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The Rise of Benito Mussolini and Italian Fascism: Facts & Timeline

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  • 0:07 Rise of Fascism in Italy
  • 0:32 Background
  • 1:26 Mussolini and Fascist Party
  • 3:05 Italy Under Fascism
  • 5:01 Fall of Fascism
  • 6:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the rise of fascism in interwar Italy, as led by Il Duce, Benito Mussolini. Mussolini's oppressive, totalitarian regime fell during WWII.

Rise of Fascism in Italy

There are some things in history so cruel or disgusting that we'd just rather forget they occurred. Fascism, and particularly the brand practiced in Germany and Italy in the first half of the 20th century, are a perfect example of one of these phenomena. However, in order to guard against it happening again, we must do our best to understand how it occurred in the first place. The rest of this lesson will examine the rise and events of Italy's fascist experiment.

Background

By the time of World War I, Italy had been a modern nation state for barely a half-century. The Kingdom of Italy was not declared until 1861, by King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia, after the efforts of the great Italian statesman Camillo Benso di Cavour and the military campaigns of Giuseppe Garibaldi. Even then, Venice and Rome were not part of the Italian state until 1866 and 1870 respectively.

The young state of Italy faced many problems in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The fragmented nature of its beginnings caused vast differences in terms of regional wealth, education, and infrastructure. For example, Northern states such as Milan and Lombardy were relatively wealthy, while large parts of Southern Italy still relied on heavily agricultural economies and were relatively poor. Literacy rates in Italy at this time were far lower than elsewhere in Western Europe.

Mussolini and Fascist Party

The fragmented state of Italian society was reflected in its government, and very little was actually accomplished by the Italian Parliament. For example, from 1919 to 1922 the Parliament formed five different governments under various coalitions and parties. To make matters worse, Italy had not been given the same favorable settlement as the other allied powers had received by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I - a conflict which had strained the Italian economy to its breaking point.

It was in this chaotic scene that one of the largest figures of the 20th century emerged: Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was born in Predappio in 1883, the son of a blacksmith. Originally a socialist who had fled to Switzerland to avoid being drafted into the Italian military, Mussolini returned to Italy in 1904 and in 1919 he formed Italy's Fascist Party. As unemployment soared and Italy descended into political anarchy, Mussolini's Fascist Party slowly gained support by running on a vehemently nationalist platform, winning 35 seats in the 1921 elections.

In October of 1922, out of a fear of a communist takeover due to riots and strikes in Northern Italy, Mussolini gathered his Fascist followers and party foot soldiers, nicknamed the 'Black Shirts,' and staged a march on Rome. Once there, King Victor Emmanuel III asked Mussolini to form a government and restore order to the countryside. Over the next three years, Mussolini dismantled the democracy Cavour had painstakingly cobbled together, and in 1925, he declared himself dictator of Italy. He took the title Il Duce - literally, 'The Leader.'

Italy under Fascism

Fascist Italy under Mussolini was a heavily centralized and state-controlled country. Early in Mussolini's tenure as Il Duce, he used the immense powers of the fascist state to marginally improve Italy - social welfare programs to help the unemployed were instituted, railroads and public transportation systems were built or improved upon, and the Italian economy stabilized.

However, what few improvements Mussolini's government made were greatly overshadowed by the means by which he achieved them. Soon after declaring himself dictator, all other political parties were outlawed and strict press censorship was instituted. Rumors abounded that socialist leaders, like Giacomo Matteotti and Giovanni Amendola, were being arrested and beaten to death. Workers were stripped of the ability to strike, and although wages rose initially under the Mussolini regime, by 1929 average pay had fallen below that of 1922.

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