-plan streets celebrate order and conformity, while echoing a powerful past and promising a glorious future. The centerpiece is called the "Palace of Italian Civilization."

Francesca: So, the Palace of the Italian Civilization was intended as a celebration of the Italian people and their many talents. But there's something about it — this monolithic starkness it has — that also reminds us that fascist ideology requires individuals to give everything up for the State.

With a populace tired of dysfunctional government, Mussolini rose to power with the promise of action. And throughout Italy, imposing architecture, like this train station in Milan, seemed designed to remind all that the state is more important than the individual, the state gets things done, and, of course — with the leadership of Il Duce — the trains will run on time.

Francesca: His famous sentence, "Trains are on time" — so an appearance of success…at what cost? The cost of personal freedom.

Alfio: People didn't have a choice to accept Mussolini as their leader. It was against the law to talk against the Fascist Party. Not even journalists were independent to write exactly what they wanted to.

Francesca: There was this famous fascist motto: "Everything for the State, everything within the State, and nothing against the State."

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